Millions of hearts broke when season four of The Wire reached its bleak conclusion. The cause of this mass cardiac disintegration was twofold: first, most of the teenage boys in the season's primary storyline seemed doomed to nasty and short lives. And second, the single greatest work of dramatic television in the history of the medium had come to an end. That couldn't be easy for anyone's emotions.
Fifteen months later, The Wire returned for its brilliant swan song. David Simon, Ed Burns, and crew famously dedicated each season of The Wire to an institutional failure (the drug war, the middle class, political reform, the schools) that has contributed to the extended death of Baltimore, and by extension all of America's inner cities. For the show's final go-round, the show takes on the decline of local media. Simon spent years -- several of them tumultuous -- at the Baltimore Sun before he started creating amazing TV shows. Naturally, Simon brings much of his personal disaffection and melancholy to his portrayal of that disintegrating daily.
Season five of The Wire is like one of Jesus' lesser miracles. It seems somehow less whole than its predecessors, but it's still deeper, meatier, and more complex than anything else running on television then or now. (Sadly, at a mere 10 episodes, it's also three hours shorter than its predecessors.)
Just like in real life, 15 months have passed since the conclusion of the prior season. We find Jimmy McNulty back on the force and off the wagon, Mayor Carcetti struggling with a crumbling and desperate city government, Marlo Stanfield expanding his drug empire at the expense of his fellow kingpins, and Bubbles living clean in his sister's basement. Yes, all these stories are connected.
The show's center, if it has one, takes place in the newsroom and offices of the Sun, where City Editor Gus Haynes is trying to keep the lights on even as the paper's corporate masters lay off its most experienced reporters. Meanwhile, ambitious young beat reporter Scotty Templeton wants to move up to a bigger paper, even if means a little copy fabrication here and there.
Mayor Carcetti, meanwhile, is starving the police just to keep the schools open. He shuts down the already bare-bones Major Crimes unit for budget reasons, just as they're putting the final touches on their case against Marlo. The bodies in the rowhouses are yesterday's news, after all.
Across town, omega-male teen Dukie is rooming with his buddy Michael, who's now an enforcer in Marlo's drug empire. Marlo's taking steps to consolidate his power and go mega-kingpin, but he's also got personal issues with the legendary Omar Little. Marlo coaxes Omar out of his warm-weather retirement by murdering one of his buddies, and Omar reluctantly returns to Charm City to kill Marlo. Unfortunately Marlo, like Omar, seems more ghost than man.
Everything starts to go haywire when McNulty reframes some random homeless O.D.'s as the work of a fictional serial killer, with the aim of refocusing attention and dollars towards Baltimore's crime problem. With uncoordinated help from the Sun's fabulist Templeton, McNulty finds himself running an overfunded investigation with no real perpetrator. And suddenly everyone starts to care about the homeless again.
The fake-serial-killer plot may seem far-fetched by The Wire's standards of ultra-realism, but the show's beauty has always been found between the lines. What is the Sun neglecting? Which departments are being siphoned for McNulty's police-work slush fund?
And as always, everything has consequences, and they're rarely fair. The wicked ascend, the innocent try heroin, and the cynical walk away with a nice severance package. Redemption may seem like nothing more than naive optimism on the filthy streets of this broken American city.
What's most deeply affecting about The Wire is not just its uncompromising scripts and its labyrinthine human relationships, but the knowledge that it's all real. The show has ended forever, but Baltimore continues to struggle and crumble, each generation more tragically lost than the last, its story tragically untold.