3. The Wire: Season 5 (2008)

It’s Got: McNulty pretending as a serial killer, the newspaper subplot, Bubbles getting clean, Omar vs. Marlo.

When people talk about how The Wire is THE great American television series, I always think about how I didn’t QUITE agree with that until the very end of the fifth season finale. That’s on me, obviously, because the series had an amazing reputation long before it concluded. Maybe I needed to see just how things panned out for the characters before I fully realized where the show stood, and maybe if I’d had that realization in, say, the second season, that would have been my favourite. I can’t be sure. All I know is that the credits rolled on “-30-” and I thought “…Goddamn. THAT’S what it was.”

I have, I think, the same general worldview as The Wire. There’s something inherently corrupt and irreparable about the way our world is run, but there’s still room for principled individuals and acts of genuine goodness, even if they often go unnoticed. The final season of The Wire seemed to demonstrate that theme even more forcefully than any of the others as it takes us on a farewell tour of Baltimore and shows us where everyone winds up.

We find some characters who are now corrupt and become fully assimilated into the powerful institutions we’ve been following for five seasons. Others have stepped away the game and, although they’re outwardly less successful than they would have been, are far happier than before. Some characters have met brutal, tragic ends, but others have been rewarded for clawing their way out of hell. No one meets quite the same fate, and just like in life, there’s a sense that everyone is where they are because of their own choices.

Before I get to the rest of the season, I should probably talk about the criticized (at least by the standards of this show) subplot at the Baltimore Sun. It’s true that every season shines a spotlight on a different, struggling American Institution, and the decline of print journalism is way lower stakes than the war on drugs, the working class, politics, and education. The story is even more of a time capsule today, now that we’ve figured out how to monetize the Internet. But this story was of great personal interest for me, because I’d actually been looking at a career in journalism, then gave it up for the reasons explored in this season. I freely admit that it seemed like David Simon, ex-Baltimore Sun reporter, had a bit of a bone to pick with this storyline, and the characters in the story were not the most interesting. But I was pretty fascinated by it, for reasons that were entirely my own.

But even if I had hated the newspaper storyline, I can’t imagine it would have detracted from everything else in the season I can’t remember which review this was, but someone said it was like The Wire Season 5 had been reimagined into a prime time NBC drama in its final season. It’s true that this season has a far bigger “buy” than any of the previous four seasons, as McNulty does something really crooked in order to divert police resources towards his own department, all in the name of catching one of the most brutal drug dealers the city has ever seen. I definitely don’t speak for everyone, but I never for a minute thought it was implausible, not after four seasons of sharing McNulty’s frustration at the way things worked in his line of work. And by buying in, the season paid huge dividends. The situation is larger than life, but I thought the show escalated enough to get us there.

Not only does Season 5 work as a social commentary, as The Wire always does, it’s simultaneously one of the best thrillers I’ve ever seen. The whole season is about McNulty maintaining this elaborate deception, getting everyone invested in this huge house of cards, and then everyone’s efforts to spin the situation to their own advantage. The finale alone has enough intrigue for ten episodes. Even the newspaper story extends beyond the scope of print journalism, becoming a commentary on how the public’s perception of events can be more important than the truth.

And there’s so many moments of individual genius. There’s the opening with Bunk using a lie to get a confession out of suspect, Carcetti’s opportunism reaching new levels as he takes on the city’s homelessness problem, pretty much all the scenes with Bubbles being interviewed for The Sun, McNulty hearing an eerily accurate profile on his killer, Snoop’s exit line, the Prez/Dukie scene, and the Irish Wake in the finale. I particularly have to mention the outcome of the showdown between Omar Little and Marlo Stanfield, and the extremely roundabout way in which each character gets what he deserves. It’s so carefully constructed, but feels totally organic.

The fifth season tells a damn good story and drives home what the show is all about. It’s the perfect end to what I hope will one day be considered the Great American Novel of the early 21st century. Except, you know, on TV.

If I Had to Nitpick…: Pretty much every surviving character who has fallen out of the main cast over the first four seasons makes a cameo in here somewhere. It’s great to see them all again, but it can sometimes feel a bit contrived when all these familiar faces work their way into the story (however briefly). Baltimore isn’t THAT small.

Notable Episodes: “Not for Attribution,” which gets the second act of the season underway. “Clarification” has a lot of the unforgettable moments. And the finale “-30-” is an amazing episode of television.

Honorable Mentions: I almost feel obliged to put Season 4 on this list somewhere, just because the storyline dealing with the school system is likely the most important material on the whole show. I just didn’t love everything in that season in the way that I loved everything in Seasons 3 and 5.

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