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Sternbergh on ‘The Wire’ Finale: The Anti-‘Sopranos’

Courtesy of HBO

For everyone who felt cheated by the stubbornly ambivalent series finale of The Sopranos — which is to say, everyone — there can be no such complaints about The Wire. No sudden blackouts, no meta-textual commentary, no unearthed chestnut from Journey. (Though we have to admit that, earlier this season, we half-hoped The Wire would end with Omar driving to Jersey, hobbling into a diner, and gunning down Tony Soprano and his family.) Instead, The Wire finale was the anti-Sopranos: an almost absurdly exhaustive festival of closure. Bubs got clean. Carcetti got elected governor. Chris got life with no parole. Marlo escaped jail, but not the streets. Hell, Jimmy McNulty got a teary, beery Irish wake — and he's not even dead! He just took early retirement! Truth be told, the biggest question — will Omar live or die? — was answered weeks ago, when the knight errant caught a head shot while buying a pack of Newports. That leaves us with this: What kind of world does David Simon, the show's co-creator, believe that we live in?

For its first few seasons, The Wire appeared like a work of social protest, even muckraking — less Charles Dickens (Simon repeatedly mocked the phrase "Dickensian" this season) than Upton Sinclair. Here, the show said, is a system that's badly in need of repair. The various characters worked within it, or outside of it, but if they worked hard enough, they could spark a brief light in the gloom. The final season abandoned this reformist hope. Yes, personal salvation is possible, barely — Bubs the addict finally climbs the stairs into the warm light of his sister's kitchen — but as for the world? Forget it, it's beyond repair. The great urban plague is not corruption, but entropy: 'Twas ever thus, the show shrugs, as every character who expired, escaped, or was expelled (Omar, Bubs, Gus) is tidily replaced by a new Muppet Baby version (Michael, Dukie, Fletcher). Change, it turns out, isn't possible. The system isn't even broken. It's just unstoppable, and crushing.

As for Simon, who spent much of this last season railing at the fading role of newspapers, he proved in the end, for better or worse, to be like the figure he seems to venerate the most: the crusty city columnist, bellowing the truth. He showed a knack for the illuminating detail (like when a coroner notices that the corpse of Omar has the wrong I.D. tag and switches them, in a final, quiet tribute), and he couldn't resist a columnist's nod to the sweeping city, complete with a roving montage punctuated with the faces of Baltimore's everyday folk. It's exactly the kind of ending David Chase refused to indulge. But Simon, the newspaperman, likes stories, told right to the end. And if this one ended wrapped in a big bow, at least that's infinitely more satisfying than a blackout. —Adam Sternbergh

Vulture's complete coverage of the Wire finale:
‘The Wire’: One Last Long, Boozy Irish Wake for David Simon’s Accidental Masterpiece
Ten Questions Left Unanswered by the ‘Wire’ Finale
Actor Ptolemy Slocum on the Emotional Last Night of Shooting ‘The Wire’
‘The Wire’ Finale's Montage: A Shot-by-Shot Commentary
Debating the Legacy of ‘The Wire’