‘The Wire’: One Last Long, Boozy Irish Wake for David Simon’s Accidental Masterpiece

The wake.

Episode title: "-30-"
Opening quote: "…the life of kings." —H.L. Mencken

Okay, let's start with the obvious question: Was Norman Wilson high this entire episode? Watching Tommy Carcetti's most trusted aide cackling his way through the nightmarish crisis that almost brings his boss down — "This is too fuckin' good," he giggles at one point — made us wonder if, at some point, Carcetti would stop viewing Wilson as his conscience and start viewing him as a ball and chain. We think maybe he did, because as the episode goes on, Wilson disappears from sight, and the heavy work is handled by chief of staff Mike Steintorf. One great disappointment of season five has been Tommy Carcetti — not just his transformation from eager do-gooder to jaded opportunist (a transformation that is made complete in this finale, when he approves a cover-up of McNulty's scheme), but the show's backgrounding of him. Where once Tommy Carcetti was a force in any room, now he recedes into his big leather chair while his chief of staff makes the earth move. We miss feisty old Tommy Carcetti; we'd liked to have seen that guy go mad with power, not be neutered by it.

In other news, David Simon is not exactly Agatha Christie.

Simon wrote this episode, which contains two of the most laughable smoking guns ever given their own eureka moments on a major television show: the business cards that lead McNulty to the copycat killer, and Scott Templeton's empty notebook, which opens poor Alma's eyes to his chicanery. David Simon may be married to a fantastic mystery writer — Baltimore's own Laura Lippman — but he isn't one himself; both these plot twists showed their creator's hand far too clearly.

Luckily, nearly everything else in the episode is outstanding. This 90-minute finale manages to wrap up five seasons' worth of story lines without sacrificing too much in the way of The Wire's signature realism. It offers charming echoes of seasons past, while still remaining true to the changes the show's put its characters through. It's the rare finale that went out of its way to satisfy its audience without pandering … well, not too much, anyway.

Perhaps it's pandering a little bit to give us Bubbles the front-page celebrity, but Andre Royo plays Bubs's trepidation at the idea — and quiet pride at its execution — so well we are willing to overlook it. Maybe it's pandering a little bit to show us Michael as the new Omar, wisecracking while he robs drug dealers. (At least they don't have him whistle.) And maybe it's pandering a little bit to bring back our favorite middle-school teacher, Mr. Prezbo, for a lushly bearded cameo, but any good feelings viewers get from his appearance are undercut by its context; Dukie lies to him, asking for money, and is well on his way to becoming the next Bubbles. Hell, he's even got bubbles on his T-shirt.

But all in all, the finale is a reminder of what we have always loved about the show: its ability to move a half-dozen stories along through the accretion of potent mini-scenes. Take as just one example Lester Freamon's discovery of the leak inside the grand-jury room; he delivers to Pearlman a tape of the leaker, prosecutor Gary DiPasquale, hitting up Maurice Levy for money. With Levy breathing down Pearlman's neck about the obvious illegal wiretap used in the Stanfield case, and the mayor's office telling Pearlman to make the case go away, Ronnie busts out the tape and plays it for Levy. Watching actor Michael Kostroff's face fall as Levy struggles to regain the high ground is delightful. A deal is struck: Marlo serves no time but must retire, while Chris goes away for life.

The consequences spin out from there: Levy fully embraces Herc as a source of inside information, even inviting him over for brisket. And Marlo, like Stringer Bell before him, declares himself a businessman, offering his connect with the Greek for sale. The price? A cool $10 million. The remnants of the Co-op pool their money ("We sellin' dope and coke in Baltimore," Cheese admonishes his pennywise fellow dealers. "Any y'all who ain't got that kind of money need be ashamed"), but their plans are a bit mucked up when Cheese pulls a gun on Fat Face Rick, telling him in no uncertain terms what he thinks about Rick's reminiscing about the good old days: "There ain't no back in the day. There ain't no nostalgia to this shit. There's just the street, and the game, and what happen here today." Then Slim Charles blows Cheese away and says, "That was for Joe." Hell yeah, Slim Charles. And Marlo, stuck at a stuffy party full of real-estate investors, realizes much earlier than Stringer Bell ever did that he's not cut out for this brand-new game. Soon he's back on a corner, bleeding, fighting, and alive and well.

Over at the Sun, Gus finally confronts Templeton about his fabrications and is rewarded with a demotion. Alma backs him up and is rewarded with a transfer to the Carroll County bureau. Templeton publishes a story about watching a guy in a van kidnap a homeless man, gets dressed down by a self-loathing McNulty, and is rewarded with a Pulitzer Prize.

Even though Templeton's story is bullshit, there's a copycat killer in Baltimore, and a furious Daniels and Rawls inform McNulty that solving the two resulting murders is his final case. "If you're half the detective you think you are," Rawls growls, "you'll put this down quick." McNulty does, laughably quick, nailing the Business Card Killer the next day. Carcetti names Cedric commissioner, but he's out within weeks, forced out by Nerese and the mystery file she got from Clay Davis. In his last official act, Cedric promotes Carver to lieutenant — the very rank Daniels held at the beginning of season one. Meanwhile, Sydnor's becoming the new McNulty; in another season-one echo, he complains to Judge Phelan about the abandonment of the Stanfield case. In one respect, though, he's smarter than Jimmy: "Keep my name out of it," he says.

In fact, echoes to the series' first episode are everywhere: In McNulty's "What the fuck did I do?" In the quick shot of Daniels and McNulty through an elevator security camera, a visual reminder of the first season's frequent use of such footage. And in Bunk and Kima's last scene, in which they investigate a murder under the same two statues of children where poor William Gant met his end in episode one, season one. "There you go," Bunk says, just as he did to Jimmy all those years ago. "Giving a fuck when it ain't your turn to give a fuck."

Perhaps there is one last little bit of pandering. David Simon does, after all, stage a full-blown Irish wake for Jimmy McNulty, even though he isn't dead — a chance for the show to gather its most beloved po-lice to talk up everyone's favorite hot-tempered, hard-headed cop. Let's let Landsman have the last word on Jimmy McNulty. Here's his eulogy:

He was the black sheep, a permanent pariah. He asked no quarter of the bosses and none was given. He learned no lessons; he acknowledged no mistakes; he was as stubborn a Mick as ever stumbled out of the Northeast parish just to take up a patrolman's shield. He brooked no authority. He did what he wanted to do and he said what he wanted to say, and in the end he gave me the clearances. He was natural police. And I don't say that about many people, even when they're here on the felt. I don't say that often unless it happens to be true. Nat'ral po-lice. But Christ, what an asshole.

And I'm not talking about the ordinary gaping orifice that all of us possess. I mean an all-encompassing, all-consuming, out-of-proportion-to-every-other-facet-of-his-humanity chasm — if I may quote Shakespeare — "from whose bourn no traveler has ever returned." He gave us thirteen years on the line. Not enough for a pension. But enough to know that he was, despite his negligible Irish ancestry, his defects of personality, and his inconstant sobriety and hygiene, a true murder police. Jimmy, I say this seriously. If I was laying there dead on some Baltimore street corner, I'd want it to be you standing over me catchin' the case. Because brother, when you were good, you were the best we had.

What else? There's a montage. It happens while McNulty stands next to his car on a stretch of I-95 in Baltimore, looking out over the city. Driving that same highway the other day, we found ourselves staring out to the left at the same view Jimmy McNulty takes in. Bawlmer will live with The Wire forever; no other American city has ever been so exhaustively and expertly anatomized by a single work of art. You can read the end of the montage — the faces of ordinary Baltimoreans, going on about their lives and loves and sins — as David Simon throwing up his hands and announcing, as Adam Sternbergh puts it on these very pages, "'Twas ever thus." Or you can read it as we do: that despite the crushing weight of institutional corruption, hope still exists for America's cities — not in political reform, but in the resilient ability of individuals to remain as unique and unexpected and stubborn as they, too, have ever been.

Years ago, David Simon professed himself not that interested in characters or story; The Wire existed, he claimed, primarily to advance a series of important social arguments. Just as The Wire surpassed its creator's own limited goals on the strength of its endlessly surprising characters, this finale reveals, so too do our cities overcome their limitations — on the strength of the people who live in them, work in them, laugh in them, fuck in them, love and kill and cry and try in them. No matter what, people will still give a fuck when it ain't their turn to give a fuck. After all, David Simon — harried out of the newspaper he loved, all those years ago — sure did.

Vulture's complete coverage of the Wire finale:
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
Sternbergh on ‘The Wire’ Finale: The Anti-‘Sopranos’
Debating the Legacy of ‘The Wire’