exit interview

‘Reality Never Gives You the Perfect Narrative’

In We Own This City, David Simon and George Pelecanos argue police corruption has never been worse.

Josh Charles as Daniel Hersl, camera operator Luke Owen, co-creators David Simon and George Pelecanos. Photo: HBO
Josh Charles as Daniel Hersl, camera operator Luke Owen, co-creators David Simon and George Pelecanos. Photo: HBO
Josh Charles as Daniel Hersl, camera operator Luke Owen, co-creators David Simon and George Pelecanos. Photo: HBO

We Own This City feels like a return. Twenty years after making The Wire, showrunners David Simon and George Pelecanos again tackle crime and government in Baltimore, this time in a six-episode HBO miniseries based on a true story. But unlike The Wire’s more balanced, fictionalized perspective, We Own This City is acutely critical of contemporary Baltimore police culture.

Characters like Jimmy McNulty or Kima Greggs can be brutal and rule-breaking, yet The Wire portrays them as effective police officers who make the city safer. “That was the truth,” Simon tells me. Things have changed, he says, and he considers We Own This City a reflection of that. “A police department is a living, breathing institution that gets better or worse,” Simon says. “Right now we have a very ineffective police department, and my city is the most violent it’s ever been in its modern history.”

Simon and Pelecanos adapted We Own This Is City from reporter Justin Fenton’s book of the same name, an investigation into corruption inside the Baltimore Police Department’s Gun Trace Task Force. In the final episode, a group of corrupt cops including Wayne Jenkins (Jon Bernthal) and Danny Hersl (Josh Charles) are arrested and convicted after years of perpetrating brutality, theft, and other crimes. As part of their investigation, federal agents also scrutinize the actions of Sean Suiter (Jamie Hector), a well-meaning police officer who regrets his past work with Jenkins and Hersl. The most tragic, heartbreaking sequence of the finale involves Suiter’s death, which We Own This City positions as the subject of dispute despite evidence that Simon calls “profoundly weighted” toward suicide.

I ask Simon and Pelecanos about what’s changed in the years since they made The Wire, the challenges inherent to adapting real-life stories, and their ethical debates around depicting Suiter’s death.

At the New York premiere, George, you described We Own This City as a show you were excited to develop. But you had to convince David to go back to a setting so similar to The Wire. David, why were you reluctant? 
Simon: I had other stuff on my plate. I was reading it contemporaneously with Justin’s reporting. I was so taken aback by the depths of the corruption in this unit and what it represented that I called Justin and said, “You need to write a book.” I gave him the number of my book agent. I was thinking journalistically; I wasn’t thinking, and then we’ll option it.

I didn’t think about it again until George walked in with an early version of the manuscript. I wasn’t in the mode to look back. It was a combination of seeing how much was in the early draft and George saying, “I think we should do this.” After so many years together, George is entitled to have me listen. And he was right. It’s not The Wire in any sense, but it is a coda. It didn’t feel like we were going back to the same dance.

George, what was it about the manuscript that convinced you? 
Pelecanos: The only way I get involved in TV is if I’m angry about something or passionate. I was just reading in the Post the other day: Even with the protests and the BLM movement, police shootings are up. Where I live in Maryland, young Black people are three times more likely to get stopped than white people. Nothing has changed. Somebody has to do something. It can’t just stay the way it is.

Did you ever consider a fictionalized approach to this story? 
Simon: It’s always an advantage if you can tell a true story. I don’t think that’s just because I was trained as a journalist. If you’re writing something political, girding yourself in facts is only an asset.

Let’s face it: We did 60 hours of The Wire where we said, there’s police work and there’s the drug war, and the drug war is subsuming everything meaningful about police work. We showed you cops shoving cash into their raid jackets; we showed you randomized brutalities on the street. We broke a kid’s fingers for stealing a car. We took into account the inherent flaws, but it was fictional. And in the end, how many people looked on The Wire as a political tract, and how many of them looked on it as entertainment? I mean, there was a moment at the end of the run when someone online was doing a thing of, “Which characters were cooler?” And I thought to myself, Okay. That’s the industry I’m in.

When I’ve had the opportunity to speak to something that happened, like Generation Kill or Show Me a Hero, it always feels stronger to me. Why would we toss out this narrative where Justin had gone to the trouble to characterize exactly how and why this became the mode of policing in Baltimore?

Pelecanos: And it wasn’t the easy road.

Yes, it does seem much harder, in many ways.
Pelecanos: It presented more of a challenge. You have to honor the facts and you have to be careful. These people may have died but their families are still here. You can libel felons doing time, but that doesn’t mean you should libel them. It was a lot more work to do it this way, but it’s a lot more rewarding.

Simon: Reality never gives you the perfect narrative. In some ways that’s interesting on a storytelling level: What can you say, what’s fair to say? But also, you have two people who went into a room. Maybe one of them is dead now, maybe one of them isn’t talking, maybe there are different accounts of what was said in the room. But they went into the room doing X and they came out doing Y. That’s a critical scene — how did the meeting go? As the writer, with the sense of trying to be fair, you have to create something for the actors to say.

It’s not a documentary, we’re not journalists. But neither do we feel like we have permission to have everybody say the best possible line. That’s part of the struggle, and you come to it every time you come to a scene that isn’t in the court transcripts. A lot of the dialogue is in court transcripts or on the wiretaps.

Pelecanos: There was a reviewer in a major paper I won’t mention that said that after the cops were arrested, they gave the information too easily. But that’s what happened. Of course it’d be more dramatic if we did ten hours of them browbeating. But we had to honor the facts.

Simon: As soon as they were caught, they turned on each other with abandon. That’s what happened.

I was thinking about that with the wiretaps in this series. On The Wire, there are elaborate codes and it takes forever to crack the system. In this case they just get on the phone and say, “I’d like to buy some drugs.”
Simon: Yeah! But there’s another part, which is, sometimes people genuinely remember it differently.

For the death of Sean Suiter, we imposed a rigor on ourselves where we only showed you what could be seen. Do I have an opinion? Yes. In the writers’ room we came to the conclusion that he had killed himself, and I think the evidence is profoundly weighted towards that. But we don’t show you the independent review a year later, or the autopsy, or the ballistics. We don’t go to every piece of evidence to convince you. We have to leave you in some place where people are still going to argue about it. I don’t think they should, but they will. And that was George’s idea, that we should just show the known in the moment.

Was there debate about it? The episode quickly cuts to explanatory text, making it clear that the independent review concluded it was a suicide but that some people are still uncertain. 
Simon: There was a debate about whether the cops at the scene should note two things profoundly indicative of a suicide. Those things were probably determined that night, but we did it right in the moment where they’re carrying the body. If you thought he was fighting for his life or for control of his gun against an assassin, how is he still holding his radio, and it’s under him when he falls? And the gun is underneath him; the gun fell with him.

Right away, the detectives had very grave doubts that there was an assailant. For us, it was like, is it a bridge too far to introduce that much evidence? In the immediate aftermath of this cop being shot, it may not have been that cogent. In reality, it was chaos. We’re threading the needle between so many ethical [choices]. Can we provide that much guidance for the viewer? How much was known in the end?

Pelecanos: David and I don’t really see each other much when we’re making these shows.

Simon: Divide and conquer.

Pelecanos: It’s logistics. One of us is on set and the other is doing rewrites. So a lot of this deliberation happens in the editing room. That’s when David and I decide what’s going to be included. That’s where this stuff was discussed most intensely.

Simon: The cost of making a nonfiction series is that at certain points you’re not going to know everything, but the camera has to be somewhere, and it has to see something. Unlike prose, where you can pause and say, “No one knows what happens,” the camera can’t stop telling the story. That’s the fun of it. You’re fully engaged with trying to find your way to some proximate version of what’s true. There’s always the … oh God, am I about to quote Rumsfeld?

Known unknowns?
Simon: Jesus. Sorry.

Many of the actors playing major characters in We Own This City appear in previous series you’ve made, and it seems as though these roles were cast in related or opposing roles played by these actors in the past. Jamie Hector, for example, plays Sean Suiter, a cop struggling to do the right thing. But in The Wire, he was Marlo Stanfield, the coldest, least compassionate drug dealer. Delaney Williams played a pragmatic, self-serving cop on The Wire; now he’s a police commissioner who is still pragmatic but deeply frustrated by corruption and cruelty. 
Pelecanos: Dom Lombardozzi [who played Herc in The Wire] could’ve ended up as the head of the police union [the character he plays in We Own This City]. That’s the only case I can think where it straddled the line, but it made sense.

Simon: I didn’t think that was Herc or that any of them were the same character. Look, good actors gotta work. I’m not saying we have a repertory company, but we like it when we know someone can come in and nail the part.

When you flip people — when you have Marlo, but then you cast that actor as a homicide cop trying to leave his past behind — what you’re saying in a subliminal way, perhaps, is that who people are is not the important thing. People are interchangeable within systems. That is the political reference point: What’s going on is systemic. There are shows that’ve done the bad-cop anti-hero, and it’s been laid out like a banquet. Are they going to catch the bad cop? How will they catch him? How many people will he take down with him? I don’t really give a shit. What I’m interested in is, how did this become policing in Baltimore? I’m not saying it was some halcyon thing, but the clearance rate for murders used to be 70 percent, and now it’s 35 percent. The why is way more interesting than the who, what, when.

By taking the actors and making them interchangeable, by making cops into crooks or crooks into cops, you’re taking a jackhammer to the idea that people are X or Y. But I don’t think it’s a conscious thought when people are watching the show.

I can tell you that in talking to colleagues — people who spend a lot of time watching and thinking about TV — the casting was something nearly everyone thought about, almost before anything else. 
Simon: So maybe it was baggage we didn’t need. George and I are looking through the monitor. All we’re seeing is good performances.

You’ve been making shows about cops for a very long time, but the way many Americans think about police and cop shows has started to change in the last several years. Some characters in your previous works have been irascible, rule-breaking cops who are nevertheless our protagonists — characters we’re supposed to root for. If you were making a show like The Wire in 2022, would you rethink your approach to that kind of character? 
Simon: In the first three episodes of The Wire, you saw Kima beat the shit out of a guy who’s on the ground; you saw Prez hit a guy who loses an eye.

But they’re also our point of view in the show. 
Simon: Yeah, and you go along with it. What does that say?

What it says is that within the world of the show, they’re still functional, effective police, right?
Simon: Well, Prez was never a functional cop.

Sure. But — 
Simon: But that was the truth! If you swung at a cop, you were going to lose that fight, and you were going to lose it hard. There was no, we’re going to hit you until you’re in cuffs. They were going to hit you all the way into the wagon.

The department I covered in the 1980s into the 1990s, and the department we observed while we were writing The Wire, did not have a Gun Trace Task Force doing these things. These cops came on a generation, generation and a half later. Even the earliest of them did not make it into plainclothes work until The Wire had shot its bolt. And the level of corruption we’re seeing now is because the Hercs and Carvers of the world became majors and colonels. It matters that the drug war goes on and on, because the skill sets required to do functional police work are dying.

I guess I am suspicious of the suggestion that policing was all that much better in the past. 
Simon: And you’re entitled, of course, but this is something I do pay attention to. It’s not the same department, in 1995 or 2005, as it is today. What happens between a cop and a kid in an alley is between the cop and that kid, and the cop’s word will prevail. And that goes back to the 1850s. The only thing that’s interrupted the totality of a cop’s ability to be brutal if he wants to be is the revolution of the cell phone. The last generation of police, it’s been transformative. The cops were slow to realize they couldn’t keep doing the shit they used to do.

We always knew brutality was around, as a police reporter. But in terms of corruption, no. The department I covered had a rule, which actually inhibited the quality of narcotics work — it was implemented in the 1970s and held on until the mid-’90s, when it finally started to slip away. You could only do three years in a vice unit and then you had to transfer out. The department before then was one of the most corrupt in the country. Then it went through a period of reform, or semi-reform, because they figured that once you did three years in a vice unit, you’d learned how to steal. When they gave up on that, that was a tell.

So I’m sorry. I know everyone’s suspicion is now girded in what’s been in the headlines, but a police department is a living, breathing institution that gets better or worse. It doesn’t stay constant. And right now we have a very ineffective police department, and my city is the most violent it’s ever been in its modern history.

Some of the cast have spoken about their anxieties about playing corrupt cops and discussed the importance of having therapists on set. How have these behind-the-scenes protections changed since you started making TV? 
Pelecanos: When we were on The Deuce, we were one of the first shows, if not the first, to have an intimacy coordinator. That was the result of an actress who came forward and said, “I’m not really comfortable.” We welcomed it — that’s a relief. It takes the onus off us to figure out how to do it properly.

There were things depicted in this show, like the Freddie Gray uprising, that were triggering for a lot of people. Not just our main cast, but our background people and extras. We shoot in neighborhoods primarily; we don’t use stages. People were coming out of their houses to say, “Hersl kicked my ass” or “Jenkins robbed me.” I’d never experienced anything like that. We needed the support to shoot this stuff. It’s a good thing, the changes that have happened.

Simon: If the question is, if we were making The Wire today would the structure of the filming be different, the answer is sure. We didn’t give much thought to who we were; we had this particular story we were rushing to tell, and when it came time to staff a complement of writers, we chased novelists. George, and Richard Price and Dennis Lehane. I tried to get Walter Mosley but he was already signed up on a different series. I wanted to get David Mills. I had some consciousness of diversity. Dave had a development deal somewhere else and didn’t want to write cable. But the truth was, we didn’t do a great job of being diverse in the writers’ room.

For this project we went and got D. Watkins, who had not only experienced this level of policing in Baltimore but had taken a kick to the ribs from Daniel Hersl. I’m not saying The Wire would be different, or better, if we’d been more judicious about diversity in the room. But it’s better for the industry as a whole, certainly.

How did you develop the very beginning and end of We Own This City?The monologue from Wayne Jenkins sounds like a sincere description of attempting to be an honest cop at the beginning, and by the end we know it’s far from the truth of his actions.
Simon: I knew it should sound like the truth but be a lie. We scripted the cut back and forth to the brutalization. But it was Ray, the director, who added the arrestees looking straight into the camera, which I thought was beautiful.

I came up with the idea of revisiting that, I think. And George came up with the raid, of the seemingly good police work where they get drugs, they get guns, it seems to matter, and at the end you see that what they’re really after is the money for themselves. Those two things became our emotional bookends.

Some of the stuff he’s saying is true, even if he doesn’t practice it: Police are supposed to win the fights, and when you train a camera on a fight that maybe a cop didn’t start, it’s always going to look brutal. Some of the stuff is just rote defense of police violence: The only way you know what’s what is to have experience on the street. Is the cop kicking his ass because he’s fighting a fight he’s supposed to win? Or is the cop kicking his ass because he wants to kick his ass? Both things look the same when you’re in the middle of them.

Pelecanos: We let these guys make their case also. When Hersl says to [civil-rights attorney Nicole] Steele, “Show me a cop who doesn’t have complaints against him, and I’ll show you a cop who doesn’t get out of his car,” that’s the truth. The fantastic scene where Jenkins is trying to tempt Suiter to take the money and he says, “Why shouldn’t we, for a city who doesn’t give two shits about us?” These are valid arguments. But I will say when David wrote the second part of that academy speech Jenkins gives, it was a surprise to me. The first time I saw it was when he wrote it and I read the script. It’s the kind of thing where it’s possible it doesn’t work. But it did work, in spades. I’m loath to give him too much credit when I’m sitting right in front of him, but it was excellent, man.

Simon: This can’t end well.

You’ve called this a coda, rather than a sequel. Is “coda” a way to say “we made more, but this is definitely the end”? 
Simon: I don’t know. This happened organically. George brought in a story that was worth going back for. The Wire was saying “End the drug war” and this was saying “End. The. Drug. War.” I’m not here to tell you that just because we made a miniseries, politicians are now going to heave into the real task of disassembling this nightmare. But it seemed worth doing. As to whether we’d do something again, I now defer to George. You opened the door, buddy.

Pelecanos: I like shooting in Baltimore. There’s no question that I would return, although it probably wouldn’t be in this arena.

The Wire is so kaleidoscopic, it’s hard to say what wouldn’t be a potential arm of that series. 
Pelecanos: Well I’m not going to shoot an Anne Tyler adaptation. Actually … that’s a solid idea.

Simon: You’d shoot the hell out of that, George.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

‘Reality Never Gives You the Perfect Narrative’