The high-speed-chase sequence is a staple of action movies and police procedurals as well as those TV newscasts and cop shows that narrate real-life chases shot overhead from a copter cam. They inevitably end in crashes and arrests, and if the budget is large enough, there’s a ballet of flipped vehicles and smashed fruit carts along the way. Yet there’s almost never an accounting of collateral damage — of injured or dead pedestrians and drivers who had nothing to do with the chase but just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Viewed through the lens of popular culture, car chases are always exciting and necessary because surely the person being chased is guilty of something serious. Otherwise, why would so many lives be put at risk?
Tonight’s episode of We Own This City opens with the rare example of a deglamorized car chase. Working off one of Wayne Jenkins’s signature assumptions — that if an adult over the age of 18 is carrying a backpack, it has to contain drugs or guns or cash — a GTTF unit pulls up on a black Acura, but the suspects peel away down a residential street. Jenkins gives chase behind the wheel, but series director Reinaldo Marcus Green keeps the action tight and at ground level, emphasizing the surrounding neighborhood, the stop signs both cars blaze through, and the various near-misses of drivers who are crossing the intersections. The standard thrill of the chase is gone, replaced by a sickening inevitability of real harm coming to a third party. And then it happens.
Starting with this incident, “Part Four” devotes much of its time to detailing Wayne’s modus operandi both as a crook and the ultimate cop’s cop — two roles that are suggestively intermingled. The car chase ends with the expected crash, but the unexpected result is that an innocent driver is killed instantly, which raises the stakes for the arrest. Wayne’s suspicion about the suspicious backpack has to be borne out now to justify the chase or at least to mitigate the consequences for him since we’re informed later that a narcotics offense is not enough to justify a continual high-speed chase. So he has drugs planted in the Acura and summons Suiter to “toss the car one more time” in case they missed something. The crudeness of Wayne’s gambit doesn’t seem to be lost on Suiter, who finds the drugs on the floor of the backseat, which doesn’t sound like the type of hiding place officers might have missed in the initial search. But it’s easier to follow this narrative than to question it, which would send Suiter down a career path that probably wouldn’t lead to a job as a homicide detective.
A similar cover-up is revealed later when Wayne needs support for an even more fanciful story about why another chase had led to the suspect’s car flipping over. By Wayne’s account, the suspect was shooting at him through the driver’s-side window, but he needs a gun in order to make it plausible. He calls in a favor, and lo and behold, a gun materializes where there wasn’t one before. In each of these two chase scenarios, the suspects scream about the drugs and guns being planted on them, but the credibility is always going to be on the side of the arresting officer (save for an amazing scene at court in which prosecutors struggle to find any jurors willing to trust police testimony).
Where previous episodes of We Own This City have covered Wayne’s criminality and cover-ups in drips and drabs, “Part Four” is stunningly comprehensive in showing his aggressive and shameless greed. When Ward, a GTTF member, talks to the FBI about an incident in which Wayne had him obscure an exterior camera with a police car while he robbed a dealer’s car trunk, the scene plays out like a routine, forgettable affair. When the suspects are freed, their exchange as Wayne and Ward peel away says it all: “Think they got us, yo?” “Hell, yeah.” In a strip club later that night, Wayne’s thievery gets more exotic as he arranges time with a dwarf stripper in the champagne room and winds up dashing away with all her cash tips. Later, during the Freddie Gray riots, he stops a couple of looters leaving a Rite Aid with prescription drugs, only to take their garbage bags full of Oxy for himself.
“We own this city” are the words he finally utters around his buddies at a bar late in the episode, but they take on a double meaning here. They own the city in that they can rob citizens with impunity and cover up their crimes shamelessly, like filming the opening of a safe they’ve already skimmed for tens of thousands of dollars. But they can’t tolerate having their ownership of the city questioned in the wake of the Gray killing. The cops in general, backed by their union, are always going to close ranks in this situation, but Wayne acts with a righteous fervor that holds his own serial criminality in sharp relief. He’s rushing the street to hold the line against protestors, helping injured officers into a police van, and arriving with boxes of fried chicken and bottled water.
The damning implication of We Own This City is that Wayne is a supercop, the guy out there making big arrests and seizures and standing beside his fellow officers. He’s not the rotten apple spoiling the bunch but the most glaring representative of a department so corrupt that attorneys can’t even prosecute the cases brought to them. To the extent that he’s spoiling the bunch, the men in his unit are put in a situation in which they either have to plug their noses and cooperate or slip off to another division like Suiter. It’s easiest just to take the money and run.
• Jon Bernthal plays Wayne’s search and seizure of the car trunk so casually that every part of it feels routine save maybe for his need to improvise around the surveillance camera. “I detect the smell of marijuana” is all he needs to do to justify the search, and the line seems to come out before he even bothers to sniff the air. (Also: I could listen to Bernthal mangle the word ambulance forever.)
• A prospective juror, asked if he could accept police testimony on the stand, recalls getting beaten for participating in a Black Lives Matter protest: “From that experience, I wouldn’t believe a Baltimore officer who testified that his mother loved him.”
• Asked why cops caught lying in court are still allowed to serve on the force, the commissioner, Kevin Davis, gives a convincing account of the tug-of-war between the state’s attorney office and his predecessors. Nicole accepts it as true but considers it another example of how Davis is wriggling out of accountability himself. After all, the cops are still on the streets.
• Closing the episode with a shot of a $20,000 haul that Ward dropped in a park is fascinatingly ambiguous because it doesn’t entirely absolve him of corruption. It’s just too big a skim for him to bring home, especially to a wife who’s also an officer and does her job on the level.