tv review

We Own This City Dissolves the Line Between Cop and Criminal

Photo: Paul Schiraldi/HBO

We Own This City is not a sequel to The Wire. Based on the nonfiction book by Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton about the Baltimore Police Department’s corrupt Gun Trace Task Force, it is its own compelling story in limited-series form.

That said, it is impossible to watch We Own This City without thinking of The Wire. The six episodes were adapted for the screen by The Wire creator David Simon and author George Pelecanos, who also worked on the previous Baltimore-set HBO drama, as did several of We Own This City’s other executive producers: Nina K. Noble, Ed Burns, and William F. Zorzi. Given its interest in Baltimore policing, there are multiple scenes — of cops and feds listening in on wiretaps or interrogations of potential suspects and sources — that feel reminiscent of moments from The Wire. Numerous actors from that seminal drama, which aired from 2002 to 2008, appear in roles that feel extra meaningful in light of the parts they carried before.

Several of the actors who once played drug dealers — Jamie Hector, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Tray Chaney, and Jermaine Crawford, among others — are now portraying cops, while Delaney Williams (Sergeant Jay Landsman in The Wire) takes on the role of actual onetime Baltimore police commissioner Kevin Davis, and Domenick Lombardozzi (formerly Herc, a sergeant in the Major Crimes Division) is the head of the police union. These casting choices underline certain realities conveyed elsewhere in the series: Guys who look like Williams or Lombardozzi will always hold positions of power, and the line separating cop behavior from criminal behavior has dissolved almost entirely.

That said, We Own This City differs from The Wire in both intention and execution. While the previous series showed us both good police officers and ones who did not always act in the best interests of the public, the new show is explicitly an indictment of policing gone all the way off the rails. That’s reflective of actual events in post–Freddie Gray Baltimore as well as the evolution in public consideration of policing during the Black Lives Matter movement. We Own This City isn’t a sequel to The Wire, but it certainly feels like a complement, one that quickly encourages us to be suspicious of every cop we encounter rather than warm to them despite their flaws. There are few, if any, Bunk Morelands or Lester Freamons in this Baltimore.

At the center of We Own This City is Sergeant Wayne Jenkins (Jon Bernthal), whose rise from rookie officer to amoral head of the Gun Trace Task Force is tracked via flashbacks to past incidents. His misconduct — which ranges from physically assaulting suspects to planting drugs on innocent citizens to skimming significant amounts of cash from money discovered during weapons busts — is disturbing and runs deep, prompting police in the Harford and Baltimore Counties to begin investigating what eventually becomes a case for the FBI. (Dagmara Domińczyk of Succession plays the lead fed.)

Before the GTTF probe heats up, Nicole Steele (Wunmi Mosaku), an attorney for the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, is conducting her own inquiry into police practices in the city. Ultimately, we learn what we know about Jenkins and his unscrupulous colleagues through evidence uncovered by Nicole, police from neighboring counties, and the feds. Because of that structure, We Own This City is an extremely procedural procedural. There are moments when the show seems more interested in making a case than telling a full-fledged story, and the timeline-jumping can get confusing despite the text from incident reports used as transitions and designed to to keep us grounded in the chronology of events.

Nevertheless, it’s a vivid, richly detailed series, shot with gritty intimacy by director Reinaldo Marcus Green (King Richard) and worth watching for a host of reasons. A big one is Bernthal’s performance. An actor with an impressively elastic range, Bernthal infuses Jenkins with distinctly Baltimorean swagger. Speaking with boastful, rounded o’s and walking with a sway that suggests he’s ready to spring into attack mode at any time, you can’t take your eyes off the guy even when his behavior is so abhorrent you want to. His cockiness is what draws his direct reports to him; it’s also his downfall. “Can’t fuck with Superman,” he confidently tells a colleague mere moments before he’s taken into custody. It’s a high-voltage, Emmy-worthy performance.

It’s also not the only strong work in this massive ensemble cast. As Daniel Hersl, another walking red flag of a cop with multiple complaints on his record, Josh Charles is persuasively cocky but less of a showboat than Bernthal. His arrogance is quiet until it explodes out of him, making Hersl the scarier figure. And Charles, himself a Baltimore native, gets his accent just right. In contrast to Bernthal and Charles, Hector grants detective Sean Suiter the demeanor of a man trying to do the right thing, then cuts through it with jitters suggesting he may be dealing with some demons. He, too, is an eyeball magnet every time he enters the frame.

We Own This City is careful to demonstrate that, as corroded as the GTTF ultimately was, Baltimore Police’s inability to curb crime and create trust between civilians and police is a failure of a much broader system uninterested in addressing how race, economics, and other factors dictate who is and is not targeted by law enforcement. Just as Simon did in The Wire, he eventually traces the start of the brokenness back to the war on drugs.

That war, retired police officer Brian Grabler (Treat Williams) explains to Nicole in the sixth and final episode, “was lost when I got there. Are you people ready to say that out loud? Is anybody?”

Arriving 20 years after The Wire, We Own This City presents more pronounced versions of the same old problems. It offers no answers to all the questions it raises and does not attempt to end on any kind of pat, hopeful note. While the work of the FBI investigation into the Gun Trace Task Force eventually concludes, Nicole’s broader efforts don’t follow such a tidy trajectory. In the end, the series suggests it will take multiple generations to solve the issues with policing in this country, if they can be solved at all.

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We Own This City Dissolves the Line Between Cop and Criminal