all the pieces matter

We Own This City Asks Us to Look Backward

No, that’s not Dukie and Marlo, but having prior knowledge of Jermaine Crawford’s and Jamie Hector’s characters from The Wire adds a compelling layer to We Own This City. Photo: HBO Max

Is the best way to understand David Simon and George Pelecanos’s new limited series, We Own This City, as a sequel to The Wire? Vulture’s review by my colleague Jen Chaney opens by insisting that it’s not, Rolling Stone’s Alan Sepinwall describes it as “less a sequel … than a rebuttal,” and Entertainment Weekly goes with “spiritual sequel.” Maybe the clearest baseline is in James Poniewozik’s New York Times review: “It would be absurd to pretend not to notice the connection.”

This is a fascinating position from which to make a TV series, and not just because The Wire is on a shortlist of shows that have rewired how audiences and creators think about TV’s potential for narrative sprawl, social commentary, and artistic ambition. It is not a medium prone to sequels, in part because the central idea of how a TV series functions is that it’s sequels all the way down. TV’s fundamental DNA largely insists that one episode be followed by another and that episodes will build upon, rebut, or undo what came before. Continuation, or at least the potential for it, is written into our understanding of what a TV show is. Why make a sequel when you could just make a new season?

It’s not as though sequels can’t or don’t exist in television. HBO Max’s And Just Like That … is not called Sex and the City season six, and the new title is a delineation: These two works are related, but they are separate. Still, the idea of what a sequel means and what it’s doing in relation to the original text doesn’t map neatly onto how we think about sequels for films or novels. A film is an engine that someone turned on, put into drive, and then shifted back into park. Sure, it could keep going, and, particularly in the current moment of heady franchise gold rush, odds are decent that someone will turn on that car again. But from the viewer’s perspective, TV is an engine in neutral, rolling forward until someone stops it. When a TV show ends and then a new series arrives that patently continues something fundamental about an earlier work, there’s also something inherently oppositional about it. TV already has a name for an uncomplicated continuation of what came before; it would be a new season — or, if it’s been a while since the last season, a “revival.” Instead, the possibilities of a TV sequel are for something trickier and, potentially, more rich.

We Own This City, as Chaney and so many other TV critics have pointed out, is obviously in conversation with The Wire. It returns to Baltimore and the world of policing and drug enforcement. Like The Wire (and distinct from Simon and Pelecanos’s work in the intervening years, including the shows Treme and The Deuce), WOTC tells a contained story over the course of a single season from the perspective of one area of municipal experience. It’s a way to consider entrenched, systemic, far-reaching problems without becoming overwhelmed by abstraction. WOTC does this by focusing on one corrupt arm of the Baltimore Police Department, the Gun Trace Task Force.

Unlike The Wire’s fictionalized departure from Simon’s reporting as a Baltimore Sun journalist, WOTC tells a story less masked by invention. It is adapted directly from Justin Fenton’s reporting and subsequent book of the same name, and the show’s opening-credits sequence includes photos and clips of the actual people involved. Yet it’s not difficult to imagine what these episodes might have looked like as season six of The Wire — a new cover of the theme song, new character names, a different title for the group of nefarious plainclothes cops, maybe a few cameos from earlier stories. Many of the primary roles are already filled with Wire alumni: Delaney Williams is back as the new BPD police commissioner; Jamie Hector, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Tray Chaney, Chris Clanton, and Jermaine Crawford are all police officers; Domenick Lombardozzi is the head of the FOP; and Maria Broom is a citizen concerned about criminal activity in her neighborhood. There are Wire alums everywhere you look, with a few faces from Treme (Rob Brown) and The Deuce (Don Harvey, Dagmara Dominczyk) for good measure.

But We Own This City is not The Wire, for better and for worse. Its relationship with a story based in fact, with all the associated challenges of depicting real people, feeds into a tendency that was present in The Wire 20 years ago: It has a didactic quality, an impulse to resist the beats and moves that might make it a more uniformly improbably dramatic story. Let’s sit in the long moments when a character delivers a speech about the futility of the drug war, WOTC says. Let’s repeat our political circumstances again and again — this is taking place after the death of Freddie Gray and amid conversations about a consent decree. Let’s linger, again, on the patterns of discriminatory policing. It is heavier because it adapts a true story, yes, but on its own, it feels a little thin. The series lacks the same number of moving pieces as a season of The Wire did; its six episodes don’t have the same sense of texture and detail held in an impossible balance with enormous scale.

If we do view it as a sequel, though, some of that texture and depth suddenly appears. It is a continuation of The Wire’s exploration of the drug war, but WOTC twists some of the earlier work’s assumptions. As Chaney points out in her review, WOTC’s casting choices are not simply a roundup of familiar faces. Actors who played dealers on The Wire are now cast as police officers, both decent and venal. Williams’s ever-practical, self-serving Jay Landsman becomes Commissioner Kevin Davis, an administrator truly frustrated by departmental corruption. The most pointed casting choice is Hector’s role as Detective Sean Suiter, which repositions the most opaquely villainous drug dealer in The Wire’s Baltimore as the most considerate, compassionate homicide detective in WOTC. Marlo Stanfield, Hector’s Wire character, sees the futile emptiness of the drug war and chooses unswerving self-interest; Detective Suiter sees the exact same thing and still finds meaning in careful homicide policing. For any viewers primed to see this series as an uncomplicated continuation from where The Wire left off, the casting choices are bright-red flags. Your default associations with these faces need to be examined, they say. Take what you knew and rewrite it.

Cops on The Wire were brutal, racist, and violent, yes, but more often than not, the show’s chief protagonists were well-intentioned police doing legitimate work. McNulty was a flawed man, and The Wire never pretended otherwise, but it also assumed that, on the whole, he did more good than harm — and whether or not that excused the harm, it was still presented as the overall tally. Herc and Carver were knuckleheads, sometimes even cruel and dangerous ones, but they were never the center of the story, never anyone’s chief concern. And for every Herc and Carver, there were people like Lester and Bunk doing their best even when their efforts felt like a drop in the bucket. Seen on its own, We Own This City looks like a story about police corruption. Seen as a sequel, it looks like an answer to questions The Wire didn’t want to ask. How corrupt was Jimmy McNulty, really? What does it imply to have a character like him, or like season three’s Bunny Colvin, stand at the center of a story about policing?

At We Own the City’s New York premiere, Simon described the series not as a sequel but as a “coda” to The Wire. The difference between a sequel and a coda is important in a few ways, and one is that while a sequel opens the door for even more sequels, a coda insists on finality. There won’t be more after this. Beyond that, a coda is a type of ending that reverberates backward as much as forward. It suggests that though there may be more to the story, it’s mostly of interest as it relates to things that came before. Ultimately, though We Own This City has plenty to say on its own, seeing it as a sequel — or, more accurately, a coda — is the richest and most complex way to view it. It asks viewers to think about what has happened to Baltimore in the past 20 years and to consider what will happen going forward, but it is most fascinating and most appealing as a request that we look backward and think about how we got here. It’s the best-case scenario for what a sequel can be.

We Own This City Asks Us to Look Backward