The sum of $56.49 may seem rather a lot for four DVDs, but I was more than willing to hand it over at my local HMV last Tuesday. That was the day copies of the fifth and final season of The Wire went on sale. I got there early in case they ran out.
The Wire came late to our house. We never even sampled it while it ran on TV, an HBO production from 2002 that ran until last winter. But the first season arrived as a family present and we tried it, not quite sure we wanted to spend so much time contemplating murderous Baltimore drug dealers and corrupt cops whose conversation plays infinite variations on the most famous of four-letter words, the one now used everywhere except in daily newspapers.
But the earliest episodes hooked us. In the last six weeks, absorbed and horrified, we've followed the same characters through all five seasons and 60 episodes. This may be the ideal way to see it, like a long sequence of connected novels. The characters slowly change as you watch. Morally, they grow or shrink. Young drug dealers on the street corners age visibly while they stumble through the tragedy of their doomed adolescence.
Jacob Weisberg of Slate called The Wire the best TV show ever broadcast in America. Certainly it's the most unusual television work I've ever seen -- unusual in theme, style and execution. It also offers the best ensemble acting ever attempted on TV.
It has no star players. Or rather it has seven of them, or maybe 17, or more, depending on how you count them. Seven performers appear in all episodes, but a couple of dozen others show up 20 or 30 times, giving authoritative, commanding performances.
The star is the city of Baltimore in its years of financial and moral decay. The creators of The Wire -- David Simon, once a reporter at the Baltimore Sun (which he abrasively satirizes in the last season), and Ed Burns, a former Baltimore cop and schoolteacher -- have carefully built a portrait of the city they love and hate. It contains more hate than love, but no one has ever poured so much dramatic energy into an account of one town. The Wire can be funny or sentimental but at heart it's an urban elegy steeped in sadness, thick with hopelessness and self-hatred. In tone it's an extremely eccentric product of American mass culture.
Critics have compared The Wire to the novels of Charles Dickens, but it's closer to the grand project of Honore de Balzac, whose The Human Comedy was an attempt to portray every aspect of pre-1850 France. (Balzac planned 143 volumes and finished 80 before dying.) The same kind of wild ambition lies behind The Wire, and so does the same methodical approach. Most characters run through the series but each season focuses on one subject --drugs, the Baltimore port, local politics, schools and the daily paper.
Aside from criminals, the main characters are thwarted professionals whose belief in their work has been slowly extinguished by mindless bureaucracy. The bosses of the police, city government and schools turn ordinary human competition into fierce, mindless territorial wars that make serious work impossible. At times The Wire feels like Yes, Minister rewritten as tragedy.
Sadly, admirable professionals conspire in their own defeat. The life of Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) follows an ugly pattern: A first-class homicide detective, he grows so frustrated with incompetent and uncaring leadership that his anger turns him into a drunk and destroys both his career and his family.
The actors include ex-policemen and ex-criminals; in fact, a few cops who put certain bad guys away re-encountered them as colleagues on the set. The strangest and most memorable recruit from the streets is Felicia Pearson, who plays an inhouse assassin for a drug king. Stephen King called her "perhaps the most terrifying female villain ever to appear in a television series."
Pearson (pronounced "Person") was born in 1980 to a pair of drug addicts, both now dead. She grew up near a drug-infested neighbourhood. Excitement attracted her to crime. In her memoir, Grace After Midnight (2007), she recalls her early adolescence: "I was being turned the wrong way. I saw it, but I wasn't about to stop it. Something like a fever had come over me. The fever provided chills and thrills."
At 14, carrying a gun, she was a minor functionary for dealers who would hire her to pistol-whip their enemies at $100 per beating. One day she drew her gun in a street fight and killed a 15-year-old girl. Pearson insists it was self-defence, but she served five years for second-degree murder. Paroled, she lost jobs in a car wash and a factory when her bosses learned about her record. Soon she was back with the dealers.
One night Michael K. Williams (who gives a heart-stopping performance as Omar, a specialist bandit who robs drug dealers) spotted her in a bar. At first he couldn't tell whether she was a girl or a young boy, a puzzle TV views would later share. He discovered that she spoke thick Baltimore English, maybe the thickest anyone ever heard. He introduced her to the producers of The Wire.
Eventually she appeared in 25 episodes as Snoop, a character who murders troublesome gang members (suspected police informers, for instance), hides their bodies in abandoned houses, then seals the houses with a nail gun. In her career-making scene, during the fourth season, she purchases a powerful state-of-the-art nail gun with the help of a hardware merchant who has no idea how she plans to use it. She plays that piece like an old pro--precise, understated, with a touch of offhand terror. The young Harold Pinter would have loved to write for her.
Today, aged 28, she's developing a stage company for ghetto actors and working with a voice coach to expand her dramatic range. No doubt there's interesting work in her future but already she's known to millions for an outlandishly memorable performance in one of television's most surprising productions. She's decided, as her book explains, that she prefers show business to drug business. After all, when she was in drugs nobody ever came up to her on the street and said, "I love your work."