TV: 'The Wire's Last Season

We ' re building something here. And all the pieces matter.
—Det. Lester Freamon

About 3,000 miles away from Hollywood, in a crusty dive called Kavanagh's on the corner of East Lexington and Guilford Avenue in downtown Baltimore, one of the most highly praised dramas on television is coming to an end. The bar is set up for a policeman's wake—a framed photograph, rosary beads, a bottle of Jameson—and soon, in this smothering August heat, the place will be filled with large men pretending to be drunk. It is the last scene on the last day of filming on the last season of "The Wire," the HBO series that started out in 2002 as a drama about a single West Baltimore detective unit but has evolved, with furious ambition, into the story of an entire city in decline. The show is legendary here—many of the characters are based on people plucked from the city's recent past—and the cast and crew are often treated like folk heroes.

On the sidewalk outside Kavanagh's, the creator of "The Wire," former Baltimore Sun crime reporter David Simon, a salty, pugnacious guy with a bald head, thick chest and the kind of pale pink skin that catches fire in any kind of sun, chats with a black teenager with a gold grill in his teeth and dreadlocks spilling out from underneath a lopsided Baltimore Ravens cap. He came by to give Simon a T shirt that he'd made. "Did you see this?" Simon asks a visiting journalist. "This is what they're selling in West Baltimore now." The shirt features a photo of one of the show's most fabled characters, a female assassin named Snoop, played by former Baltimore gang member Felicia Pearson, who spent six years in prison on a juvenile murder conviction. Very few people watch "The Wire"—about 4 million per episode, about half what the mighty "Sopranos" drew—and this pleases Simon enormously because it appeals to his underdog instincts, and his conviction that bare-knuckled authenticity isn't for everyone. And besides, he's got the fans he really wants. "I'd rather have the allegiance of these people than all the viewers in the world," he says. "Mainstream America has 100 shows to love. The other America has this one. I'm proud of that. That's why this"—he holds up the shirt—"makes me so happy. Because you know what this is? This is subversive."

If you've never seen an episode of "The Wire," which began its final season on Jan. 6, by now you're probably sick of hearing about what a fool you are for missing it. The show has become an object of worship among critics and culture snobs (Barack Obama told TV Guide that it's his favorite show) and they—OK, we—can be flat-out annoying in our zeal for it, as if there are only two types of people: enlightened fans of "The Wire," and everyone else. Worse, with all our talk about the show's Dickensian cast of nearly 30 principal characters, its novelistic, episode-opening epigrams, its street-level patois and labyrinthine detail about city bureaucracy, we tend to make "The Wire" sound like homework. In fact, the show is riveting, infuriating and funny as hell. (In one scene last year, a schoolteacher locks his keys in his car and one of his 13-year-old students, already an accomplished car thief, helpfully jimmies the door open for him.) Baltimore's ruling class has complicated feelings about "The Wire"—there's more to their city, they complain, than crime and blight—but its embrace by Baltimore's underclass hints at its uncomfortable truth. "There is a sense around here that someone finally said, 'Your lives are worthy of the same degree of drama and meaning as beautiful housewives'," says Simon. "That's a simple thing, but it becomes profound. It becomes a bit of connective tissue between these two Americas that are going their separate ways."

Simon and his writing staff, made up largely of urban-crime novelists such as George Pelecanos ("The Night Gardener") and Dennis Lehane ("Mystic River"), as well as old pals from the Sun, like Bill Zorzi, who spent 20 years covering courts, cops and city politics, are not optimistic people. "The Wire" is filled with revelations, but its authors aren't holding their breath waiting for a new day. "I think 'The Wire' is going into the archive as an artifact of where we were as a country when we fell on our a–– and became a second-rate society," says Simon from his trailer near the set, parked just across a courtyard from city hall. As he talks, the mayor's office looms over his shoulder through the window behind him. Each new season of "The Wire" has focused on a different organ in Baltimore's flat-lining civic physiology, with the aim of articulating "why an American city can no longer solve its problems," says Simon. Season one explored the justice system through the prism of a prolonged wiretap case against a powerful drug dealer named Avon Barksdale. Season two shifted focus to the city's waterfront, profiling its eroding community of blue-collar dockworkers. Season three examined city politics in the heat of a mayoral election, while the show's standout fourth season followed a group of boys through Baltimore's overmatched school system. "David has a social conscience, but he's never ax-grinding," says Dominic West, a British actor who plays combustible Det. Jimmy McNulty. "Very rarely in life are there out-and-out villains. People do things for reasons. And you see those reasons on this show."

In this fifth and final season, "The Wire's" probing eye focuses on the media, a subject that Simon knows intimately from his years as a newspaperman. The Baltimore Sun's leadership gave HBO permission to film in its newsroom, and in a scene during the first episode, a pair of actual Sun veterans—including Simon's wife, Laura Lippman, who no longer works at the paper—watch from the window as a fire blazes a mile or two away. After a minute, the paper's city editor, Augustus (Gus) Haynes (a superbly gruff Clark Johnson), comes over and suggests that maybe they should find out what's going on. "What kind of people stand around watching a fire? That's some shameful s––t right here," Haynes says. The scene is vintage "Wire," delivering a bitter-pill message with a healthy dose of gallows humor. "The next and last argument we wanted to have," says Simon, explaining the season's media focus, "is about why nothing ever gets fixed. While the American empire slipped off its pedestal, what the f––– were we paying attention to?"

Serial killers, mostly. In one of the show's most grandiose storylines yet, a homicidal maniac with a thirst for homeless men is loose in Baltimore during season five—only not really, because the killer is actually a fiction created by McNulty and fed-up fellow Det. Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters). It's all a brazen publicity stunt designed to shame the mayor into funneling a few more pennies into a police force so strapped for cash that it had to shutter its wiretap investigation into a soft-spoken but brutal drug kingpin named Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector). As fanciful as the phony-killer plotline may sound, it is executed with "The Wire's" customary verisimilitude, and Simon's point is never far from the surface. The story is "very much a critique [of] the fixation that Americans have with the pornography of violence, as opposed to the root causes of violence," Simon wrote in a December e-mail. "We have zero interest in why the vast majority of violence actually happens and what might be done to address the issue. But give us a killer doing twisted s––t or, better still, doing it to pretty white girls, and the media and its consumers lose all perspective." (Simon and his creative partner, Ed Burns, a former Baltimore cop and schoolteacher, have been declining all media interviews for months in deference to the ongoing Writers Guild of America strike; Simon agreed to answer follow-up questions about the new season for NEWSWEEK BECAUSE the principal reporting for this story occurred prior to the strike.)

For all of Simon's passion on the subject of journalism—and maybe because of it—the fifth season of "The Wire" doesn't quite match the power of the fourth. Simon accepted a buyout from the Sun in 1995. Several more rounds of staff cuts have shrunk the paper's newsroom from about 450 reporters to fewer than 300, and Simon believes the reductions have crippled a proud institution. But fury has a way of flattening people into caricature, and some of the key personalities in Simon's fictional newsroom lack the lively mind and tangle of motivations that other characters on "The Wire," even the rotten ones, possess in spades. A callow young reporter with ethics issues, played by Tom McCarthy, is almost robotic in his deceit, and the top editor who coddles him is a naive blowhard in prissy suspenders. Simon vigorously disputes this criticism, though to give him his full say would require spilling major plot points. He does point out, correctly, that "the vast majority" of his newsroom "is made of ordinary souls, professional and trying to find their way through ... I believe people in [real] newsrooms will recognize the dynamics and characters and issues throughout. If I'm wrong, you won't be the only guy I hear from." The character of Haynes, in particular, is a healthy antidote. On set, Johnson, who has also directed several episodes, calls Haynes "the editor that every reporter dreams of having," and Simon's fondness for him is clear: he gets all the best lines. "You know what a healthy newsroom is?" Haynes says at one point. "It's a magical place where people argue about everything, all the time."

The media storyline is just one of a dozen or so that "The Wire" will wrap up over the next three months. Old faces will reappear, including an imprisoned, though no less influential, Avon Barksdale ("I'm what you might call an authority figure around here"), and season two's elusive crime lord known as the Greek. When the finale airs in March, the culture will not convulse the way it did after the sudden end of "The Sopranos," but fans of "The Wire," who adamantly believe they've got the better show, are likely to feel a deeper, more personal sense of loss. Simon promises he won't pour salt in the wound with a "Sopranos"-style snap to black. "I actually thought that was a great ending," he says. "But this is a different show. We'll pay out what we've set in motion."

Across town from Kavanagh's, at a farmers market in the parking lot of the racetrack in Pimlico, a second unit is finishing up the last scene for a character named Bubbles, a homeless heroin addict who has struggled, with little success, to get clean since the first episode of "The Wire." (Simon and Burns covered similar narrative terrain in 2000 with their Emmy-winning series for HBO, "The Corner.") Bubbles is a figure of weakness and decency on the show, and his crushing ups and downs have made him into a fan favorite. Between takes, Andre Royo, the actor who plays Bubbles, breaks out a script of the final episode with the front page covered in signatures from the cast and crew—a parting gift to himself. "When my manager first got the call about this part, I didn't want to go in for it," Royo says. "A junkie snitch named Bubbles? I was upset, actually. I was, like, 'Are white people still doing that?' But to come from that moment, where I was in my life then, to this moment five years later—it's very emotional. This was my biggest break. Bubbles will stay in my heart forever."

Royo, like nearly every other actor on "The Wire," had no high-profile credits before he joined the show—and hardly any since. Only the rakishly handsome Dominic West has been able to cross over into major movie work, playing supporting roles in a few "trashy films," as he calls them, such as "300" and "Mona Lisa Smile." Lance Reddick, a regular on "The Wire," can now be seen doing Cadillac ads and bit parts on "Numb3ers" and "CSI: Miami." After every season, Clarke Peters, who plays Freamon, gets back on a plane for London, where he lives and works as a stage actor. "Let me indict Hollywood as much as I can on this one," says Simon. "We have more working black actors in key roles than pretty much all the other shows on the air. And yet you still hear people claim they can't find good African-American actors. That's why race-neutral shows and movies turn out lily-white."

None of the actors on "The Wire" has ever been nominated for an Emmy. Overall, the show has earned just one nomination in four seasons. (Pelecanos and Simon, for writing. They lost.) What really steamed Simon, though, was a story two years ago in Emmy Magazine, the Academy's trade publication, about diversity in television. The story made no mention of "The Wire." "Nothing," says Simon. "Not in the whole issue." The silent treatment from Hollywood, though, has cultivated a theater-company camaraderie around the show, a nervy pride in what can be accomplished by unheralded artists in a supposed backwater like Baltimore. "You get a lot of cachet from being the underdog," says West. "And I rather enjoy that feeling—that you're a cult thing, a secret delight. That means a lot more than an Emmy." Simon is less diplomatic. "I don't give a f––– if we ever win one of their little trinkets. I don't care if they ever figure out we're here in Baltimore," he says. "Secretly, we all know we get more ink for being shut out. So at this point, we wanna be shut out. We wanna go down in flames together, holding hands all the way. It's fun. And it's a good way to go out—throwing them the finger from 3,000 miles away."

TV: 'The Wire's Last Season | Culture