'The Wire' finale

Last night "The Wire," HBO's critically adored but commercially anemic drama, ended its five-season run with a long whimper. The finale wasn't confounding in the same way that David Chase's smash-cut to black at the end of "The Sopranos" was, but it's likely to polarize the show's fan base in a similar fashion, pitting those who found it an appropriate, characteristic ending against those who felt short-changed. Both positions have merit.

It's easy to see how a loyal fan could have been let down by the final season as a whole. "The Wire" is still way out in front of anything else in its medium, even at its worst. But by its own standards, season five felt inert, and a few of its subplots strained believability. The first sin is forgivable, but the second is not, considering that the show's dedication to credibility is what has allowed it to cram its scripts full of street jargon and provide little in the way of helpful exposition. It also didn't bode well that despite its populous tableau of characters, the plot lines ambled along as though it were business as usual, as if each episode weren't one part of a truncated 10-installment final season. But the eighth and ninth episodes accelerated, and it appeared that the show might be nearing a finale in which loose ends would be neatly tied, even though "The Wire" had never been in that habit before.

But the resolutions were anything but pat. Detectives McNulty (Dominic West) and Freamon (Clarke Peters) are finally taken to task for having created an imaginary serial killer to route funding to a drug investigation. Their police careers are ended, but both dodge criminal charges thanks to a cover-up spearheaded by Mayor Carcetti (Aidan Gillen), who wishes to avoid a scandal during his ultimately successful gubernatorial run. Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector), the Big Bad of the past three seasons, was set free, while his chief henchman Chris (Gbenga Akinnagbe) pulls life in prison for dozens of murders. Improvisational journalist Scott Templeton (Thomas McCarthy) is upbraided by McNulty, his partner in faux-crime, but escapes punishment from his superiors at the Baltimore Sun, while his morally centered editor Gus (Clark Johnson, who also directed the episode) and fellow reporter Alma (Michelle Paress) are demoted for trying to turn him in.

It would take several more paragraphs to detail the trajectories of every character, but suffice it to say nearly every character received some kind of sendoff, though some—maybe most—were less than satisfying. The supersized 93-minute episode was ultimately another day, another dime, but "The Wire" was always a character-driven slice of life, so it was perhaps unrealistic to expect the show to morph into a bullet train hitting one plot point after the other.

But if the mark of a series finale is the degree to which it captures the essence of the show, then "The Wire" succeeded in its final episode. The finale was peppered with Charm City montages, random shots of skylines, local attractions and average folks. And "The Wire" has always been a show about the city of Baltimore, about taking an honest look at the city in a way that you can only if you love it unconditionally, as the show's creator David Simon clearly does. The finale also captured the agony and the ecstasy of being a fan of the show. "The Wire" was always a bit like a bad relationship. It required an inordinate amount of commitment and emotional investment. Some of our friends didn't get it, and we thought less of them as a result. It broke our hearts over and over and we crawled back for more. But when it was good, whew … it was so good.