The Wire: Mission Accomplished

“If we don't have the courage and the conviction to fight this war the way it should be fought, the way it needs to be fought, using every weapon that we can possibly muster, if that doesn't happen well, then we're staring at defeat. And that defeat should not and cannot and will not be forgiven.” –Councilman Carcetti

This episode was an hour long coda to the season that effectively ended with the shooting of Stringer Bell in the preceding episode.

The season was built around bold attempts to escape the status quo that were ultimately unsuccessful. They carried over one execution, that of Colvin’s career, to this episode where he even echoes Stringer Bell’s last words when he tells Rawls to “Get on with it, motherfucker.” The reactions of Carcetti to the public revelation of Hamsterdam, McNulty’s realization of the ultimate value of just being police in the community, and Cutty’s work as a boxing coach all suggest that the ultimate message may be that there are no shortcuts to fighting crime or going straight. They are all a grinding difficult thing with major setbacks and limitations.

The fall of the house of Barksdale is complete with this episode as well, the whole thing approaches classic tragedy as the betrayals of Avon and Stringer play out. No one is spared as much of the crew heads to jail including Avon. Donnette is left to weep over her losses, Brianna with the realization that all her talk of family has come to nothing. The whole thing is Shakespearean in scope.

It's worth going through all the resolutions (and a couple of new beginnings) that occur in the show. Most are foreseeable but many are sad. Johnny’s death is chief among these tragedies, we all knew it was coming and it stands in for the ultimate cost of the Hamsterdam experiment. Colvin is cashiered and left on reduced retirement but he protects his people and leaves without apologies. Prez reappears, but only long enough to point out what everyone else seemed to get some time ago, that he was perhaps never cut out to be a police. Kima Greggs is acting like McNulty, down to having her partner cover with her wife as she cheats with a random woman. Omar is faced with the fact that he can, in the end, really only rely on himself but does free his boyfriend and avenge himself on the Barksdales. McNulty discovers what Lester was trying to tell him some time back, a case, even a great case only lasts for so long. However, in a deeply un-McNulty-like fashion, McNulty seems to understand a few things about himself, what he is good at and maybe the kind of relationship that will make him happy (leading to the welcome return of Beadie Russell). Cutty doubles down on his resolve and keeps working with the kids, even as they are pushed back into the drug trade by Hamsterdam’s demise. Bunk fall asleep and loses his tie. And Bubs, well, Bubs abides. Not all happy endings, but a remarkable amount of wrap up for a single hour of television.

Bits and Pieces

An interesting theme in this episode, which now risks being lost to the passage of time and the political context, is that the title and epigraph are both allusions to the Bush administration and the War in Iraq. The title, delivered unironically by George W. in what turned out to be the early days of the Iraq conflict, is echoed here with deliberate irony as many people succeed but we are left to understand that the real war goes on. Similarly the epigraph that the Barksdales are going to war on a lie was intended (according to creator David Simon) as a reference to the lies that sent the U.S. to war in Iraq.

In keeping with that theme, Rawls invokes the spectacular helicopter attack scene in Apocalypse Now by playing Wagner’s "Flight of the Valkyries" as they bring Hamsterdam down. He is a genuine badass in a losing cause, but a satisfied one.

Finally the music playing over the montage at the end is “Fast Train”by Van Morrison, it contrasts interestingly with the metaphor of the slow train in “Reformation” a few weeks earlier. I can only speculate on a relationship but I think there is a suggestion of the power and inevitability of all that transpires once the train gets moving.


...we fight on that lie. - Slim Charles

(This week’s epigraph, meta-explained above, suggests that everyone in the episode is fighting on some kind of illusion or lie. But that one has to keep fighting. Here is the longer conversation in which Avon kind of realizes that)

Slim Charles: Marlo, boss. Oh, he gonna fall.
Avon Barksdale: Marlo, Marlo ain't got shit to do with it. Marlo couldn't get String like that. String died cause of some other shit.
Slim Charles: What?
Avon Barksdale: He died because of some other shit, nigger. I couldn't fix it. I tried. That nigger String was right about this shit, man. That nigger was right. Fuck Marlo. Fuck this fucking war. All this beef over a couple of fuckin' corners.
Slim Charles: Don't matter who did what to who at this point. Fact is, we went to war and now there ain't no going back. I mean, shit it's what war is, you know. Once you in it, you in it. If it's a lie then we fight on that lie but we gotta fight.

(and McNulty sees the pointlessness of his win)

McNulty: I caught him, Bunk. On the wire. I caught him. He doesn't fucking know it.

(Meanwhile, life continues as it will in Baltimore)

Krawczyk: I saw only the one of them. He was black, big, I thought, with a large weapon.
Bunk: BNBG.
Detective Holley: Big negro, big gun.

(and Avon still knows the rules)

Avon Barksdale: Y'all ask me y'all ugly ass niggers shouldn't be in here fucking around with all these guns and shit.

(And we round out the Squeak and Bernard show, your organization is only as strong as the weakest links)

Squeak: You got to be the stupidest motherfucker that I've ever gone out with.
Bernard: I can't wait to go to jail.
Squeak: What? What you say? What the fuck did you say, Bernard?

(But Carcetti is inspiring, so perhaps hope goes on)

Carcetti: No. It's about more than that. This is more important than who knew what when or who falls on his sword or whether someone can use this disaster to make a political point or two. We can forgive Major Colvin who, out of his frustration and despair, found himself condoning something which can't possibly be condoned. We can do that much. But, gentlemen, what we can't forgive, what I can't forgive ever is how we you, me, this administration, all of us how we turned away from those streets in West Baltimore. The poor, the sick the swollen underclass of our city trapped in the wreckage of neighborhoods which were once so prized. Communities which we've failed to defend, which we have surrendered to the horrors of the drug trade. And if this disaster demands anything of us as a city it demands that we say enough. Enough to the despair which makes policemen even think about surrender. Enough to the fact that these neighborhoods are not saved or are beyond the saving. Enough to this administration's indecisiveness and lethargy to the garbage which goes uncollected the lots and row houses which stay vacant the addicts who go untreated the working men and women who every day are denied a chance at economic freedom. Enough to the crime, which every day chokes more and more of the life from our city. And the thing of it is, if we don't take responsibility and step up not just for the mistakes and the miscues but for whether or not we're gonna win this battle for our streets if that doesn't happen we're gonna lose these neighborhoods and ultimately this city forever. If we don't have the courage and the conviction to fight this war the way it should be fought, the way it needs to be fought, using every weapon that we can possibly muster, if that doesn't happen well, then we're staring at defeat. And that defeat should not and cannot and will not be forgiven.

Jess Says

And yet another season finale of The Wire, in which some things have changed, but for the most part, things have stayed very much the same. As at the start of the season, we’re left staring at the ruins of what used to be the epicenter of a thriving drug trade. And yet, unlike the season opener, we don’t come to rest feeling like maybe this is the start of a new day. The “new day” approaches have been tried and failed spectacularly. Going down in a hail of bullets (Stringer) or a hail of “fall on your sword” missives from up high (Colvin). As we heard in various contexts throughout the hour, the war rages on. Because once you’re in it, you’re in it. Even if you’re fighting on a lie, and all your hard work seemingly amounts to nothing.

It’s depressing, right? The system is absolutely fucked up, and too many people with power are invested in protecting that system (usually for their own ends), so it can’t ever be fixed. The message seems to be let’s just throw up our hands and call it a day. Because there’s nothing to be done about it, right?

Not quite. For all the failures, the show as ever does give us our few bits of individual progress, as Ben notes. Carcetti is briefly moved past the politics to make a genuine, heartfelt statement about how badly the City’s leaders have failed the community and his desire to change that. Dennis is able to keep working with some of his young hoppers, despite Marlo getting out the new package. Daniels gets his promotion, Pearlman gets to take a big drug case to court, and both seem to finally be getting a shot at a decent, reciprocal relationship. Prez may be on the cusp of something new, recognizing that maybe he wasn’t ever cut out for police work. And McNulty seems to have had a real epiphany about the job and his life, opting for a patrol beat in the Western District and hoping for a potential future with Beadie Russell.

Despite all the heartache and institutional breakdown, there are moments of hope to be had. People can change and make some small bit of difference, even if maybe systems can’t. So don’t throw up your hands and call it a day. Don’t just accept the ugly status quo. Try to make a change. Yes, you might fail spectacularly, but you might not. And even your spectacular failure could lead to a significant change for someone else, and that might mean everything.

Grace: “I’m proud of you, Dennis. Be well.”

The Upshot

4 of 4 successful (but not too successful) resolutions of difficult jobs

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for these reviews. They are always thought-provoking.

As cynical as the show is about systems/institutions, it does accept the possibilities of hope and positive change for individuals like Cutty, as Jess notes. That's about the only hope that it sees.

In the commentaries, David Simon notes how surprised he was that viewers found Carcetti's speech to be so inspiring, and notes the role of the camera moving closer as the speech proceeds (a lesson about the power of visuals). Simon saw that speech as meaningless political rhetoric of the sort that has always accompanied the failed War on Drugs, and perpetuated it. He didn't intend it to make people admire or trust Carcetti. He assumed it would be eye-rolling material, as it was for him.