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The Wire: Sentencing

"Fuck it then, for another pit sandwich and some 'tato salad, I'll go a few more." –Wee Bey

Everybody gets sentenced for their crimes in season one. Of course, being the gray and ambiguous world that The Wire presents, the penalties for the police are pretty stiff (even if they don’t equal years in prison). The parallels between McNulty and D’Angelo come to a head as neither one can change his nature and each has to pay the penalty for their actions. Altogether a fitting end to a great first season.

Of course, we also have a final set of actions, confessions and pleas that are all part of the negotiations of who serves time, where and how much. First we see the detail try to end run the Baltimore police bureaucracy and take the case federal. This definitely ups the penalty that both Daniels (who had been in line to be rewarded) and McNulty (who seemed to have at least dug himself out of a hole) were going to pay. The refusal of the federal authorities to even consider the drug case, not to mention their willingness to throw that case away for a potential corruption case was instructive. It tells the Detail that they are on their own.

The Barksdales do their own last minute maneuvering and manage to drag D’Angelo back into the fold and make it possible to avoid the worst sentences and penalties for their people. The capture of Wee Bey and his subsequent confessions actually enhance this success as he apparently clears Bird of a charge.

But at this point, it seems all the cards have been played and we get a result, and like the real world it is an unfortunately equivocal one. The structured pleas of the Barksdales do net real results and take a lot of bad people off the street. McNulty and the Detail earn the respect of Stringer Bell for their successes. Early in the season, McNulty would no doubt have been entirely satisfied with this validation of his abilities, but now it just rings hollow. This is particularly the case as the whole thing seems to have just promoted and empowered Bell himself.

Speaking of structured pleas, the police get sentenced for their "crimes" as well in much the same way. Santangelo is walking a beat. Greggs has a long recovery ahead. Herc and Pryzbylewski both become much better cops having transformed from loose cannons to very competent police, but neither gets any reward from the department. Daniels loses his promotion and seems to have made an enemy of Burrell, that can’t be good. Carver is rewarded, not for the great police work, but for informing on the detail. Only Freamon can be said to have been justly rewarded, returning to the Homicide unit after work that far exceeded the expectations of a "useless hump."

Lastly, there is McNulty. It’s worth considering him along with D’Angelo because their stories are parallel of one another. Both are doomed to suffer more because they just cannot escape their essential natures. McNulty just has to let the Feds have it during their meeting and at a volume that ensures it comes right back to Rawls. D’Angelo just cannot snitch on the Barksdale organization and disappear somewhere else. Like Wallace, it’s just not who he is or where he is from. He gets a much stiffer sentence than those who did much worse. McNulty gets the full in-house exile that Freamon had warned him of, sent to the Marine unit which he had dreaded. They both tried to navigate a moral path despite their flawed natures and both pay a high price for the effort.

The final scenes beg us to ask what it all was for, as we watch the drug trade barely slow. Fundamentally, season one presents us with a deeply pessimistic view of whether problems can be solved in our cities, especially big problems. We will see what the remainder of the series brings us. The show closes with a "See you next season" from Omar, delivered in his own particular idiom, suggesting that the players change but the game just goes on.

Bits and Pieces

All season long I have been thinking about the Freakanomics chapter on why drug dealers live with their mothers. It makes the point that the trade (or game) is really a terrible one and no one who gave it any real thought would ever be part of it. Here is the TED talk the author Steven Levitt recorded on the subject. It’s a bit long but well worth the effort (or just read the book, it’s a good one).


"All in the game." –Traditional West Baltimore

(the final epigraph of the first season, it’s interesting that they chose to attribute it to "Traditional West Baltimore," rather than to Omar who actually closes the episode with the line. I also found myself wondering what "Traditional" meant in this instance, still an excellent choice)

(some final lessons from the street)

Carver: "They fuck up, they get beat. We fuck up, they give us pensions."

D'Angelo: "All my people, man, my father, my uncles, It's just what we do. You just live with this shit, until you can't breathe no more. I swear to God, I was courtside for eight months, and I was freer in jail than I was at home."
Rhonda: "What are you looking for?"
D'Angelo: "I want it to go away."
Rhonda: "I can't..."
D'Angelo: "I want what Wallace wanted. I want to start over. That's what I want. I don't care where. Anywhere. I don't give a fuck. I just want to go somewhere, where I can breathe like regular folk. You give me that... And I'll give you them."

(and the police reiterate lessons about being police as well, first to Carver)

Daniels: "Couple weeks from now, you're gonna be in some district somewhere with eleven or twelve uniforms looking to you for everything. And some of them are gonna be good police. Some of them are gonna be young and stupid. A few are gonna be pieces of shit. But all of them will take their cue from you. You show loyalty, they learn loyalty. You show them it's about the work, it'll be about the work. You show them some other kinda game, then that's the game they'll play. I came on in the Eastern, and there was a piece-of-shit lieutenant hoping to be a captain, piece-of-shit sergeants hoping to be lieutenants. Pretty soon we had piece-of-shit patrolmen trying to figure the job for themselves. And some of what happens then is hard as hell to live down. Comes a day you're gonna have to decide whether it's about you or about the work."

(then to McNulty)

Rawls: "You do not make it easy, Jimmy. I have to admit, I am deeply ambivalent. Great work you all did. And the number of clearances I'm looking at here? I mean, Christ, for the first time this year, we got the clearance rate up over 40%. That's on the one hand. On the other hand, I know the Deputy Ops got a call from the First Deputy U.S. Attorney this morning asking whether an asshole such as yourself really works for us. And, of course, this is the first the deputy hears his troops are creeping behind his back, trying to take a case federal when they've already been told the case is closed. You're a good detective. And I've got to admit you got some stones on you. Did you actually call the first deputy an empty suit? [Chuckles] I want to see you land okay, Jimmy. So, tell me, where don't you wanna go?"

(and finally from Stringer Bell to McNulty, and echoing McNulty from episode one)

Stringer Bell: "Nicely done."


Four out of four structured plea deals (a perfect end to a brilliant first season)


  1. Wonderful end to the series with a highly depressing final few moments. All that work, all that sacrifice (both personal and professional) and for what? Another kingpin steps up; the drug trade barely blinks; we are back where we started.

    The scene I love is the one in the courtroom. Everyone is bored; the conclusion is foregone. Simply amazing commentary on our legal system and its flaws.

    Thank you, Ben, for a wonderful season of reviews. It was a joy to re-watch this season.

  2. Yes, much thanks, Ben.

    This really was an incredibly strong final hour for the first season. It had such a great sense of coming full circle, even if --- as you all note --- the message is rather depressing. The past repeats itself, things don't change. You can try to bring in all the big cases you want, and even get some of the bad guys behind bars, but things stay the same. For every victory (Avon and Wee Bey going down for awhile), there's a sense that it didn't really mean a damn thing. For nearly every character that took a stand or tried to rise above, there was either a heavy cost (McNulty, Daniels, Greggs, Santangelo) or a fall off the "wagon" (Bubbs, D'Angelo). It was so painful to see Bubbs and Johnny right back to their old tricks at the end, and to see Poot running the Pit with a new set of Pit Boys. At least D'Angelo's return to his "family" might give him that little room to breathe, if not necessarily like normal folk.

    The only person who really seemed to come out ahead here with nothing to feel particularly ashamed about is Lester. He got the pretty girl and he returned to the good graces of the Homicide unit. At least someone got rewarded for doing good work, eh?

    "Sometimes things just gotta play hard." I love this moment. You go, Kima! Even Bunk had to grudgingly respect her stand in the retelling of it all to Jimmy.

  3. You are both too kind, and I have really appreciated the excellent and thoughtful comments for this first season of the Wire (probably more thoughtful, in fact, than many of my reviews)

  4. Thanks for the great reviews of a truly great series. And the other comments were also brilliant.

  5. These were some of the best Wire reviews I've read, as they brought out some more things that I hadn't thought of. I've watched the entire series a few times through now. It rewards re-watching, as I spot new things each time. This series of reviews brought some fresh analysis to the layers.

    Therefore, I have been disappointed that the reviews seem to have stopped after one season. Are there plans to review the rest of the series? Selfish, perhaps, as I haven't contributed in comments, but I hope these reviews resume. There's a lot more good
    material to mine in the remaining 4 seasons!


  6. Interesting note:
    A couple years ago, Attorney General Eric Holder made a public plea for another season of The Wire, or at least a movie. David Simon's reply was that he'd be happy to do another season, and all the DOJ has to do to make it happen is to end the failed war on drugs.

    Elon James White made a terrific little short piece for the ACLU about ending the war on drugs (some of which video is hilarious) that refers to this.
    Warning: contains a major SPOILER for anyone who hasn't seen the entire series.


  7. Thank you so much for those last two comments, They really encourage us to continue thinking and writing these sorts of reviews.

    I have actually just started (as of late 9/2013)working on S2, and will have a new set rolling out in the next few weeks.

    So stay tuned, and thanks again


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