Cutting the Wire
Endings are hard. One of the most unusual things about American television is that success equals an endlessly deferred ending, an aspect I’ve previously discussed as the “infinity model” of storytelling. In other countries, most shows have a limited term with a clear understanding that a show ending is an important part of its run. But in the U.S., most shows keep going until the ratings erode or the producers pull the plug. One of the many things to love about The Wire is that the producers had a finite scope in mind, and that HBO allowed it to play out despite weak ratings (not that HBO cares about ratings per se).
So few series are allowed to end as designed, with either pre-mature cancellations, an endless stretching out for bigger paydays, or no real creative rationales for an ending at all. Given the rise of narrative complexity that I’m studying, endings play a crucial role in reimagining how television can tell stories. I’ve written about my disappointment with The Sopranos ending, and so I’m happy to report that The Wire paid off the conclusion with much more satisfaction. I’ve been both too busy to blog about it, and wanted to let it sink in more before writing it up. Details below the fold.
Many people call The Wire a bleak, grim, or cynical show. I’ve always found it more of a dark & realist vision of a world that is quite grim, but imbued with a sense of hope and respect for human spirit. The people on the show may be broken, beaten-down, trapped, or disenchanted, but they retain a sense of humor and a belief in keeping on playing the game (whichever one they’re involved in). The characters ability to laugh in the face of demoralizing circumstances, or believe that they can buck the systems they’re stuck in, feels like the lifeblood of the series, not a cynical hopeless view of society.
The finale certainly paid off this more optimistic reading – after episode 9 saw Michael abandon Bug and Dukie, and cut himself off from his childhood, it felt pretty bleak. But while Dukie’s descent into drugs was a heartbreaking image, most other characters had their moments to rise above the limited options available to them. Michael managed to become the reborn Omar, a much more hopeful position than another Marlo or Avon. Sure, shit rises to the top (Rawls, Valchek, Templeton, the shell of Carcetti), but the noble cast-offs found some contentment in either doing their jobs, or finding a way out.
But when I think of the episode, I’ll always remember the image of Bubbles bounding up the stairs. 60 hours of TV earned that payoff, a tiny gesture of survival and redemption that captures the hope in individuals to rise above – not through Capra-like flourishes or American self-made men, but the belief in doing what you need to do to get by. It was a hopeful moment that rises above the intractable scenario that the show paints of our urban reality. That’s not cynicism, but an earnest and well-earned romanticism.
So the show ends with many tie-backs and cycles to the first episode, emphasizing the unity and cohesion of the whole series. It ended on its own terms, and while I’ll miss it, The Wire did not warrant infinity – it earned an ending. Without a doubt, it’s the best TV series I’ve watched, and the best argument for viewing television as a unique art form.
I’ll be writing more on The Wire soon, but for now, let the words of Kima ring out:
Goodnight to everybody
Goodnight to one and all.
Filed under: Narrative, Television, TV Shows | 2 Comments
Tags: finale, The Wire