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 moon
Goodnight stars
Goodnight po-pos
Goodnight fiends
Goodnight hoppers
Goodnight hustlers
Goodnight scammers
Goodnight to everybody
Goodnight to one and all.

      2 Responses to “Cutting the Wire”

      1. Thank you for putting the show’s end to rest. I can’t believe they fit in all the characters that were left standing over the series of the show. My only gripe with the ending (which is negligible) is whether Bond or Campbell became Mayor. Nonetheless, The Wire will go down in history as an example that TV can outperform cinema as a model of storytelling.

        As you mentioned, the “infinity model” is something that is plaguing the US version of The Office right now as it stands to destroy characters it has created over the last 4 seasons. While people will argue that this series is “better” or “funnier” than the UK version, something can be said for Gervais’s finite two season series with concluding endnotes (Christmas Specials). The Wire is a more advanced version of this kind of narrative and it leads me to believe that the best way to watch these shows is consecutively via DVDs or piracy. I await the 5th season’s re-viewing I will do once the discs are released with commentary and other special features.

      2. 2 Brian Faucette

        Once again you have demonstrated a passion and a critical eye into the show that you note on multiple occassions has been the “best” or “greatest” in the history of American television. What impresses me about The Wire is the complexity of the narrative and the way in which it respects the viewer and believes that they are in fact capable of paying attention to even the most inute details, details which are often revealed to be a vital component of the show.
        I found the ending to be appropriate, however I was dismayed to see Omar shot down by a young kid at first. Then as i mulled this act over I began to realize that this random act is in fact a calculated move by one of the young “hoppers” and perhaps it is possible to read this kid as someone who wants to be the next “king” in the game.
        I am left wondering what is to become of Jimmy McNulty. Can he survive without the game, the corners, and his badge and gun. Overall though i felt that the show did an excellent job of displaying that life and yes, even history are nothing more than a cycle. This is why Dukie becomes the new Bubbles, Michael the new Omar, Sitnor the new McNulty and the game goes on. The only way to stop the game it seems to be saying is to realize that life in the inner cities all across America is slowly deteriorating as a result of economic breakdown and people’s inability to care as long as they have “bread and circuses” to destract them.

      Leave a Reply

      Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

      You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

      Google photo

      You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

      Twitter picture

      You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

      Facebook photo

      You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

      Connecting to %s

      %d bloggers like this: