The roundtable isn’t over for another day or so, but let’s go ahead and talk about endings.
Watching The Wire the first time through, I came away with the belief that it had ended on a suitably even-handed emotional note. The systemic problems in Baltimore were far from fixed, but most of the main characters had personal happy endings. McNulty may have lost his job, but he got a heartfelt speech from Landsman, he’s back to sobriety, and he’s salvaging his relationship with Beadie. Pearlman is a judge and Daniels is a practicing attorney and they’re just so cute together. Lester’s retired and making doll furniture with Shardene. Carver, Kima, and The Bunk are all comporting themselves expertly and ethically in their successful professional lives. The heartbreak of Duquan becoming a junkie is counter-balanced by Bubbles pulling himself out of the same hole — sure, it could be read as “for everyone who’s saved, there’s more heading down the same road,” but it also implies that Duquan might someday come out the other side, just like Bubbles. The tragedy of Randy in the group home is counterbalanced by Namon becoming a success under the care of Mr. and Mrs. Bunny Colvin. And even though Michael is surely doomed to a short life of violence and pain much like Omar’s, for the time being his final scene is as badass as any of Omar’s first scenes, and Omar was always everyone’s favorite character.
The final montage round-up of everyone’s status, bookended by McNulty on the overpass, is wistful but celebratory. The audience is invited to their own sort of detective’s wake, where instead of another round of “Body of an American” we all join in the chorus of “Way Down in the Hole,” the “original” version from the opening of the first season (though the actual original recording is used for the second season) for maximum nostalgic value. It’s a gesture for the people who stuck with the show for the entire run, and as one of those people, I actually appreciate the gesture. While I could criticize it for self-satisfaction or something similar, I think it’s actually one of the nice things about serial television that you can take an audience through so much with a number of characters that a montage of “where are they now?” is more than just informative closure. I like a certain amount of ritual and observance, cheesy or conventional as it may be, and so the ending of The Wire left me feeling satisfied and pleased.
The ending(s) of The Wire are actually much more depressing, and since I’m a little bit stupid, I didn’t key into that until the second go-round with the series. All of the happy endings are, actually, escapes. Every character that we see smiling in the ending montage has gotten the fuck out of the drug war in Baltimore (or, in the case of Herc, decided to profit unethically from it). McNulty, Lester, Daniels, Prezbo, all of them have left the police force to happier lives. Bunk and Kima are minding business as usual in the Homicide unit, working their cases and not fighting to try and tackle the bigger problems. Bubbles has escaped in a literal and immediate way. And Pearlman may still technically be in the system, but as a judge, she sits apart from the fray. Every single one of the beloved characters we’ve followed since the beginning have abandoned the mission, because that’s the only way they can achieve fulfilling, happy lives as people.
The importance of this is compounded by the fact that David Simon did the same thing. “I got out of journalism because some sons of bitches bought my newspaper and it stopped being fun.” That’s a quote from Simon that tends to make the rounds (I found it on Wikipedia, but it’s orginally from an interview in the Baltimore City Paper). Simon was once a part of the system, working as a reporter for The Baltimore Sun, someone in a position to strive and fail to change things just like all the characters on The Wire. Simon got his own happy ending, though: he escaped reporting to become a book author and TV creator. In a way, the entirety of The Wire is David Simon reveling in his escape, and showing us what he escaped from. Not the streets, or the day-to-day of the drug trade, but the system as a whole. He’s now outside of it, looking back in. And while The Wire may be a multi-faceted, complex show full of characters and viewpoints that contradict one another, the end of the show and the life of its creator point to a single, unmistakable message: You better get while the getting’s good.
I’m not sure if it’s a compliment or criticism of the show, but I can’t think of a more depressing or terrifyingly bleak moral than that. It might be the truest sentiment ever expressed on television — but I don’t like to think about that any more than I absolutely have to. I’d much rather escape.
Update by Noah: The entire Wire roundtable is here.