This season might be the best argument for considering The Wire as a series of overarching seasons and less as a collective of episodes. Looking at the holistic picture, what the show attempts this season makes the entire season come together to be much better than many of its individual episodes. There are lots of flaws in each individual episode, but taking a step back, and the gaps become less of a problem than they were in the individual episodes.
Because so many of those episodes don’t completely hold up in the moment, this is the weakest season of the show. The creation of a fictional killer crosses a line into a show that is a bit too absurd and silly for The Wire. It’s a narrative move that does give the season a thematic richness, but it fails to be narratively or psychologically believable.
The season’s focus on how institutions reward lies and how those lies conflate and grow does allow the show to explore a number of compelling ideas. The most obvious one is that society is quick to present what is presented to them as truth. McNulty and by Scott end up feeding the public lies and no one things to every question the veracity of what they are presented. There’s an assumption of truth from authority that can easily be abused.
Another exploration of this theme, which isn’t revelatory, is how the lies feed and grow. At first, Scott just makes up a catchy quote to grab attention for a fluff piece, later he’s misconstruing someone’s story. As the lies grow, it’s necessary for Scott to make up more in order to continue gaining the attention and praise of his superiors. Later, he ends up getting a Pulitzer Prize for a story that’s a lie, and his bosses know it’s a lie.
Likewise, McNulty’s creation of a fictional serial killer grows more and more out of hand as the city eventually gives him more manpower and resources than he can use. It also takes away from actual police work. While his creation of a killer gets him the power he needs, it also necessitates continuing to perpetuate the lie in order to continue to have the power.
While neither of these stores feel as complex or groundbreaking as some of the other seasons of The Wire, it does beg an interesting question: does society want the truth? The newsroom is supposed to be a service to society, to tell them the truth, but is that actually what people want? Do they want honesty, or the sensationalism of half-truths and outright lies? Is it easier for us to buy and process that than the harsh realities?
It’s a moment where the show seems to reflect upon its own palatability to audiences. From early on it has taken complex, multifaceted looks at complicated issues in modern, urban American and it’s honest about not always having a solution or an answer. The truth often doesn’t have easy, simple answers, but that’s often what people want. It’s why stories that often simplify and characterize reality often do better than those that present the world as more complex and ambivalent.
I’d argue that The Wire is compelling precisely because it refuses to be easily palatable or digestible, because it presents us with hard truths and admits to not having easy solutions to complex problems. It is able to be dramatic without simplifying or marginalizing. It presents the truth as something hard and sometimes being honest is admitting we don’t know the answer. Such frankness can be frightening, but there’s something refreshing and liberating about it as well.
© 2014 James Blake Ewing