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The End of 'The Wire', Not The Drug War

Spoiler alert: If you recorded Sunday’s final episode of HBO’s The Wire and have yet to watch it, be advised that the show’s conclusion will be discussed below. There, don’t say you weren’t warned.

What will Mrs. Dunphy and I do with our Sunday evenings from now on? It’s as though all the people we hung out with on Sunday nights just upped and left town. They’ll be missed.

The Wire is no more, having finished its five-year run on HBO with a 90-minute finale on March 9. And what an ending it was, with interconnected networks of self-interest trumping honesty and integrity at nearly every turn. One can imagine the show’s writers conjuring up the perfect conclusion for the series, sitting around the office and asking one another, “How can we push the cynicism meter into the red?”

Back in January, I wrote about The Wire for National Review Online, and I cautioned viewers not to “look for any neatly tied ends to the series when the final episode is aired in March.” Indeed, as the credits rolled on Sunday, we had seen enough to make even the most jaded cynic weep. To wit:

This season’s main bad guy, the ruthless dope dealer Marlo Stanfield, was a free – and very rich – man.

Detectives Jimmy McNulty and Lester Freamon, who had conducted an illegal wiretap to make a case on Stanfield, were allowed to retire quietly from the police department.

Baltimore Mayor Tommy Carcetti, who learned of the police corruption but kept it out of the news so as to further his political ambitions, was elected governor of Maryland.

Police Commissioner William Rawls was rewarded for his silence on the corruption with an appointment as head of the Maryland State Police.

Scott Templeton, the newspaper reporter who fabricated stories for the Baltimore Sun, received a Pulitzer Prize.

Duquan Weems, the bright, mild teenager whose heart wasn’t sufficiently cold for the dope trade, became a heroin addict.

And the list goes on and on, with avarice, venality, and outright thuggishness paying dividends for many, and with the honorable characters coming away with nothing or even a smack-down for their troubles. A notable and welcome exception was the character known only as Bubbles, played masterfully through all five seasons by Andre Royo.

Bubbles was a heroin addict, one who endured all manner of heartbreak and disappointment in his long struggle to clean up. This season found him off drugs and living in his sister’s basement in conditions that were spare enough but still an improvement on his earlier life on the streets of West Baltimore. His sister allowed him to remain in the basement only while she was at home, and even then the door remained locked. When she left the house, he had to also, having earned her distrust by stealing kitchen items for dope money.

But as Sunday’s final episode neared its end, a short montage revealed the denouement for many of the characters, and there amid the many disappointments was Bubbles climbing the basement stairs to an open door, then emerging in the kitchen to sit down for a meal with his sister and niece. It was one of the few hopeful notes in the episode, and indeed in the entire series.

And what to make of The Wire now that its over? For those not keen on pondering that question, some of the show’s writers made their case plainly enough last week for Time magazine. Ed Burns, Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, Richard Price, and series creator David Simon (who made a Hitchcockian cameo appearance in the finale) argue that the drug war has been a failure and should be abandoned. “[T]his war grinds on,” they write, “flooding our prisons, devouring resources, turning city neighborhoods into free-fire zones. To what end? State and federal prisons are packed with victims of the drug conflict. A new report by the Pew Center shows that 1 of every 100 adults in the U.S. – and 1 in 15 black men over 18 – is currently incarcerated. That’s the world’s highest rate of imprisonment.”

To the writers’ great credit, The Wire was not an unambiguous argument for drug legalization. In its third season, for example, an innovative police commander launched a program in which drugs were unofficially legalized within a neighborhood of mostly abandoned row houses. The dealers were allowed to ply their trade and the buyers went unmolested as long as they stayed within the prescribed boundaries. The violent crime that had been associated with the drug business declined and, outside the drug zone, people were free to walk the streets that had previously been controlled by dealers.

But even here Simon and his writers took care to portray drug abuse, particularly the use of heroin, as a poor and often deadly choice. Still, in the Time piece they espouse jury nullification as a way for the public to rein in the drug war’s excesses. Simon and the others write:

“If some few episodes of a television entertainment have caused others to reflect on the war zones we have created in our cities and the human beings stranded there, we ask that those people might also consider their conscience. And when the lawyers or the judge or your fellow jurors seek explanation, think for a moment on Bubbles or Bodie or Wallace. And remember that the lives being held in the balance aren’t fictional.”

It’s interesting to note that the writers grouped Bubbles together with two young men, Bodie and Wallace, who were murdered for their involvement in the drug trade, as though the degree of moral culpability for all three was somehow equal. Like Bubbles, Bodie and Wallace were well-drawn characters who could arouse sympathy in viewers, but while Bubbles was an addict who to some arguable extent was powerless over his habit, the others were drug dealers with blood on their own hands. Some addicts can and do clean up, but will legalization make honest citizens out of drug dealers willing to kill over control of a street corner?

The argument for drug legalization is a rational one, but it is not one that I, after more than twenty years as a cop in Los Angeles, can endorse. Watching Bubbles struggle with his demons over these last five years, I was often reminded of a heroin addict I arrested years ago. As I was about to close the cell door on him, I asked him if he thought heroin should be legalized.

“No way,” he said.

I asked him why not.

“If you legalize it,” he said, “pretty soon everybody will be like me.”

“Jack Dunphy” is the pseudonym of an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department. The opinions expressed are his own and almost certainly do not reflect those of the LAPD management.