The Wire at 15: how the final episode brought home its central themes

Fifteen years on from The Wire's debut, we look at how the show's final episode was a fitting ending '“ and embodied the central themes of the story
Jimmy McNulty, played by Dominic West, in the shows finale (Picture: HBO)Jimmy McNulty, played by Dominic West, in the shows finale (Picture: HBO)
Jimmy McNulty, played by Dominic West, in the shows finale (Picture: HBO)

The Wire ended as it started. A city rife with crime, corruption and poverty; those with noble intentions often coming off worse than those with bad. It was strikingly bittersweet. Despite failing to win a single Emmy Award, and receiving modest viewing figures, The Wire is widely regarded as the greatest TV series of all time. This status was sealed for many in the show’s feature-length finale.

The title of its closing episode is ‘-30-‘, a journalistic term used to signify the end of a story. But the story presented by The Wire is one of a never-ending cycle that has plagued Baltimore for years. There would be no magical happy ending in which ‘the game’ is vanquished. Because in real life, that’s not how it goes.

*Spoilers ahead*

A never-ending cycle of corruptive power

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-30- begins with the discovery that the “red ribbon killer”, invented by McNulty to force a U-turn on police cuts, is a fabrication. Instead of making the news public, however, Mayor Tommy Carcetti covers this up for fear of his planned campaign for Governor being undone. And Jimmy McNulty lives to fight another day. Carcetti, a once idealistic and ambitious do-gooder, has become the self-serving politician he once reviled – and the cover-up works. He succeeds in his bid to become Governor. Sherryl Vint, author of ‘The Wire (TV Milestone Series)’, notes that this embodies a theme of the final season, and the drama as a whole. “The core message retained by this finale is that political capital – and real capital – is what rules the day,” she says. “Those in power would rather participate in a cover-up than jeopardise their own career advancement. “Power corrupts: whatever the ideals characters had about entering the police force or municipal office, they are – mostly – susceptible to rationalisation that tells them they can do more once they have themselves advanced.”

Duquan and Michael succeed Bubbles and Omar

The fate of the younger characters is also sealed in the show’s finale. Duquan “Dukie” Weems falls into drug addiction, while Michael Lee resorts to robbing dealers. The pair essentially step into the roles of two other major characters who came before them. Duquan replaces Bubbles as a vagrant ‘dope-fiend’; Michael becomes the successor to enigmatic gunman Omar.

“Dukie and Michael become reinvented version of Bubbles and Omar,” says Vint, “and the cycle continues because there is no systemic change.” Vint notes that anyone who escapes the cycle is in the minority. Bubbles comes off the drugs and moves in with his sister, while Namond Brice is adopted by Howard “Bunny” Colvin. But these are notable exceptions. “There are only moments of individual transcendence of this system, such as Namond being taken into a new environment, which allows his life to unfold on a different trajectory.”

Systems and greed

The continuing merry-go-round sees other notable examples of shoes being filled. Sydnor fills the role of rule-breaking good cop, replacing Jimmy McNulty. Marlo Stanfield succeeds where Stringer Bell failed as an ambitious criminal entrepreneur (though, ironically, he still longs for the game, while Stringer wished to be free of it). The reason for the cycle continuing is the refusal of those in power to instigate proper and effective change, beyond self-serving “cosmetic” change.

“The cycle of crime is not never-ending because of some kind of fatalism or inherent failure of humanity,” says Vint. “The cycle doesn’t end because structural or systemic change is never achieved, and all efforts to make these necessary changes are always shut down for political reasons.”

Baltimore’s issues are universal

The final shot of The Wire is a panoramic view of the show’s real central character – Baltimore. Most remarkable about The Wire , perhaps, was its ability to raise awareness of systemic issues that plague not just Baltimore, but the wider world. Vint believes the show’s central themes of political greed, forgotten communities and a broken system were all meshed together to portray the aftermath of abandoned industrial centres. “The real story is what happens to rust belt cities when work leaves, how economic struggle ties in with other problems like systemic racism, and what it means to be born into that world.”