With backdrop of uncertainty, `Wire' taps into sadness, hope

TV Preview

December 18, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Nothing is more difficult in the art-meets-commerce world of episodic television than crafting a season finale without knowing if the series will be renewed.

If the show is the season finale of a series that will return, a narrative that looks ahead and positions its leading characters on new paths is the way to go. But if the episode is to be the last viewers will ever see, then thematic and emotional closure are demanded. Especially if the drama is as psychologically intense as HBO's Baltimore-based crime series, The Wire, which ends its third season tomorrow.

For the last two years, executive producer David Simon has known before filming the season's end that The Wire would return. But with the series this year attracting only 1.6 million viewers (in contrast to 3 million in 2003), HBO executives have postponed the decision to renew - or end -The Wire until mid-January.

Given these facts, tomorrow night's episode, "Mission Accomplished," is another artistic triumph for this brave and compelling meditation on the harsh realities of life in contemporary urban and corporate America.

As the show begins, a sense of doom is pervasive. After last week's bloody murder of drug lord Stringer Bell (Idris Elba), the troops of his longtime partner, Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris), clamor for revenge. The word on the street is that Bell's killer was rival dealer Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector). But Barksdale seems to hold little enthusiasm for battle, spending time alone in his office ominously staring at a handgun kept in his desk drawer.

On the other side of the law, Detectives Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) and Bunk Moreland (Wendell Pierce) visit their favorite late-night drinking-and-philosophizing spot, a stretch of railroad track and crumbling buildings that serves as visual metaphor for the detritus of industrial America.

"This city is going to (expletive)," Bunk says. "We're going to push past 300 murders by New Year's."

McNulty responds by walking onto the track and staring into the Cyclops eye of an approaching train. "I'm tired, Bunk," he says.

In the three seasons of The Wire, Simon, a former Sun reporter, has trained his lens on the police department, the blue-collar world and now city hall. And, while the world of drugs was always an important part of the mix, the ultimate focus of the series was that of urban America and the way in which so many cities have failed.

In Simon's Baltimore, the good guys long have seemed tired and, in some cases, spiritually drained as the politicians and political opportunists in the police department make self-serving grabs for power at the expense of the city's future. Simon captures the cosmic sadness of a seemingly eternal cycle of drugs and political betrayal in a lyrical and moving montage of scenes that plays out wordlessly against a melancholy R&B version of Van Morrison's achingly existential ballad, "Fast Train."

This bittersweet, psyche-stirring sequence retains just enough hope - through scenarios that suggest a few decent folks are still trying to do good - to keep one's heart from breaking. The larger truths told in these tableaux transcend the success or failure of Lt. Cedric Daniels' (Lance Reddick) team in bringing down the Barksdale organization through its electronic eavesdropping.

The final scene, which may be the last of the series, seems fittingly post-apocalyptic. Bubbles (Andre Royo), a heroin addict and informant, is teaching a younger, fellow addict how to survive in Baltimore's underbelly by collecting scrap metal from demolished buildings.

"You see, in these modern times, a man has to keep one eye on the ground, pick up what he finds," Bubbles says as he sorts through rubble that once was a strip of rowhouses - and an island of hope in a sea of drugs and despair. "But there's money to be made if you know where to look."

The final point of view is omniscient with viewers looking down on Bubbles and his young charge as they shuffle off like two characters in a Samuel Beckett play, pushing their shopping cart of junk through a devastated stretch of twisted metal and debris that recalls a war zone. "You probably don't know it, but it's rough out there," Bubbles says.

We know it, oh, so well - those of us who have been lucky and wise enough to spend our Sunday nights during the last three years visiting the Baltimore that Simon and HBO had the courage to show viewers.

The Wire

What: Season finale

When: Tomorrow night at 9

Where: HBO

In brief: This could be the last episode ever - don't miss it.

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