Forget what you've heard about the fifth and final season of The Wire, which begins tonight on HBO. Officially, what some critics have called the greatest show in the history of TV wraps up with a meditation on the evils of corporate newspaper ownership. But really, it's all about revenge.
So said David Simon, creator of the much-hailed series, who before a live audience in Baltimore last April described score-settling as his creative muse. Simon was performing in Creative Alliance's storytelling series, called The Stoop, which you can hear at www.stoopstorytelling.com. The topic that night: "My Nemesis."
Simon told the crowd he had two nemeses, John Carroll and Bill Marimow, the two most senior editors at The Sun when Simon was a reporter at the paper. (Full disclosure: Carroll and Simon were both gone from The Sun before I arrived in 2000, but Marimow hired me and treated me well.)
Simon said he watched Carroll and Marimow "single-handedly destroy" The Sun. And so, as Simon told the Stoop audience over 15 entertaining but chillingly self-aware minutes, he has spent more than a decade trying to get back at them. He made his first stab on Homicide.
"So I did, like, a little episode on The Baltimore Sun and I had a few little nasty snark lines about the white guys from Philly, but it didn't come out real well," he said, faulting actress Joan Chen's English-as-a-second-language delivery. "It was lame. It was sort of like I took my shot and it sucked. So I let it alone for a while.
"Then, you know, I get The Wire on. The Wire's going good. Well, last year, why not name a character Marimow? All right, it won't be Marimow, it'll be a police lieutenant, he'll be [a bleep] ... but I'll use the name. It'll kind of be a little kick, a kick in the ass for the guy." But the actor is aggressive-aggressive, not passive-aggressive. "He's nothing like Marimow. ... So I've used the name now, and I got nothing inside ... "
"So this year, we're actually doing The Baltimore Sun as part of the story. How can I resist? We built a whole [bleeping] sound stage in Columbia ... like down to the desks. We have the nameplates of everybody I worked with down on the desks. I mean, my fantasy for revenge is now, like, art departments are working on it. ... I mean, think about it. [Production designer] Vince Peranio is going, `Does this make you mad? Does it make you mad now?' Until I have the full nightmare, I'm not satisfied. And all right, I'm going to change the names. Lawyers say change the names. ... But definitely get an actor with the silver hair and the patrician look" to play Carroll.
But then, as Simon puts it, "something weird happens on the way to the forum." First, Simon said, he had to write a story line than did more than just poke his ex-bosses in the eye. (Seems the actors found his first take "a little simplistic.")
Then Carroll, who became editor of the Los Angeles Times after leaving The Sun, resigned from that paper in July 2005 amid budget cuts. "He stands up like a [bleeping] hero, takes a bullet." And last March, it was disclosed that Marimow had prostate cancer, something that Simon said "took the edge off" his grudge.
So, suddenly feeling some admiration and sympathy for his nemeses, Simon found himself at peace, right? No, he found himself at sea.
That's because "anything I've ever accomplished as a writer, as somebody doing TV, anything I've ever done in life, down to, like, cleaning up my room, has been accomplished because I was going to show people that they were [bleeped] up, wrong, and that I was the [bleeping] center of the universe and the sooner they got hip to that, the happier they would all be."
Carroll and Marimow "were fuel for 10 years of my life. ... And now, I got nothing. I got a $1 million set in a warehouse off of someplace called Snowden River Parkway that looks exactly like The Baltimore Sun, that's staffed by people who look like they worked for The Baltimore Sun in 1994, and I don't know what it means."
Maybe it means that Simon has been a tad disingenuous when insisting, in a 2004 Sun Op-Ed and elsewhere, that "none of the recurring characters on The Wire represents any Baltimorean in particular."
Perhaps it also means that a creative genius can spin a grudge into gold and still be bitter. A new Atlantic magazine profile calls Simon "The Angriest Man in Television."
Or is that fake anger -- and a real character?
What does Simon have to say these days about his Stoop shtick?
"I spoke with some hyperbole and, I hope, comic effect," Simon said via e-mail. He said his point was "that simple revenge is both empty and beside the point and that a good story carefully told has to speak to larger themes. You do not tell an ornate, careful story over ten hours of HBO airtime merely to bust on any given soul."
Simon also noted that he did the Stoop show for charity. (It was a fundraiser for Creative Alliance.) Had he been assigned a more upbeat topic, like friendship, he added, he would have happily held forth on Wire mates Bill Zorzi and George Pelecanos.
Asked for their responses, Carroll and Marimow both directed me to a 1999 Columbia Journalism Review survey that ranked The Sun the county's 10th-best paper. ("Improved dramatically in recent years," it said. "News is still its reason for being." Said Carroll, reached in Lexington, Ky., where he's living and writing a book: "I wouldn't mind having that on my tombstone.")
Marimow, now editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, said Simon is "like Captain Ahab, monomaniacally pursuing the white whale. ... His obsession has really poisoned him."
Carroll's take: "David went away mad and the paper got better."