Three episodes into the first season of The Wire, I had a sinking feeling. Someday this story will simply stop. Someday these characters will be frozen in time. The dead ones will stay dead and the survivors will live forever in a tableau of their last moment on screen.
It’s over on Sunday.
That I even had these feelings is testimony to the exquisite skill of David Simon, Ed Burns, and all the others responsible for The Wire. I had given up on episodic television, with its conventions and predictability and paper-thin characters. Yet after only a few episodes, the elaborately crafted character and story development that would become The Wire’s trademark had me obsessed with learning every possible thing about these characters. I needed to know what would happen to them. And most of all, given the fully realized living-nightmare that was Simon’s Baltimore, I had to know how and when they would die. Death hung like a oppressive shadow over The Wire, always a possibility in even the simplest, most mundane moments. And when it came, it felt like a shot to the head, fired from behind with no warning.
David Simon generously gaveth and mercilessly “tooketh” away characters. In fact, so many carefully drawn characters passed through so many story lines that no obit for the show could do it justice. But there are a few things about how it was crafted that will always be there to be treasured and savored.
Gratuitous things did not happen in Simon-land. Sex, violence, blood, nudity, atrocious language and everything else that NYPD Blue used to use with such a self-concious, heavy-hand had to earn their way onto The Wire. They only made it when they advanced the story or moved a character forward. I’ll never forget when one of the show’s creators, during the audio commentary offered in the DVD collection, saw an especially white-hot sex scene and remarked something like: “Wow, that was great wasn’t it. We should do more sex.” But they quickly concluded that the sex would only happen if and when the story or the character needed it to happen. Same with violence. When it came, it was the culmination of careful narrative preparation. But it was never, ever predictable.
Enough story lines were constantly dangling that every episode was an adventure in seeing which would be picked up and which would never be heard from again. One attractive young woman came on the scene for a couple of episodes, captivated the audience with beautifully written lines, created a heart-breaking character, and simply disappeared. She wasn’t killed. She was the victim of the kind of dramatic fatality that only happens in brilliant scripts — death by compelling narrative.
Which leads to my last point: No show was ever cast with such care and skill. In fact, as I face the show’s demise, I have been having the strangest thought: What is going to happen to this once-in-a-lifetime ensemble? How can stage, television, and film absorb them all at once? And what about all the quirky, weird characters, masterfully portrayed by actors who, stated charitably, did not exactly have conventional faces? I have a fantasy of casting agents all over the world keeping a special “Wire” book, with headshots and resumes of a slew of the best actors working today.
Ill leave you with the almost unbelievable gift that this Wire fan got two days ago on the #6 subway in Manhattan. I walked onto the crowded train and saw only one empty seat. And in an instant, as I sat down, I looked up to find that I was sitting next to one of my favorite characters, played by an actor of such power that I literally started to shake as I complimented him. He was gracious, I looked like a fool, and then he was gone.
So I can think of no better tribute to The Wire’s endless parade of masters of the craft of acting than to share his picture with you and designate the incomparable John Doman, Deputy Commissioner William Rawls, as my stand-in for the best cast ever assembled for a television drama.
Rawls — you arrogant, backstabbing, selfish, hateful, self-hating creep — I don’t know how we’ll live without you.