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'The Wire': Goodbye, farewell and amen

March 10, 2008 |  8:44 am

Well, David Simon did it.

Faced with a bundle of intricate storylines, a season that at times felt flawed and hurried, and an audience that had come to expect a dramatic gut punch with every character's progress, there was some doubt if the end of "The Wire" could ever measure up to the sum of its parts. Yet somehow it was that same track record that made us all recognize Simon -- and above all his characters -- were fully capable of delivering something special. And this episode was certainly that.

In some ways the finale was the equivalent of a last-second shot from half court, a desperate and seemingly impossible prayer of undoing any disappointment this season may have inspired with one grand, overarching act. In approaching this episode, the only rule we learned up to now is the end surely wasn't going to be pretty. Even when good things happened in Simon's Baltimore, they came almost begrudgingly, and always cut with a grim bite of reality. Then, in the end, "The Wire" broke yet another rule, and without "coloring outside the lines," as Pearlman said.

While the harsh truth behind the real and imagined Baltimore remains unchanged (the drug trade still rules the streets, the inner city's systems are all failing), Simon picked his last moment to reveal the big heart that "The Wire'" had buried deep inside a dockside shipping container. With a few exceptions, the last episode was dominated by reasonable, even compassionate, measures of justice. Think of the many closing scenarios you might have envisioned prior to Sunday. Did many of them involve a vaguely content McNulty looking to make humble amends with his "kidnapped" serial killer victim? Probably not.

But for all its shockingly warm feelings, the episode began with tensions ratcheted high as the fallout from Lester and McNulty's scheme shook City Hall. Scene after powerful scene just kept coming: Daniels glaring at a shamed McNulty for a long, silent elevator ride. Rhonda Pearlman making the reptilian Maurice Levy sweat through a bare-knuckle negotiation. And, most beautifully, McNulty taking time from his ignoble end to call out and utterly decimate the still-fishing Templeton in a department office. These were the moments that the whole season, if not the series, had worked to establish, and they were all played flawlessly.

But after a grueling hour, the show's most rewarding moment arrived, and may also have been its most unexpected: A light and heartwarming goodbye. After saving his skin by catching a copycat serial killer with almost unbelievable ease, McNulty finally received what was coming to him: A rousing Pogues-scored roast at Kavanagh's bar that seemed to set the tone for the rest of the episode. In a giddy reprise of Season 3's rowdy and reverent barroom funeral, a detective that seemed hell-bent on reaching a terrible end laughed through a joyful "eulogy" as everyone from Landsman to Carver to Bunk paid tribute to a cop who, for all his demons, was ultimately one of Baltimore's (and the series') best. Natural police. Even Kima stopped by to come clean about having blown the whistle on the serial killer plot, only to be accepted with open arms before Jimmy -- Jimmy McNulty! -- left the bar early. The series, honestly, could have ended there, and beautifully so.

But there were still many loose ends to resolve, and "The Wire" used them to exercise a skillful, and still oddly uplifting, sense of transition. Neutered by a forced yet prosperous retirement that Stringer Bell always craved, Marlo found that Omar's name carries a lot more weight than his own on the corners. But even as a malevolent speech from Cheese threatened to tilt the show back to the dark side as the co-op angled to buy Marlo's connect with the Greeks, a curious and welcome sense of fairness returned. The gravel-voiced Slim Charles -- a level-headed veteran from the Barksdale days -- suddenly avenged Prop Joe's death by taking out his loose-cannon nephew. A short time later, a hooded Michael emerged from the shadows to rob Marlo's "bank" -- shotgun in hand, naturally. The new Omar has arrived.

Even at the department, things closed on what for Baltimore seems like a high note. Daniels walked rather than cook his stats for Carcetti, but landed on his feet as an attorney who at one point even looked to be trying a case before newly minted Judge Pearlman during the episode's traditional closing montage. Carcetti's people never forget to repay a favor, do they? And the new McNulty? As much as Bunk smoothly shifted into the same rapid-fire rapport with Kima, the slick Syndor was the one working a back-room deal with Judge Phelan in what was for all intents and purposes a reprise of "The Wire's" opening scene back in Season 1. A nice touch.

Not everything was daisies and doughnuts, of course -- the shot of Dukie tying off around the fire and Templeton's inevitable Pulitzer win were all specific examples of the larger scale tragedies at work, and proved the series didn't sacrifice its core to deliver a satisfying finish. But every grim angle seemed cut with a larger uplifting measure, instead of the other way around. Even the newsroom, an arena so close to Simon's heart that the level of drama fell short of the standard set by seasons past, allowed a few shafts of light to shine through. Though Gus was exiled to the copy desk for discrediting Templeton, his protege Fletcher advanced to the Metro desk on the heels of his cover story on Bubs. And hey, despite all the buyouts, it looks like he's still got David Simon typing away in the newsroom! How bad could things be, really?

It's hard to say if a finish this strong can forgive the few missteps earlier this season, but at this point it's a definite possibility. Surely the episode deserves a place next to "M*A*S*H" and "Mary Tyler Moore" in the pantheon of great finales, and easily bested its network cousin "The Sopranos" and its thoughtfully scored ambiguity. Though in the end it's terribly hard to say goodbye to "The Wire," there's something to be said for its ability to pull off such a great escape without sacrificing its ambition, and all without the dip in quality that inevitably plagues shows that overstay their welcome (see above). Where does the finale rank with you all?

Norman Wilson, Carcetti's cynical but light-hearted aide, may have said it best as he choked back the giggles during the revelation that the serial killer was fake. "I wish I was still at the newspaper so I could write on this. ... This [stuff] is too good." For 90 expertly crafted closing minutes, "The Wire" really was.

--Chris Barton