Sunday, March 09, 2008

The Wire: David Simon Q & A

This interview with “The Wire” creator David Simon was conducted over two different days shortly before the 9th episode of the final season aired. (But after I had already seen the series finale.) We discuss several characters’ final fates in detail, so if you haven’t already seen “-30-,” what are you doing reading this? (Also, if you're looking for my review, click here.)

Because the interview was conducted in pieces and we bounced back and forth between topics, I’ve deleted certain sections that were redundant and moved others around so that, for instance, all the discussion of the Baltimore Sun storyline is together. I haven’t given this the full Templeton, though; all the answers are exactly as Simon gave them, and if I have to rephrase a question here for continuity’s sake (say, because it originally involved a transition between two topics that are no longer back-to-back in this version), I’ll put it in parentheses.

Also, since this is long -- David indulged me with a lot of time, and as you should realize by now, the man is not short on opinions or the words with which to express them -- I'll also try to put up subject headers where possible so if, say, you're more interested in discussion of the characters instead of the problems the show is about, you can do so. And if it's still too long for you to read, I'll have an abbreviated version up first thing tomorrow morning, duplicating what will be in The Star-Ledger.

SYMBOLISM (and my inability to find out about it)

I’ll start with the obvious one. The show's ending, this is your last chance to do this: What the hell do the train tracks mean? (NOTE: Simon has in the past expressed surprise that no critic has ever correctly interpreted the symbolism of why McNulty and Bunk’s drunken bull sessions usually take place beside train tracks.)

No shot. You're not getting it out of me.

Oh, come on!

To talk about symbolism, if people get it, they get it. if they don't, telling it to them ruins it. You know that.

You're talking to the man who couldn't get David Chase to explain the Sopranos finale.

Well, I totally agree with David Chase. He's got that right. If you like it, you like it. My sister was an abstract painter. If you asked her what the painting was of, she would look at you and say, “It's whatever you think it's of.”

(A day later, I try to slip this one in) This is one about themes but also because I make the damn typo six, seven times each week: Marlo and Omar L. as anagrams. Intentional? Accidental?

Now you're getting into symbolism again. You've got to let people argue about something. It's not fair if I explain everything.


What else did we miss, besides the train tracks?

What do you think the main thing that happens in the newspaper story? What is the most dramatic consequence depicted? I'm going Socratic on your Jersey ass.

They're covering a story that doesn't exist and they're devoting all their resources to it.

Ehh! Try again.

They're demoting the one guy in the newsroom who knows what he's doing?

(Disappointed sigh) Oh, Alan, Alan, Alan. “The Wire” is always about subtext. What isn't happening?

They're not writing about the stuff that matters.

Ding ding ding! We know that they mayor is cooking the stats so he can become governor. We know that he's taking apart the Marlo task force. We know that he's backing No Child Left Behind, and hyping a dubious gain in the 3rd grade test scores though the schools remain an unmitigated disaster. We know that these politically charged prosecutions of Clay Davis are being undercut behind the scenes by a variety of conflicting interests, that there's turf wars that result in complete lapses of any anti-corruption effort. We know that Prop Joe is the biggest drug dealer in the city with the main connect, and when he's killed, it's a brief. We know who Omar is -- and, listen, you'd need a really good police reporter to write a story about Omar, but it could happen, but it certainly isn't going to happen at that paper.

The main theme is not the fabulist and what he is perpetrating. That's the overt plot. The main theme is that, with the exception of the bookends -- at the beginning, the excellent effort at adversarial journalism that begins the piece in episode one and the genuine piece of narrative journalism that concludes it, with Bubbles -- it's a newspaper that is so eviscerated, so worn, so devoid of veterans, so consumed by the wrong things, and so denied the ability to replenish itself that it singularly misses every single story in the season.

What I'm loving, it makes me warm all over, is that a lot of the obsession of journalists in the evaluating -- I think (Brian) Lowry mentioned it, you mentioned, a couple of others mentioned it as being fundamental to the story -- (isn't that theme) but whether Whiting is as big an asshole as Valchek, “Is Gus more of a hero than Colvin?," “Do they have to put suspenders on that guy?,” “I can't believe any editor would say that,” “Why would Alma drive all the way over there?” I'm loving it. It's this onanistic, self-obsessed world of journalism -- which is the problem. In their heart of hearts, the guys who are running my newspaper and a lot of newspapers, they now cede the territory, the moral and essential territory, of whether we're asserting for our society, our city, our community.

This was a story about a newspaper that now -- on some fundamental basis -- fails to cover its city substantively, and guess what -- between out-of-town ownership, carpetbagging editors, the emphasis on impact journalism or Prize-culture journalism and, of course, the economic preamble that is the arrival of the internet and the resulting loss of revenue and staff, there are a fuck of a lot of newspapers that are failing to cover their cities substantively. That is the last piece in the Wire puzzle: If you think anyone will be paying attention to anything you encountered in the first four seasons of this show, think again.

(We get sidetracked by something unrelated, and then Simon continues…)

If you would allow politicians and school administrators and police officials and union leaders to blog and to write, you would be pilloried every season. And maybe we deserve to be. Because you know what? We're a television drama. Life is anti-drama. On some level, all we are is storytellers. We believe in our stories, we believe they have resonance and meaning. We did it for four years, and in each of the four years, our allegiances were with middle management and with labor, and they always are. The Valcheks and Rawls of the world are the Whitings and Klebanows of the world are the Royces and Clay Davises of the world. That's how we do.

The film template in my head -- the dramatic template were the Greek plays -- is what I regard as the most important political film of the 20th century, which is “Paths of Glory.” If anyone wants to look at “Paths of Glory” and think it doesn't speak to the essential triumph of institutions over individuals and doesn't speak to the fundamental inhumanity of the 20th century and beyond, then they weren't watching the same film as the rest of us. That film is essential, and as meaningful today as the day it was made. If you look at George Macready and Adolph Menjou, I believe you have Rawls and Valchek.

One of the great overstatements was always made about "The Wire" is "There's no good guys or bad guys." I was always amazed by that. Marlo's not a bad guy? Do characters acquire a bit of nuance as you live with them longer? Of course. The more time you live with them on screen, the more chance you have to add nuance. And I know I said good and evil bored me, but the notion that all characters are treated equally is sort of a misunderstanding of point of view.

It doesn't matter whether Adolph Menjou and George Macready show you their warm fuzzy side and assert that they have puppies at home. They serve their role in the story. That story, the point of view is with Kirk Douglas, and it is the point of view of middle management. Always in storytelling, choices are made about what is the center of a picture and what is the frame. Every season of "The Wire," that choice is made. I've been amused by the notion that the editors are any more venal than anybody else who has been in command of an institution on The Wire.

And we've both worked with guys like Templeton at certain points in our careers.

I've had three people at the Sun make up stuff. The one that is obviously Templeton -- I'm not saying Templeton is any of those guys, but I am saying one of them had a severe case of it, and a couple of other guys who made up the most marginal, inconsequential things. It was almost like a cry for help; it was heartbreaking. One of them was fired, one was chastised but not fired because his wife was an (editor). And the third one was protected and had his stuff, even after the scandal, submitted for a Pulitzer. I think the vast majority of reporters are utterly conscientious, but if you're suggesting to me that all these guys -- Kelley, Blair, Bragg, Cooke, the guys in Boston who got fired, the guy in Baltimore -- everyone I know who's worked in journalism 6, 8, 10 years at a major paper knows a guy like this, and it is the great unspoken thing. To discuss it openly in journalism as if it's a commonality is to be the guy who farted on a crowded elevator. What else can I say? I can't put it more poignantly than that.

Even Gus, who's been accused of being too perfect, misses a lot of things.

Yeah. He knew Ricardo Hendrix but he didn't know Prop Joe, Prop Joe was quieter about a lot of things. Part of that is a testament to Joe and how Joe did business, but part of it is you don't have Twigg around anymore, and when a murder comes in, it's a twentysomething who's doing the best job she can, and she's conscientious, but you bought out your veteran.

As far as the fabricator goes, I don't think that needs any defense for including. I saw Tim Franklin, who's the editor of the Baltimore Sun -- I have absolutely nothing against him, I think he's a good guy presiding over a horrible moment in terms of the paper's history in terms of these cutbacks and buyouts, but I've had lunch with the guy, he's a nice guy -- and at one point, he said he thought the usage of this was a cliche. I thought it was an awful word. Something's only a cliche if it keeps happening over and over. I guess in that sense, it's a cliche all right, and it's a little wearying.

But you know what? Last poll I saw, 60 percent of Americans believe there are reporters who routinely make stuff up. I don't believe there are many of them, but I believe there are enough that there's a reason 60 percent of Americans believe that. And as the pond shrinks and as people's ambitions are more and more dependent on the strength of their resumes, some people with less conscience than others are going to go down that road. And man, the pond is shrinking. Today, it was the LA Daily News I heard about.

The other thing I would say is that it sounds as if the journalists en masse have been pounding on the show, and that's not really true. Most of our reviews from the TV guys have been really strong. The exceptions were Baltimore, tellingly, and LA, where John Carroll was. But off the entertainment pages, I just did a viewing at NCTA the night before last in Washington that was attended solely by journalists. The rank and file, the same thing happened that always happens: the bosses say, "That's not our police department," and the sergeants and detectives and uniforms, they seem to be loving it for the most part. I don't know if that's your experience. And people who don't like it aren't going to send me an e-mail saying I think you're full of shit. But my e-mailbox has been full of, not only old Sun veterans, but some names of people in journalism that anybody would recognize saying, "This is the nightmare I feel like I'm living." And I got a lot of those.


Are you satisfied with how the final season came together? Is there anything that didn't live up to your expectations now that the product is finished?

No. I'm satisfied with all my films. Does that mean it's a perfect film? No. Films are always abandoned, they're never finished, you do the best you can, there are parameters of time and space and budget and personnel that require certain priorities. Would I have done some things over differently? Sure.

In terms of priorities, how was the storytelling different, did any stories have to be abandoned when it wound up being a 10-episode season as opposed to 12 or 13?

The main stories were told exactly as they would have been. By the way, I was given 10 and a half. When I realized I needed more than 10, they asked if I wanted 11, and I said, "No, I need 10 and a half." If I said I needed 12 halfway through the season, from Carolyn (Strauss) at that point, I could have gotten it. They came to me early on, I asked for an extra episode, a 13th, for season four, because we had to add some elements of the political spin-off that didn't get made, so we had to deal with the election and the schools in one season. So I asked for 13, and they gave it to me, and then when we came back for the last season, they said, "School story's over, election's over, you have this one remaining theme, can you do it in less?" And I said, "I think I probably can."

But it was an open question. They said, "Can you do it in 8?" I said, "No fucking way." They said, "How many do you need?" I said, "I don't know. Maybe 10. Maybe 11." So they said, "Okay, beat it out, see what you need." I told them 10 after I beat it out with Ed -- and, by the way, this is also in a year when they're giving me 7 hours of "Generation Kill," so they're not being parsimonious -- and then as we started making it and got towards the end, I realized I might need more story and I said, "Can I go to 10 and a half? Can I do a 90-minute episode if I have to?" And they said, "Sure. Tell us which one you need." At that point, I'm one hour away.

If they gave me 12, and said you have to take 12, then the truth is, certain storylines that were branches on the three that couldn't be serviced in 10, like Prez and Cutty would have had storylines. The main storylines would have had no more or no less work done on them. We said what we wanted to say on them. We would have had more time to service characters who at that point had become peripheral but were favorites of the writers. But at the same time, we talked about it, the writers, and we realized Prez has reached his stasis, as has Cutty. What redemption there has been for them has been achieved, and that's where we want to leave them anyway, so all we're doing there is gilding the story a little bit. A decision was made that that's not really what needs to happen here with the story.

But the truth is, if I'd have gone to Carolyn and said ‘Look, I'm too tight,' then she would've fixed it. She would've helped me fix it. And in fact when I did go to her and said, 'I'm too tight. I may need 11, I may need 10 and a half,' it was like, 'Do what you gotta do.'

Were there stories, more over the run of the series than this season, that you wanted to tell about certain characters that you never got to?

Baltimore's a big world, as any city is. The thing is very much a picture in a frame. At any given moment, regardless of where you focus and regardless of what your intentions are directed to, there are things on the fringes of the frame at the boundaries of the story that could be stories themselves. But at a certain point, the thematic intention and content of the show starts to feel redundant. We made our point about where we think urban America finds itself and why, and to continually demonstrate that point by pursuing additional characters or additional arguments using other institutions becomes artistically redundant.You can always make more characters, you can always make more story.

I was talking more about more stories with these particular characters. There's clearly, at least based on the last names and the bios on the HBO website, a connection between Randy and Cheese (NOTE: the bios essentially state that Cheese is Randy’s dad, a fact Simon would publicly confirm a few days after we spoke), and that's something you never really got into on the show.

Actually, that is something that we were going to play a little bit of that and reference that in season five if we had had a little bit more room. But ultimately it would have been incremental. It would not have added to the overall theme or to either of those characterizations of Cheese or Randy. It would not have resolved in any unique way that would have revealed anything more about the character than we otherwise revealed. It would have just been more story and more scenes. So at a certain point, on a practical basis, you have to ask what you're accomplishing if you go further.

Did we lay other groundwork? We did. We could have cannibalized Rawls' moment in the gay bar and advanced that moment, but I'm not sure we would have created any more theme, and on some level it was very satisfying just to grant the notion of a closeted gay man's sexuality a moment on screen and then move on. There was something very compelling and real about just acknowledging that but not making it into grist for a storyline that didn't add anything to our portrayal of Rawls. We were always laying pipe that could be picked up later. It doesn't mean that you should pick it up.

So it sounds like you're done with this, like there are no plans for books or movies or other continuations of this world in your future.

I would never say never, but I don't have a story idea for a movie. I think the thing doesn't lend itself easily to a movie. Some of the actors have come to me and expressed a desire, and have gone out of their way to try to get funding for it. While I think that's heroic and dedicated, I would have to hear a story that warranted potential return. I have no interest in doing it just to do it, and I don't have a story. Job one is the story. I've got nothing in the tank.

I think a prequel is problematic in terms of the age of our cast at this point. Not that they've done anything but age gracefully, but we are about 6-7 years down the road from when we all started doing this project. We've really genuinely ended the stories where we wanted them to end. I'm not sure a sequel is practical for other reasons. I certainly admired the effort and intention of some of the cast members to figure out a way to proceed. I just got nothing on it right now.


You gave everyone their endings, but is there a part of you that, as you were writing these endings, was thinking about what comes next? How does McNulty deal with life as a civilian? What is Marlo going to do given that he's risking prosecution if he's back on a corner again, etc.?

I don't think we were making anything certain by that moment with Marlo’s return to the corner. I think we were speaking to a hole in the center of his soul that has to do with who he believes he is and was and what is now being denied to him by events. Going up to the corner and basically asserting for your standing and your manhood, I don't know if that's the return to the corner to which Pearlman was referring.

But it's kind of a parallel thing: what does Marlo do with his life if he's not on a corner, and what does Jimmy do with his life if he doesn't have a badge?

Obviously, that was the intent of those scenes: it was two men without their respective countries and tribes, and what do they do? Don't you think that's a good question to leave with viewers? I'm not sure I want that question answered definitively. I have my opinions, but you'll never get them out of me. I think that's a good argument to have if anyone feels like having it.

(Another digression about another critic wishing he could have watched Cheese's death scene in a crowded movie theater filled with enthusiastic "Wire" fans leads to...) How did you decide that Cheese would take a bullet to the head, where Chris and Marlo are more okay to varying degrees?

Well, Chris is in jail for the rest of his life and Marlo is cut off from the source of his power, desperate to rescue his name. To me, the great irony is that Marlo ends up being granted what Stringer wanted -- and he has no use for it. To me, to a guy like Marlo Stanfield, hell is a business meeting with a bunch of developers. For Stringer, it was all he wanted.

Why does Cheese take it? It was a betrayal too far and Slim had some feeling for one of his old bosses. We weren't trying to gratify anybody more than the moment would allow, but it seemed like that was a forced move if you're Slim Charles.

By the way, I thought Method Man played the hell out of that scene. I should say something, because there's always been this crowd of rappers who wanted to be on The Wire, and this was the only guy who walked into a casting office and read and said, 'Okay, tell me about the part.' We didn't take him because he was Method, we took him because he was the best read for Cheese. I'm glad we did.

The last couple of episodes have a couple of moments like that. There have been these people who refuse to accept that Jamie Hector is a really good actor and is not just playing himself or being stiff, and then he gives the 'My name is my name' speech, and you realize this is what he's been holding in all this time.

It's been a singular act of gorgeous restraint to play Marlo Stanfield. The film we found him in, we found him in a short film by Seith Mann, and that's how we found Seith Mann, called "Five Deep Breaths." Bob (Colesberry) noticed him right away, noticed the direction and Jamie as the lead, and he's the presumptive hero of that piece, the kid with heart and the kid with a conscience and we cast him as Marlo Stanfield! Right away we knew his range. It wasn't a surprise to us. We knew what he could do. But part of that character required a willful restraint, and the only place where it made sense for him to lose control was in that precise moment.

It's interesting, that moment when he does go to the corner -- for most of the series, people have been assuming a lot of his power comes from Chris and Snoop around him as the muscle -- and you see that, no, all this time, he's been perfectly capable of handling himself. He's just chosen to delegate it to other people.

Most of the guys who survive to get to Marlo's level, they come complete with their reputations. They did stuff on the street to get to the point where people would surround them. First you have to earn it, and after you've earned it, then comes the posse.

How far in advance were all of these various endings planned? When you introduced Sydnor, did you know that he would one day replace McNulty? With the kids, did you know all along that one of them would become Omar and one would become Bubbles?

We knew it would be cyclical. We knew that the ultimate star of the narrative was Baltimore, and by extension the American city, and by extension America. Whether it was going to be Greggs or Sydnor who walked into the judge's office was still something we were arguing about in season four and at the beginning of season five. Whether it was going to be Randy or Dukie who followed Bubbles down that path was an early debate, which of the four would have which outcomes. It became apparent in the start of season four as we started to talk through the characters. But we knew someone was following Bubbles and somebody was following Omar and someone was following McNulty, and ultimately the cyclical manner of the institutional prerogative was going to be asserted.

We knew where we were going; there's always an argument to be had in the writers room, and the arguments are the fun of it, in a way. The aggravation and the nightmare while we're having them, it sucks, but it's what makes it better.

I think if you had asked people a season, two seasons ago, they would have said that Kima would definitely be McNulty, but watching the way it played out, I thought it worked well, and I'm reminded of way back when when she got shot and refused to ID Wee-Bey, because she has to do things straight.

At a certain point, while she emulated McNulty in her willingness at points to lose herself in the job and to be indifferent if not oblivious to the psychic costs on her personal life, at the critical moment where she was presented with a fundamental choice, she made one based on who she was.

Getting back to the endings of the characters, were there any people whose final fates in the show you wound up softening or making tougher than originally intended, whether out of affection for the character or something else?

No. The guys who had a good ending earned it. Some of the guys who had a bad ending didn't earn it. And that just sucks.

Clay gets away with everything, Rawls is made head of the state cops...

(laughing) How could Clay not get away with everything?

Of course. A show where Clay went to jail would be betraying everything you've been saying for five seasons.

Here's where I softened it slightly: I didn't have Clay raising his arms in victory at the end with Carcetti on the stage. I didn't put him in background on the slimmest basis, which is he's kind of a backroom guy. He doesn't need to be on the stage. He'll get his later. I softened it that way, big softie that I am. I'm a giver, Alan. I give and I give and I give.


You brought back almost every surviving character in the history of the show. Ziggy, Brother Mouzone, Horseface, maybe one or two others didn't come back. Was there anybody this season you wanted to bring back but just couldn't get it to work, either because of actor availability or because there was no way to fit into the story?

I didn't think those cameos were gratuitous. I thought they were each saying something about this world going on and where people end. We weren't putting them in to reprise moments but to advance moments. If we had a character we couldn't advance in any credible way -- like, for example, there was no point in advancing Ziggy. With Randy, there were open questions about what it meant to be in that group home. In a single scene, you could put the coda on that story. I'm not sure you need a coda on Ziggy. The end of season two with him in that prison uniform in that line of guys was the coda.

Who didn't come back? Mouzone didn't need a coda, he was a force of nature. If we needed it, if it added it to the film, we banged the last nail in, and if we didn't need it, we didn't pick up the hammer.

It was funny -- and again, it comes down to one of those things where people want the show to be something it isn't -- how throughout the Omar storyline, people kept saying, "Why doesn't he just call Brother Mouzone and have Mouzone come down and help him?"

It's a Greek tragedy, and everyone's trying to think Antigone or Medea or Oedipus out of the box. Which is understandable. When you go see those plays performed, if they're done well, you know the ending with absolute certainty -- and yet you can't help but think somewhere in act two that the fates are not the fates. And, listen, American entertainment does nothing but sell redemption and easy victories 24-7.

I'm not saying that "The Wire's" unique in that respect -- there's a lot of other high-end television that is dark and continues to be dark -- but I agree with Chase in one respect. I read an interview with him where he said what American television gets wrong relentlessly is that life is really tragic. Not a lot of people want to tune their living room box to that channel. It's an escapist form. There are people who are willing to look at it for something else. It's not a mass audience, but possibly some portion of that mass audience finds its way to something else, and then they expect to be treated as they've always been treated. There's nothing the writers can do about that, other than twist themselves into hacks trying to please people with what they want. What are you gonna do? We weren't doing it to be mean, we were doing it cause this is the story we cared about.

Do you think the fact you're telling stories in different ways than is traditional, and it has this darkness to it, was that the big barrier to the show becoming more popular than it was? Would you say it was the racial makeup of the cast?

There were a lot of barriers. The racial makeup of the cast was problematic and we knew that going in. The complexity of the serial itself -- the fact that you couldn't miss a couple of episodes and feel comfortable watching it. Though I think that HBO was a wonderful vehicle for that with the multiple viewings, the DVDs and ultimately with On Demand. It was less of a problem as the show went on.

It was also less of a problem as people who watched the show got used to its rhythms. The first season was on some level training the audience to watch television a little bit differently, and reducing the expectations in terms of pacing, in terms of cliffhangers, in terms of the requirement to absorb detail or even to look for symbolism. Those were problems.

The other problem is, no easy gratifications, other than some real effort at careful characterization and humor. That was it. Without the humor, it would have been unbearable. Without an acknowledgement of the humanity of the characters, despite all their flaws, their vanities, their absurdities -- if on some level, you can't make people care about the characters, you've got a problem no matter what you're doing. We had some obligations to people if they wanted to watch, but a happy ending was not among the list of obligations.

There were small happy endings throughout the series. They were rare, but they did happen. When I was rewatching "Late Editions" to work on my blog entry of it, when Namond shows up at the debate, I swear to God I'm not sure I've ever been as emotionally affected by the show as that -- just from knowing what had happened to the other three boys.

But it was earned. And nothing is more earned in the history of a happy ending than Bubbles, at least in this medium. We laid the groundwork for that, and we tried to bring him to a point where he's standing up at that meeting or going up the steps felt like it was entirely earned. There are a lot of cheap victories in TV. When we had a victory, we really relished it. I think The Wire is affirming of people's basic humanity, and an argument that even though it may be futile to rebel, it's the only alternative if you want to salvage anything that remotely resembles human dignity. I'm butchering Camus there, but somewhere in there is a quote that I'm stealing -- or trying to.

Some people have called it a cynical show. I don't know that I would agree. I doubt you would.

I think it's a misuse of the word "cynical." I think it's a dark show. I think it has a great deal of sentiment to it. I just don't think it's sentimental. I think it's intensely political. I think if you want to suggest that it's cynical about institutions and their capacity to reform themselves or be reformed, I would have to plead guilty to that. The only thing I would cite is to say that, given where we're at as a culture right now, cynicism therefore becomes another word for "pragmatically realistic."

I don't think it's cynical about human beings. I think that's why viewers were so committed and loyal, because the human beings that were traversing this rigged game were entirely worth the time spent following them.


Was Omar originally going to die in the shoot-out with Wee-Bey in season one, or is that an urban legend?

It's an urban legend. It came from some early interviews that Michael (K. Williams) did. I've never corrected him, because he wasn't saying it (out of bad intentions). I think he got a little confused in this regard: In the first season we told him he's only doing seven episodes. That's as many as we needed. We said, it was seven and we didn't know if there was work to be had next year, because we didn't know if we'd be renewed. And I think he took that to believe he was going to be killed after seven.

If the show continued, Omar was going to return. No, he was not going to die in that shoot-out. There was nothing to suggest that we didn't have some fundamental plan for him. Nor did we write more to the character because of how well Michael played him. Omar was going to have to exist for narrative purposes throughout. Did we write the lines a little differently? Did we enjoy a moment or two that Michael could give us that another actor couldn't? Absolutely. That's what you do. that's the biofeedback that goes on when the dailies come back and you see what you have. The idea that he was going to be killed off and he marched his way back in the show, I think he just misunderstood when we told him, 'You only have seven this year.'

So when you introduced Kenard in season three when they're playing outside the stash house shoot-out, even back then you were planning, "Okay, this little kid is going to kill Omar a few seasons from now"?

With one caveat. We did introduce him, and I had it in my mind that I wanted a moment like "The Shootist" or the buried moment in the gunfight at the end of "Wild Bunch." The character that was most in the Western archetype -- and George had a lot of fun with this -- was Omar. The inner city is now the Wild West, the new frontier in terms of American storytelling, it has been for several decades now. We played a lot of our Western film themes and archetypes through Omar's story. I always had that in my mind. There were arguments to be had in the writers room -- there were guys who didn't want to kill Omar, there were some guys who did, some guys who didn't but came around. Everyone gets a say when you argue it down on the merits. I definitely wanted to plant the beginnings of that story if we wanted to go that way.

We took the best kids for that part, but at that point, these actors are so young and there's no guaranteeing that they'll stay either in the business or that when they age out they're going to be able to handle more dialogue and if they're going to have the chops to get there. If it didn't work out, it was going to be another kid. As it turned out, Thuliso turned out to be a pretty good kid actor, and he got better and better as he aged into the role. And so it became a practical opportunity. But sometimes you bury something like that and it just doesn't work and you go another way.

Where there other instances of you planting things very early on that would pay off much later, like that Kenard scene in season three?

We knew that if we got a long enough run, all three of the chess players would be out of the game, so to speak. Prison or dead. We did not chart all of their fates to a specific outcome, but we knew that the Pit crew would be subject to an exacting attrition.

We knew, for example, that when Carcetti declares that he wants no more stat games in his new administration that the arc would end with his subordinates going into Daniels' office and demanding yet another stat game. Or that McNulty would end up on the pool table felt like Cole, albeit quitting rather than dead. Or that Carver's long arc toward maturity and leadership would begin with him making rank under ugly pretenses and then being lectured by Daniels about what you can and can't live with. (It's at that point that Carver slowly begins to change, not merely when he encounters Colvin's integrity.) We knew that the FBI file that Burrell would not be put into play in season one would eventually be used to deny Daniels the prize.

Is it true that Donnie (Andrews, the inspiration for Omar) in real life jumped off a balcony the same height that Omar did?

Actually, two floors higher.

Two floors higher?

The Murphy Homes. He also jumped off the rail bridge at Poplar Grove, onto the rail bed. That was probably about three stories. And he hurt his ankle. It's just true. Those jumps, by an athletic person, can actually be made and are made, routinely. By a non-athletic person? if I made it, I'd be all over the pavement and they'd pick me up with a spoon. If you made it, they'd pick you up with a spoon. When 28-year-old Donnie Andrews makes that jump because he has to, sometimes he makes it. It's funny: I'm doing this thing now with recon Marines, "Generation Kill." And some of them had no problem with the jump. They just started telling stories about recon training. I don't know whether to believe them or not, but I do believe Donnie.

It was a story I actually used, I wrote about the first time back in 1990. That story was all through the ghetto: "They had him cornered, and motherfucker jumped off the railroad bridge and kept running. Did not want to die that day." But we did want it to feel a little bit mythic, and "What the fuck?" because it fit with the general arc of Greek tragedy.

Do you think that, much like the humor, the larger-than-life aspect of Omar and the things he does, helps make the more brutal moments on the show bearable?

Yes. There is a desire to lean towards the heroic and to hope for the highest aspirations human beings can have, for what they might achieve as heroes. That's in all of us. It's why people have had such a problem with McNulty this year. He's the center of the show, and he's been the shit-stirrer, and we've shown you his faults and we've shown you his rage and his arrogance and his self-destructiveness and the way in which alcohol, for him, acts as a trigger. We spent four years giving you all the evidence for why he'd be driven to something as confrontational and as outrageous as season five. And yet, for all we've shown you, the fact that he's trying to do something that society would regard as heroic at least in its intent -- catch a brutal, murdering drug trafficker -- when he fails you as a person and as a hero, there's a great deal of fury that goes along with that.

I remember -- and this was on a much smaller scale -- when I was a kid, couldn't have been more than 10, I saw "Bridge on the River Kwai" on TV, and I finally realized that Bill Holden really didn't want to go back. He did not want to go back to that bridge, and he was fucked and he had to go back because he'd lied. He had no interest in going back. He didn't care about the bridge. He just wanted to stay on the beach with the girl. That isn't as far adrift as McNulty making up the serial killer, but by the standards of 1970 and what was in the ether in terms of American heroes and film iconography, that was unbelievable. Hey, this guy's not the hero. He may act heroically and he may even be martyred, but he's not the hero. I saw that, and it was like a kick in the head.

It happened again with my son, when my son was about 8, we watched "Kelly's Heroes," which was the direct antecedent to "Three Kings." There came a moment when he realized these Americans were just robbing banks. And it was Clint Eastwood! Ethan looked at me and said, "Dad, they're really not doing the right thing." 'Yep." He goes, "They're Americans." I go, "Yep. Just preparing you for the 21st century, son."

It was a funny moment, but I think on some level, that's what we were offering up for season five. We sort of expected people to be pissed. They're right to be pissed off. It is a disappointment. You thought the guy could do better.


I know some people have wondered whether you thought Jimmy and Lester were justified in what they did, and it sounds like you don't think so.

I don't think it matters whether they're justified or not. They're playing a rigged game. It's hard to say that what they did was any more irrational than continuing to play the game. I can argue it from both sides. It was certainly self-destructive. As it turned out, Lester had his 20 years and for reasons of a lie turning out to have political import, as a like like that would have, he's allowed to walk with his pension. Jimmy doesn't get his pension because he's only got 13 years, but in some ways, I think Jimmy was ready to walk anyway. I actually think getting out -- I actually have some hope for Jimmy. He was doing something that was killing him.

He seems oddly at peace there in those final scenes.

Absolutely. I think so. Not that anyone has to have my opinion. Dominic West might feel differently, Ed Burns might feel differently. I'm not sure I know. But I do think that, just as he said a fever had passed at the end of season three, at some sense he did walk away from the fever, I think he's now recognizing the fever for what it is. Maybe a little self-awareness crept in. Certainly, when you see him kneeling over the body of the homeless guy and realizing he's the proximate cause of another death, I think that was a hard lesson. I think on some level, he knows he didn't deserve to be a cop anymore.

When people have complained about the serial killer fraud, I said that this is a show that spent season three legalizing drugs in West Baltimore. Do you think what McNulty does here is any more extreme than what Bunny did?

I think it's less extreme in this sense: it was easier to sell. I was in the morgue one day in 1988 when this exact thing came up. An Anne Arundel County detective was telling the story that the Baltimore County detectives tell in episode two. I don't know if you caught that, but those were two of the characters from Laura (Lippman)'s novels, Nancy Porter and Kevin Infante. I had to get permission from her publishers to use them. I gave it to Baltimore County detectives, but it was an Anne Arundel detective who had a guy who overdosed, did a header caught between the toilet and there was post-mortem bruising, and that is the one way in which a pathologist can mistake a murder. I remember interviewing the then-chief medical examiner of Maryland, and he said 'This one catches us now and then, especially if the body is descending.' If you raise up the body so that the blood flows to the head, it creates the bruising dramatically. In 1988, I put that in my back pocket. You can actually make a murder? That one I loved.

The second thing is, you would only need to fool the medical examiner and you only need to let a certain number of people in on the true nature of the secret. To an extent, they cheated, the guys who were doing the surveillances for them didn't know there was not a serial killer. It was a couple of guys was all you'd need on that one. (With Bunny), the Western District has 150 cops in it. Every cop who drives into that district, they answer calls from other districts, you're talking about 3-400 cops, all these detectives from CID who may find themselves over there, and that thing went on for weeks. It's interesting how people are credulous when they want to be, and when they don't want to be, they're not. I didn't have any problem with that, in terms of showing it to myself. You should have heard that Anne Arundel detective, he was screaming at the guy, 'What the fuck am I gonna charge? A paramedic?'


Let me ask you about The Greek and Marlo working together. Given that Joe was such a reliable business partner and fit the quiet, uncomplicated modus operandi that they had, why was The Greek willing to throw him under the bus and give Marlo his blessing to kill him?

I think he realized, much as Joe did not, that Marlo was going to kill him anyway. Marlo would have killed him and taken lesser dope in order to be the top guy. Getting the connection would be icing on the cake and would allow him to wholesale to the co-op, to co-opt the co-op. But if the Greek had said no way, he would have killed Joe and then come back. The way we felt about it was this is pure power and pure power is inexorable, there's no mitigating it. Pure capitalism recognized pure power -- takes one to know one. The way he said 'He kept coming back with money and wouldn't take no for an answer.' They both didn't exchange the 'I am that I am' moment with each other, but they did in their eyes. And he says it to Vondas: 'He would keep coming back.'

For The Greek to choose this guy, it's not so much of a choice except it establishes a different dynamic for the supplier, on a practical level, if you have given the guy the wink and said, 'Do what you're gonna do and we'll talk later.' You're now in a position where there is some degree of gratitude, as opposed to Marlo coming back into the diner saying, 'Well, Joe's dead, I killed him, here are my terms if you want to keep wholesaling in Baltimore.' That whole thing was Aesop's Fable of the turtle and the scorpion and Joe didn't recognize the scorpion. The Greek did.

It's interesting, then, that pure power winds up, if not imprisoned then taken away from his power, where pure capitalism in the end continues on exactly as it always has.

Right. Right. Change governments... That's exactly right.

This one I'm paraphrasing from a reader: Given the show's roots in Greek tragedy, how different are modern institutions from ancient institutions?

Well, no one's tried to feed Ed Burns any hemlock lately. I don't know what to say to that. I think there are some core dynamics in terms of how humans govern themselves and how they route power and wealth and authority that are eternal. And the notion of democracy goes back to the city-states, and Athens in particular. Obviously, the contradictions and complexities of democracy have been a source of struggle ever since the form was suggested and practiced. It was his relationship to the democratic ideals and the problems inherent in the democratic ideals that got Socrates the hemlock. It has always been a point of intense conflict as to how people are going to be allowed to govern.

I just think at this point the institutions in America -- and by that I mean the manner in which power and money are actually routing themselves and controlling the political infrastructure -- I live in a state where 9 times out of 10 my vote will not matter. My vote will not matter in this coming election. Why does it not matter? Because the voting structure of this country has been set up since the birth of this country in a manner that is anti-democratic. It is oligarchal. When 40 percent of the people elect 60 percent of the senators, as is true in America, you cannot call it a democracy. You can say it has some democratic principals, it has some democratic roots. You can mitigate it however you want. But if 40 percent of the people elect 60 percent of the higher house of a bi-cameral legislature, it's an oligarchy. We're being led by the rich and the powerful, and I don't know about you, but I sure wish they were doing a better fucking job.


Do you see any hope in America? People right now are looking to Obama the way people in the fictional Baltimore looked to Carcetti, and we know what happens when Carcetti starts running up against the machine.

Not that I'm announcing my support for anybody, but I'm impressed that Obama got this close to being a nominee just being part African-American. There's a part of me that looks at that and says, "Damn, we're getting healthier on some things." Now, is Obama any more able to address the fact that we're a money-obsessed oligarchy and not a democracy? I don't think so.

I think for change to happen on a level that actually affects the structure of that oligarchy, a lot of distressing things will have to happen, and more people are going to have to suffer a great deal more. More struggle for the working class, and the middle-class is going to have to be marginalized. Wages will have to go a lot lower, the recession will have to go a lot deeper -- and I think we're in a recession and headed for some bad economic times. I think it's going to have to go a lot deeper.

At some point, the Sunis that we paid out with money and guns are going to have to wait until we fashion whatever escape we have from that war and start ripping the country up and reducing it to a civil war. I think we've built a Lebanon, and once it becomes clear that we've built a Lebanon and condemned that region to generations of internecine violence, and it cost us 4000 troops and a veritable treasure -- I hope we get out of there before it's more -- I think people are going to be angrier.

Right now we have the illusion that we're fixing things. I don't know for sure; I'm not there on the ground. But I'm sitting here in a room with Even Wright, who just was in Baghdad and spent weeks there interviewing everybody there and talking to Petraeus and to people on the ground, and his take on it is we've built another Lebanon. Right now, we're paying people not to shoot at each other, and we're giving people guns and saying, 'Please don't use these.' At some point, somebody's going to assert for power there, probably after we're gone, and we'll realize that this was over nothing, over absolutely nothing.

When that happens, maybe the next war gets harder, and when the economic structure fails to a point where people begin to realize en masse that they've been cheated and that their future has been marginalized, at that point maybe there's another New Deal coming, maybe there's another reckoning. But short of that, as long as it's just some people in places like Baltimore, and it's only 10 percent or 15 percent of the population we don't need, I'm sorry, I think there's a lot of money to be spent by a lot of people in order to keep people pacified.

You know why I like talking to you? You always make me feel so optimistic.

It's my job, man. By the way, if you want to not focus on what the fuck's going on, read the newspapers. Suffer the journalism, and don't worry: the big picture will elude you nicely.


How closely do you follow fan reaction to the show, on-line or elsewhere?

I generally check in from time to time to see what people are talking about. But it's not a Talmudic assessment. It's always interesting to find out (what people think), especially on certain websites where the level of discussion is at least more substantive. There's places that I don't go. And by the way, some of the places I go where the critique might be quite harsh at times, and some of the places I don't go are places where it's sort of fawning. When websites critique your show in a way that's silly, it's hard to go back. But that's what the Internet is, right? Your colleague's site, I read it for the other film criticism. Never mind 'The Wire,' I'm reading it just because I don't know some of this stuff. That's a place to learn stuff you don't know.

I imagine one of the places you don't go back to too often are the boards.

I get a little tired of the "more gangster than thou" stuff, yeah. I'm not particularly interested in that.

This season, more so than any others, it seemed you used more people either playing themselves or people similar to themselves, instead of trained actors.

I think it's about the same as every other season. You just don't know 'em. You don't know how many gangsters and ex-gangsters were layered through the first four seasons, how many school officials were in season four, how many police officials. It's just that a lot of the media people are known for exactly who they are. But the guy cutting Avon's hair is Jim Hart, and I know who Jim Hart is, and everyone in West Baltimore knows who Jim Hart is.

There have been some people who, for one reason or another, feel like a Melvin Williams or a Snoop Pearson doesn't deserve to be on a TV show given what they've done in their life.

To quote Snoop Pearson, quoting Clint Eastwood, deserve's got nothing to do with it. You come in, you read, if the portrayal is worthwhile, if you're the right actor for the right moment. Certain roles were going to be cast out of Baltimore, we didn't have the money to bring in actors from NY for every part. We were just looking for interesting people, and we weren't going to preclude people who had trouble with the law and had served their time, and having served time were on the street looking for something different. I'm not sure that's our role, to make that judgment.

Having said that, I find it sort of remarkable that that would be uttered in a country, that right now, today, if you looked at the New York Times, seems content to put 1 out of every 100 of its adults behind bars. There's a fundamental illness in this country when it comes to incarceration, how it's used and who it's used on. If people choose not to recognize it, that they marginalize people, if they exclude them from the economy because they have previously been incarcerated, I don't know what to do with that. Should we have left Snoop in East Baltimore to fend for herself? She showed up to read. She's an interesting character, she committed to it wholly, she took acting classes, took voice classes.

Certainly, it's better that she's playing a killer than to be out on the street where she might have opportunities to be one.

I hope so. I hope people see the distinction.

And you've shown on your show that people like Cutty who have done bad things can be returned to being useful members of society.

And Donnie. I mean, I don't have a hero bigger than Fran Boyd.

Is the New Orleans show (a proposed HBO drama about musicians in the Big Easy) definitely a go?

I have to put finishing touches on the pilot before I turn it in. If I could get two days off in a row from post production on "Generation Kill," if I could get a decent weekend, I could turn it in. I've been going six days a week between New York, Los Angeles and London and stopping in Baltimore to change dirty laundry for clean. That's not an exaggeration. I just don't have the time to take the last notes for people and clean up a couple of storylines and turn it in. I think my first week off is in the middle of March.

Do you think you could have gotten The Wire on HBO today, or was it the halo effect of "Sopranos" and other shows at the time that made it possible?

They signed the deal with me to write it, and "Sopranos" wasn't on the air yet. Obviously, Sopranos was on the way. But I was coming at it after "Oz." "Oz" was, to me, the groundbreaker and the one that made me believe that "The Corner" could be on HBO, and "The Corner" gave me entree to talk to Carolyn about a continuing show. When "Sopranos" came out, we were already working on "The Wire," I believe.

Having said that, there was a notion that they could almost put anything over, that if it was good enough they could sell it to everybody. And I think there was a little hubris in that, because "Check me out, dog. My cast is 60 percent black and my story is all this dysfunction and I'm filmed in Baltimore and nothing makes sense until episode 4. Come get me." I think I disproved the theory that HBO could sell anything to everybody! I taught them a lesson, didn't I?

But having said that, I'm a huge admirer of "The Sopranos," and of "Deadwood" as well. Now I'm getting to watch them in order. Before, I'd seen enough of the shows to know what they were and admire them, but I had resisted watching them in some systemic order. I wasn't worried about raw plagiarism, but I was worried about having these very significant themes that Chase and Milch were pursuing in my head. I didn't want it to start, in any suppressed way, conflating with anything I was doing on "The Wire." Since they were dealing in a similar medium, in a similar venue if not a similar vernacular, I just didn't want to have it in my head. I now get to crawl up in my boxed sets like everybody else.


The last shot of the series is of the show's main character: Baltimore. You have all these people from past seasons wandering through this season. Munch shows up at one point. Is this your goodbye to Baltimore?

It's certainly my goodbye to doing a cop show in Baltimore. There are a couple of ideas for features that I would love to do. They happen to be comedies. There is one true crime story that there's a lot of interest in, and we're working on a script for that. It happens to be in Baltimore, it's a true crime story, but it's not the overarching depiction of a city that I think gave Baltimore such angst for so long. It is saying that after a lot of years of making television about crime and Baltimore, yeah, it's a goodbye.

The Munch thing was just very gentle. I certainly didn't want to blow anyone out of the water with it or upset the apple cart in terms of verisimilitude. It served Richard's amusing purpose of having the character be on everything from Sesame Street to X-Files. It served my purpose as a little tip of the hat to people who mentored me in show business and showed me how to do this. It was just a small moment. If you let it bother you because this guy was at the bar, then I'm sorry.

You do realize you've now placed The Wire in the same fictional universe as The Simpsons, among other things.

And in whatsisname's...

Tommy Westphall's imagination. The show never existed.

You know what? The show was fictional.


I have to say, it was fictional. We did make some stuff up. I checked my WGA card and on the back it says I'm allowed to do that. My Baltimore newspaper guild membership card, long expired, would not have allowed it, but my WGA card seems to approve.


Anonymous said...

Great interview (even if my question wasn't asked!). Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Ohhh. The train tracks. Could it be a "shout out" to the grainger movement of the nineteenth century which led to populism/progressivism in the twentieth century. Vox populi, vox dei.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating. Not too long, just involving, like the show itself.
Odd. Reading the interview and watching the show do make one somewhat optimistic. I suppose we expect everything old that is shit to become new again; we forget--and are pleasantly surprised--when everything old that is heroic persists as well.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic interview. Great work Alan.

Anonymous said...

On the train tracks, Orion7 from TWOP says:

"I thought that the trains could be standing in for the gods and the institutions, too. You can't stop them, you can't alter their path. You either have to grab on and go with them, or get the hell out of the way, because if they run you down they'll never look back."

And from the TWOP recap of Episode 1:

'As McNulty drains his bladder on the train tracks, Bunk drains his bottle, complaining to McNulty that it's 3:30 AM and he's slated for "early relief," so he at least needs to go change his clothes. "I'm gonna do this case," McNulty declares. "I'm gonna do this case, the way it should be done." Bunk tells him to stick to the buy-and-busts, adding a slightly urgent "Jimmy" to draw him off the tracks before the oncoming train splatters him.'

Undercover Black Man said...

Well done, Alan.

If you don't mind a minor correction, in discussing journalistic malfeasants, it's not "Kelly" and "Cook" but (Jack) Kelley and (Janet) Cooke.

And here's a piece of trivia for you. Gus Haynes, in the finale, mentions the name Kelley -- and details of Kelley's biggest whopper for USA Today: the head bouncing down the street, eyes a-blinking, after the Jerusalem pizza bombing.

Well... young Jack Kelley worked on the college paper under Simon (and me) a quarter-century ago. He was a nice guy. The last one you'd suspect of being a fraud.

Anonymous said...

Oooh, this just occurred to me over the weekend: I know that David Simon worked at the University of Maryland newspaper, The Diamondback (along with, I believe, Undercover Black Man aka David Mills, above).

I remember reading that Simon was editor in chief of the Diamondback.

Which reminded me that Jayson Blair, one of the most notorious plagiarizers, was also editor of the Diamondback.

So I'm wondering: Was there any connection between that and the Templeton storyline

SJ said...

^ Damn that is very interesting. Here is an article detailing his work. And he got nominated for Pulitzers multiple times.

Anonymous said...

i just want to thank you for the fantastic interview and recaps you have done alan. also, i am curious if you were ever into carnivale. for some reason i dont think so.

Joe Crawford said...

Wonderful, insightful, quotable.

"To be continued."

Anonymous said...


Thanks for those quotes. Along with good stuff on the train symbolism from Burns in this interview:

They have allowed me to make up my mind and go on the record!

Burns draws a parallel between institutional policy and the unstoppable one directional movement of a train. I think the trains represent the institutions and a character standing on the tracks is them preparing to stand agains their institution - almost always a bad move on The Wire. Trains are representative of the inevitable outcomes that institutional dysfunction and resitance to reform push on our characters. It think it is fair to say that the trains are a symbolic representation of the series Greek Gods.

Mrglass said...

"Simon has in the past expressed surprise that no critic has ever correctly interpreted the symbolism of why McNulty and Bunk’s drunken bull sessions usually take place beside train tracks"

That seems the sign of his failure to properly introduce this symbolism. He gives the example of an abstract painter, but what about a comic? If you have to explain a joke after telling it, you probably need to make that joke more explicit or admit it is not a very good one.

Of course any symbol should be left to the interpretation of the reader or viewer, but at the same DS comment orders us to find the one true answer. I mean, no one had any doubt what the McNuggets debate or the chess game explanation were really about.

To me, those omnipresent train tracks are simply the veins of the industrial city, a complex system no individual can hope to control, and that two drunken cops cannot even begin to comprehend.

Anyway, excellent interview Alan; any Wire coverage is priceless now that the show is over, I hope you plan to write a bit more about it this week.

Abbie said...

Thank you, Alan! It was a great interview and a great show.

Anonymous said...

I recognized most of the fabricators Simon mentioned, but anyone know the deal with "the Boston guys and the fire."

J. Pitts said...

Great interview... answered every question I had about the series except for one.

Why was Nick Sobotka at the press conference with Krawchek when he should be in FEDERAL WITNESS PROTECTION?

It's the one hole I have found in the entire show and it bothers me because it's like, "hey, you guys aren't going to remember the last episode of season two?"

Alan Sepinwall said...

Simon answered the Nick thing in the review of that episode: after a few years in the program, Nick missed his family and friends and quit Witness Protection to move back to Baltimore. It happens all the time, often with people in a lot more jeopardy than Nick was. I imagine that he has no idea The Greek and Vondas are back in town, and vice versa, and even if they did know, I suspect Vondas' affection for the kid (and The Greek's lack of interest in attracting attention) would keep him alive.

Ann Hedonia said...

Excellent. The interview makes the show's passing a little more bearable.

Is is possible that McNulty brought the homeless guy back so he can discredit Templeton at some point? I'd like to think that one day, Templeton gets his just dessert.

Anonymous said...

Great interview. One of the best yet. And much more informative that the Terry Gross interview (though I do love Terry, most of the time.)

Anonymous said...

Great interview. One of the best yet. And much more informative that the Terry Gross interview (though I do love Terry, most of the time.)


Anonymous said...

Regarding the train symbolism: I liked most of the theories presented, especially about the trains representing institutions and how they can't be stopped. But I was also thinking that aren't trains, for the most part "cyclical?" No matter where they're headed, that always end up back where they started. Or am I being too simplistic? (never was good at symbolism.)

Great interview.

Anonymous said...

There are three pages running on The Wire at Alan's place, so I am not sure if this is the appropriate one for my comment. Be this as it may, I have chosen to post here on the David Simon Q & A page because I wish to respond to Mr. Simon's general satisfaction with how everything turned out in the end. Given the exceptional quality of the program over five seasons, I believe there is nonetheless an aspect to the final episode that requires criticism. I have brought this up already at Matt Zoller Seitz' The House Next Door, from which I reproduce with slight modification below. I would like to know if other people agree or disagree with me, thank you.

The plot device of the mentally challenged copy-cat killer in episode #60 is indeed a device, which is to say that it is horribly contrived, a deus ex machina. What is worse, it is lame not just as a dramatic mechanism but also conceptually, politically incorrect if you will. Just as Rawls would have McNulty pin all the "other" murders on the guy because - hey, what difference does it make? - the writers of The Wire pin an actual murder on the guy according to the same immoral standard. The guy is so low-functioning, his reality principle is so wrecked or maybe never was there in the first place, we're supposed to let it slide. As if his own "confession" about having killed millions makes it OK to credit him with a few more, phony no less. Wrong. Really wrong. The writers are dramatically no better than Rawls is legally, and both are offensive ethically. The fact that McNulty feels remorseful that his prank resulted in an actual murder, that he subsequently stands up to Rawls, draws the line too little and too late but even so refuses to assign his fake crimes on an innocent fellow, and that he closes the show by taking the street person he abducted out of town back to Baltimore, by taking the homeless man "home" (in itself a very worthwhile irony that gives the last nod to the city as a whole)- none of this makes up for the cheapness of the plot device and the crassness of it for basic humanitarian thinking. I am disappointed that after five seasons of excellent story-boarding and dialogue informed by an obviously well-developed social consciousness, The Wire resorted to such shit.

Then - Ben

sanford said...

For the person that said the interview with Terry Gross was not as good as Alans, it is two different mediums. Terry only had a certain amount of Time. I am guessing that Alan took more than 30 minutes with Simom. I doubt if Terry had seen the final episode when she interviewed Simon, so there were certainly questions she couldn't ask.

Alan Sepinwall said...

For the person that said the interview with Terry Gross was not as good as Alans, it is two different mediums.

Also, in fairness to Terry (whose interview I haven't heard), but she's doing it for a general audience, many of whom may not know that much about "The Wire" ("Fresh Air" doesn't seem the place to get into issues like Randy's parentage or whether Donnie jumped off the rail bridge), and she was also doing it in advance of the finale, so even if she had seen it, she couldn't discuss it in any kind of detail without spoiling people.

Unknown said...

For a politically leftist guy like Simon I imagine the train tracks as being symbolic in the same way they are in Frank Norris's novel 'The Octopus'. They are government literally not caring about people in the interests of money, capitalism, progress. There's a great scene in the book where the US has evoked their 'right of way' privilege and laid some track across the midwest, sheep graze there but one day and train just plows through, killing the sheep. The system runs downs the Baltimorans in much the same way. It's like Nixon once told Hunter S. Thompson when sasked, "What do we do with 'the doomed'?" And Nixon replied: Fuck the doomed.
Sean H

Unknown said...

For a politically leftist guy like Simon I imagine the train tracks as being symbolic in the same way they are in Frank Norris's novel 'The Octopus'. They are government literally not caring about people in the interests of money, capitalism, progress. There's a great scene in the book where the US has evoked their 'right of way' privilege and laid some track across the midwest, sheep graze there but one day a train just plows through, killing the sheep. The system runs downs the Baltimore citizens portrayed on 'The Wire' in much the same way. It's like Nixon once told Hunter S. Thompson when asked, "What do we do with 'the doomed'?" And Nixon replied: Fuck the doomed.

Sean H

Anonymous said...

Thanks for an interesting interview. I started watching during season 3 and was hooked after one episode. This season was not my favorite but still very good. My gripe wasn't with the newsroom story line (which seemed like a little rougher version of "Lou Grant") but rather with all the attention paid to Bubbles and his sponsor. I just got tired of them both after a while. The final episode was well done, though like others have stated, the descent of Dukie seemed a bit compressed and not all that plausible to me. Slim Charles (one of my favorite characters - what a voice!) plugging Cheese (one my least favorite) was the best. I only wish we had been given a last look at Avon during the ending montage. He was a compelling character - the reason for the original investigation - and played a central role in the first 3 seasons. All in all though, The Wire was unlike any other show on television. Outstanding. Thank you David Simon, Ed Burns, and the entire cast for your effort and dedication.

Anonymous said...






3rd time asking...

I only ask because people speak of Deadwood, Soprano's and Wire as the HBO untouchables and never mention Carnivale.

Anonymous said...

Jim Hacker: "I thought these planning inspectors were supposed to be impartial?"
Bernard Woolley: "Oh really, Minister. So they are, railway trains are impartial too, but if you lay down the lines for them that's the way they go."

I've always thought of 'Wire' trains the same way -- they just don't know any other way or any other life. They go where they're told, just like a bureaucracy. A bureaucracy moves on momentum, not thought.

I suppose you could also read them as industrial symbols of 'working America' that were ripped up and shunted aside in a great truck-inspired modernization. By their steady industry and obeyance of direction, trains stand in for working class, high school educated America or manufacturing America. We shut down the non-containerized ports, we turned the rails to trails, and now, choked by traffic, unable to actually 'make' anything, and certainly unable to offer a mere high school graduate a job, we're having that "Oh sh**" moment when we realize we've discarded an extraordinarily valuable resource. Now we're trying to recapture it, whether through new freight lines or dressed up streetcar lines. There's a certain falsity to it, and a knowledge that what was lost remains lost.

Maybe it's because every time I see the self-checkout lines at the grocery store, I think a) how is it they persuaded me to check out and bag my own damn groceries; and b) what on earth can you do without an AA?

Anonymous said...

"I only ask because people speak of Deadwood, Soprano's and Wire as the HBO untouchables and never mention Carnivale."

Quite possibly because it sucked.

Anonymous said...

"The plot device of the mentally challenged copy-cat killer in episode #60 is indeed a device, which is to say that it is horribly contrived, a deus ex machina."

I would argue that as far back as the third season [possibly earlier], the show has directly said, "The more violence you put out into the world, the more violent the world will get." The same way that Kenard stems directly from Omar, the business card guy stems directly from Jimmy and the crimes he invented. The difference is, Jimmy is aware of it.

So, to me, it's directly tied in to at least one major central theme of the show (I bet others can come up with others).

"the writers of The Wire pin an actual murder on the guy according to the same immoral standard."

I don't understand what you mean by this sentence at all. You make a lot of jumps in your rant from point to point, often placing contradictory sentences next to each other, so I'm having a hard time understanding where your ethical problem with the writers is.

"As if his own "confession" about having killed millions makes it OK to credit him with a few more, phony no less."

Nobody credits him with any fake murders, though. Even Rawls won't go further than to suggest that it's likely.

eli said...

Great interview. Thanks for that Alan and David. I love the knowledge being bandied about about our institutions.

Anonymous said...

Alan, thanks for asking about those goddamn trains, although I understand why David Simon doesn't want to spell it out. The first time I saw Jimmy and Bunk at the tracks, when Jimmy is standing on the track and the headlight of a train is slowly advancing towards him... it made me think of Slow Train, the Bob Dylan song, with its repeated refrain, "There's a slow train coming around the bend." And if you take a look at the rest of the lyrics, they're rather Wire-esque: a sense of the world inexorably changing and people not knowing how to live in it anymore, and the country being less than what it used to be. Plus, there's a reference to "masters of the proposition," which calls to mind Prop Joe...
Here are the lyrics:

Anonymous said...

Anonymous: Thank you for responding to my "rant." Based on your response, it appears that I did a poor job of communicating my case.

With respect to my contention that the copycat killer is a deus ex machina, you counter that The Wire presents numerous instances of violence begetting violence and you interpret this imitative replication to signify "a central theme of the show." You are quite correct about this but it does not speak to my criticism of the particular plot device under discussion. A deus ex machina is an 11th hour dramatic quick-fix to wrap up a plot that would otherwise remain unresolved. The thematic concerns of the drama as a whole or even of the final act featuring the deus ex machina are not at issue. At this level of analysis, the matter is strictly formal or technical.

Turning to a thematic and even ideological level of analysis, then, you are good enough to inform me that you do not understand what I mean by this sentence: "The writers of The Wire pin an actual murder on the guy according to the same immoral standard." What I mean by this is that the writers of The Wire save the careers of Carcetti and Rhonda Pearlman, save McNulty and Lester from jail, save the entire milieu they have composed - at the expense of a character we are not supposed to care about because he's hopelessly deranged. The writers rely on the insanity of the character to make him utterly dispensible as a human being. Unfortunately, I can not elaborate on this without repeating my previous rant.

I will add, however, I believe you missed a crucial scene Anonymous. Rawls does, in fact, privately dictate that all of McNulty's bogus murders should be blamed on the copycat killer in an act of supreme damage control. McNulty immediately refuses to cooperate and so later on at the press conference, Rawls merely suggests to the public that the copycat is a suspect in the "other" killings but - here it comes again - it is of no consequence considering the guy is mentally ill anyway.

Then - Ben

Anonymous said...

"at the expense of a character we are not supposed to care about because he's hopelessly deranged. The writers rely on the insanity of the character to make him utterly dispensible as a human being."

I think this is a feature of the writing, not a bug. Simon believes that the idea that America is doing all right is a big lie that is kept going because most of America doesn't care about people like the poor in Baltimore-- or people like this homeless guy. I don't think we're supposed to be happy that everyone shuts up, everyone gets paid, and everyone keeps the serial killer big lie alive. Everything turns out well for the characters we've come to like, so we're happy, just like most of America is fine with the war on drugs because it doesn't affect people we know.

You could take it a step further-- the big lie of the war on drugs has led a lot of people to commit crimes and get locked away, forgotten about by our society. The serial killer big lie has led this nameless homeless man to commit a crime, and now he gets locked away and forgotten, just like his dead victims, so the people we know can keep a lie alive.

The big lie is now too big for McNulty to stop, but his acceptance of his own responsibility for it in the middle of the episode has at least led him to give money to one homeless guy and help out another by bringing him home.

I think the theme of the homeless as a metaphor for anyone who's forgotten and who's not valued in our society has been severely underexplored in the commentary about Season 5. Unlike how they've dramatically depicted the poor of West Baltimore (another forgotten group), the writers have intentionally made most of the homeless characters on the show completely unsympathetic and uninteresting to us viewers. And that's how most of America views poor blacks in West Baltimore -- shows the limits of human empathy, I guess.

Anonymous said...

P.S.- The inclusion of Johnny Fifty, a peripheral character from Season 2, in the homeless is another subtle nod to this theme. Many of us "dedicated" viewers had the reaction, "Oh, that's so sad, what's happened to him since Season 2." Most viewers probably didn't recognize him or care about him in the slightest -- he's just another homeless person on the street to them. And that's how things are in real life-- we don't get to learn the humanizing details and tragic character arc about the bum we walk past, or the people who die or are imprisoned as a result of our society's big lies.

Newspaper schmewspaper... I think the use of metaphor and subtext alone in Season 5 will have people dissecting it for years to come. It's not anywhere near as straightforward as most people think.

And none of this is a criticism of you of course, Ben, though I obviously disagree that this is a flaw in the writing. You've been the first one to actually point out this plot element when pretty much everyone else has ignored it. We don't want to think about the crazy weird homeless guy, we'd rather think about Lester and Jimmy and Michael and Dukie-- all the characters we know and have come ot love.

Anonymous said...

There were only ten episodes this year. Shit was bound to get compressed. The deranged homeless guy ending up as a tidy answer to the serial killer plotline was just one symptom.

Anonymous said...

Algergernon: I appreciate your comments very much and I'm not just blowing smoke up your ass. Your attention to the meaning of homelessness in The Wire is excellent for its class analysis. (Incidentally, a friend of mine had to point out to me the degradation of the dock worker from Season Two into a homeless person in Season Five, an explicit indication in The Wire that many of the social pathologies examined in the program are the result of generalized unemployment.)

Having acknowledged the excellence of your class analysis, it sort of breaks my heart to point out that it does not speak to my critical point; i.e., the INSANITY of the character in question. It is this and not his homelessness as such that enables the writers to literally "use" him as a plot device and dehumanize him in the process. It's not just that the character is given no substantial back-story, no history. This can be forgiven at the 11th hour. Rather, its that his entire "voice" is reduced to an abstract, categorical "fucking crazy as a loon." It is this not-a-person that the writers want us to accept (as a copycat killer) and simultaneously reject (as just a nut case) - a sleight-of-hand maneuver on their part that I find ethically reprehensible.

Anonymous: Compression may or may not justify certain tidy answers. My position is that this tidy answer ain't so tidy after all.

Then - Ben

Anonymous said...

“The plot device of the mentally challenged copy-cat killer in episode #60 is indeed a device, which is to say that it is horribly contrived, a deus ex machina.”

When I first saw this play out I too was dissatisfied – not so much because my political correctness radar went off at the appearance of a disposable insane homeless criminal, but because dues ex machina resolutions are almost without exception dramatically unsatisfying. This one particularly stood out in a show like The Wire in which such care had been taken to plot out where the characters go, such that the “everything is connected” theme still felt organic.

Upon reflection I suppose I’m come to appreciate this particular resolution precisely because it is a dues ex machina. Simon has made it very clear that The Wire is modeled on the Greek tragedies and few things say Greek tragedy more than the use of a deus ex machina. In that context I can accept it as a conscious literary/artistic choice. Having said that, homage to the Greeks or not, I confess that I would have still preferred an ending that did not rely on the use of that particular convention. Though maybe that makes me no better than those who would have also preferred Simon bend the conventions of Greek tragedy by allowing Omar to go out in a blaze of glory, taking out Chris/Snoop along the way.

“The writers of The Wire pin an actual murder on the guy according to the same immoral standard." What I mean by this is that the writers of The Wire save the careers of Carcetti and Rhonda Pearlman, save McNulty and Lester from jail, save the entire milieu they have composed - at the expense of a character we are not supposed to care about because he's hopelessly deranged. The writers rely on the insanity of the character to make him utterly dispensable as a human being.”

Perhaps I’d argue that the gods have not intervened at the 11th hour to save Carcetti, Pearlman, Bonds, Rawls, Templeton, Lester, McNulty, or the rest of the milieu (after all “The gods will not save you”). Rather, the gods are lowered into our play in the form of a decidedly “Not-a-person” persona to save the institutions that these afore-mentioned characters serve. In this reading, the out-of-place connect-dots-ease with which McNulty solved the copycat murders, and perhaps to a degree the lack of “humanness” in the murderer, may be there to reinforce the use of the convention. No doubt, there are other levels of interpretation/symbolism one might also attribute regarding the theme of homelessness, etc.

Just my opinion, though it wouldn’t be the first time I missed what Simon and crew were trying to say…


ss said...

i always thought the trains with their green lights had something to do with The Great Gatsby and the aftermath/decay of the american dream. the first scene of the series concludes with "This is America", when mcnulty is trying to figure out why they kept letting snotboogey into the game, despite knowing what the outcome would be everytime. west egg = west baltimore, gatsby got himself in the game with money but could never 'win' because it was rigged. etc. etc.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous: You speak of deus ex machina as if it were one among many literary/artistic conventions to employ as need be, with a lovely pedigree no less. But as I understand it, in our contemporary culture, it is by definition an incredible, unconvincing last resort to wind up the plot; i.e., allowable only in a comedic conclusion to an already farcical construction. The latter, obviously, does not apply to The Wire.

As for your analogous reasoning with respect to the copycat killer and metaphysical forces, now it is my turn to claim incomprehension. I do not follow your point, probably due to the utter absence of anything remotely metaphysical in The Wire, even though I grasp that your point was pursued analogically.

Algernon: I apologize for my typo which resulted in me calling you "Algergernon."

Anonymous said...

In the mortuary why does the coroner switch Omars name tag?

Anonymous said...

“You speak of deus ex machina as if it were one among many literary/artistic conventions to employ as need be, with a lovely pedigree no less.”

Actually if you go back and read what I said you’ll see that I found use of the convention dramatically unsatisfying, inconsistent with the high quality of plotting throughout the show, and, all things being equal, something I’d wish the authors had avoided.

Having said that, my point was not that “[deus ex machina is] one among many literary/artistic conventions to employ as need be” but rather that it is a convention specifically and pointedly germane to Greek tragedies, which, like it or not, is the literary tradition in which The Wire is grounded. Because I’ve come to appreciate that aspect (The Wire as rooted in Greek tragedy) I suppose I can go back and watch the resolution of that story line without leaving the moment, whereas in most any other context in which the convention is employed as a crutch to escape poor storytelling the writers will indeed lose me. If it doesn’t work for you on that level, then it doesn’t work for you on that level – each viewer is certainly entitled to their own experience.

You take Simon and company to task for employing a dispensable insane homeless “non-person” as offensive to a basic humanitarian sensibility. It was my contention that these writers, who have spent five seasons diligently arguing for the humanity and dignity of the other America we have created, did not suddenly carelessly betray their humanitarian ethics anymore than they have suddenly forgotten how to portray realistic police work by using such blatant “clues” (the business cards) that would strain the credibility of an Encyclopedia Brown mystery. I’m inclined to give the writers more credit than that and have resolved such discrepancies in my own mind by assuming that they were conscious choices of the writers, overtly serving the use of the deus ex machina convention that they deemed appropriate in the context of the Greek tragedy they were creating. I accept this in the same way I accept Omar’s jump out the window which might otherwise take me out of the reality of the moment. Afterall, as Simon says in his interview here:

“we did want it [Omar’s jump] to feel a little bit mythic, and "What the fuck?" because it fit with the general arc of Greek tragedy.”

Whether I’m correct in this assumption, only Simon and company can say. Whether this was a strong choice or not, each viewer will probably have to decide that for themselves. I simply argue that these choices were neither accidental nor careless.

As to the metaphysical nature of The Wire: as seen through the lens of Greek tragedy there certainly are the equivalent of Greek gods imposing their will upon the human experience, indiscriminately hurling lightning bolts at our unsuspecting and often undeserving characters. Simon has elaborated on this in countless interviews that one can google, for example:

“We're stealing instead from an earlier, less-traveled construct -- the Greeks -- lifting our thematic stance wholesale from Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides to create doomed and fated protagonists who confront a rigged game and their own mortality. But instead of the old gods, The Wire is a Greek tragedy in which the postmodern institutions are the Olympian forces. It's the police department, or the drug economy, or the political structures, or the school administration, or the macroeconomics forces that are throwing the lightning bolts and hitting people in the ass for no reason. In much of television, and in a good deal of our stage drama, individuals are often portrayed as rising above institutions to achieve catharsis. In this drama, the institutions always prove larger, and those characters with hubris enough to challenge the postmodern construct of American empire are invariably mocked, marginalized, or crushed. Greek tragedy for the new millennium, so to speak.”


Anonymous said...

In the mortuary why does the coroner switch Omars name tag?.

Because the wrong tag was on Omar's body. He was correcting the error. has a nice "finale letter" from David Simon to the fans y'all might want to read.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous: Thank you for continuing the conversation, even though at this point it seems to be as much about the two of us clarifying our communications as The Wire itself.

Let me explicitly acknowledge that I heard you say before that you were not satisfied by the device of the copycat killer and you wish it had not been employed. The reason why I did not acknowledge this before is the same reason why even now it strikes me as outside of my concern. What I am attending to is your defense of the device, which you continue to uphold.

And I continue to oppose. Mind you, is it really possible to debate your statement, "each viewer is certainly entitled to their own experience"? At this point I am willing to forgo further analysis of the device as a plot "crutch" (your term, my opinion) because I sense that you have lost interest in such analysis, preferring instead to leave me to my experience with the dismissive comment, "if it doesn't work for you on that level, it doesn't work for you on that level." Fine then. So much for the device understood in formal or conventional terms.

The thematic or ideological substance of the device remains, however. On this score, with all due respect, I find your treatment evasive. Instead of directly examining the content of the character and how this functions in the story, you return to the conventional status of the device and go further afield into a general consideration of the classical dramatic templates upon which The Wire is based; (admittedly , better source material than Encyclopedia Brown). These templates are all very well but entirely irrelevant in my estimation, as is your recognition of the mythical aspects incorporated into the realism of the program. You're not wrong but you are avoiding the precise object of my critique; again, the actual content of the character and how this functions in the story.

I get the impression that you are preoccupied with protecting the moral credentials of The Wire's writers by regarding the ethical problem I highlight as one of the few non-problematic "discrepancies" in the show. Personally, I believe it is more respectful of these artists to hold them to the high standards they have set for themselves that we both admire.

Then - Ben

Anonymous said...

I know I'm late to the party, but the finale was a let down. Maybe my expectations were so high, given that the majority of the series was brilliantly written. The very idea that Kima got a pass from McNulty & Lester (after snitching to Daniels), was laughable. As anyone in law enforcement will tell you, not only does a cop never "tattle" on another cop, but if found out-that cop is deemed untrustworthy, and usually harrassed out of the job. "McNulty" never would have told her-he understood she did what she had to do, and "Lester" wouldn't have partied with her.

The whole "symbolisim" of the train tracks & late night drunken bonding could have many meanings or it's just a train.

Anonymous said...

So Chase has no problem with hiring a convicted murderer to play a murderer, huh? It's that same "street cred" mentality that record execs use to sell their rap albums. I hope Pearson's victim's family sues her ghetto butt (in civil court), for every penny her "autobiography" & upcoming rap album sells. This piece of trash deserves nothing!

Anonymous said...

SIMON has a right to hire the actors he wants. ROC starred a man who discovered acting while in prison for murder. Tim Allen did time for drugs.

My point is, let the justice system do its job. Then move on. Sorry, but your petty moral outrage is only relevant to you. You don't get to decide who gets what job for the rest of their lives or what job is too good for them. Maybe you didn't realize.

Anonymous said...

I will mention this briefly, only because nobody has noticed it: The montage song at the end of Season 3 is "Fast Train." And I think the reference to all things being cyclical is their true meaning, though a broader argument could certainly be mustered.

Anonymous said...

I was disappointed that no one else mentioned what I saw in my favorite scene, when Marlow goes back to the corner. While in jail, the one time they let him lose his cool, his name is all that matters to him. Which his posse, especially Chris, didn't seem to understand.

When he walks up on the corner, it's not Marlow the corner boys are talking about, but Omar, who even after his death seems to still be remembered by those on the street. Meanwhile, the king of Baltimore at the time isn't even known to those working the corners (and probably selling his dope, too).

I've thought about this since the finale. I'm caught between what Prop Joe said about the old gangster whose name no one knew because he simply, "Bought for a dollar, sold for two," and Marlow's own admission that his name is his name.

Anyone else with me on this?

Abe said...

good point March 25 Anon. I was just re-reading this one was struck by this quote re: Omar's death:

"With one caveat. We did introduce him, and I had it in my mind that I wanted a moment like "The Shootist" or the buried moment in the gunfight at the end of "Wild Bunch." The character that was most in the Western archetype -- and George had a lot of fun with this -- was Omar. The inner city is now the Wild West, the new frontier in terms of American storytelling, it has been for several decades now. We played a lot of our Western film themes and archetypes through Omar's story."

another great example of this scenario is Bronson's character in Once Upon A Time In The West.

Anonymous said...

"Why was Nick Sobotka at the press conference with Krawchek when he should be in FEDERAL WITNESS PROTECTION?"

Nick Sobotka got parole, and in the same episode he immediately returns to the docks saying "no one fucks with us on our own turf".

And of course, the whole point of that scene is that he's angry about losing "his turf."

So not its not a plot hole

Anonymous said...

Ok I have just discovered the wire.... on box set ... I live in Dublin Ireland and this was the most impressive thing out of America in the last three years.

PLEASE PLEASE BRING THIS SHOW BACK - it is shown here but only on channels that don't get any publicity and are centred on Irish Language programmes.

I have to repect the writors for not over commerciallising it - but common what are the producers doing ??? so many people need to see this show - have some respect for your country ...

ultimately I just want another series of the Wire ... PLEASSSE

InsideYourBalls said...

Talk about over-analysing the train tracks.

The symbolism of the train tracks is the simplest one possible. The train tracks are what divides Good from Bad in the US.

McNulty and Bunk regularly come right up to the edge of that line. But its only ever McNulty who'll get right up on top of that line.

And Bunk warns him to get off.


ilyse711 said...

David Simon, one of the creators of The Wire, has a great admiration for Baltimore. He calls the show a love letter to the city. Check out this video he shot for Baltimore's convention and visitors bureau where he talks about the city that has inspired him. Really a great piece and you can see where his passion comes from.

Alex said...

After finishing reading the interview, I think I know the symbolism of the trains and of Marlo's and Omar's names. In my impatience, I haven't had time to read the comments and I apologize for that discourtesy and any redundancy in my interpretation.

Trains cannot deviate from their course. They have only the power to stop and start, but not the power to turn or to change their course. When McNulty and Bunk stand on them, it symbolizes, as I'm sure you've said, that they can't change the direction they're headed in. The trains traveling along them are the institutions, locked in the same pattern.

And I guess, from there, the symbolism of McNulty's first encounter with the train (staring it down, pissing on the train tracks) is pretty self-explanatory.

Marlo, meanwhile, aspires to pure and absolute omnipotence, to godhood. He wants to be so feared and ever-present that people dare not speak his name but in whispers, that they dare not affront him lest they suffer his inevitable wrath.

Omar has that. His mere presence, even in a bathrobe, strikes all-conquering terror. His name alone is enough to achieve his ends. He is godlike.

Marlo's desire to kill Omar is motivated by that, by jealousy. He doesn't covet what Joe or Avon has. That comes easily to him. But Omar's reputation is singularly elusive. So I think that Marlo's anagramic identity symbolizes the fact that he is a pretender to Omar.

Gridlock said...

Maybe it's because I used to work on the railways, but for me any train track is a no-go zone - they're so fast, inexorable and unable to swerve (not to mention almost silent, some of the time) that standing on a train track is a good way to end your life as a smear.

It's like the difference between someone who respects a gun and someone who does not - you never point a gun at anything, no matter how sure it's unloaded you are, that you wouldn't want to shoot.

So while the metaphor is indeed one of an implacable force heading down an unchangeable route, the real key symbolism for me is the way Mcnulty seems to deliberately put himself in the way.

mdragan said...

The best TV drama/show ever.
Great interview.
Regarding the train: Has anyone considered the joke about the light at the end of the tunnel really being a train barreling inexorably at you.

Anonymous said...

Over the past two months I have watched all five seasons--it was an incredible experience, like reading a great book you never want to end. Now here's something I've thought of--throughout the series, Omar whistles "The Farmer in the Dell," the last line of which is "the cheese stands alone." Any connection between this and Cheese standing alone at the end?

Anonymous said...

I'm really surprised nobody links the train tracks with the 'straight and narrow tracks' in the lyrics of the show's theme song

Tracy said...

I just finished it on DVD, and this really helps to wean myself off of it, which I've been dreading for weeks now.

And your finale recap as well. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

After reading forums and different interviews, and rewatching (I started in July and have watched nothing else since) I've realized how conditioned Hollywood and broadcast television has made me, so many things I've missed, that upon rewatching starts to click. This is an absolutely incredible drama and I can't recommend it enough. Thank you Mr Simon for the gift you have given me.