David Simon always seems to have a lot on his mind. For the past six years, he's given voice to his thoughts, commentaries and general reportage on life in urban American through his imposing HBO drama series "The Wire."
That sweeping saga of hustle and bustle on Baltimore's drug corners, in its police department and school system, in the corridors of City Hall and its court system comes to an end Sunday with episode No. 60, "30."
As you might expect, Simon had plenty to say about the process of wrapping up a show that is near and dear to him, the issues it has tackled over its five seasons and what he hoped "Wire's" legacy would -- and would not -- be in the long run.
Simon was generous with his time in a telephone interview late last month, in between looping sessions on "Generation Kill," his upcoming HBO miniseries about Marines in Iraq. (Beyond "Kill," Simon's also working with "Wire" and "Homicide" alum Eric Overmyer on an HBO pilot script set among musicians in post-Katrina New Orleans, and he's got a deal with his "Wire" collaborator William Zorzi to write a non-fiction book about the rise of the drug culture in 1950s and '60s Baltimore.)
According to Simon, the best way to understand "The Wire" is to think Greek -- not the nefarious Greek characters who dominate the illicit trade in Baltimore's ports, but the storytelling tradition of the ancient Greek tragedies, where the heroes and anti-heroes always face a dramatic downfall, usually as a result of their own hubris.
Leaning on that structure gave them a road map to plot the fates of the show's primary characters, particularly the savvy police detectives Jimmy McNulty, Lester Freamon, Bunk Moreland and Kima Greggs; dealers, dopers and street soldiers Omar Little, Bubbles, Proposition Joe, Marlo Stanfield and Avon Barksdale.
"We knew what was going to happen over the course of the five-year run," Simon sez (though it was not always clear it would be a five-year run, he's quick to add. It took some work to secure seasons four and five).
"We were always adjusting where characters were going to end up, what parts of Baltimore we were going to depict when, what we wanted to say with the overall theme of the show. It was a Greek tragedy done in a modernist urban way, with the city as the main character," Simon says.
"We were stealing from Euripides, Sophocles and Aeschylus. We knew certain fundamentals of Greek tragedy. We were making the argument that human beings are worth less everyday. And so that theme applies as sort of a social-political theme throughout -- whether you’re choir boy, a longshoreman, a cop, a newspaper reporter. It’s the triumph of capital over labor. There’s nothing else to be said about the American economy over the last part of 20th century."
One of the major themes of season five has been the art, and science, of the Big Con. Everybody's hustling everybody all of the time just to get what they need to get by. Cops have to invent a "homeless serial killer" to shake loose coin from cash-strapped City Hall just to pay for basic police work. The thieving state Senator Clay Davis plays the race card (not just the card but the "whole deck," in the words of "Wire's" Gus Haynes, city editor of the Baltimore Sun) to earn his get-out-of-jail-free card, even as prosecutors have a mountain of evidence demonstrating how he's been screwing the very people he's claiming to help with his pilferage and money-laundering schemes. And for the piece de resistance, the heinous Sun reporter Scott Templeton plots to further his own career by making up quotes and characters, and eventually sticking himself in the middle of serial case. Con meets con.
"One of the things we said this season should demonstrate is how far you can go on a lie. Not just Templeton and McNulty’s lies, but (Mayor Tommy) Carcetti's and Clay Davis' lies," Simon says. "The secret of the season is to see how much of it shows up in people’s consciousness. How much of it gets in the newspaper. When Proposition Joe, the biggest drug dealer in town gets killed, (the overtaxed Sun editors) mistake him for an appliance store owner."
The serial killer storyline was meant as a commentary on the nation's perverse fascination with depraved, kinky violence -- the reason that gruesome murder stories with the right backstory (think Lacey Peterson and Natalee Holloway) wind up as the lead story on "Entertainment Tonight." McNulty gets a lesson in this when he first tries to plant the seeds of his faux menace by tipping young reporter Alma Guttierez to the existence of a homeless serial killer. But the story doesn't get anywhere near the front page until McNulty concocts a "sexual" angle to the cases, namely biting, in next meeting with Alma and the craven Templeton, who's positively giddy over McNulty's revelation that the killer is a "biter."
Meanwhile, the actual violence that occurs on Baltimore's streets every day is anything but glorified, and that's the point, Simon says.
"By hyping the serial killer -- and by hyping the notion of the pornography of violence, which I think America is fascinated by -- and by juxtaposing it with the ordinary routine of violence that actually occurs in Baltimore and elsewhere around the the country, we were making a statement," he says. "We wanted the violence in some ways to be brutal and perfunctory. We were not looking for a Peckinpah-like ballet of gunfire. We were looking for something a lot more blunt and brutish, and comparing that to the fascination that people have with what isn’t real."
"Wire," like its predecessor HBO miniseries "The Corner," was always unrelenting in depicting the ravages of drug abuse, poverty, crime and the disintegration of anything like a social safety net. Simon saw his share of real-life drama in his years as a Baltimore Sun crime reporter. At times, it was emotionally overwhelming for him to mete out the same kind of cruel fate to his fictional creations.
The hardest part of was "the emotional drain of the kids," Simon says, pointing to the murder of young dealer Wallace in the first season and the struggles of kids so poor and debilitated by dysfunctional homes as depicted in season four.
"The adults all take their turn making choices, or accepting what life’s dealt out to them. To see it dealt out to the kids, it’s really heartbreaking," Simon says. "The young actors on our show played it so beautifully."
For the non-fiction book that led to "The Corner" mini in 2000, Simon spent a year hanging out with a clutch of kids from Baltimore's mean streets. More than a decade later, of the core "Corner" group, Simon reports that "one is in prison on a long sentence, two are drug-addicted, one of them is trying to get his act together, and one of them's dead."
Did he have the ambition to effect social change with any of the stories or characters? Or was the show more of an classic journalistic chronicle of conditions in society's lower depths.
"I'm trying to tell a story," Simon says. "I’m just trying to tell a story about a city that I live in and that I have great affection for. I just don’t want to pull punches. I don't want to mock the purpose of a newspaper or a police department or government, but at the same time I don’t see things getting solved in any consistent way or even addressed in any consistent way. Most depressing, I don’t think we're addressing the problems in an honest way. I don’t think we can even recognize the problems, much less solve them. And part of that is the falsehood of statistics. Everybody's always finding the statistic to justify themselves, whether it’s third grade test scores, or the reduction in crime, or how many Pulitzers you’ve won. At some point, no matter what industry you’re in, there’s a whole subculture devoted to self-justification that obscures anybody’s ability to get their head around what actually has gone wrong. So I wanted to leave (a document of) a city that has tremendous problems, that we bear witness to, and can’t even recognize those problems seriously much less solve them. I think that’s our national state at this point. I hate to be pessimistic. We’re not exactly a can-do country anymore. Maybe that’s too pessimistic but, hey -- I live in Baltimore."
After a beat, Simon was quick to add: "Hey, I’m an American. I live here too. I hope everything 'The Wire' is saying is wrong. Nobody would be happier than me if five or 10 years from now there’s nothing prescient about that show."
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Why let stray interview tidbits go to waste?
**On "The Wire's" small but intensely devoted aud: "I won’t complain if it didn’t have ‘Sopranos’ or ‘24’ numbers. I didn’t make those shows. I gotta be a little bit zen about it, don’t I?"
**On the fact that Dominic West should surely get an Emmy nom this year: "He won't, don't worry."
**On one of his favorite moments from season five: "The look that Dominic gave (actor Tom McCarthy) when Templeton says, 'He called somebody else?' At that moment McNulty knows that he made it up...I was on set that day; I was giggling. I was like, 'That’s an actor.' What he just did with his eyes, his jaw. So subtle, yet it’s right there."
**Please tell us that while Templeton bags his Pulitzer prey, the win only sets him up for a bigger fall later when the truth inevitably comes out. Right, David? "We thought about that too. Maybe (his win) will stand. It’s open to interpretation."
**You got a problem with Pulitzers? "I’m not trying to pick a fight with the Pulitzer prize. I don’t mean to disrespect the Pulitzer entirely. It's just the obsession with it. I hold editors who value them above all else in low regard."
**On the vicious cycle indicated by Duquan's descent into heroin addiction as Bubbles finally emerges from the basement: "There’s an endless supply of Bubbles, people who fall out of (normal life). We were playing the cyclical nature of the tragedy."
**If you had your druthers would there be a season six? "I had to argue for (season) 5. It would've been chutzpah to go back and say 'I got another idea.' The media and this particular storyline had to be the last year."
**Are there any topics you would've liked to have tackled but didn't? "We could’ve done the issue of immigration. Now we have for the first time in Baltimore a sizable Latino population. We did not have that until the last 10 or 12 years. That would’ve been an interesting theme."