The Wire: Sentencing
Season One, Episode Thirteen (Season Finale)
Directed By: Tim Van Patten
Written By: David Simon and Ed Burns
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At the end of season one of David Simon’s extraordinary drama The Wire, I’m reminded of our opening scene: a story about a man who kept getting dealt into a craps game, even though everyone knew he would steal the money. “This is America, man,” the witness told McNulty. Everyone has to have a stake, and at the end of the day, the same wheels keep on turning.
“Sentencing” may not actually be as dark and depressing as I suspected after watching “Cleaning Up,” but in finding the balance between resolution and dissolution, Mr. Simon, along with his co-writer Ed Burns, have found something more profound: life goes on, and the institutions of America are built on that premise. Would be better to do nothing? To keep the status quo? McNulty asks himself that question as he watches a portion of the Barksdale crew walk behind bars for minimal sentences. We’re not sure, and neither is he.
This idea that you can’t win everything comes up from the start, as Greggs wakes up to find Bunk investigating her shooting. She identifies Little Man, but refuses to also sign on Wee-Bay. They all know it was him, but she’s too good of a cop and can’t identify him from the night. They’ll have to go another route.
Fortunately for the detail, D’Angelo finally cracks. In what is easily the best moment of acting so far for the incredibly Larry Gilliard Jr., he talks with McNulty and Pearlman through the business, the murders, Wallace, and the girl he himself may or may not have killed—he tells a story different from the one he told his crew. But Mr. Gilliard Jr. plays the character with so much honestly, truth is literally shining around him. This is the real story, and his role in the business, the family, has ravaged his soul. When he says he wants out, he means it.
But not even he can have redemption, as Mama Barksdale, aka Avon’s sister Brianna. We met Brianna last week, but here is where she has really come into play. This is not some woman who stands on the side like Connie or Kay. She’s a working member of this family. “This family wouldn’t even exist without what we do,” she tells D’Angelo, with both a warning and motherly love.
Before she can do that do, McNulty, Freamon, and Daniels try to bring the case to the FBI, knowing that Burrell is satisfied with the drugs on the table and not shaking any more institutions. It’s here that Mr. Simon becomes more political and prophetical than he has in the past. The FBI tells them that unless it involves an international offense, the FBI is too focused on counter terrorism. Daniels uses the trump card of political corruption, knowing Clay Davis is only the tip of an iceberg. But the FBI won’t go for the drugs in that case—all they want is the politics. McNulty then preaches a sermon he deserves, “West Baltimore is dying!” he exclaims to the “empty suits.” And to them—why not? Just a bunch of impoverished folk killing each other off.
With D’Angleo turned and the FBI not going for the major case, they go for the small fish and get guilty pleas from Avon, D’Angelo, and a number of small fries who all will be back on the streets in no time. Wee-Bay takes the only major hit, attempting to plead guilty to every major murder (including ones he didn’t commit) to stay off death row. Rawls congratulates McNulty for good work and asks him, “Where don’t you want to go?” signaling that he’s going to be buried. Bubbles gets the money Greggs promised him from McNuly, but it’s too late—he’s back on the rock. Stringer takes over leading the business, and the hustle continues.
But not all is lost, Mr. Simon asserts. We see Herc talking to a couple new detectives, telling them the truth about the job. Freamon takes McNulty’s position in homicide, as he gets sent to the marine unit (where most of season 2 I’m told takes place). Carver gets the promotion to sergeant, though Daniels discover he’s been the mole for the detail, though with nothing left to do, he can only give him a slap on the wrist, and hope that he learns that it is actually about the work.
The final scene takes us to the South Bronx, where a dealer stands on a corner. Out of nowhere comes Omar, holding a gun to his head. “It’s all in the game,” he explains. A game that is unstoppable. That can’t be changed. That is built on America.