The Wire: David Simon Q & A
Posted by Alan Sepinwall March 09, 2008 10:34PM
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.
THE BALTIMORE SUN / GOOD GUYS AND BAD GUYS
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 a--.
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 a--hole 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 f--k 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 s--t. 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.
A SHORT SEASON, AND SEQUELS AND PREQUELS (or the lack thereof)
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 f---ing 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...
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.
CURTAIN CALLS, DARK STORYTELLING AND OTHER BARRIERS TO MASS SUCCESS
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.
OMAR, KENARD & OTHER LONG-TERM PLANS
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 motherf---er 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 f--k?" 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 s--t-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 f---ed 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.
FAKE SERIAL KILLERS
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 f--k am I gonna charge? A paramedic?'
THE GREEK AND GREEK TRAGEDY
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 f---ing job.
THE CANDIDATE FOR CHANGE
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 f--k'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 HBO.com 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.
Alan Sepinwall can be reached at email@example.com