Creator David Simon on cutting “The Wire”

March 10, 2008 | Sunday night, the last season of “The Wire” took its final bow. Instead of leaving these beloved (and sometimes loathed) characters suspended in time, “Sopranos”-style, the writers chose to wrap up loose ends, providing viewers with a far more satisfying and unambiguous ending than they might’ve expected.

But that didn’t stop us from wondering where these characters would eventually land. Will anti-hero Jimmy McNulty be happy away from police work? Will the evil mastermind Marlo Stanfield get back into the game? Will slimy reporter Scott Templeton ever get his comeuppance for fabricating stories?

Not surprisingly, show creator David Simon was less interested in parsing the final episode for us than he was in discussing the overarching themes of his “postindustrial American tragedy.” Phoning from Los Angeles, where he’s finishing up sound work for his upcoming Iraq war miniseries for HBO, “Generation Kill,” Simon preferred to discuss the larger implications of his creation, from the temptation that police face to bend the rules to the horrible odds facing kids who try to make it off the streets. Most of all, though, Simon delighted in the fact that, when it came to his depiction of the Baltimore Sun, his own old stomping grounds, many of his critics in the press missed the point entirely.

On the finale: I was amazed that McNulty and Freamon didn’t end up in jail. But it was sort of a relief.

Really? You were happy for that?


Some people were really angry at them this year. Especially McNulty.

Well, I guess I’m not very ethical, but I found it hard to root against them.

I think we were trying to be very ambivalent about it. I guess that was good if you struggled with it. Then we were doing something right, because we were trying to land it somewhere in the middle.

They definitely demonstrated what a slippery slope it can be when you start bending the rules. When they’ve done it before, it seemed laudable.

If you go back to the first season, there’s a very telling moment that was sort of latent, which was when McNulty [was] doing the log book and Sydnor didn’t see a key call that was part of their probable cause. And Prez says, “But Sydnor wasn’t there.” and McNulty says, “Yes, he was,” and he writes it in the book. So that was always latent, the potential was always there, and it’s always there for police officers.

Did you aim to find a situation that would leave viewers feeling conflicted?

And that would leave McNulty feeling conflicted. I think viewers can make their own assessment about whether or not McNulty is going to be happier in the police department or out. But I’m not so sure that this isn’t the best thing that ever happened to him, in a merciful way.

Isn’t police work his passion?

But it clearly drove him to the point of great turmoil and great ethical struggle. You know, he was happy being almost semi-retired, when he was walking foot in the Western, riding a radio car in the Western. That was a foreshadowing, I thought. At least it was intended as a foreshadowing. Maybe [he could] take a step away from this, you know? At least get out with [his] soul. And to a lesser extent for Freamon — at least Freamon gets his pension.

But that’s one reading of it. Other people might think that McNulty’s never going to be able to survive without being a cop. We left that open. It’s something to argue about. One of the great joys I’ve had doing this show is watching people argue over not just the characters but the ideas.

The other thing that [McNulty’s fake serial killer] quite obviously did was, it allowed us to set up this juxtaposition between Templeton’s ambition and McNulty’s desire to bring the case in at all costs.

Some have said that they didn’t find the serial killer storyline believable.

Is it impossible to stage a serial killer? No. One thing you won’t hear is any pathologist who’ll say, “Oh, there’s no way that could fool us.” That is the one way that postmortem injuries can be made to look antemortem: It’s strangulation, bruising around the neck, and then suspend the body in a dependent position, make it so the head is in a dependent position.

[As a reporter] I saw something almost become a murder … And afterwards I took a chief medical examiner to lunch to talk to him about it, just because it was interesting to me. He said, “Yep, that one can fool you.” And I put it in my back pocket. That was almost 20 years ago.

Did you feel that those two characters could be led to extreme measures after years and years of finding ways around obstacles in the department?

Freamon had been told no for a long time, for most of his career. And McNulty? Shit, I think he’ll try anything once. His intellectual vanity has been on display since the first season. But if people didn’t believe it, they didn’t believe it. I’m second-guessing people a little bit, and that’s not fair — every viewer’s entitled to their own opinion. I think what they really didn’t believe was that their favorite characters were behaving in an unethical way. That bothered them. I think TV shows are supposed to deliver on certain things. Omar is supposed to go down in a blaze of glory. McNulty is supposed to either lose and suffer or finally win, but he’s not supposed to walk away from the rigged game and do something that bothers viewers.

Once you had the kids on the show last season, did you have trouble realizing that you were going to weave them into some pretty awful fates down the road?

No, we knew they were going there. Let me just say this: We’re not being manipulative in any cynical way about marching those characters towards tragedy. If you read “The Corner” [the book Simon wrote with Ed Burns], of the kids that we followed, two are alive, two were shot to death as teenagers, and another is in prison. We looked at what happened to the kids that we followed when they were 14 or 15, and looked at what had happened to them by the time they were 17 or 18, and “The Wire’s” story reflects the odds.


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