“The Wire”, Season 5 (2008), the last season, is the one that looks at the media in Baltimore. It features the Baltimore Sun newspaper, where David Simon, the show’s creator, worked from 1982 to 1995. The police, drug gangs and city government from past seasons are carried into this one, but schools and labour unions are not.
Institutional dysfunction continues as a theme, but the critique is not as sharp. You are led to believe that, for the most part, there is nothing wrong that money and good leadership cannot fix.
It makes clear, though, that newsrooms constantly make choices about what to print, that class and race shape news decisions. Even when it is murder.
Unlike Season 4, there are no White Saviours and we get a Black point-of-view character of an institution other than a drug gang: Gus Haynes, city editor at the Sun. He even brings up issues of race on occasion.
There are plenty of Black characters, just as in past seasons. That is rare for television drama in the US, but most fall within a few stereotypes:
- Black leaders: corrupt
- Black middle-class: noble but boring
- Black poor and working-class: sunk in social pathologies
Take each in turn:
1. Black leaders seek power as an end in itself, not to help the city, not even to help Blacks. If they are noble and do what is right, they do not get far under Black rule. Bad leaders stay in power by playing the race card: appealing to the supposedly blind race loyalty of Black voters and jurors. White jurors are seen as more fair-minded. The White mayor considers the public good in his decision-making in most cases, Black leaders in most cases do not. Season 4 was more balanced.
2. Black middle-class characters are mostly noble but boring:
- They have little to no moral complexity – they almost always do the right thing, like Bunk Moreland or Gus Haynes.
- We barely see their home life. We see Gus’s wife, for example, for like ten seconds, half-asleep, in a darkened room. We do not even know if he has children or where he lives. He magically appears on the human plane of existence at work and maybe at a bar or restaurant. That is White gaze all the way: it matches the racially segregated experience of Whites, not Blacks.
Kima Greggs and Lester Freamon almost break free of this:
- Kima has her home life shown at length, but morally she is a straight-arrow.
- Lester is morally complex in Season 5, but we barely see his home life, even though he is with Shardene Innes, the stripper from Season 1!
Black poor and working-class people who are main characters are mostly sunk in social pathology – drugs, crime, disorganized families, etc – or recovering therefrom. None are just ordinary people. Even when they have a chance to escape, most do not – like when Marlo Stanfield in his suit returns to the corner. An idea as old as Jim Crow. Just ask Zora Neale Hurston.