“At the end of thirteen episodes, the reward for the viewer – who has been lured all this way by a well constructed police show – is not the simple gratification of hearing handcuffs click. Instead, the conclusion is something that Euripides or O’Neill might recognise: an America, at every level at war with itself.”

The prevailing theme inherent to episode 13 of The Wire is the idea that nothing has really changed since episode 1. This concept is demonstrated both literally and figuratively through some clever visual and plotting devices.

The cyclical nature of life in Baltimore is illustrated through numerous means. The Barksdale story began in court in episode 1 and it also ends there (at least as far as season 1 is concerned) too.

Moreover, there are countless similarities with the two respective court scenes which bookend the season. McNulty looks back at Stringer Bell in both scenes before electing to walk out of the court in utter indignation due, on both occasions, to the failure of the law to punish members of the Barksdale organisation with appropriate severity.

In addition, in episode 1, McNulty says only one line of dialogue to Stringer when it becomes clear that D’Angelo is set to evade arrest: “Nicely done.” In contrast with this scene, in “Sentencing”, Stringer utters the exact same comment to McNulty when it is ascertained that he has ensured that Avon will be spending a prolonged period behind bars.

Furthermore, the episode ends with brief bits of dialogue from arguably the show’s two most iconoclastic characters – McNulty and Omar – which provide brief insights into their altering fortunes. McNulty walks out of court, moaning in his typically perplexed manner: “Jesus, what the f*ck did I do?”

Meanwhile, a disguised Omar reveals himself to a drug dealer and subsequently points a gun to the dealer’s head. Before the scene cuts off and he presumably kills the dealer, Omar gleefully reiterates the series’ fatalistic phrase one last time: “All in the game yo, all in the game.”

Although both McNulty’s and Omar’s aforementioned lines of dialogue seem insignificant in isolation, they are crucial within the context of the thirteen hours of television that has preceded them. Specifically, they reinforce the themes which have dominated season 1.

In relation to “the game”, various characters have made reference to the idea that the drug war is essentially a tactical battle whereby strict regulations must be followed regardless of what “side” a character is on. Moreover, the fact that Omar is the last person to advocate this concept is ironic, given that he is the one character who fails to abide by the system’s constraints. He eschews both sides of the law and instead opts to act as a vigilante, thereby electing to make his own rules and disowning “the game” in the process.

McNulty is, bizarrely enough, perhaps the character who most resembles Omar owing to his independent spirit. Yet he obviously does not allow himself to ignore all of society’s rules, thus ensuring that he must conform to some degree to the whims of the institution – hence, his repeated, frustrated cry of “Jesus, what the f*ck did I do?”   

This exquisite reinforcement of the blurring of cop and criminal boundaries is a fitting conclusion to this wonderfully plotted first season. Furthermore, the repetition intrinsic to its appeal can perhaps be attributed to the inspiration which Simon admits to deriving from Eugene O’Neill – another well known exponent of this predominantly literary device.                 

And regardless of whether casual viewers grasped all of the first series’ many subtle plot developments, there is no mistaking the underlying anger that Simon conveys in the conclusive frames. The customary end of season montage – in conjunction with a stirring rendition of “Step by Step” by Jesse Winchester – exposes the immense flaws which continually pervade American society.

The montage reveals recurring images of drug deals taking place, a shot of Stringer casually relaxing in his office and a disenchanted McNulty being forced to undertake a new job patrolling the harbour.

All the concluding imagery constitutes – to a greater or lesser degree – a form of societal indictment, attesting to an utterly corrupt and ineptly functioning land, an “America, at every level at war itself at every level”. Tellingly, this final episode aired almost exactly one year after the September 11th attacks.

The episode also posits the assertion that there is little hope of such scenarios ever changing, given that characters such as Bodie have filled the vacancy left by other criminals’ incarceration – an analysis from which the show has doubtless acquired its bleak reputation.   

Random Facts:

  1. The critics’ previews of this episode were unanimously rapturous, with The St Petersburg Times describing it as the conclusion to one of “the freshest, most innovative, most entertaining series of the summer”. However many commentators correctly predicted that it would garner low viewership on account of the show’s unusual structure.
  2. The Guardian went a step further, interpreting the episode as an uncanny evocation of the work of novelists such as Theodore Dreiser and Stephen Crane due to its expert use of repetition.
  3. After watching the first season, Martin O’Malley – the real-life Mayor of Baltimore – threatened to prevent further filming of the series from occurring in Baltimore due to the show’s negative portrayal of the city.
  4. This episode was directed by Tim Van Patten, an Emmy winner who has also worked on every season of The Sopranos.
  5. The series was named best TV show of 2002 by TIME Magazine shortly after its first season aired.

Best Quote: “You do not play the game for yourself, you play it for us.” Rawls’ umpteenth condemnation of McNulty’s behaviour is at once an accurate assessment of his flawed nature and an extraordinarily hypocritical pronouncement, in light of both his and the department’s self serving approach at the expense of “good police work”.

Best Scene: D’Angelo’s interrogation scene is further evidence of the season’s cyclical nature, given that a similar scene also occurred earlier in the series. Additionally, it is the point where his narrative approaches its logical denouement – in which he sheds all pretence of sympathising with Avon, whilst reflecting morosely on life on the streets of Baltimore: “You live with this sh*t until you can’t breathe no more.”

New Characters: None

WTF Moment: The judicial system’s covert willingness to be lenient with the Barksdale organisation if they help them uncover political corruption – a scene so surreal that it could only be based on reality.