(And now for the inevitable anticlimax, goaded out of me by Realdoc and others. Just be grateful that I've trimmed most of the Baudrillard and all the Barthes from it - at one point, it was about twice the length, not including footnotes. I did think a SPOILER ALERT might be appropriate here, but since The Wire is officially the greatest show you've never seen, and probably never will, there's not much point. Unless this provokes one or two of you to join the club, of course.)
The Wire is lauded for its realism; but of course, it is not real. We know the names of the actors who pretend to be cops and gangsters, teachers and students, politicians and journalists and dockers and priests and junkies and hookers; we know the names of the writers who put words in their mouths, and the directors and the producers too. The true obsessives know the cameramen and the editors and the stunt performers and all the musicians who recorded the various versions of the Tom Waits song and the person who crafted Brother Mouzone's bowtie.
But that's not what realism means, of course. Realism at its best means the art of lulling the viewer into two parallel states of consciousness: deep down, they know it's not real; but at the same time, they care as if it is real. The fun is in the tension between the two states. By the last episode of the last season, the makers had grown confident enough to play metafictional games with the audience, dancing in the spaces between The Wire's universe and ours, without severing that emotional, unironic bond.
It's in similar territory to Brecht's Verfremdungseffekt: deliberately alerting the audience to the artificiality of the drama to remind them that the big themes are more important than the imaginary characters. But David Simon (the most appropriate candidate for the role of 'author' here, if such a job title still exists) goes one better; he downplays the reality of Wireworld by allowing real Baltimore to intrude. Entangle yourself with the hyperreality of Omar and Kima and Carcetti; just remember that there's something approaching reality (that's real reality) going on at the same time.
Think of the relationship between the actors and the roles they play. Many characters take their names from real individuals in Baltimore; Sgt Jay Landsman for example, who appears both as a character (played by Delaney Williams) and as an actor (playing Dennis Mello). Journalist Bill Zorzi and convicted killer Felicia 'Snoop' Phelps, meanwhile, play themselves, or at least characters who share their names. Elsewhere, the producers cast from the headlines: reformed drug dealer Melvin Williams (who was arrested by David Simon's colleage Ed Burns) plays the Deacon; disgraced police commissioner Ed Norris plays a cop called, uh, Ed Norris, And sometimes it's just a matter of settling scores: Simon named a loathesome police lieutenant 'Marimow' to get back at one of his bêtes noires from his days on the Baltimore Sun. That's the real Baltimore Sun, by the way, not the fictional one on screen...
Ah, the paper. Which brings us to the last season, and the last episode, and the title screams its intentions. "-30-" is journalese to signify the end of a piece of copy. Not only is our attention drawn to the fact that this is the last episode; it also labels The Wire as a piece of journalism, something purporting to be true. Except that, as Scott Templeton's concoctions spiral out of control, and his paymasters turn a blind eye, we know that any claim that journalism may once have had on the truth is long gone.
Not that anyone else has clean hands, of course. As Norman Wilson says at the beginning of the episode: "Everyone's getting what they need behind some make-believe." Mayor Carcetti has just realised that his ascent to the Governorship may be derailed because the serial killer that he used as a way to lambast the State for lack of funding doesn't actually exist. He's a politician, so he's used to lying; what throws him is the fact that this time he thought he was telling the truth. Similarly, Templeton is a journalist, and well used to embroidering the truth; but on this story, he's unaware that his embroidery is decorating an invention. It's empty and, as his colleague Alma discovers, so is the notebook he wields as a badge of his journalistic integrity.
This emptiness, this absence, becomes a central theme when McNulty finds himself confronted by a classic simulacrum - a copycat of a killer that doesn't exist. "The lie's so big," he declares, channeling Goebbels, "people can't live with it." But they can, and they do, as the (conveniently insane) copycat is blamed for the other killings and Carcetti gets his photo-op.
But there's one more absence, one more lie to deal with. In the past, policemen who died have had wakes staged for them; this has also been a handy way for the makers to acknowledge the passing of cast members (both Foerster and Cole were honoured thus when the actors who played them died). These were fictional funerals to mark real deaths; McNulty now receives a wake when he (the character) isn't even dead. Except that this is the last episode, and as far as the viewer's concerned, he may as well have taken a bullet; Landsman's eulogy is for The Wire itself. -30-. It's all make-believe after all; the only difference is, the make-believe in The Wire won no prizes, unlike Templeton's Pulitzer-worthy creations.
In the end, only two characters break free from the cycle of mendacity, although they both express their moral purity in unlikely ways. Daniels, unwilling to help the new mayor by producing statistical bullshit, leaves the force entirely and becomes a defence lawyer, in which role, presumably, he lies for a living; but at least he and everyone else knows it's an act. And Marlo, encouraged by Levy to reinvent himself as a legitimate businessman, slips away from the posh party, knowing that his true self can only exist on the street. By acknowledging himself as irredeemably evil, he achieves a sort of nobility through self-knowledge; a sort of truth.