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Dissecting threads of decay

Special to The Times

“What kind of people stand around watching a fire?” So wonders Gus Haynes (Clark Johnson), city editor of the (fictional) Baltimore Sun, one of the many suffering institutions so carefully documented and dissected on “The Wire,” HBO’s merciless portrayal of the slow death of Baltimore, Md., a city dying before its time. A city that death becomes.

There is, indeed, an actual fire burning up a row house a few blocks from the Sun office, but no one on staff has thought to check it out. That’s because the Sun’s own house is decaying -- buyouts on the horizon, shuttered foreign bureaus, getting beaten on stories by both national press and smaller, nimbler local outlets. (The Sun, like the Los Angeles Times, is owned by Tribune Co.)

For four seasons it’s been the holy mission of “Wire” co-creator David Simon to report on Baltimore’s fires, put them out, and by extension, help to rebuild afterward. “The Wire” has been not only remarkable, nuanced and sensitive television, it has also served as education -- for those on the outside peering in -- and a salve, for those inside who felt they never had a voice.

It has also become a critical cause celebre, spoken of almost exclusively -- and seemingly reflexively -- in superlatives. That happens when a show is good, sure, but also when a show is foreign. It takes something shockingly new to recalibrate the old standards.

Last season consisted primarily of a grim account of the rise of Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector) to the top of the Baltimore drug trade, and the failure of police to bring him down, even when they knew his team had been responsible for almost two dozen homicides.

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Opening this season, about a year has passed, and the Stanfield organization is operating as slickly as ever. The police still surveil him, but they’ve made nary a dent in his business. What’s more, he’s eyeing Proposition Joe (Robert Chew), the elder figure who runs the drug co-op that keeps prices down.

By contrast, formal organizations and institutions -- the police, the city government and the news media -- are in disarray. Mayor Tommy Carcetti’s (Aidan Gillen) promise to revitalize the school system has drained the city budget to the point where police vehicles can’t be serviced, and the team working the Stanfield case has to be disbanded.

Regarding it all, and warily at that, is the Sun, the real version at which Simon spent 13 years covering criminals and those who hoped to catch them.

Simon et al have long been careful to give their least forgivable characters -- kingpins, dope fiends, corner boys, killers -- shades of warmth and accessibility. And for the city servants -- the cops, the politicians -- who have to mete out half-cocked justice, they’ve got larger structural failings to blame. They want to do better, or more, or different, but the system won’t let them.

But Simon’s pessimism about the media is different. And it’s clear where his allegiances lay. Just as McNulty (Dominic West), Bunk (Wendell Pierce), Lester (Clarke Peters) and the rest of the “murder police” take pleasure in the minutiae of their work, so do the paper’s elder staffers, whether plucking the name of a drug dealer out of a zoning ordinance and turning it into front page news, or musing over the proper usage of the word “evacuate.”

These newspapermen -- and they are mainly men -- are Simon’s heroes. (He places some former Sun colleagues, awkwardly, in supporting roles.)

These brief scenes are about as close as “The Wire” has ever come to conviviality. Those who delight in piecing together words are left unchallenged -- even Haynes, who is foulmouthed, literate, detail-oriented and brusque in equal measures. It’s the higher-ups, and the strivers who seek to please them, whom the show paints unflatteringly. Executive editor James Whiting (Sam Freed), is one of the show’s rare one-note characters, more a caricature of corporate mismanagement than a commentary on journalistic practices. By next week, he’s demanding “Dickensian” stories, perhaps a poke at critics who often slap that tag on “The Wire” itself. Scott Templeton (Tom McCarthy) is the reporter who gives Whiting what he wants, over Haynes’ objections. He’s never something other than contemptible, though -- even Stanfield, with his prodigious body count, is more sympathetic.

The result is the first narrative arc in five seasons that feels cheap, or smells anything like vendetta. Plus, lamenting the fate of the daily newspaper feels decidedly fogeyish, and stuck in time as well. There are no mentions of the Web, for instance, and the idea that in the post-Jayson Blair era an editor such as Whiting would brush off Haynes’ concerns about Templeton feels impossible -- especially on a show obsessed with accurately capturing the details of contemporary life, from music to drug-selling tactics. Grousing about how things used to be isn’t a perspective well-suited to “The Wire,” on which characters are ruthlessly focused on tomorrow.

Even as “The Wire,” in its last hours, threatens to become mere metaphor, a possible stand-in for Simon’s own futilities, through it all, Baltimore remains.

State Sen. Clay Davis (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) is still dragging his four-letter words out into three syllables, bobbing and weaving his way through an embezzlement trial. Carcetti continues to be a sinner passing as a do-gooder and a naif passing as a cynic. Newly promoted Lt. Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick), the moral backbone of the previous seasons’ often-futile police investigations, is being rudely introduced to red tape.

Stanfield’s deputies Chris Partlow (Gbenga Akinnagbe) and Snoop (Felicia Pearson) are as fearsome and inscrutable as ever. And when Omar (Michael K. Williams), the gay assassin-thief with a heart of gold, returns to settle scores, it’s notable just how much more comfortable the show seems with desperation than complacency. The journos -- the good ones or the bad ones -- don’t stand a chance.

(There are also several quick cameos by key figures from prior seasons, part of the show’s grand plan of uniting disparate threads of decay.)

And what’s more, while the integrity of journalism is damaged, the police, degraded by low pay and poor results, are giving up as well. On both sides, there are spectacular ethical lapses. The result is farce -- not Shakespeare, but Keystone Kops.

If there is one thing “The Wire” has never been, it’s fantastical. Simon has often spoken of the responsibility he feels to the communities he portrays, but as this season unfolds -- and in some ways, unravels -- it calls into question for the first time the show’s DNA, it’s reliance on ugly truth.

“The Wire” has itself become an institution, which means, just like those it chronicles and laments, it’s vulnerable to abusing its constituents. These antic portrayals toe that line.

Seven episodes were serviced to press, and it remained unclear who, if anyone, would get their comeuppance at series’ end -- the good guys, the bad guys, the bad guys masquerading as good guys, or the good guys who shrug their way into badness.

It will come down to whether Simon sees a difference between principled misbehavior and unprincipled misbehavior. Or more succinctly: Who is it, exactly, that sets worse fires?

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‘The Wire’

Where: HBO

When: 9 to 10 p.m., Sunday

Rating: TV-MA L (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17 with advisory for coarse language)


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