The fourth season of HBO's The Wire comes to an end next Sunday. A show of remarkable complexity, co-written by former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon and former police detective Ed Burns, it is perhaps the most critically acclaimed TV program of the season. What critics and fans alike have noted is The Wire's remarkable narrative compression; as in the best novels, there is a sense that every detail has a purpose. Early on, The Wire may have impressed viewers with its cop-show chops—the first season focused on the Barksdale drug crew and the investigative police force trying to bring them down—but the show was always about something bigger—namely, the life of the city itself. In the fourth season, which concludes on Dec. 10, the show has expanded its focus from local politics and the drug trade to the public school system; with only one remaining season scheduled, we pressed David Simon on what The Wire adds up to, how the writers' room operates, and what might be in store in Season 5. Simon spoke with me by phone from his office in Baltimore.
Slate: What did you think made The Wire different from The Corner, the HBO miniseries that preceded it?
Simon: The Wire concerned those parts of the book [Simon's original nonfiction account] about why the drug war doesn't work. But we realized that explaining that why the drug war doesn't work would get us only through the first season. So, we started looking at the rest of what was going on in the city of Baltimore. Ed [Burns] and I knew we wanted to touch on education. I had grown up as a reporter at the Baltimore Sun, and I had seen many aspects of local and city administration. Once we began to come up with these different ways of addressing the city as a whole, we had a blueprint for the show.
Slate: If you had to sum up what The Wire is about, what would it be?
Simon: Thematically, it's about the very simple idea that, in this Postmodern world of ours, human beings—all of us—are worth less. We're worth less every day, despite the fact that some of us are achieving more and more. It's the triumph of capitalism.
Slate: How so?
Simon: Whether you're a corner boy in West Baltimore, or a cop who knows his beat, or an Eastern European brought here for sex, your life is worth less. It's the triumph of capitalism over human value. This country has embraced the idea that this is a viable domestic policy. It is. It's viable for the few. But I don't live in Westwood, L.A., or on the Upper West Side of New York. I live in Baltimore.
Slate: What are your models?
Simon: There were no models for us in TV. I admire the storytelling of The Sopranos, though I don't watch it consistently. And Deadwood; I don't watch it, but I admire their storytelling. We certainly weren't paying attention to network TV.
Instead, the impulse on my part is rooted in what I was supposed to be in life, which was a journalist. I'm not interested in conducting morality plays using TV drama—in stories of good versus evil. I'm not interested in exalting character as a means of maintaining TV franchise. Most of TV works this way: You try to get something up and running, and once you do, you just try to keep it going, because there's a lot of money involved. That's not in my head. What's in my head is what I covered, what I saw as true or fraudulent, what made me smile, as a reporter. I've been mining that ever since. To be honest, at the end of The Wire, I'll have said all I have to say about Baltimore. I don't have another cop show in me. I don't have another season about Baltimore. What I'm saying is that I have to go back to the well.