Slate deputy editor David Plotz and Atlantic national correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg were online at Washingtonpost.com on March 6 to bring readers into their ongoing conversation about the hit HBO series The Wire. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.
David Plotz: Hi Wireheads,
I got some WMD! WMD!
Jeffrey Goldberg: Hi, Jeff here. I understand Plotz is selling WMD. My favorite all-time brand-name was Greenhouse Gas, from early this season. "Greenhouse gas is hot!" someone yelled from a corner. Anyway, nice to be here. A lot of good questions, I see. Plotz will take the hard ones.
Columbia, Mo. (grew up reading Kansas City Star, by the way): This season of The Wire has introduced us to a Baltimore Sun newsroom that borders on racist, at least from the management perspective. The paper willingly chooses to focus on a serial killer of white men, while barely mentioning serial killers of the black community (Marlo, Snoop, Omar, etc.). The paper's management constantly favors the young white reporter over the experienced black city editor (unless he has another white editor as backup). My question is: Is this type of institutionalized racism common in American newsrooms today?
David Plotz: I've never worked for a daily newspaper, so I can't claim to be an expert. I don't think that newspapers are institutionally racist in any systematic way. I think they favor the spectacular and new over the routine, and the drumbeat of drug violence in Baltimore or DC is routine, while a fetishistic serial killer isn't. That said, newspapers are always more interested, and more plugged into, the communities where their own reporters live, so the Washington Post covers Cleveland Park better than Petworth.
Lynhaven Hood: RIP Omar Little. I have really enjoyed your comments in Slate. I read them religiously, almost as religiously as I watch The Wire itself! My biggest problem is, how am I going to go on without The Wire? How will we all survive? Further to those questions, are you aware of any upcoming related projects, or other work by David Simon?
Jeffrey Goldberg: The Wire is your religion? You're probably better off joining a religion that won't have such an abbreviated last season. You know how I survived the end of The Sopranos? I started watching Season 1. And that's what I suggest here. The first season of The Wire is fantastic. The second you could probably skip.
Laurel, Md.: My favorite two product shout outs of all time: When Carcetti was running for mayor, "got that election day special two for one!" During the holidays, "got that mistletoe!"
David Plotz: Jeff just mentioned a great one, too: Greenhouse gas
Arlington, Va.: No matter what the fallout, I'm completely behind Greggs going to Daniels about the "serial killer." She's the one who had to question and console the families of the homeless "victims," she's the one who was pulled from a triple homicide for this investigation, and she has enough sense to know that a scheme this sloppy was going to get out; far better to give Daniels a chance to get ahead of it.
I'm expecting some degree of a coverup regardless, but there can and should be consequences for McNulty and the sadly tarnished Freamon. Also, a question: Does anyone know if there will be a D.C. area screening of the finale? I don't have HBO, and while I have an invitation to "borrow" my aunt's TV, I'd much rather see it with people who love the show like I do. (Getting to and from Baltimore on Sunday night is pretty much out of the question.)
David Plotz: Jeff and I have been arguing about just this point, in the dialogue and in person too. I totally agree with you that Kima did right, and that her snitching was the moral act. Jeff—well, Jeff will answer for himself, but he overvalues loyalty. One great achievement of The Wire is to create in oneself these fights. Is it LOYAL for Bunk not to rat out Jimmy? Or is his loyalty just hurting the people of Baltimore?
Jeffrey Goldberg: I overvalue loyalty? It's a hard thing to do, overvalue loyalty. Granted, we have some recent, federal-level experience with this (although Rumsfeld is no longer feeling the loyalty now) but I tend to think of loyalty as a keystone of character. And I can't help but have hard feelings about Kima's actions. I understand the questioner's point—Kima actually had to sit with those parents. And that does make her actions excusable. I'm just telling you how I feel, and to paraphrase Slim Charles (Washington's own!) I'm just writing what I feel.
Upper Marlboro, Md.: I could have used some WMD after Sunday's episode, when they dropped that this week's episode wouldn't be On Demand. I always nod out to The Wire at midnight On Demand. What's up with the change? Many Wire heads know what's ahead. Why make people wait now?
David Plotz: For the obvious reason: To build suspense. They want every Wire fan in the country gluegunned to the couch Sunday night.
Arlington, Va.: Did you all watch the episodes a week early, as available "On Demand"? The one-minute teaser they used to let the early watchers know they had to wait another week for the finale (a montage of Clay Davis and his catch-word) was inspired.
David Plotz: We generally watch them late in the week, on preview DVDs that HBO sent us. I haven't watched the finale yet, though. I missed the Clay Davis montage—drat
Carrboro, N.C.: Given the occasional references and homages to The Godfather, do you see a possible parallel between Michael in The Wire and Michael Corleone? Both are clean-cut kids who reluctantly joined the life of crime; both are more intelligent than the average thug; both express a certain amount of regret for their actions. In the imaginary next season of The Wire, I can see Michael taking over the business like Michael Corleone did in Godfather II. Your thoughts?
Jeffrey Goldberg: That's an interesting question. Also profane. I mean, there's the Corleones, and then there's everything else. Maybe because the Godfather stands alone for me I didn't see the parallels, but now that you point them out, I see your point. Though it's an inexact comparison, and not only because I don't recall Michael Corleone expressing much regret about anything, after he was punched in the nose by Sterling Hayden.
Namond's After School Special: I've had the feeling for the entire season that Simon is using the last season to toss some of the disappeared actors a final paycheck. We've had a homeless portworker and a couple of heckling portworkers, Cutty had a couple of scenes, they bring back Randy for a cameo and then Namond, Bunny and the Deacon. Some of this served to complete minor plot points ... the grain pier went condo, Namond is saved while Randy is not ... but mostly it seemed to be superfluous.
David Plotz: I love the way Simon keeps it all connected, and reminds us that it's all one world. The Nick Sobotka (sp) cameo was lovely, and Randy's lone scene was one of the most profound of the season.
Houston: Season 2's big storyline about the dockworkers always has felt like a weird outlier in The Wire's narrative. Whereas other plotlines were woven into The Wire's main story, they never really have returned to the dockworker story line, other than cameo appearances by Nick, Valchek, The Greek and his henchman, and Beadie in other story lines. Do you think there is much David Simon and the other writers could have done to advance that plot past Season 2?
David Plotz: Most Wire fans treat Season 2 with disdain. I certainly agree that it was the weakest season, but it was valuable in a key way. It aerated the show. Had the show remained close focused on the drug-vs-cops theme of seasons 1 and 3, it would have felt like a smaller show. By putting us outside the world of the corner, it began to give us the whole sweep of the city (and clue us into Simon's notion that everything—from the crate on the dock to the body in the vacant—is connected).
Jeffrey Goldberg: This is uncharacteristic of me, but I'm going to agree with David here. The second season was lumpy and often non-compelling, but it was David Simon's first attempt to make The Wire something more than what we all originally thought it was going to be. I happen to think that the fourth season is the reason we'll remember this show for a long time. The drug trade, by itself, wouldn't sustain this show.
Towson, Md.: I don't get all the Omar worship. People say "he had a code" and "he never put a gun on a citizen," but come on—the guy is still a murderer engaging in running gunfights up and down the street. His character was interesting and well-acted, but as far as the "Omar was the good guy" thing, give me a break.
David Plotz: True. The Wire is so good at messing with viewers' minds that it had lots of us rooting for homicidal Omar. As a fan, I found that a kind of transference took place: I loved the character so much that I would start to inhabit him, and share his worldview. This happened most with Omar, but increasingly with Clay Davis and Snoop.
Omar (The Great Beyond):: Why does it take forever (or later) for Emmy voters to recognize David Simon vehicles? Andre Braugher only got an award for Homicide on his way out the door in the last season, and now The Wire is in danger of going 0-for-5? Is it racial? Can't think of any other reason, and I'm a white guy (Omar handle, notwithstanding). P.S. To that end, the Emmys should be as venerable as a Blockbuster award.
David Plotz: The Emmy business is ridiculous. On the other hand, The Wire has suffered from no shortage of public acclaim. When you consider the amount of ink spilled in worshipful prose—a lot of it by me and others at Slate—I don't think you can argue that it is being ignored (especially when you consider just how few people actually watch it.)
Bada Bing: If Marlo goes to a diner for some onion rings, I'm turning off the TV.
Jeffrey Goldberg: I am totally with you. In fact, I was going to make the very same joke, but you beat me to it.
Charlotte Amalie, Virgin Islands: Skip the second season? No way, by the end it was awesome. How can you not get worked up when Sobatka walks to his death?
Jeffrey Goldberg: To each his own, I guess. A bad Wire episode is still worth watching. Don't get me wrong here.
Yorktown Heights, N.Y.: Is it common sentiment that the Season 5 plot seems very artificial? I can't buy that McNulty or anyone with half a brain would take such a huge risk for a reward that wasn't even guaranteed. I'm a huge fan of The Wire, and generally I am satisfied with this season, but I can't get past this element of the plot. And I guess I'd say that I'm a little disappointed in the way Omar went out.
David Plotz: I agree with half your question and disagree with the other half. The Bitey the Bloodthirsty serial killer fraud was infuriating, for the reasons you cite (though I think the show has done a pretty good job unwinding the ridiculous premise in the past few weeks).
I disagree about Omar. His death was painful, in the sense that I will miss him, but I thought it was artistically and thematically brilliant. Having him taken out by psychopathic, tiny Kenard was a stroke of genius. Check out this great Slate guest post by one of our readers about Omar's death.
Reading, Mass.: Will the secret file on Cedric Daniels past be finally revealed in the finale? What does it contain?
David Plotz: I'm guessing it won't. It's a McGuffin, I think. I think it's Simon's nod to All the King's Men: We are all of us, even the most erect and rectitudinous (not a word) of us, corrupt.
Upper Mayberry, Md.: I feel you on the scene with Randy—it was truly profound. It showed a good kid who had been hardened by his circumstance, which was created by the police, who will in turn will arrest him in the future because his only likely path is crime.
Jeffrey Goldberg: That was one of the most brilliant, minute-long sequences in the whole show. An entire world was contained in that one quick scene.
Boston: Namond Hater: Please explain why I am so annoyed that Namond is the one kid who got out. Thanks for the lively Wire discussions.
Jeffrey Goldberg: Maybe because he's kind of whiny. Which is what a lot of real kids are.
But my advice to you is to stop being a hata.
Alexandria, Va.: Am I wrong for thinking Cheese is the most annoying Wire character of all time? McNulty is a close second...
David Plotz: I totally agree. Method Man, who plays Cheese, is a terrible ham, a way too cartoony version of what he should be. It also doesn't make sense that Marlo—who's a smart guy—would trust so much territory to such an untrustworthy, stupid wretch as Cheese.
Essex: Aside from the newsroom hooey, the most unrealistic scenario this season was Jimmy and Kima's trip to Quantico. The lead detective on a red-ball serial killing is going to make a 5.5-hour round trip to have an agent read a profile to him? I don't think so. That said, the profile and Jimmy Mac's reaction were the comic highlight of the season.
Jeffrey Goldberg: I actually think this was quite realistic. I would recommend you go read Malcolm Gladwell's recent New Yorker expose on the Quantico profilers. It was quite hysterical. I agree with you that that look of recognition on Jimmy's face was priceless, and also proved that Dominic West can, on occasion, act.
Reston, Va.: Who among The Wire's large cast do you think will best use their Wire notoriety as a launchpad for continued prominent TV and/or film roles? I'd love to see more of Wendell Pierce (Bunk), Anwan Glover (Slim Charles), Chad Coleman (Dennis "Cutty" Wise) and Robert F. Chew (Prop Joe)—not to mention all of the kids from Season 4...
David Plotz: Great question. Lots of them have landed TV gigs—Law Order, and Numb3rs have had a bunch of Wire people. Idris "Stringer Bell" Elba has done a lot. I'm sure Dominic West will get work, because he's a good enough actor, but also great looking. I bet Cedric Daniels, whose name I can't remember, will get work, as will Marlo and Chris Partlow. They're all stupendous actors and good looking. I talked to a Wire producer about the success of some of their nontraditional actors—Snoop or Anwan—and he was very angry that casting agents were only narrowly looking at them for thug-like roles. He thought, rightly, that they should be getting more love.
Jeffrey Goldberg: Well, David, what show do you think is appropriate for Snoop? Dancing With the Stars?
Your general point is well-taken, and I admire your bracing honesty in re: Dominic West's handsomeness. This has been a hobby-horse of mine—not Dominic West's handsomeness—as David well knows, that one of the miraculous aspects of The Wire is its cast of mostly-unknown, mostly-African-American actors. I suggested early in this season that a clever Shakespeare company would hire The Wire cast en masse.
David Plotz: And who would Snoop play in your Shakespearean fantasy? I'd put her down for Lady Macbeth.
Arlington, Va.: I am a faithful reader of the TV Club—I have been for years, and love the analysis of the show and even how you guys go off on tangents. I have to say—I really was bummed out when the rumored shooting of Omar was true. For some reason I loved that character. And the way he went down (as put in the TV Club because of smoking) still shocked me, even though I had read the rumor. RIP Omar. I'm on my way to Puerto Rico to comfort your Papi Chulo!
Jeffrey Goldberg: Tangents? Who goes on tangents?
Omar's killing was deeply emblematic. I mean, Kennard is Marlo's Marlo, in a way. Omar had a code. Marlo has not much of a code. Kennard is an 11-year-old, and already completely dead inside. In retrospect, it is clear to me that having Omar killed by a child made perfect sense. The Wire is about the collapse of honor, even perverse honor.
Arlington, Va.: I grew up in Baltimore and I can confirm that every detail is accurate, including Crab Chip and Captain Chesapeake references. But the reason I love the show is that it makes you feel bad for how our cities need help, but you are still glad you watched. Has any other show convicted the viewer as much, yet hooked them as well?
David Plotz: "convicted the viewer"—that's a great phrase! I think there are movies that have done that (The Deer Hunter, perhaps). But I can't think of any other TV show that so effectively combines guilt and addiction.
Jeffrey Goldberg: That is a great phrase. Nothing comes to mind on television. But then again, I try to avoid television. Speaking of which, are there any shows worth watching out there, now that The Wire is gone?
Washington: Some friends and I have been The Wire fans for years. We were talking the other day about how compelling it is as a portrait of a city. We were thinking how interesting it would be to see a similar treatment of "complicated" cities in other countries like maybe Marseilles, Rio, Shanghai or Lagos. What great in-depth stories you could do ... I wish it could happen. There is only one other similar show—"Da Vinci's Inquest," about Vancouver.
Jeffrey Goldberg: It's been said—I don't know if this is confirmed—that David Simon is turning his attention to New Orleans. Which would be quite something.
The guy is obviously not interested in commercial success, and more power to him.
Worcester, Mass.: Wonder why that was the only possible fate for Dukie
David Plotz: Isn't it interesting that the Season 4 boys are the characters fans most worry about? I think their differing fates were handed down exactly as you'd expect, given Simon's belief in how things work. Randy, ruined and destroyed because the system of government that was supposed to help him screwed him over. Michael, who makes his own fate, independent of any institutions, and bears a terrible cost because of it. Dukie, betrayed by the other government institution that was supposed to help, schools, and left to the street. And Namond, redeemed not by institutions, which abandoned him, but by an act of individual love and trust from Bunny Colvin. That's the only kind of redemption allowed.
Biloxi, Miss.: One of you mentioned Law & Order as the last refuge of The Wire actors. You didn't mention that about half of The Wire's cast first appeared in Oz (Rawls, Daniels, Herc, Carv, etc.).
Jeffrey Goldberg: Good point. Though I was kind of repulsed by that show.
New York: I think this season has been the weakest with all of this serial killer nonsense. The show is still great because you care about the characters and some of the other story lines, but don't you feel that the serial killer stuff seemed contrived and unnecessary?
Jeffrey Goldberg: Yes, absolutely. I've been a big critic of this; David is more forgiving, but he's a more forgiving type generally. That said, I have found myself at times curious about the disposition of this subplot.
David Plotz: The serial killer stuff was hugely weak. I just realized what bothered me about the newsroom plot, too, which is that the characters don't get any real lift outside the room. In all the other seasons, characters are given nonprofessional lives. But the reporters aren't. They are only what they do, and that makes them kinda dull.
Baltimore: The excellent actor who plays Marlo Stanfield next will be making an appearance on the less-than-excellent Heroes. I hope his power in that show will be similar to the one he already has in The Wire—the ability to live off nothing but lollipops.
Jeffrey Goldberg: Jaime Hector, who plays Marlo, is a great actor, no doubt. And that lollipop business was perhaps the coldest thing on the entire show. The security guard who caught him boosting, you'll recall, ended up in rowhouse.
Arlington, Va.: What is your ranking of the seasons? Mine in order from best to worst (relative term) is fourth, first, fifth, third, second. I know I am not as high on Season 3 as some others.
David Plotz: Fourth
Does everyone think 4 is the best? I think they do.
Philadelphia: Okay, I have to admit this. I have been living in a cave for the past several years. What is The Wire, and what have I missed by never having seen this show?
washingtonpost.com: Clips From and Critics Quotes About The Wire(HBO)
Jeffrey Goldberg: The Wire is an underwater musical starring Esther Williams.
Washington: I'd bet my next paycheck that Judge Phelan is Levy's snitch at the courthouse, because it can't be Ronda...
Jeffrey Goldberg: How big is your paycheck?
Bethesda, Md.: I think you all touched on this in your weekly Slate discussions, but I seriously hope this is not the last time I see these wonderful and gifted actors, and not on another episode of Law & Order either. I want to see Omar, Michael, Randy, Kim and especially Bunk, who really should have his own show. One more thing: You guys really never watched the previews for the next episode? How could you not? Half the fun is seeing what's gonna happen next!
Jeffrey Goldberg: Discipline. Total, iron discipline.
The Western, Md.: Think we'll see Brother Mouzone on Sunday?
David Plotz: Wouldn't that be nice! I doubt it, though. He was such a gift from the gods.
I think we wireheads are thinking about the finale like the Seinfeld finale, as if they are going to bring back all the old favorite characters for a final cameo and hug. I would like them to bring back the ghost of Stringer Bell.
Washington: I work in Georgetown, and yesterday saw Anwan Glover (Slim Charles) going into Uno's of all places. I stopped and said hello, lamenting the end of the show. I think he was a bit taken aback that this white business kid knew who he was. It's amazing how some of these characters can go on with their public lives so anonymously.
David Plotz: Anwan is an amazing guy—a popular radio DJ here, and frontman for the seminal go-go group the Backyard Band. And he has one of the greatest voices in the history of television.
Washington: Do you agree with the claim that The Wire is the greatest show in TV history?
Jeffrey Goldberg: I'm more of an I Love Lucy sort of guy.
And The Sopranos. I Love Lucy and The Sopranos. Two great tastes that taste great together.
Cast members working: I can't believe you gave no love to Andre Royo, aka Bubbles. I think he's a pretty good actor. A lot of The Wire cast members are experienced actors, and many were recast from other HBO vehicles -- particularly The Corner and Oz. Wendell Pierce has been in Hollywood productions like Get on the Bus (where he got thrown off of the bus) and Waiting to Exhale (where he should have been thrown out of bed). And the Clay Davis's character's signature line originally was done by the same actor playing a DEA agent in Spike Lee's 25th Hour.
David Plotz: There are Bubbles-lovers and there are Bubbles-haters. I'm sorry to say I fall in the later group. I have always found his plots a little cheap and emotional manipulative. Except for his turn as Lear's fool at the end of Hamsterdam, and his wonderful lashing out at Herc in Season 4, I've never been drawn to him. But I know that puts me in the minority.
Baltimore: I really enjoy your back and forth commentary on this exceptional show. I know you have been critical of the fake-serial-killer plotline, and it is over the top. However I cannot help but admire McNulty and Freaman going after the real serial killer, Marlo Stansfield, when no else seems to care about 22 or 23 bodies left in the vacant houses. As for predictions, (or make that dear hopes) somehow Dukie is rescued and doesn't morph into Bubbles the Sequel.
Jeffrey Goldberg: I think it's safe to say that Dukie is not on an upward trajectory.
I also agree with your sentiment; the plot device is ridiculous, but it doesn't betray the natures of these characters, Lester especially. For Lester, it's all about catching the prey.
Marlo and Cheese: Haven't you ever worked at a place where a smart higher-up noticed an ambitious youngster with little talent and realized how useful it could be to promote someone they knew would do whatever they told him to? Especially in a business where it's pretty easy to throw people away.
David Plotz: Right—and maybe if they stretched the plot forward a few more episodes, we would see Marlo drop Cheese and replace him with someone more capable (like Slim Charles). Marlo also has the problem that all homicidal sociopaths have when they are boss: The only people who want to work for you are also homicidal sociopaths.
Anonymous: I still sit in amazement that this show never has received any accolades or awards. I won't debate the action, but the writing and story lines alone warrant more respect and acknowledgement. (I understand the demographic of the show, but the white actors were not even acknowledged.)
Jeffrey Goldberg: I think you're on to something. The actors who play Bunk, Clay Davis, and Cedric Daniels in particular deserve accolades.
Re: Casting: Actually many of the stars, including Idris Elba and Dominic West, are not American at all.
David Plotz: Yeah, Dominic West's accent is always kind of touch-and-go.
Jimmy's Demise: At the beginning of the season, HBO offered three minor character studies (I forget what buzzword they used to describe them) as part of the OnDemand products. They were a young Omar robbing the robber and "robin-hooding" the victim, a young Prop Joe backstabbing an opponent with a proposition for his teacher, and McNulty's first day on the homicide squad. Prop Joe and Omar are gone. I could see McNulty killing himself in the last episode. So, was Simon foreshadowing the deaths of three prominent characters?
Jeffrey Goldberg: Provocative thought. Part of me wishes that Jimmy disappeared a long time ago.
Chicago: Does the portrayal of Levy the Jewish lawyer make you wince at all?
Jeffrey Goldberg: I don't wince. Or cringe.
I get angry, however.
To answer your question, yes and no, mostly no. This is what HBO does—it plays it close to the line, it isn't afraid to offend. And it's equal opportunity offense.
The courthouse snitch: Has to be Rhonda.
Jeffrey Goldberg: Such a cynic, you.
Southeast Washington: Let's not forget the best potential byproduct of the wire—"Hampsterdam." For all the nonsense, I think that could work in the U.S.
Jeffrey Goldberg: It didn't work so well on The Wire, though, if you'll recall. To the show's credit—and it is a show that is opposed to the Drug War—Hamsterdam wasn't prettified. It was a nasty place which trapped innocent people in its despair and perversity.
Albany, N.Y.: The two of you have spent a lot of time questioning the "realism" of the Baltimore Sun plot. Why is perfect adherence to real life such an important factor in your enjoyment of the show? Isn't it possible that other institutions have been portrayed with just as much deviation from real life and you just did not notice? More importantly, is documentary-style realism the true goal of a series that is compared to Greek mythology, or is the verisimilitude just a well-executed artistic device?
David Plotz: I agree with that beef. I dislike the newspaper portrayal, but I am willing to grant Simon liberty to play around. I doubt his police department or drug gang is perfectly accurate either. The problem with the newspaper is less that it's an inaccurate portrait of a paper than that the characters are not very compelling. They are psychologically narrower than the characters in the others seasons/plots
Vancouver, Canada: Am I the only one who thinks McNulty's deception is going to be covered up? Maybe he takes a fall inside the police department by being forced to resign (or sent back to the marine unit/evidence locker), but is Carcetti (or Rawls for that matter) really going to let the big drug bust go up in smoke? That would end his chances for Annapolis in a pinch. The only wild card is Levy, but Lester appears to be cooking something up on that end...
Jeffrey Goldberg: You sound like a very clever person.
Washington Post: Have you read the blog "Stuff White People Like"? It fits you two exactly, from knowing what's good for poor people to not watching TV.
David Plotz: I love that Web site! Multilingual children! Pretending to like soccer!
New York: Why didn't you tell me about The Wire? I just started watching it two weeks ago and am now finished with Season 3. I am now Bubbles, begging my neighbor for a Season 4 fix. Will not read the chat for fear of learning. Stupid HBO put Omar RIP on the Web site, and that was beat.
Jeffrey Goldberg: Yes, that was indeed beat.
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada: Jeffrey, you clearly came into this TV Club with an axe to grind against David Simon and his newspaper subplot. Are you normally this unobjective in your writing, or was it just because this was "only a TV show"? Regardless, I found it very amateurish, and it certainly doesn't make me want to read anything else you've written.
Jeffrey Goldberg: Axe to grind? I've called him a genius.
David Plotz: Thanks for all the great questions, and have a wonderful Sunday night!