Usually, scenes in HBO's "The Wire" hold almost equal weight. When the anarchic anti-hero Omar was killed a few weeks back, it wasn't a flaming sweeps-styled moment, an event fraught with foreshadowing and pumped up with soundtrack. A central character for all five seasons of the series, Omar was shot from behind by a kid. Next scene.
Thankfully, the "Wire" series finale operates in a similar fashion. Remember the stylistic manipulations that David Chase so boldly toyed with in the closing minutes of "The Sopranos"? There's none of that string-pulling in this 93-minute episode, which airs Sunday at 9. Creator David Simon continues to let the accumulated drama of each character speak for itself, adding only hints of final-episode momentousness and sentiment around the edges. We can bring our own emotions and surmises to our last glimpses of Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), Bubbles (Andre Royo), Lester (Clarke Peters), and even Prez (Jim True-Frost), without having to compete with dramatic pyrotechnics.
On Sunday night, Simon gives almost every character a final telling moment, an instant of character revelation that is poetic and small. There are, of course, more obvious plot wrap-ups afoot, in terms of the Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector) investigation, and whether or not the evidence against the drug lord will survive the system. Does Baltimore Sun reporter Scott Templeton (Tom McCarthy) get exposed for fabrication? Who will fall when McNulty's fake serial-killer case is fully exposed? The big answers are provided, in all their outrageousness, irony, cruelty, ambiguity, and justice.
But the "Wire" finale is most powerful in its smaller flourishes, the ones that sink in later, that will keep sinking in after the series is long gone. The model came last week, when Michael (Tristan Wilds) shot Snoop (Felicia Pearson), and it was handed to us as just another point in time. The sheer ordinariness of Snoop's demise is one of the moments of "The Wire" that will haunt me long after the show is gone. "How my hair look?" she asks Michael before he pulls the trigger. "It look good, girl," he says, a last gift before goodbye.
"The Sopranos" had a mythic sensibility, and its ending suited its life, as we obsessed over the fate of one larger-than-life family. "The Wire" has thrived on a more distanced perspective - it's about Baltimore and its systems as much as it's about specific characters. We've been spying on the action as if through one of the show's many closed-circuit cameras or ceiling mirrors. Kudos to Simon for leaving that distance intact right to the very end. As much as we've been following kids and cops and politicians over the years, we've really been looking at the social, economic, legal, governmental, educational, and penal systems from afar.
And those systems are still up and running. for good but mostly for ill, when we last look at the show's Baltimore. Bubbles may be on the road to recovery, but Dukie (Jermaine Crawford) is on the road to becoming another Bubbles. Omar is gone, but is there a new Omar on the horizon? The city is still failing to save its neediest, the media is still emphasizing the wrong things, the statistics are still being doctored. Well-intentioned individuals like McNulty are still getting crushed by greater forces.
And yet for all the failures there are small successes when all is said and done - fragments of truth in the Sun's coverage, small victories by the under-funded police department, an endangered kid who makes it onto the debate team. Like everything about "The Wire," the finale is sweet as well as bitter, but mostly bitter.