Everything Comes Full Circle in The Wire Series Finale

Jimmy wearing a suite with Daniels looming in the doorway

For me, HBO’s The Wire is at the very top of the Peak TV era.

Never before, or since, have I seen a show as realistic, gripping, intelligent, and heartbreaking. No other show is as effective at presenting such complicated characters: cops (the typical good guys) who are corrupt or inept, drug dealers (the typical bad guys) who you can’t help but root for, and all other types of people trapped in a whirlwind of politics, addiction, racism, violence, and flip-of-a-coin fortunes.

The Wire aired between 2002 and 2008, lasting five seasons. Due to suboptimal ratings, the show was almost canceled several times, and would have been if not for creator David Simon persuading HBO executives to let him bring things to a conclusion.

And boy am I glad he did.

A great show can have a disappointing finale and still be a great show. However, The Wire is a great show that has a fantastic final episode. Each season of The Wire focused on a different issue facing the city of Baltimore—think of each season as a chapter in a novel. The first season specifically looks at the illegal drug trade (which is a running theme throughout the entire series); the second season is about unions and Baltimore’s sea docking system; the third season focuses on politics; the fourth is about the school system; and the fifth and final season covers the print media industry.

Titled “-30-” (the traditional symbol in journalism that signifies the end of an article), The Wire series finale aired on March 9, 2008. It wrapped up the 10-episode Season 5, which I found to be the weakest season of the show’s run. The final season struggled in my eyes because of one particular storyline, in which Detective Jimmy McNulty begins staging crime scenes to make it look like Baltimore was dealing with a serial killer targeting homeless people. He did this in order to receive more resources that he, in turn, used to acquire an illegal wiretap to take down drug kingpin Marlo Stanfield.

On a different show, it would be easier to overlook the implausibility of this storyline. But part of what makes The Wire so great is how *real* the show is. (Many of the writers had firsthand experience with what they were writing about; a lot of the actors cast were real people from Baltimore with little-to-no previous acting experience, etc.) So even though Jimmy often stretched the rules within the police department, the fact that he would illegally plant false evidence at crime scenes was a little too hard to swallow—especially because he draws in his fellow detective, the good-natured Lester Freamon, to help. Many other aspects of Season 5 are outstanding, however. And it is capped off with one of my favorite series finales ever.

Throughout The Wire‘s run, some of the most shocking moments would typically occur before the season finale, with the final episode summarizing the importance of that season’s themes. Season 5 follows this pattern as well. The season’s most shocking moment—the surprisingly low-key murder of Omar Little—takes place in Episode 8, and the finale serves as a summary of the season (and show as a whole).

“-30-” opens with Deputy of Operations Cedric Daniels explaining to the mayor that the serial killer targeting homeless people was a hoax created by Jimmy. You would think this would spell the end for Jimmy and Lester, but the mayor’s office worries that making the truth public could hurt Mayor Carcetti’s chances at becoming governor.

Most of the episode revolves around the fallout of Jimmy’s shenanigans and how they would affect the people above them politically. Daniels is told to keep quiet about the whole mess in exchange for a promotion to commissioner. At one point in the episode, Jimmy walks into an elevator with Daniels. They both know what Jimmy did, but all Daniels can do is stare in his classic fashion. As he walks off and sternly tells Jimmy, “To be continued,” it’s just so perfect.

Bill Rawls stares at Jimmy McNulty, with Cedric Daniels looking on with his arms crossed

The fate of Marlo Stanfield is also related to Jimmy’s actions. Marlo was put behind bars because of the wiretap Jimmy acquired. But because the wiretap was gained illegally—and Marlo’s lawyer Levy knows this—Levy is able to work out a deal in which Marlo walks completely free, with the condition that if he goes back to causing trouble, the charges could come back after Carcetti’s election for governor. “Give up the crown,” Levy tells him.

It’s pretty crazy to think that Marlo is able to walk free from serious drug charges simply because the mayor wants to keep some unfavorable press quiet until an election, but that’s how things work in The Wire. The systems don’t make a lot of sense, and everything follows the chain of command.

There are two storylines that run through the Baltimore Sun newsroom in the finale. The smaller but heartfelt one shows us Bubbles working with a reporter who is writing a biographical piece. Bubbles is unsure of whether he wants it published and shows the draft version of the article to his sponsor, Walon (played by the fantastic Steve Earle, who performed the opening credits music for Season 5), who asks Bubbles if he’s afraid of people thinking he’s a good person. Bubbles has been through so much throughout The Wire, a show in which a lot of characters have an unhappy ending. But to see Bubbles pull himself out of the depths of heroin addiction, homelessness, the death of two close friends, and get to where he ends up in Season 5 (staying clean and finding a job selling newspapers) makes me ridiculously happy.

The other newsroom storyline focuses on a battle between a reporter, Scott, who has been falsifying quotes and facts in some of his articles, and the city desk editor, Gus, who knows the guy is a fraud but can’t get his bosses to listen (or care). Of all the terrible things that people do in The Wire, I found Scott’s actions—literally making things up and reporting them as fact—to be one of the worst.

As someone who has worked in publishing for my entire career, I can’t imagine what it would be like to encounter this affront to journalism. But I think The Wire does an excellent job of showing how news media publishers may prioritize making money over journalistic integrity. Even though this episode aired more than 10 years ago, this is still a relevant issue in today’s (crazy) media landscape. It’s almost assuredly even worse now, with newspapers slashing staff or even folding completely.

They might not be for everyone, but I really enjoyed the newsroom scenes in Season 5. The finale has such a great editor-shoutout scene, showing Gus editing an article and saying to the computer screen: “That Tom Wolfe motherfucker, thinking he’s gonna get a phrase like that past me? No frickin’ way, motherfucker!” as he slams the delete key. As an editor, personally, this scene makes me cheer every time.

Wrapping Things Up

The Wire series finale is packed with classic quotes and enthralling storylines, but what I think really makes it great is how it wraps everything up in a way that stays true to the show’s essence. The Wire is not a happy show. A lot of the characters end up with a raw deal—or wind up dead. The people of Baltimore are stuck in an endless cycle of corruption and crime that isn’t getting better.

My favorite part of the finale is how some of the characters find themselves in roles that are simply taking the place of others before them. Here is a breakdown of how some of The Wire‘s major players end up:

  • Since The Wire is not a particularly uplifting show most of the time, I’ll start with the most depressing character outcome. Duquan “Dukie” Weems, one of the four main children featured in the outstanding fourth season, asks his former teacher Mr. Prezbo for a few hundred dollars to help him find a place to live and get his GED. Pryzbylewski is somewhat hesitant but eventually gives Dukie $250. (Side note: it’s great to see that Pryzbylewski has become a competent and respected teacher after seeming way over his head in the fourth season.) Instead of using the money to get back on his feet, Duquan returns to a life of drugs. During the finale’s final montage, we see Duquan using drugs with the junk man. He has now become the new Bubbles. This part is so heartbreaking, but I’d like to think that Duquan will be able to straighten himself out eventually, just like Bubbles.
  • Michael Lee, who also hung out with Duquan in Season 4, has left Marlo’s crew after murdering Snoop. At the end of the finale we see him brandishing a shotgun and robbing one of Marlo’s money sources. He has now become the new Omar, making a living stealing from drug dealers. I love this particular use of symmetry.
  • Another instance of things coming full circle happens when we see Leander Sydnor talking to Judge Phelan to help advance an investigation, just like Jimmy did in Season 1. Will Sydnor become the new McNulty?
  • After being told he needs to stay out of the game, Marlo leaves a fancy business party, clearly uncomfortable. Outside, he comes across a couple of guys on the corner talking about the myth of Omar. Marlo asks if they know who he is but they don’t—so Marlo shoots one of them. As we know, Marlo has said, “My name is my name!” and he has a reputation to uphold out in the streets. It appears he’s not ready to give up the crown just yet.

Marlo Stanfield with his lawyer Maurice Levy

  • During the final montage, we see Scott and the Baltimore Sun brass being awarded a Pulitzer prize for his made-up articles. This part kills me, and it shows that sometimes cheaters prevail ahead of others who try to keep things straight. The Wire really excelled at making points like this through the show’s entire run.
  • Not everyone suffers a depressing outcome in the finale. Ellis Carver, once called out by Bunny Colvin in Season 3 for not doing his job, persists to become an honest and skilled police, and he is rewarded with a promotion to lieutenant. The finale episode hints that his career is loosely mirroring Daniels’ career, another instance of symmetry.
  • Daniels and Rhonda Pearlman land on their feet, despite the fallout from Jimmy’s scheme. The finale’s final montage shows Daniels working as a lawyer and Pearlman as a judge. Ultimately, Daniels couldn’t deal with the political games that would come with the police commissioner job, and I think working as a lawyer will keep him happier going forward.
  • Jimmy and Lester don’t “end up in bracelets” as they feared they might for their role in falsifying crime scenes. In the final scenes, Lester is shown enjoying retirement, working on miniature furniture with his girlfriend Shardene. Similarly, after a fake Irish wake thrown by his fellow police (a great callback to earlier episodes when the police force would hold wakes for fallen officers in an Irish pub), Jimmy heads home sober to spend time with Beadie Russell. It appears Jimmy has finally put his life together. (Although wouldn’t she be a little miffed with all of his blatantly illegal actions?)
  • And now for my favorite character outcome. During the final montage we see Bubbles eating with his sister, finally being accepted as part of the family instead of being locked in the basement and isolated. I’m glad this bit of optimism makes it into the end of The Wire—it wasn’t *all* depressing at least.

The end of the final montage switches gears to flashing still shots of real Baltimore residents—not actors in the show, but real people. It was the perfect way to end the series. The show had gone through five seasons of ups and downs, and the people of Baltimore basically ended up where everything started. It’s a bit of a scary outlook, but it’s the one that was needed to conclude this amazing work of art known as The Wire.

Written by Bryan O'Donnell

Bryan O'Donnell is a Writer and TV Editor for 25YL. In addition to TV and Twin Peaks, he loves music, baseball, reading, and playing video games. He lives in Chicago.


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  1. The Wire is my all time favorite series. I watched it recently for the 3ed time because my wife had not seen the show. It is better with each watching as you discover even more about all the amazing characters.

  2. Ok. Just finished my first time seeing it after YEARS of begging me to by my two adult sons. Finally, quarantine forced me to give in. So worth the wait. So good. Yes, the boys were right. Just heartbroken about Duquan though. A break there would have been nice. Him teaming up with Bubbles or something redemptive.

  3. Just finished watching the Wire for the first time. The excellent writing and development of the characters has made this my all time favorite….right up there with the Sopranos. I find it really hard to believe this show was almost canceled. What’s wrong with people?

  4. Just finished the finale 15 minutes ago and I’m left feeling sad it’s over. You hit all the right notes 🙂

    I found Omar’s death so shocking, I was cheering fur him to put an end to Marlo. I wasn’t happy to see that guy get an easy out.

    The Wire gives you insight into growing up in that type of environment, the police force, inner city schools and just life in general in many big cities.
    Great write up. Now it’s on to Dexter !

  5. I just finished the whole series in about a week in a half. Just wanted to comment on what you said about season 3 about politics. No it’s not. Politics was from season 1 to season 5. All politics. Politics in the police department, in the gangsta hierarchy, season 2 emphasis on the politics in shipping union. Politics was all over.

    I agree with the other 4 seasons that you said but not 3. I would say season 3 is about real estate. Where the major tried to place all the drug dealers from one place to another. That’s what season 3 is all about.

  6. After finally watching the Wire for the first time, I’m reminded of what we saw of Baltimore around the death of Freddy Gray. After Gray suffered life-ending injuries in the back of a Police Van after a “rough ride,” (though he didn’t die until after being taken to a hospital in an ambulance), we watched the 4 Police who shoved him in the van, unbelted & handcuffed behind his back, & the driver who made multiple sudden, “extra stops” on the way to the Station charged, but not convicted, by a mostly White jury.

    I remember reading that Gray was one of thousands of Baltimore residents who received benefits for intellectual damage resulting from childhood exposure to lead-based paint in decrepit rental housing in the City’s poor neighborhoods. So many young people, damaged through no fault of their own, victims of poverty that lowered their potential & left them easy targets of the streets & the drug addiction that awaited them there; re-victimized by the “war on drugs” & a police system that saw them as thugs & criminals after they’d been left behind by schools w/insufficient interest &/or funding to help all the kids w/special needs due to being born poor in Bsltimore.
    The Wire brought home the ongoing cycle; damaged children growing into damaged adults & repeating all the trauma they experienced on their own children in the damaged communities that never seem to quite catch the attention of the powers that be except via arrests.
    What a show. What a finale. How heartbreaking to think that a revisit more than a decade later would just pick up where it left off; different names & faces, but the same story. In the end, we saw 2 “happy endings,” Bubbles & Naimon, but they were so far outnumbered by the many who were lost – either dead, in prison or “in the game.”
    You would hope a show like The Wire would have inspired SOMEONE to step up & help Baltimore! Instead we have whiny millionaires & billionaires, living lives so far removed, complaining at the idea of paying a fair share of taxes; TV “stars” feeding their egos by buying political power & clicks while destroying our society for personal gain; elected officials more interested in soundbites than the common good.
    The Wire is a reflection of more than Baltimore; it’s the self-portrait of a City, a State, a Country where the corrupt prosper by “juking” the stats. When “leaders” only care about amassing ever greater power & wealth for themselves & have nothing but disdain for the institutions & people that put them there, you end up w/a place that has no future but to repeat its mistakes on an even grander scale.
    Thank you – all who made The Wire the great show it is – for giving us a cautionary tale. Sad that those who most need to learn it’s lessons will either not watch at sll or see it but miss the point.

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