The accused: The Wire, “Unconfirmed Reports” (Season 5, Episode 2)
The crime: Stretching verisimilitude a bit too thin in the most verisimilitude-y series ever
Television’s failures are supposed to be obvious. From the overhyped non-starters that flop from the very beginning (hello, FlashForward, Lone Star) to the much-discussed clumsy conclusions of series we were convinced had it all planned out (nice to see you again, Battlestar Galactica), the medium’s big busts are right there in front of us. Whether because of low Nielsen ratings, terrible critical and fan response or something else entirely, the reaction to one episode often defines a series’ long-term legacy. But while we are often left wondering what it all means for the medium and for the industry when a series like Lone Star stumbles out of the gate or a series like Battlestar Galactica presents a controversial ending, those discourses tend to focus on disastrous beginnings and ill-conceived endings. But what about those mishaps that are not so obvious, the catastrophes that happen somewhere in the middle? How much impact, both positive and negative, can one bad episode have on an entire series? How do long-running series continue onward in the aftermath of an episodic failure? Is it possible that individual, episodic failures of television’s most respected series tell us more than the failings of a much-hyped about pilot or series finale? And how do we really define “failure” anyway?
These are just a few of the questions that I hope to answer with TV Surveillance’s new bi-weekly feature, #TVFail. In each entry, I will be taking a look at an individual episode of television that is considered a disappointment in some way. Maybe it was panned by critics and audiences, maybe it was lowly rated or maybe it was initially neither but has retroactively lost its more positive reputation. No matter the reason, this is a place where I will talk about the quiet failures of some of television’s best series. Here, I will talk about how and why these individual episodes came to represent “failure” and also discuss whether or not those definitions still apply today. The hope is that this feature will weave textual analysis and contextual and intertextual discourse together to create a compelling space for the discussion of televisual failure.
Is there a bad episode of The Wire? Can there truly be a straight-up terrible episode of the best television series of all time?
Your answers to these questions may vary, but tackling The Wire is kind of what this feature is all about, right? Right?
Of course, that doesn’t make it any less intimidating to talk about the series or an individual episode. We’ve grown to look at The Wire with such rose-tinted glasses and hold it to such (earned) praise, it felt kind of weird watching the first few episodes of season five and hoping to find things to be overly critical about. On a similar token, it’s not that every single second of The Wire is perfect. Nevertheless, putting The Wire and “failure” together in the same article, let alone the same paragraph or sentence, feels like a weird, dirty thing to do.
The other big difficulty with discussing The Wire is its narrative structure. David Simon plays the long game with his series (much more so with Treme than The Wire, but the point still holds to some degree) and he has repeatedly said that he would prefer critics and fans embrace that kind of viewpoint as well. It’s not that the individual episodes don’t matter, because they do. But Simon builds his arcs to pay off at or near the end of a season or even at the end of multiple seasons. Pin-pointing one singular episode as problematic or as a “failure” would probably elicit a “You don’t know the whole story” response from Simon. I don’t necessarily disagree with Simon’s perspective on television narrative and arcs; however, I do believe that individual episodes should be satisfying as well.
Interestingly, season five of The Wire is where looking at the story Simon’s way actually hurts the series more than it helps. Two of the season’s biggest stories, Jimmy’s creation of the red-ribbon serial killer and Scott Templeton starts fictionalizing his stories for the Baltimore Sun, begin in logical places in “Unconfirmed Reports.” I hadn’t seen this episode for a few years and the sort of hyperbolic discussions about the out-of-step nature of both plots had conditioned me into remembering them being much more ludicrous and dumb. But in this episode, that’s not really the case at all.
And it is not like The Wire didn’t prepare us for stories like this. The first four seasons of the series methodically explored how the government entities, politicians and police force interacted and ultimately, failed in so many ways. Jimmy, Lester and company faced stall tactics and brick walls on a consistent basis and the things they assumed were still important – you know, like catching the baddest mothers on the street – stopped being so important once the money started to dry up and the murder numbers didn’t improve. For four seasons, David Simon and his team convinced the audience that this barely-fictionalized version of Baltimore was in a state of economic, political, educational and social despair and there was really no way to fix the problems. Big ideas and hard work gets sucked up by the system until there’s nothing really left.
So really, season five is about what happens in the aftermath of nothing being left. The city’s institutions have been stripped down and ripped away, but the problems that the institutions are supposed to solve don’t go away. Jimmy’s frustration with the political battles that have choked off funding to the police department is absolutely warranted.
“Unconfirmed Reports” does a really nice job of tracking his bubbling rage and dropping hints about the kind of twisted logic that spurs him to create a serial killer in the episode’s final moments. There are barely any working vehicles to get to crime scenes. The crime lab is anywhere between a few hours and a few days behind schedule. The coroner’s office is backed up. Even the FBI doesn’t want anything to do with the 22 bodies in the abandoned houses. He can’t get Marlo and he can’t even get a car to drive. Mix Jimmy’s inherent super-cop complex with his resentment towards the State’s Attorney and anyone else who he thinks screwed him and soak it in alcohol and well, yeah, Jimmy would do something insane like concoct a serial killer and manipulate a crime scene to prove so.
For Scott Templeton, the circumstances are different, but still somewhat logical (putting ethical concerns aside). He’s stuck in a dying business behind a bunch of old-timers who never want to leave and moving up the chain in a newsroom isn’t easy. But with James Whiting’s obsession with winning a Pulitzer and the “Dickensian Aspect” of storytelling now in play, Scott sees his opening. Clearly making up stories and story subjects is a terribly unethical and inappropriate thing to do. It is unquestionably wrong and I’m guessing that you didn’t have to take as many reporting classes as I did in college to know that. Yet, I can at least relate to Scott’s state of mind right before he decided to write the story. The struggles to find a subject or the prism to tell a story through are real and they suck, trust me.
What is interesting about Scott’s E-Jay story (the wheelchair-bound Orioles fan that can’t get into a game) is that we don’t actually see much of anything. We see him interviewing other fans and workers, but we’re just like Gus: in the dark and uneasy. Obviously, Gus is the audience’s entry point to this Baltimore Sun world and it is therefore easy to agree with his side of the story and think Scott is a shifty POS. Nevertheless, I love how “Unconfirmed Reports” leaves us there in the dark with our uneasy feelings. Scott’s story gets published and while Gus is noticeably upset, Scott and the story move on.
The contrast between the portrayals of these two terrible decisions is fantastic. Simon knew that we had seen Jimmy make one awful choice after another. We knew that he was capable of this kind of destruction, especially when he feels like he’s been pushed by those above him. It’s just his nature. But by not totally revealing the truth behind Scott’s reporting, the audience is stuck with an uncomfortable, sinking feeling. The Wire had torn everything down and the newspaper story planted the last seed of miserable truth: What if there is no one who cares about discussing the decay? A detective just made up a serial killer and the primary news source and watchdog is too busy penning overwrought color pieces about kids that might not even be true. Certain groups can’t or won’t stop it and others apparently don’t want to point it out. This is a sick, sad truth of our current culture and I just love how this episode really hammers home those apprehensive feelings.
With all of that said, I like how Jimmy and Scott’s stories begin here. “Unconfirmed Reports” is a great exploration of what happens when people are pushed into corners and they feel like they have no choice but to proverbially shoot their way out. The decisions these two men make are wrong, but at least somewhat logical at first. They don’t come completely out of nowhere. So even though David Simon wouldn’t actually prefer that I do so, if I were evaluating this episode on its individual merits, it’s a damn fine success.
However, when we start thinking about both of these stories on a larger level, the problems start popping up. As the season progresses and Jimmy and Scott’s awful mistakes intertwine, The Wire’s narrative became more heightened and less Wire-like. Jimmy creating a serial killer and a reporter subsequently fudging all sorts of details related to said fictional killer feels like a story a more “exciting” television series would do. Both stories have been criticized for their lack of believability and verisimilitude, two things that The Wire and David Simon advocated for the most. When you spend four seasons building up this world that feels so real, raw, complex and not unlike our own, the moment you start breaking that down a bit, it seems unnatural. The Wire is still a television series, but by the time season five rolled around, the expectations were that it would be something more. Any semblance of “traditional” stories or typicality reportedly runs contradictory against the pillars of The Wire.
Looking at season five with those rightfully-justified high expectations does make the red-ribbon serial killer narrative feel a bit too dramatic and television-y. The character logic was there initially and I even understand the whole “the bigger the lie, the more they believe” mission statement for the season. But the whole thing still stretches the verisimilitude and is a bit elaborate for these characters and this world. Just a bit! However, I still like season five of The Wire a lot, maybe more than most (I also love S2), and even if these two stories go in a direction the series tended not to go in the earlier seasons, I still enjoyed and understood them. But it appears as though most Wire fans have come to agree that the final season of the series doesn’t quite hold up against the previous four, with these narratives having a lot to do with those perceptions.
Again though, is a bad episode or problematic season of The Wire still that bad in the grand scheme of things? If “Unconfirmed Reports” is very good, but the later execution of its biggest stories not so good, is season five of The Wire a failure? If we’re to use David Simon’s preferred brand of analysis, maybe so. When you advocate for analysis of the full, completed picture, you better hope that picture looks pretty. But failure is always relative. Is S5 of The Wire a failure because it doesn’t stack up against the four other seasons? If the red-ribbon plot is 87 percent as good as the rest of the series, is that a failure? What if it’s only 50 percent as good?
These aren’t questions I, or really anyone, could ever totally answer. But episodic failures don’t always lead to failed arcs. And in the case of The Wire season five, quality individual episodes don’t always lead to a fully satisfying, believable whole.
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