Simon Says » communiqué 068/June 2022

Simon Says: communiqué 068/June 2022

Hello everyone

We Own This City is being called the spiritual successor to The Wire. The reasons for the comparisons are fairly obvious:

However, We Own This City takes a much less rose-tinted view of the officers of the Baltimore Police Department, and the climate in which this miniseries is set is very different, coming after the death of Freddie Gray. The other key difference is We Own This City is based on real-life events.

If you’ve been around for a while, you will have heard me talk about The Wire—it’s the touchstone against which I judge all other TV drama. So, is We Own This City worth a watch?

Twenty Years Later—Where Are We?

Twenty years after The Wire, Baltimore Police Department is twenty years worse.

For the BPD, the consequence of the Freddie Gray killing is a slowdown—cops are refusing to do their job. Sure, they’ll go out on patrol, but they won’t get out of their car and they won’t intervene in crimes, apparently because they are scared that they will be judged by a retrospective change in standards, meaning that action within today’s guidelines will see them in court tomorrow. The result of this action is the statistics that the BPD top brass and the politicians rely upon to “prove” they’re doing a good job are going in the wrong direction.

Against this background, any officer who is prepared to go out and make arrests—even if that officer has a questionable record—is a hero to the higher ranks of the Department. And a corrupt officer who can make money (beyond his salary) from policing, is always going to be keen to go out on the streets.

One big difference, over the last twenty years, the police—particularly the less skilled and the corrupt—have learned how to write their reports. We see a flashback where the younger Wayne Jenkins is schooled by his seniors on how to present information—to lead with, and to emphasize the fear and the risk to the officer.

The endemic corruption has led to a situation where officers have been found to be lying when giving evidence in court. Instead of being suspended or fired, these officers who have perjured themselves are then put back on the streets, even though it is known that if they catch any criminals they cannot go to court to give evidence against them (because the perjury will be brought up and their evidence immediately discredited, leading to the case being dismissed).

Worse, so many citizens within Baltimore have been illegally arrested or harassed by BPD officers that it is often impossible to empanel a jury, since prospective jurors simply will not believe the evidence of officers (even officers who have not been found to perjure themselves under oath).

Freddie Gray

The (factual) death of Freddie Gray is a factor which is present throughout We Own This City.

Gray was a 25-year-old African American who was arrested by the Baltimore Police Department in questionable circumstances and then sustained injuries while in the custody of the Department which led to his death. Gray’s death triggered protests which escalated, turning into civil disobedience, which in turn was met by a disproportionate response from the BPD.

As told by We Own This City, instead of Gray’s death becoming a turning point after which BPD sought to improve, it had the opposite effect. The Department felt that it couldn’t take any more criticism, so in the aftermath of Gray’s death it sought to protect individual officers who might bring new criticism upon the department (such as the corrupt officers who would later be involved with the Gun Trace Task Force).

Of course, not rooting out these corrupt officers left them in place to continue to commit crime so that when they were finally caught, the problem was worse.

Performances

Every performance in We Own This City is solid, believable, and compelling.

However, for me, there is one standout performance: Jon Bernthal who plays Sergeant Wayne Jenkins. He is charismatic—his men, and his followers are all men, will follow wherever he leads.

But he’s not just charismatic, he’s also corrupt, and ultimately self-deluded. He is the last one who still believes in his power to influence others, and this delusion is what leads him to receive the harshest sentence.

Comparison with The Wire

Billing this new series as the spiritual successor to what came before leads to an obvious question: is We Own This City as good as The Wire?

The answer is simple: no. But nothing ever will be as good as The Wire (in my opinion).

However, that doesn’t mean that We Own This City isn’t good (it is good), nor that you shouldn’t watch it (you should—it’s good). However, if you come expecting the sixth series of The Wire, then you’re going to be disappointed.

While The Wire is dark, there is a lot of wit and charm which was seen through the characters. In We Own This City there is no Bunk, no McNulty, no Omar, no Jay Landsman, no Stringer Bell, and no Bubbles. And there is no character to parallel Bubbles’ redemption in The Wire—every character is (seemingly) much courser and irredeemable.

In The Wire there was far more moral ambiguity—issues were not black and white. Instead, every character and every decision was layered and nuanced. The cops took short cuts and broke the rules for what they saw as the greater good and the drug dealers (to an extent) got what was coming to them. By contrast, We Own This City is far more critical of the cops who are out on the streets, but then, it is a story about police corruption (and the incompetence that feeds the corruption).

This is not to criticize We Own This City, but rather to note that this new series reflects the changing realities of the last twenty years and how the situation has got much worse.

The Wire alumni

One aspect that will appeal to viewers of The Wire is seeing so many of the actors who appeared in the earlier series—some who play a very different character to the role they took before.

There are many returning actors, but in particular, look out for:

Until July

We Own This City is not as good as The Wire, but nothing will be. More significantly, I think that comparison is wrong—this is a very different story, and one that is worth watching on its own merits.

Watch it for the corruption and for an explanation of how the corruption has made policing impossible. But be ready to be angry with the injustice and the consequences of that injustice. Be angry at the man harassed by police who put him in jail for two days only to drop the charges. Be angry at how he loses his wages when the police steal his money, and how he loses his job for not turning up to work (because he is erroneously in jail). And with no money and no job, he can’t make his car payments so his car is repossessed meaning he can’t travel to find work.

We Own This City is available on HBO (Sky in the UK). Watch it if you can.

I’ll be back in July.

Until then.

All the best

Simon