‘We Own This City’: David Simon Goes After Policing in America

In the 14 years since The Wire concluded its run as one of the most acclaimed dramas in television history, fans have pleaded with the series’ co-creator, journalist-turned-producer David Simon, for an additional season or three. Simon and Ed Burns made The Wire as much to politically agitate as to entertain, and Simon has said that the show’s inability to make so much as a dent in the systemic problems of America left him uninterested in revisiting Jimmy McNulty, Bunk Moreland, and friends.

When HBO announced that Simon and longtime Wire writer George Pelecanos were producing a new miniseries called We Own This Cityset in Baltimore and dealing with the Baltimore PD and the social cost of the War on Drugs, it was hard not to hope that this would be The Wire Season Six in disguise. But while We Own This City brings Simon, Pelecanos, Burns, and actors like Jamie Hector and Delaney Williams back to Charm City, the new show is less a sequel to The Wire than a rebuttal – or, at least, a clarification.

Based on the nonfiction book by Justin Fenton, We Own This City primarily takes place in the years immediately before and after the 2015 murder of Freddie Gray while he was in Baltimore Police custody. It also periodically loops back earlier in the century to follow the career path of Wayne Jenkins (Jon Bernthal), the swaggering golden boy in charge of the department’s elite Gun Trace Task Force. The GTTF cops were lauded for getting weapons, drugs, and criminals off the streets at superhumanly high levels. Most of their success, though, was fueled by civil rights violations that they covered up afterwards with creative paperwork. And they were pocketing a lot of the money and / or drugs that they found on their adventures. Baltimore’s then-police commissioner Kevin Davis (Williams) would eventually compare Jenkins and his team to Thirties gangsters. That description doesn’t seem inaccurate based on the brazen misdeeds dramatized here by Simon, Pelecanos, and company (including King Richard director Reinaldo Marcus Green, who helms all six hours).

Simon liked to say that The Wire was not about corruption (with stray exceptions like state senator Clay Davis), but rather institutionalized inertia. Large, long-standing groups like police forces and city governments are machines built to perpetuate and protect themselves at all costs, The Wire argued, while suggesting that the blasé indifference of people in power to fixing things is more chilling than stories of individual corruption. At the same time, the classic drama suggested that there was still a basic public good to policing, and that things could improve if we just let go of the drug war. (This was best articulated in the show’s third season, where decriminalizing drug sales in one neighborhood brought enormous benefit to the areas surrounding “Hamsterdam,” and to the cops patrolling them.)

We Own This City is more like Simon and Pelecanos’ “all cops are bastards” statement, acknowledging that there is something so fundamentally broken in the culture of American policing that attempts at reform are pointless. It is very much about corruption, but the wide-ranging kind rather than a virus confined to a single rogue unit. Jenkins and his badged goons may have been edge cases, but the miniseries presents their behavior as the end product of a machine that is now designed to produce behavior in this vein, if not to these extremes.

The show takes its title from a pep talk Jenkins gave his colleagues, assuring them, “As long as we produce, as long as we put those numbers up, they don’t fucking give a shit about what we do. We literally can do whatever the fuck we want, you understand? We own this city. We own it. ” He is not wrong, and the creative team has the restraint not to constantly point out that the task force’s downfall was not because of the mockery they made of the Constitution, but because they outright stole from people, whether drug dealers or law-abiding citizens with the misfortune to cross the paths of cops like Jenkins or the smug Daniel Hersl (Josh Charles).

From left: Jamie Hector, Wunmi Mosaku, and Josh Charles.

Paul Schiraldi / HBO, 3

Simon and Pelecanos make their argument early and often – arguably too often. The miniseres’ thesis seems clear and convincing by the midway point, if not earlier, and much of what follows are just additional examples of all the horrifying things the GTTF got away with because they were good for the BPD’s crime stats. Wunmi Mosaku from Loki floats around the edge of the main narrative as Nicole Steele, a Justice Department attorney who is trying to write a consent decree to curb the department’s worst excesses in the wake of the Freddie Gray case. Though she occasionally shares biographical details with colleagues, she is less a character than an expository tool to get other characters to explain how things got this bad. One of those is Brian Grabler (Treat Williams), a retired cop turned teacher very much modeled on Ed Burns, whose experience in the BPD and the local school system inspired so many Wire storylines. Grabler opines on the dehumanizing nature of the “war on drugs” terminology itself, saying that “Waging a war on citizens, by definition, is separating us into two separate camps.”

Exchanges like that are interesting, and the huge ensemble cast is impressive all around, whether it’s Wire alums like Hector (as a seemingly straight-arrow homicide detective, he’s much more in Bosch mode than he is revisiting Wire kingpin Marlo Stanfield), veterans of past Simon projects like Show Me a Hero‘s Bernthal (a Maryland native who knows his way around all those exaggerated “o” s, and who captures every bit of Jenkins’ swagger and bluster without making him into a cartoon), or total newcomers to this team like Mosaku or Charles ( another Marylander, and doing very well in an anti-type performance as a smug, blue-collar asshole). Because the actors are so good, and because Simon, Pelecanos, Burns, and company have been making Eat Your Vegetables TV for two decades and counting, We Own This City is almost always extremely watchable in a way that eludes so many other sober-minded dramas about tears in the national fabric. (See, for instance, AMC’s glum61st Street

which covers similar thematic territory, has some great actors like Courtney B. Vance and Aunjanue Ellis, and feels every bit like homework.)

That said, the group’s experiment in nonlinear storytelling results in mixed success. There are multiple framing devices, including Nicole’s interviews, the investigation by a federal agent (Dagmara Domińczyk ) and her local cop partner (Don Harvey) into the GTTF, glimpses of Jenkins throughout his career, etc. It’s never quite confusing, because it ultimately doesn’t seem to matter that much exactly when certain events took place relative to others. But the ability to jump from an interrogation to a flashback on what one of the cops is describing only sometimes feels valuable enough to be worth the bother. But the new show is perhaps the least interested Simon and Pelecanos have seemed in entertaining their audience rather than building their sociopolitical case. Show Me a Hero spends a lotof time explaining municipal building codes, yet that show is still engaging throughout, thanks to Oscar Isaac’s lead performance and the effort the production team did to make his character arc both interesting and tragic, as well as the strain of dark comedy that’s been a hallmark of The Wire, The Deuce, Tremé , etc. There’s much less of a spoonful of sugar approach this time around, which is understandable in the wake of Freddie Gray’s murder and so many police killings of Black citizens in the years since. Simon and Pelecanos are clearly not in the mood for light banter between Carver and Herc (although Domenick Lombardozzi pops up in one scene as a police union leader pushing back against the consent decree), nor for some of the other nods to genre that make The Wire and these other series so beloved despite how bleak and punishing they can ultimately be. This is a show made by people who are too angry – and perhaps too regretful? – to bother with the more showbiz-leaning aspects of the job. It’s hard to blame them for that, but it’s yet another reason why

We Own This City

arguably could have told the same story in two to three episodes rather than six. Through Sean Suiter and a few other characters, the miniseries suggests that there are still some cops out there attempting to help the communities they police rather than exploiting them to make money out of a system that benefits from more arrests, no matter how ginned-up . But even those stories are laced with despair: Both Sean and Nicole see that the predatory behavior of cops like Jenkins and Hersl have made it all but impossible to find helpful witnesses, let alone 12 jurors who are inclined to believe anything a member of the BPD says. And even those glimpses of cops not warped by the system can’t exactly disprove all the evidence

We Own This City presents about the basic incompatibility between members of the police and those being policed. As Wayne Jenkins’ veteran training officer tells him on his first shift in uniform, “Kid, there is no dictatorship in America more solid than a beat cop on his post.” We Own This City

premieres April 25 on HBO and HBO Max, with episodes releasing weekly. I’ve seen all six.

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