My wife, Hanna, and I were laying wagers as we watched about which character the show would end on. I bet on Michael, thinking that his degradation was the most pointless and heartbreaking in the whole five-season arc and that David Simon would want to leave us with a vision of Baltimore’s future. Hanna guessed it would finish with Marlo, as the embodiment—and, in a strange way, also the victim—of the enormous, vicious forces of capitalism that are tearing the city apart. Instead, we got Jimmy and crazy Larry. I suppose this particular pairing was meant as grim commentary on the fate of the American city? Jimmy’s final “let’s go home” was intended to remind us—as if the previous 64 hours and 59 minutes hadn’t—that only lunatics and hopeless romantics would want to make their home in Baltimore.
Our editor John Swansburg asked us—well, he asked you, but let me tee it up—to compare the conclusions of The Wire and The Sopranos. You’re the world’s living authority on The Sopranos, so I’ll leave the heavy work to you, but let me offer a few opening thoughts for you to stomp on. The obvious difference in the finales is that The Wire told us everything and The Sopranos refused to. We know the fate of every Wire character and practically every extra, too. The Sopranos, in what is in my view the greatest final scene in the history of the moving image, left us with pure ambiguity, the fate of its main character unwritten.
Too much has been made of the Dickensian nature of The Wire, but in this case the analogy is apt: What makes Dickens so incredibly satisfying—and occasionally so corny, sentimental, and heavy-handed—is his willingness to be explicit. But one side effect of the Dickensian method is that it ultimately values the overarching story more than any individual person. The internal lives of Dickens’ characters are never quite as interesting or compelling as the whole shebang of plot, place, and social issue. The Wire has exactly the same glories and flaws.
The Sopranos is novelistic, too, but from a different literary tradition. I can’t name exactly the right novelist or book—maybe it’s Dostoyevsky or George Eliot or Proust (I know you or one of our readers has the right answer up your sleeves)—but it always put character first. The Wire was a five-season study of a city. The Sopranos was a six-season study of a person, Tony Soprano. It began and ended internally, in the mind of Tony. That’s why The Sopranos was wise to end ambiguously—because no one’s life ever gets all tied up, every stray thread snipped. It’s always messy and open-ended. I’m Dickensian by temperament, so I loved The Wire’s boxed-up ending, but I recognize that The Sopranos’ monomaniacal obsession with Tony’s character may make it the more enduring show (if not necessarily the better one).
Wait, Maury Levy is Jewish?
I’ve occasionally wondered whether Levy isn’t a Wire prank that David Simon is pulling on himself. Simon, who’s Jewish, has cast as the show’s only identifiably Jewish male an actor who looks rather like himself—middle-aged, bald, stocky, big-headed, full-featured—and then made that character the most repulsive piece of garbage in the city of Baltimore. You have to admit that’s pretty funny.