In an iconic scene from the first season of The Wire, Detective Bunk Moreland (Wendell Pierce) is interrogating charismatic stick-up man Omar (Michael Kenneth Williams). As the two verbally spar, Omar insists that everyone plays “the game” by their own version of the rules and that “a man’s gotta have a code”. It’s an elegant phrase that illuminates the arc of the show as well as the diverse array of cops, hoods, politicians and those caught in between that make up its hyperreal Baltimore.
Twenty years after The Wire hit the small screen, show creators David Simon and George Pelecanos have returned to the strung-out streets of Baltimore with We Own This City, a gripping procedural based on Justin Fenton’s investigative book of the same name that examines the rampant corruption and criminality of the Baltimore Police Department. In 2017, eight members of the Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF), a unit within the BPD, were charged with racketeering, robbery, extortion and overtime fraud, opening up the rampant criminality in the force.
It’s almost impossible not to draw comparisons between We Own This City and The Wire, what with the two shows sharing creators, writers and cast, let alone philosophy. But We Own This City pulls away from that looming behemoth of prestige television’s golden age in its mordant determination to put journalistic representation ahead of the tropes, crutches and habits of cop dramas.
We Own This City isn’t so much a coda for The Wire as its wake. It stands above the legacy of the former show, existing coldly in a Baltimore that has been viewed by the culture at large through the lens of The Wire. If The Wire insists that “a man’s gotta have a code”, We Own This City insists that most men don’t. It tells the story of the GTTF – a caper so wild that it feels as though it was ripped straight from a Michael Mann fever dream – examining how a group of Baltimore police became a criminal gang, and how the system allowed them not only to exist but to thrive.
Like The Wire, We Own This City uses an ensemble cast to tell the story of a community. Its lead is not so much a lead as a black hole: Sergeant Wayne Jenkins, played by a maniacally switched-on Jon Bernthal.
Bernthal’s Jenkins is the endpoint of the discussion The Wire began 20 years ago with Officer Jimmy McNulty: who – or what – is the loser cop? McNulty was a loveable antihero, bent in a way that allowed him to weasel through the incompetence and corruption that kept him from being “good police”. Jenkins, as played by Bernthal, takes the cop as loser to its contemporaneous endpoint: as childlike as he is vicious, as incompetent as he is ruthless, as pathetic as he is powerful.
Bernthal brings a bravado to the role that makes you flinch. His Jenkins is at once a bully and a cur, running roughshod over his meeker crew while simpering for the higher-ups and those who have perfected the art of this very particular grift. Underneath every twitch, shrug and spit is an ever-present, simmering violence. “When you have to fight, man, you gotta win,” he barks in the monologue that opens the show. “There’s people who think that police brutality is when the police win fights. But last time I checked, aren’t we supposed to win the fights?”
The sense that there is an unending battle taking place between the citizens of Baltimore and its police looms forebodingly over We Own This City. The show jumps around the 2010s, but finds itself mainly in the moment after the police murder of Freddie Gray in 2015 and the subsequent election of Donald Trump.
What the show makes clear again and again is how the war on drugs has transformed police forces across America – not just Baltimore – into something beyond policing. We Own This City feels at times as if it’s peering into an occupied war zone, as its cops roam the streets like predatory mercenaries, terrorising the Black community and committing robbery and extortion.
Through Nicole Steele (Wunmi Mosaku), the lawyer investigating the Gun Trace Task Force, we are given a front-row tour of the political, legal and bureaucratic chokehold of the war on drugs. If the show suffers from anything, it is from its ability to transfer her exhaustion on to us, the viewer.
In a central scene, Steele sits down to talk with Brian Grabler (Treat Williams), a former beat cop who is now a teacher at the police academy. Steele is demoralised, perplexed and cynical about the rampant corruption and violence of the police – as are we by this point in the show. Grabler gets right into it: “Everything changed when they came up with that expression – the war on drugs. What the hell is a war on drugs? What does that mean? Waging a war against citizens, by definition, is separating us into two opposing camps.”
Steele responds without missing a beat: “The coloniser and the colonised.”
We Own This City posits that Bernthal’s Jenkins and his pack of vicious cronies are the direct result of this mindset. Even Jenkins is aware of it: “As long as we put those numbers up” by making arrests, the police can do as they please.
This argument was at the heart of The Wire, and is in much of David Simon’s work before and since. But where We Own This City differs is in its sense of despair. Outside Bernthal’s electric-chair energy, We Own This City can feel oppressively didactic in its delivery. The show wants to lay out its evidence as thoughtfully and coolly as the FBI investigators that took down Jenkins and co.
This might be, understandably, off-putting for some viewers, but the show justifies it. Where The Wire’s politics were often tripped up by its own myth-making, We Own This City dryly sets up a chess game that is as bound by its rules as it is mechanical in its move-making. It’s pedantic, perhaps, but its major intention is to show you the limits of the board and the unbearable frustration of an eternal stalemate.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 2, 2022 as "The dark side".
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