'We Own This City' Is A Worthy Successor to 'The Wire'

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Everybody agrees that We Own This City, David Simon’s and George Pelecanos’s latest Baltimore epic, is an important show. It’s incisivenecessary, even. A fictionalization of Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton’s 2018 book, We Own This City is a spiritual successor to The Wire, telling the story of Baltimore’s Gun Trace Task Force, an elite plainclothes police team turned criminal syndicate. If Simon and Pelecanos explored a city in decay in The Wire, We Own This City concerns itself with a Baltimore Police Department that’s already been irredeemably atrophied by brutality and corruption. It’s an uncompromising look at the way that Baltimore and its police department have failed its citizens.

It’s also a really entertaining show.

But more than anything, Bernthal’s Jenkins is the show’s animating force. In Bernthal’s hands, Jenkins is all fidgety machismo and raw-nerve aggression. It’s a performance so visceral that it almost devours the entire show; every scene with Wayne Jenkins feels more alive than every scene without him. Rather than simply depicting Jenkins as an amoral monster, Bernthal brings such powerful charisma to the part that although you aren’t “rooting” for Jenkins, you can at least recognize the progression of his perverted inner logic. When Jenkins is snubbed at a barbecue, Bernthal makes you feel the personal injustice; when Jenkins lays out his plan to bilk the city out of overtime payments, Bernthal imbues his speech with a preacher’s rousing clarity of purpose. 

“As long as we [get guns], as long as we produce,” Bernthal says, “they don’t give a fucking shit what we do. We can literally do whatever the fuck we want. We own this city.”

mckinley belcher iii darrell britt gibson jon bernthal josh charles

In typical Simon fashion, We Own This City considers itself a piece of journalism rather than merely a TV show. Accordingly, director Reinaldo Marcus Green (King Richard) grounds each shot in a jittery, on-the-shoulder realism, eschewing artsy, cinematic convention—Police raids and arrests are shown as acts of stark, everyday violence, not thrilling crusades.

While the show has a clear thesis statement, it resists ham-fisted moralizing for the most part. It’s obvious that civic trust in the police has been eroded when DAs struggle to cobble together 12 jurors who haven’t been wronged by the police; it’s obvious how that civic trust has been eroded when the BPD celebrates Jenkins and the GTTF while ignoring their process. Save for a clumsy monologue about the evils of the drug war, the show is so effective because it treats its audience like adults. 

In this sense, We Own This City operates on an entirely different, more pessimistic premise than The Wire. If “natural police'' like Lester Freamon and Bunk in The Wire offered hope that policing could be redeemed by good people and hard work, We Own This City shows how cronyism and institutional moral rot incentivizes and rewards Jenkins and the GTTF.

Copaganda, this is not. 

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