<P>Dominic West, <EM>The Wire</EM></P>

Dominic West, The Wire

During its first four seasons, HBO's The Wire (Sundays, 9 pm/ET, HBO) has tackled some major issues: inner-city crime, labor conflicts, political corruption, the failing public-school system. And as it launches its final 10-week run, the sprawling drama clearly still has a lot of big questions on its mind.

In a jaw-dropping twist at the end of this season's second episode, Baltimore detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) resorts to desperate measures in an attempt to restart a hard-fought case against drug kingpin Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector). Suffice it to say, his tactics would give Gil Grissom conniption fits. "It's not about how the unit tracks Marlo down," West says. "It's about how McNulty goes after him despite the authorities."

Those authorities include the city's new mayor (Aidan Gillen), who's struggling to keep crime down and improve the standard of living in a time of fiscal belt-tightening. There's a high price to pay for falling short, notes Hector. "You can't just ignore the kids on the corner," he says. "They're going to grow and become something, whether it's something you like or not."

This season, The Wire's subtitle could be "Meet the Press," as it adds the media to its focus and laments journalists' abilities to do their jobs amid corporate consolidation. "I'm the last guy who represents Baltimore city," says Clark Johnson (Homicide: Life on the Street), who plays Gus Haynes, a newspaper editor fighting to keep the fourth estate vital. His uphill battle, Johnson notes, "is saying a lot about the decline of individual voices in the media. The death of journalism." That's symbolized by Scott Templeton (Tom McCarthy), a reporter with, shall we say, an active imagination. In true Wire form, all these storylines will be heartbreakingly enmeshed.

Such complex plotting is one element of the show's brilliant legacy, which its cast has pondered since the final "Cut!" in September. "We were all very conscious that what we were doing was quite special," West says. "I read scripts now and I realize I've been slightly spoiled." Yet despite wild critical acclaim, the show has failed to reach an equally wide audience. For Hector, the show's struggle is testimony to the unflinching realism it brought to its portrait of 21st-century America: "What was it Jack Nicholson said? 'You can't handle the truth!'"

Sonja Sohn, who's been onboard as Det. Kima Greggs since Season 1, considers the series nothing less than a cultural treasure: "It's served the highest purpose that any art form can, which is to enlighten as well as entertain."

But how will it end? "Five years of story strands and hundreds of characters all get — amazingly — tied up," hints West about The Wire's finale. "It's absolutely in the spirit of the show." Also in that spirit, Sohn says, is the certainty that the drug-slinging on the corners and the deal-making in the corridors of power are here to stay. Sadly, she promises, "The game goes on."

Re-up on The Wire with clips in our Online Video Guide.

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