Dominic West by Nicole Rivelli/HBO
Its final season may have been built around a number of Big Lies, but here's the honest truth: HBO's
is TV for the ages. Though it spent much of its acclaimed existence under the pop-culture radar, despite annual appearances on critics' best-of-year lists, this heartbreaking and searing masterpiece of urban decay and corruption will live on as all great literature does. Any self-respecting DVD library would want to include the five seasons of
. It's that good, and that rich.
Sunday's expanded finale wraps up much of the complex story, but as usual, not in a tidy fashion. Ambiguities, moral compromises, deals struck with a variety of devils, all par for the course in David Simon's bleak version of Baltimore. No cheap sentiment here, although there is a memorable scene involving a surprise wake at the Irish cop bar.
The ironies are deep and dark as McNulty (Dominic West) sweats out the consequences of his scheme being exposed, of having created a fictional serial killer to get more city funding to funnel into the police surveillance of Marlo's drug trade - "the wire" finally paying off in a high-profile bust that's now in danger of being overturned. Meanwhile, over at the
, the web of fiction spun by rising-star reporter Scott Templeton (Tom McCarthy) hits a new level of audacity. "Our job is to report the news, not to manufacture it," sputters his often-overruled editor, Gus (Clark Johnson, who also directed this episode).
Careers and reputations, both political and journalistic, hang in the balance. How does Simon (glimpsed in a newsroom cameo) resolve the fates of his sprawling cast of characters? With plenty of cynicism, as you'd expect, but not without glimmers of hope for at least a few of the outnumbered good guys. It's a satisfying end (mostly) for a landmark series.
Also on Sunday, we say goodbye for now to AMC's darkly compelling
, another outstanding drama that confidently straddles the murky line between good and bad. Anchored by Bryan Cranston's tremendous performance as Walt White, a dying milquetoast who awakens to the thrill of asserting himself as a master criminal - it's an act, but he has surprising aptitude - this show can make you laugh, ache and cringe in suspense all at once. It's been quite a trip so far, and I can't imagine AMC won't give us a second season to continue this story. (Mild spoilers follow.)
As the finale opens, Walt and pregnant wife Skyler (
's Anna Gunn) rekindle their passion in a most unexpected public place, and when she wonders aloud, "Where did that come from, and why was it so good?" Walt's answer is simple yet profound: "Because it was illegal." Walt has spent a lot of time pondering the nature of what's illegal and why - to his brother-in-law, a DEA agent who has no problem puffing a contraband Cuban cigar, Walt muses, "Who knows what will be legal next year?"
Surely not crystal meth, the addictive drug Walt's cooking up to sell (to pay for his chemo) with his punk partner Jesse (Aaron Paul). An alternate title for
could easily be "Better Living Through Chemistry," though it's been clear from the start that Walt's adventures in the meth trade are fraught with peril. His standoff last week with a psycho drug dealer (
's Raymond Cruz) was harrowing, and this relationship is just getting started. Their negotiations in a junkyard - "a non-criminal's idea of a drug meet," scoffs Jesse) - are both frightening and funny. Walt is so over his head, and yet in some ways, he's never had it more together than when he takes charge and sets the rules.
When I first reviewed
, I likened it to the best of the Coen Brothers in its deft mix of banality and savagery, suspense and hilarity. These elements come into play again during the finale's hair-raising set pieces: a slapstick raid on a chemical-supply company, followed by the darkest of farces as Walt cooks up a new batch in a basement of a suburban house as an open house proceeds.
Normally, I'd end a column like this by saying Sundays will be an emptier place once
have closed shop. (If ABC's hokey
Oprah's Big Give
was the best Sundays had to offer for the next few weeks, that would be the truth.) But I've seen the first few chapters of HBO's majestic
miniseries, which begins next Sunday, and all I'll say for now is that you're in for a treat. High drama, sumptuously produced, lives on. Rejoice.