The Wire creator David Simon is the heir apparent to Sidney Lumet: a crime dramatist who’s also an astute chronicler of urban relations between cops, crooks, civilians, activists, and politicians. Routinely returning to his stomping grounds of Baltimore, he’s a journalist-turned-artist with a keen understanding of the myriad ways in which a major metropolis functions, from the street corner to the police station to the halls of government, and the various entanglements that complicate any quests for justice and progress. His finest small-screen works incisively trace the lines connecting the macro and the micro, and that gift is again on full display in We Own This City (April 25), a six-part HBO adaptation of Justin Fenton’s book of the same name that—playing like a spiritual companion piece to The Wire—dramatizes the real-life 2017 scandal that engulfed the Baltimore Police Department’s Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF).
“There is no dictatorship in America more solid than a beat cop on his post,” says a veteran officer to Wayne Jenkins (Jon Bernthal) midway through Simon’s latest. It’s a lesson the latter both takes to heart and updates by proving that the real key to power is running a plain-clothes unit like the GTTF, whose mission was to take firearms and drugs off the street and to simultaneously round up those who were trading in them. Jenkins was an individual tailor-made for this job, earning accolades, promotions (eventually to sergeant) and, most important of all, the trust and loyalty of his squad members, including Daniel Hersl (Josh Charles), Momodu Gondo (McKinley Belcher III), Jemell Rayam (Darrell Britt-Gibson), and Maurice Ward (Rob Brown). First introduced lecturing the department about the fact that genuine police success comes from doing things the right way—since dishing out beatings and alienating the public only thwarts cops’ main objectives—he’s a charismatic gung-ho cowboy, and Bernthal embodies him with such macho he-man charisma that it’s immediately apparent why he became a BPD star.
As We Own This City quickly details, Jenkins’ popularity was also due to the fact that he enthusiastically robbed any criminal or civilian unfortunate enough to cross his path and doled out (lesser) shares of his spoils to his comrades. He was as dirty as they come, selling the drugs he pilfered, framing his victims—whether they were guilty of infractions or not—and generally carrying himself like a gunslinging desperado. His actions ensnared many, some willing and some less so, such as former cohort-turned-homicide detective Sean Suiter (Jamie Hector), whose mysterious fate was examined in last December’s HBO doc The Slow Hustle. Yet while Jenkins was a bad, bad man, Simon, along with fellow writers George Pelecanos, Ed Burns, William F. Zorzi and Dwight Watkins, as well as King Richard director Reinaldo Marcus Green, don’t paint with broad brushstrokes. Rather, they take great care to comprehend Jenkins and his actions within the larger context of a city beleaguered by rising crime rates and anger over the death of Freddie Gray, and a police force furious over the prosecution of the officers blamed for Gray’s demise, to the point that numerous cops either resigned or refused to make arrests—thus making Jenkins’ GTTF, despite its innumerable controversies, a celebrated unit.
Simon and company weave a tapestry of fraught sociopolitical threads, with racial discrimination and unrest, bureaucratic roadblocks, and conflicting self-interests all conspiring to thwart meaningful reform. At the center of that futile effort to affect change is the Department of Justice’s Nicole Steele (Wunmi Mosaku), who along with recently assigned underling Ahmed Jackson (Ian Duff) strives to craft a consent decree that under-fire new police commissioner Kevin Davis (Delaney Williams) and mayor Catherine Pugh will approve. Steele is the closest the show has to a Simon proxy, seeing the big picture for what it is and endeavoring to maintain hope in the face of intractable obstacles. Mosaku brings her to life as a world-weary woman who’s realistic about both the problems and solutions she’s facing, even if, in the series’ sole misstep, it also forces her to participate in a couple of excessively preachy scenes opposite Treat Williams, star of Lumet’s likeminded Prince of the City.
For the most part, however, We Own This City is a stinging multi-perspective exposé about how small- and large-scale corruption parasitically feed off each other, and one that comprehends the motivations of its many players while nonetheless doling out sympathy and scorn to those who most deserve it. The messy intersections of greed, ambition and self-preservation are rife throughout, and as if to further suggest the knottiness of this tale, Simon recounts it in non-chronological fashion, leaping forward and backward between various moments in Jenkins’ reign of terror, Steele’s stabs at completing her mission, FBI agent Erika Jensen (Dagmara Domińczyk) and her BPD colleague John Sieracki’s (Don Harvey) investigation into—and questioning of—Jenkins, Gondo, Rayam and others, and Suiter’s attempts to keep himself clean despite his own prior interactions with Jenkins. Guided by recurring snapshots of Jenkins’ police logs and buoyed by a sterling cast that includes a number of The Wire alums, the series deftly tackles its saga from a variety of captivating angles.
“The messy intersections of greed, ambition and self-preservation are rife throughout, and as if to further suggest the knottiness of this tale, Simon recounts it in non-chronological fashion, leaping forward and backward between various moments in Jenkins’ reign of terror.”
Best of all, We Own This City boasts the sort of comprehensive detail that’s the hallmark of truly great storytelling. From the minutia of BPD protocol and the strategic tactics of Jenkins and his criminal minions, to the competing priorities of different government factions, Simon energizes every incident, argument and skirmish with a depth of knowledge about how, from top to bottom, the system works. Along with Pelecanos, Burns, Zorzi and Watkins, he exhibits an awe-inspiring familiarity with different aspects of Baltimore life—as a cop, a lawyer and an investigator—and consequently derives tremendous suspense from the nuts and bolts of the city’s daily operation. Moreover, he conveys not only what it’s like to navigate this landscape, but what it feels like to inhabit it, with director Green bringing a level of hard-edged grittiness to his depiction of the fractured and barely functioning locale.
Part genre thriller, part sociological study, We Own This City bristles with fury and despair over a system that—because of those who man it, as well as its own inherent construction—is doomed to repeatedly fail. It also imparts a lesson that, given their trade, Jenkins and his mates should have known well: badge or no badge, there’s no honor among thieves.