The creators of The Wire show us exactly what policing in the United States has become.
There is an adage in screenwriting that sometimes the truth isn’t believable. Something could be true in real life, but it won’t matter if the audience doesn’t believe it.
We Own This City is based on true events, detailing the gun trace task force in Baltimore, who robbed the people they were supposed to protect. They pocket drug money from their victims, they plant guns on suspects they’ve assaulted without cause. They sell the drugs they confiscate. I had a tough time believing that many of these events really happened.
This is the rare case where a showrunner’s pedigree comes to the fore. Written by David Simon and George Pelecanos, the creative team on The Wire, they bring verisimilitude to everything they touch. Their careful research into every detail of the worlds they explore is what has made them the greatest storytellers on television. They allowed me to believe just how awful it got, and has gotten, in Baltimore.
Since George Floyd, the American public has become aware of the brutality of the police. We Own the City uncovers something even more sinister. Their callousness, their reckless disregard for the people they serve, how they disgrace the shield they serve behind.
Early on we see police refusing to arrest a suspect because they’re being filmed. Post Freddie Gray, there was an epidemic of police refusing to get out of their cars. Refusing to do their jobs. Early on, we see a group of men robbing a drug dealer and then spending their loot at a strip club. The next morning we find out that they are police officers.
There are certain snippets of good police work to show that it’s not all police. But We Own This City’s stance is clear.
The good does not outweigh the bad.
This show is an avalanche of vile police behavior, all centered around Wanye Jenkins, played by Jon Bernthal. It details years’ worth of street harassment, unlawful stops and seizures, and what amounts to local terrorism.
Jenkins’ origin, and his motivations, are painted in a few small details. He’s made to look embarrassed in front of his colleagues for his crudeness and his lack of wealth. He’s taught to do his job by a fairly brutal if not corrupt cop. But the creators of this miniseries are smart enough to let Jenkins’ actions tell the story. They have years of corrupt, gang-like policing to show you what type of person he is without any silver bullet origins story.
Bernthal plays him with a wild, animalistic, yet charming presence. He’s slightly overeager, as if he can’t quite believe he’s become the center of attention. When he becomes the head of the gun trace task force, he celebrates by speeding around the city in his cop car while drinking a Mike’s Hard lemonade. Bernthal is often cast as an alpha man because he has the look. But what he has that other, macho-looking actors don’t is his approach.
He doesn’t treat the machismo of these characters as sacred. In his performance, it’s childish, and silly. His macho characters can’t see past themselves, and are too invested in their own pride to be smart. There is no young man watching Jon Bernthal’s performance in this show and wanting to put up a Wayne Jenkins poster in their room.
What keeps this show from being perfect is some of the acting on the periphery. The show’s creators love to cast actors of varying backgrounds to portray the different realities of the world. But here, the differences in acting is stark, and noticeable. It’s a minor mark on an otherwise searing portrayal.
If it turns your stomach to watch this show, it’s because it should. We Own This City shows us that much of policing in this country has turned into class warfare. Policing is a tax on the poor. Seizing cars stops a working-class father from getting to work. Stealing from another young man leads to a gang killing him for his debt. Through countless, endless minor tragedies, the people who ultimately pay the price are the poor, mostly black citizens of Baltimore.
Without revealing any spoilers, a series of titles at the end telling the actual end for these characters outside the show reads like a bullet-pointed list of timeline events from a failed state. If the police in We Own This City are protecting us, we’re not protected.
We’re their prey.