HBO’s We Own This City is a spiritual sequel to The Wire that breaks a key rule from its predecessor. We Own This City returns the core creative team of David Simon, George Pelecanos, and Ed Burns to Baltimore to tell the true-life story of the corruption case against the city’s Gun Trace Task Force. As with much of their previous work, the writing team draw on reporting and legal documentation, with We Own This City also referring to the nonfiction book of the same name by Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton.
There’s an authenticity to The Wire’s spiritual sequel which is down to David Simon’s journalistic rigor, honed during his own time at the Baltimore Sun. This authenticity was key to The Wire’s portrayal of the corruption at the heart of multiple Baltimore institutions and the city’s increasingly futile war on drugs. In a true-crime drama series like We Own This City, that authenticity is crucial. Despite this similarity, however, there is one key way in which We Own The City diverges from The Wire.
The divergence between We Own This City and The Wire is rooted in how the characters in both series deal with the rules and regulations of policing. The most telling comparison is between We Own This City’s Wayne Jenkins (Jon Bernthal) and The Wire’s Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West). In The Wire, McNulty is by no means a squeaky clean figure, he’s the classic heavy drinking womanizer of the crime genre, but he has a moral code that’s driving his crusade against both the Barksdale and Stansfield crews. He and his fellow taskforce members work within the system to achieve their goals, often playing the police, press, and the city at their own game in McNulty’s moral crusade. Wayne Jenkins and the other members of his Gun Trace Task Force are more concerned with how they can use those same rules for financial gain. It’s corruption, pure and simple, and goes against everything that McNulty and his colleagues in The Wire were attempting to root out.
In We Own This City, episode 2, more is revealed via flashbacks about Jenkins’ early days in the police. Under the wing of his training officer, he learns about the various ways that cops can augment their poor wages with extra money from arrests. Wayne thinks back to how he was humiliated at a party for bringing a basket of sub-par crabs that he’d spent a lot of money on. His former colleague, meanwhile, has a chiller full of expensive meats and alcohol and this is clearly a defining moment in Jenkins’ transition from over-zealous street cop to corrupt and untouchable taskforce sergeant. It’s the same flawed system of The Wire, one that puts extreme pressure on the police with little financial gain, but Jenkins’ is playing it for less moral, and more selfish reasons than McNulty in The Wire.
In The Wire, Jimmy McNulty, in partnership with Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters), uses the city’s stringent budgets, people experiencing homelessness, salacious local press, and obsession with crime statistics to stage a series of serial murders. It’s shocking when McNulty stages his first corpse, but it’s presented as a necessary step in gaining the public attention and police resources to finish their crusade against Baltimore’s violent drug trade. McNulty and Freamon are less like Wayne Jenkins and his GUn Trace Task Force and more like McDougall and Hawk, the two cops who first discovered evidence of corruption. It’s in We Own This City’s investigation of the criminal activities of cops that most explicitly subverts its predecessor. It also demonstrates that these real-life Baltimore police officers have fundamentally broken the moral codes and rules of the equally corrupt but fictionalized Baltimore of The Wire.