RETURNING to the world of cops, criminals and those caught in between within the playground that is Baltimore, Maryland, legendary television series The Wire’s creator David Simon and writer George Pelecanos have teamed up with HBO yet again for an enthralling look into a side of Baltimore set within the real world.
Based on the book with the same name, We Own This City chronicles the extent of corruption in the Baltimore Police Department’s Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF) that saw multiple police officers being arrested for serious crimes.
Carrying a certain nostalgic weight and sensibility to it, WOTC feels like a genuine extension or sequel to The Wire, be it due to the setting, themes, cinematography or the returning faces from the latter.
During a recent international press junket, Simon and Pelecanos explained that it was natural for them to bring back the some of the cast and crew from The Wire, because the connections forged during five seasons of television made the Baltimore crew a family of sorts.
Devil in the details
Given the heightened nature of conversations surrounding police brutality, policing and corruption in America, particularly after the death of George Floyd a year before WOTC was ordered by HBO, the series felt like it was cautiously navigating the nuance of “the police”.
Simon noted that it was a conscious decision to not paint the police officers on WOTC in broad strokes of black and white.
“A lot of what we had to do structurally was showing where these people came from, their earlier interactions, how the department shaped them, and how they in turn shaped the department,” he said during his Zoom interview with international media.
This “structure” was apparent with GTTF’s head honcho, Wayne Jenkins, who – through WOTC – is shown from his first day on the job towards what he ultimately, tragically became.
It is expounded further with how Jenkins was heralded and rewarded for his actions, and how the former sergeant “forgot the right things and learned the wrong things”; a cycle that he would then continue by conveying to younger officers.
“That was through structure, and how it differed from the book, which was a journalistic chronicle of the scandal and what happened, but [the book] doesn’t have the luxury of looking at things thematically within character. That’s the power of film if you do it right.”
Chipping in, Pelecanos said they tend to never label who is a good guy or bad guy in their show.
“We don’t villainise these people. There were many different personalities; there were cops who were brutal and nihilistic, but then there were others that were taking money and throwing it away. They didn’t want to take it into their homes, but they felt like it had to be taken or they would be blackballed within the squad,” he said.
Tour de force
Though WOTC features an ensemble television cast, with a few familiar faces from The Wire such as Jamie Hector and Darrell Britt-Gibson, it is actor Jon Bernthal that leads the rest as the infamous Wayne Jenkins.
As the main player within the GTTF’s network of crime, Bernthal – naturally – brings his A-game as the disgraced sergeant.
Responding to a question by theSun on transferring his signature swagger and physicality to Jenkins while keeping it distinct from his previous roles, Bernthal explained that it was a calculated decision to do so.
“When you talk about the physicality, or the voice, or the code switching – how he talks differently with different people – that’s because I was not only allowed but encouraged to really dive in to the character and person,” answered Jon, who showered praises for director Reinaldo Marcus Green.
“I believe in him as a filmmaker with every fibre of my being. He’s in a league of his own. What does for you is, you can shoot for the stars if you have someone like [him].”
Green further explained that he only joined after Bernthal did, and the presence of the latter was a huge part of the reason that the director decided to take on WOTC.
“It couldn’t just be a bad cop show. It had to be about the nuance and the complexity,” he said.
“I knew that Jon is the kind of actor who has the range, capability and heart to just dive into those conversations. This man did a deep dive into that community.”
“And it’s a dangerous role; not everybody wants to take on the role of Wayne Jenkins. It could be toxic and in the wrong hands, it’s not a good look. But this is what made Jon a great actor; that he could take on a difficult role and challenge of making someone human”.
On directing WOTC under the shadow of The Wire, Green said that when he picked up the script for the new series, he could tell it was a cousin of The Wire.
“But it was its own thing and really lived in its own space. Maybe that’s why they brought me on; to find a new way to have a conversation this many years later,” he surmised.
We Own This City premiered on HBO beginning April 25.