On April 12, 2015, Freddie Carlos Gray Jr, an African American, was arrested by Baltimore police and entered a police van that was to take him to the police station. But upon arrival, he had injuries so severe that treatment by paramedics was insufficient and he had to be taken to hospital, where he entered a coma from which he would never awaken. A later investigation concluded Gray was injured as a result of a form of police brutality in which a handcuffed prisoner is placed in a police van, without being secured with a seatbelt, and the van is then driven erratically. The case provoked a series of protests and ended with three weeks of riots highlighting people’s broken trust in those who were (supposedly) meant to protect them – the police.
It is this Baltimore riven by turmoil that is used by David Simon, legendary creator of The Wire, as the backdrop for We Own This City, the new miniseries now available for viewing on HBO Max. Through six episodes, and with his usual comrade-in-arms Georges Pelecanos as co-writer, he draws a very pessimistic portrait of the scourges that continue to afflict this city in moral collapse, such as systematic corruption, racism and political interference. The series is based on a book by Justin Fenton, a reporter at the Baltimore Sun, precisely the newspaper where Simon worked as a crime reporter before becoming a creator of one of the most highly acclaimed TV shows.
We Own This City revolves around the Baltimore police department’s controversial Gun Trace Task Force and in particular the corruption of eight officers who worked in it. But once again, Simon avoids the easy explanation of pointing a finger at the bad apples in the barrel, shrugging his shoulders and saying that for every hundred public servants, there’ll always be some who go off the rails. Instead, he takes a wide view revealing all the strings being pulled behind the scenes.
Seen this way, the more likely conclusion is that yes, individual responsibility exists, but where intervention is needed is at the systemic level where corruption has its roots. In this sense, Simon and Pelecanos are probably the masters when it comes to depicting complex social ecosystems in a series. The ensembles common to all their work serve to reinforce the importance of seeing society as a whole and thus resisting the temptation to pin the blame for everything on those who usually take the rap, namely the poorest. Or, in the case of the United States, Blacks.
In their two main projects in the immediate wake of The Wire’s success, this creative duo focused on worlds far removed from Baltimore. First, the series Treme portrayed the effects of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, then The deuce delivered an ambitious account of the rise of the porn industry in the seedy New York of the late 70s. Their return now to bleak, industrial landscapes in Maryland entails a return to the turf where Simon moves with more ease.
Put simply, We Own This City may not be officially linked to The Wire, but it is a lot like a new season of its renowned forerunner, with the Baltimore police once again under the watchful eyes of the writers. Furthermore, some of the same actors reappear, this time in different roles, so viewers quickly gain a feeling of familiarity that works in favor of a series that is otherwise a little demanding to follow, due to the plethora of characters.
As in the other fiction and non-fiction from this team, realism is once again theirhallmark here. This time there is the bonus of having Reinaldo Marcus Green -director of works including King Richard, which was up for best picture at the latest edition of the Oscars- behind the camera, adding his quality touch to the overall result. The shorter format, and use of the same director for all episodes, adds cohesion to what is a tightly woven series that once more wrestles with the classic dilemma of whether humans can be bad by nature, or if it is society that makes them so, clearly optin for the latter.