The HBO miniseries is a gripping heir to The Wire

Jon Bernthal on We Own This Town

Jon Bernthal in We own this town
Photo: Paul Schiraldi/HBO

“The city of Baltimore is an emblematic figure in the fundamental failure to end lawlessness.” The line, spoken by Governor Larry Hogan in October 2021, is peppered with HBO’s opening credits We own this city. The sentiment and offended tone with which it was delivered provide a necessary context for global audiences in which this adaptation of Baltimore Sun the book of the same name by journalist Justin Fenton (subtitle: A true story of crime, cops and corruption). Hogan’s rhetoric claims that what you find when you look at 21st century policing in the city of Maryland is a crime-ridden urban area that needs more cops on the streets. At that same press conference, he added that “to reverse the growing trend of crime, we must stop demonizing and sabotaging the dedicated men and women who risk their lives every day to keep us safe.”

We own this town isn’t necessarily a high-profile TV endorsement of the “defund the police” movement, but neither is it do not that. Many of the Baltimore police officers we meet in stories from the 2000s and 2010s that culminated in a series of high-profile arrests in 2017 (with the show shuttling between those timelines) aren’t, in fact, “men and dedicated women.” Or they are devoted, but to brute force of their own making, rarely to the public safety they are called upon to uphold.

Take the sergeant. Wayne Jenkins (Jon Bernthal, really relishing that Baltimore accent). He can say all the right things when he’s first on screen: “You don’t get shit to be rough,” he tells a group of cops during their required training, pointing out that they will do themselves a disservice by bullying the people themselves. they’ve sworn to serve and protect — and also, those criminals whose arrests they really want to make sure stay in court. That opening scene, which juxtaposes his surprisingly shrewd assessment of the police in the wake of Freddie Gray’s murder with what the street cops actually look like (not to mention how buttoned up they are by him smashing the bottle of guy’s booze with his baton for no apparent reason other than deliberate intimidation) captures the show’s central tensions: is there such a thing as “good” (and effective) police? Is the concept of a “good” cop a fiction?

As it follows the Gun Trace Task Force, a cabal of cops that arguably ran as a full-fledged criminal operation, We own this town is a striking heir Thread, David Simon’s most famous HBO series. But perhaps such a comparison, while necessary, shouldn’t dominate the discussion around Simon’s latest project, co-developed with George Pelecanos, and directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green (of the masterful Of monsters and men and, more recently, King Richard). But it should be noted that these three men are deeply invested in the details of what being a police officer entails. You can see that even in how they chose to situate us. The police logs that support our screen are what help us know when and where we are (“Name: Jenkins, Wayne E. Type of activity: S&S warrant execution. Time: 1602. Location: Collington Square. Date: February -17-2017.”)

But it’s not (just) a show about dirty cops. As its sprawling ensemble – it includes Josh Charles, Jamie Hector, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Dagmara Domińczyk and McKinley Belcher III among others – suggests, We own this town asks us to think broadly about police reform. It is a dissection of a system, a structure, an institution. So while we follow investigators who end up exploding crime at the heart of the city’s gun-tracing task force, we also follow an officer in the murders unit trying to do better in his city. , and, perhaps most tellingly, we get to see Wunmi Mosaku’s Nicole Steele cringe and get to work in the civil rights division of the city’s Department of Justice.

Wunmi Mosaku in We Own This Town

Wunmi Mosaku in We own this town
Photo: Paul Schiraldi/HBO

It’s not just that Mosaku’s sheer screen presence lights up every scene she’s in (because she’s luminous even when playing the mild-mannered but strong-willed Steele), it’s that her storyline helps put others around her — about drug busts and seemingly random murders, about federal investigations and local politics — into better context. That’s true even when called upon to formulate questions that often sound like what Simon, Pelecanos, and Green want us to think when watching this or any other law enforcement story. “How on earth can an officer rack up more than 50 civil complaints of brutality and abuse in a career and still be off the streets?” she asks the police commissioner. “If the police are getting so blind, who’s talking to you?” she asks a cop when discussing the violent means BPD uses to suppress crime.

As he slowly strings together his many intrigues, We own this town paints a much-needed dire portrait of a city and a law enforcement agency. While young recruits are told they have to forget all the sensitivity training they’ve been taught and rough veterans feel inviolated because of their badge, the gripping HBO series manages to structure itself as a mindful procedural of self that constantly asks us to question what we think we know about how crime is engineered by and within police departments across the country.

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