“He pointed a gun right at me, I had to hit him with a car,” says Wayne Jenkins (Jon Bernthal), an over-the-top and braggadocious police sergeant in HBO’s new limited series We Own This City, as he tries to explain to a supervising officer why he hit a suspect with his vehicle.
It’s a laughable excuse, but Jenkins is a master manipulator who can talk his way out of almost anything. Of course, in his eyes, he’s earned that right. He’s the Baltimore Police Department’s golden boy because he consistently brings in guns and drugs, so hitting a suspect who didn’t actually have a gun with a car is minor on Jenkins’ list of offenses. Robbery, racketeering, and selling seized narcotics are just a few of the more salacious crimes Jenkins gets away with, although he’s quick to rationalize his actions.
Jenkins’ story, along with the stories of those he works with on the rogue Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF), is the driving force behind the brilliant—albeit at times meandering—six-episode limited series, which is based on the non-fiction book of the same name by former Baltimore Sun crime reporter Justin Fenton. We Own This City showcases not only the corruption within the GTTF, but the tireless work of the FBI agents who broke the real-life scandal in 2017, and the Department of Justice lawyer who tries to repair one of the most corrupt law enforcement agencies in the country.
Of course, when you hear the words “law enforcement” and “Baltimore” together, the TV show The Wire quickly springs to mind—and for good reason. The crime series, which was created by David Simon and featured George Pelecanos and Nina K. Noble as producers, was set in Baltimore and followed several members of law enforcement. It’s also one of the greatest television shows of all time. The trio of Simon, Pelecanos, and Noble join forces again for We Own This City, so naturally, there are fingerprints of The Wire all over the show’s six-episode, one-and-done season.
The settings, cinematography, music, and rapid-fire dialogue in We Own This City are all reminiscent of The Wire. Even the cast is loaded with veterans from the series. While you won’t see McNulty (Dominic West) or Bunk (Wendell Pierce) pounding beers at Kavanaugh’s, fans of the show will see plenty of familiar faces, albeit in new roles. Actors Jamie Hector, Delaney Williams, Trey Chaney, and Domenick Lombardozzi will all get eye-popping reactions from The Wire faithful, and they are just a few of the vets making their return to Baltimore. While you may be wondering how in the world drug kingpin Marlo Stanfield (Hector) became a homicide detective, it’s important to remember that this series is based on real-life events—even if the show does work, in a unique sense, as a continuation of The Wire.
“This is the coda to what we were arguing with The Wire,” Simon said during a Television Critics Association press conference in February. “If you emphasize the wrong things, if you play the stat games, if you promote people for the wrong reasons, if you stop attending to the basic notions of protect and serve, you get the kind of police department, eventually, that they got in Baltimore, and in other places, too.”
That message is integral to both series, but because the events of We Own This City are based in fact and not fiction, its impact is felt with much more force. And while the new limited series shares DNA with The Wire, it also stands on its own, taking four initially separate plotlines and gradually weaving them into a cohesive and complex story.
The first and last episodes of We Own This City are bookended with the belle of the ball himself, Wayne Jenkins. Loud, boisterous, and willing to tell everyone within earshot how great he is, Jenkins is loved by his superiors, admired by his colleagues, and a nightmare for anyone he arrests. Bernthal is electric, and whenever he’s onscreen, the series is elevated.
As the leader of the Gun Trace Task Force, Jenkins has made it a common practice with his crew to shake suspects down, grab their guns, drugs, and money, and then skim off much of what they recover to split amongst themselves. It’s a practice they view as legitimate—after all, they’re stealing from criminals. But things start to unravel when the group—which also includes brutal cop Daniel Hersl (Josh Charles)—gets greedy. And even the seemingly good guys can’t escape the heat. Sean Suiter (Hector) is one of the few decent cops in the department. He used to work with Jenkins, but has found a new purpose in his work as a homicide detective. However, Suiter eventually learns that even though he’s tried to stay above board, an incident during his time with Jenkins may come back to haunt him.
Erika Jensen (Dagmara Dominczyk) and John Sieracki (Don Harvey) are part of the FBI team slowly unraveling the complexities of the GTTF’s illegalities. It’s through them that most of the legal story in We Own This City is told. But the moral conscience of the series is Nicole Steele (Wunmi Mosaku), an attorney assigned to the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, which is investigating Baltimore policing practices. Steele starts out wanting to fix a department constantly mired in turmoil, but by Episode 6, she’s as stonewalled by the law enforcement quagmire as everyone else. Anyone who is frustrated with the legal system will relate to Steele’s journey.
But although We Own This City is addictive and sure to be devoured by fans of The Wire, it does suffer from two nagging issues. There are time-jumps across 11 years in just six episodes. Plotlines start to coalesce by Episode 3, but many will likely find the first two episodes disorienting. We Own This City also lacks a main protagonist. To be sure, it has a lead in Bernthal. But unlike Tony Soprano or Walter White, viewers aren’t going to root for the bad guy in this series. You know Wayne Jenkins will get caught, and he deserves to be caught. But with no clear hero (or antihero) leading the charge, and with only the eventually effective criminal justice system, it feels like a program that is missing a vital puzzle piece.
And yet, even though the show has some issues, I found myself captivated by the story of how a criminal justice system failed its citizens. Provocative, powerful, and with first-rate performances, We Own This City is the next generation of The Wire fans have long craved.
We Own This City premieres Monday, April 25th on HBO, and will be stream on HBO Max
Terry Terrones is a Television Critics Association and Critics Choice Association member, licensed drone pilot, and aspiring hand model. When he’s not hanging out with Bunk and McNulty, you can find him hiking in the mountains of Colorado. You can follow him on Twitter @terryterrones.
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