As The Wire revealed over the course of the first season, criminal investigation requires a microscopic eye for detail and a clear understanding of personal motive. Wallace & D'Angelo's moral qualms about their involvement in the Barksdale operation provided valuable evidence to the investigative detail about who to hit and for what crimes. Without Lester Freamon's or Pryzbylewski's classic detective work, the wiretap wouldn't have been possible and the police dept. wouldn't have known about Stringer Bell's financial properties and political connections. Hell, without knowing what motivates the chain of command and Major Rawls's micromanaging, McNulty wouldn't have been able to subvert his authority to keep the wire open. All of this drove the thrilling humanistic dramas through organic storytelling by talented actors playing thoroughly driven characters, making The Wire something of a standout among the classic Law & Order-style shows. However, "Sentencing" throws the book out the window in favor of story resolution, and all of the effort thrown into the case looks all for naught in the end. Watching bureaucratic mismanagement may be realistic and marginally informative, but it does not make for dramatic and compelling television.
Take the arrest & trial of Avon Barksdale. Before the Baltimore Police Dept. decides to storm Orlando's strip club, Avon casually remarks, "Might as well not waste a good safe", opening it as he contemplates the potential damage from the police storming in. Avon and Stringer as laughing as they consider the SWAT team effort present, when their actual arrest was about as civil as a country club ejection. They quietly cuff Avon, leaving Stringer free, as they have no case against him. The dry, mechanical nature of the arrest suggests Avon is not overly concerned, and as the story unfolds, his confidence is boosted.
Meanwhile, D'Angelo is arrested and his long-desired full disclosure confession unwraps as he considers the moral ramifications of being involved in Stringer's murderous operation. He almost spilled the beans earlier in the season when confronted with photos of a dead witness from D'Angelo's murder trial. But now, they have more photos and more dead federal witnesses, including his boy, Wallace, from the pit. It sort of feels like a rerun as it unfolds, as Dee admits selling drugs and implicates Avon, but stops short of taking responsibility for a murder, desiring his witness immunity. "I just want to go somewhere anywhere where I can breathe like regular folks." Pearlman is ecstatic about the confession to the point of jumping McNulty in the headquarters garage, but McNulty seems somewhat reserved and, perhaps, pessimistic.
And I'm inclined to agree with McNulty's skepticism, after witnessing a federal wiretap (albeit, a fictional one) result to one drug kingpin and a couple of lieutenants serving a few years time in prison. Its not as if I want them to get life in prison or a public hanging, but I understand the frustration of the police officers at the bureaucratic dealings over sentencing, the relentlessly nagging of chain-of-command to think within the box and stick to dept. policy, and the lack of impact these policies have on actually changing criminal drug trafficking in the first place. Looking at the pit at the end of the episode, you would think nothing had changed. Avon continues counting his money (and putting it in the un-ruined safe), just in a different location. The higher authorities of Baltimore Police take the credit, and the rest of the detail gets dispersed to obscure and sometimes unwanted positions.
I have always respected The Wire as a crime drama because I felt it has a more realistic portrayal of the cause and effect nature of crime and law enforcement. The bureaucratic watering down of the sentences is realistic and important to see. It just doesn't make for dramatic television. That is the downfall of "Sentencing". While still giving us the intimate humanistic scenes of crime & law enforcement, the story wraps up in a very unsatisfactory and mechanical matter, almost as though we are supposed to shrug our shoulders at the end and say, "Well, that's life." While it may be true that sometimes a concerted effort fails in making a real change, watching it on TV isn't very entertaining. Highs: Organic weave of character personalities into the story, supported by a strong ensemble cast.
Lows: Bureaucratic shuffle makes for a pointless & boring story, lacking drama and character conflict; McNulty vs. Rawls is starting to feel like cop vs. boss cliché.
The Verdict: C, Watching all the effort yield few results is frustrating and boring.