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HBO’s ‘We Own This City’ is not Season 6 of ‘The Wire’

The new show from David Simon and George Pelecanos isn’t about ‘dirty cops,’ but it is about real-life corruption in the Baltimore Police Department

Rob Brown, left, Ham Mukasa, Robert Harley and Jon Bernthal, in the HBO miniseries “We Own This City,” which premieres April 25. (Paul Schiraldi/HBO)
12 min

A few detectives in the drug unit are sitting around chatting in the 2002 pilot of “The Wire,” when one offers his thoughts on the war on drugs: “You can’t even call this s--- a war. ... Wars end.”

That “war” still rages 20 years later, and its destruction is evident across the country — particularly in Baltimore, the setting of both “The Wire” and “We Own This City,” a new miniseries from David Simon and George Pelecanos that premieres Monday on HBO.

The drug war has “completely destroyed vulnerable inner-city neighborhoods” by creating a culture of overpolicing things like drugs and underpolicing “things that really do matter: when people shoot somebody, when they rob somebody, when they rape somebody, when they break into a church or the back of a supermarket,” Simon says. It’s “destroyed law enforcement.”

When he co-created “The Wire,” Simon didn’t think things were headed in a good direction. But “did I think we were going to get to a point where cops would be robbing drug dealers and then selling the drugs to other drug dealers? No.”

Simon is referring to the now infamous story of the Gun Trace Task Force, a small plainclothes unit in the Baltimore Police Department charged with getting guns off the street that became a hotbed of corruption. Justin Fenton — who now works with the Baltimore Banner, the city’s new digital newspaper — doggedly covered the story in the pages of the Baltimore Sun for years. Simon, impressed with Fenton’s work, reached out to him, suggested he write a book and connected him with his agent. Fenton’s 2021 book, “We Own This City: A True Story of Crime, Cops, and Corruption,” became the basis for the six-episode miniseries.

“There’s been a lot of attention on police brutality in recent years, rightfully so. I think this show is about something a little bit different. It’s about trust and manipulation,” Fenton says. “If your police department has officers they send out in the name of fighting crime and don’t keep tabs on them, don’t hold them accountable, then this could happen in any city in America.”

Vital to the show is what it is not. It is not the sixth season of “The Wire.” It is not a show about dirty cops. It is not an argument for defunding the police. Perhaps most importantly, it is not fiction. A common criticism of “The Wire’s” final season was that it went too far in imagining corruption, that things would never get that bad. “We Own the City” argues that it didn’t go far enough.

“Neither of us wanted to do a show about dirty cops. It’s been done before, and it’s been done well,” Pelecanos says. “What we really wanted to discuss with the show is the why of it. How can something like this happen?”

The central critique in “The Wire” was that the drug war led to “stat games and petty brutalities and the imprecision of a police force that could no longer police those things that need to be policed,” Simon says. In the show, cops like Herc and Carver might stash a little money in their raid vests, might fabricate an informant — but they had some limits.

But now “the Hercs and Carvers of the world were no longer sergeants and street police. They were now captains and majors and colonels, and they were teaching the next generation of guys that nothing matters,” Simon says. That’s what leads to some police going beyond money and stealing drugs, only to put them back on the street, “a level of depravity that can only happen from pursuing a policy like mass arrest and drug prohibition for as long as this country has.”

The dogged endurance of ‘Law & Order’

The primary challenge in adapting “We Own This City” was how to make Fenton’s book — dense as it is with information, characters and storylines of breathtaking corruption arcing over years — into a watchable, six-hour package that HBO viewers can enjoy on a Monday night without feeling like they’re listening to a classroom lecture.

The solution was to split the series into three timelines — what Pelecanos calls “three rivers slowly coming together.” The show primarily revolves around real-life sergeant Wayne Jenkins (played by Jon Bernthal), the most notorious member of the GTTF and one of Baltimore’s most productive cops. But it isn’t interested in drawing out his arc for narrative tension; by the end of the premiere, his fate is pretty clear. Instead, he acts as the show’s center of gravity, allowing the different timelines to revolve around him, to show how this happened to the BPD, how broken systems continue to corrode over time.

At one point, we see Jenkins’s first roll call, where a veteran officer tells him to forget everything he learned at the academy about “procedure and probable cause.” In a later timeline, Jenkins gives a rookie the same message.

Wunmi Mosaku, who plays Nicole Steele, an attorney assigned to the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department to investigate police practices in Baltimore, serves as the audience surrogate. Her investigation becomes ours. “The questions she is asking are the questions I was asking while reading the script,” Mosaku says. And what she finds, the actress adds, is “a cancer wrapped around the veins of the entire system.”

Reinaldo Marcus Green, fresh off directing best-picture Oscar nominee “King Richard,” says he was thrilled to helm all the episodes. “It felt like a much deeper dive and a continuation of the conversation I was trying to have with my first feature film, ‘Monsters and Men,’ ” he says, referring to his 2018 movie inspired by the slaying of Eric Garner by a New York police officer. Much of “We Own This City” takes place in the aftermath of the death of Freddie Gray, who died in 2015 from injuries sustained in the back of a police wagon. (“If it wasn’t for the fact that Freddie Gray’s name was mentioned,” Mosaku says, “I would have absolutely thought [the show] was fiction.”)

When planning the shoots, Green asked himself, “How do we capture the essence of what ‘The Wire’ did so well but also elevate the film language?” Drawing inspiration from “Training Day,” “Sicario” and “Goodfellas,” and with the intention of making it feel cinematic, he employed less handheld camerawork in favor of Steadicam and wide shots.

Most important to him, though, was capturing the humanity of every character. Green grew up around police officers, for whom he has “a lot of admiration and respect.”

“I don’t think anyone signs up to be a police officer to do the things they did in the GTTF. I think most people sign up with the best intentions, then get sucked into what is a giant institutional problem,” he says. “My job was to treat everyone as complex human beings and not reduce them to just bad guys.”

That desire — to portray everyone as a complex character, to give a voice to everyone involved with the story — has always been a through line in Simon’s and Pelecanos’s work and was a philosophy shared by everyone involved with the project, though doing so wasn’t always simple.

Take Daniel Hersl, a rough cop with a cocky bravado played against type by Baltimore native Josh Charles. Hersl was so known for brutalizing city residents in random, usually racially targeted search-and-frisks that “we’d be shooting on a random block and in Baltimore, and all the neighbors would come out on the porch … and they’d say, ‘Oh, I knew Danny Hersl. He stopped my cousin. He stopped my brother,’ ” Green says.

Most shows would focus on what he did, rather than why. Charles, who watched countless hours of Hersl’s body-cam footage to prepare for the role, knew of the officer’s “brutal and criminal acts” but wanted to explore, “Where is the human being here? How did this guy get to this point where he made these choices?”

It’s one of the reasons Charles wanted to work with Simon and Pelecanos, whose shows aim “to give everyone a voice,” he says. “Everybody has a point of view, and their point of view is heard. You may not agree with it — as I may not, playing the character — but it’s there, and it’s heard.”

Hersl gets the chance to share his philosophy as he’s among friends, sucking down chicken wings in a local dive, and is approached by Steele, the DOJ attorney, who confronts him about the 46 complaints against him. “You know what the Baltimore cops who don’t have complaints are doing every day? They sure as hell ain’t policing. ‘Cause if you wanna do this job, then you’re gonna get complaints for doing this job,” he tells her.

There’s a particular power to humanizing even the most seemingly vile characters — including Jenkins. Not only is he arguably the most brazen of the corrupt officers and their de facto leader, he’s played almost maniacally by D.C. native Bernthal. “We can literally do whatever the f--- we want,” Jenkins says at one point. “We own this city.”

We see him beating residents for having a beer on their front stoop, stealing from strippers, employing prostitutes, starting fatal high-speed car chases on nothing more than a hunch, while also telling younger police never to plant evidence or beat on anyone. We see him rushing home to take care of his wife, skipping a day of partying to watch his son’s football practice.

“The job becomes deciphering whose Wayne Jenkins do you want to depict. People have such different opinions of this guy,” Bernthal says. “And I think the only answer is, it’s all real, it’s all true. He was all of those things.”

Bernthal and Simon tried figuring out “how to make this guy more than just a monster.” During his research, Bernthal found the key: “Every single person said Wayne was an unbelievably committed father.” When Bernthal approached Jenkins to prepare for the role, he told him as much, helping the embattled former officer open up.

“It’s enormously nuanced. It’s enormously complicated,” Bernthal says. “He really had this chameleon-like personality, and it’s that kind of charisma and that ability to shape-shift and speak in completely different dialects that draws people to him. I think he’s a highly manipulative person.”

That’s one major reason, the actor added, so many people — particularly in the BPD, many of whom considered Jenkins to be one of the best cops on the force — “ultimately feel so unbelievably betrayed by him and his corruption.”

While Bernthal and Charles are new to the Simon/Pelecanos universe, others are more familiar, thanks to Alexa Fogel, the casting director for most of Simon’s shows, who refers to her pool of actors as a “20-year repertory company.” Jamie Hector, who played the merciless drug kingpin Marlo Stanfield in “The Wire,” appears as homicide detective Sean Suiter. Domenick Lombardozzi, best known as Herc, makes an appearance as the police union president. (Of course that’s where Herc ended up, you’ll probably think.) Delaney Williams, known to fans as Sgt. Jay Landsman, is here as police commissioner Kevin Davis.

In a bit of particularly inspired casting, Treat Williams — who played a bad cop turned good and helped expose police corruption in the 1981 film “Prince of the City,” also based on a true story — shows up as a retired Baltimore detective disgusted by how far gone things have gotten. “We’ve achieved nothing but full prisons and routine brutality and a complete collapse of trust between police departments and their cities,” he says of the war on drugs.

It’s Hector’s Suiter, though, who acts as the heart of the series. He’s a tragic figure, a man who truly wants to do good while caught in Jenkins’s web of corruption like a small bird sucked into a hurricane. Hector called Suiter the “Michael Jordan of homicide detectives,” noting his attention to small details when investigating crime and his commitment to helping younger officers. But even he made mistakes. “I would hope through him people can see some level of redemption,” Hector says. “Maybe in the past something happened, but he’s not going to live on it and continue to bury himself in a hole of darkness.”

Everyone involved with the project hopes America feels the same way. “If you look at this show objectively and really think about it, you come to the conclusion that the country would be a lot better if these systems were improved,” Pelecanos says. “It’s less important that these eight cops were corrupt. It’s that the system corrupted them and allowed them to be corrupt.”

For Simon, the solution — or at least the first step toward one — is clear: “The drug war has to end.”