If HBO’s excellent “We Own This City” sometimes feels like a footnote to “The Wire,” it’s mostly because the latter is one of the best dramas in the history of the form. It’s also because that sprawling narrative unfolded across five seasons and this one packs a brutal punch in only six hours. Once again, David Simon and George Pelecanos have turned to the streets of Baltimore, this time telling the true story of the Gun Trace Task Force of the 2010s, a deeply corrupt group of police officers in the Maryland city, most of whom are now in jail. In many ways, “We Own This City” is even more cynical than “The Wire”—it thematically reminded me of the great 2017 documentary “The Force,” which basically makes a case that our policing institutions in this country have been so fundamentally broken for generations they can’t be fixed. Sparked by a jittery live-wire performance from Jon Bernthal and anchored by incredibly smart dialogue, “We Own This City” is a stand-out mini-series in one of the most crowded periods of “Prestige Drama” in years.
Based on the book of the same name, “We Own This City” stars the phenomenal Bernthal as Sgt. Wayne Jenkins, the Henry Hill of this group of gangsters with badges. Bernthal plays Jenkins as more of craven opportunist than a brilliant sociopath. He honestly believes that he’s serving the greater good and so if he takes some cash from a bust or even nabs some drugs or weapons to sell on the side, who’s getting hurt? As he spirals deeper into his brand of narcissistic injustice, he takes greater risks to protect himself, including planting evidence and protecting violent fellow officers. Bernthal is the key to “We Own This City,” capturing this man’s deep insecurity in his shifty eyes—watch the scene in which Jenkins witnesses a Freddie Gray protest getting more intense to see the constant fear in this man’s soul. Bernthal, Simon, Pelecanos, and director Reinaldo Marcus Green (“King Richard”) understand that men like Wayne Jenkins are inherently weak, the kind of people who take advantage of others to protect their self-interests. It’s a riveting performance.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Simon project without a sprawling ensemble. Other officers on the GTTF that get caught up in the corruption investigation include characters played by McKinley Belcher III, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Rob Brown, and Josh Charles, who’s very effective as the guy on the team who seems the most like he might be serial killer Daniel Hersl. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s Sean Suiter (Jamie Hector), a guy who Simon and Pelecanos clearly have sympathy for as a cop who could have gone in a different direction if the system wasn’t so fundamentally broken. One side of the political spectrum is likely to look at “We Own This City” as anti-cop propaganda, but that would be inaccurate because the show constantly feels like it’s trying to portray how likely it is for things like the GTTF scandal to happen when it becomes easier to do the wrong thing than do the right one. What “We Own This City” really captures is how police corruption doesn’t take a lot of effort—it’s actually harder to do the right thing.
Nicole Steele (Wunmi Mosaku) discovers this as she investigates the case for the Department of Justice. Mosaku is kind of wasted as a character designed primarily to push the narrative—ditto Dagmara Domincyzk as an investigating FBI agent—and I didn’t love the chronological jumble of the narrative. Simon & Pelecanos’ work can be hard enough to follow, and it’s easy to get lost in how far down the rabbit hole Jenkins has gone because of how much the story jumps around in time. Of course, this is intentional, likely because they didn’t want this to feel like one man’s increasing villainy and more of a fabric of non-stop corruption.
“We Own This City” is best appreciated in memorable snapshots—incredibly well-written scenes that pull back the curtain on the corruption of absolute power. The final two episodes bring Treat Williams into the fold as a retired detective and the connection to his brilliant “Prince of the City” feels intentional. Corruption isn’t new. And even with the GTTF disbanded and sent to jail, the broken system is still there waiting to create another Wayne Jenkins.
Whole series screened for review. Premiering on HBO every Monday night, starting April 25th.