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We Own This City
Image: HBO

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We Own This City is Bleak but Essential Viewing

We Own This City Season One Review

We have already performed a preliminary investigation into the crimes found in the Ed Burns Baltimore-based drama We Own This City. The HBOMAX miniseries recently concluded its 6-act run. It is time to delve deeper into the multitude of ways the show demonstrates how the city of Baltimore was at dire crossroads in 2017 in the aftermath of the Freddie Gray tragedy. Things get rather bleak despite how well executed the series is.

Witnesses to the Prosecution

Right from the outset of the third chapter City demonstrates how Sgt. Wayne Jenkins (John Bernthal), the eventual Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF) leader, is “trained” into pocketing criminals’ money for personal gain. This is done whilst searching their homes or places of employment. The team finds drugs and guns, so they are fulfilling their duties in many respects. However, large stacks of cold hard cash are also spotted. Most of it is officially tallied in reports, while a cut that stays with the lawmen. Chief among them are officers Hersl (Josh Charles), Momodu Gondo (McKinley Belcher III), and Jemell Rayam (Darrell Britt-Gibson).

We Own This City
Image: HBO

Meanwhile, Department of Justice (DOJ) envoy Nicole Steele (Wunmi Mosaku) tries to make heads or tails of the ungodly number of complaints aimed at the Baltimore Police Department (BDP), as are FBI investigators Erika Jensen (Dagmara Dominczyk) and her BPD colleague John Sieracki (Don Harvey). As for homicide detective Sean Suiter (Jamie Hector), despite happiness with the new job, his past associations with the GTTF haunt him.

A Deep and Dark Tale

Our previous article explored episodes 1 and 2. This inadvertently resulted in a stark demarcation from the rest of the series. Whereas the opening acts performed much of the heavy lifting by setting the stage for a complex issue, episodes 3 through 6 are more intense. Much of that stems from Ed Burns and director Reinaldo Marcus Green assuming that if viewers have been paying sufficient attention, they’re ready for the grime.

There are so many plot threads to go off on that it is a minor miracle the show holds itself together. Comparisons with The Wire in that respect alone are ill-advised. The latter concentrated entire seasons on singular angles. Ed Burns’ latest packs in everything it can into 6 episodes. Balancing the DOJ’s interviews, its work on a reform decree, the pressures felt by the BPD commissioner, the work of the FBI (including wire-tapping), showing the GTTF’s past felonies during its glory days, and the present day (circa 2017) testimonies of its members once arrested for corruption. Even considering that the producers have given themselves 6 hours, that’s a lot of content. 

Jamie Hector (right) in We Own This City
Image: HBO

Balancing these elements is accomplished through terrific editing, specifically the shot selection to announce a switch back in time. Whenever City jumps backwards in the timeline viewers get a close-up shot of Jenkins’ computer monitor as he types in his daily log. Zoom in on the date then cut to whatever dishonourable policing he and his squad performed on that day. A simple editing trick, yet highly valuable for clarity’s sake when communicating so much information both past and present. 

Corrupt Cops, Crumbling City

As the story inches closer to its climax the storytellers put more emphasis on how the BPD’s increasingly tarnished reputation affects Baltimore as a whole. This is where it really paints an inglorious portrait of what happens when an institution as crucial as the police force is rotten to the core. An especially revelatory sequence features previously arrested citizens appearing in court for questioning by a judge. The objective is to ascertain whether they could be relied on to objectively serve as juries in court cases involving cops. Of the more than one hundred who are asked, seven claims they would be objective. Not a winning batting average.

When the police lose the trust of those they aim to serve and protect, a city grows disenchanted. Those keeping score are aware that City’s time jumping keeps getting closer and closer to the infamous day Freddie Gray died. The event itself is not portrayed, but the eruption of frustration in the populace is. It makes for the show’s most explosive sequence. In stark contrast to the rest of the series, this sequence is white-hot, depicting the boiling point of all that is wrong with respect to the BPD’s relation with the public. 

The series sheds light on the multitude of parties who grow either disaffected or frustrated. The continued maltreatment of African Americans weighs heavily on Nicole Steel. A new administration in early 2017 may throw a wrench into her plans to help reform the BPD’s inner workings (Donald Trump has won the 2016 presidential election by then). Likewise commissioner (Delaney Williams), stonewalled by the mayor when the reform decree is deemed too expensive. There is even a former GTTF member who admits to not keeping at least some of stolen money for himself. 

Essential viewing
Image: HBO

Nuance of Corruption

For all his faults, Jenkins is portrayed as genuinely proud of being a cop. Taunting the badge is unacceptable to him, so when Baltimore revolts in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s demise, he fires up the troops, heads to the anti-riot front lines, and even provides food and water to his colleagues. For all the interesting personalities City shines its spotlight on (detective Suiter is a fascinatingly tragic figure), no one is as intriguing as Jenkins. 

There is a saying that proclaims the most interesting villains are those who deem they are doing the right thing. Jenkins most certainly does not view his behaviour as bad.  Frankly, he is appalled that anyone should accuse him or his colleagues of wrongdoing or question the quality of the service they provided the city. The guns and drugs were taken off the street, which is exactly what he was tasked with doing. The crooks and gangsters they chase are incomparably dangerous, so why should the GTTF not keep a cut of the money for themselves? The pay isn’t very rewarding anyways. Thus begins a slippery slope.

Final Verdict

This latest Ed Burns endeavour is not as impressively sprawling as The Wire. The latter will long be remembered as a tour de force of television format storytelling. City, on the other hand, concentrates on a specific issue that plagued the BPD while alluding to the many parties it affected. 

For what it is, the show is very compelling. Viewers need to be aware that this is not a thrilling joyride. The series is a deliberate, thorough exploration of how a good idea to clean up the streets went horribly wrong. 6-hour long procedural, if you will. The format may turn some off. Others may simply be discouraged by the fact that it is based on actual events. Oftentimes improvement starts by looking at one’s decrepit self in the mirror. The BPD had to. The same may apply to a whole lot of other institutions. 

-Edgar Chaput

Written By

A native of Montréal, Québec, Edgar Chaput has written and podcasted about pop culture since 2011. At first a blogger, then a contributor to Tilt's previous iteration (Sound on Sight), he now helps cover tv and film on a weekly basis. In addition to enjoying the Hollywood of yesteryear and martial arts movies, he is a devoted James Bond fan. English, French, and decent at faking Spanish, don't hesitate to poke him on Twitter (https://twitter.com/double_oh_Pop), Facebook or Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/edchap14/).

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