We Own This City is going to be the kind of show a lot of people make up their minds about without even seeing it. A limited series that takes a look at the true story of Baltimore’s Gun Trace Task Force is going to rile the feathers of those who don’t want to see any critical looks at American policing. However, this series is being handled by many of the same creative folks behind The Wire, one of the essential pieces of American television about law enforcement. As such, this is not going to be a show with easy answers or boilerplate moralizing. Instead, the series wants to do a similar read as The Wire and look at how institutions enable the kinds of events that happened in this story.
But, if you think We Own This City is going to be nothing but anti-cop agitprop, you would be sorely mistaken. This is a show and creative team that has a lot of respect for police officers trying to do their jobs to the best of their abilities. However, it recognizes that those officers operate within a system that allows for characters like Wayne Jenkins (Jon Bernthal) to take advantage of his position for his own corrupt personal gain. Jenkins is the lightning rod character for this story and so much of the show’s examinations hinge on him. Thankfully, the casting of Jon Bernthal is a stroke of genius. His affinity for playing macho stereotypes makes him the perfect candidate for a police officer that does practically whatever he wants.
We Own This City is operating at its peak when Bernthal is center stage. He is magnetic in every scene and does the best thing an actor can do when playing an antagonistic part: he believes he’s the hero. This is career-best work from Bernthal as he is positioned as everything wrong with the institution of policing in America. It’s hard not to think about how his most popular role, the Punisher, has been co-opted by certain police officers and even some of the insurrectionists that stormed the Capitol. This feels like Bernthal making a pointed statement against those kinds of people, and Bernthal is someone who has been very open about his support for people in the military service. Taking on this role with the kind of conviction he shows is powerful work and it stands as the best performance he’s given on both the big and small screen.
It might be tough for some viewers to click with We Own This City as it has a lot of elements that are not made for passive viewing like so much content aimed at wide audiences these days. The story is told in a non-linear fashion, jumping around from events in 2015 to 2017 and later. And while this is another large ensemble piece like The Wire, the series is not interested in crafting a lot of TV-ified characters. Instead, it is going for a portrayal that feels as close to real as it can. This is a series about a city and that means casting a very wide net in terms of perspectives. Don’t expect a bunch of characters. These are trying to be actual people, even when some of them might be fictionalized.
If you are a fan of The Wire, this is going to be must-see television. So many recognizable actors from that series make a return here, and it is hard not to feel like We Own This City is something of a chance for the filmmakers to return to this city and make a new statement on policing. The show talks a lot about the death of Freddie Grey and how the city is trying to change in the aftermath of such an event. It is not pleasant or easy material, but it is being handled with a mature and focused hand that we could use more of in modern cinematic storytelling.
We Own This City is dense, difficult, and altogether rewarding for its look into what is wrong and right about being a police officer in America. It is a shame some people won’t even entertain its story because of some perceived bias, but those people were never going to listen anyway. For those of us with our eyes, ears, and minds open to examining these institutions, this is the kind of story we want a lot more of.