HBO's Critical Darling Is Down to the Wire

In the end, The Wire will have at least one happy ending: the opportunity to finish on its own terms.

Despite weak ratings, HBO's critically acclaimed drama returns for a fifth and final season Sunday (9 ET/PT) to conclude creator David Simon's tales of the mean, complex and ultimately human streets of Baltimore.

"I never thought it would go this long, because David had to fight every year," says Dominic West, who returns as troubled detective Jimmy McNulty. "I'm glad it did, because he always had in mind a five-year arc. There are story strands that were started in the first season which are all dealt with very neatly in the fifth season." (Simon was unavailable for interview because of the writers' strike.)

A demanding series that delves deeply into the police and drug dealers and their never-ending battle for control of the streets, The Wire has also explored the contradictions of society's institutions -- including the police, labor unions, city hall and the schools.

The 10-episode final season continues the interweaving stories while considering the strengths and foibles of a increasingly corporate news business.

The Sun in Baltimore, where Simon worked for 13 years, gets a fictionalized treatment as city editor Gus Haynes (Clark Johnson) asserts the newspaper's role as government watchdog while dealing with budget cutbacks, awards-obsessed editors and an overly ambitious reporter (Tom McCarthy).

"The themes change every year, from the docks to the schools and now the press and the mayor's office, but the core of it remains pretty much the same. There's the same level of cynicism," says Johnson, who directed The Wire's first episode and also its last.

But there's also hope. "You have to figure somewhere there's a core of some goodness in every institution. As much as a city like Baltimore can be dysfunctional, you've got to believe that somewhere it's going to happen that they solve those problems."

Season 5 opens with the detectives still watching drug dealer Marlo (Jamie Hector), but the investigation is handicapped by department cuts ordered by the ambitious mayor (Aiden Gillen), who diverts the money to city schools to keep a campaign promise.

Meanwhile, the series shows how the drug dealers -- played by Hector, Robert F. Chew, Troj Marquis Strickland and others -- form a parallel institution, complete with a board meeting of sorts to divide territories.

West, who asked for a break last season and appeared on a limited basis, is excited to be back as McNulty, who crosses ethical boundaries to get more money for the police. He's back to work with Freamon (Clarke Peters), while fellow detective Bunk (Wendell Pierce) looks askance at McNulty's actions.

"The job will always destroy" McNulty, says West, who makes his directorial debut in Episode 7. "At the end of the season, there's a sense of complete change in his life. I think David felt it was not going to happen until everything had fallen apart in his life."

Filming in Baltimore, where Simon's books were transformed into Homicide: Life on the Street and The Corner, makes the show seem more real, Johnson says. Simon's knowledge adds to that feel. "He has such a nose for what's happening in that town."

Johnson is proud of The Wire's achievement, even if it never will have mass appeal: "It is demanding. It takes an investment in time and thought." With the strike, he says viewers should enjoy the opportunity. "It's going to be all reality TV after this."