...the life of kings. - H.L. Mencken
This is seen in the lobby of the Baltimore Sun, as an excerpt from a longer Mencken quote displayed on the wall when Alma talks with Gus after she's been demoted to the Carroll County bureau. The full quote describes news reporting as "more fun... than any other enterprise" as well as "the life of kings." The notion of a king's life is a fitting epitaph to a show chronicling the people who make a city run.
Though Daniels and Pearlman have been informed of the falsified serial killings, McNulty and Freamon continue to operate under the assumption that their plot has remained a secret. With the Stanfield crew behind bars, Freamon takes it upon himself to identify the drug kingpin's mole within the courthouse. It is revealed that Grand Jury Prosecutor Gary DiPasquale has a major gambling problem with annual losses three times larger than his salary and that he took out a third mortgage on his home. DiPasquale admits to leaking courthouse documents to drug defense attorneys as Freamon points out that through the course of asset investigations, DiPasquale was the only "bogie" in the courthouse. Freamon then tells DiPasquale to resign quietly to avoid criminal prosecution but not before recording having a telephone conversation with attorney Maurice Levy whom DiPasquale admits has been paying him for the court documents.
Meanwhile, Marlo and his lieutenants remain imprisoned. Having been informed of Snoop's death, the group agree that Michael was indeed an informant and decide that eliminating him is a top priority. Cheese is the only member of the group able to post bail - Monk has violated parole, Chris has been charged with murder, and Marlo himself is refused bail on the basis of his violent nature and ability to intimidate witnesses and jurors. Marlo instructs Cheese to assemble the Stanfield crew's remaining muscle to hunt down Michael.
Freamon meets with Pearlman at the courthouse, where he provides her the identity of the mole and his recorded conversation with Maurice Levy. Pearlman, despite being happy to have such strong evidence against Levy, is still angry enough to reveal her and Daniels's knowledge of Freamon and McNulty's duplicity.
Dukie, having been left on the streets by Michael, returns to Edward J. Tilghman Middle School to visit his old teacher, Roland Pryzbylewski. Dukie asks Prez for money, claiming that if he had enough for an apartment, he could enroll in a GED program at the community college. Prez is skeptical and agrees to help Dukie, but with a warning: he'll visit the community college next week. If Dukie has indeed enrolled, their relationship will be intact, but if he hasn't, Prez muses, "I'll probably never see you again anyway, right?" Dukie agrees to the conditions, but takes the money back to the arabber to spend on drugs anyway.
Templeton, desperate for more material to contribute to his aims for a Pulitzer, goes out on the streets to interview homeless people. After a few moments of standing around, he instead finds an inebriated homeless man and then phones in a 911 call, claiming that the man is being kidnapped. When the police arrive, Templeton tells them that the man was being pulled into a van when he arrived; the man is so intoxicated that he can't confirm or deny Templeton's claims. McNulty is one of the police called to the scene, and after a few minutes, grows exasperated with Templeton's transparent lies and sends him away. Afterwards, an undercover police officer (dressed as a homeless person, stationed in the area by McNulty to keep an eye out for the killer) arrives and confirms McNulty's suspicions that Templeton was making the story up. Rather than charge Templeton for making a false statement, McNulty allows him to leave.
Freamon arrives back at headquarters and tells McNulty that Daniels and Pearlman know the truth about the "Red Ribbon Killer" and the illegal wiretap. McNulty wonders aloud why, if the Commissioner and City Hall already know, the two of them haven't already been fired and arrested - Freamon replies that Mayor Carcetti is desperate to save face after using the serial killer as an excuse to run on a platform of poverty and homelessness. Thinking about it, Lester says, "we've got almost as much on them as they do on us."
While Fletcher passes out newspapers on Bubbles's morning shift, Bubbles reads the article Fletcher has finished about him. Bubbles is touched that Fletcher finds his life story so inspiring, but at the same time, has reservations about revealing the details of Sherrod's death to the world. Fletcher maintains that readers would find Bubbles's life story thought-provoking, but Bubbles remains unconvinced.
In the newsroom, Haynes is adamant about refusing to print Templeton's falsified story about the attempted abduction. His superiors accuse him of having a personal vendetta. They move Templeton's article to another editing desk, and warn Haynes that his attitude could cause problems for him down the line. Haynes outright accuses Templeton of lying about the "abduction" which he claims took place, causing an outraged Scott to throw his notes.
Maurice Levy goes through the Stanfield arrest warrants, convinced that something is amiss. Herc assures him that a wiretap is the most likely means by which Marlo was brought down, and Levy learns that the only four people who knew the group's meeting code were the four arrested. Considering the speed with which the code was broken (mere hours after their arrest), Levy is confident that the police used an illegal wiretap to decipher the code beforehand. He later tells Pearlman that he's aware of this discrepancy, making it clear that whatever fraud was present in the case will be aired in court.
Unfortunately for McNulty, another homeless man has been found murdered, with a white ribbon tied around his wrists. McNulty, Bunk, and Kima arrive on scene, distraught that McNulty's entirely fictitious serial killer has inspired a copycat. Camera crews immediately begin to arrive on the scene as they argue, though it's fairly obvious that McNulty is now feeling great remorse for taking this course of action. As the incident appears on televisions across Baltimore, Mayor Carcetti is watching as well. "Did somebody not get the memo?" he deadpans, exasperated.
Bubbles allows Walon to read the article Fletcher wrote, which leaves Walon with a smile. "This guy gets you," he explains to Bubbles, going on to say that the article didn't pull its punches and weighs him objectively, and in the end convinces Bubbles that it's not the negative aspects of the articles that he fears - indeed, Bubbles admits that since Sherrod's death he's been unwilling to call himself a fundamentally "good" person. Bubbles finally agrees to have the article printed.
Fletcher allows Haynes to read his article on Bubbles in the newsroom, and Haynes wholeheartedly approves. Afterwards, however, Alma approaches him and reveals that the notebook Templeton had thrown during their earlier argument was empty, despite claims from Scott that it contained notes on all the details of the attempted kidnapping. Pushed over the edge, Haynes takes the file he's compiled on Templeton's indiscretions and confronts his superiors in their office.
State's Attorney Rupert Bond and Rhonda Pearlman are told by Carcetti's chief of staff to settle the Stanfield case out of court as quietly as possible, using whatever leverage they can to keep the illegal wiretaps from being brought to light. Pearlman meets with Maurice Levy in his office and plays the taped conversation given to her by Freamon. In it, Levy is incriminated by offering to purchase sealed court documents - an offense for which he could serve 10-12 years. Pearlman blackmails him into settling the Stanfield cases out of court; Chris Partlow will plead guilty to all of the murder charges in the vacant rowhouses and accept life imprisonment without parole, Monk and Cheese will plead guilty to possession with intent to sell and serve up to 20 years each, and the charges against Marlo will be abated under the agreement that he step out of the drug business permanently.
McNulty is berated by Daniels and Commissioner Rawls, equally upset about his fabrication of the murders and the new copycat killer. They encourage him to catch the copycat quickly, allowing the press to assume he's the original killer and clean up the whole mess; regardless, they explain, this will be the last case McNulty ever works. Luckily McNulty proves himself again, using evidence found on the victim to identify the killer (a mentally ill homeless man McNulty had met twice before). The department charges the man with two of the six murders (both of which the man actually committed), and allows him to be sent to a psychiatric facility rather than put him on trial. The media and the public are led to believe that the "Red Ribbon Killer" has thus been caught.
In a press conference afterwards, Mayor Carcetti takes a great deal of credit for both the toppling of the Stanfield enterprise and the catching of the Red Ribbon Killer. Immediately afterwards he promotes Daniels to Commissioner, with Rawls serving as a supervisor.
Marlo, now prepared to "give up the crown," meets with the remaining members of the New Day Co-Op to negotiate a price to sell his connection to the Greeks after his release from prison. He names his price at $10 million, which the Co-Op members can attempt to raise between them. The group agrees that this price beats their only alternative, which is to resume selling low-quality New York product. Later the group meets in a parking lot, where Ricardo reminisces about the "old days" under Proposition Joe's leadership, which causes Cheese to pull a gun on him. Cheese acknowledges his role in his uncle's death, and is promptly shot in the head by Slim Charles. Though the other Co-Op members complain that Cheese was contributing funds, Charles maintains that "it was for Joe."
The BPD hold a mock wake for McNulty, as has been the tradition for detectives who passed away before their retirement (as shown in past episodes). Freamon, who has enough time in to take full retirement, attends with his wife Shardene in tow. Several officers, including McNulty's sergeant Jay Landsman, express genuine dismay at his departure, acknowledging that McNulty was "real murder police," and the best homicide detective in the department in spite of (possibly because of) his character flaws. McNulty and Freamon exit the bar as Kima arrives. The three make amends after Kima admits that she informed Daniels of their lies, with McNulty acknowledging that she was correct to do so. As the other two head back inside the bar McNulty heads home, alone.
Shortly afterwards, Commissioner Daniels is told by Chief of Staff Steintorf to manipulate the crime statistics to make it appear crime is dropping during the next two quarter years, an order which he flatly refuses. Daniels, fed up with the "numbers game" which he says caused the problems in the Department in the first place, states that from now on all of his statistics will be clean, and real police work will resume. Steintorf is then told by City Council President Nerese Campbell that Daniels will juke the stats or resign as Commissioner. Campbell sends Daniel's ex-wife 11th District Councilwoman Marla to him with the FBI file threatening Daniels over his days as an Eastern District DEU sergeant. Daniels then agrees to step down for personal reasons and decides to make use of his law degree. His last act before departing is to award promotions within the Department, amongst them being Ellis Carver's promotion to Lieutenant (Carver appears to be Lieutenant of the Major Crimes Unit, which coincidentally enough is the position Daniels has held throughout most of the series).
As the show winds to a conclusion, several cutaways show the fates of many of the major characters at the show's conclusion, many of which establish that the "next generation" has simply begun following the same path the main characters followed over the past five seasons:
Leander Sydnor approaches Judge Daniel Phelan to complain about the Commissioner's incompetence, mirroring the diatribe from McNulty which began the first Barksdale investigation.
Marlo, attending a party held by friends of Maurice Levy, attempts to blend in and become a "legitimate businessman" much like Stringer Bell - uncomfortable in such surroundings, he departs quickly and moves to the nearby corner, accosting two gang members. Despite the two being armed with a gun and a switchblade, Marlo beats them soundly and stands triumphantly on their corner.
Dukie and the arabber shoot heroin in a decrepit building, a scene reminiscent of Bubbles and Sherrod's relationship making a living on the streets.
A menacing Michael Lee and a partner kick in the door to Vinson's rim shop, threatening him and his muscle with a shotgun. Michael demands the drug money the group is sorting, and when challenged, shoots Vinson in the kneecap. He and his partner depart, with Michael's mannerisms and attitude mirroring those of the fallen Omar Little.
Chris Partlow and Wee-Bey Brice, both incarcerated for life with no possibility of parole, converse on friendly terms in prison.
Ricardo Hendrix, Slim Charles, and the remaining members of the Co-Op meet with Spiros "Vondas" Vondopoulos, who appears to give them an identical speech to the one he gave Marlo when agreeing to supply him. The Greek himself sits nearby, listening to the conversation but never identifying himself.
Scott Templeton wins the Pulitzer for his work on the "Red Ribbon Killer" case, while Gus Haynes is demoted and Alma Gutierrez is transferred to a less prominent branch. Gus is able to smile, however, as he watches promising young protègè Mike Fletcher step into the role of editor.
Daniels himself becomes a defense attorney, while Rhonda Pearlman becomes a judge. Mayor Thomas Carcetti becomes governor, but has compromised the promises he made to aid the City of Baltimore when he ran for mayor. Nerese Campbell becomes mayor and names Stan Valchek Police Commissioner. Bill Rawls becomes Superintendent of the Maryland State Police, as promised by Carcetti. Bubbles, finally accepted by his sister, is able to have dinner with her family.
Jimmy McNulty, meanwhile, takes the time to locate the vagrant he displaced while inventing the "Red Ribbon Killer" and drives him "back home" - to Baltimore. The final shot is of the Baltimore skyline, with cars driving past on the freeway in the foreground.