The Wire, season four.

Daniels: What’s this kid to you?
Prez: I don’t know. He’s one of my students.

There appears to be a very strong consensus among critics and serious fans of The Wire that season four is its pinnacle, perhaps the greatest single season of any American TV series from any network. I won’t say that I disagree with that assessment, but that I find it very hard to view season four outside of the context of the three seasons that led up to it – season four stands strongly on the foundation laid by 37 prior episodes that established storylines, developed characters, built tension, and began a form of social criticism that draws on traditions that predate the medium, a kind of angry exposure of societal injustice and hypocrisy that called to mind the angry righteousness of Native Son. The Wire always had a point to make; season four is where that point got made.

The end of season three saw the demise of the Barksdale gang and the rise of a new, more ruthless drug kingpin on the west side of Baltimore, Marlo Stanfield, who lacks the charisma of Avon Barksdale or the intelligence of Stringer Bell, ruling his territory and crew like an authoritarian dictator, disappearing enemies and buying allegiances when he needs them. The investigation into him sputters due to the lack of bodies – a void undetstood by the viewers, but not by the investigating unit – and city politics, allowing a new storyline built around four new characters and one familiar one to take center stage.

Prez turned in his badge during season three, but resurfaces here as a math teacher in one of Baltimore’s failing public schools; four of his students, Namond (son of Barksdale enforcer Wee-Bey), Randy, Michael, and Duquan (“Dukie”), each of whom earns his own subplot. I would challenge any viewer to watch this season without becoming emotionally attached to these at-risk kids, each of whom started life with a negative balance and only one of whom ends the season with any real hope for improvement, thanks largely to the intervention of an adult who goes well beyond his duties to save a kid from jail or death on the corners. I always found Prez a little hapless as a detective; when he showed aptitude for the problem-solving aspects of the job, the camera always seemed to look on him as an object of pity, as if we should be proud that the slow kid finally found something he was good at. Even watching him slug his father-in-law (who had it coming) had that underdog feeling to it. In season four, Prez becomes a fully-realized character, a man who may have finally found his calling after leaving a job that never fit him, justifying (on some level) his presence as more than simply awkward comic relief. But Prez also becomes our conduit to not just another aspect of urban decay but to the missing piece to fill in the puzzle of the plight of the American urban underclass that this series documents. As it turns out, the problems with the streets and corners start inside the broken homes that line them.

No spin on a knuckleball. You still can’t tell how it’s gonna break.

Whether David Simon started The Wire to tell great stories, to criticize the actions and policies that were (or are) destroying inner cities in the northeast and the rust belt, or both is immaterial, because the result is clear: the series tells phenomenal stories, longer, deeper, and more intertwined than on any other American TV series I can remember, but always with a clear (if occasionally preachy) message about why. When I was younger, if a network series wanted to cover a major social topic, they would do a Very Special Episode; The Wire was, in that parlance, a Very Special Series.

The macro story here is the decline of the city, at least since the start of season two, since you might argue season one was primarily about the folly of the war on drugs. Adding the failing education system and the way city politics and bureaucracy perpetuate that failure (although the teachers’ unions come in for little to no criticism here) in season four only makes the overall picture more dismal. The police are corrupt. The schools are hopeless. City Hall is only concerned with numbers and elections. The FBI is too busy chasing terrorists to look at homegrown crime. The war on drugs only increases misery, but no one wants to consider decriminalizing them for fear of a backlash. Any attempt to start a small business to help the community and maybe create a job or two will be met with unreasonable regulations – or a need for bribes. And so on. You couldn’t paint a much bleaker picture unless you wanted to turn it into a series about zombies roaming across a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

The trick of The Wire is its ability appeal to your emotions without manipulating them, especially hard because we’re now talking about a season that revolves around kids who are swimming upstream against a current that is trying to drown them. The writing veered as close as it’s come to preaching with the storyline in the schools, with scenes that can’t help but leave the viewer angry – but could they have been written any differently? Stories of failing inner-city schools no longer make the front page because they’re too commonplace, and because (I presume) readers are resigned to these situations as unfixable. Pouring more money into the system hasn’t helped. Testing creates massive incentive problems, which becomes a subplot this season. But more than any other cause, lack of structure and support at home shows up in reality and in season four as a major cause, if not the major cause, of the failing schools.

(I did find the academic project, removing ten disruptive kids from classrooms and educating them holistically while avoiding the standard curriculum, a little contrived, but because it got us another season of Bunny Colvin – and the bittersweet restaurant scene – I won’t complain.)

Even watching the drug dealers of Baltimore recognize the benefits of cartel behavior – the “New Day Co-Op,” meeting in a local hotel conference room – keeps the show grounded in the drug-war theme that was established in season one and continued, often below the surface, in seasons two and three. It also had the benefit of giving me more of my favorite character, Proposition Joe, whose prank phone call to gather intelligence on Herc rivals his “nephews and cousins” line from season two for the biggest laugh I’ve gotten from the series.

A good churchman is always up in everybody’s shit. It’s how we do.

Where season four did set itself apart from the previous three seasons was in the depth of writing on individual characters. Earlier years weren’t superficial, but didn’t get as far into motivations as season four did, and there was too much emphasis on current actions relative to character history. Putting the four kids at the center of the show for a full season allowed the writers to focus on past and present because for junior high school kids those two things have little separation between them, and in the case of these kids, the issues from their pasts are still active during the show. Nowhere did this have the same impact (no pun intended) as it did in the storyline involving Michael and eventually Stanfield enforcer Chris Paltrow toward the end of the season. (Spoilers ahead.)

Michael’s visceral, negative reactions to any attempt by adult males to establish clear bonds with him were always odd, but about halfway through the year it became obvious that his reactions were some kind of latent response to prior abuse, likely sexual abuse, by a male authority figure earlier in his life. (It later becomes apparent who the culprit was, and why Michael makes the choices and sacrifices he makes as a result.) When Michael reverses course and asks Chris, who, for all of his coldness during murder after murder, shows peculiar flashes of empathy, even for victims (assuring them it will be quick), Chris’ emotions come to the surface with a fury that reveals a profound, unhealed emotional wound that explains not just the violence of his fulfillment of Michael’s request but the dichotomy in his own character, a murderer with a sensitive side that actually fits him, not one that was grafted on by writers to make him less repellent.

The camera has always liked Cutty Wise, as actor Chad Coleman has this mournful expression along with a deep, deliberate style of speaking that draws your attention even when he’s not in the middle of the action. Yet season three used him more as a prop in plotlines about the difficulties of reintegrating into society after incarceration and the hurdles city government puts in front of small businesses than as an individual character involved in micro stories. Here, his gym is thriving as a center of community activity, with all four boys spending time at the gym, two forging uncertain relationships with Cutty that lead, of course, to violence, but also to one of the season’s few slightly hopeful outcomes.

The one individual story that didn’t grab me was the mayoral campaign of Tommy Carcetti, who, despite getting a little more depth this season (as opposed to the raw ambition of season three), can’t command a scene like a credible fast-rising politician character should. I also never really doubted the outcome of the election – why would we be spending so much time with him, and seeing a resolution in the middle of the season, if he wasn’t going to win? What happens after he takes office is less a function of him and more of the moral hazards rampant in democratically-elected governments. Even the identical character played by an actor with stronger oratory skills would have been more effective.

Carver: You know what this is? This is one of those enabling relationships.
Herc: Enable me, Carv.

I think we all recommend The Wire, you to me and now me to everyone who’ll listen, because it is smart, compelling television, infused with bright and dark humor, a show that deserved a wider audience when it was alive and will get that audience , come hell or high water, now that it’s gone. But people should watch The Wire not just for its entertainment value, but because it is a social document, one that treats serious issues seriously, that handles characters like people rather than like tools of the writers, and that shows an essential understanding of the economics of behavior that drive all aspects of our lives. You do not need an econ degree to watch or enjoy this show, just as you do not need one to respond to incentives in your daily life. But you will get an education watching the show, if only in the way that a real education forces you to think critically about issues and search for answers, to ignore easy solutions and to question the pat responses you get from authority figures. It’s showing up on college syllabi, as this two-year-old Slate article attests, and not just in film studies classes. It is an American landmark, a work of protest disguised as a police procedural that, like its best characters, ignores the boundaries set out for both genres in the name of the greater good. There may be, or have been, better American series out there; I’m not well-watched enough to say more than that I haven’t seen one. But rather than elevate season four above the three that preceded it, I’d prefer to simply elevate the series, and hold that season four’s greatness is merely a testament to the vision of its creators, and to the strength of all of the material which laid the groundwork for it.

Comments

  1. dreadpirate82

    Any time I see Carcetti, I think of KLaw.

  2. In 2005, I taught a survey course on American Literature at SF State. Alongside the usual stuff like Gatsby, I assigned the first three episodes of The Wire. I got no flack from the department … it was a course for non-majors, I was told to “make it interesting”, and I’m pretty sure most of them hadn’t heard of The Wire, anyway. It worked, of course, because among many other things, it is great literature. And I was able to jump ahead a bit and show D’Angelo breaking down The Great Gatsby while I was at it. Reading your excellent Wire posts have reminded me again how great the show was, and it’s fun seeing it through a “newbie’s” eyes.

  3. Just the words “Season 4″ conjure up Randy’s recurring question to Carver: “You gon’ look out for me?”

    I am really not one to speak in absolutes, but I feel with great certainty that The Wire is the finest thing ever put on television. Will there ever be something as good, or even better? I am not too optimistic.

    Thanks a ton for the review, Keith. Your last paragraph is one of my favorite summaries of the show that I’ve ever read.

  4. Great write-up as always, Keith. I tend to take the minority position that Season 2 is the best season of The Wire, but Season 4 is also fantastic. Heck, each season is superior to 99% of the history of television programming. Just curious, though: you’ve acknowledged being late to The Wire game, but what were you watching on television back in 2003-2007? Was The Wire just not on your radar or did other things take up time? I’m always curious why a lot of folks sleep on shows when they’re actually airing.

  5. Wonderfully written – thanks, Keith. I look forward to your thoughts on Season 5; I enjoyed it, but my wife found it disappointing. I suspect her disappointment had as much to do with the series ending as the episodes themselves, but I was too emotionally involved to take a critical eye the first time through (I’m in the middle of re-watching the series now).

  6. Thank you for bringing attention to the Wire. I absolutely loved the show when I first watched it and have watched it several times over, since. The show never quite got the attention it deserved and was sometimes categorized as just another crime drama. I hope more people can come to appreciate the show as I did.

  7. SkitchPatterson

    Awesome write up. I’d be curious to read your opinion on the evolution of Carver from season 1 to season 4. His growth is one of my favorite parts of the entire series. You are definitely right that this show transcends entertainment. I live in the Detroit area and can’t watch a police press conference the same way as I did before watching The Wire.

    *little note, Randy Wagstaff is actually the son of Prop Joe Lt. Cheese Wagstaff. Never mentioned in the series, but it was originally intended to be in.

    Season 5 lies ahead.. and there is one moment that is so un-Wirelike that it took me out of the whole series for a couple of moments. An attempt at comic relief that, as a huge Homicide fan, really irked me. You’ll know it when you see it. The addition of Clark Johnson (Meldrick from Homicide) is absolutely fantastic though. I also know you to be a bit of a Twitter junkie.. I highly recommend following @etdellums – the Medical Examiner in The Wire and Luther Mahoney on Homicide.

  8. “I did find the academic project, removing ten disruptive kids from classrooms and educating them holistically while avoiding the standard curriculum, a little contrived…”

    Funny thing is, that actually happened. When Ed Burns taught middle school, he convinced his principal to let him do exactly that.

    I’m pretty sure they spend a bit of time discussing that on one of the “Behind the Scenes” features for Season 4.

  9. I love The Wire as much as anyone else. However, I can understand why the show didn’t get high ratings while on air. Simply put, I think the plot lines and underlying messages of the show are too complex to be taken in/understood on a weekly basis. For instance, I’m not sure I would’ve picked up on Bodie’s reference (during Season 4) to the Season 1 chess game. If I had seen the Season 4 scene four years after Season 1. Small things like that may be too difficult to pick up over a weekly basis, but when watching all the seasons in a short time span…one may be able to pick up those references.

  10. Great write-up…

    “We are family— I got my Carcetti with me.”

  11. SkitchPatterson

    Yeah, it should also be mentioned exactly how awesome Reg. E. Cathey is. I think I would not have enjoyed the Carcetti storyline had it not been for his presence.

  12. You will need to suspend disbelief parts of S5. The good still outweighs the bad thoughout S5 quite easily. But you’ll love enough that you’ll enjoy reading a Baseball writer’s review, even if he is blatantly biased against the Cardinals…

  13. Norman is up there with Cutty, Slim Charles, McNulty, and Stringer for great voices on this series – the sound would make you pay attention even if the character or the words couldn’t.

    I knew about Cheese/Randy from Wikipedia. Watching a series so far after the fact means a lot of stuff ends up spoiled one way or another.

    Daniel: Go figure. I assumed it was just a plot device, especially with the academic so thinly drawn.

    Bill: Movies, mostly. Went heavy on the classics from 2002-06, at which point I changed jobs, became a father, and stopped watching much of anything beyond the occasional cooking show. I never had HBO while The Wire was still on air, though; I’ve only subscribed once, for six months in 2010-11, to watch the regrettable Boardwalk Empire.

  14. SkitchPatterson

    Has there ever been a character more abhorrent than Namond’s mother?

  15. I’ll echo the sentiments above that Season 5 goes a little downhill from here, but that was inevitable. It’s still absolutely worth watching. It just has a few rip-your-hair-out moments that keep it from greatness. It’s the worst season of the best TV show I’ve ever seen. So that’s still pretty high praise.

    Damn, just reading this has me thinking it’s time to watch the whole series again. I think I’ll start tonight.

  16. Great writeup Keith, especially the point about the buildup. the kids damn near broke my heart. I will say though that after the death of a certain youth at the end of Season 1, my default assumption about The Wire was cynicism – we just keep assuming the worst would happen, and so the emotional impact was a little less due to the result.

    Side note – most annoying character in Wire history – does anyone every compare to Ziggy from season 2? I wanted to beat him myself.

  17. Love that picture you tweeted of Jay’s desk, Keith-did you know the real Jay Landsman is on the show? He’s Bunny Colvin’s sergeant during the whole 3rd season-the guy with the mustache.

    Also, Bunny’s deacon friend is the guy upon whom Avon Barksdale is based-one of the most notorious drug dealers in all of Baltimore during the 70s and 80s (Melvin Williams).

  18. I love the write ups Keith, thanks for doing them. The best season for me was 4, and I loved the whole series. One of the my favorite things about the show are the sheer number of great characters and performances. Bubbs. Slim Charles, Prop Joe, and Norman are personal favorites but the performances of the four boys are all brilliant.

  19. I’ll echo everyone in saying that the write-ups have been great, and that you should temper your expectations a little bit for S5. Especially as a writer it might hit home (or since your writing background is not in a newspaper, it might not, I don’t know). I remember reading that a lot of journalists disliked what Simon did in S5, so it will be interesting to see your take.

    As for S4. It probably is the most demanding, brilliant work of art the show ever did. That said, if I had to watch a season today (knowing the plot and what happens having seen the entire show), I’m picking S1 just because the characters on the drug side are much more, to me at least, interesting, deep and likable. Marlo, Chris and Snoop definitely grew on me as time went on, but they just weren’t Avon, String and Bey. That was a mightily daring choice by Simon to basically kill off one half of the show from S1-3, and have his new leading kingpin be a character who was, although done purposely, emotionless.

    The kids were brilliant. I think the way the show evolved and grew allowed that storyline to hit close to home. We had already seen kids in ‘The Game’ back in S1, and now we got to see just why that was the best option, just why that boy in S1 could not add up people coming onto a bus, but could get the count right in his head. I will say that Wallace was, to me, the most pitiable kid on the show’s run, and his death is still to me the most heartbreaking scene, but I think in isolation, one kid losing his way and ultimately becoming a victim to the game was just less forceful than four.

    Anyway. Great, great show. And I’m glad that for you, The Wire didn’t disappoint. I’ve never met someone who has been disappointed by it, but it is good you seem to be enjoying it.

  20. Thank you for the terrific recap.

  21. Keith – great write-up. Season 4 is the pinnacle. And I thought for a long time The Wire was the greatest TV drama of all time. However, upon watching the first 4 seasons of Breaking Bad, I think it is clearly in second place. If you pick a new series to review next, I would love to hear your season reviews of Breaking Bad.

  22. Keith,

    I’m working as a substitute teacher right now. Today, I covered for one of my ex-teachers—one of my favorite teachers, actually—and it’s a school I don’t work at too often, so I got a chance to catch up with her for a few minutes. I asked her how her year’s been going and she said, “The kids are great. I love getting a chance to work with them. But the school performed poorly on the state tests last year and they’re jamming a curriculum down our throats to prepare the kids for the state tests.” I could see how deflated she was when she was reminded of the emphasis they’re placing on the state tests.

    I couldn’t help but think of The Wire, as I’m about midway through Season 5. It kind of struck me because we took the state tests when I was in school and our teachers talked about how important they were, but we didn’t have a curriculum designed around performing well on the test.

    I can’t imagine trying to be a full-time teacher in an environment where your main goal is to manipulate the students to do well on a test, rather than actually teach them. It makes for a worse environment for the students and, as I could see from my teacher’s reaction, it also makes an already underpaying job even less desirable.

    Thanks for the post. Just like the show, it was thought provoking. I’m interested to read your follow-up when you write about Season 5.

  23. I’m glad to read your comments about appreciating the series as a whole and not just by season. I had little doubt you were taking this into consideration, but I made a comment in your season 3 article saying how it was weird to read season recaps knowing how much better the show is as a complete series. I stand by that comment. When you finish season 5 and look back at the whole journey from episode 1 to the finale, the true greatness of The Wire reveals itself.

    Also, I’m not sure how often she shows up in season 4, but I believe you should be familiar with Snoop at this point. Her character is perhaps the most intriguing of any on the show, but mostly because of the background of the actress. Felicia “Snoop” Pearson was a drug dealer, and not an actress, before The Wire. Her life also includes a conviction for second-degree murder. This background information gives her character an incredibly eerie vibe whenever she is on screen. Morality aside, there is little doubt regarding the authenticity of The Wire.

  24. Great analysis, Keith. One thing, though: Chris’ last name is “Partlow.” He, unfortunately, can’t claim to be Gwyneth’s brother from another mother.

  25. This was my favorite season of the Wire and the most thought provoking. Do you listen to the commentaries from the writers and actors? I think the commentaries for season 4 are from the young actors.

    There is a baseball related joke in either season 1 or 2 where Herc and Carver are on a stakeout and Herc asks Carver what guy he would be attracted to. Carver won’t answer and Herc says Gus Triandos. He was a catcher on the Orioles in the early 60′s and one of the ugliest man in Baseball history.

  26. Last night while discussing cartels in my strategic management class the professor had a slide with the org chart for the New Day Coop. I was disappointed it wasn’t really discussed and not really sure why he even had the slide. It would have been a lot more fun to discuss the Wire than De Beers.

  27. The Carcetti storyline follows the real-world ascension of a Baltimore politician who started as a City Councilman, became a white mayor in a predominantly black city and then went on to bigger things. The details are astounding, even down to his relationship with the black, female City Council president working with him (that eventually took his spot as Mayor when he left office). Even better, the former Governor of MD (the one that lost the election to Carcetti’s real character) was in the episode where Carcetti went to visit the Governor’s office.

    These little things really made the connection to the show even better for us locals.

  28. Chris Jones
  29. Completely forgot about Prop Joe’s stand-up routine on the phone. Hilarious. Though really nothing can hold a candle to Snoop buying a nail gun, if you ask me. (Who would have guessed anything could surpass Omar Devone Little testifying in a court of law?)

    Great posts on the show. I agree with everything you’ve said about it, although over time I’ve come to think more about one key thing that it completely whiffed on. I mean Rob Deer–caliber whiffing, season after season after season — to the point that it probably reduced its audience’s understanding of an important aspect of the situation it was trying to illuminate. But I’ll wait until after you’re done with the series, rather than rain on the parade while you’re watching it.

  30. Keith, In your chat you chose D’Angelo yelling at Stringer about Wallace over Randy yelling at Carver. Why? For me, Randy’s scene was the most emotional part of the entire series. To this day I can just think about it and feel every bit of pain in Maestro Harrell’s voice. It’s chilling.

  31. Terrific work again Keith.

    I think your last thought (extremely well put by the way) could have been saved for your final wrap up after the end of the series! But thank you for sharing it with us early. Enjoy the final season and I look forward to your thoughts on it.

  32. Sure, I’m a little late to respond, but…

    No mention of Bodie? I found it hard to get the image of him shooting Wallace out of my head; felt like a relief (finally) that he was finally put down; yet between three seasons, I began to pity him — he was seemingly the last one to go against the new regime.