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.