On March 9, 2008, The Wire, arguably the greatest television series ever, closed out its fifth and final season, wrapping up a journey into the heart of Baltimore that began nearly six years earlier on June 2, 2002. Drugs, addiction, the police, schools, blue-collar work in America, journalism, and more were all covered in the show, a show that ultimately was a Shakespearean-level tragedy about the sorry state of a major American city and the litany of factors that made it that way.
The show’s final season was uneven, driven by two storylines that felt both forced (the focus on the media) and just plain wrong (McNulty’s fictional serial killer angle.) But when it really mattered The Wire delivered, landing the plane with an excellent series finale. The best shows can do that. They can flex their muscles when flexing is needed the most, able to rely on muscle memory. This was something The Office was able to do as well a few years later. Genius doesn’t just disappear. It just gets a little lost sometimes.
In the twenty years since the series premiere aired The Wire has reached a near-mythical status in pop culture, going forward with a second life of existence, one that has been significantly more popular than the first. Did you know the show’s most-watched season in real-time was the second season? It’s true. When it was airing, The Wire was like a secret society, one known by a select few who got wise to the show early on. It came with a shared language that at the time, not many people were fluent in.
By most measures, a heavy portion of the show’s fan base keyed into the show around season four, a season generally viewed as the show’s high water mark. Yet by that point, a good amount of the leg work needed to really appreciate the show had been done. As a result, once people got hooked with the fourth season, they had a job to do. They had to get caught up.
I’m one of those people who didn’t get into the show until season four. I had moved to Philadelphia right before it aired and a roommate talked about it. I had never heard about it until that point. A few months later and with the fourth season having just wrapped up, our apartment was mysteriously blessed with the gift of HBO OnDemand. I had some time on my hands and was curious. However, this was in the early days of OnDemand and at that time only the most recent season was available.
Unsure what to do, I was encouraged by a buddy to jump in. He told me that I could start with season four cold if needed. So I did and was immediately hooked. It was winter, I was working for a landscaping company and I remember a stretch of days in which the weather was not particularly ideal for outside work. I spent a lot of time at home instead of working and used that time to plow my way through that gut-wrenching and emotionally draining fourth season.
After I finished the fourth season I immediately walked a couple blocks over to Blockbuster to rent the first season. They didn’t have the first few episodes of that season, but they did have season three. So screw it, I rented season three and cruised through that in a few days. I then was able to rent the first season, hammered through that one, then season two. I then re-watched seasons three and four and joined the ranks of people who then patiently waited for the fifth and final season.
The fifth season was the first one I watched in real-time and having to wait a week in between episodes was painful. God, is this how people live? It’s like having to sit through commercials. That’s still a thing? And while I cringed somewhat at the serial killer plot and felt the newspaper angle was a little self-indulgent on David Simon’s part, I loved every single minute of it.
If you’re wondering what I did after the finale and maybe you’re speculating that I might have then proceeded to re-watch the entire series again. Well…
Since the series finale aired and I did that first full series rewatch, a combination of factors has seemed to routinely thrust The Wire back into my life. On one occasion it was the release of Jonathan Abrams’ excellent oral history of the show, All the Pieces Matter, which is like porn or cat nip for Wire heads. I found myself reading passages from the book, then immediately turning to YouTube to find the scene being talked about or Googling a random actor’s name to make sure I knew which character the book was quoting. I’ve gone back and re-watched a couple of the season finales and penultimate episodes, which is when most of the show’s sausage was made and packaged. I even re-watched the episode where Wallace gets killed because I’m a sucker for punishment apparently. Even though you know it’s coming, it’s still heartbreaking to watch, something that could also be said for all of season four.
And then there was a time when rewatching the show was just an itch that needed to be scratched or when rewatching it was a welcome distraction during the first few weeks of the Shutdown. All told, I think I’ve watched The Wire from start to finish about five times. Maybe six. A seventh time? Shiiiiiit, don’t tempt me with a good time, friend.
The anniversary of the series premiere would also be a good reason to watch the show again but eh, not sure I have the time for that right now. Maybe. Stand by on that one. But still, it has got me thinking back about the show and with that thinking, has led me down the road of ranking aspects of The Wire.
All the pieces do indeed matter.
Warning: Spoilers ahead
5. Season 5
4. Season 2
3. Season 1
2. Season 3
1. Season 4
I go back and forth between which season is better, whether it’s season three or season four. Currently, I’m on the side of season four, but that could change by tomorrow.
Overall though, the stretch of episodes starting around the middle of season three and running through the end of season four is probably one of the strongest and most complete runs of episodes ever produced. You get the demise of the Barksdale Organization, Bunny Colvin’s ill-fated attempt to legalize drugs, the rise of both Marlo Stanfield and Tommy Carcetti, the redemption of Prez, a marginalized McNulty, a rejuvenated Cutty from the cut, and then the tragic story of four young boys coming up in the middle of all it.
If someone was looking to get into the show, obviously you’d tell them to start with season one. But if time was an issue, I don’t know maybe they’re heading off on safari or something, I’d push season three into season four on them.
Best Characters That Everyone Agrees Are the Best Characters
Four of these characters represented The Wire in The Greatest HBO Character of All Time tournament, with one of them winning it. Avon was the odd man out, but rules are rules and only four characters from a show were allowed and he was as much of an obvious choice as there was to be on the outside looking in.
Was there anyone cooler than Avon, though? Was there anyone on The Wire that you wish there was more of? Well, maybe Wallace. But besides Wallace, it has to be Avon.
Not sure about Avon listening to Spearhead, though. But hey, we’re not here to pick some nits.
Five Great Quotes (not including any by Omar)
“Is you taking notes on a criminal f**kin conspiracy?” – Stringer
“My name is my name.” – Marlo
“Ain’t no shame in holding on to grief, as long as you make room for other things too.” – Bubbles
“You can’t even call this shit a war. Wars end.” – Carver
“We used to make shit in this country, build shit. Now we just put our hand in the next guy’s pocket.” – Frank Sobotka
Stringer’s “40-degree day” line is legendary, but the phrase is almost better than the full monologue, one in which Stringer describes a report on his crew’s assault on Omar as a 40-degree day, i.e. nothing to get exciting about.
Although that being said, the entire quote would probably be ranked sixth or seventh. It’s also worth noting that an entire post could be devoted to the best quotes from The Wire. Each episode probably featured at least a handful of memorable lines.
The Best Quotes from Omar
5. “Worryin’ about you is like wonderin’ if the sun gonna come up.”
4. “How you expect to run with the wolves come night when you spend all day sparring with the puppies?”
3. “A man must have a code.”
2. “You come at the king, you best not miss.”
1. “Man, money ain’t got no owners. Only spenders.”
Omar isn’t just the greatest character ever on HBO, he was a straight-up conveyor belt of legendary quotes. And it wasn’t just the dialogue, it was the way in which the late Michael K. Williams, who played Omar, said them. Lines were slung out of his mouth, dripping in equal parts swagger, attitude, conviction, and a variety of other stank sauces.
Drug Dealers Not Named Avon, Stringer or Marlo
5. Cheese Wagstaff
4. D’Angelo Barksdale
3. Slim Charles
2. Prop Joe
Oh, Bodie. He killed Wallace and we couldn’t even stay mad at him. That’s an impressive feat because we all loved Wallace. Typically, when a person kills a character we love and we, in turn, hate that murderous son of a gun with the power of a thousand splendid suns. Not so here. Bodie went from a loyal soldier to an audience avatar and eventually became one of the show’s most tragic heroes.
But man, my boy Slim Charles could drop some knowledge when he needed to.
When it came to the dudes on the street, there weren’t a lot of favorites left when the dust settled. Thankfully Slim was one of the few who made it to the end.
Cops Not Named McNulty
5. Jay Landsman
4. Kima Greggs
2b. Lester Freamon
2a. Howard “Bunny” Colvin
1. Bunk Moreland
Honorable Mention: Carver, Cedric Daniels, Valchek, Sydnor
Bunk was the man, Bunny was the father figure, Lester was the one you wanted to solve your murder, Kima was the heart and Landsman was the one who could sum it up all the best.
A Ranking Of Some Other Dudes
5. Ziggy Sobotka, Frank Sobotka (tie)
4. Dennis “Cutty” Wise
2. Roland “Prez” Pryzbylewski
1. Nicky Sobotka
Prez was one of the few characters on The Wire who was able to successfully redeem himself. When he was first introduced in season one, he was the son-in-law of a higher-up and an extreme liability in the field. Yet he was an asset in the office, teaming up with Lester to play the role of dutiful tech support soldier for the detail. He was never meant to be police though and eventually that fate and that balance was restored when he was kicked off the force allowing him to find his true calling, becoming a teacher. Prez then went on to play a pivotal role in the fourth season.
With the exception of the Sobotkas, one who ended up in jail, one who died, and one on the unemployment line, this list features characters who were able to right the ship. Cutty became a mentor and the pillar of the community he was meant to be and Poot was able to get out of the drug game, landing a job with a legit paycheck.
The stories with happy endings were few and far between on The Wire, but they were there at times.
The Kids from Season Four
Honorable Mention: Kenard
It’s still crazy (and an example of amazing/ballsy story-telling) that Namon ended up being the one to end things on a high note. One of the things that made season four so endlessly interesting was the way in which the show alluded to the fact that each boy highlighted that season seemed to be a 2.0 version of someone who had come before them.
Michael became a stick-up man like Omar, Dukie fell into the clutches of drug addiction a la Bubbles, and Randy, well, I’m not sure who Randy was meant to be. He was definitely headed down a hard road at the end of the season, so there are options. He was also smart as hell, but perhaps not smart when it came to the streets. Stringer, maybe?
In a recent piece on The Ringer, Shea Serrano said that Namon’s parallel was Clay Davis, something I suppose I agree with. Of course in that same piece, he says Wallace could have been the next Stringer and I think Randy could have filled that role. Randy could have been a parallel to Bodie I guess.
Either way, Donut is still out there boosting cars, and man, eff Kenard.
The Dead People (not counting Omar)
No. It’s too hard to even write anything here. If you’ve seen the show, then you understand. If you haven’t seen the show, well, either you feel sympathy or confusion or anger at spoilers. It’s up to you.
The Hired Guns
4. Brother Mouzone
2. Chris Partlow
Chris and Snoop are really tied for second here. But that doesn’t really matter because ultimately Wee Bay is in a class by himself.
I would say the only reason that Chris is ranked higher than Snoop is because of the connection he made with Michael and how he played a part in bringing Michael over to the dark side of Team Marlo. It’s not like Snoop was one-dimensional or anything, it was actually just the opposite. But there was such a menacing, inherent danger to Chris that was captivating.
5. Tommy Carcetti
4. Odell Watkins
3. Clarence Royce
2. Norman Davis
1. Clay Davis
It’s Clay. Of course, it’s Clay. How could it not be Clay???
But man, Norman, the campaign manager and then main advisor to Carcetti was a lot of fun.
I learned in Abrams’s book that the actor who played Lester and the actor who played Norman lived together in Baltimore, creating a bohemian-style vibe in the place. Somehow this makes so much sense.
An Appreciation Of The Memorable Scenes
The Chess Scene
Stringer & Avon Together for One Last Time
Stringer ‘s Death
Kima Gets Shot
Bodie & McNulty Eat Lunch
Omar Testifies Against Bird
McNulty the Drunken Detective
Marlo “My name is my name”
Honorable Mention: The Death of Snot Boogie
Yup. Probably going to start up another rewatch soon.