The Wire is everything. What started as a complex but focused show about cops and drug dealers, steadily expanded to include the worlds of dockworkers and international crime syndicates, of budding empires and paper bags, of politicians and schoolchildren, and of the public and the press. Over the course of five seasons, the series gave us what felt like the entire city of Baltimore, broken down into intersecting storylines and one-hour chunks. And it built them back up into a living, breathing place that encompassed every nook and cranny of the city.
But as much as the show had an unrivaled sense of place, what has kept it so salient in the years since its debut is not just its commitment to realism, or its self-styled Dickensian scope, or the rich world of characters and real-world issues David Simon and his team presented. The Wire is everything because while its stories are rooted in Baltimore, its lessons are universal. It depicts the morass of problems that affect communities, finds the inevitable blind spots of institutions both official and extralegal, and sees how there’s no boogeymen to be extinguished, just the sad inertia of tough choices and self-interest.
In other words, it’s nobody’s fault, because it’s everybody’s fault. Now, 10 years after The Wire went off the air, here’s our look at how the series built that lesson, piece by piece and season by season, and became one of the greatest television shows of all time.
The Pieces: The series’ final season shifts its focus once again, training its lens onto another dying institution: newspaper journalism. Embodied by Baltimore Sun journalist-turned-bullshit-artist Scott Templeton, who is played with unctuous smarm by Tom McCarthy, viewers were given a peek into the inner workings of a real newsroom. From the camaraderie and politics to the buyouts and quotes puffed up with hubristic yeast, The Wire once again managed to give depth and color to another world that is unfamiliar to the general public. Connect that to the unbelievable storyline of Jimmy McNulty’s (Dominic West) fabricated serial killer, young Turk Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector) managing his recently obtained place on the top of the heroin enterprise that he snatched from the vanquished Barksdales, and ambitious mayor Tommy Carcetti (Aidan Gillen) running for governor two years into his term, and you have a very eventful end to the greatest series in television history.
The King Stays the King: An unhinged McNulty fabricating a serial killer to fund the investigation of real crimes is an easy choice, and Tristan Wilds breathing life into character Michael Lee’s evolution from distrustful teenager into a calculating stick up kid was equally memorable. Also Bubbles, played with great care and charm by veteran New York actor Andre Royo, finds redemption at the end of one of the darkest storylines of The Wire’s bleak five seasons. After finally freeing himself from heroin addiction, he’s still consumed by grief from his actions that inadvertently led to the dead of his young protege Sherrod (Rashad Orange) in season four. He finds freedom in forgiving himself, and in turn earns the forgiveness of his family.
But in a season filled with great performances, the menacing portrayal of Marlo Stanfield turned in by Hector is the best reason to watch season five. First introduced in season three, Stanfield’s ruthlessness has placed him on the top of the food chain in West Baltimore’s drug game. But like all apex predators, Stanfield wants more. He gets it through murder, deception, and guile, placing this performance in the company of the all time greatest villains in television history.
A Man Got to Have a Quote: As Stanfield enforcer Snoop (Felicia Pearson) drives Michael to unwittingly murder her, her annoyance with his constant questions about the logic behind the orders they’re tasked to carry out is expressed in a line that could serve as a mission statement for the series as a whole. Michael wonders why they’re on their way to kill a man without hard evidence that he deserves his fate. Snoop, ever the soldier, replies “Deserve got nothing to do with it. It’s just his time.”
Nobody gets what they deserve in David Simon’s Baltimore. Well, maybe except Snoop, who’s memorably double-crossed by Michael, who murders her before she can murder him soon after the aforementioned conversation. Scott Templeton got a Pulitzer Prize, when he should have been forced out of the profession. Duquan “Dukie” Weems (Jermaine Crawford) deserved to have his intellect nurtured and go on to college, but instead ended up addicted to heroin. The Wire’s writers and actors all deserved a metric ton of Emmys, but were only nominated for two and won none. To succeed in this world is to play dirty in an already rigged game.
Pandemic: The aforementioned Snoop Pearson’s nonchalant resignation when she realizes she’s going to be killed (“How my hair look, Mike?”) was unforgettable, but there was nothing more devastating than the death of Omar Little (Michael K. Williams). Circling back to “deserve got nothing to do with it,” it was heartbreaking to see the cunning and ever-vigilant Omar Little die at the hands of Little Kenard (Thuliso Dingwall) in a corner store. However, the way he met his demise does not diminish the impact of this iconic character. His loyalty to Butchie (S. Robert Morgan) and thirst for revenge brought him back to Baltimore on a rampage. He was a man with a code, from which he never deviated, and that eventually would be his doing in.
This America, man: To quote Jay Landsman (Delaney Williams) at Jimmy McNulty’s wake “What to say about this piece of work? Fuck if I don’t find myself without the right words.” Season five used two dubious plot points, a string of fake murders dreamed up by McNulty to secure funding to investigate real homicides and Marlo Stanfield, and a reporter fabricating quotes to cover the fake murders and advance his career. Both stand out as sensationalistic exceptions in a show that’s hallmark is true to life portrayals of people and events rooted in reality. That said, the pitch perfect dialogue and emotional depth characteristic to the show remains on display in season five, giving the show a fitting end to its legendary run.
The Pieces: While seasons one and two were firmly centered around key Baltimore institutions—the Barksdale drug ring and the stevedores’ union—the third season broadens The Wire’s scope by building its third season around the idea of “reform.” One could say City Hall is the season’s true focus, what with the journey of ambitious, reform-minded young buck Tommy Carcetti’s bid for mayor, but these themes extend to pretty much every other corner of the season, too. Stringer Bell (Idris Elba), for example, seeks to reform the drug trade by casting off the “gangsta shit” of yore and running it like a legit business, the hope being that he can then refashion himself into a legitimate businessman. There’s another personal instance of reform as well, with Dennis “Cutty” Wise (Chad Coleman) trying to readjust to life outside prison without retreating to his old, unsavory ways.
The season’s centerpiece, however, is Hamsterdam. Carried out by the Western district’s Major Howard “Bunny” Colvin (Robert Wisdom), Hamsterdam is an experimental (and surreptitious) haven where law enforcement would monitor, but not punish, drug use and prostitution as a means of cordoning off illegality to reduce crime and improve living conditions in other areas of the city while also experimenting with new means of delivering healthcare and community support. Simon has discussed that both Hamsterdam and the the season as a whole was meant to draw parallels between the intrinsic failures of both the Iraq War and the government’s war on drugs. “I mean you call something a war, and pretty soon everyone is going to be running around acting like warriors,” Colvin says near season’s end. “And when you at war, you need a fucking enemy. And pretty soon, damn near everybody on every corner is your fucking enemy. And soon, the neighborhood you’re supposed to be policing, that’s just occupied territory.”
Soldiering and policing, he emphasizes, is the not the same thing.
The King Stays the King: Stringer’s always been a compelling, Machiavellian presence on The Wire, a guy whose capitalistic oiliness is enough to make you identify with a stone cold killer like Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris). Season three is his season, and not just because this is when he’s met with one of the most cathartic kills in the show’s history, but also because it’s so goddamned tragic. Sure, this is the man responsible for the deaths of (relative) innocents like D’Angelo Barksdale (Larry Gilliard, Jr.) and Wallace (Michael B. Jordan), but Stringer’s ambition to be a legit member of the city’s upper crust exudes both a cruelty (towards Avon and the community in which he came up) and a purity (his earnest desire to be a respected, self-made man is relatable to anybody). The thing is, Stringer, too, is swept up in institutions that he can’t control as well as he thinks he can.
“You know the difference between me and you?” Avon tells him. “I bleed red and you bleed green. I look at you these days, String, you know what I see? I see a man without a country. Not hard enough for this right here and maybe, just maybe, not smart enough for them out there.”
In the end, Stringer is betrayed by both his business contacts and Avon, the latter of whom he also betrays by feeding intel to the police. It’s tragic shit, especially once you realize that the pair’s final scene, which finds them reflecting on their youth and how they “ain’t gotta dream no more,” is unfolding with each’s knowledge that they’ve sold out the other.
A Man Got to Have a Quote: In a quote that’s relevant not just in light of the aforementioned scene, but also the series’ insistence that all institutions will inevitably fail you, Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters) memorably scolds McNulty: “A life, Jimmy. You know what that is? It’s the shit that happens while you’re waiting for moments that never come.”
I’d be remiss to not also recall Bunk Moreland’s (Wendell Pierce) most memorable moment of the season, during which he essentially reminds us that Omar isn’t quite the cult hero the show has led us to believe he is. “As rough as that neighborhood could be, we had us a community,” Bunk says of he and Omar’s adjacent upbringing. “Nobody, no victim, who didn’t matter. And now all we got is bodies, and predatory motherfuckers like you. And out where that girl fell, I saw kids acting like Omar, calling you by name, glorifying your ass. Makes me sick, motherfucker, how far we done fell.”
Pandemic: I’ve already touched upon Stringer’s death above, so I’ll take a moment here to touch on not-so-poor Johnny Weeks (Leo Fitzpatrick), the young addict who, in the season’s final episode, serves as a symbol of the horrors of Hamsterdam. In season one, we saw how Bubbles saw Johnny as a protege of sorts, and there’s a touch of tragedy to Bubs’ realization this season that there was no saving the kid from his spiral of addiction. His death was inevitable, but perhaps even more ignoble than anyone would’ve thought.
This America, man: Season three is powerful in a dozen different ways, layering in striking complexities to many of the show’s relationships—Avon/Stringer, McNulty/Kima (Sonja Sohn), Bunk/Omar, Colvin/Carver (Seth Gilliam)—while also making a place for scenery-chewing, larger-than-life characters like Brother Mouzone (Michael Potts) and Proposition Joe (Robert F. Chew). The introduction, too, of Marlo Stanfield and his crew is subtle and affecting in the way it demonstrates the show’s themes of perpetuity while also setting the stage for the next season.
If there’s any place where season three struggles, it’s in embracing the wider ensemble. Bunk, Bubbles, Prez (Jim True-Frost), Rawls (John Doman), and Bodie (J.D. Williams) are mostly reduced to minor players with no real impact on the main story, while the writers struggle for much of the season to make a compelling character out of Carcetti, who doesn’t really come into his own until season four.
Also, that there’s no effort to integrate the relevant stevedores into this season is curious. Sure, that story reached a logical conclusion in season two, but it’s unlike The Wire not to acknowledge the enduring reach of its institutions. It’s understandable that Hamsterdam, Carcetti, and the Avon/Stringer dynamic would dominate the season, but there are times when one wishes we had more subplots to dig into.