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.
The Pieces: When it comes to the insight The Wire seeks to provide into the intersection of a city’s public and subterranean institutions, season one is firmly centered on the drug trade. Det. Jimmy McNulty, fed up with his department’s emphasis on low-level dealers, circumvents the chain of command to ensure a proper investigation is done into the major players—the ephemeral Avon Barksdale and his right-hand, Stringer Bell. This gives way to a ragtag team that’s nevertheless invigorated by the investigation, and the season ends with a major blow dealt to Barksdale’s operation, not the least of which being Barksdale himself in cuffs. Along the way, characters such as stick-up wildcard Omar Little; the queasy, compromised D’Angelo Barksdale; and devoted detective Kima Greggs are swept up in the drama.
The King Stays the King: Season one might be McNulty’s best season; despite Dominic West’s struggles with the Bawlmore accent, he makes us simultaneously love and despise this detective, whose good intentions and breezy demeanor are pretty much the only thing saving him from his drunken, destructive antics and petty grievances.
That said, it’s the drug-slinging pit crew—D’Angelo, Wallace, Bodie, and Malik “Poot” Carr (Tray Chaney)—who not only depict a side of the city that’s rarely explored with such realism on television, but also illustrate one of The Wire’s larger themes, which is that we can’t choose the lives we’re born into. The stark differences between a crafty soldier like Bodie and a sweet, good-natured kid like Wallace (and, to a lesser extent, D’Angelo himself) demonstrates the institutional failures that allow children to wither away in situations and locations that are as inescapable as they are unhealthy.
Kudos also to the Bunk, who burns his clothes after cheating on his wife, terrified that she’ll be able to “smell the pussy” on them. It’s a hilarious, sad sequence that shows us how even the best detectives sometimes can’t remotely function as normal human beings.
A Man Got to Have a Quote: I’d be remiss not to include the quote that starts it all and essentially helps frame the themes not just for this first season, but also the series as a whole. “If Snot Boogie always stole the money, why’d you let him play?” McNulty asks as Snot Boogie’s body lay mere feet away. His friend, giving McNulty a look of disbelief, replies, “Got to. This America, man.”
Season one has a bounty of memorable quotes, however, many of which went on to not only define the show, but also form the superlatives for this very article. “A man must have a code,” Bunk says to Omar in episode seven. Freamon, meanwhile, outlines the general season structure: “We’re building something, here, detective, we’re building it from scratch. All the pieces matter.” Omar also warns Wee-Bey Brice (Hassan Johnson), “You come at the king, you best not miss.”
My personal favorite, however, might be Major Rawls’ stirring, brutally compassionate speech to McNulty after Kima takes two in an undercover sting. “Listen to me, you fuck,” he seethes. “You did a lot of shit here. You played a lot of fucking cards. And you made a lot of fucking people do a lot of fucking things they didn’t want to do. This is true. We both know this is true. You, McNulty, are a gaping asshole. We both know this. Fuck if everybody in CID doesn’t know it. But fuck if I’m gonna stand here and say you did a single fucking thing to get a police shot. You did not do this, you fucking hear me? This is not on you. No it isn’t, asshole. Believe it or not, everything isn’t about you. And the motherfucker saying this, he hates your guts, McNulty. So you know if it was on you, I’d be the son of a bitch to say so. Shit went bad. She took two for the company. That’s the only lesson here.”
Pandemic: This one’s easy, and not just because so few major characters bite it in season one. The death of 16-year old Wallace, a seemingly orphaned slinger who’s just too damn fragile to thrive in the drug game—his only realistic career option in the bubble in which he lives—isn’t just one of the most gutting kills of the season, but also of the entire series. After realizing he’s indirectly responsible for the torture and murder of stick-up boy Brandon Wright (Michael Kevin Darnall), Wallace retreats into a deep depression that causes his cohorts to worry about his loyalty.
As a means of tying up loose ends, Stringer orders the boy killed, and the ones chosen to pull it off are his best friends, Bodie and Poot, who simply have no choice in this situation. That the show prolongs his murder, with Bodie struggling to pull the trigger, Wallace pissing himself, and Poot having to finish the job after Bodie only wounds the kids, makes that much more cruel and effective. Wallace never stood a chance, but nobody deserves to go like that.
This America, man: David Simon and the gang were never assuming they’d get a second season, so this first season has a finality to it that makes for an extremely satisfying piece of television. So perfectly mapped is D’Angelo’s journey—in the end, he’s denied his exoneration and escape from the drug trade after his mother urges him to sacrifice himself for the greater good of the family, with whom he harbors a deep resentment—that you can literally feel the writers scrambling to figure out how to proceed with him at the beginning of season two.
Still, season one can be alienating for new viewers, sometimes up until the sixth episode, when the characters and plotlines have truly begun to kick into high gear. It’s better upon rewatch, when you’re already aware of each character’s role and relationships, but it can be overwhelming to try to connect the myriad threads while also parsing through the local dialect and emphasis on process. The show also hadn’t quite figured out some of its supporting characters; guys like Thomas “Herc” Hauk (Domenick Lombardozzi) and Ellis Carver go on to have deeply satisfying arcs, but here they’re more or less reduced to shortcutting troublemakers. A necessary archetype, sure, they still feel auxiliary.
But season one is powerful because it affords those in the projects the same level of humanity as it does the police, if not more. And while it fashions a compelling crime story, it does so while acknowledging the strictures of red tape and the miscarriages of justice that make being a law enforcer such a frustrating, soul-crushing job. All of these themes would go on to inform the subsequent seasons, but the way they’re distilled here all but guarantees that if the show were canceled it would still be remembered as an important piece of television.
The Pieces: Season two is probably the most polarizing of the show. Those who love it champion Simon’s expert job of world building–adding an eclectic group of dockworkers and an international crime syndicate to the game of cat and mouse being played by the Baltimore Police Department and a crew of Westside drug dealers.
Those who do hate it, hate it as much as McNulty loathes his wet socks after a long shift on the boat. Simon’s willingness to move characters around–McNulty’s transferred to the marine unit and Avon and D’Angelo Barksdale head to prison–and spend time away from its most beloved faces in order to create a richer, fuller, more expansive version of Baltimore was as bold as it was jarring.
But, the pieces begin to truly matter when a pair of petty beefs — one between McNulty and the police department’s upper management; another between politically connected police commander Stan Valchek and union boss Frank Sobotka — connect all of the groups to one overarching story that reads as an obituary for the death of work in America.
The King Stays the King: Dominic West is excellent once again as McNulty. Cast away this season onto Baltimore’s dank, cold, waterways, West embodies McNulty’s multifaceted personality with the same flair that made him a fan favorite in season one. Simultaneously mischievous, competent, bitter, and fiercely loyal, West gives added depth to a character that we thought we already knew.
New character Frank Sobotka, played by Chris Bauer, is a welcome addition. The gruff, conflicted, union leader is willing to sacrifice his morals and do the bidding of The Greek (Bill Raymond), leader of the international criminals trafficking humans and chemicals to process drugs on Baltimore’s waterways, in order to take care of his hapless son Ziggy (James Ransone), promising nephew Nick (Pablo Schreiber), and the rest of his brothers in the stevedore’s union. His tragic story simultaneously represents the death of the concept of an honest day’s work while questioning whether such a thing ever existed in the first place.
But the most compelling character in season two is Elba’s Stringer Bell. He comes to the forefront, taking over leadership of the Barksdale Organization while Avon serves the prison sentence imposed at the end of season one. As the the police department’s reconfigured Barksdale detail follows Bell, we learn that there is much more than meets the eye to the charismatic kingpin. He takes coursework in macroeconomics at Baltimore City Community College and applies his newfound knowledge to his illicit business. He initiates machinations behind his partner Avon’s back to work with longtime Eastside rival Proposition Joe. He literally pumps D’Angelo’s girlfriend Donnette (Shamyl Brown) for information that he will use to monitor and eventually betray him, and turns feared stick up man Omar Little against Brother Mouzone, Avon’s hired gun from New York. A tour de force.
A Man Got to Have a Quote: “They can chew you up, but they gotta spit you out.” McNulty’s quote from the second episode could serve as a thesis statement for the whole season. Systems and institutions fail those who depend on them, creating an environment where nothing means anything, and strange bedfellows must lean on one another to survive.
Pandemic: Frank Sobotka’s loyalty to his family, both blood relatives and his brothers on the docks, results in him having his throat slit and his dead body floating in the Baltimore Harbor. Sobotka’s death, like most deaths of main characters in The Wire, represents something much bigger than one person.
America used to make things. Big smoking factories set in motion by steady, calloused hands were the engine that propelled our country into prosperity. That prosperity, by the way, mostly excluded people of color and others that didn’t fit a narrow definition of manhood, but it represented what we came to understand as The American Dream. Like Frank, and the union he tried to protect, The American Dream died in the face of offshoring, automation, and an indifferent citizenry who cares more about products than the people that used to make them.
And while we’re on the subject of people betrayed by the system that created them, pour out a little liquor for D’Angelo Barksdale. Raised by a mother that valued the family business over her son, steered down the path to destruction by an uncle who would stop at nothing to keep his corners, and killed by an adopted family member with downright Machiavellian methods to mold the Barksdale Organization in his own image, this conflicted young man was snuffed out before he could ever reach redemption or his true purpose.
This America, man: Season two is a devastating statement about several groups of people failed by this country’s institutions. The police are foiled at every turn by bureaucracy and political wrangling, crime flourishes as the War on Drugs is ignored to focus on an equally fruitless War on Terrorism, and the stevedores stand in for steelworkers, coal miners, and factory workers across the country who have been forgotten as we press forward toward a New Economy.