Echoes and Layers: A Look Back at The Wire, Seasons 1 and 2

In the first of a three-part series, I look back at The Wire and try to figure out why season five is the weakest entry of this brilliant series.

I first watched The Wire, David Simon’s seminal portrait of the city of Baltimore in five acts, a few years ago. I recently plowed through the series again, this time with the foreknowledge that its final season was generally regarded as its weakest. When I first watched the show, I remembered admiring the newsroom scenes, and especially the performance of Clark Johnson as the Sun’s city editor. So did my rewatch confirm or disconfirm the inferiority of season five?

Sadly, it confirmed it. 

But as a journalism school grad, a lousy reporter, and a huge fan of the show, I’ve still got a few things to say about it. (Don’t worry — I was only a bad journalist, not a fabulist.)

Before I can talk about why season five was less successful than its four predecessors, I need to try and get a critical handle on why those other seasons — including and especially the fourth — worked. Needless to say, I’m writing in the wake of hundreds of existing (and better) essays and reviews, and I’m doing this for myself as much as for you; I’m learning as I go.

After a second inhaling of the show, here’s what I think was key to its success: A novelistic recursion and layering of theme, told with echoing storylines and a cast of characters that graduated from one role to another. 

Let me try to break that down: It’s common knowledge that The Wire is only ostensibly a cop show. In season one, that artifice is most evident. The focus is on the special investigative unit that McNulty’s big mouth called into existence, as well as on the drug trade in the projects. The actions of the special unit drive the story, which is built on a foundation of police procedure; sometimes brain-numbingly detailed police procedure. 

But season one was also largely about families — figurative and literal — and that theme echoes through all the season’s major storylines; most notably D’Angelo Barksdale’s arc, which depicts his deteriorating relationship with his family, including his literal mother (Brianna), figurative fathers (Avon and Stringer) and figurative siblings (most of the project crew, but primarily Wallace and Bodie). McNulty’s family also figures into the action, given his status as the series’ nominal lead. Like D’Angelo, McNulty’s relationship with his family is falling apart, but for different reasons. D’Angelo spends the season fine-tuning his moral compass, and when he’s forced to confront the sins of his life, he very nearly rolls on his family for the greater good. By contrast, McNulty spends the whole series trying to find his moral compass as a civilian. McNulty’s moral compass only seems to come online when he’s working. The instant he clocks out, he’s an amoral hedonist. (Note: I added “amoral” because I don’t think hedonism is by definition amoral.) 

(Side note: I just realized that Michael B. Jordan of Friday Night Lights fame — and our new Human Torch — played Wallace. Cool!)

Moving on to season two: We watch McNulty “graduate” from the special crimes unit to the season’s primary setting: the docks. After crossing his superiors — including A-grade asshole Bill Rawls (the delightfully cantankerous John Doman) — McNulty gets busted to boat-cop duty, doomed to patrol the coastlines. For me, this is the first example of a The Wire “graduating” a character from one season to another, though it’s not the best example because McNulty doesn’t really change. His default setting is as a hard-charging special-crimes detective, and any time he deviates from that, he’s less of a cop, though in season four we see it makes him a better person. Ideally, when a character “graduates” in the Wire sense, they morph into a completely different role; maybe even transforming into a new person along the way. The Wire has several such distinguished graduates. I’ll talk about them later. For now, I want to focus on thematic layering and echoing.

The chief theme of season one, family, carries over into season two, naturally feeding into the story’s exploration of the deterioration of the local unions. But season two isn’t just about families, and it isn’t just about the unions — it’s about union. Loyalty. Sticking up for your own. Union chief Frank Sobotka (a perpetually sweaty Chris Bauer, fiery, desperate and crackling) pays off a desperate worker to keep him in the fold, all while getting in bed with the Greek mafia to keep his union relevant in the face of advancing technology and a globalized economy. Nick Sobotka (Pablo Schrieber from Orange is the New Black) disobeys his father to open up new business with the Greeks in a foolhardy effort to give his young family financial stability. Cedric Daniels (the always stalwart Lance Reddick) cuts deal after deal to reassemble the special crimes unit. Stringer goes behind Avon’s back to get in on Prop Joe’s drug supply to hold together their dwindling share of the drug trade. The theme echoes through all the major storylines.

Unfortunately, none of the major players from season two graduate to any of the future seasons. We see the Greeks again, but it would have been nice to see Nick Sobotka reappear for something important. (We only get a brief glimpse of him in season five.) I guess Amy Ryan stays around, but graduating from “cop” to “girlfriend” isn’t great example of what I’m talking about. There’s also some collateral loss among the show’s themes. Although season one’s theme, family, is felt for the balance of the show’s run, the second season theme of union fades somewhat. The net effect is that season two feels like a hermetically sealed package, with little to no connective tissue between it and the rest of the show. It’s still a great season, though I’d rank it below seasons three and four. (That hermetically sealed feeling also links season two with season five, but I’ll get to that later.)

NEXT: I’ll look back at seasons three and four.