Echoes and Layers: A Look Back at The Wire, Seasons 3 and 4

In part two of a three-part series, I look back at The Wire’s strongest seasons.

Let’s talk about The Wire’s magnificent third and fourth seasons, which feature the most satisfying examples of thematic layering, echoing and character graduation. Season three introduces a theme so potentially boring it would have sounded death-knell for any other show: management.

On its surface, season three is about the gilded halls of downtown politics, but it’s really about management and, specifically conflicting management styles. City councilman Thomas Carcetti (Aiden Gillen playing a very Game of Thrones-style character) embodies this theme in its most literal sense, mounting a slow-burn challenge against the incumbent mayor. Conflicting management styles also drive the storyline in the projects, where Stringer Bell graduates from drug kingpin to real estate magnate — and pays a steep price for his hubris.(That’s another running gag on this show. In the Wire-verse, you belong to your caste, and with very few exceptions, when you stray outside it, the results are bad — ranging in severity from “simple embarrassment” to “death by shotgun-blast.” Stringer betrays Avon to get out of the drug trade, and he gets blown to bits. D’Angelo takes his girlfriend to an awkward dinner at a chi-chi restaurant. McNulty, in an effort to forge an actual emotional connection with tenacious campaign guru Theresa D’Agostino (Brandy Burre, flinty and intense), foregoes their fuck-buddy sex in favor of an actual date. The result: a meal of high-class condescension for poor, working-stiff McNulty. Just kidding. The asshole had it coming.)

Along with a fascinating theme, season three also features my favorite piece of pure invention in the whole show: Hamsterdam. The brainchild of maverick police major Bunny Colvin (Robert Wisdom, lambent with benevolence), the drug-safe zone is a dazzling thought experiment. It’s almost — almost — too weird for the show’s otherwise neorealistic vibe, which eschews the rhythms and contours of a classical narrative in favor of an episodic experience that better captures the vagaries (and occasional boredom) of daily life, all shot on actual locations with very little flair. Did you ever notice how The Wire has no scored music? Only the occasional rock song highlights key moments. And although The Wire made stars of many of its performers, it mostly featured unknowns, as well as a few non-pros lifted straight from the streets. Felicia Pearson, aka Snoop, remains the most memorable of these discoveries. Pearson, who hails from a tough upbringing, randomly bumped into Michael K. Williams (Omar). Williams landed her the role on the show. Thank Crom he did, because Pearson delivers one of the most sublime performances on a show that’s packed with them.

Here’s an interview with Pearson and Willams:

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(For more on neorealism and The Wire, you’ve got to check out this essay over at Dossier Journal.)

Anyway, as realistic as the show is, Hamsterdam somehow works within its confines, no doubt because of the intellectual rigor with which the showrunners examine the causes and effects of such an enterprise. Legalizing drugs is one of those recurring flashpoints for political debates — often a rallying cry of the left, I’d say — and while I don’t know if leftists would want to see heroin legalized overnight, Hamsterdam gives us a compelling look at what such a rapid policy change might look like — messy, imperfect, but effective. (Hamsterdam also carries on one of The Wire’s great ongoing moral storylines: the plight of the homeless. Me, I’d argue that Simon could’ve made the homeless the centerpiece of a future season, but it doesn’t matter — they’re always present, anchored by one of the show’s most gut-wrenching performances, Andre Royo’s Bubbles. Oh, and I’ll talk about ideas for future Wire chapter-seasons later.)

Moving on: Bureaucratic bullshit brings about Hamsterdam’s existence, as seen in another of season three’s depictions of management: the police review boards. Here we finally get to see more of Rawls’ day-to-day worklife, which seems to involve shouting at his underlings and making unreasonable demands. But here again we see more echoes, as Rawls later gets dressed down by the mayor, who in turn gets dressed down by the feds. There’s always a bigger fish. (Side note: I wish we could’ve seen more of Rawls’ personal life, but I feel like the fleeting glimpse we get of him in a gay bar is all we’re supposed to get. Rawls lives his life in hiding, so his character hides from us, too.) The theme of management styles continues to echo through all the major storylines:Colvin’s management style, with its fuck-you-I’m-retiring focus on independent thought and dramatic gestures, ruins his career. McNulty continues to ignore orders, bringing him into direct conflict with Daniels and Freamon. Perennial fuck-ups Herk and Carv continue to do their own thing

But let’s not forget about character graduation, one of my favorite devices in all of storytelling. The Wire does it extremely well, and you can also see some great examples of it in genre fare. On Deep Space Nine, Nog graduates from Ferengi cut-up to starfleet superstar. On Battlestar Galactica, Gaius Baltar graduates from mad scientist to politician to religious icon. Also on BSG, Apollo graduates from the military to politics. (Military stories in general are replete with stories of characters who graduate from infantry to command.) Pivoting back to The Wire, let’s talk about my personal favorite character in all of The Wire: Cutty.

Former soldier Cutty (Chad Coleman) is one of the few characters in The Wire’s universe to graduate roles multiples times in one season. He enters the narrative fresh off a 14-year stint in Jessup, a proven killer with street cred to spare. He starts out as the perfect avatar for the horrors of the drug trade, but fortunately, he’s lost his taste for the Game. He then graduates into the city hall storyline, giving us a first-person look at the red tape that chokes Baltimore’s services. Do I even need to use the word “Kafkaesque” to describe his efforts to get the necessary permits to open a boxing gym? But open the gym he does, after calling in a few favors from some Ballmer bigwigs and hitting up Avon for startup funds. 

I could go on at length about Coleman’s performance. He’s been blessed with a kind face and a relaxed onscreen style. He’s never not completely earnest, never not trying to better himself. He also falls into a category of characters that often exerts an irresistible pull on me as a viewer and a writer — he’s a disgraced knight in exile, looking for a cause. Jorah Mormont over on Game of Thrones is one such knight, and like Ser Jorah, Cutty seeks his redemption in a form of education. Mormont strives to be Danaerys’ most trusted adviser, while Cutty morphs from gangland muscle to streetwise coach, heralding the greatness of season four.

So let’s move on to season four, the mightiest of all The Wire’s seasons. I keep using the words “layer” and “echo.” Thematic layering and echoing runs throughout season four. The same ideas echo throughout every storyline. Bubbles tries to teach his charge (Sherrod) how to run his own business, and hired killers Snoop and Chris try to teach young Michael the ways of the street. Season four isn’t only about the school system — it’s about schoolin’. Season four also layers itself perfectly into the overall storyline, carrying over season three’s look at management styles. In this case, we see a variety of teaching styles, pitted against the usual bureaucratic “juke the stats” bullshit. Season four’s thematic structure even echoes backward into season three through Cutty and Bubbles, a pair of unlikely teachers. 

In addition, season four features two of The Wire’s most distinguished graduates: Colvin and Prezbo. After getting fired, Colvin joins forces with a big-hearted nonprofit, morphing from police lieutenant into hard-hitting teacher. The nonprofit selects 10-12 problem students for a special education program that’s essentially longform therapeutic analysis. The class has a lead teacher who handles the bulk of the talk-therapy, but Colvin provides the heart of this storyline. He forges a deep, loving bond with his students, taking Namond (son of jailed soldier Wee-Bey) under his wing. 

The showrunners also distantly echo the Hamsterdam storyline in this special classroom at Tilghman Middle. Just as Hamsterdam quarantined the city’s most troubled population, Colvin and program head Dr. Parenti quarantine the school’s troubled population. And like Hamsterdam, the program eventually gets shuttered and flushed, though this time around, Colvin doesn’t lose his job.  (Hat-tip to UNC Education Professor James Trier, who clued me in on that parallel. He’s got a wonderful look at season four from the perspective of an educator.)

The Colvin storyline generates some of my favorite scenes in the series. First, check out this scene, in which Colvin takes a few of his best students to an upscale restaurant. 

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Once again, we see how characters who stray beyond their assigned “caste” experience discomfort. (Side note: It’s interesting to look at the characters in The Wire who are adept at moving out of their caste. Stringer was probably the best at it — he looks just as comfortable in Armani as he does in a track-suit — but even he eventually gets ripped off by the suits downtown; moreover, his efforts to abandon the drug trade lead to his death. McNulty, by contrast, is the clearest “hero” of the series, and he’s also got the advantage of white privilege, but any time he tries to leave his caste, the results are cringe-worthy.)

Back to Colvin. This storyline also features some of the most touching, heartfelt acting in the whole series. Near the end of season four, Colvin goes to Jessup to ask Namond’s father, Wee-Bey, permission to adopt the boy. This is one of the great confluences of The Wire’s overall efforts to effect societal change. A teacher asks a parent to be a better parent — and Wee-Bey’s up to the task.

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It’s easy to praise Wisdom’s performance in this scene, but I want to shine a spotlight on Hassan Johnson, as well. Until this scene, Wee-Bey had mostly acted as comic relief — he loves fish! — but here we watch his heart grow three sizes in three minutes. No one’s ever going to mistake me for an expert on acting, but for me, acting’s all about what’s happening when it isn’t your line. I love how actively Johnson listens in this scene. The Wire’s all about institutions failing us, and here Colvin goes up against one of the city’s oldest institutions — the drug trade — and actually wins. 

But let’s all doff our hats in honor of The Wire’s second greatest achievement, Roland Pryzbylewski. Jim True-Frost rides the bench for most of the series’ run, but after Prezbo accidentally shoots a fellow officer, he’s forced to graduate from “being a police” to being a teacher. And happily, he’s able to weather the transition between castes successfully; maybe because he’s moving laterally. Prezbo’s such a good-hearted guy, and until season four, he was a geek trapped in the macho confines of the police force. The special crimes unit gave him a place to flourish, but it wasn’t flashy. After his accidental shooting of a black detective, another officer compares Prezbo’s resume to that of the man he shot:

How many years on for Waggoner? Six and a half. Two commendations, 16th on the current sergeant’s list. Pretty much the exact opposite of that goof in there. You know what’s in that guy’s jacket? Motherfucker flaked out, shot up his own radio car. They were gonna charge him with false report until Valchek weighed in. You know he married Valchek’s daughter, right? Fuckin’ goof had nine lives behind that shit.”

Among The Wire’s myriad themes is the conflict between alpha and beta, jock and nerd, macho and thoughtful. McNulty’s the quintessential, hard-drinking, womanizing cop, but he’s got a good heart, and watching him become a more complete person — a more thoughtful person — is one of the show’s great pleasures. On the flip side is Prezbo, who always needed to find a job where he could share his passion for knowledge. He never needed a gun, only a big cork-board.

Earlier, I said that Prezbo was The Wire’s second greatest achievement. So what is its greatest? Easy — the kids. Where on earth did the showrunners find these four exemplary young actors? It would’ve been achievement enough to find one top-flight child actor; instead they found four. I’ve already mentioned Namond (Julito McCullum). He’s joined by Maestro Harrell as the precocious Randy and Jermaine Crawford as the heartbreaking Dukie.

Last is Tristan Wilds as Michael, which may be my favorite performance of the bunch, though they’re all fantastic. (Maybe I’m connecting with Wilds’ character as much as his performance.) Wilds was 17 or 18 when he shot the show, but he delivers a remarkably mature performance. He’s at a constant, slow simmer — caught between the simple world of his friends and a life on the street as a killer. On top of that, he’s been forced to process the horrors of a sexually abusive father and a junkie mother. It’d be role enough for anyone of any age, and Wilds is up to the challenge. Here’s one of his many memorable scenes, this one alongside Crawford’s Dukie:

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I’m still reeling from how the show introduces four good-hearted kids, and three of them get eaten alive by the system. (If anything, that’s too generous a ratio.) Still, Namond’s end-of-narrative successes is a well-won reward. If The Wire has an overriding theme, it’s how institutions fail us, especially the underprivileged. There are no greater avatars for that theme than the four kids.

But where are they in season five?

NEXT: I grapple with season five and suggest subjects for future chapter-seasons of The Wire.