Rewatching The Wire

June 18, 2022

It’s been twenty years since The Wire debuted, and while its legacy may be eclipsed by more popular shows from its era – Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and The Sopranos leap to mind – it’s often mentioned, quite rightly, in the same breath. In fact, I prefer it to those greats, and it’s certainly my default response when people ask me to name the best TV show of all time. It has retained that mantle effortlessly since my initial binges, back in the oughts. But there have been several boatloads of great TV since The Wire signed off thirteen year ago, so it seemed like high time for a rewatch. Does it hold up? Fuck yes.

How best to summarize The Wire? Best, perhaps, not to try, because when it comes down to it, The Wire isn’t so much about something as it’s about everything. To a newcomer, it might not look that way in its eclectic first scene, which depicts its lovably dickish hero, Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), interviewing a murder witness on a Baltimore street corner. In 2002, a seasoned viewer might have stumbled into this scene guessing that series creator David Simon had decided to adapt his low-ratings, high-accliam network series Homicide: Life in the Street for the more permissive pastures of cable television. That wouldn’t have been an entirely unfounded assumption, given The Wire similarly involves a group of detectives in Baltimore – the good, the bad, and the ugly – struggling to do their jobs in an urban war zone against difficult odds, their efforts complicated by the angling, self-interested politics of their superiors. So far, so familiar, but Simon has grander designs. McNulty kicks off the series’ epic slow burn by visiting the courtroom trial of D’Angelo Barksdale (Lawrence Gilliard, Jr.), just in time to see him acquitted of murder after what looks like a clear case of witness tampering – orchestrated, McNulty believes, by another courtroom observer, Russell “Stringer” Bell (Idris Elba), whom he knows to be the second-in-command for a westside drug-dealing outfit. When the judge on the case grills McNulty about the Barksdale organization – which he has never heard of – a characteristically unfiltered McNulty shoots his mouth off, inspiring the judge to create a task force to investigate and shut down the dealers, headed by its secretive kingpin, Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris).

The only problem? The formation of the task forces pisses off brass all over the city, who are forced to devote manpower and resources to a problem they’d rather not acknowledge, let alone solve. McNulty winds up detailed to a ragtag group led by ambitious but disreputable Lt. Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick). Daniels is given the unenviable task of working up a legitimate case against organized, careful, and ruthless enemies, and he’s doing it with detectives deemed expendable enough to be removed from their regular casework, for bosses who want the case to fail quickly so everything can go back to normal. Initially, the only other truly capable detective on the detail is Daniels’ narcotics protégé Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn), so with McNulty and Greggs taking the lead, the team sets about surveilling and gathering evidence on the westside drug runners.

Meanwhile, though, we also get to know the inner workings of the Barksdale crew: leader Avon, right-hand man Stringer, upcoming lieutenant D’Angelo, and the handful of street-level slingers D’Angelo commands in a projects courtyard. This focus on the criminal opposition is one of the first ways The Wire deviates significantly from Homicide, as we get to know D’Angelo and his team, especially Bodie (J.D. Williams), Poot (Tray Chaney), and Wallace (Michael B. Jordan). The scripts dig deep into this street story, putting the conflict between the police and the criminals into context – and raising one of Simon’s many recurring points. The two forces may be on opposite sides of the law, but they’re not all that dissimilar, with rules and hierarchies, codes and corruption. Indeed, the rot and raging egos and backstabbing within the police department occasionally makes the Barksdale organization look like a well-oiled machine. And while Avon and Stringer may be running an illegal and destructive enterprise, they often don’t come across as any more reprehensible than the cops chasing them down. The deeper you look at both sides, the more arbitrary the law seems. Nobody is all good or all bad, everyone’s behavior motivated by deeply imperfect and poorly run systems.

It’s during this masterpiece of a first season that Simon develops the narrative rhythm of The Wire, which sinks its teeth into meaty themes about systemic issues with a quiet patience occasionally punctuated by intense moments of high drama and violence. With its huge cast of characters and rich, intricate worldbuilding, the show establishes its credentials as a “visual novel,” with elaborate throughlines for numerous players across its thirteen-episode run, their fates swirling in a magnificent tangle of cause and effect. I ruminated in The Great Buffy-Angel Rewatch about how those shows are prime examples of TV’s evolution from episodic to season-arc TV, serving as hybrids with the best of both worlds. The Wire is squarely on the other side of that transition, and one of its key results in the new age of season-focused, rather than episode-focused, TV.

By the end of season one, the Homicide comparison is mostly out the window. Not just a next-level cop show, The Wire had clearly proven itself as a prestige drama about America’s ongoing, failed war on drugs – covering numerous facets of the conflict from both the law-and-order and criminal perspectives. It did so with both scathing criticism for its vilest combatants and considerable sympathy and understanding for its many victims of circumstance. Had the show ended here, much of its legend would still be with us – the season is simply that good. But Simon had grander plans, and as season two opens, he does something bold and brilliant: he layers another world atop the old. Season two quickly shifts focus from law enforcement and organized crime to logistics and organized labor, bringing us to the Baltimore port, where stevedore Frank Sobotka (Chris Bauer) is struggling to keep his union afloat – by dipping his toes into the criminal activities that fuel Baltimore’s inner-city drug epidemic. The cops are still in play, even if McNulty, for his pains, has been exiled to marine patrol and the task force has been disbanded. So too is the Barksdale organization, despite legal setbacks, as it continues to operate under Stringer Bell’s leadership. But the docks provide a different point of reference, and a new plot focus. Another task force, fueled by a rivalry between Sobotka and a petulant police major named Valchek (Al Brown), is formed to investigate Sobotka’s union. This vendetta coincides with a human trafficking tragedy, when port patrol officer Beadie Russell (Amy Ryan) locates a shipping cannister full of dead bodies. The Sobotka detail and the port murders proceed as separate cases until connections inexorably draw them together, revealing Sobotka’s complicity in facilitating drug distribution in the city. Throughout, the commentary continues, as Simon continues to bring his journalistic eye to the institutional rot exposed by the war on drugs – and the bottom-line capitalism that drives the decisions of its many beleagured warriors.

Having layered a new world onto the original foundation in season two, the precedent had been set, and sure enough season three replicates the trick. The new milieu is politics, as ambitious, well meaning city council leader Tommy Carcetti (Aiden Gillan) gears up to take on shifty mayor Clarence Royce (Glynn Thurman) in a city election. Carcetti’s rise as a Baltimore political leader provides yet another angle on things, even as season three bounces back to the streets for a renewed interest in the conflict between Daniels’ newly formed Major Crimes Unit and the Barksdale crew. Still, it’s the newly stirred-in City Hall element that influences season three’s big concept, as political angling trickles down from the brass to the police department. Nearly retired Cpt. Howard “Bunny” Colvin (Robert Wisdom) reacts to the unreasonable crime-stat demands from City Hall by controversially experimenting with drug enforcement policies to make his district safer. In so doing, he ultimately exposes the war on drugs for the toxic sham it is, and significantly influences the backdrop against which Daniels, McNulty, and the Major Crimes Unit brings the Barksdale regime to an end.

One would think this ambitious strategy would be logistically unsustainable: creating a world, then introducing a new one without jettisoning the old one? But The Wire does it two more times. The brilliant season four looks at the public education system, as we get to know a group of corner kids – Namond (Julito McCullum), Michael (Tristan Mack Wilds), Randy (Maestro Harrell), and Dukie (Jermaine Crawford) – and see how the deprivations of Baltimore’s underfunded schools drive their harsh coming-of-age decisions. Season five then turns its sights on the media, emphasizing its inability to cover the war on drugs with nuance and clarity, as the motivations of its revenue-hungry publishers and glory-seeking journalists undermine the press’s mission. These later seasons bring a massive influx of new personalities and subplots, even as the police work, dealing, and political campaigning relentlessly continue. Sure, characters come and go over the years, some rising in importance, others subsiding into the background. But in this sense the show is one of a kind in the way it evolves, realistically resembling life: characters change jobs, shift focus, react to altered circumstances. Some cops rise through the ranks, others are buried in dead-end departments, still others lose their jobs. Some dealers die in the streets, others change allegiance, others rise to new heights of power. The labor union shrinks in the background, while politicians gradually take up more space. It’s the kind of show that demands an org chart, but the reporting lines keep changing, and the murder-board connections get ever more complicated. That said, The Wire has an impeccable memory for its own history, and as such it’s a masterpiece of continuity, occasionally weaving old players back into the tapestry – sometimes for strategic story reasons, others just to remind us how much has changed, and that the chaotic matrix of causes and effects is still having its far-reaching systemic impacts. In this sense, The Wire is uniquely complex and likely to remain one of a kind.

Incredibly, I’ve managed to get this deep into the post without even mentioning tons of key cast members, some in sustained performances, others in miniature, and a handful positively iconic. There’s Bunk Moreland (Wendell Pierce), a jaded, old-school homicide detective with a problematic tendency for booze and women. Detective Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters), a cerebral, underestimated throwaway on the initial detail who turns out to be the real deal – which frequently pits him against his spurious bosses. Reginald “Bubbles” Cousins (Andre Royo), a troubled by good-hearted heroin junkie with an enterpreneurial spirit that leads him to become a criminal informant. Felicia “Snoop” Pearson (Felicia Pearson), a cold, ruthless assassin in the employ of later-season drug kingpin Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector). And, of course, Omar Little (Michael Kenneth Williams), a Robin Hood-like street legend who makes his precarious living ripping off drug dealers. These are just a handful of highlights in a massive menagerie of memorable personalities. The Wire is light on throwaway characters, most of its figures bringing color,  depth, and impact to the proceedings – and their propensity for perfectly dispensing quotable street wisdom is positively epic, reinforcing the show’s mission of unflinching commentary.

So yes, The Wire holds up spectacularly. This doesn’t mean it’s always perfect. Certain ingredients of season two look suspiciously like attempts by HBO to infuse a prestige drama with enough gratuitous sleazery to win a wider audience. McNulty’s smarmy boozing and womanizing gets old fast, and the show frequently improves when he is decentered. For all its criticism of the police, the procedural casework does occasionally glamorize the job – representative of the grim realities of law enforcement on the one hand, indulging in a certain level of “copaganda” on the other. Elements of season five’s plot, even as it presciently anticipates the coming misinformation landscape, require unconvincing behavioral decisions from usually more rational actors. And with all due respect to Sohn, Ryan, Pearson, Deirdre Lovejoy, and a handful of others, The Wire doesn’t do all that well with gender representation. The testosterone in The Wire’s writer’s room, fueled perhaps by Simon’s journalistic mindset and focus on male-dominated systems, lamentably gives more voice to sexism and misogyny than its does to women. Granted, that is part of the show’s broader, unmitigated critique, but occasionally the crass dialogue raises the question: is this observational detail, or is it too-comfortably imaginative?

Caveats aside, twenty years later The Wire remains a remarkable achievement. As a portrait of systemic dysfunction in the post-9/11 years during the endless war on drugs, it possesses perhaps the most-ambitious mission statement of any TV show ever made, and tackles it with incredible eloquence, filmmaking craft, and chutzpah, mitigating its inherent cynicism with enough glimmers of hope and valiant struggle to help the medicine go down. Its influence on the modern TV landscape is undeniable and profound, but perhaps the greatest testament to its legacy is that much of the ground it broke will quite likely never be explored again.