On 28 December 2008 I reviewed the fourth season of The Wire. I recently completed rewatching the season thanks to the recent HD re-release, courtesy of HBO, and here's the original review with some updated thoughts.
The fourth and penultimate season of The Wire sees the show moving into new territory. At the end of Season 3 the
Barksdale organisation was finally destroyed for good, McNulty found
himself some happiness and Daniels got a promotion. The goals set out in
Season 1 had been achieved. So, where next for the Major Crimes Unit
and the players of the game?
4 follows several storylines in tandem. The MCU is now chasing down
Marlo Stanfield, whose organisation has picked up from where Barksdale
left off and now rules over most of the western district of Baltimore.
However, their rise to power has apparently been accomplished with
virtually no deaths, bemusing Lester Freamon. With the wiretaps also
coming up empty, Freamon's attempts to follow the money trail attract
the ire of his superiors and pretty soon the MCU is all but shut down
and Freamon and Kima end up working in Homicide instead. Elsewhere,
McNulty is enjoying the (relatively) easy life as a beat cop, Daniels is
heading up his own force and Carver is maturing as an officer, with
only Herc apparently resisting any change, at least until he catches the
Mayor's eye (in a rather interesting manner) and finds his star rising
as a result. But overall the police side of things, at least to start
off with, seems pretty quiet.
On the streets Marlo's rise to
power has been achieved with the help of his two enforcers, the
terrifyingly cold-blooded and ruthless Chris and Snoop, who have come up
with a brilliant scheme to hide the resulting bodies from the police.
Proposition Joe, who has inherited most of the surviving Barksdale crew,
is continuing his efforts to entice Marlo into the cooperative to
little avail, so he hatches a scheme to get Marlo on his side by setting
up a war between him and the indefatigable Omar. Unfortunately, this
leads to a pretty bloody and complicated state of affairs for all
Elsewhere, Tommy Carcetti is running for the position
of mayor, but the race is a difficult three-way contest between him, the
incumbent Royce and fellow councilman Tony Gray. Unfortunately, no
sooner is the winner in office then they are delivered two massive
problems: how to handle the proven incompetence of police commissioner
Burrell when they cannot fire him for political reasons, and the
discovery that they have a jaw-dropping $54 million budget deficit due
to overspending in the schools.
At the same time, Prez, the
former MCU member fired from the force in Season 3 after accidentally
killing another officer, has started a new life as a maths teacher. His
class is noisy, uncooperative, disrespectful and sometimes shockingly
violent (one student slashes another's face open with a razor in his
first week). However, the primary narrative for Season 4 focuses on four
of the students in Prez's class - Randy, Dukie, Namond and Michael.
These are all new characters, although with some ties to existing ones:
Namond is the son of former Barksdale enforcer Wee-Bey and Michael is a
member of Cutty's gym.
The scaling back of the other characters
in favour of following these four youngsters around may seem like an odd
move, but it pays off brilliantly. Having tackled the police,
criminals, politicians, and dockworkers, Season 4 is about teachers,
students and the role of education in shaping the lives of the young.
Early in the season a divide is identified between those kids who could
make something for themselves and the corner kids who don't want to do
anything other than stand on the streets and sell drugs to make money,
and where the four main characters fall on that divide and how they swap
sides and change over the course of the season is fascinating to watch.
At first glance Michael seems to be the most positive and promising of
the four, but his interest in sports and growing cooperation in class
hides a bitter and painful home life that soon leads him into Marlo's
circle, whilst happy-go-lucky Randy makes a series of mistakes that
prove costly. In fact it's Namond, who is selling drugs from the start
and being schooled for a life of crime by his father from behind bars,
who undergoes the most interesting and seismic shifts in character, all
depicted through the brilliant-as-usual writing and some fine
performances from the young actors involved.
Andre Royo as Bubs
also has to be singled out for mention, as Bubs hits rock-bottom in this
season and Royo's depiction of a man whose already crappy life
disintegrates completely is absolutely stunning. At the same time,
Dominic West's low availability for the season means that McNulty
doesn't appear very much, meaning more screen time for Freamon (Clarke
Peters) and Bunk (Wendell Pierce), which is a very welcome move. McNulty
does return to prominence in the last two episodes, which set up the
direction of the final season pretty well.
The Wire: Season 4 (*****)
is as superbly-written, brilliantly funny, expertly-acted and
stomach-churningly tragic as ever, except possibly even moreso than the
first three seasons. If there is a negative point, it's that Season 4 is
the most epic and sprawling season to date, and it takes a while for
all the disparate storylines to start pulling together. But when they
do, the result is the most powerful and gripping final run of episodes
yet. Season 4 of The Wire is available on DVD in the UK and USA and also as part of the complete series box set (UK, USA).
Rewatching the fourth season of The Wire, the question arises: is this merely the greatest season of the show (although it's a close battle with Season 1) or actually the greatest season of any TV show ever made? On a first run it's easy to say no, that the season takes too long to come together in any meaningful way and there are way too few victories. On a rewatch you realise that's the point.
The season is deliberately disjointed: the Major Crimes Unit is deliberately and systematically run into the ground, there's a heavy political storyline with Carcetti running for mayor that feels shut off from what's going on in the street and there's stuff going on in the school that feels disconnected from everything else. Compared to the determined focus and easy-to-determine through-line of the three previous seasons, Season 4 sprawls in all directions.
But the sprawl is an illusion. As Lester Freamon told us in Season 1, "All the pieces matter" and this remains true in the fourth year. Eventually all the little, apparently throwaway moments align with the core storyline of Marlo Stanfield's murderous rise to dominance over the Baltimore underworld impacting on the police, the political system and, most heartbreakingly, in the schools where the young children's best hope for a good life is undermined by an unfeeling system obsessed with statistics over humanity and by street hustlers looking for kids to use as couriers and look-outs. If the season has an emotional core, it's provided by Roland Pryzbylewski, played with tremendous restraint and heart by Jim True-Frost. Prez was the former police officer who shot up a tower block back in Season 1 and idiotically blinded a child for no real reason, but by this season has grown into a more fully-rounded figure. His new role as a teacher in a tough, inner-city school confronts him with astonishing horrors - kids who are clearly emotionally traumatised, abused or mentally disturbed but whom the system refuses to help - but instead of zoning out or quitting like so many others, he tackles the situation head-on and eventually manages to help some (but not all) of his students.
The season is really the story of four of those students - Michael, Dukie, Namond and Randy - and each of their story arcs is told with humanity and skill. The actors are outstanding and the conclusion of each of their story arcs is note-perfect. Only one arguably ends up happy. The ending confronted by Randy is utterly heartbreaking, and the audience sides fully with Detective Carver, formerly a police officer who said he never cared too much and only enjoyed breaking heads, as he finally loses control at the absolute inhumanity and bureaucratic incompetence of the system he works for.
There are so many other moments of emotional perfection, perfect performances, cutting political observation or humour (and for all its reputation as a realistic examination of the modern western city, The Wire can also be the funniest thing on the planet) in the season that it'd be impossible to list them all. Suffice to say, that when the dust settles and the history of the Golden Age of Television is written, this collection of thirteen episodes will almost certainly emerge as its crowning achievement.
The Wire complete series blu-ray set is available now in the UK and USA.