Finishing season three of The Wire has taken me quite a while, dear reader. This is mostly due to scheduling conflicts and difficulty finding the time to sit down and actually watch the show, so this fact should not be construed as bearing any sort of relation to this season’s quality. With that caveat out of the way, let’s dig in.
So far in my experience of The Wire, I have found that each season has multiple themes layered one atop another—it is difficult to really pin down the “main” point the writers are trying to make. I could discuss how Season Three is about blame-shifting, or about politics, or about the human inability to put other peoples’ interests above one’s own. And maybe I will touch on those issues. But, for me, this season is about the slow disintegration of all things. It’s about the destruction inevitable in anything we build. Gradual decay.
Let’s examine Major Colvin for a minute. The man, feeling pressure coming from a long line of superiors that stretches all the way up to the mayor, realizes that police work itself has been slowly rotting away for years. Walking a beat and having face-to-face contact with the community—what Colvin considers “good policing,”—has been replaced by busting up corners and chasing down drug-trade lookouts. His solution is to set up Hamsterdam—three designated areas within West Baltimore in which police will tacitly allow the sale of illegal drugs. (Side note: here I could touch on how Colvin thinks he’s being magnanimous and saving the community with this idea, but really he is putting his own interests above both those of other human beings and the law—because he, like McNulty at the end of this season, feels as if the water has been emptied out of him in a slow leak and everything he pours into himself is drained out… That’s what modern policing feels like to him, and he wants to change that. But I won’t get into that). The eventuality that all of the viewers surely saw coming was that Hamsterdam does not last. It falls apart. Even before City Hall gets wind of it and shuts it down, the area is essentially a cesspool of hurting people—and when Colvin tries to fix this by allowing other agencies to distribute clean needles and condoms and perform health checks, it doesn’t work. Despite his best efforts, shootings happen in Hamsterdam. Despite his best efforts, Bubs’ white druggie friend winds up dead from drug usage. Colvin’s big plan to change “the game” suffers the same fate that old-timey police work suffered. It doesn’t work.
That was a long paragraph on Major Colvin. Since I’m trying to make this review a bit shorter than my 2000+ word Season Two review, I’ll go ahead and just spend a paragraph discussing the other police/”good guys.” First, Kima: we see her marriage, which was already thrust into chaos by the birth of her partner’s child, collapsing to the point of her eventual infidelity. As for McNulty, his attempts to rebuild his life and perhaps start a meaningful relationship fall apart when he realizes his lady-friend “looks through” him (his words) and is using him for inside information about the inner workings of the Baltimore police department. The Commissioner and Rawls are feeling incredible pressure to reduce crime-rates throughout the entire season, and by the end we can feel the axe dangling dangerously close to the heads of both of their political careers. Same for the mayor, who is portrayed as a man almost without a clue in this season—he seems to be torn between loyalties at all times, torn between shutting down Hamsterdam and finding a way to keep it for the statistics while maintaining public goodwill. The power structure within the BPD is crumbling even as our “heroes” zero in on the Barksdale criminal organization, with Carcetti looking like a man who will eventually take over. But even he is plagued with doubts. To bring about the change he wishes to see within the city, he has to abandon some of his ideals and become, in that abandonment, a new individual. He has to first incinerate himself before he can attempt to rise again, phoenix-like. And then there’s Pryzbylewski, who accidentally shoots and kills a fellow cop. He subsequently reveals that he doesn’t think he was meant to be a police, and when Freamon inquires as to what he was meant to be, Pryzbylewski has no answer.
As for the main criminal element in the show—the Barksdale organization—several very important things happen in this season. Mirroring Major Colvin, Stringer Bell attempts to start a conglomeration of previously antagonistic criminal organizations in order to understand and change the way that “the game” is played. For him, everything is “just business.” It makes more financial sense to join up with the other gang leaders and distribute the same high-quality drugs, and so that’s what Stringer Bell wants to do. But when Avon is released early from prison, everything begins to collapse. Marlo—a young up-and-coming head of a rival drug trade—has quietly taken over former Barksdale corners while Stringer focuses on business, and Avon—who does not understand, nor does he want to understand, the new shape of “the game”—is ready to go to war. Smoothing over all the details, the relationship between String and Avon unravels in a beautiful and yet tragic spiral, eventually ending with each man’s betrayal of the other. I don’t want to spoil too much for anyone who hasn’t watched the season (though by this point I probably already have), but once again we see that everything we humans try to build winds up dust. In the finale, we see Avon about to be locked up for violating his parole (at the very least) while Marlo looks on in the courtroom and smiles, the “heir-apparent” winning the victory just as, the viewer imagines, Carcetti is soon to do in City Hall.
But all is not doom and gloom in this show, however much it may appear. There are some high points as well as the lows. In the last few scenes, we see McNulty visiting Beatrice Russell (from Season Two) and turning down an offer for drinks—which, given his history, the viewer is invited to interpret as more of an offer for sex—and instead opting to meet her children, “if it isn’t too late.” This seems to be the first genuine attempt to start a meaningful relationship that we’ve seen from McNulty. I don’t know if it’s going to last, and to be honest I see in it a sad echo of both Colvin’s new approach to drug prevention and Stringer’s new approach to crime, but he bears his soul to the woman, turns down quick gratification, and tries to do something that will make a genuine connection. And the final scene with McNulty is him walking a beat path in full police uniform, chatting to the local Baltimoreans, sporting a wide smile. Perhaps, we are invited to think, he is finally stopping up the hole within him through which everything seems to leak.
And there is more hope to be found here, albeit a hard one. Cutty—the man on the inside with Barksdale, serving time for a murder he committed in his teens—is released from prison with Avon’s invitation to join up with the Barksdale organization. After numerous attempts to make a living through more reputable avenues, Cutty takes Avon up on his offer. He’s meant to be an enforcer, but when he finally gets the chance to kill one of Marlo’s lieutenants, he can’t pull the trigger. Avon lets him leave with a strange sort of honor-among-thieves type of vibe, and then the real magic happens. Cutty realizes that his fulfillment can be found in attempting to bring some kind of stability to young kids caught up in crime, and so he starts a gym. He works hard to renovate it, gets all the necessary paperwork filed away, and even gets a generous donation from Avon to purchase better equipment. He pulls his students from the crews of lookouts and runners that have become jobless with the advent of Hamsterdam and begins to bond with them, begins to teach them how to box, but more importantly begins to demand a certain respect from them—a respect that he seems able to channel and reflect back to them, giving them the ability to respect themselves. And then it turns sour. When Hamsterdam is closed, some of his older students end up back on Marlo’s corners selling drugs—and yet, when Cutty comes around to see them, they agree to come to the gym later in the day. So he hasn’t changed the fact that they are selling drugs, but he has created an avenue to, possibly, lead them out of that life. Of course, Avon used to box back in the day… so all this could be for naught.
I’ll leave you all with this last thought. I think Cutty’s storyline is a metaphor for the kind of activism and action that Carcetti demands in his finale speech. Turning the tables on the Commissioner and Rawls, Carcetti demands that the buck not be passed. He demands that we each, as humans within this crumbling society, take responsibility for the fact that these problems are our problems. Blame-shifting, while serving political ends and saving one’s job, does not solve anything. It just hides the issue—like Colvin tried to do with Hamsterdam, even comparing it to “brown-bagging” alcohol. Cutty is enacting this kind of personal responsibility even before Carcetti reaches this conclusion. Notice that Cutty never once acknowledges his own criminal past to appeal to these kids—he never once mentions to them that he killed a man in order to gain their respect. Though I’m sure they all know who he is, he never mentions that Avon Barksdale offered him a job and let him leave unscathed after failing to perform a hit. In short, Cutty has shunned his criminal past and is building something anew. You can see the light in his students’ eyes as they learn that truth and feel that hope.
Let us hope, us viewers, that Cutty’s project doesn’t disintegrate in the way that everything else did this season. I’ll be back to review Season Four soon. My final sentence here is this: The Wire is in certainly in the running for the status of Best Television Show of All Time.