I binge-watched the fourth season of The Wire within about a week and a half of finishing the third season. And yet here I am, something like a month later, still trying to write a review that will do justice to the absolute beauty of the story so far. The fourth season is by far—by far—my favorite (although I haven’t watched the final season yet). It is beautiful and heartbreaking and overwhelmingly sad. So let me just jump in here.
This season is sad because we finally begin to understand the systems that are involved in inner-city Baltimore. We finally begin to glean an understanding—if we truly can understand such things simply by watching television—of the impossibility of fixing the problems that are apparent throughout the show. Sure, McNulty seems to have turned his own personal life around and the changes that he made at the end of the third season seem to be permanent. And sure, Cutty seems to be doing a pretty cool thing with his gym, teaching corner kids to box and thereby making sure they spend time doing something other than selling drugs (and also learning at least a little bit of honor). But though Cutty has become a sort of father figure for these kids—many of whom have no fathers at home—we realize that this literally does nothing to improve the overall culture of the city. Nada. Zilch.
I think the best part of this season—besides the terrifying sociopathy of Marlo and his goons, who all act the part very well—is the focus on the corner kids. Instead of seeing the higher ups of an organization, we see the children who go to school during the day, get into fights, fail to learn much of anything in a broken school system that emphasizes standardized testing over actual learning, and then sell drugs on the street to make money—often at the request of their own families. At the center of this story arc is none other than Namond Brice—the son of Barksdale enforcer “Wee-Bey” Brice. Namond’s mother has plenty of money from Wee-Bey’s time with the Barksdales, as well as (it is implied) generous monthly payouts from the Barksdales as payment for Wee-Bey eating the twenty-odd year sentence he copped in Season One. But when these payments dry up on account of there, well, not being any Barksdale organization to speak of anymore, Mama Brice gives Namond an ultimatum: he better get his ass out on the corner selling drugs like his father to support the family, or else. When Namond runs afoul of the law, his mother tells the cops to keep him in “baby booking” to toughen him up rather than suspend her shopping trip to New York. As viewers, we begin to see why so many people from these inner-city areas become drug dealers and criminals. We begin to see the failure of the education system and the attractiveness of the kind of money you can make selling drugs. It’s a culture, and cultures are cyclical.
That said, there is one man hell-bent on trying to fix the system and offer Baltimore youth a viable way out. Ex-Major Colvin winds up assisting in an experimental classroom filled with all the key troublemakers in school—including Namond Brice. This classroom, I contend, is the centerpiece of the season. It is where the writers make their most important thematic points about the cycles that permeate the system. For instance, there is a moment in which the children are asked where they see themselves in ten years. It’s a simple exercise in forward thinking and planning: ask the kids for their long-term goals, then follow up by asking them about how they will make those goals into realities. The answers the teacher receives are mostly jokes about being NBA or NFL stars. And yet the real meat of the scene occurs when the teacher asks how many of the students think they’ll be dead in a decade. Nearly all of the kids raise their hands. It is at this point that we must remember that The Wire was created and written by a journalist and a cop-turned-teacher, both from Baltimore. They’re not just writing interesting television. They’re telling the story of hundreds of kids they know, have seen, or have heard about. This is tragic stuff, and it’s going on in cities all around the country. Today. Right now. There are middle schoolers in this country who genuinely don’t think they’ll be alive in a decade, and yet that’s okay to them because it’s all “just part of the game.” I don’t want to spoil too much for anyone who has yet to see the series, so I’m leaving out the absolutely heartbreaking story arc of Michael. Anyone who has seen Season Four will understand why his is perhaps the most tragic of the stories in this series.
I want to take a break from that depressing scene and talk about what makes good television, for me. One of the most compelling aspects of a dramatic series is a competent, believable, terrifying villain. In Season Four, which is (in my opinion) all about “change” manifesting in repetitions of the same systemic cycles, Barksdale’s role as the villain is replaced by Marlo Stanfield. And Marlo is a full-on sociopath. He will do anything, to anyone, at any time, provided it furthers his goal of taking over his side of Baltimore and making lots of money. He is what I imagine real-life kingpins to be—ruthless, devoid of empathy, etc. Even though he rarely does the killing in the show, he reminds me of the “Ice Man” Richard Kuklinski—and just as an aside, you should look up this dude’s interviews on YouTube if you want to see the face of a killer with frontal lobe problems who literally can’t feel empathy. The definitive Marlo scene, for me, is when Proposition Joe (a man who always struck me as the real threat in Baltimore rather than Barksdale) tries to recruit the young kingpin into the co-op Stringer created. The offer of increased protection doesn’t sit well with Marlo (“No one fucks with me now.”) and when Prop Joe tries to argue that maybe in the future folks will try to come at Marlo, the latter interrupts him by sticking out a hand for a handshake. “No one fucks with me now,” he reiterates, and the meeting is concluded. This is the point at which it is truly apparent that Marlo has overtaken the other gang rulers of Baltimore. He can dismiss Proposition Joe with a single sentence and a handshake. And so, to get back to my original point, this season’s villain is menacing in the extreme. (But, real quick, I want to make sure I say that the writers go out of their way to show that the true masters behind the scheme are the rich, white-collar dudes like The Greek—who is the supplier behind Prop Joe’s co-op, which Marlo eventually joins).
There is so much more in this season that deserves a lengthier review—the election of Carcetti as Mayor and the subsequent shakeup within the police department, a deeper discussion of Marlo’s henchmen Chris and Snoop, Colvin’s eventual pseudo-adoption of Namond Brice and the accompanying clarity of Wee-Bey’s approval, the plight of Duquan “Dookie” Weems, and especially Namond’s and Dookie’s friend Michael—but I know you probably have stopped reading by now. This is already quite a long article for a show that started over a decade ago.
I’ll sign off by saying this: my view on The Wire has progressed with each season. At first, I thought it was a good show. Then I thought it was a great show. Then I thought it was one of the best shows of all time. And after the fourth season, I’m left thinking that this might be actually the best show ever, as so many people before me have said. The character development is just unbelievably complex and good. What a journey this has been.