The Wire - Season 4
Hello and welcome back to my Wire reviews. I was thoroughly hooked on the show by the end of season three but I wasn't prepared for the impact of season four.
The Good: There is no way in one review I can do this season justice. It was definitely one of the best seasons of television I have ever seen. No doubt about it. Possibly the best. The Wire is so epic and covers so much ground that it is tough to know where to begin when discussing what was good about season four. So I will go with what I did for season three. I will talk about the stories and incidents which affected me emotionally and go from there.
I thought the season finale was amazing television. If I were reviewing the show episode by episode this would have been up there with a score of 90 or more out of a hundred. I was so emotionally engaged with the season's arc that it wasn't a surprise that several incidents from the episode hit me hard. What was surprising was that tears filled my eyes during one scene. I'm not really someone who cries often at TV or films. I don't remember a tear during Lost's run. So this was an extremely rare event for me and I was very surprised when it happened.
It was the scene where Bunny Colvin went to visit Weebay in prison to ask if he could adopt Namond. I didn't even know that that was exactly what he was asking when he began talking. Bunny just began talking about Namond and said that he could make something of himself in "a way that didn't happen for you and me." As soon as he said that my eyes filled with tears. Bunny has definitely become my favourite character on the show. He radiates goodness and kindness with everything he did in season three and four. He tried so hard on the street and in the school to do something different that would actually transform people's lives. In both cases the system shoved him aside. I suppose what hit me with that line was that Bunny was implying his life was comparable to Weebay's. Weebay is a man who intentionally confessed to murders that he didn't commit just to protect his boss. He gave up his freedom to obey the rules of the Game. And here Bunny is implying that his life has been a similar failure. Now he may have been exaggerating a little to make a wider point about being stuck in a crumbling city but it still struck me as such a humble thing to say. And that was what made me so emotional watching that scene. Time and again Bunny was the one who would turn to the men in the drug game and try to reason with them. He wouldn't talk to them like they were a leech on society but like they were men. Just like him.
Bunny's efforts in the school were of course similar to his Hamsterdam experiment. By isolating the troublemakers maybe life would be better for everyone. As with Hamsterdam the show was honest about what was possible. The kids in the remedial class learnt very little by academic standards. But they did learn to behave. They learnt to be more polite and more social and more honest. Part of why season four was so emotional was the focus on children. Season three took us up a level in Baltimore, to Comstat, to the bosses and the orders they were issuing. Season four took us down, to where the hoppers were educated and the problems were becoming entrenched. At least in Hamsterdam adults were hurting one another and themselves. Bunny's class was almost more depressing because it exposed how hopeless the situation had become at such an early age for the children of drug dealers and addicts.
The second scene from the finale which hit me was the death of Bodie and his earlier conversation with Jimmy. Another theme of the season was how life had changed on the West side now that Marlo Stanfield had taken Avon Barksdale's place. Whether by long term design or not it was a brilliant decision to replace one with the other. There was always humour to be had with the Barksdale crew. Whether it was Weebay's fish or Poot's skirt chasing or Stringer trying to teach business practices. Yet there was no humour to be had with Marlo and Chris and Snoop. Suddenly Avon and Stringer seemed like gentlemen compared to the ruthless amoral death which Marlo brought with him. Bodie spent the season realizing that the Game he had been serving was become even less just. When his friend Little Kevin is murdered, not for snitching, but for talking too freely he snaps. "This Game is rigged man" he tells Jimmy and remembers a lesson D'Angelo taught him way back in season one. He seems ready to snitch on Marlo to make sure that just a little justice is done when they come for him. Marlo leaves no stone unturned and Bodie bravely and foolishly stands his ground and gets shot in the head. It was a deeply sad moment, another life wasted.
The sense that life on the streets was degenerating came strongly through Bubbs' story this season. He provided my third emotional moment of the finale as he suffered through the guilt of accidentally killing his friend Sherrod. The actual moment came when his old AA sponsor came to visit him and he broke down in tears of agony and shame. It was an utterly wonderful piece of acting and again just punched me in the gut with the sadness that the show was unleashing. Bubbs would have been born in the 60s (perhaps) and despite being an addict for a long time still maintained a pre-Game morality. He still understood the value of hard work and kindness in a way which the new generation perhaps don't.
Another emotional scene came in episode five when we got to see the disturbing sight of young men all gawping and then laughing when Bubbs was mugged and beaten on the street. It was as if the new morality that they understood couldn't see any reason to sympathise with Bubbs' plight. It was as if might had become right to them and if you could steal someone else's money, well good for you. Back to Sherrod and his story touched on so many different issues within the show:
- Bubbs' despondency at what happened was such a contrast to Chris and Michael and the other young men for whom murder was becoming a way of life.
- By the end of the season we could see how desperately Bubbs needed a friend and partner to work with. Even drug addicts need a social structure to survive. No man is an island unto himself.
- Sherrod was another lost boy to the system. He was even more remedial than the kids in Bunny's class, he could barely add numbers under twenty and couldn't read. To see someone so young lost to serious addiction was sad in itself.
- Bubbs' morality makes it clear how desperate he was to turn to murder to stop the man who was constantly robbing him and beating him up. That desperation came from the fact that Herc utterly failed him in their CI relationship. Herc's story of course jumped all the way to the top where he only got his promotion because he walked in on the Mayor getting head from his assistant. Not to mention that Herc was only working in the Major Crimes Unit because it had been gutted as punishment for Lester doing his job and uncovering more corruption in high places.
Back to my emotions though and we should jump to the end of episode ten where Chris brutally beats Michael's step-Dad to death. This was the culmination of what I thought was one of the best pieces of writing within the season. As we learnt more about Michael it became clear that he had been molested by his mother's boyfriend. Once he had left Michael's mother (another addict), Michael had to take charge of his home. It was he who controlled the money, clothed and fed his younger brother and watched over him. When his mother's boyfriend returned he had to turn to someone for help to stop his younger brother from suffering the same fate.
The obvious man to turn to was Cutty. A responsible man in the community and former gangster but because of Cutty's success with the ladies Michael didn't trust him, seeing a little too much of his mother's boyfriend in him. He thought about turning to Prez, the caring teacher. However that would have led to social services getting involved who would have taken Michael and Bug away from their mother and might even have split them up. So Michael turned to the other man who had shown interest in him, Marlo Stanfield. I thought this was such a brilliant piece of writing because it was clear that Marlo had become the Mayor of this broken society. Baltimore's social services would have had nothing to offer Michael to solve his problems. But Marlo could. Earlier in the season Marlo had offered to buy the boys' school clothes for them to make them more amenable to working for him later. In a way though it was like a social services handout. Marlo was providing for boys who were falling out of society's reach. So in the end Michael had no choice but to become a soldier in Marlo's army in exchange for keeping his brother and mother safe. It was so sad to see, not just because Marlo is an amoral killer but because it was the best choice on offer to Michael. There was nothing clichÃ©d, or forced or foreshadowed about that story. It just developed. The cold sad reality developed.
So to jump back to the actual moment of emotion. Chris had been a pretty gentle killer up to this point. He never taunted his victims, he never beat them unless he had to. He and Snoop just asked people to accept their fate, killed them and nailed their bodies into a vacant house. But now we learnt something about Chris. He too had been molested once upon a time. For when he had Michael's mum's boyfriend ready for death he beat him with hateful ferocity. It was a shocking scene of violence which was a huge contrast to everything else we had seen. With that one act of violence you could see Chris' entire back-story. You could suddenly see that he had once been in the position that Michael was in now and had chosen to become a killer for Marlo. He too had traded his soul to stop anyone from abusing him again. Another sad sad scene.
Let's jump back to episode five again for the next emotional scene and join the superhero of our show Omar. Omar's problem is he listens to drug dealers. In season two he foolishly believed Stringer and shot Mouzone. Here he foolishly believes Prop Jo is doing him a favour and robs Marlo Stanfield. Jo just wants to make Marlo feel vulnerable so he will join the co-op. Chris is smart enough to figure out how to get to Omar and they have him arrested for a murder he didn't commit. Suddenly Omar was faced with a scary looking overcrowded jail filled with drug dealers who all wanted to kill the notorious stick-up thief. I felt genuinely scared for him. Credit to the show for making me believe anything could happen because I was tense and anxious for our scar faced warrior and very relieved when Butchie's cavalry arrived to save him.
Omar also managed to turn last year's morality lesson from the Bunk back on him which was nicely done. The other homicide detectives made the reasonable point that it didn't exactly matter whether Omar was guilty for this particular murder because they all knew he had gotten away with murder before. However Omar turned around on the Bunk and pointed out that even if that was true, he was innocent of this crime and that meant Bunk would be letting another killer walk free on the streets to do more harm. The best part of this story was that the other homicide detectives were furious. In every other police or detective show you always see people seek out the truth no matter what. If the wrong man is arrested you know by episodes end he will be freed and justice will be done. Not here. Not on The Wire. The cold hard reality was that Omar was a criminal and they had him locked up where he belonged. Fuck the truth, the case had been solved, that was all that mattered. Brilliant.
I have three more emotional moments to get through. One was Prez giving Dukwon food, clothes and a place to shower every day. It was the sweet, endearing and of course right thing to do. As you would expect Prez worked so hard at his job and really went out of his way for his kids. Two important lessons came during the season connected to Prez. One was when he was told bluntly that his first year in the job wasn't about the kids, it was about him. As in he was being assessed to see if he could cope, the kids education actually came second. Then later on he had to be told again bluntly that he would see many more Dukwon's during his career and that he had to let him go. If he tried to save them all he would never survive. Again so sad.
The second emotional moment surrounded Randy and the series of horrible things which happened to him because of his desperation not to go back into a group home. That desperation led to him snitching on Marlo. Snitching was perceived as the worst crime he could possibly have committed and for his crime he ended up back in group home after his foster mother's house was fire bombed. It was a desperately sad irony and left Agent Carver in bitter frustration at what the system was doing to a good child. What made the situation even sadder for Carver was that he had worked hard to become the kind of cop Bunny had told him he needed to be. He had learnt all the dealers and hoppers names. He didn't need to chase them anymore he knew where they lived. The contrast between him and Herc was now massive. Yet despite all that he had done to better himself he couldn't save Randy. He finished the season chasing another bunch of hoppers destined to go through the same process all over again. Sad.
My final emotional moment was directed at Mayor Tommy Carcetti. In a season of unrelenting tragedy this was the most familiar one. Carcetti worked so hard all season, like Carver, to better himself. The ammunition landed on his desk at just the right moment where he could take down Royce and he did it. He rallied around the City urging people to be more efficient and work harder for those who needed help. He promoted Daniels, he briefly won Jimmy over, he shoved Burrell aside and told the police to finally stop chasing stats and pursue major cases. He even turned down Terry D'Agostino!
Yet in the end he did what everyone else is doing and looked past Baltimore. Once he was seen as a bright young thing on the political scene by winning the Democratic Primary the DNC came calling. They whispered in his ear about potentially running for Governor of Maryland and suddenly his head was turned. Suddenly his political standing was too important to beg for state money to help the schools. Suddenly he was leaving the schools we had spent all season watching facing major cutbacks. He was torpedoing programmes like Bunny's, which could actually help, for the sake of his career. It was a completely understandable decision. And it just put a horrible full stop on why those schools remained incapable of changing the lives of the children of drug dealers and addicts who come through its doors everyday.
So those were my emotional highlights of season four. Last season it took me five paragraphs to get through them. This season it has taken fifteen! Listing off what made me emotional (or mainly just sad) may be a little self indulgent for a review. However hopefully you can see from one of the major reasons I think the season was such good television. I think good art will make you think or feel something new and this did both in spades.
There are four more things I will say about the show to round out the good, though as you can tell I could go on and on and on.
The first is that the storytelling on The Wire is amazingly consistent and thorough. I make notes during and after each episode just to remind me what I was thinking. During episode three I wrote "The ability of the show to carry so many characters and so many plots and make me care about them all is unparalleled. Perhaps it's because everyone is unfailingly well characterized as well rounded individuals who communicate clearly who they are and where they fit in and what they want." That seems to sum it up succinctly. By season's end those emotions came rushing to me because I now knew what each development in the plot meant to each character. I was left in no doubt and the show rarely ever had to hold my hand. As usual I was helped by reading Alan Sepinwall's (http://www.hitfix.com/blogs/whats-alan-watching) excellent reviews but even without those I would have got it.
My second point is connected and is about the structure of The Wire as a TV show. I have talked in the past about how the show doesn't sensationalise or dramatise many scenes. In seasons one and two I felt this was a disadvantage because crucial emotional moments weren't emphasized or dwelled upon. By season four that consistent approach paid out emotional dividends. In episode twelve I realized that Sharrod was about to take the poisoned pills and die. It was a sad dramatic moment but the show didn't linger. You knew what was about to happen and that was it. The scene changed and the plot moved on. Suddenly the style of the show matched the drama perfectly. Sharrod's death wasn't a big deal. He was just another body in a city full of them. The emotion was there because the show had now got me in the palm of its hand but the show wasn't stopping for me to mourn. No the show moved on to another snapshot of life in Baltimore as it always does.
My third point is that The Wire is immensely stronger for having no lead character. In season one Jimmy and D'Angelo carried the load. In season two and three Jimmy took over even though Omar was the unofficial hero. Here you could take your pick of main characters from Michael, Namond, Prez, Bunny, Omar or Carcetti. I have never seen a show whose characters were so well written that any of them could dominate an episode and the show wouldn't dip in quality. Again it was a triumph for the show's style and structure that it could do this.
My fourth and final point is perhaps the most interesting of all. Season four was clearly just part one of two! That's right, this huge epic genius piece of television ended with the sense that things had only just begun. It was as if the first three seasons were only there to set up season four and that four was there to set up number five. The final montage of episode thirteen set it all up perfectly.
- Jimmy is back on the hunt for Bodie's killers and to see if he can balance a happy home with a satisfying job.
- Lester and Daniels are finally given their due and a chance to do real police work just as Rawls and Burrel become aware of the political dangers of letting them be successful.
- Omar pulls off his greatest robbery yet, stealing the Greek's shipment from Prop Jo and screwing over the man who tried to screw with him. More than that he got rich without killing anyone, keeping his word to the Bunk. With the whole Co-op and the Greeks now pissed off with him will he live to tell the tale?
- Chris and Snoop have racked up a massive amount of bodies. If Lester can prove they did it, they are going away for a long time. But who else are they willing to silence in the meantime to prevent that from happening.
- Will Marlo ask them to take on the Greek? He now no longer trusts the men supplying the Co-op. Could he be so brash to think that being King of West Baltimore isn't enough and he needs to become Mafia boss of Baltimore too?
- Will Tommy Carcetti do right by Baltimore more than right by Tommy Carcetti? What about Royce and Clay Davis?
- What about Kima, Bubbs, Poot, Avon, Prez, Herc, Carver, Lester, Bunk, Prop Jo, Slim Charles, Cheese and everyone else I am forgetting?
It's all set up for an equally epic season five. For the first time while watching The Wire I do believe it will become the greatest TV show I have ever watched as all the critics say it is. That is of course a dangerous position for me to be in. Can the show really meet or exceed my high expectations?
The Bad: Nothing I can think of.
The Unknown: The only moment which I wasn't sure about was when an election agent hired and paid Randy on the spot to deliver some flyers. He had no idea who Randy was so I couldn't see why he wouldn't assume Randy would just pocket the money and toss the flyers. Even that though could have happened as the agent was clearly very busy and wouldn't have had time to pay Randy later or a way to prove if the flyers had been delivered.
Best Moment: It's difficult to beat a scene where I almost cried. However if you remove my reaction from the equation then Bubb's breakdown into tears was heartbreaking and beautifully acted.
Conclusion: I'm a huge fan of America and its culture obviously. So I never rant about the American use of the English language as some of my English friends do. However I make one exception and that is when the word "awesome" is overused. If something is awesome then it inspires awe.
Awe should be reserved for things you don't see every day. If you describe an everyday thing like a computer game, a pizza or a joke as "awesome" then what do you say when you see the northern lights, or a baby being born or the pyramids?
So when I say that season four of The Wire is awesome television, I hope you know that for once I am being unequivocally English about it.