Up until the past 15 years or so, television series were firmly episodic. Serialized TV (outside of mini-series) risked alienating viewers since it stopped anyone from coming in mid-season. However, with the rise of DVDs, OnDemand, and digital downloads, serialized TV series have become firmly established. Some shows still retain an episodic nature, but some series—particularly dramas—have been built around telling one long story over the course of an entire season. Our new feature, Seasoned, will review a TV series by season rather than by episode.
A major recurring theme on The Wire is the constant fight against institutions and human nature, and how institutions and human nature almost always win. The third season of The Wire pushed this struggle even further as it turned its attention to an attempt to change America’s misguided War on Drugs. The season also had characters embracing their nature, rebelling against it, accepting it, and even embracing positive change. The show is undoubtedly a tragedy as we can see some characters’ downfall in the first several episodes, and yet season three offered us a few glimpses of hope.
In the show’s third season, the politics of Baltimore took on a prominent role and they provided the catalyst for the bold actions of Major Howard “Bunny” Colvin (Robert Wisdom). Mayor Clarence Royce (Glynn Turman) is casting an eye towards re-election, and he demands that the police department needs to stay below 300 homicides before the year’s end. The city is already close to the mayor’s arbitrary number, and the pressure is put on Acting Commissioner Ervin Burrell (Frankie Faison) and new Deputy Commissioner of Operations William Rawls (John Doman) to get the numbers down. Since shit rolls downhill, Burrell and Rawls proceed to chew out all of the district majors at their weekly Comstat meetings. Colvin, six months from retirement and weary from how drugs are taking away from real police work, devises a secret and radical plan: push drug dealers off the corners and into “safe zones”, which colloquially become known as “Amsterdam” (or “Hamsterdam” as it’s called among the dealers).
By this point in The Wire, we should know there’s no hope of Amsterdam surviving, and it’s only a matter of time before a sensible idea is brutally cut down. However, Colvin’s use of common sense and being fed up with the bullshit of the “conventional wisdom” is noble, but it’s not heroic. The show depicts Colvin as almost entirely in the right when it comes to creating Amsterdam, but it doesn’t let him off the hook for his belief that he can get away with it. There’s an element of cowardice to Colvin’s play since he believes he’ll be out the door with his major’s pension when the shit hits the fan. When Amsterdam is finally revealed to the politicians, Burrell, and Rawls, there’s no hope the system can survive even as Royce tries to find a spin that can keep Amsterdam alive since it has produced a 14% drop in crime in Colvin’s district. Colvin verges on a tragic figure since he’s brilliant enough to create Amsterdam, but he’s too much of a fool to believe that he can survive the blowback unscathed.
Amsterdam also shines a light on the series’ sole soft spot. The Wire plays it even-handed with every faction except for drug addicts. There’s shading to the cops, criminals, and even the politicians. Few characters are out-and-out good or evil. People on The Wire can be self-destructive, victims of circumstance, unwitting pawns, petty, jealous, and plenty of other all-too-human flaws. But drug addicts are harmless fools at the bottom of the food chain. There’s one scene in all of season three where creator David Simon decides to shine a harsh light on drug addiction. When Bubbles (Andre Rojo) walks through Amsterdam at night, he sees the ugliness of his fellow addicts. He sees addicts who have abused their bodies, sold their bodies, and become husks from their addiction. The Wire consciously avoids being a PSA, but it also feels like it’s pulling a punch. Simon had the opportunity to show that Amsterdam had a serious dark side by killing off Bubbles, but instead the show nixes Johnny (Leo Fitzpatrick), a one-dimensional character who never aroused any sympathy from the audience. He’s also the only OD the cops find when they’re tearing down Amsterdam.
Over on the cops’ side, McNulty (Dominic West) goes full-on McNulty and wrecks almost every relationship he has to in order to get the detail to focus on Stringer Bell (Idris Elba). Daniels (Lance Reddick) states that the priority of the detail is to stop the people who are dropping bodies, and Stringer has been quiet, but McNulty refuses to back down. In season three, McNulty goes from the childish prankster (“What the fuck did I do?”) to someone who is willing to say “Fuck you,” to someone like Lester (Clarke Peters) because Lester wants McNulty to show some loyalty to Daniels for getting McNulty out of the Marine Unit. “Fuck loyalty,” McNulty spits at Lester. It’s an ugly side of a man who has nothing but his case to keep him going.
This obsession is one of the many reasons why the death of Stringer Bell is one of the show’s most powerful moments. Let me say up front that I’ve never found Stringer to be an interesting character, but season three does a tremendous job of drawing out his tragic flaw: he’s a legitimate businessman stuck in the life of a gangster. Like so many others in the world of The Wire, Stringer is constantly trying to rebel against his world. We saw a glimpse of it in season two, when Stringer is talking with Avon (Wood Harris) and tries to bring his economics education as a way to handle their business, and Avon tells Stringer that the supply-demand mechanics aren’t a priority in the game. They’re both right and they’re both wrong.
Once Avon is out of prison and begins his war with ruthless newcomer Marlo Thomas (Jamie Hector), Stringer puts more energy into trying to become a legitimate property developer. He wants to be a guy who can put his own name on the lease rather than constantly deal in subterfuge. If Stringer Bell were born into another world, he would be the kind of guy who lands on the cover of Forbes. But born into the game, he’s ill-equipped to face the legit business world. It’s partially rewarding and partially depressing to see Stringer get flat-out conned by Senator Clay Davis (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), and yet when Stringer discovers he’s been hosed, he resorts to his gangster ways by trying to order a hit.
And then season two pays off. Omar (Michael K. Williams) and Brother Mouzone (Michael Potts) get their revenge by killing Stringer, but they almost feel like pawns in the grand game between Stringer and Avon. These two men are essentially brothers, and they betray each other by exploiting the other’s weakness. Stringer knows he can’t outgun Avon, and he doesn’t want to kill his friend, so he goes the legitimate route by serving as a criminal informant and leading the cops to Avon’s doorstep. Avon saves his own hide and gets revenge for the hit on D’Angelo by leading Omar and Mouzone to Stringer. The insult is worse than the injury when they learn of the other’s betrayal in their final moments (Avon doesn’t die, but his punishment is about the same as death since he’ll serve out the remaining years of his sentence, and his corners will go to the other dealers). Finally, in a beautiful piece of thematic irony, D’Angelo and Stringer both tried to rebel against what their environments had made them, and both were killed in the middle ground (appropriately, “Middle Ground” is the name of the episode where Stringer dies).
The criminal side, specifically relating to the Barksdale organization, remains the show’s most dramatically fulfilling aspect of the show. The cops have strong characters like McNulty, Colvin, and entertaining guys like Bunk (Wendell Pierce) and Rawls (Comstat is the perfect venue for Rawls’ unique skill of being an absolute dick to his subordinates), but that side of the story is about individuals wrapped up in an institutional observation. Season three took place during the 2004 political election, and provides the most overt commentary yet on national indifference to the local reality. During dinner with political consultant/fuckbuddy Theresa D’Agostino (Brandy Burre), McNulty comments how the people in Washington D.C., a city only an hour away from Baltimore, don’t have a clue about what’s happening in the streets. D’Agostino only cares when she sees the opportunity to turn Amsterdam into a political weapon for city councilman Tommy Carcetti (Aidan Gillen).
Politics was the new world introduced to The Wire in season three. It had been a looming specter in the first two seasons, but Simon finally takes the opportunity to deeply explore the crassness of the political players. However, like almost everything else in The Wire, it’s an exploration done with a remarkable amount of nuance. Our first impression of Carcetti is that he’s a venal political animal like any other. You can’t really come away thinking anything else when you see a guy not only cheat on his loving wife, but then admiring his reflection while he screws another woman. However, as the season unfolds, Simon and Gillen have us second-guessing Carcetti. Does he legitimately care about crime in Baltimore or is everything a political play? Even in his private moments, we’re left to wonder if Carcetti is wrestling with moral decisions or constantly stuck in campaign mode where he pretends to care about the plight of the inner city.
So there’s a police department struggling to meet an arbitrary murder limit from city hall, the Barksdale organization stuck in a Shakespearean tragedy, and Amsterdam as a good idea doomed to failure. However, more than seasons one and two, the third season offers a few beacons of hope. One great hope comes in the form of Dennis “Cutty” Wise (Chad Coleman), an ex-con and soldier for Barksdale’s crew who’s released from prison after serving a 14-year sentence. Cutty is by far one of my favorite characters on the show. That’s partly due to Coleman’s quiet, sympathetic performance, and partially because he offers the possibility of positive change in a unforgiving world. Until the point, every criminal has been consumed by the game, and faced a brutal fate for attempting to leave. Cutty comes to the realization that the game doesn’t own him and that he can leave. He wrestles with the decision, comes to the understanding that he’s no longer a soldier, and tells Barksdale directly that he’s out. “He used to be a man,” Slim Charles (Anwar Glover) says to Avon after Cutty quits the game. “Naw,” responds Barksdale. “He still a man.” Cutty then goes to something positive in his life and tries to make a difference in the lives of individuals rather than attempting to transform a system.
The season also finishes up on a hopeful note for McNulty, who finally realizes he can’t be a detective anymore. Not only does Stringer die before McNulty can slap the bracelets on (“I had him and he doesn’t even know it,” bemoans McNulty as he sits by Stringer’s body; once again, the cops lack the nimbleness of the criminals), but when McNulty searches Stringer’s apartment and finds artwork and classic literature, he can only marvel, “Who the fuck was I chasing?” McNulty leaves behind his self-destructive tendencies (at least for now), begins a relationship with Beadie Russell (Amy Ryan), goes back to being a beat-cop, and becomes an exemplar of what Colvin called “real police”—someone who doesn’t shoo drug dealers off corners, but makes a personal connection to the good citizens who live in a bad neighborhood.
Season three begins and ends with destruction. Barksdale’s towers are destroyed at the beginning of the season to make way for urban development, and Amsterdam is destroyed because nothing can stop mindless institutions. The final shot of the season has Colvin, forced to retire on a lieutenant’s pension rather than a major’s, staring at a pile of rubble as Bubs cheerfully walks by with a new protégé in tow. Like the ending of season two, season three wraps on a beautifully ambivalent note: the world continues on same as it ever was, but destruction doesn’t mean failure. Colvin proved a point, McNulty lost Stringer but gained an emotional catharsis, and Cutty pulled a few kids into boxing. For McNulty and Cutty, these are probably set-ups to a fall (the show is a tragedy, after all), but The Wire once again proves it’s too smart and too deep to fall into simply cynicism.