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.
Perhaps I had unfairly high expectations for the fourth season of The Wire. Then again, that can happen when you hear from multiple sources that it’s the best season of the best show ever made. Until season four, the show had consistently captivated me both in terms of craft and dramatic resonance. Knowing that the fourth season would extend into the school system seemed like rich material for expanding the show’s complex societal and character relationships. Sure, Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) was dead and Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) had gone to jail, but there was potential for the quiet, calm, and lethal Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector) to be a new spin on the criminal side of the series.
Rather than experiencing a stream of constant orgasms I was promised from the greatness of season four, I discovered the series’ most uneven season thus far.
The season kicks off with a bit of brilliant symbolism by having Marlo’s lieutenants Chris Partlow (Gbenga Akinnagbe) and Felicia “Snoop” Pearson (Felicia Pearson) continuing a killing spree, and hiding the bodies in the vacant buildings. A ghost town may as well have dead residents. The lack of corpses allows Marlo to rise to power even though he only seems to have Chris and Snoop as his muscle (more on that later). Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the Major Crimes Unit is trying to follow the money and root out political corruption, and homicide can’t investigate crimes they don’t see, and frankly, aren’t trying too hard to find. Bunk (Wendell Pierce) believes a missing corner kid, Lex, has been murdered, but with no body, there’s no case.
Despite the rising body count, life on the street is relatively quiet. Daniels (Lance Reddick) now runs the Western District, he’s in a happy relationship with Ronnie (Deirdra Lovejoy), Herc is working protection for Mayor Royce (Glynn Turman), and Lester (Clarke Peters) and Greggs (Sonja Sohn) are happily working their case with no interference from their new commander, who’s too busy working on his summer home to care what his unit is up to. Most surprising is a happy Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), who has stopped being a surly drunk and now enjoys domesticated bliss with Beadie Russell (Amy Ryan). Of course, a happy McNulty isn’t necessarily and interesting McNulty, and the show makes the bold move of marginalizing one of its most popular characters.
But the heart of the new season is the new characters Duquan “Dukie” Weems (Jermaine Crawford), Randy Wagstaff (Maestro Harrell), Namond Brice (Julito McCullum), and Michael Lee (Tristan Wilds). Up until this point, The Wire had embraced a multitude of dramatic tones ranging from the darkly comic to the coldly clinical to the sweepingly tragic. But the show had never been deeply compassionate until the introduction of these young men. There was always an element of sympathy for the characters, but David Simon made us feel protective of this quartet. They’re the innocents, or at least as innocent as one can be on the streets of Baltimore. Sadly, they’re trapped by their circumstances and the institution of the public schools. “Lambs to the slaughter here,” says Edward Tillman Middle School Assistant Principal Marcia Donnelly in season premiere. And if we’ve learned anything so far from watching The Wire, it’s that institutions are immovable, selfish, and a hindrance.
Season four draws a majority of its emotional impact from the futility of the school system, and the young lead actors. We know these aren’t bad kids. They live at a crossroads, but unlike children of privilege, their world pushes them towards the path of a life of crime, a life that tends to be short as a result. Namond’s, son of Avon’s enforcer Wee-Bay (Hassan Johnson), is being actively pushed to the corner by his parents. Michael cares deeply for his little brother and, according to Cutty (Chad Coleman), has the potential to be great boxer. Unfortunately, Michael has to deal with his drug-addict mother, and the impending arrival of his abusive father. It’s also strongly implied that Michael was molested by his father before his father was sent to jail for an unrelated crime. Randy is whip-smart, and lives a relatively happy life with his foster parent. However, being at the wrong place at the wrong time (an easy thing to be in this world) ends up ruining his life. And as for Dukie, he’s extreme poverty and neglect makes him a social pariah until Prez (Jim True-Frost), now a math teacher at Tillman Middle, shows the kid some compassion and helps him realize he has a knack for computers.
Again, it comes back to compassion and there’s a sense that the show was struggling mightily against cynicism. The continued presence of Cutty provided a nice contrast of a positive role model set against all the bad influences of the street. Colvin (Robert Wisdom) returns with a new initiative to see if the “corner kids” (angry young people who seem unreachable, and are likely to turn to crime) like Namond can thrive outside the narrow-minded factory of the outdate school system. As one teacher cynically tells Prez, “It isn’t about the kids. It’s about surviving.”
The Wire has no patience about this kind of statement when it comes to the schools. The social commentary has expanded with the scope of the series, but the knives are out like never before when it comes to the education system. The show spits venom at teaching to the test, and the influence of government is a throwback to last season when McNulty tells D’Austino (Brandy Burre) that the higher-ups have no idea what life is like in the streets.
As far as a “lighthearted” plotline, the politics is about as much of a relief as The Wire can provide, because it fits into a familiar model. There’s comfort in Carcetti’s (Aiden Gillen) campaign and eventual election because we’ve seen this kind of story before. Unfortunately, I knew Carcetti would be elected, but I can accept the “spoiler” of a major plot point when the season aired almost eight years ago. Additionally, there’s not much investment about who wins or loses the election because we know life is going to be the same as it ever was. Carcetti is probably an upgrade from Royce, and we can see Carcetti has somewhat matured since he’s unwilling to sleep with D’Austino after his unexpected victory. We believe Carcetti genuinely wants to improve Baltimore, but we know he can’t so while his plotline is entertaining, but not as substantial as it was last season when he served as conduit to Baltimore’s political underbelly.
However, Carcetti’s victory also plays into the absurdities season four relishes. Carcetti wins in part because of a dead state’s witness who was assumed to be a murder, but turned out to be hit by a stray bullet (chew on that symbolism). When the MCU gets shut down, no one is watching Marlo except for Omar (Michael K. Williams). The cops can’t even get a hidden camera on Marlo, but Omar can lookout from a nearby window at a guy who wants him dead. There’s darkly comic, and then there’s an existential madness and season four has its share of the latter.
When you have an expanded tapestry with a compassionate and tragic coming-of-age story at the center, the love for season four is understandable, especially when you throw in so many memorable moments. There’s the understated power of Colvin taking some corner kids to a fine restaurant, and we see his statement about “They’re not fools. They know exactly what we expect them to be,” in full technicolor. If society has trained them to be canon-fodder for inner city Baltimore, do they really have a place in the middle-upper class. It’s a nice throwback to D’Angelo (Larry Gilliard Jr.) going to high-class restaurant in season one. The institutions have become so engrained in people that some can’t handle the shock of being pulled out.
So if season four is subtle, powerful, compassionate, and heartbreaking, where’s the problem? Sadly, there are two aspects where this season comes up surprisingly short. First off is Marlo’s crew. At the end of season three, we saw a twisted passing of the torch as Barksdale headed to jail and Marlo coldly watched in the courtroom. And to say “coldly” is redundant. Marlo is a cold, heartless character, which makes him terrifying, but not particularly interesting. Marlo Stanfield owns West Baltimore, but his organization appears to be comprised of him, Chris, Snoop, and…that’s it. That’s not really an organization, and it begs the question of how he becomes so powerful. Yes, the trio is ruthless and cunning, and it makes sense that the police can’t stop them. But I find it hard to believe that no other gang would simply come out a clip Marlo, Chris, and Snoop especially when the three of them hang out together in broad daylight. Logistics aside, they’re not particularly interesting characters. Akinnagbe at least gives a strong performance, especially when he absolutely destroys Michael’s father, but there’s no depth to Marlo and Snoop.
The other weak plotline belongs to Bubbles (Andre Royo). Bubbles functioned as the show’s happy wanderer who occasionally had strong dramatic moments. However, as he moved away from being a C.I., the writers clearly had a problem with finding something for him to do. In season three, he could at least roll around Hamsterdam, but with the safe zone destroyed and Johnny dead from an O.D., Bubs is stuck pushing his cart with a new protégé in tow. From there, the story stalls with trying to get Sharrod (Rashad Orange) to stay in school, and when that goes nowhere, the plot turns to Bubs getting the shit kicked out of him by another addict. Granted, the beatings lead to another example of Herc’s (Domenick Lombardozzi) incompetence turning harmful towards the innocent, but the pattern goes on too long and no one wants to see Bubs hurt this badly. The plotline ends on a particularly weak note as Bubs tries to poison his nemesis and Sharrod accidentally takes the poisoned dope and dies. It’s predictable, maudlin, and unworthy of The Wire.
Sharrod’s death felt like an attempt to hit the big dramatic notes that landed elsewhere in the season. The Wire can go subtle, but it can also go big and land a hell of a punch. In one of the most cinematic and powerful moments in the series, a stunned and defeated Randy mockingly calls after Carver (Seth Gilliam), “You got my back, huh? Huh, Sergeant Carver?”, and Carver has no choice but to walk away in shame and defeat. It’s an earned moment unlike Bodie’s death, which the show assumes will be powerful because we’ve known the character so long and he goes down in a blaze of glory, but the impact is softened because we spent so little time with him this season.
In the fourth season, the show’s reach finally exceeded its grasp in terms of drama. In wanted big cinematic moments, but never managed to get all of them because it wanted the moment before figuring out how to get there. When Stringer Bell dies in season three, it’s the culmination of a character’s machinations across two seasons. When Bodie (J.D. Williams) dies, it feels like we missed a step, but the show wants the deaths to have equal weight.
The most powerful drama of season four doesn’t come from death. It comes from life. None of the kids die this season because it’s more rewarding to see how they changed. Michael, unable to trust a father figure like Cutty, turns to an older-brother figure and embraces an ugly lifestyle in order to protect his younger brother. Dukie thrives in Prez’ class, but when they try to kick him up to the high school, he’s lost again, and so he goes to the only place that makes sense: slinging on the corner (and when Prez sees that, it’s all the world’s futility summed up without dialogue in less than ten seconds). Randy, tragically, will always carry a snitch jacket he never should have gotten, and will probably be beaten until he runs away from the group home or dies.
And yet Namond somehow gets away. The show’s final scene doesn’t linger on Carcetti’s crushed hopes, the revival of the MCU (the dead bodies in the school gymnasium is a little heavy-handed, but still a nice touch), Marlo ruling with an iron fist, or any of that. It’s Namond, released by his murderous father and disowned by his greedy mother, who finds a new life with the help of Colvin’s understanding and kindness. It’s a miracle in this rigged game of a city where almost everyone is doomed.