The Wire - Season 3
As some of you expected and predicted, season three was when I fell in love with The Wire. It did take two seasons to establish characters that I would care about and a society that I could understand. As good as the season was it's important to remember that it only worked as part of an overall story and that my emotional engagement had taken twenty five episodes to be fully realized.
The Good: There are so many things to say it's a struggle to do the show justice.
Let's start with the emotional engagement. The Wire isn't a show which aims to manipulate your emotions with grand standing scenes and swelling music. The emotions usually have to come more organically from the simple drama of an individual scene packed in amongst all the others. The first to hit me was Omar's crew robbing a Barksdale stash house (303). It was the first mistake we have seen him make as he allowed his personal enmity to override his caution. Slowly Barksdale's people realized they were being robbed and an all out gun battle ensued leading to the death of one of Omar's people. For the first time I felt on the edge of my seat, believing that anything could be about to happen.
Then came the "hero of our show" Jimmy McNulty being so utterly selfish that he tells Lester "Fuck you!" (304) Lester is speaking the truth, pointing out that Daniels has put his years of career climbing on the line to create a unit that could do some good. He reminds him that Daniels also pulled Jimmy off a boat to be in this unit. And now he (Lester) and Prez and the others are working hard on a case which Jimmy is ignoring. And yet still Jimmy just says "Fuck you." All he cares about is proving how smart he is and pouting that they aren't chasing Stringer Bell anymore. He is right that Bell is important and he gets his way. But he is a prick.
Then there is Stringer Bell. Thug, crook, big selfish child that he is. Yet he was right. He could see that the way forward was no more gangstering. No more killing, no more territory. He did what gangsters don't. He talked, he made nice, he made peace. When Avon came out of jail you could see that a confrontation was coming (306). Stringer tries to reason with him: "How many corners do we need? How much money can a n*gger make?" he asks. He was right. He points out that if you aren't alive to spend your money, then what's the point? I found myself willing for Avon to listen to him. I found myself sad when his sins caught up with him and Mouzone and Omar gunned him down (311). The gangster who outgrew the Game had no muscle or guns to protect him when he needed them the most.
The ghost of D'Angelo Barksdale hangs over the show too as Jimmy continued to investigate his death long after everyone else had given up (308). He ruthlessly exploits D'Angelo's mother, pouring scorn and guilt all over her just to see if she will crack. That was cruel, beautiful police work.
Finally there is Bunny Colvin. Unlike most of the other characters we don't see the bad side of Bunny. We only see him as the man who realizes that the rules have changed. He sees that the drug game isn't what the police were designed to deal with. He sadly observes that crime has gotten worse over his thirty years of working life (302). America has gotten richer, the world has gotten smarter and yet crime has gotten worse. So he gambles on doing some good and offers people a different way of living. And what does he get for his trouble? He loses his pension and is kicked out of the force. He provided a practical solution but in the context of The Wire he was just an example. An example of why nothing changes and no one will risk losing what they have.
Five paragraphs in and that is purely the self indulgent part of the review! Let's talk about Hamsterdam, the idea which fuelled the season. I absolutely loved it, everything about it. It was an exercise in logic which demonstrated how good TV drama can be. I adored the back and forth which Hamsterdam created. On the one hand it cleared the street corners, allowing neighbourhoods to regain a sense of community and safety. On the other it condoned hundreds of crimes, making a mockery of the law. In the pro column violence decreased as the dealers no longer had to fight for turf. Though the con was that the young hoppers no longer had roles and so ran amok. On the good side healthcare charities could reach more troubled people in one spot with needles, contraceptives and advice. On the bad side the drug addicts could now sit in one place and die more swiftly (as Johnny did) and so on and so on. The police officers disagreed about its merits. The politicians could see the negatives and the positives. The local Deacon condemned the place but ultimately realized it was an opportunity too good to overlook.
Aside from providing a rigorous moral debate, Hamsterdam just made for good TV. We saw genuine comedy like the scene where Colvin failed to get the attention of a gym full of hoppers and low level dealers (304). The young restless men and boys had no discipline, no interest in listening, they just made jokes, cried out for attention and got into fights. Even funnier was the dealers and addicts being dumped in Hamsterdam and told to get on with their business (305). The new environment also pushed men like Cutty and Carver to take pity on the young fatherless men and try to offer them something constructive to fill their time with. It also offered Bunny and Stringer the common ground they needed to talk about putting Avon back in prison.
In the end of course Hamsterdam could not survive. One of the season's great additions to the world of The Wire was Comstat. We got to see who the police commanders had to report to and what orders they were given. It introduced us more fully to the chain of command which runs right up to the Mayor. It was a stinging critique of democracy without having to spell it out. Politicians depend on the electorate for their jobs. Not just their jobs but the money, fame and prestige that come with them. The electorate are informed by the media. The media want to sell newspapers to keep their jobs. Drugs are a no-no for those with votes and money. So as long as the young black men don't vote and don't own too much money nothing will change. The media will bash any politician perceived to be "soft" on drugs and so the Mayor has no choice (despite considering it) but to wash his hands of Hamsterdam and return to business as usual.
And The Wire isn't preaching just one side. It turns its attack on Marlow and Avon just as strongly. Both are proud young men who looked at the world and made the calculation that they would rather be King for a day than live a life of working inside the system. They would both rather take their glory from killing others and being seen as the biggest and best at what they do. They don't fear prison because of the cash they own and the comforting lies they live with (you only do two days, the day you go in and the day you come out). They aren't portrayed as fools either. Marlow is utterly ruthless and calculating and stays a step ahead of Avon with cold, brutal intelligence.
Then there are our familiar friends in the police department. Kima and Jimmy grow ever closer as they prove time and again why they love the thrill of their jobs more than those that love them. The show pulls no punches with Kima cheating on the woman she has a family with (312) and Jimmy leaving his children alone so he can have sex (309). It's pretty reprehensible stuff for two of the "good guys." Daniels and Lester were absolutely right to yell at both when they did for their unprofessional and unhelpful behavior. As with Herc and Carver, I was pleased to see Jimmy leave the unit. He didn't deserve to stay on the team and thankfully realized that he wasn't happy. I enjoyed his brief affair with Terry D'Agostino too. If only for making the point that most men with his intellect don't join the police force. They go and make real money in business or politics which is just another reason the police struggle to do the job they need to.
Speaking of which Herc and Carver had some interesting moments. Despite spending weeks on the case Herc had long forgotten Avon's name. I liked that and the fact that no one knew D'Angelo had died or Avon was out. Why would they? Similarly he and Carver had no idea why it was important to know the names and whereabouts of the dealers on their corners. Bunny's speeches about why police work was no longer effective were brilliant. The funniest scene all season was when some dealers complained about being robbed in Hamsterdam, so Herc takes them to the police station to make a composite sketch. Suddenly he doesn't seem that different from the men he arrests every day as they play with the computer to draw attractive women. "You got one of these that does asses?" one of them hilariously asks Carver.
The story of Stringer getting ripped off by Clay Davis was very interesting too. It utterly exposed his naivety in the real world of business and led to a fascinating counterpoint from Levy. Stringer assumed that bribing people was a normal part of doing business because he had come up through crime. Yet Levy laughs at him and reveals that there are no bribes of state officials to get the kind of simple building permits that Stringer is after. Why would anyone take the risk when there is so much money available elsewhere? The show reaches so many levels of life without straining its main narrative.
Cutty's quiet dignity was pleasant to watch. I liked Avon just giving him fifteen grand (311) because loyalty genuinely means something to him (as he gave up Stringer at the same time). Bubbs and Bodie played their roles as well as ever. The whole story about Cheese and the dog fighting was both funny and horrific (302). I assume Tommy Carcetti's story has only just begun. He exemplified the problems of politics by seeing what was wrong with the system but choosing to run for office rather than do something about them. His terrific speech about what was wrong with the city (312) may have come from truth but it was there to serve his desires. Amidst all the political wrangling I liked the Mayor pointing out that there was no more money in the budget (307). Criticize me all you like for how I allocated it but there is no more!
Finally the producers again showed real restraint in keeping Omar (and Mouzone) to a minimum. The temptation must be huge to use Omar more than they do but he is the least real thing on the show and should remain on the fringes.
The Bad: The only off moment for me was Bubbs agreeing to be part of the sting to sell Avon's crew pre-wire tapped burners (310). Bubs essentially makes his living being trusted by everyone. Yet here he was a very active part of a conspiracy and surely word could get around that he is a snitch. At which point he would be dead or at least useless as an informant. I thought he could have set up the deal casually and walked away to protect himself.
The Unknown: I was of course sad to see Prez shoot a fellow (black) officer and lose his career. However it happened so suddenly amidst such a busy season that I don't think it quite made the impact it could of. The way everyone intelligently discussed the issue of race afterwards though was impressive.
Best Moment: Really tough to choose. I will go with the initial gun fight with Omar at the Barksdale stash house (303). It was as good as any action scene on TV and my reaction to it told me that the show had me for good at last.
Conclusion: I cannot do the season justice in one review. It was compelling viewing. It was so intelligently written. It covered such immense ground with such skill. It made me laugh, feel sad, sit on the edge of my seat and think...a lot. It was one of the best seasons of TV I have ever seen and once I record this as a podcast I can finally start watching season four. I can't wait!