This is the best season of TV I’ve seen up to this point. The Wire is a show that is working on another level and this season found a way to make it work on an even better level. The season certainly builds off of the past and what makes each season of The Wire interesting is how it broadens the scope of the world it presents.
This season brings us into the world of city government and introduces a whole new dynamic of how that shapes the kind of work the police do. When Tommy pressures Mayor Clarence Royce on crime, he in turn pressures Commissioner Burrell to get crime levels down. This begins an entire city-wide initiative to get the crime rates down at whatever cost. The result is a lot of book-cheating, except for Bunny who tries to reduce the crime rate by making a free zone where drugs can be sold without fear of the police interfering.
This setup trickles down into the story of Daniel’s unit, who start off hunting a man on a killing spree in an attempt to get the homicide rates down. This story ends up not being resolved, and I think that’s one of the smarter bits of writing in the show. Amid the bureaucracy, he becomes someone who slips through the cracks when the agenda changes. If season one resolved early before the case was fully formed and season two ended with the bad guy getting away, season three is about the case that never gets made.
When Stringer Bell is offered by Omar and Brother Mouzone, Daniel’s team is left in the wind, without a case to pin on a man they missed on the first go round. He’s been brought to street justice, but it’s ultimately unfulfilling to see a man they’ve tried to capture through the justice system get away. It’s a form of justice, one that might be satisfying in another show, but is actually irritating here.
Unlike the last two seasons, this plot resolution leads to some direct character growth. McNulty has always been in love with the job, but this season builds a lot of his story about his growing disillusionment with his work and his relationships. When he finally loses Bell, he realizes he needs to find another way in life that doesn’t look for fulfilment in his job or the fleeting relationships he pursues.
This arc makes up a lot of what I love so much about this season. It’s easy to write a character that has potential and then slowly bring them to that point. How do you write a character that’s at the peak of his potential professionally, but ultimately finds it meaningless without making it a tragedy? McNulty recognizes that what he’s great at is not the thing he should be doing; it’s something that’s bad for him. This is the kind of hard truth that The Wire confronts the audience with. It’s counterintuitive to traditional societal ideas of excellence and achievement, especially in America.
The Wire certainly challenges the viewer on a large scale as well. The free zone represents those areas of urban America that have been given up to crime. The speech Tommy gives in the last episode is a charge to consider that these are part of our communities, parts that we should be looking to change for the better, not turn a blind eye to or abandon.
The scale of this season feels just right. It’s big enough to give us an intricate, complex view of the world and allows us to better understand characters and their positions in the way the previous two seasons lack. It also is tight enough to tell a story where everything intersects in ways that lead to a satisfying sense of closure, or at least as satisfying as The Wire allows itself to get.
© 2014 James Blake Ewing