Note: This could easily be fifty or a hundred reasons, but rather than list everything I’ve just tried to distil it down to the bare bones of what’s great about The Wire. Also those that haven’t watched it yet in its entirety – there are some mighty big spoilers throughout, consider this a warning.
And as a friend pointed out, “There are two types of people in the world – those that love The Wire and those that haven’t seen it…”
It’s not finished. Sure, there’s a sense of closure to part of the principle narrative of each season, but the overall narrative of the show – the war on drugs – is never over (one character jokes it can’t be a war as a war can be won). Plots arc over multiple seasons giving a sense of a larger picture and even come the end of Season Five (when the creative team knew that the show was going to end at the end of the season) there’s the sense that things will still be the same tomorrow – emphasised by the closing shot of the Baltimore skyline and another day beginning.
“Goodnight Moon…” The Wire could rarely be accused of being sentimental, but this wonderful little moment at the end of Episode Eight, Season Five is just beautiful. Kima, trying to get to know the son she’s not spent time with, comforts him to sleep by saying goodnight to Baltimore. It’s not only the sense of growing affection for her son, but also her clear affection for a city that no matter who bad it gets she wouldn’t change anything. Saying goodnight to all the criminals, low-lives and dealers also acknowledges the fact that she knows precisely where her son is growing up and even at that age isn’t trying to romanticise it.
Omar’s Grandmother. There are many moments of Omar being a complete bad-ass, but the moment when Stringer Bell breaks the truce between the Barksdale Organisation and Omar is one of the clearest indications of Omar’s code and (more importantly) that no matter how legitimate Stringer attempts to become, there are still some lines that he is willing to cross. Even Avon shows contempt for the act, questioning how far they have fallen if they are willing to break something as simple as a truce to allow Omar to take his Grandmother to Church every Sunday.
Work matters. Most TV programmes extend the remit of their characters beyond their day-to-day slog of work, indeed the characters personnel lives become the focus of the drama. However The Wire, whilst giving us brief hints at what they do in their free time, is only ever interested in what everyone does at work (whether legitimate or not) – notice how McNulty is the only police officer given a private life, and even then most of the time it’s showing how all he wants to do is get back to work.
Location, Location, Location. There’s something immediate about location filming rather than studio filming (something Michael Mann noticed and has embraced in his films also), that lends an extra layer of realism to the proceedings. Whilst many of the repeated interiors are studio bound as a means of facilitating filming within the budgetary confines of TV, the externals are filmed on location – even when it means that buildings demolished mid-season have to be digitally added back. Many of the locations even take on their own character within the series, The Pit feels different from every other low-rise we see by the introduction of the battered sofa in the centre – an item that is replicated at Marlo’s point as well.
McNulty’s Wake. “All the guys at the bar, Jimmy, all the girls; they don’t show up at your wake. Not because they don’t like you. But because, they never knew your last name. Then a month later, someone tells them, “Oh, Jimmy died.” “Jimmy who?” “Jimmy the Cop.” “Ohhh,” they say, “him”. And all the people on the job, all those people you spent all the hours in the radio cars with, the guys with their feet up on the desk, tellin’ stories, who shorted you on your food runs, who signed your overtime slips. In the end, they’re not gonna be there either. Family, that’s it. Family, and if you’re lucky, one or two friends who are the same as family. That’s all the best of us get.”
Beadie makes an ultimatum to McNulty in the penultimate episode, but we later see the wake that McNulty would have had – lying on a pool table (and he isn’t even dead) Landsman gives him the eulogy he deserves pointing out that he is “Natural police” and that despite his many character faults he was probably the best murder police the department had seen. As everyone stands and drinks, McNulty slides off – sober – to be with Beadie. No longer part of the job, the demons in his life are put to one side and he can finally embrace a normal life.
“You cast who?” The Wire has launched a lot of careers, but for the most part you’ll be hard pressed to actually find any instantly recognisable faces within the cast meaning it never gets hung up on star power. Furthermore the casting of real police and (ex) gang members furthers the sense of realism – Snoops cold eyed detachment isn’t just good acting (although she clearly can act) but also she knows what it’s like to be involved in a murder – that lifts the show above its contemporise. As with everything else in The Wire, care seems to have been taken to make everything as authentic as possible.
Dude, where’s my music? No incidental music to lead your emotions is a brilliant touch – what music you hear is also being heard by the characters – another trick increasing the level of realism of the show. The show has one song per season for the montage element during the last episode, but that’s it. Despite this, the soundtrack is superb when it appears because it is always appropriate for the place. The moment where Herc’ hits the streets whilst listening to the soundtrack from Shaft shows this beautifully, what else would a bad-ass detective listen to? Note: There are two other occasions non situational music is used, but by that time you don’t actually realise that it’s non situational until you sit and think about it. The Wire drags you in so deep that the things that you normally associate with a TV show become irrelevant.
“Let’s go home”. The final spoken line of the entire series reinforces the idea that Baltimore is the major character of the series and that everyone else is just an extension of its story. The creators obviously both love it as a city and hate what it has become in equal measure – notice how the final shot shows the best of it far off in the distance whilst the camera observes from the side of a dirty, busy road.
Fuck! Season One, Episode Four: Bunk & McNulty investigate a murder scene and over four and a half minutes the only word you hear is “Fuck”. It’s a wonderfully sly dig at other shows use of profanity as a means of being edgy by showing how a single word can be used to convey different meanings. It’s also as funny as fuck…
I’ll tell you once… And that’s it. Nothing is ever explained twice (or recapped) in order to bring you up to speed. The writers have made the assumption that you have watched the show up until that point and that furthermore you have a memory and the ability to comprehend what is going on. Few programmes make as many demands on the viewer to remain attentive as The Wire, which is a real shame. Notice how by Season Four they aren’t even having characters explain how they dissect a crime scene but rather expect that the audience has seen enough beforehand to know what is going on. Note: As a means of ensuring that the pilot was broadcast, Simon’s was contracted to show a flashback explaining who exactly the dead man at the end of the first episode was – this is the only time this occurs in all five series.
“See You Tomorrow…”. One of the most surreal moments in the series happens at the beginning of Season Three as Police Officers & Corner Boys meet in a cinema lobby, all their with respective partners. After a stilted stand off, Poot says goodbye to the Officers with the comment “See you tomorrow”, both sides of the drug war knowing that this is just a brief time out from normal proceedings.
Humour at its blackest. For such a seriously minded show, The Wire sure puts a lot of humour into the way that it tells its story – albeit pitched as black as tar. All sides of the struggle use humour as a means of defence against what they’re facing on a daily basis and often the fact that the humour is just plain “wrong” is commented on by others. No quick-quips that get everyone else laughing, more knowing looks and a question “Do you know how fucked up it is to say that?”.
Omar Little. Every man has to have a code to live by and Omar never deviates from his. “No one who isn’t part of The Game gets touched”, a point brought home when he is framed for the murder of a civilian and even the police don’t believe it. Personality quirks also raise him above the level of many of the other street characters – in five series we never hear him use bad language due to his view that it shows a man is unable to express himself properly. The grudging respect everyone else seems to have for this unrepentant criminal is indicative of the stance the series takes with regards the morality of the situation. His vengeful rampage in Season Five is one of the few times the series moves away from reality into a thing of pure fiction, but remains essential nonetheless. He even gets the great American Outlaw’s death – shot from behind by a character we barely know.
Sobotka acknowledges his fate. Frank Sobotka is one of the most interesting characters that the series produced, an honest man who’s had to turn to crime in order to maintain the lives of those around him. His story is the one of the uneducated man still trying to find the American Dream whilst everyone throws him by the wayside. His resignation at his fate when he goes to meet The Greek in order to secure his sons safety is a beautifully underplayed moment of a man knowing he is walking to his death.
It’s all about the failures. The Wire chronicles a number of organisations on both sides of the Law throughout its five seasons, but unlike other series is far less interested in its successes than it is systemic failure. The series argues that the cost of failure in the system goes far deeper than can be imagined and that things can (and usually do) always get worse – a difficult thing to sell to your average audience. Failure is everywhere – and more distressingly, it’s always being covered up – within the system and ironically the criminals are less willing to accept it than the system. If someone fails to reduce crime then the figures are brushed under the carpet for the public, if someone fails to sell enough drugs then they have to explain their actions fully.
It’s all about the hope. As grim as the sense of inevitable failure is the series also offers a brief glimpse of hope – some characters manage to escape from either crime or drugs (or both) and make new lives for themselves. Indeed this is the key arc for one of the series most important characters and creates a real moment of emotion when something as simple as a family meal happens. Likewise most of the “real police” are motivated by wanting to make Baltimore a better place, even if in doing so they have to break the law, all of the dealers dream about becoming legitimate.
Roland “Prez” Pryzbylewski. At the beginning of Season One he’s almost treated as a joke character (especially in comparison to McNulty & Greggs) – albeit one who’s temper has terrible consequences – but eventually one of the most honest character portrayed in the series emerges. Constantly fighting to try to make a difference his move into teaching in Season Four doesn’t feel forced but rather the logical step for someone who wants to make difference. Yes he screws up all the time, but it’s never because he’s trying to cut corners like some other characters and this is especially true with the way that he treats his young charges and tries to better their lives even a little bit. His final appearance has an air of sadness, clearly he has found his role in life as a teacher (note who he gently teaches a child honest values) but he’s still holding out hope for everyone and hasn’t learnt to let go.
The killing of Wallace. By the time we’d reached the penultimate episode of Season One we’d already become aware that there were few sacred cows in killing characters, but even so the brutal murder of Wallace for wanting out of the game following his involvement in the death of another was still like a punch in the kidneys, made all the more shocking by the youth of both perpetrators and victim. The final image of him slumped in a corner of a squat, surrounded by the toys of those in his care was almost too much to bear.
These are the stories that matter. Season Five’s introduction of the Baltimore Media drew a lot of negative attention initially, but in the grand scheme it indicates Simon’s argument that what happens with these people is the real story of the city, not what goes on in higher office. The gunning down of Omar Little is just passed over as another meaningless street crime, his true role as the bogeyman of Baltimore’s drug trade remains unknown because the media have its own agenda that his story isn’t part of.
Full Circle. The stories of McNulty, Bubbles, Omar and all are over come the end of the series, but Baltimore lives on. Sydnor has become McNulty, berating the law for not fully pursuing a case, Michael has become Omar and is fast on his way to making enemies of the entire drug trade of Baltimore. And most tragically, Dukie has become Bubbles – hopefully he to will be able to claw his way out of addiction when it really matters. Simon’s point is simple – unlike every other show the heroes didn’t save the day, they just prevented the worst from happening for another one.
A clear vision. Whether it was foresight or just dogged determination, Simon’s clearly had a vision of the overall structure for the show from day one – and no matter where the story goes it never strays far from this vision. The Wire wasn’t about a police department, or gangs, or even Baltimore – The Wire was about America and its position and place within the modern world. Few programmes even dare tackle a tenth of the issues that The Wire did, nor in the depth that it did – and even fewer stay the course in continuing to do so. The only problem is that afterwards it becomes difficult to watch other shows that deal with the same subject as The Wire – even Simon’s knew that he couldn’t manage it twice (although The Wire is his third attempt after Homicide: Life on the Streets and The Corner) moving on instead to look at Iraq with Generation Kill.
“All Prologue”. LEVY: You are amoral, are you not? You are feeding off the violence and the despair of the drug trade. You are stealing from those who themselves are stealing the lifeblood from our city. You are a parasite who leeches off– OMAR: Just like you, man. LEVY: The culture of drugs– Excuse me, what…? OMAR: I got the shotgun. You got the briefcase. It’s all in the game, though, right?
The opening of Episode Six, Season Two sums up the premise of the entire show in less than one hundred words – even the presiding Judge cannot disagree with Omar’s argument.
Bubbles. The addict trying to reform would have been a way to pull the heart strings in other series – and the final image of him in “-30-“ certainly does – but boy does he earn it. Not once is Bubbles fate clear, he could quite easily become another victim of the drug trade and end up dead in an alley somewhere, so much so that by Series Five even he can’t believe that he’s emerged from The Game intact. The beauty of Bubbles was that from the very beginning there were hints that he was a good man trapped in horrendous circumstances (or who had chosen them) and so he was never the ex-con looking to go straight (that role being taken eventually by Dennis “Cutty” Wise, and only after the show had built a reputation for not embracing clichés). Even with this he retains a basic decency – note the number of people he takes under his wing to try to teach the skills they need to survive on the street, few other addicts do the same (and he is as horrified by the concept of Hamsterdam as everyone else because this does not happen). Eventually it isn’t the toll that drugs are having on his life that convinces Bubbles to get clean but the effect on one of his young charges. In a rare moment of compassion even Landsman recognises that he has “Too many crosses of his own” to bear and drops the charges against him. The final image of Bubbles sitting down for a meal with his sister and nephew is one of the most moving things in the entire show.
It treated us as adults. How many TV series treat us as adults? Sure, there’s the occasional mini-series that deals with a serious subject that does, but full-on thirteen episode seasons that never once fall into lazy TV tropes or treats us like children – they’re like gold dust. The beauty of The Wire was that it no only did this once, but for five whole seasons.