Tuesday, December 12, 2006


The Wire Season 4: In Review

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This review of the entire season four of The Wire, so assume spoilers will be plentiful, so avert your eyes if you've missed anything and don't want to know about it.

By Edward Copeland
I’ve said it many times before (as have others), but I feel compelled to say it again as The Wire has wrapped up its fourth and perhaps finest season: This is less a television series than a novel you watch. It’s impossible to designate it as anything else.

This is not a show where you can come into the story late and still catch all the nuances. It’s not a great epiaodic series like The Sopranos or Deadwood, where you can judge one installment as superior to another. The Wire plays as one continuous episode that, as of now, runs about 50 hours long with one more episode of 13 hours or so yet to come. Because of the way The Wire works, it’s so much richer and fulfilling really than any other series I’ve ever seen. (Speaking of Deadwood, I hope everyone caught the great joke in "Final Grades," the season finale, the best HBO self-reference gag since The Sopranos' Uncle Junior mistook Larry David and Jeff Garlin on Curb Your Enthusiasm as himself and Bobby.)

Part of what makes it so great is that David Simon, Ed Burns and the rest of the behind-the-scenes masters behind The Wire never pander to the audience. Most shows make the effort to reach out to the viewer. The Wire makes the audience come to it and that degree of respect is nearly unheard of in series television, even on the best shows. On top of that, like the great epic novel that it is, The Wire keeps upping the ante by piling on more and more layers and keeping more and more plates spinning in the air without making any of the multiple story strands seem extraneous. The same cannot be said of other series such as The Sopranos (Artie Bucco vs. Bennie, anyone?) or Deadwood (Maybe the theater subplot with Brian Cox would have paid off eventually, but I guess we probably will never know). It also has a great institutional memory: Bringing Wee-Bey (Hassan Johnson) back and immediately referencing his obsession with his fish. Just when you think the Season 2 port storyline was the rare arc that was finished after one season, it pops up again in Season 3 through the return of Beatrice Russell (Amy Ryan) and a Frank Sobotka poster and in Season 4 with Russell and McNulty’s continued relationship and the unexpected appearance of Spiros "Vondas" Vondopoulous (Paul Ben-Victor) in the season finale.

As for Season 4 itself, I have relatively few criticisms of it. In the beginning, I thought that University of Maryland Professor David Parenti (Dan Deluca) was portrayed as a bit too naïve, but in the long run, that probably was accurate. To me, the only missteps The Wire made this season was that transformation of Michael (Tristan Wilds) into cold-blooded drug soldier seemed far too sudden. It made sense that he’d go to Marlo (Jamie Hector) to help him with his stepdad problem, but then to suddenly have him willingly beating up anyone in sight and having sex in a sleeping bag in his own place seemed more a side effect of time running out in the season than how fast Michael’s change would have taken place otherwise. The change seemed even more out of place when, out of nowhere, we see Dukie (Jermaine Crawford) dealing on the corners in the season finale. Nothing we’d seen in his character seemed to make that likely and it lessened the shocking effect it obviously was designed to produce.

Other than those quibbles, everything else seemed the best The Wire has ever produced. For me, it was particularly great to see the expansion of the great Robert F. Chew as Proposition Joe. What other show would have the guts to focus on four previously unknown teens in its fourth season and leave its ostensible lead (Dominic West) on the sidelines or absent most of the time. Kudos also to the casting of the quartet, especially Julito McCullum as Namond. It's worth noting, for those that don't know it, that Chew not only plays Prop Joe, he served as acting coach for the young actors. I don't know how much credit goes to him, but they all did well.

It also was refreshing to see Prez (Jim True-Frost), while often pivotal but always a background player, move to the forefront in his new role as a teacher. The rest of the returning cast were as great as always as were new additions such as Assistant Principal Donnelly (Tootsie Duvall), Norman (Reg Cathey), Chris and Snoop (Gbenga Akinnagbe and Felicia Pearson) and Namond's wonderful shrew of a mom De'Londa (Sandi McRee).

I have to admit that I've never been that attached to Bubbles (Andre Royo), but this season really served the character and the actor better than any before through his struggles with his tormentor and his inadvertent betrayal by the clueless Herc (Domenick Lombardozzi) who transformed from a lovable screwup into an infuriating screwup while his ex-partner Carver (Seth Gilliam) blossomed and matured without his influence. Most importantly though, Bubs grew on me by his desire to better Sherrod (Rashad Orange) by trying to get him back in school. At times, I wondered if they'd just dropped that strand as Sherrod vanished frequently, but the finally payoff for both Bubbles and the audience was truly heartbreaking. Kudos to Royo.

David Simon has commented before that he intends The Wire to be a portrait of a city more than a police procedural — and that has never been clearer than in Season 4. Hell, the series takes its title from the police’s electronic eavesdropping — and that wasn’t even a factor this year. In its 50 episodes, it shows how bureaucratic nonsense not only keeps government and other institutions from functioning, it clamps down on hope as well, be it for the police, the politicians, port workers, educators or even drug dealers. This season, whose obvious focus was the teacher-student relationship of all kinds, also more subtly showing people either escaping or falling prey to their circumstances. The kids were the most obvious examples, but it extended to characters such as Herc, Carver and Carcetti as well. In fact, I wonder what path Carcetti will take — will his idealism be able to prevail or will he too fall prey to the lure of political reality. I eagerly await seeing what former journalist Simon has to say about how bureaucracies affect the media in Season 5. There's also one question that seems to be hanging out there, but only if you pay attention to the HBO Web site. Prop Joe's nepotism hire Cheese (Method Man) has his full name listed as Melvin Wagstaff, the same last name as teen entrepreneur Randy Wagstaff (Maestro Harrell), but no concrete mention has been made of a connection between the two. (For the record, neither Wagstaff is related to the Wagstaff who contributes to this blog.)

Also, since each season seems to get around to killing off a long-running character, a moment of silence for poor Bodie (JD Williams), the coolest sideways spitter in the history of television. It’s amazing how much sympathy this show could create for a drug dealer who killed a teen in Season 1. One question though: When Season 5 rolls around, who is next on the target list? I have to wonder that since no police have died from anything other than natural causes, if one of their ranks might be in danger in the show’s final season. Only time will tell — and please don’t make us wait forever to watch this novel’s conclusion.

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I agree with your points except Michael makes sense when you look at it in context. He was holding in a lot of rage and anger and Marlo basically acted as his savior, by freeing his brother from possible harm and then giving Michael a new home away from his drug addict mom. So I don't think his transformation was unrealistic. He was basically going with the flow. He didn't trust anyone before, but seems to have developed trust in Marlo (which I think will turn sour next season).

Dukie is another matter. He is less suited to the corner than Namond. He is basically a non-violent nerd. So that one is pretty strange, but it was a very sad shock. Hopefully, Dukie will pull a Namond and escape the streets.

I hope Carver adopts Randy. Puts in the paperwork, etc.

I also agree on Bubbles. He always seemed kind of a wasted character, but now they've made him very interesting and complex. I really car where his story goes.

What I want to see is the Greeks turn on Marlo when they discover he's spying on them. I suspect that angle will be interesting.
I do somewhat agree about the suddenness of Michael's characterization. However, I think they did as good a job as can be done in 13 hours.

I have to disagree about Dukie, though. For me, this was much more than an unearned shock. Sure, he's not really built for the corner life. But once he was left behind by the school system, what other options did he have? I heard a lot of criticisms of the Dukie character that said he was not as developed as the other three kids. And while that's true, I think it was an interesting contrast. Michael, Randy and Namond all faced huge, almost mythic, obstacles in their respective storylines. But Dukie is just the smart, sweet-natured kid who quietly gets screwed over by the educational system and ends up on the corner like so many others. I think the purpose of his character was to show the normal, everday ways in which kids end up succumbing to the corner.

Anyway, great recap of a great season.

I see your point on Dukie. I think he's too smart to stay on the streets. I wonder, however, why he is so well adjusted when his parents were so horrible. He's like Harry Potter or something. Maybe he will get a ticket to Hogwarts.

I'm hoping Randy and Dukie team up next season and find a way to work together to escape the ghetto. They are the two most likely to do so, other than Namond now that he has a stable home.
I think the points about Michael would make sense if he were a blank slate at the beginning of the season, but he was already pointing in that direction before the season started. He wasn't an naive as we might think because the other three boys were so much so.
A friend of mine pointed out that Michael's journey is very similar to his Italian namesake in The Godfather series. He seems to be making an effort to escape a world he is surrounded by, but the moment he finally gives in to that world he is instantly seduced by it. I think Michael is the one who turned Dukie too--

I would not be surprised at all to see Marlow go down in season 5 with young Michael quietly waiting in the wings to take over. It all makes perfect sense. The only surprise will be whether Marlow is taken down by the cops, The Greek (for getting too close), or another dealer.
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