All the Pieces Matter: Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Four years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of lists across internet sites and print magazines alike. And with each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites. Here is but one humble fan's take on each season of one of the greatest feats in television's history.

The Wire

Cast: Dominic West, John Doman, Deirdre Lovejoy, Lance Reddick, Wood Harris, Idris Elba, Wendell Pierce, Sonja Sohn, Aiden Gillen, Michael K. Williams, Amy Ryan
Network: HBO
US Release Date: 2008-12-09
UK Release Date: Import

Fair warning: There will be some spoilers. But, then again, if you're reading a comprehensive list like this, you should have watched them all by now…

Like Prop Joe in his last moments, I found myself at a loss for words as the static shot of the Baltimore city skyline faded into black at the end of "—30—", the series finale of The Wire. (Or as I prefer to call it, in the parlance of Isaiah Whitlock Jr.'s hilarious meta turn in Cedar Rapids, "The HBO program The Wire.") I won't expound on my wordlessness too much here, as scores of critics have said what I'd say. Just this year, after a long, bracketed competition, the show was declared yet again the best TV drama ever made, ousting its narrative-forming progenitor The Sopranos for the spot. Anyone who knows anything about TV in the last decade knows the program's high status. Even if it isn't the best TV show ever, and I'd like to think it is, it's at least one of the greatest TV shows ever.

But the purpose of this piece is not to sing The Wire's praises, but instead to do something fans worldwide have taken up innumerable blog and forum posts to do: rank the seasons. Now, there is one qualification necessary before putting this list out there: it's a pretty hard exercise to do. Not only that, it might not even be worthwhile. As one commenter wisely pointed out, ranking the seasons is like "comparing chapters in a book". The Wire's novelistic structure has been one of its biggest drawing points; it's a program that demands much from its viewers, and as evidenced by the abrupt deaths of many central characters, Omar especially, often doesn't give back what is expected. That death, amongst many others (D'Angelo Barksdale's remains the most shocking loss to me), were all part of the show's gritty, unforgiving realism, which played a huge role in the interweaved narrative. There are clear chapters, sure, but things don't always end up neatly wrapped and tied with a shiny bow for the viewer's pleasure. People come, people go, stories rise to prominence and then eddy away as the worn-to-the-seams Baltimore bureaucracy fails to address them. The Wire is best taken as a whole, no doubt.

But given each season's specific narrative arc, different stories are bound to appeal to different people. In the end, as many have rightly noted, this is a program not just about Baltimore but about the American city as a whole. The various institutions examined will apply to those who have worked in said institution better than others. I know and have met a few Clay Davises in my lifetime, and it's possible there have been a few people who dare to be as cruel as Marlo Stanfield. The depth of season 4's analysis of public schooling will likely draw in teachers frustrated with the utter failing of the federalist system of education in the United States. Union workers disillusioned by the state of organized labor will find much to relate to in the Sobatkas, the stevedores of season 2. As a result we all have our favorites and least favorites, and the list you see below is how I experienced the show, not a normative summary of all The Wire is and ever could be. Upon scanning the internet to see how my opinion ranked against other viewers, I found there was a definite consensus favorite and least favorite. On the whole I find my opinion cuts somewhat against the grain.

One final note before I begin my list: there really isn't a bad season of The Wire. They're all brilliant, as they contribute to one of television's most magnificent feats. I'm fairly set on my picks for first and last place, though the picks in between will likely alternate on repeated viewings.

5. Season 5

This is without a doubt the general pick for least favorite, and with good reason: though interesting at times, the fictionalized account of The Baltimore Sun lacks the depth of the institutions depicted in seasons past. It did, however, bring us a memorable turn in Clark Johnson's role as Gus Haynes, an editor at The Sun, who ended up being one of the show's entirely upstanding characters. His crusade to expose a lying journalist is one that, like many endeavors undertaken in the show, is noble but ultimately futile. The crisis of journalistic integrity at The Sun, is all the while juxtaposed with an absolutely insane long con crafted by Jimmy McNulty, a move that on one hand fits his renegade personality but also comes off as one of the show's most bizarre story arcs. Nevertheless, the tension builds with the skill of the great tragedians, culminating in the show's best finale, the one-two punch of "Late Editions" and "—30—". The depth of storytelling found in those two episodes kept The Wire from ending on a weak note. Both deftly balanced the finale moments you'd expect, like the cheer of McNulty's mock wake or the joy at the sight of Bubbles' sister finally letting him out from the basement, and the snapshots of heartbreaking tragedy, like seeing Dukie begin a spiral down into a life of drug abuse.

4. Season 1

Ah, beginnings. I knew I'd be hooked from the moment the first episode concluded, and things only got better from here. Focusing specifically on the drug investigation that would later be forced to share time with other story arcs, this season shone a light on all of the unglamorous parts of police work, the parts most network procedurals gloss over. The hurdles the police department and the states attorney's office must go through in order to secure a wiretap makes you almost somewhat less worried about the government's ability to spy on everyone it wants. Multiple conventions of the cop genre were present here, though never in any trite or clichéd way. The best of these was the ragtag duo of Bunk Moreland and McNulty, who in later years would be forced apart due to different assignments or, in the case of season 5's "serial killer", moral disagreements. But the most important contribution this narrative gave to the entirety of the series comes in how the drug organizations and the Baltimore police department are more alike than one might think. They may be on different sides of the law, but both use manipulation and deception to achieve their means, and in the end they all betray those loyal to them one way or the other.

3. Season 4

Here's where the angry comments begin. More or less universally recognized as the The Wire's crown jewel, season 4 is indeed brilliant, and it does contain the most trenchant criticism the show makes. While many are quick to rush to top-down government reform to lower crime rates, there's an element that will always remain elusive of government mandates: parenting. In David Simon's Baltimore, many fathers are deadbeats who only come back to the mother when they need something, and the only authority figures around are the names of those drug dealers who many of these kids end up working for. A politician can try to enforce harsher drug statutes, but so long as he isn't fixing the environment that produces drug sellers, the cycle of crime will only continue. No other TV show will match the unflinching take on public schooling done by this show, at least not for a long time. Meanwhile, multiple plotlines continued to play out, including the rise to prominence of Tommy Carcetti and the ever-cruel Marlo Stanfield. This season barely misses the top two spots, primarily due to how much of an undertaking the writers took in juggling the various stories. While the school plotline was incredible others, namely Cutty, felt underexamined, and some momentum was lost after Carcetti won the mayoral election mid-season. Nevertheless, this is ground-breaking television, and like the three that preceded it and the one that followed it, the finale "Final Grades" remains a hallmark of how to write, act, and direct television. So while I may dissent with the majority who claim this as the climax of the show, I cannot deny its excellence.

2. Season 2

…and there's the collective sigh when you all read I didn't put this at number one. Along with season 5, season 2 is generally placed in the bottom half on lists like this one. Admittedly, the emphasis on the stevedores seems out of place at first; the majority of the new players here never return, and if there's a list of loose ends left on the show, the nature of the Greek's operation remains near the top. But for me, that's precisely what made this particular arc lingering in my memory. The extent of corruption in Baltimore runs so much deeper than the city itself; the dark grip of the international drug trade has its claws around the throats of Baltimore drug dealers. And the worst part is, the police have barely any idea how powerful this influence is. Even when they bust a big cargo of drugs at the end of season 5, they don't come close to touching the enigmatic Greek. In my mind season 2, while not the best of the lot, is certainly the most unique, and as a result it commands your attention. Plus, lead stevedore Frank Sobatka summed up in one line everything that is wrong with the way Baltimore leaders, whether elected officials, police officers, or drug dealers, carry themselves: "We used to make shit in this country, build shit. Now we just put our hand in the next guy's pocket." The Wire's biggest unsolved mystery today remains its most intriguing.

1. Season 3

In a way, season 3 is what The Wire is all about. The program, with every institution it scrutinizes, seeks to identify the ways in which we try to repair them, only to give in to our most self-serving and base needs. It's about how empires fall and new ones rise as a result of these failures. Every institution here is interrelated not only by shared participants, but in their very structures as well; were any Baltimore city politician to become a drug dealer, he wouldn't have a hard time fitting in. Everyone knows how to play the angles to their favor, and given the opportunity they will always do so. Despite each season having a unique theme, the ones most vibrant in season 3 are the same ones that run through the entirety of the show. This overarching theme of reform is memorably demonstrated in the Hamsterdam plot, the most fascinating of The Wire's inventions. Here we have a plan that lowers crime and keeps the city safer, but the city absolutely refuses to accept Bunny Colvin's scheme based on the principle that drugs are inherently bad. The Hamsterdam may not have been a sexy, Amsterdam-style paradise, but the department's refusal to even engage in the possibility of making it work is emblematic of the systemic inability to handle real change. One is immediately taken back to Ellis Carver's dismissal of the notion of a "War on Drugs" in season 1: "You can't even call this shit a war. Wars end."

The theme of empire is also prominent here. The single most powerful moment of the season came in the penultimate episode "Middle Ground." No, I'm not talking about Stringer Bell's death (though it does rank high up there), but rather a conversation he and Avon Barksdale have on a rooftop balcony overlooking the Baltimore night skyline. Here we see the fallen king of an old dynasty being unseated by his former second in command, a businessman with a mind for economics. Stringer had replaced the Barksdale method of "gangster shit" and superiority through violent domination with legitimate business ownership; it was the ultimate reforming of the proverbial "game". However, this nostalgia is short-lived; a few pistol and shotgun blasts later, Stringer falls, as he'd forgotten of the blood he had on his hands as a result of paving the way for his work at B & B Enterprises. And by the final episode, Avon is back in jail, the Barksdale organization now shattered to pieces. This end is the beginning for all the events that follow it in the series: it paves the way for Marlo to rise to the top, it puts the police department on a new case, and it sends a seismic shock through the drug dealing community, arguably worsening the quality of life for all those affected by the drug trade. These two men and their relationship were a microcosm of everything The Wire represented: rise and decline, the right and wrong sides of the law, and most of all how the organizations we give ourselves up to can rob us of our lives and humanity.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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