Ranking the Seasons of ‘The Wire’

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


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. In 2012, 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.

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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 four’s analysis of public schooling will likely draw in teachers frustrated with the utter failure 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, season two’s stevedores. 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 Five


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 One


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 state 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 five’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 Four


Here’s where the angry comments begin. More or less universally recognized as the The Wire‘s crown jewel, season four 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 Two


…and there’s the collective sigh when you all read I didn’t put this at number one. Along with season five, season two 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 international drug trade’s dark grip 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 two, 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 Three


In a way, season three 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 three are the same ones that run through the show’s entirety. 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 one: “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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This article was originally published on 6 June 2012.