The recent announcement that David Simon’s Baltimore-set HBO series The Wire has been renewed for a fifth and final season is cause for celebration, and there’s no better way to salute one of television’s finest works than to delve into its just begun fourth year. From a mass perspective, the beauties and the intricacies of The Wire are probably destined to go unnoticed in the moment beyond passionate grassroots support. I’ll personally admit that I’ve always preferred the profane sprawl of Deadwood as compared to the subdued tensions of The Wire, though in terms of overall intent and quality the comparison is terribly unfair.
But it is instructive: Everyone’s a star on Deadwood, no one is a star on The Wire. And this, ultimately, may be the show’s trump card. You can’t imagine Deadwood without Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) at its center, but The Wire—with its rotating roster of both weathered character actors and eagerly fresh faces just aching to be spoiled by moral rot—can afford to move between multiple perspectives. Thus are familiar characters from previous seasons—like troubled cop Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) and former Major Crimes lieutenant Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick)—relegated to what amount to walk-on roles in season four, the end result of the collapse of the Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris)/Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) drug operation at the hands of up-and-comer Marlo Stanfield (Jaime Hector).
Marlo is the Major Crimes unit’s new target, but this plot thread is quickly relegated to the narrative back burner when Lester “Follow the Money” Freamon (Clarke Peters), always one to agitate authority, takes advantage of the upcoming electoral primaries to subpoena several powerful political players. The Major Crimes cops are scattered to the wind and this makes room for the season’s emotional focus: a group of middle-school kids—Namond (Julito McCullum), Michael (Tristan Wilds), Randy (Maestro Harrell) and Duquan (Jermaine Crawford)—who find their beliefs and friendships tested over a trying few months (the action of season four takes place from the end of summer to the winter holidays of the same year). Several members of this group have connections to the former Barksdale organization, the remnants of which are attended to, as if out of habit, by low-level drug dealer “Bodie” Broadus (JD Williams), and all of them—at least initially—are taught by former Major Crimes employee turned naïve schoolteacher Roland Pryzbylewski (Jim True-Frost).
As implied by the show’s title, connections emerge between every strata of this society, all the way up to City Hall where Councilman Thomas Carcetti (Aidan Gillen) is running a no-holds-barred mayoral campaign (between bouts of porno mag distraction) against philandering incumbent Clarence V. Royce (Glynn Turman). I risk reducing the power of The Wire by describing it as I have, as if it’s some long-form televisual version of Paul Haggis’s atrocious race drama Crash. But there’s nothing “We-ran-over-a-Chinaman” facile about The Wire’s worldly observations. When Carcetti observes that “Everyday I wake up white in a city that ain’t” or when Pryzbylewski expresses his frustration at the social and economic constraints put on the Baltimore school system neither scene comes off as an inorganic “moment.” David Simon and his writers (who include true crime novelists Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos and Richard Price) aren’t out to change the world; the slippery slope of civilization is already in place on The Wire and Simon is just out to document how each and every person survives. Or doesn’t, as this season quite devastatingly proves.