With The Wire's fifth and final season set to premiere on HBO next month, I don't think I'll get caught up in time to watch it as it airs, but I'm certainly hooked on this show even though I found the second season a little less compelling than the first. My Wire-loving friend assures me that the third and fourth seasons are the best, and I'll certainly be watching them soon (the fourth season is out on DVD this week). As for the second, it seemed to me to lack at times the unified power of the first, with its focus on the drug-dealing operation of Avon Barksdale, both from the cops' and the criminals' perspectives. This season likewise splits its time between the police and the crooks, but while most of the attention is focused on a new set of law-breakers (smugglers working out of Baltimore's docks), Barksdale and his crew still have their own set of storylines, which only rarely coincide with what the rest of the characters are doing.
I also kind of lost interest in their doings once D'Angelo, to my mind the most complex and interesting of the first-season drug-dealer characters, wound up dead. The lower-level functionaries are still sort of interchangeable to me, and while Stringer gets a lot of screen time, I feel like he's a distant and aloof character who's hard to really care about on his own (this is intentional, of course, but without someone interesting to play off of, he seems somewhat adrift). By the finale, it's obvious that Barksdale's crew will once again be central to the plot next season, but otherwise they often seem like they're on an entirely different show. I would have been happy to see them less often as the police focused on a different crew, and still have them come back in at the end.
The lack of focus isn't fatal, though, and I thought the main storyline of the season was a nice contrast to the first season's while still hitting on many of the same themes (the stifling influence of bureaucracy, the often futile nature of police work, the way that economic conditions force otherwise intelligent people into lives of crime). And it showed how these issues in a lot of ways cut across racial and even class lines. There was a certain nobility to the struggle of union boss Frank Sobotka, who only wanted to provide for his employees and his family, and ended up in bed with some very bad people. And I could be wrong, but I think there was more comic relief this season, even if it was rather bittersweet (I found Ziggy completely annoying, but his fate was still heartbreaking).
It was also interesting to see the significant role for Amy Ryan, who's been having a breakout year at the movies thanks to her excellent performance in Ben Affleck's Gone Baby Gone. She plays a small-time port cop who gets caught up in the main characters' big investigation, and in the process gets to blossom into something close to a real detective. It's a nice arc that Ryan handles well; I was disappointed to hear that she doesn't play much of a part in future seasons. The team work of the core characters is one of this show's greatest strengths, and even though it took half the season for them all to end up working together again, it was even more satisfying when it finally came about. And our heroes' occasional small victories against smug, self-serving bureaucrats (Rawls, Burrell and especially this season's main asshole, Valchek) are always very gratifying even if they ultimately accomplish very little.
Small gratifications that accomplish very little are really what this show is all about, how the war between criminals and cops is one of inches. By this season's finale, the crew has accomplished even less than they did the previous year (when they at least got a seven-year sentence for Avon Barksdale), but they've obviously done the most good they can, and that's weirdly uplifting in a show that's about how unavoidably bleak everything is. I'm looking forward to the start of season three, coming soon to my mailbox.