As I'm already more than halfway through the disappointing fifth and final season of The Wire, the strength and complexity of the excellent fourth season (as well as many of its satisfying plot developments) are starting to fade, but even the subsequent missteps can't taint the quality of what is easily the show's best set of episodes. I started watching The Wire because of the critical mass of praise, both from professionals and from friends, and it's mostly lived up to expectations. After being disappointed with certain elements of the third season (in particular, the storyline about drug-dealing free zone Hamsterdam), I came into the fourth season a little skeptical, but it quickly won me over with one of the most detailed and heartbreaking portrayals of a corrupt institution that the show has ever produced.
City hall, the drug trade, the ports and even to some extent the police force have gotten off lightly compared to the skewering handed to the school system during this season, but as mind-numbing as it could be it was always crushingly real, the potential of a handful of bright kids petering out right before your eyes as teachers, administrators and politicians stood by, helpless to stop it. Yet in its own way this was the show's most optimistic season: Pryzbylewski, after ending his law-enforcement career in disgrace last year, redeemed himself as a teacher, starting out in over his head but soon reaching his students in a meaningful way. Bunny Colvin, the well-meaning architect of Hamsterdam, teamed up with an equally well-meaning but non-street-savvy academic to start a successful program for kids seemingly lost to a life of crime. It got shut down by the end of the season, but in the meantime it effected real change in the lives of a handful of kids.
Tommy Carcetti, a fearsome combination of political know-how and genuine empathy, got elected mayor, and by the end of the season I would have been happy to vote the guy president. McNulty, glimpsed only briefly in most episodes and not at all in some, found peace as a beat officer not concerned with the knotty politics of high-level police work. Daniels finally got some recognition for his stellar command skills with a number of swift promotions. Boxing trainer Cutty, out of place in season three, became an important beacon of hope for the crime-infested neighborhood. Sure, not everything ended well for everyone (especially drug addict Bubbles, and three of the four school-age characters introduced at the beginning of the season), but there was a sense that something was going right somewhere, that not everything was unrelentingly bleak. Yet even with such guarded optimism, nothing during the season felt as unrealistic to me as Hamsterdam.
I know from watching part of season five that many of these positive developments are quickly undone, but that doesn't change the way that this season was probably more satisfying as a complete story than any other. In painting a detailed portrait of a modern American city, creators David Simon and Ed Burns tend toward the pessimistic, but here they never forgot to show the small rays of hope. Even a character like Namond, with a drug-hustling father in jail and a mother who is perhaps the worst parent of all time (constantly berating him to quit school, start dealing drugs and become more violent), can escape the streets thanks to a combination of willpower, education, luck and a helping hand (from Bunny Colvin). His success story, of course, is contrasted with that of his friend Randy, another smart kid who, thanks to a combination of bad luck, mistakes and an indifferent system, ends up irrevocably lost to the streets (as we see even clearer in season five). It's that level of nuance and empathy, combined with cynical realism, that makes this season the show's clear zenith.
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