Review: ‘The Wire’ closes the case on Season 1

About a week ago I finished watching season 1 of The Wire and what a journey it was. Never before had I watched a show with such depth and complexity. As promised (oh so long ago) I have a review of the final 6 episodes of the season coming right up. Naturally spoilers follow.

“What the f*** did I do?” – McNulty

What indeed Jimmy.

The advantage of the more measured pace of the first 7 episodes of The Wire, means this back half can easily begin to pay off all the plotlines in a very satisfying way. Every action that the characters performed over the season came into play in these final episodes.

David Simon often referred to The Wire as a greek tragedy and based on the way this season ended I believe that statement to be true. This season saw the characters try to either break out of their current situation, only to be pulled back in (Wallace) or try to change the system they had become disillusioned to (McNulty). Both to varying degrees of success and failure.

Throughout the season we watched the detectives struggle to make a meaningful case against Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) all while fighting against the brass of the Baltimore PD who just wanted the case to go away. It truly felt like no one wanted these cops to make this case the right way. They would rather bust Avon on small drug charges than on his more complex crimes. Our detectives constantly battled a bureaucracy that sought to undercut them at every turn.

This push back lead to a very satisfying character arc for Lt. Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick). Daniels began the show as the company man who was only in it to please the brass and get promoted but as the season wore on. But by the end of the season he developed into a man who was much more concerned with doing good police work than getting a promotion.

The investigation culminates with Avon and several of his crew members getting put away for varying amounts of time. The brass sees this as a huge win but naturally none of the members of the detail are 100% pleased with the outcome. After the guilty are charged and led away, McNulty utters his signature line that I quoted above.

James McNulty started this crusade as a way to show others that he was better than them. In the end, it became more than that for him and the others in the detail. They got their man, maybe not dead to rights, but they got him. But for what? Did removing Avon Barksdale from the street really change anything? Not really. As we see at the end of the season finale, the drug trade continues unabated with Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) now running Avon’s operation. One Kingpin may be gone but others simply rise to fill the void.

That to me, is the message of The Wire. That real, meaningful change is hard and it seldom happens in the manner that we would like. That to change oneself is no easy task and more often than not we fail and settle back into what we know. The characters on The Wire (especially those in the drug trade) are a product of their surroundings. Born into a life that they cannot escape.

Ultimately what I have taken from this season is that despite the patterns we find ourselves trapped in or the bureaucracies that hinder our progress, there must be people who are willing to challenge the way things are and do what is right instead of what is easy. I believe that is a mantle that we are all capable of carrying.

What a masterpiece of a show. Onto season 2.

Some additional thoughts:

  • I somehow made it through the review without really talking about D’Angelo (Lawrence Gillard Jr.), who served as the audience entry point to Avon’s crew. Gillard’s performance was nothing short of heart breaking. After the death of Wallace, Dee is at his breaking point and he just wants it to stop. Tragically, right after he makes a deal to testify against his uncle his mother ropes him back in. Once again showing how hard it is for these characters to escape the lives they find themselves in.
  • What a performance a young Michael B. Jordan gave as Wallace! His arc was again an instance of a character trapped by (or maybe unwilling to leave) their current circumstances which (naturally) ended in tragedy.
  • I could spend hours praising every one of the actors on this show and talk about every plot point or character beat that was paid off but that would take so much time. Trust me when I say it’s all amazing.

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