The Wire: Season Four Movie Review

By the end of season three of The Wire -- aka HBO's best excuse for staying on the air -- one could sense that the show had, in some sense of the word, come to an end. It was certainly clear for a time that HBO executives thought so, having come close to canceling the multifaceted, frighteningly addictive urban drama yet again, as it never pulled anywhere near the kind of ratings that their warhorses like The Sopranos and Sex and the City had. Although plenty of strings were left dangling at the conclusion of episode 37, "Mission Accomplished," a chapter had been definitively closed, with Avon Barksdale back in jail, and his brainy partner Stringer Belle gunned down. Since the two of them had been the impressive foils to the strung-out cops in the Baltimore Major Crimes Unit, their departure seemed to leave a vacuum. With nobody of real consequence running the West Baltimore drug trade (the Barksdales' chief rival and replacement, Marlo Stanfield, seems at first nothing more than some punk kid), what would be left that was worth watching?

More than enough, it turns out.

Every season of The Wire has a theme undergirding and propelling the drama, and the fourth time out, co-creators David Simon and Ed Burns (veterans of the city's newspaper and police department, respectively) picked a hell of a one: schools. Into the space left by the decrease in serious, long-term crime investigation that had been a hallmark of previous seasons and indeed gave the show its name -- political game-playing gets the Major Crimes Unit essentially disbanded -- the show slots in a whole new batch of new characters without losing them in the mix (an impressive achievement, given that there were already easily some 30 characters of note before season four even began). While at first the quartet of junior-high kids introduced in the first episode seem like a charismatic and interesting group, it takes a number of episodes for their relevance to the primary drama to become horribly clear. In the meantime, we watch the boys -- wannabe gangster Namond (Julito McCullum), too-old-for-his-age Michael Lee (Tristan Wilds), easygoing joker Randy Wagstaff (Maestro Harrell), and sweet-hearted but lost Dukie Weems (Jermaine Crawford) -- get marched into the meatgrinder that is Tilghman Middle School, and start being chewed up by a deadly combination of the drug game and school bureaucracy. After seeing what happens to them, the fact that this season has been so praised for its realism by educators experienced in schools like this, should keep the whole country up with nightmares.

As The Wire is ultimately a novelistic portrayal of the modern American city, it must look long and hard at the calcified and craven bureaucracies that run them. Previous seasons have focused on the political machinery that took in bribes and favors and spit out empty rhetoric, and its close partner, the police department, with its politician-favored emphasis on the stats game, racking up huge numbers of meaningless low-level drug arrests while neighborhoods continue to crumble. The number-loving bureaucracy gets another thumping this time out, as "Bunny" Colvin (Robert Wisdom), the maverick police major who got bounced after his radical drug enforcement strategy came to light (in short: legalize drugs in certain parts of the city to lower violence), shows up at Tilghman to institute some radical education theories. By the end, the series has used Colvin's pugnacious wisdom to effectively knock down the sacred cows of "No Child Left Behind" rhetoric just as he had exposed the ineffective hypocrisy of the War on Drugs in season three.

The world of Baltimore in season four initially seems more receptive to change than it had in the past, with reform coming in the form of mayoral candidate Tommy Carcetti. He's played by Aidan Gillen as a nervy bundle of high-wire energy and cynical humor ("Every day I wake up white in a city that ain't.") who seems always on the verge of catastrophic implosion, given his schizoid personality that's about three-fourths smooth-talking B.S. and a quarter inspirational truth. But the numbers -- whether budgets, homicide clearance rates, drug profits, test scores, research data, or "social promotion" figures -- have a way of impeding any meaningful change. Nothing quite works out the way it's supposed to, and definitely not the way either the characters or viewers want it to.

This time out, the rule on the street is the law of unintended consequences, in all its painful manifestations. Although the first half-dozen episodes or so play as equivalent to those from earlier seasons (only without the Major Crimes Unit there to push the cops-and-robbers aspect as much as it had previously), after that The Wire enters some fairly unknown territory as character after character is faced with the eye-opening realization that an action of theirs has boomeranged around in an entirely unexpected fashion, and tragedy (a fire-bombing, a street-corner assassination, a fatal overdose, and a suicide attempt all come in rapid succession) is the result. Even as the crack staff of writers keeps riffing on the gloriously jazzy human relationships that are at the series' core -- this remains one of the most profanely funny shows on the air, despite its unfair reputation for dourness -- they have to return to the deadly reality of the Baltimore streets time and again, building to a final pair of episodes that are nothing short of emotionally devastating.

The Wire is a show that builds up your heart, even as it's breaking it.

HBO's DVD set of the show is much the same as previous seasons, with a couple of making-of documentaries and audio commentaries from either the creators or scattered cast members on every third episode or so. Although the packaging is less elaborate than before (it's now done as a slipcase with four thin cases each holding one disc, as opposed to one case that folded out rather elegantly in multiple stages), this is the rare show where the commentaries are well worth a listen, giving one an inkling of the massive preparation and history that lies behind practically every scene.


Cast & Crew

Director : , Christine Moore, Seith Mann, , David Platt, Dan Attias, Anthony Hemingway, , Alex Zakrzewski, ,

Producer : David Simon, Karen L. Thompson, Simon Egleton, Leslie Jacobowitz,


The Wire: Season Four Rating

" Essential "

Rating: NR, 2005


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