Review: The Wire, Season 3 (Simon, 2004)
Coming off the weaker season 2, season 3 feels as though it will be impossible to top. It opens with the demolition of the Franklin Terrace towers, which were the Barksdale crew’s prize drug-dealing real estate. Stringer Bell, however, is not worried, not since he’s turned his sights from running corners to selling high-quality dope (through his partnership with Proposition Joe) wherever fiends will buy it. (What I don’t understand is, with the dearth of places to sell, why Prop Joe would bother wholesaling to Bell when he could just sell it all himself and keep more of the profit. Not enough man power? If that’s the case, why was territory ever an issue worth fighting for? The series never clarifies, so I have to take it on faith that Bell’s classroom economics make sense here. Even so, Bell never seems able to convince his partner Barksdale.) Meanwhile, McNulty and Greggs defy Lieutenant Daniels by continuing their investigation of Stringer Bell, despite the unit’s mandate to focus on violent crimes. But when Avon is paroled and released, the gang war he wages against the young upstart dealer Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector) leaves enough bodies to convince the reluctant Daniels that Barksdale/Bell is still a target worth pursuing.
Season 3 also further exposes us to police leadership and its nexus with city politics. In the midst of a dramatic surge in murders, we watch as Baltimore’s own White Knight, the reform-minded, crime-obsessed councilman Tommy Carcetti (Aidan Gillen, more recently known for his role as Littlefinger in Game of Thrones) puts pressure on the mayor to do more for the city’s citizens. The refreshing part is that, despite his ambition and personal flaws, Carcetti actually seems sincere. Also sincere is Major Bunny Colvin (Robert Wisdom), the fed up Western District Commander who, close to retirement, deploys an ingenious if politically misguided program to rid his patrol area of crime, a project nicknamed “Hamsterdam.”
In classic Wire fashion, the depiction of how the political makers and shakers influence the police leadership, who in turn direct what happens on the street, is both fascinating and frustrating. But the most compelling component of season 3 is the story line of one individual: Stringer Bell. Throughout the series we have seen him transition from Barksdale’s trusted lieutenant to effective head of the crew, but Bell has never been content to be just a street leader. His is a Gatsby-esque ambition, complete with grand visions of real wealth, legitimate power, class ascension. His desire is like a second self, a dog chomping at the bit, a quality that defines, defies, and finally consumes him. There is a moment when McNulty and Bunk enter Bell’s immaculate, tastefully decorated apartment where the two working class detectives seem visibly awed by their nemesis. McNulty, reaching for Stringer’s copy of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, muses wonderingly, “Who have we been chasing?” Evidently not someone who fits their image of a gangster. And yet, despite Bell’s business-like patina, his smooth cool-headedness against Barksdale’s passion and bloodthirstiness, the gangster in him is merely buried, not destroyed. We see this demonstrated in his rash reaction to getting played by the greasy State Senator Clay Davis: immediately he wants to order a hit on the politician, and it is Barksdale who (not without some amusement) must talk him down.
Stringer’s transformation is ultimately and necessarily incomplete: he is impatient in his need, and he is greedy, ruthless, sometimes sloppy. In this season, his secrets unravel, and he is a man chased by his own mistakes. Still, there is a beauty and pathos in witnessing his want, something we recognize as courage even while we stand apart from it, superior and judging.