Review: The Wire, Season 4 (Simon, 2006)

Still from the TV show The Wire, Season 4

The Wire is like a French braid, with each season pulling in a new element that further complicates the tangle of inner city problems. Every time you think to yourself, “Why don’t they just…?” the show renders you its cynical answer. The new strand in season 4 is the Baltimore public school system. Though we’re introduced to a handful of new characters–a group of middle school kids who (sometimes) attend Tilghman School in West Baltimore–we also witness the resurrection of Pryzbylewski as idealistic math teacher and Bunny Colvin as liaison between a group of academic researchers and the rough kids they’re trying to reach.

Speaking of idealism, this whole fourth season is so rife with it that you can’t help but feel a sense of dread, waiting for the other shoe to drop. That’s not to say that bad things don’t still happen: Marlo’s murders continue, the usual inanities abound in the police department, the politics of politics still enrage. But you’ve never seen a happier McNulty–sober, monogamous, cheerful, indifferent to the ills around him, and blissfully content in his new relationship with Beadie (the port officer from season 2). And, with the mayoral race between incumbent Clarence Royce (Glynn Turman), White Knight Carcetti (from season 3), and Councilman Tony Gray (Christopher Mann) heating up, a sea change seems to be brewing for Baltimore.

The picture for the schools is decidedly more mixed. Prez finally gets his feet beneath him as a teacher in a rough inner city school and succeeds in making connections with some of his kids, but his positive influence is necessarily limited. Bunny, too, makes inroads with his cluster of troubled youth, some more lasting than others. But if every cloud has a silver lining, every opportunity for success is also circumscribed by a strong drive toward inertia, the status quo, even failure. In seasons one to three we see the kind of men (and, with only a few exceptions, they do all seem to be men) who make it on the corners. In season 4 we get a glimpse of how those men become who they are, mostly through a failure of “the system,” our government, our society. Still, is there not an element of resolute hopefulness to the show? Despite his “realism,” David Simon must also be wearily optimistic, else the series would never have been made. And one does get the sense from watching that lives could be changed, if the system could, if incentives could, if decision-makers and not just mavericks had more wisdom, sense, and courage. Does it present a challenge then to us, the audience, to make that change happen? No, such a call is not explicit and resides mostly within the souls of the viewers. Still, in this season more than in any other so far, The Wire holds a question, a wondering, “what if?”

From a narrative perspective, season 4 feels like a bridge between the finality of season 3 and the great unknown future. With Barksdale and Bell gone, where were we to go in the show? A new chapter, of course, because a leadership vacuum must be filled, and perhaps it would be filled with something worse: Marlo Stanfield. Unchecked, Marlo’s crew does run rampant. But not, it would seem, forever. That story line, however, does not conclude in this season. Also, I mentioned the optimism earlier, the feeling of waiting for the other shoe to drop. If the show allows you for once to feel that some things do go right, good people and good work do get rewarded, as a savvy viewer you also know that this good will must be paid for somehow: i.e., the flip side of karma. But that feeling of happy unease also does not resolve in season 4. For everything must wait until the next and final season.

Note: Some people have told me that season 4 was their favorite. “The kids! How could you not love the kids?” I did indeed get attached, their personal lives seeming so much more compelling, less incidental, than the adults’. But, to me, season 3 is still the pinnacle. Perhaps because it felt more cohesive. Season 4 is a little scattershot, traversing too much territory trying to keep up with the street, the politics, the police, the schools, the children. That is the trouble, I suppose, for casting so wide a net, for rendering so complex a system. Still, maybe season 4 is second best? We’ll see.

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