It will probably be “The Wire” forever, no matter what we think right now.
Rob Sheffield wrote in Rolling Stone “After three astounding seasons in a row, one thing is for sure: Mad Men is the greatest TV drama of all time, and it’s not even close.”
My favorite writer Chuck Klosterman wrote on Grantland.com that the best four shows of the modern TV-drama golden age are “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Breaking Bad,” and “Mad Men.” “I’ve slowly coming to the conclusion that Breaking Bad is the best of the four,” Klosterman says, “or at least the one I like the most.”
My opinion on this is strongly held, but I think I can back it up.
The first question to answer is, How do these shows work? I see two types:
1) “Game of Thrones” kills a bunch of main characters and we’re shocked. Then comes the realization that the story rules, and there is no mercy in this dark, painful “Game of Thrones” universe. “Lost” is similar, even if it seemed at the end to be about Jack.
2) “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men,” and “The Sopranos” have this amazing central player we invest in. The main character is fascinating, and from that starting point we meet other characters in his life and become interested in them, too.
“The Wire” fit both these types.
If I had to describe “The Wire” very simply, I guess I would say it’s about every level of the Baltimore drug trade, with multiple interesting characters at each level: young hoppers, corner kids, soldiers, kingpins, beat cops, detectives, captains, lieutenants, deputies of special operations, police commissioners, district attorneys, state legislators, mayor.
I don’t know who the main character is. In fact, the notion of “main character” doesn’t apply. When Dookie walked into that drug alley at the end of the last season, my heart broke. They’d written that poor kid in a way that made me love him. He had friends and adults who cared about him, but his slow descent into a junkie made tragic sense as it was happening.
I felt so strongly about Dookie in that moment, and I don’t think he’s even in my Top 10 of favorite characters on that show. Let’s see: Marlo, Omar, McNulty, Stringer, Bunk, Avon, Michael, Snoop, Bodie. . . . Hmm. . . Maybe he’d make the last spot over Daniels, Herc and Carver (package deal), Bunny, Carcetti, Prop Joe., Sobatka, Sen. Clay “Sheeeit” Davis. But probably not.
Dookie made me want to cry, and he wasn’t even in the Top 15 of best characters.
These guys were awesome. Let’s consider Bunk for a second. These are the two best Bunk scenes:
1) McNulty has to come pick Bunk up from a woman’s house because Bunk’s so drunk he lit his clothes on fire in the woman’s bathtub, setting off a smoke alarm. McNulty finds him sitting on the toilet, snoring, with a cigar in his mouth. He’s wearing a small pink bathrobe and a tie. No shirt. (Bunk’s kinda fat.) “You smell pussy?” he grunts. “Teresa ain’t have, ain’t gonna have shit on The Bunk.” And then: “You gimme that pussy and then you gonna and take muh shoes? Ruh. That ain’t right. Damn.”
2) Bunk passionately tells Omar “I know you remember the neighborhood, how it was. We had some bad boys for real. . . . As rough as that neighborhood could be, we had us a community. Nobody, no victim, who didn’t matter. And now all we got is bodies, and predatory mother fuckers like you. And out where that girl fell I saw kids acting like Omar, calling you by name, glorifying your ass. It makes me sick, mother fucker, how far we done fell.”
Hilarious in one episode, deadly serious in the next. “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” are hilarious and serious, too, but not to this extent. He calls himself “The Bunk.” Then he’s talking about the impact of drugs and guns on children and the community.
Moving on. . . .
It took an intricate plot to weave all these characters together, and everything on “The Wire” fit. In the second season, with the stevedores (dock workers), we watched Sobatka’s cocky son Ziggy getting teased by the other stevedores. Ziggy’s dipping his toe into crime, and that seems relevant as it’s happening. But the teasing (“Love child!”) doesn’t feel important like everything else that’s going on. Then there’s a late-season episode when he gets bullied as he’s selling some stuff he stole. Because of all Ziggy’s been through with the jerks at work, he snaps. He shoots up a warehouse, which becomes a crime scene, which destroys the entire Baltimore Police investigation we’ve been watching Daniels lead that whole time. Which means this, which means that. Every character fits within the chain of crazy events.
You know how we go nuts when main characters get killed? Ziggy shooting up that warehouse felt the same way, even though we barely knew the victims. Ziggy shooting up that warehouse was the story, itself, getting blown up in a totally unforeseen way.
Speaking of main characters getting killed, I think Walt will kill Jesse at the end of “Breaking Bad.” I think this because that is the single meanest, saddest, most dramatically loaded event I can imagine. It’s always been charming how these two guys remained loyal to each other as death and disaster rained down around them. If Walt betrays Jesse, then I’ll understand why they acted that way—so Walt could eventually prove he’s completely gone to the dark side by killing his partner. It would represent the ultimate break. (Maybe not the ultimate. Walt killing his family would be the ultimate. That would be gross, though.)
I’ll have to reevaluate if that happens, but for right now the greatest death scene I ever saw was Stringer Bell getting gunned down by Omar and weird-ass Brother Mouzone.
I think I can even quantify this. I was in college when I saw that episode, in my room on Sunday night (because my roommates didn’t watch “The Wire”). I was sitting in bed with my back propped on a pillow against the wall. When it became apparent Stringer might get killed in that scene, I left the wall and got to the edge of my bed and sat there, leaning forward. Mouth wide open. When the guns fired, I shot up off the bed and said “Oh!” This happened involuntarily. That’s how I know Stringer’s death was the best, even compared to Pussy’s on “The Sopranos,” or Lem’s on “The Shield,” or when Charlie drowned with the message on his hand in “Lost.” None of those was as dramatic and exciting as Stringer’s.
“The Wire” killed its crucial players all the time. This demonstrated the story was king, like in “Game of Thrones,” but it had a bigger emotional punch (“Where’s Wallace, String!?”) because characters were realistic, sympathetic, funny, sad, and (above all) interesting.
You were never going to see Mr. White or Don Draper or Tony Soprano get killed on their shows, but you couldn’t say that about a single character on “The Wire.” Even Omar bought it, eventually.
“The Wire” had an entire season where its top cop, McNulty, basically disappeared. Four middle-school students we hadn’t met before became the most important part of the show. I can’t imagine any other program even considering such a move, and it worked brilliantly.
There are no notes I would make on “The Wire.” Nothing I would change. I was actually working for a great newspaper, The Albuquerque Tribune, during that final season where so much takes place in the Baltimore Sun newsroom. The editors and reporters were all just like me and my coworkers, I thought. The Tribune was put up for sale and there was an entire year-plus when we knew we were gonna close and lose our jobs. And as that was happening, “The Wire” was telling stories about a cash-strapped newsroom getting gutted by buyouts. The newspaper guys on the show kept talking about “Doing more with less.” It was creepy how much I felt like my favorite show was mirroring my real-life work.
I guess I read meaning into the fact that the craziest, most ruthless gangster (Marlo) is alive and free at the end of “The Wire,” while the most proudly gangster gangster (Avon) is in prison and the most business-minded gangsters (Stringer and Prop Joe) are dead. If you really think about that, it’s brilliant and says something deep about life in “the game” that Omar’s always referencing.
But the smart messages and themes are ancillary. “The Wire” was a cops-and-crooks saga where neither side prevailed because “It’s all in the game.” Its Baltimore was a fictional TV-universe chess board where all the pieces had a part to play.
“Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men” are glorious modern classics we will remember for as long as any work of popular fiction can be remembered. But “The Wire” is the best. It has everything.