[Warning: Major spoilers ahead for The Wire, Season Four. If you haven't seen the season in full yet, please click here instead.]
“A man got to have a code” —Omar
If there’s a single line that reverberated through nearly every storyline in the fourth—and in my view, the best—season of The Wire, it’s that one, and there’s no small irony in the fact that it’s uttered by a hood so feared in the streets that he’s practically an urban legend. Granted, that bit of wisdom stems from self-interest: Framed by Marlo’s crew for the murder of an innocent deliverywoman at a convenience store, Omar stirs Bunk’s conscience to follow through on what he already knows—that the bodies of many can be linked to Omar, but not this one, because there’s a line that he will not cross and Bunk knows it. In return for his release, Bunk makes it clear to Omar that he doesn’t want to see any more bodies from him, and so far Omar has proven to be a man of his word, though it helps that the mere threat of his shotgun is enough to get the job done. “A man got to have a code” because in the absence of codes, there’s a breakdown of order and justice, and chaos reigns supreme.
Somewhere in middle of watching Season Four, I caught up with Babel, the latest multi-story, achronological, everything-is-connected melodrama from director Alejandro González Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, the team responsible for the similar Amores Perros and 21 Grams. Though filled with some strong individual sequences and performances, the film’s butterfly-flaps-its-wings connectedness struck me as writerly bullshit, especially in light of The Wire. An American gets hit by a stray bullet from a gun fired by a Moroccan villager, which strands she and her husband overseas long enough to where her kids join their Mexican housekeeper for an ill-fated odyssey across the border—stories which are thinly tethered to the adventures of a deaf-mute in Tokyo whose father was the gun’s original owner. Each of these four tales are supposed to demonstrate the cross-continental resonance of violence and miscommunication, I suppose, but the cause-and-effect is so thin and facile that you’re left to appreciate (or not) the individual elements more than how they add up to a whole.
Contrast that with The Wire, in which actions taken by those without a code have a ripple effect that consume characters with only a tangential relation to them. Take Bodie. (And who ever would have believed that the fate of a drug-slinging punk would be so devastating?) As the season takes form, Bodie has reason to resent Marlo, who swallowed the corners after Avon want to jail. But Bodie’s essentially a grinder, willing to put his head down and go about his business, just like any other businessman riding out a fallow period. The sequence of events that leads to his downfall could not have been foreseen: “Lil’ Kevin,” a young member of his crew, gets picked up in a standard corner raid and is brought in for questioning over a missing persons case. The kid insists that he kept his mouth shut—and there’s every reason to believe that he’s telling the truth—yet the mere possibility that Marlo, the man responsible for that missing body, may have a snitch on his hands leads him to order Kevin killed and shuffled into one of the many boarded-up “tombs” in abandoned buildings around the city. The combination of Kevin’s murder (which calls to mind his poor friend Wallace’s unjust end) and the discovery of the tombs basically seals Bodie’s fate: Even street hoods like him have a code, Marlo has flagrantly violated that code, and Bodie takes steps to put a stop to it. Had that butterball Kevin been fast enough to scurry like the other corner kids, it wouldn’t have happened.
(As a side note, I’d say that one of the great things about The Wire is that information planted many episodes or even seasons before can pay off down the line. You could argue that the seeds of Bodie’s destruction were planted way back when he and Poot carried out an order to have their best friend Wallace killed.)
Time and time again in Season Four, the actions of the codeless lead either directly to injustice or trigger a chain reaction that does the same. If Herc doesn’t catch Royce with his pants down, what happens to Randy or Bubbs, who are both screwed by his dishonor and/or bullheaded stupidity? If administrations past hadn’t left him with a crippling $50 million school debt, would Carcetti have been so quick to forfeit his ideals for a shot at the governorship? God knows how many kids are going to be adversely affected by his political ambitions. Time will tell how long his initiative to change the stat-juking culture of Baltimore’s finest will last when the crime numbers spike. (And that’s not even dismissing Carcetti as a man without principle. There are several characters whose personal integrity cause them to get kicked around again and again—Freamon or Daniels or Colvin, say—but other well-meaning-but-flawed types like Carcetti want to do good things, but their hands are tied.)
Of course, the King of the codeless is Marlo, who’s probably the most dangerous character the show has ever had—as ruthless and unprincipled as Stringer Bell, but a figure of chilling opacity. He’s capable of destroying many lives because he’s interested only in protecting his livelihood; it’ll be interesting to see how things play out next season, because I’m guessing that Marlo is the sort to sell out even those most loyal to him (Chris, say) if it means saving his neck. It’ll also be interesting to see how the reunited (woo-hoo!) Major Crimes Unit will be able to snare this highly evolved criminal, who doesn’t use cell phones and who hid the bodies of his rivals in tombs (rather than making a statement in full view) to keep from drawing attention to himself. Somehow, Marlo must know the homicide unit is run by stat-jukers like Sergeant Landsman, who really isn’t interested in knowing about murders that aren’t in plain view.
With Marlo running the show, there’s no honor in the streets, which of course makes them extra treacherous, even for four middle-school buddies who would rather stay out of harm’s way. The deterioration of their friendship and lives—expect for Namond, who was ironically the one most prone to troublemaking, even if it was all empty braggadocio—is what made this the most wrenching season to date. To me, their loss of innocence is exemplified by a pair of rhyming incidents from the beginning and the end of the season: In the first, the four boys put their heads together to come up with a prankish response to neighborhood bullies; though it backfires, their inventive solution is to create water balloons out of urine. Later on, they plot again to respond to that rogue beat cop who’s been terrorizing them, only this time the solution involves sticking him up at gunpoint in an alleyway, which raises the stakes considerably. Earlier in the season, they’d have probably let the air out of his tires or something; here, the response is much graver.
I could go on and on about my favorite moments this season: Freamon wordlessly discovering the “tombs”; Bodie’s defiant will to get killed out in the open rather than get shuffled into the vacants; Prez’s successful attempt to reach out to Dukie and his equally moving (but unsuccessful) attempt to do the same for Michael; Cutty’s complete understanding of how a crew operates after he gets shot in the leg and shoos Michael away; and of course any scene involving that iconic anti-hero Omar, who administered his own sort of justice while MCU was in disarray.
After Season One, I remember marveling at how The Wire was like watching a great novel unfold over 13 episodes—so many richly detailed characters, such a fine understanding of how detective units and drug crews operate. I could not have guessed that what appeared to be a self-contained story would be merely a chapter in a novel that just keeps expanding every season, adding equally credible and fascinating peeks into many different aspects of urban life, from City Hall politics to blue-collar unions to the horribly dysfunctional school system. I’m curious to see how the creators will work in the media next season, given that journalists tend to observe more than act, but I don’t doubt that I’m in good hands.
What did the rest of you Wire-lovers think of Season Four? Any observations? Favorite moments?
(Incidentally, I got my weekly fix of Wire commentary from “What’s Alan Watching?,” a site operated by Alan Sepinwall, an exceptionally insightful critic for New Jersey’s Star-Ledger. Check out the archives for a more trenchant analysis of the show than anything you read above.)