The Pieces: While seasons one and two were firmly centered around key Baltimore institutions—the Barksdale drug ring and the stevedores’ union—the third season broadens The Wire’s scope by building its third season around the idea of “reform.” One could say City Hall is the season’s true focus, what with the journey of ambitious, reform-minded young buck Tommy Carcetti’s bid for mayor, but these themes extend to pretty much every other corner of the season, too. Stringer Bell (Idris Elba), for example, seeks to reform the drug trade by casting off the “gangsta shit” of yore and running it like a legit business, the hope being that he can then refashion himself into a legitimate businessman. There’s another personal instance of reform as well, with Dennis “Cutty” Wise (Chad Coleman) trying to readjust to life outside prison without retreating to his old, unsavory ways.
The season’s centerpiece, however, is Hamsterdam. Carried out by the Western district’s Major Howard “Bunny” Colvin (Robert Wisdom), Hamsterdam is an experimental (and surreptitious) haven where law enforcement would monitor, but not punish, drug use and prostitution as a means of cordoning off illegality to reduce crime and improve living conditions in other areas of the city while also experimenting with new means of delivering healthcare and community support. Simon has discussed that both Hamsterdam and the the season as a whole was meant to draw parallels between the intrinsic failures of both the Iraq War and the government’s war on drugs. “I mean you call something a war, and pretty soon everyone is going to be running around acting like warriors,” Colvin says near season’s end. “And when you at war, you need a fucking enemy. And pretty soon, damn near everybody on every corner is your fucking enemy. And soon, the neighborhood you’re supposed to be policing, that’s just occupied territory.”
Soldiering and policing, he emphasizes, is the not the same thing.
The King Stays the King: Stringer’s always been a compelling, Machiavellian presence on The Wire, a guy whose capitalistic oiliness is enough to make you identify with a stone cold killer like Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris). Season three is his season, and not just because this is when he’s met with one of the most cathartic kills in the show’s history, but also because it’s so goddamned tragic. Sure, this is the man responsible for the deaths of (relative) innocents like D’Angelo Barksdale (Larry Gilliard, Jr.) and Wallace (Michael B. Jordan), but Stringer’s ambition to be a legit member of the city’s upper crust exudes both a cruelty (towards Avon and the community in which he came up) and a purity (his earnest desire to be a respected, self-made man is relatable to anybody). The thing is, Stringer, too, is swept up in institutions that he can’t control as well as he thinks he can.
“You know the difference between me and you?” Avon tells him. “I bleed red and you bleed green. I look at you these days, String, you know what I see? I see a man without a country. Not hard enough for this right here and maybe, just maybe, not smart enough for them out there.”
In the end, Stringer is betrayed by both his business contacts and Avon, the latter of whom he also betrays by feeding intel to the police. It’s tragic shit, especially once you realize that the pair’s final scene, which finds them reflecting on their youth and how they “ain’t gotta dream no more,” is unfolding with each’s knowledge that they’ve sold out the other.
A Man Got to Have a Quote: In a quote that’s relevant not just in light of the aforementioned scene, but also the series’ insistence that all institutions will inevitably fail you, Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters) memorably scolds McNulty: “A life, Jimmy. You know what that is? It’s the shit that happens while you’re waiting for moments that never come.”
I’d be remiss to not also recall Bunk Moreland’s (Wendell Pierce) most memorable moment of the season, during which he essentially reminds us that Omar isn’t quite the cult hero the show has led us to believe he is. “As rough as that neighborhood could be, we had us a community,” Bunk says of he and Omar’s adjacent upbringing. “Nobody, no victim, who didn’t matter. And now all we got is bodies, and predatory motherfuckers like you. And out where that girl fell, I saw kids acting like Omar, calling you by name, glorifying your ass. Makes me sick, motherfucker, how far we done fell.”
Pandemic: I’ve already touched upon Stringer’s death above, so I’ll take a moment here to touch on not-so-poor Johnny Weeks (Leo Fitzpatrick), the young addict who, in the season’s final episode, serves as a symbol of the horrors of Hamsterdam. In season one, we saw how Bubbles saw Johnny as a protege of sorts, and there’s a touch of tragedy to Bubs’ realization this season that there was no saving the kid from his spiral of addiction. His death was inevitable, but perhaps even more ignoble than anyone would’ve thought.
This America, man: Season three is powerful in a dozen different ways, layering in striking complexities to many of the show’s relationships—Avon/Stringer, McNulty/Kima (Sonja Sohn), Bunk/Omar, Colvin/Carver (Seth Gilliam)—while also making a place for scenery-chewing, larger-than-life characters like Brother Mouzone (Michael Potts) and Proposition Joe (Robert F. Chew). The introduction, too, of Marlo Stanfield and his crew is subtle and affecting in the way it demonstrates the show’s themes of perpetuity while also setting the stage for the next season.
If there’s any place where season three struggles, it’s in embracing the wider ensemble. Bunk, Bubbles, Prez (Jim True-Frost), Rawls (John Doman), and Bodie (J.D. Williams) are mostly reduced to minor players with no real impact on the main story, while the writers struggle for much of the season to make a compelling character out of Carcetti, who doesn’t really come into his own until season four.
Also, that there’s no effort to integrate the relevant stevedores into this season is curious. Sure, that story reached a logical conclusion in season two, but it’s unlike The Wire not to acknowledge the enduring reach of its institutions. It’s understandable that Hamsterdam, Carcetti, and the Avon/Stringer dynamic would dominate the season, but there are times when one wishes we had more subplots to dig into.