The Pieces: When it comes to the insight The Wire seeks to provide into the intersection of a city’s public and subterranean institutions, season one is firmly centered on the drug trade. Det. Jimmy McNulty, fed up with his department’s emphasis on low-level dealers, circumvents the chain of command to ensure a proper investigation is done into the major players—the ephemeral Avon Barksdale and his right-hand, Stringer Bell. This gives way to a ragtag team that’s nevertheless invigorated by the investigation, and the season ends with a major blow dealt to Barksdale’s operation, not the least of which being Barksdale himself in cuffs. Along the way, characters such as stick-up wildcard Omar Little; the queasy, compromised D’Angelo Barksdale; and devoted detective Kima Greggs are swept up in the drama.
The King Stays the King: Season one might be McNulty’s best season; despite Dominic West’s struggles with the Bawlmore accent, he makes us simultaneously love and despise this detective, whose good intentions and breezy demeanor are pretty much the only thing saving him from his drunken, destructive antics and petty grievances.
That said, it’s the drug-slinging pit crew—D’Angelo, Wallace, Bodie, and Malik “Poot” Carr (Tray Chaney)—who not only depict a side of the city that’s rarely explored with such realism on television, but also illustrate one of The Wire’s larger themes, which is that we can’t choose the lives we’re born into. The stark differences between a crafty soldier like Bodie and a sweet, good-natured kid like Wallace (and, to a lesser extent, D’Angelo himself) demonstrates the institutional failures that allow children to wither away in situations and locations that are as inescapable as they are unhealthy.
Kudos also to the Bunk, who burns his clothes after cheating on his wife, terrified that she’ll be able to “smell the pussy” on them. It’s a hilarious, sad sequence that shows us how even the best detectives sometimes can’t remotely function as normal human beings.
A Man Got to Have a Quote: I’d be remiss not to include the quote that starts it all and essentially helps frame the themes not just for this first season, but also the series as a whole. “If Snot Boogie always stole the money, why’d you let him play?” McNulty asks as Snot Boogie’s body lay mere feet away. His friend, giving McNulty a look of disbelief, replies, “Got to. This America, man.”
Season one has a bounty of memorable quotes, however, many of which went on to not only define the show, but also form the superlatives for this very article. “A man must have a code,” Bunk says to Omar in episode seven. Freamon, meanwhile, outlines the general season structure: “We’re building something, here, detective, we’re building it from scratch. All the pieces matter.” Omar also warns Wee-Bey Brice (Hassan Johnson), “You come at the king, you best not miss.”
My personal favorite, however, might be Major Rawls’ stirring, brutally compassionate speech to McNulty after Kima takes two in an undercover sting. “Listen to me, you fuck,” he seethes. “You did a lot of shit here. You played a lot of fucking cards. And you made a lot of fucking people do a lot of fucking things they didn’t want to do. This is true. We both know this is true. You, McNulty, are a gaping asshole. We both know this. Fuck if everybody in CID doesn’t know it. But fuck if I’m gonna stand here and say you did a single fucking thing to get a police shot. You did not do this, you fucking hear me? This is not on you. No it isn’t, asshole. Believe it or not, everything isn’t about you. And the motherfucker saying this, he hates your guts, McNulty. So you know if it was on you, I’d be the son of a bitch to say so. Shit went bad. She took two for the company. That’s the only lesson here.”
Pandemic: This one’s easy, and not just because so few major characters bite it in season one. The death of 16-year old Wallace, a seemingly orphaned slinger who’s just too damn fragile to thrive in the drug game—his only realistic career option in the bubble in which he lives—isn’t just one of the most gutting kills of the season, but also of the entire series. After realizing he’s indirectly responsible for the torture and murder of stick-up boy Brandon Wright (Michael Kevin Darnall), Wallace retreats into a deep depression that causes his cohorts to worry about his loyalty.
As a means of tying up loose ends, Stringer orders the boy killed, and the ones chosen to pull it off are his best friends, Bodie and Poot, who simply have no choice in this situation. That the show prolongs his murder, with Bodie struggling to pull the trigger, Wallace pissing himself, and Poot having to finish the job after Bodie only wounds the kids, makes that much more cruel and effective. Wallace never stood a chance, but nobody deserves to go like that.
This America, man: David Simon and the gang were never assuming they’d get a second season, so this first season has a finality to it that makes for an extremely satisfying piece of television. So perfectly mapped is D’Angelo’s journey—in the end, he’s denied his exoneration and escape from the drug trade after his mother urges him to sacrifice himself for the greater good of the family, with whom he harbors a deep resentment—that you can literally feel the writers scrambling to figure out how to proceed with him at the beginning of season two.
Still, season one can be alienating for new viewers, sometimes up until the sixth episode, when the characters and plotlines have truly begun to kick into high gear. It’s better upon rewatch, when you’re already aware of each character’s role and relationships, but it can be overwhelming to try to connect the myriad threads while also parsing through the local dialect and emphasis on process. The show also hadn’t quite figured out some of its supporting characters; guys like Thomas “Herc” Hauk (Domenick Lombardozzi) and Ellis Carver go on to have deeply satisfying arcs, but here they’re more or less reduced to shortcutting troublemakers. A necessary archetype, sure, they still feel auxiliary.
But season one is powerful because it affords those in the projects the same level of humanity as it does the police, if not more. And while it fashions a compelling crime story, it does so while acknowledging the strictures of red tape and the miscarriages of justice that make being a law enforcer such a frustrating, soul-crushing job. All of these themes would go on to inform the subsequent seasons, but the way they’re distilled here all but guarantees that if the show were canceled it would still be remembered as an important piece of television.