The Pieces: Season four picks up two major plotlines that began in season three with a pair of rising powers that become the new normal. The first is the ascendance of Marlo and his cohort, who have all but eliminated or co-opted the last of the Barksdale organization and claimed dominion over Baltimore’s west side. This season gives us a deeper look into his crew, his methods, and the changing tide his ascendance brings.
The second is the parallel ascendance of Tommy Carcetti as the new mayor of Baltimore, after a bitter race with incumbent Clarence Royce (Glynn Turman), where the crime problem in the city becomes a major issue. However aspirational his speeches, or transformative his promises, Carcetti’s grand ideas give way to vanity, ambition, and the same institutional drag that slows down everything.
But the sharpest knife twisted into the audience’s side this season is the introduction of four children from a Baltimore middle school – Michael Lee, Dukie Weems, Randy Wagstaff (Maestro Harrell), and Namond Brice (Julito McCullum) – each on different paths, each with different strengths and weak spots, but all of whom show us the tragedy of how deep and how early the problems at the center of The Wire take root.
The King Stays the King: As in every season of this show, there are scores of great performances in each episode. The Wire asks a great deal of the four young actors who make up the season’s main quartet of kids, and each proves more than up to the challenge. Bunny Colvin is still incredible post-Hamsterdam, Bubbles is heartbreaking, and even Wee-Bey delivers a strong emotional moment.
But the quiet MVP of season four is Carver, who takes Bunny’s advice to try to understand the places he’s policing, to get to know the people he’s protecting, and finds that it makes him a better policeman, but also that it still isn’t enough. His arc in this season, and over the course of the show, from hump-in-training to “real police” — one who foolishly trusts his old friend, cares for the kids in that neighborhood, and still finds there’s more to overcome than one good man ever could — is one of the most compelling parts of a wide-ranging season and a wide-ranging series.
A Man Got to Have a Quote: In one short speech, Bodie sums up how futile it feels to be one of those “little bitches on the chessboard,” even and perhaps especially, if you’re one of the last ones standing. “I feel old. I been out there since I was 13. I ain’t never fucked up a count, never stole off a package, never did some shit that I wasn’t told to do. I’ve been straight up. But what come back? You think if I get jammed up on some shit, they be like, ‘Alright, yeah. Bodie been there. Bodie hang tough. We got to his pay lawyer. We got a bail.’ They want me to stand with them, right? Where the fuck they at when they supposed to be standing by us? I mean, when shit goes bad and there’s hell to pay, where they at? This game is rigged, man.”
Pandemic: Season four is unusual in that most of the characters we truly know and care about survive. The hardest losses in this season are spiritual, not physical. For instance, as far as we know, Randy’s foster mother survives a brutal arson attack carried out by Marlo’s goons. But the way these events, and the trickle of compromises that led to them, manage to doom Randy, makes that moment hit harder than a death ever could.
Bodie is the most familiar name in The Wire’s obituary pages for this season, and it’s no small feat that the show turns the man who trained a gun on poor Wallace into a figure of tragedy when he meets his end. But the season’s most devastating death comes from a character the audience barely knew.
One of the smaller subplots in season four is Bubbles trying to escape the beatings and muggings from an unruly addict who regularly abuses him, and also to mentor a young homeless man named Sherrod whom he takes under his wing. Those two endeavors collide in terrible fashion, when Bubbles poisons a vial of heroin meant to neutralize his attacker that ends up killing Sherrod instead. The loss of Sherrod hurts not only for the young life snuffed out by misfortune, but for the effect it has on Bubbles, leaving him broken and suicidal at the realization of what his choices have come to. Bubbles is the heart of this show, and seeing him so guilty, so hurt, so wounded in the aftermath, wounds us too.
This America, man: There’s an odd sense of balance to season four. Carcetti, with his promises of sweeping change, makes it into office, but his grand plans falter or are put on hold when a tangle of other entrenched interests and professional aspirations get in the way. Marlo’s empire becomes firmly established, squeezing out rivals and consuming their leftovers, but Kima, Bunk, and Freamon get a bead on his crew’s execution methods and move closer to disrupting his business. Even Herc rises and falls in equal measure over the course of the season, as the ebb and flow of Baltimore takes center stage.
And yet the fates of those four kids, so full of promise and potential, makes you feel how un-level the playing field is for Michael, Dukie, Randy, and Namond. Whether it’s being torn away from sources of support, dealing with family that pushes you toward a life you’re not made for, having nowhere to turn to about problems at home or having home be the thing that you’re desperate to hold onto, it becomes clear that it would take extraordinary intervention to save these four children, and sometimes even that’s not enough. The only thing harder to take in season four than the paths that these kids are set on is the realization that so many of them, and so many like them, never stood a chance in the first place.
That realization makes this one of the toughest, but also one of the strongest seasons The Wire ever produced.