Most avid television viewers can rattle off a list of their favorite shows. Many of us can take that list and narrow it down to a few classic shows that will stand the test of time to us. Then, there’s that next layer of obsessives who take things a little bit further and examine their favorite seasons of a show. What makes a single season of a series stand out? That’s exactly what we’re going to look at in this new series, “Standout Seasons.” This week, Bryan O’Donnell looks at The Wire Season 4, which he believes is one of the best seasons of television of all time.
The Wire Season 4 draws you in with characters you want to root for, and then Season 4 of The Wire breaks your heart.
I have written before that The Wire is probably my favorite television series. The combination of realism, complicated characters, and intricate storylines make it an enthralling piece of art. Each season focused on a different issue faced by the citizens of Baltimore. Season 4 focused on the school system and on how easy it is for kids in inner cities to fall through the cracks.
A group of middle school kids are the stars of Season 4: Duquan “Dukie” Weems (Jermaine Crawford), Namond Brice (Julito McCullum), Randy Wagstaff (Maestro Harrell), and Michael Lee (Tristan Mack Wilds). Co-creator Ed Burns’s background as a policeman for 20 years and a teacher in Baltimore for seven helped add an unmatched piece of authenticity to the season.
The Wire Season 4 focuses on three areas: the Baltimore school system, Marlo Stanfield’s fight to gain power and the police trying to pin him down, and Tommy Carcetti running for mayor. The three areas see a ton of overlap, with some storylines touching all three.
This is one of the best seasons of television ever made.
The Stoop Versus the Corner
Two characters who were police in previous seasons of The Wire play key roles in the education storyline of Season 4. Roland Pryzbylewski (Jim True-Frost), who was never truly comfortable—or good at—being police, has become a middle school teacher. Bunny Colvin (Robert Wisdom), after his failed “Hamsterdam” project in Season 3, joins up with a University of Maryland researcher to study repeat offenders.
Researcher Dr. David Parenti originally wants to focus on 18-to-21-year-olds, but Bunny convinces him that middle-school-age kids would be more effective. By the time these kids are 18–21, there’s likely nothing they’d be able to do to bring a positive change. At middle-school age, there’s still a chance.
Bunny notes that kids at this age can be described as either a “stoop kid” or “corner kid.” The stoop kids stay on their front porch when their parents tell them to. Corner kids end up on the street, slinging, turning to drugs, and being exposed to violence.
Bunny suggests separating the corner kids from the stoop kids while in class. The corner kids can’t sit still in the classroom, but the others can and do. When all together, the corner kids provide a great distraction, preventing anyone from learning. “So you pretend to teach all these kids, and the truth is you ain’t teaching any of them. But what if the stoop kids could be in classrooms where there was no disruptions?” Bunny says.
His proposal is eventually approved, and it has a positive effect on both sets of kids.
At the beginning of Season 4, Dukie, Randy, Namond, and Michael are just kids. They’re friends that all have their own issues at home, in school, and on the corners. By the end of the season, their lives have all diverged in very different, mainly depressing, directions.
The four friends are all in Mr. Pryzbylewski’s math class. “Mr. Prezbo” (as they call him) is in way over his head at first. His students don’t listen, and they’re openly defiant. In Episode 3, a girl in class slices the face of another girl, blood spilling everywhere, and Mr. Prezbo freezes. This is one of the many tragic moments of the Season 4 school scenes. The kicker is when Dukie brings over a small handheld fan and offers it to the girl who committed the attack. She lives in a group home and was often picked on. Dukie is relating to her, trying to comfort her. Such a touching moment.
I love Prez’s story arc in this season. He goes from a deer in the headlights to a competent educator—someone who truly cares for the kids. He rightly pushes back against the requirement to teach to the standardized tests, quickly realizing that feeding the test questions to the students does nothing to help them. It’s done simply to help make the teachers’ numbers look better. Just another one of those head-shaking moments of The Wire Season 4.
Namond is eventually identified as one of the “corner kids” and is admitted into Bunny’s research project. As the son of Wee-Bey (who was one of Avon Barksdale’s top soldiers and is now in prison), Namond has grown up in the shadow of his father’s life on the streets. He works the corner, even though it’s not really in his nature. His mother pushes him to slinging, making him acquire a package so he can provide for the family. But that’s not him. Later in the season, when Dennis “Cutty” Wise (Chad Coleman) and Ellis Carver (Seth Gilliam) are discussing Namond, Cutty says, “Same blood but not the same heart” when comparing Namond to Wee-Bey.
Namond actually responds well to Bunny’s program, and the two eventually form a bond. But even though it’s clear to Bunny that Namond has the potential to thrive away from the corner, it’s still painful to watch how unadjusted he is to life in that setting. In one of the most memorable scenes in Season 4 of The Wire, Bunny takes Namond and two other classmates out to a steak dinner for winning a classroom competition. The corner students don’t know how to function in this world. They don’t want the hostess to take their coats. They tuck their napkins into their shirt collars. They’re overwhelmed by the waitress listing the specials. This scene makes me so sad.
“How do you get them to believe in themselves if they can’t even admit their feelings about who they are and what they doing in this world?” Bunny wonders. “They not fools. They know exactly where we expect them to be.” These kids have been preparing themselves to live on the corner. They think it’s likely they won’t even be alive in the next 10 years. It’s crushing to see the lack of hope in these kids.
Ultimately, Bunny’s program is shut down due to budget shortfalls in the education system. He can’t help but be frustrated. “We pretended to teach them, they pretended to learn, and where did they end up? Same damn corners. I mean, they’re not fools, these kids. They don’t know our world, but they know their own…they see right through us.”
But on the positive side, Bunny was able to make a huge difference in Namond’s life. Of the four middle-school main characters, Namond is the only one to have a “happy” ending in The Wire Season 4—even though this ending involves having his mother disown him, as she would rather see him spend time in jail to teach him a lesson than bail him out. Bunny steps in and opens his home—with Wee-Bey’s blessing—to Namond. I like to take this positive resolution and hold on tight to it because many other characters suffer much worse fates this season.
The Biggest Downers
It’s difficult to choose who suffers the worst fate in The Wire Season 4, but I think I’d have to go with Randy Wagstaff. Living with his foster mom, Randy has the most stable home life of his group of friends. She cares about where he is and what he’s doing. The same cannot be said for Michael or Dukie, that’s for sure.
Randy is a hard worker with an infectious smile. He wants to own his own store when he grows up. But he also makes some questionable decisions and runs into some catastrophically bad luck.
In Episode 1, while Randy is selling candy on the street, a member of Bodie’s crew, Little Kevin, tells Randy to tell Lex to meet with Patrice at a playground later that night. Thinking little of it, Randy delivers the message, not realizing this small act would cause such terrible repercussions for him down the line. He learns that this message led to Lex’s murder, and as you can imagine, this is traumatic for Randy. He may get in the occasional trouble, but Randy is certainly not comfortable with murder.
Once confronted with potential suspension for being the lookout while a girl classmate was sexually assaulted in the bathroom, Randy offers up his knowledge of a murder to help stay out of trouble. But really it seemed like Randy was looking for any excuse to tell someone about this terrible secret just to get it off his chest. This sets off a chain reaction that loops in Mr. Prezbo, Carver, Bunk, and Herc. These adults fail miserably to protect Randy. Herc forgets to tell Bunk about Randy’s story and then later he tips off Little Kevin that Randy has spoken to the police. (I’m a huge fan of Domenick Lombardozzi and his portrayal of Herc, but man does he screw over Randy this season.) Word of Randy’s knowledge of the Lex murder then reaches Marlo, and he is labeled as a snitch.
After Randy’s foster home is burned to the ground, Carver tries to make things right, but Randy is sent back to a group home. In a “Where’s Wallace”-type moment, Randy repeats to Carver: “You gonna help, huh? You gonna look out for me? You gonna look out for me, Sgt. Carver? You got my back huh?”
Randy’s fate, ultimately being beaten within his new group home, kills me every time I watch Season 4. But really, this is what makes The Wire so unique. Sometimes in life, there isn’t a happy ending, and The Wire reminds us of this reality, often with a punch in the gut.
A close second Most Depressing story resolution goes to Dukie. Constantly picked on and harassed throughout the season, Dukie never really has much going for him. Mr. Prezbo tries his hardest to help by providing food, clothes, and access to the locker room showers before school, but it’s not enough.
He’s clearly a bright kid. Dukie takes an interest in the class computer, impressing the other students (and Mr. Prezbo) with his knowledge. But at the end of the day, Dukie just doesn’t have enough of a support system. His mom gets evicted. He gets skipped ahead to high school, but he’s not ready yet. With no one to guide him, he drops out of school and starts slinging to survive. It’s devastating to see Dukie’s fate (and it gets worse in Season 5). He deserves better. He’s a good, smart kid. But with basically no parents, no money, and no one able to reach down and save him, this is probably something that happens all too often. And that is painful.
Bubbles Hits the Bottom
Bubbles (Andre Royo) experiences a lot of ups and downs in The Wire (mostly downs in the first four seasons), but Season 4 is especially hard on him. Bubbles is sharing an abandoned garage with the boy Sherrod, while during the day pushing a shopping cart (called “Bubble’s Depo”) through the streets of Baltimore, selling goods.
Bubbles, who is still using drugs, decides to get Sherrod enrolled in school as he can’t trust him to handle money on his own. Bubbles brings him to the middle school and the look on his face when he sees Prez is priceless. He thinks he’s undercover.
He tells Assistant Principal Donnelly that he is Sherrod’s uncle, and Sherrod is placed in Mr. Prezbo’s class. Sadly, he quickly realizes he doesn’t belong in school. He’s missed the last three years, but he’s been “socially promoted” to a grade with kids his age even though his comprehension skills are at a much lower level. Ms. Donnelly says the school doesn’t have the resources to keep him behind, and it wouldn’t be fair to the teachers. It isn’t fair, that’s for sure.
With Sherrod continually ditching school, the two have a falling out. During this period, Bubbles is robbed and beaten repeatedly by the same man. He goes to Kima (Sonja Sohn) for help, but she’s working in Homicide now instead of Major Crimes. “So you could help me if this guy kills me,” he says to her. Kima unfortunately passes Bubbles along to Herc, who proceeds to let him down in a major way. Herc breaks promises and abandons Bubbles when he’s needed to deal with the thief. In this season, Herc is only concerned about covering his own ass, and in the process, he practically destroys two lives (Randy and Bubbles).
Faced with no other options, Bubbles decides to poison the thief. He scores some cyanide and mixes it into a red top. Right around this time, Sherrod returns, and Bubbles is delighted. He has a plan to get rid of the thief, and his friend is back. Things are looking up for Bubbles. But then he wakes the next morning to find that Sherrod has dipped into Bubbles’s pocket and shot up with the poison. Bubbles wails with despair, and it’s impossible not to feel that despair right along with him.
The incident leads to Bubbles turning himself in to the police and then attempting suicide in an interrogation room. He survives, but he doesn’t want to live. Or as he cries to his sponsor Walon (Steve Earle) at the end of the season, “I don’t want to feel nothing!”
Utterly heart-wrenching stuff. The only solace I can take in Bubbles’s storyline in this season is that this is the rock-bottom point, and he is eventually able to turn his life around in Season 5.
Marlo’s Power Grab
With the Barksdale crew out of the picture, the drug/crime element of The Wire Season 4 focuses on Marlo gaining power—and dropping bodies in a unique way.
The first scene of every season of The Wire is typically used to set up the entire season, introducing a major theme. Well, the opening scene to Season 4 is one of the most memorable scenes of the entire show for me.
Snoop is at a Home Depot knock-off, Hardware Barn, looking to purchase a high-powered nail gun that won’t run out of batteries quickly. The salesman shows her a powder-actuated tool, the “Cadillac” of nail guns, which will put a fastener through just about anything. Snoop hands the salesman $800 in cash and when he says she needs to pay at the register she says, “Nah man, you go ahead and handle that for me. And keep the rest for your time…You earned that buck like a motherf*cker.” I just love this scene so much.
Anyway, the purpose of this scene is to set up how Marlo is able to evade the eye of the police when it comes to dropping bodies. When Chris and Snoop are ordered to kill someone, they dispose of the body in a vacant, boarded-up house, then reattach the board with the nail gun.
How could someone grab up so much territory in the streets of Baltimore without the use of violence? This question keeps Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters) up at night throughout the season. He checks “Leakin Park.” He checks the sewers. But no dice.
It’s not until late in the season when Prez relays to Lester what Randy told him: that he told Lex to meet Patrice at the playground. Lester and Bunk head to the playground, and Lester eyes the vacants. He notices one of the boards has new fasteners, as opposed to the rusted screws of the others. “Need a crowbar,” he says. “This is a tomb. Lex is in there.” Lester with the slam dunk. Even though we as the audience have known all along where the bodies were, it doesn’t make Lester’s discovery any less satisfying. (It’s extremely satisfying.)
However, in very Wire-type fashion, the police’s realization that Chris and Snoop were behind more than 20 murders leads to very few consequences. Chris ditched the nail gun after an earlier traffic stop by Herc (who was too concerned about his missing camera to really notice the nail gun), so nothing definitive could be tied to Chris and Snoop.
Michael’s path straddles both the school system and Marlo storylines. As a student, he is no bully. He sticks up for Dukie and Randy. He looks after his younger brother Bug. He doesn’t act out in class.
But Michael is another victim of a troubled home. His mother is a dope fiend who sells the family’s food for drugs. His father is not in the picture. He has a clear issue with Bug’s father, who returns from prison midway through the season. It’s strongly insinuated that Bug’s father sexually abused Michael at some point. Despite these issues, he tries to resist a life on the street. He doesn’t want to work a corner, but he also doesn’t want a hand-out, which catches the eye of Marlo and his crew.
Michael avoids committing to Marlo until he breaks down and asks Chris for help. Chris relates to Michael’s request to get rid of Bug’s dad—this time insinuating that Chris also suffered sexual abuse from a father figure. The scene in which he pummels Bug’s dad is one of the most violent scenes of the series.
From this point on, there’s no turning back for Michael. He moves out of his mom’s place, taking Bug with him. He trains with Chris and Snoop on the best way to kill someone. And eventually, he commits his first murder. Michael is yet another victim of the failures of the system.
One final interesting note about Michael that I only noticed in my most recent rewatch: in a scene late in the season, Omar is monitoring Marlo’s crew and Michael joins them. Renaldo wonders who he is, and Omar takes a look and says, “He just a kid.” I found this to be a great bit of foreshadowing, as Michael becomes the “new Omar” in the Season 5 finale.
The Wire Season 4 is so fantastic because of its realistic ability to expose America’s inequalities, but it also features a couple of unbelievable games of figurative chess. One involves Omar (Michael K. Williams) and Proposition Joe (Robert F. Chew), and the other involves Tommy Carcetti (Aidan Gillen) and his political rivals. The method in which these storylines intertwine with each other—and with the school storyline—is pulled off masterfully by David Simon.
Prop Joe wants to bring Marlo into his co-op to tap into his muscle. To accomplish this, he knowingly tips off Omar to a card game that Marlo will be attending. After the robbery, Marlo agrees to join the co-op and he sets up Omar to go down for the murder of a citizen. With some favors from Bunk (that piss off the bosses), Omar is released from prison and figures out Joe tried to play him.
He outsmarts Joe, steals the co-op’s entire shipment of heroin, and sells it back to them for 20 on the dollar. Watching Joe and Omar, these two masterminds, go at each other in Season 4 is such a treat.
A similarly complex storyline even manages to make Tommy Carcetti’s mayoral election compelling. At the beginning of the season, Lester releases a slew of subpoenas that will be sure to ruffle some feathers in the current mayor’s office. This sets off a wave of repercussions throughout the police force.
Major Crimes is dismantled—Lester and Kima are sent packing over to Homicide. The wiretaps are shut down. A witness is murdered, which Carcetti uses to turn up the heat on Mayor Royce. (And then Kima ironically later discovers the witness was not murdered for being a witness, but was killed by accident.)
As Carcetti becomes mayor, we see political battling among Ervin Burrell (Frankie Faison) and Bill Rawls (John Doman), but in the end, Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick) appears to have the new mayor’s favor. The twists and turns of the political jockeying and chain-of-command games in Season 4 are just as good as any other portions of the series.
It’s difficult to view The Wire Season 4 as anything but a bleak assessment of a divided and flawed America. The children in inner cities are faced with immeasurable hurdles. Violence and slinging on corners are the only options for some. Politicians juke stats to look more favorable.
It’s tough to swallow, but I stand by this season of television as one of the best and most important seasons of television we’ve ever seen.