The best line from The Wire is also, not coincidentally, its bleakest. It comes from the lollipop-sweetened mouth of Marlo Stanfield, who during the first half of Season Four handles surveillance cameras, high-stakes poker, inter-gang rivalries, and gunpoint stickups like he’s got icewater in his veins, but who cannot abide the backtalk of a lowly convenience-store security guard. The guard tries to explain to Marlo — who’d knowingly stolen candy in full view of the guy just to fuck with him — that even though such behavior is trivial, and even though he wouldn’t dare truly challenge Marlo over it, it strips him of what little dignity his dreary dayjob affords him. Marlo, his arrogance filling his wide eyes with something that approximates life, responds with one repeated phrase: “You want it to be one way.” When the guard finally backs down, Marlo delivers the punchline: “But it’s the other way.” Marlo keeps his lollipops. The guard loses his life. You want it to be one way, but it’s the other way.
This fatalistic credo (fatal for the people on the wrong side of it, anyway) fits The Wire to a tee, and never more so than in Season Four. How could a season dedicated in large part to the American education and electoral systems be about anything but the clash between great expectations and horrorshow reality? But the line could just as easily apply to the show’s decision, once again, to push its main characters to the side in favor of these new worlds. The Barksdale outfit has been shut down; McNulty, Daniels, and Carver are happily working the Western District; Kima and Lester join Homicide after the Major Case Unit is destroyed from within by the bosses. All of them are marginalized to make room for Marlo, the Mayor, and middle-schoolers. And just as in Season Two, it pays off spectacularly.
So much of the credit must go to the kids at the center of the school storyline: Randy, a friendly and ambitious foster kid whose side hustles gets him into trouble; Namond, the class-clown son of imprisoned Barksdale soldier Wee-Bey (whose wife, Namond’s mother, is the worst wife character on the show yet, which is saying something); Duquan, the weirdo of the group, a smart, strange kid marginalized by the extreme poverty of his junkie parents; and Michael, whose quiet self-confidence draws people to him even as he tries to hide a sexual secret. The Wire has the best track record with child actors this side of Game of Thrones, and the foursome to whom it awards the lion’s share of screentime this season (Maestro Harrell, Julito McCullum, Jermaine Crawford, and future R&B star Tristan “Mack” Wilds) are all as good as it gets. They’re so easy and enjoyable to watch as they navigate new additions to their world, from Marlo’s crew to their new teacher, former cop Roland “Prez” Pryzbylewski, that the absence of McNulty and Daniels barely registers. (Both are deep in domestic bliss with their former Major Case colleagues Beadie Russell and Ronnie Pearlman respectively.) That’s without even considering the school setting, which like the docks and unions of Season Two has the irresistible aura of a once vital thing slowly dying.
After the children, we have the monsters who menace them. Power tools, abandoned houses, respected investigators who despite their wisdom have no idea what they’re about to get into: The Marlo Stanfield storyline felt like a horror movie long before the kids started talking about Marlo’s victims becoming zombies in his service. He does have vicious killers (the fire and the fury) at his command, of course: Snoop and Chris, who return from the margins of Season Three to become major players here.
Rarely shown displaying any emotions other than a sort of soft-eyed, open-mouthed, lethal serenity, Chris Partlow is Marlo’s red right hand — the murderous Cesare to Marlo’s Caligari, with the goth wardrobe to match. They’re both so quiet, so economical in what they say and leave unsaid, that their partnership seems as natural and strong as any such relationship on the show. Snoop is everything Marlo and Chris are not: unassuming to look at, motormouthed, funny, and of course female. What they have in common, though, is that they’re all pretty weird and absolutely brutal. It’s telling that when Chris and Snoop pitch Michael on joining Marlo’s gang, they present it as a family: You get the sense that none of the three people on top of the organization ever felt much at home anywhere else.
The third corner of the triangle is Tommy Carcetti, who ends the season’s first half the mayor-elect of Baltimore in all but name. What a curious character this guy is! I vividly remember thinking, during my first run through the show years ago, that aside from his shortsightedness about Hamsterdam and the occasional sexual indiscretion at a fundraiser aside, he was exactly what the show seemed to position him to be: a reformer, using pieces of a broken system to cobble together something more functional for the sake of issues he was passionate about. Returning to it now, with six years of progressive disillusionment under Barack Obama and four seasons of Aidan Gillen as Littlefinger on Game of Thrones under my belt, I expected to see him as the exact opposite: a smooth operator, a phony, a cynic.
Neither view, it turns out, is correct, as Carcetti is both more and less than either a white knight or a shark. Yet this uniquely complex shallowness had been beyond the show’s ability to fully explore until now. It took the addition of sardonic, straight-shooting campaign advisor Norman Wilson to finally give Carcetti the foil he’d so badly needed since his introduction. Wilson’s played by the marvelous Reg E. Cathey, whose voice is once of the show’s consummate pleasures (The Wire is on par with Downton Abbey and Boardwalk Empire in the annals of Great Dramas Whose Casts Are Hella Fun to Listen To), as the Virgil to Carcetti’s Dante. He leads him through Baltimore’s various circles, highlights the locals, and explains to Carcetti exactly what can and can’t be done with them. Carcetti’s reactions are what make him feel three-dimensional even as he’s slowly revealed to be a political one-trick pony.
Tommy’s disappointment with Mayor Royce, his disgust with Clay Davis, his conviction that there has to be a better way to help the impoverished people of this city than the shit they’ve been served so far — that’s all genuine. But these emotions aren’t really generated by anything deeper or smarter, nor do they generate anything deeper or smarter in turn. Carcetti’s platform, both publicly and privately, is little more or less than “I’m pretty sure I can do a better job.” What does that mean, in practical or ideological terms? In the absence of any other answer, we have to assume “a better job” just means “the same job, but done by a better worker.” And if Tommy Carcetti’s success is the solution to Baltimore’s problems, it’s not hard to guess which half of that equation the newly minted mayor will prioritize in the future.