Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Why The Wire: Season Four Wasn't As Good As Everyone Says It Was

[Update: This is a blog essay about The Wire: Season Four. If you like what you read, feel free to come back again. You can also subscribe to my blog feed using this link. Thanks for reading!]

For awhile now, television critics have been saying that "The Wire" is the best television show ever made. Anyone who's seen the show in its entirety would be hard-pressed to disagree.

By now, fans have probably already read all the adjectives and descriptions that have been trotted out in the glowing reviews of this HBO Original Series. "The Wire" has been described as a "60-hour novel," a "brilliant," "addictive" piece of work, and a trenchant social commentary into American life. I love this show deeply and have encouraged people to watch it, lending them my DVDs if necessary (I own all three seasons). A little part of me dies inside every time the show is completely ignored during awards season.

In the first season, I was dazzled by the intricate world of drug dealers that the show portrayed, in what was probably an unprecedented look at the methods, procedures, and lives of both drug dealers and the cops that hunted them. Avon Barksdale was a kingpin that was larger than life, a myth as much as a man. His right hand man, Stringer Bell, carried an air of brilliance, cunning, rationalization, and Machiavellian coldness that would eventually lead to his undoing. And that's not even mentioning the brilliant portrayal of the cops, all of whom have memorable roles. The second season did the unthinkable by adding in a dozen or so more characters, while retaining many of the old ones. We were riveted by the tragic decisions that faced Frank Sobotka, by the street-smarts of his nephew Nick, and by the frustrated masculinity of his son, Ziggy. Finally, season three crystallized Creator David Simon's thesis: We, as citizens, are trapped, in profound and significant ways, by our institutions. Major Bunny Colvin's ill-fated decision to strive for reform paralleled Stringer Bell's attempts to do the same; by turning part of Baltimore into "Hamsterdam," he boldly faced off against a system that did everything in its power to take him down.

In short, seasons one through three were virtually flawless. They introduced us to memorable characters, juggled complex storylines in a satisfying way, and made us think about our place in American society in a way that no television show has ever been able to make us do. Upon repeated viewings, my preference is for Season Two, whose story embodies so much pathos and gravitas that exerts an undeniable power over the viewer. But I wouldn't hold it against anyone if they had a different season that was their favorite.


Which brings us to Season Four.

Where Seasons One through Three brought us into the drug trade, the working class, and the political system respectively, Season Four sought to bring us into American's urban education system, which is basically broken and apparently made worse by the Bush Administration's draconian "No Child Left Behind" act. Having worked in a variety of school settings myself, I can say, with my exremely limited experience, that the show's portrayal of the urban school environment rings true, with its well-intentioned teachers and administrators heavily burdened by an overbearing bureaucracy and forced to "teach to the test." But it's the show's portrayal of four students which make up the bulk of the new season and which ultimately make up the season's emotional core.

Randy, Michael, Namond, and "Dukie" are four kids based off of real students that the show's creator once knew, amalgamations certainly, but their lives are all chillingly plausible. As with previous seasons, the show gives us time to learn about these kids, to watch them mature, and to root for each one as they take their individual path towards a fate that may or may not be of their own making. The results are tragic, heartbreaking, and rarely uplifting.

David Simon has said that there's a myth in this country that if you work hard enough, no matter what your circumstances, you can go on to achieve great things. This is the politically conservative stance, the position that "poverty is a choice." "The Wire: Season Four" tries to give the lie to this myth, and paint a different picture of America, an America where the kids are surrounded by overwhelming violence, where even if they achieve at school there's not much of a future ahead of them, where money can be made quickly and easily by dealing drugs, and where cooperation with the authorities (be they school or police) is met with disproportionate punishment on the streets.

There were many things to like about Season Four. For one thing,
the acting continues to be top-notch; I can honestly say I have never seen such masterful acting from teens before in my life. It never occurred to me that Randy, Michael, "Dukie" and Namond were actually being portrayed by actors. The show retains its ingenius method of letting the characterization happen naturally, at least at the outset. We are given subtle hints about these kids lives, from Randy's doting but firm foster mother to Dukie's complete inability (due to family circumstances) to maintain his personal hygeine. The characters are all memorable, with Jamie Hector doing a chilling turn as the ultraviolent Marlo. The Snoop and Chris characters also deliver amazing dialogue that manages to be humorous as well as blood curdling. Omar continues to be a complete badass. The show's portrayal of institutions is also at its best, as we see incompetent policemen rewarded, and effective teachers punished. Finally, the parallels it draws between teachers in a variety of settings is clever and interesting. In one sequence we see a shockingly ineffective Homeland Security briefing parallel a drug soldier training session in the techniques of killing. Great stuff.

I've seen lots of coverage on "The Wire" recently. I read articles in "The New York Times," cnn.com, as well as online magazines Slate and Salon. It heartens me to see the show finally getting the coverage it deserves. But in lavishing so much praise upon it, I fear that critics have ignored some of this season's flaws. Here are some of the flaws that I saw:

1) The show spread itself too thin - whereas previous seasons were able to introduce a plethora of new characters without detracting too much from previously running storylines, this season introduced four new characters, each with their own storyline, and focused on them intensely. There are also numerous other new characters, which took the form of school administrators and other students that each had a bit of a story arc. Consequently, every character necessarily got less screen time, and we learned less about them all than we would have in previous seasons.

This was clearest in Cutty's storyline. Whereas in Season Three, Cutty had a convincing and gripping story arc which took him from hardened soldier to kind-hearted gym trainer, his arc in Season Four seems cut dramatically short. We saw him searching for Spider over the course of many episodes, and only when he finds him does he begin to realize that his philandering ways could have a dramatic impact on his students. Spider's belligerent response in which he says something like "No one's gonna hurt me" is one of the most heartbreaking moments of the series, but Cutty never really comes to terms with the consequences of his actions. He makes a cringe-inducing and half-hearted apology to the kids at his gym, but there's not much more that he does to come to terms with the fact that to be a role model to these kids, he must be a role model in every aspect of his life. In the season finale's montage, we see that Cutty is now with the nurse that took care of him with the hospital; are we supposed to believe that he has seen the error of his ways and changed? I got the feeling that's what we were suppoesd to think but the show didn't earn it from me.

All of this also took away screen time from the police angle of busting Marlo, which arguably was the ultimate driving force of seasons 1-3. The Marlo storyline was a compelling one and although it was meant to be incomplete, it had a far less satisfying ending (I would argue, an almost completely unsatisfying ending) than Season One's ending, which itself left lots of loose ends open regarding the Barksdale crew but managed to reward you and give you some sense of closure.

The other two flaws that I'll detail ultimately stem from this first one.

2) Characterization - I'll just come right out and say this: I didn't buy Michael's transformation from shy and obedient schoolboy (who lovingly took care of his little brother) into Marlo's street soldier. To order the hit of his pervert father seemed like a tortured, but plausible, decision, but for him to shortly afterwards become a cold-blooded killer, offing a street dealer and coldly disposing of the weapon, was a stretch that I wasn't ready to make and that I didn't feel the show deserved. The only interstitial step we really see are a couple encounters in which Michael is more violent than usual as he beats up on a few kids. This transformation bore several similarities to Catherine Zeta Jones transformation into drug kingpin, which we witnessed in the American version of Traffic: Both were fairly implausible and both would have benefitted from a lot more time to flesh out the changes. In the case of "Traffic," we can see the immense difference that a few hours make, as the British miniseries "Traffik," (on which the US version is based) has a far superior portrayal by Lindsey Duncan of the painted-into-a-corner housewife forced to take matters into her own hands. Unfortunately, we'll never know what would have been with "The Wire", and although Michael's character is incredibly well-acted by Tristan Wilds, the changes he makes ultimately don't ring true.

3) Implausibilities and lame plot devices - "The Wire" is almost Dickensian in the way it plays with its plot and this is clear throughout all the seasons. Warrants are typed up just minutes too late, murders are committed completely out of the blue that affect the case at hand in dramatic ways. But whereas in previous seasons these plot devices seem well-incorporated and well-thought-out, in season four they seem tossed off and lazy.

The biggest example of this in the way which Bodie is disposed of, and how that plot device is used to drive McNulty's return. Bodie was always one of my favorite characters, a constant source of comedy relief as well as a fascinating look into the psyche of a street soldier. Near the end of Season Four, Bodie is eating in a diner and McNulty randomly bumps into him. They share a short meal in which few words are exchanged, but this apparently leads to some sort of connection which causes Bodie to confide in McNulty in an attempt at taking down Marlo. Rather than build this relationship from the beginning of the season, as the show usually does, it is made into a short chance encounter and the result feels like just a convenient way to shoehorn McNulty into the next season (who I definitely want to see more of, for the record).

And that's another thing: I can buy that Marlo is ruthless but the degree of ruthlessness on display here is wildly implausible. He's offing people left and right "just because he can," as Bodie puts it...just becuase somebody might have been possibly seen with the cops. You'd think after awhile there'd be an uprising of some sort; a man can't rule by fear forever, I would think, even on the street. If this was the degree of indiscriminate killing going on, wouldn't Snoop and Chris start to get suspicious of each other after awhile?

Finally, I was shocked to see how the Namond story was resolved. Thematically, it seemed like Namond should have somehow died as a result of his incompetence and weakness, but the show takes a baffling turn by having the Colvin adopt him. This is confusing and unbelievable on a number of levels. As I mentioned, the show seems to want to say that the street eats kids alive if they can't cut it. Namond is shown, on a number of occasions, not to be made of the material that is necessary for survival. For him to be shown mercy, while Randy gets completely screwed over, seems pretty inconsistent with everything else in the season, as well as the series.

Furthermore, though I can believe that Wee Bey would want to have the final say over how and where Namond ends up (and his berating of Namond's mother comes off as utterly plausible and very satisfying), to see him agree to surrender custody to a former policeman is completely unbelievable. Though Wee Bey's character is extremely likable and a fan favorite, he is still cold-hearted killer and I would think that from his perspective, for him to give up his child, especially to a former cop, would be to somehow surrendering his masculinity (even if this is not the case). I definitely did not think it would play out like it did in the show, in which Bey confides "You're asking too much" and then an episode or two later, he gives Namond up.

The final shot of the season, in which Namond literally sees his past driving off into the distance of the peaceful suburbs, encapsulates what was so wrong with this plot development; "The Wire" desperately wants you to believe that there is almost never a happy ending, and for this to be one of them, let alone one this implausible, feels like a betrayal of sorts.


There is much more to say about the series and in particular this season, and if people respond ot this blog, I'd love to engage in further dialogue about more of the things I loved and hated about Season Four.

Ultimately, "The Wire: Season Four" feels like half a season, in much the same way "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" felt like half a movie. But whereas the latter was a bunch of mindless action and eye candy, the former tried to stimulate thought in a nuanced way (for the most part) and should definitely be applauded for the effort.

Though I thought Season Four was vastly inferior to the other seasons, I'm willing to wait for Season Five, the final season before I pass judgment. "The Wire" remains my favorite show, perhaps still the best show on TV. I hope it goes out with a bang, and not the whimper that this season went out on.


noctos said...

hey thx for your comment. great post! very well thought out. I'd like to address some more specific point later but don't have the time right now.

let me say first of all that S4 is my favorite season, (i would prolly rank S4 - S2 - S3 - S1 in order of favorites) and the main reason is the four new kids, who I thought were of an incredible high level, acting-wise and writing-wise.

my instant reaction would be that you are mainly dissatisfied with the final episodes of the season and how they resolved certain story lines. i tend to agree here but the first 10 episodes or so were extremely brilliant. the whole take on the education system mixed with a totally failed and corrupt police and government just blew me away. i have never ever seen a police show where the police for a whole season were totally incapable of even making a case. at one moment it felt even weird the title of the show was still "the wire" because it was all completely gone. Plus the balls to make your main police characters (especially mcnulty) almost sidecharacters and total bystanders was phenomenal.

I agree with a few of your points (the bodie & the cutty resolve) but I bought the four kids angle competely. especially randy's end was so tragic, i couldn't have been more touched by a tv show this year.

The specific scene writing was for me what mostly won me over though. it all started with snoop buying that nailgun. the complexity, subtext and dramatic irony in that scene is so immense it overshadows some of the better stuff i liked in the previous seasons (for example i do think the barksdales were a more interesting police antagonist but i think this is exactly what S4 tries to evades, the whole police-gangsters fight, and instead focusing on kids trapped in a system that is totally crumbling, sometimes ending good for some (namond), bad for the others).

StringerBell said...

Hey great comments. I love to see insightful things said about The Wire , good or bad, because I feel so passionately about it. I personally love the fourth season and although I can't rank the seasons and not disagree with myself later, the fourth is in the top 2 for me. However, I did find your points to be quite interesting. Some things I agree with are that it's a shame Cutty gets less screen time in the fourth season, his characterization is pushed aside a little. At the same time though Cutty's character is not as important as he was last season to the story that Simon is trying to tell. Last season Cutty was such an integral part of the season because he was one of the characters that represented the season's thesis topic, reform. Now that Cutty has settled into his role at the gym and has made his decisions regarding personal reform he no longer serves the story as integrally as before. I believe this is part of the reason he has less screen time.
Which leads me to the fate of Bodie. Bodie, one of my all time favorite characters of the show, mostly because of JD William's amazing portrayal, also fits this season into the themes of the show. I think it's really important to realize that everything in the show in each season is there to reenforce an aspect of the theme or the ideas being discussed. I believe that David Simon is trying to get across the point that no matter what personal decisions someone has made or how far they've come, when they're living in a situation like many of the characters of the wire (Namond, Bodie, etc) there are outside influences out of your control that can sweep in out of nowhere and ruin things you've spent so much time building. I believe this is why Simon ends the season the way he does. It's surprising which character is 'rescued' but thats because he's saying that chance plays such a key role in what happens to these kids. And that's such a travesty. In the same way that chance plays a role in Namonds fate, it also does so in Bodies. After four years of being a 'good soldier' and almost never really screwing up (minus the turf war he started in season 2) Bodie was still brought down by freak circumstances that were pretty much out of his control. It's the same with the shooting of Cutty at the end of the season. No matter how much these characters try to take control of their own fates, there're so many negative influences and circumstances that weigh down on them. And that's just my two cents.

As for the lack of police work this season, I love the way the show reinvents itself every season and #4 was no different. I'm glad that Simon chose to give us a break from what was beginning to become formuliac (police identifies target, beauacracy prevents police work, police eventually do enough good work to get a wire, etc etc...) The show is constantly keeping us on our toes. I LOVE IT.
If you'd like to respond/discuss this further, email me at dwilson1@ithaca.edu. I could talk about this show for hours.

Anonymous said...

well thought out review. however, i have to disagree with you on what you consider some of the weak points.

this episode basically demonstrates the parallels of life experiences of some of the characters introduced in season one. e.g. randy will become the bubbles of his generation (snitch who hustles), michael the avon (drug dealer with principles, boxer), namond the bunk (grew up in the hood, but not built for the game), and dukie, well, i'm not sure about him yet.

as for michael becoming a "cold-blooded killer," i'm not sure that is the intention of the writer. he seemed to be bothered by the murder, as evidenced in the scene where he was driven away. michael does not seem to be a marlo, chris, snoop, bird or wee bay type, but instead someone who is doing for his family in the only way he knows how, another parallel to avon. i suspect this is his initiation to the game, but he is not destined to be a hitter. he is a leader, which is recognized by all of those around him, marlo, chris and his peers. hope to see him in future story lines.

the marlo character is no exaggeration, just google prince miller and the supreme team. yes, supreme was the leader, but prince was the "marlo" who took over when he was locked up. there are plenty more like him in every big city in america.

anyway, very insightful.

Rafael Arias

Anonymous said...

Here are my rankings... S1(all time classic), S3, S2, S4. I agree that season four was the worst. For a show to be based on reality which this one is, there are some questions that need answers. I agree with a previous poster the the first 10 eps of season four were great. But the last few kinda spoiled the season for me. 1) There is NO WAY that those guys would have just bought the dope back from Omar. NO WAY! Omar would have gotten mercked and they would have had to make it right with the connect (Greeks). 2) My favorite character in the show got mercked (Bodie). 3) I too believe that Namond's ending could have been better. I mean come on, Wee-Bey, letting Colvin adopt his son. LOL! Anyway still my fave show of all time. But there is NO WAY that I could rank this season above the others!

Anonymous said...

I just finished Season 4 last night.

So far it is my favorite, but I agree with most of your criticisms.

I thought the endings for the kids was as tragic and random as real life allows. Namond gets lucky and Randy doesn't.

I was a little ambivalent about the change in Michael and I see I'm not alone. I see what they tried to do, setting him up with Marlo to off his foster-father (or whatever he was) but it just didn't fly.

Bodie though... I've never been bothered by a character on TV meeting his maker until that killing. At least he went down fighting, not on his knees in a vacant.

I have season 5, disc 1 waiting for me at home. 8)

Anonymous said...

I agree with some of your comments, but I still thought S4 was the best season. It had much more of a hopeful feel to it because of the new mayor and the initiative taken at the school. The first 3 seasons everyone was corrupt, the system was almost completely dysfunctional, and it was depressing. So I liked the change in tone and that might have helped me overlook some of the minor flaws you pointed out.

I was fine with Cutty's story being cut short because I didn't really find it all that interesting once he made the transition from thug to coach. He didn't seem to have any impact with the kids, so there wasn't much of a story to build off of there.

I was also fine with waiting to see what happens with Marlo because the discovery of the bodies was huge.

The transformation with Michael was a bit of a stretch, but I bought it because he was always a little more mature and capable than the other kids, so it seems like he would be able to kill more easily. Still, I agree that there were other changes that should have been shown, like how you can kill people you know and the lack of morality it takes to do that. He seemed like he had more of a moral code than he ended up showing later on. They definitely could have done a better job with that.

As for Wee Bay, who knows. The guy is doing hard time and maybe he's had time to reflect and think about his life. He might be a killer, but he cares for his son. I agree that Colvin could have done a better job with his speech, because saying Wee Bay's son isn't cut out for the streets could have been taken as an insult. But at the same time, maybe Wee Bay is smart enough to want something better for his son than what he had. Plus he seemed to have some respect for Colvin and willingness to listen.

Cutty said...

I prefered 4 to 3. I thought it was a more emotional series.