HBO’s gritty crime drama The Wire rarely drew more than 4 million viewers and never won an Emmy. However, the greatest Wire episodes show why the series has such a rabid fan base and often tops so many “best shows ever” lists.
Set in Baltimore, Maryland, every new season of The Wire deconstructed a different city institution: substance trafficking, the seaport system, government and bureaucracy, schools, and print news media. However, the heart of the series detailed the elaborate game played between the city’s drug dealers and Baltimore law enforcement. The show was unflinchingly realistic and steered clear of happy endings. Its most consequential episodes often centered on an important player's passing or the tragic consequences of fallible characters that viewers expected more from.
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With The Wire's Baltimore police officers losing the drug war, Police Major "Bunny" Colvin concocts a completely unorthodox approach to the fight. He divides the Western district into three areas. The goal is to bring the overall lawlessness in Baltimore down by making substance use "legal" in these zones. The plan is later dubbed "Hamsterdam" in reference to the city of Amsterdam, which is known for its liberal drug policy. Colvin brings a group of drug dealers in to tell them that they can basically sell their wares in the free zones.
The premiere episode of Season 4 moves the show into the public school system. We are introduced to four middle school students from West Baltimore: Dukie, Namond, Randy, and Michael. This is a crucial age for innercity kids. Will they get involved with street life, or will they find a way to survive the streets without breaking the law? Prez hopes to make a difference as an educator. He gets his new classroom and the next era of his life begins.
In a hilarious scene, Snoop goes shopping for a new tool. But the reason for the purchase is more macabre than comedic, as it's part of the plan Snoop and Chris have come up with to hide their misdeeds. After they take someone's life, they hide the body with plastic and use nails to seal the body in a vacant home. It proves to be a successful way to cover up their acts from the police, who can't figure out where all the bodies are being disposed of.
The pilot episode of The Wire is a complex hour of television that introduces the major characters and themes of the series. We see the dichotomy between the detectives out on the street and their more powerful supervisors. Homicide Detective McNulty is in the courtroom watching D'Angelo's homicide trial. The drug dealer gets acquitted because a security guard recants her testimony. The one person who did testify against D'Angelo is later found lying lifeless in the street. McNulty sets his sights on future adversaries Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale, who clearly had something to do with D'Angelo getting off.
The audience is also introduced to Bubbles and Johnny Weeks, homeless addicts running a counterfeit money scam. Bubbles winds up becoming a snitch. McNulty gets a look at what modern technology can do in the form of surveillance cameras. Every angle is covered in the pilot, from the low-level street dealers all the way up to judges and the top kingpins.
When a reporter is done with an article, they type "30" at the end. It is the perfect title for the series finale and a season that concentrated on journalism. The audience witnesses a new generation take over, with Dukie and Michael now at the top of the substance dealing food chain.
McNulty and Freamon's hoax and wiretapping schemes are finally exposed. However, a copycat is on the loose. McNulty nabs a mentally ill homeless man, who is charged with the acts. The closing montage of the series reveals what is to become of the main characters. It's not a hopeful conclusion, as it's apparent that the institutions that are supposed to help the inner city are failing. It ends with a retired McNulty looking over the city of Baltimore as he drives south to Virginia.