The Wire is the best television show. Full stop. It might not be your personal favorite, but you have to acknowledge that the acting, writing, and overall quality hasn’t been matched. It leverages all the strengths of television and avoids all the pitfalls of the medium. The Wire is one of those rare pieces of art that sets out to do something complicated, beautiful, and worthwhile and pulls it off expertly. It does micro and macro equally well, which is an almost impossible feat to engineer. Usually, I find myself praising a show’s vision and making concessions for its execution, but there can be no complaints about The Wire. We say the following as a compliment: it’s the most artfully crafted PSA ever made. How many shows can simultaneously entertain and inform? It keeps innumerable plotlines afloat while also developing memorable secondary and tertiary characters and bringing stories full circle to reinforce the societal implications of individual characters’ decisions and lives. There are no bad episodes, but caveat emptor: this list betrays a heavy bias for the kids of season 4.

SPOILERS AHEAD. 

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10. Season 1 Episode 10 “The Cost”

The Wire perfected the amorphous moral ground between good and evil. You could argue ‘on one hand’ and ‘on the other’ for hours about any match-up of characters. See, Kima gets shot (the reactions’ of Carver, Daniels, and McNulty is some of the best acting in the series), but this is not an act of pure, condemnable evil. Kima is collateral damage in the Orlando plotline, where Orlando is the stupid, facile villain. Orlando is so stupid that as much as you can say someone ‘deserves’ his fate, he deserves it— he broke the code. Wallace is a more sympathetic Orlando. He, too, broke the code. It doesn’t mean he deserves a vicious death, but some accountability is what makes the killers who mete out justice more complicated than the average villain.

“The Cost” best demonstrates the art of the Who are we even rooting for? question in the scene where McNulty gives Omar money as he boards the bus to New York. This is the crux of The Wire: there are no good or bad guys, only players in a rigged game.


9. Season 1 Episode 12 “Cleaning Up” 

Wallace’s death announced to the world that this show would pull no punches. It took the most sympathetic character— the one who embodied a moral conscience— and had him murdered by his friends. Wallace betrayed his naiveté when he said to Bodie, “You ain’t got to be hard all the time.” Up through this episode, Bodie played a foil to Wallace. He seems street-hardened and heartless— but just when you start to think the writers have gone predictable, they surprise you.

Bodie hesitates. If he had just shot Wallace and done so without thinking, I could relegate him to the realm of one-dimensional, plot-propelling characters. But there is no such thing in The Wire. Because Bodie hesitated, I have to care deeply about whether the buried instinct that made him flinch could possibly re-emerge.


8. Season 1 Episode 6 “The Wire” 

Wallace tells D’Angelo that he can’t shake the image of Brandon’s mutilated body. D’Angelo brushes it off and tells Wallace it’s part of the game even though he undermines ‘the game’ by letting Cassie off the hook when he discovers she’s stealing. When Wallace and D’Angelo get paid for their part in Brandon’s murder, they share a look that cuts to the heart of the series. The two of them have too much conscience to survive in a world as brutal as the one they inhabit. Their empathy signals early on that they do not have the ruthlessness required to survive. The travesty of their existence is that any kind of love, mercy, or kindness is viewed as weakness and imperils survival.


7. Season 3 Episode 4 “Hamsterdam” 

Bunny Colvin’s free zones stop just short of legalizing the sale of drugs. The major’s idea is insane, controversial, and innovative. Buzz word-y as it may be, ‘disruptive’ suits the Hamsterdam initiative. The (initial) success of Colvin’s experiment hints at a series throughline. The Game, as it were, is non-negotiable. Everyone— criminal, cop, politician— is forced to play within its rigged parameters. The only way to find any measurable success is to come up with a new approach while still playing in bounds.

Freamon and Prez tap into this idea by going about their police work via public records. Instead of banging their heads against the wall with traditional methods, Freamon starts to follow the money. Immediately, his efforts make a difference and put judges and politicians on guard.

Stringer also finds success by taking a new approach: he cleans his money by investing in downtown real estate and doing business with so-called respectable members of the community. Freamon, Colvin, and Stringer realize that the only way to survive in their respective rackets, they must adapt constantly. However, their success proves to be temporary at best.


6. Season 5 Episode 9 “Late Editions”

After Wallace’s death in season one, I tried to train myself not get attached to any of the characters. And when I couldn’t detach myself, I vowed, at the very least, to expect my favorite characters’ deaths at any moment. This proved to be a moderately successful tactic when it came to Bodie’s death, who I managed to mourn with dignity. What I didn’t expect was that a non-death scene would prove to be the most emotional in the series. When Michael drives up to his aunt’s house in the suburbs, hands Bug a shoebox filled with cash, and tells him that men don’t cry, the series ended for me right there.  

If you imagine that most corner kids have a window to get out of the situation they’re born into— maybe it’s excelling in school, or a mentor who sees their potential, or maybe it’s just the simple advantage of having a sober parent and enough money that you don’t have to work when you’re 12-years-old— and this window is a year for some kids and a split second for others, Michael never had a window. His hand is forced at every turn. A mother who spends all their money on drugs and a little brother that he cares about leaves Michael with exactly one option.

Michael lives and operates in a world of realpolitik that gives him no choice but to murder Snoop. Even in this cold-blooded action, it’s hard not to see him as a kid who was never given a chance.    


5. Season 3 Episode 11 “Middle Ground”

This entirety of “Middle Ground” is excellent, but it could make the top ten list on the merit of the balcony scene between Avon and Stringer alone. I could write an entire treatise on the beauty of this scene. The subtext of betrayal in a seemingly innocuous conversation matches Katherine Anne Porter’s High Noon in its genius ability to say one thing on the surface and another, entirely different thing in between the lines. Every single word, look, and hesitation is loaded— when Avon asks Stringer what time he’s meeting the developer, Stringer tells him noon and asks why. Avon answers: “Just seeing where you’re gonna be at.” The exchange is a microcosm of Avon’s strengths and Stringer’s weaknesses. Avon’s EQ is off the charts. The instinct he has for reading people cannot be taught. The forthcoming-ness of his answer totally unsettles Stringer, who’s sent further reeling Avon’s follow-up comment: “It’s just business.” Avon’s success is contingent on his ability to understand how both his enemies and alleged allies think and anticipate what they will do. It’s the same gift Vito Corleone had that allowed him to tell Michael how to identify who the traitor is: “Whoever comes to you with this Barzini meeting, he’s the traitor.” The balcony scene is a masterclass in writing and acting— an easy frontrunner for best scene in the series.


4. Season 5 Episode 8 “Clarifications”

Plot-wise, the most important thing that happens in this episode is Omar’s death. Kenard kills Omar before he can make a dent in his hitlist of Stanfield soldiers. It’s familiarly disheartening to think that vigilante justice is the approach with the highest likelihood of success. The Wire has made an art of predictable disappointment that stings nonetheless. The most entertaining scene, though, is McNulty listening to the FBI’s profile of the serial killer he invented. The FBI agent begins with a description that is generic enough to dismiss as coincidence, but as it gets more specific, McNulty’s look of unease is comical: “He is likely not a college graduate, but feels nonetheless superior to those with advanced education […] He has a problem with authority and a deep-seated resentment of those who he feels have impeded his progress professionally […]The suspect […] is possibly a high-functioning alcoholic.” McNulty’s fabricated killer is unraveling much more rapidly than he anticipated.  

The final line of the profile explains that the killer used the murders as an opportunity to “assert his superiority and intellectual prowess.” The reaction to this profile is the closest we ever get to interiority of McNulty and his expression reveals that he is capable of recognizing his flaws. For someone more deluded or less self-aware, the profile might not register as familiar. McNulty is just honest enough with himself to know how out of line he’s been in orchestrating the serial killer hoax and that there is no way for him to emerge unscathed.


3. Season 4 Episode 12 “That’s Got His Own”

In season four, we see a group of kids who aren’t capable of dealing with their dismal reality. Dukie is in no way ready to begin high school. Namond knows he can’t live up to his mother and father’s expectations. Randy is living in fear after being labeled a snitch. But then there’s Michael Lee, who is almost too capable of adapting to his environment. He knows the stakes, the rules, and the consequences of the life he’s chosen. Michael’s survival instincts are too strong and too intuitive for someone so young. He’s able to provide for his little brother and himself. He gets them a place to live away from Bug’s abusive father and drug-addicted mother. But the cost is his innocence and any hope of escaping the life he was born into.

Michael’s story is the most heartbreaking because in the course of a year you see him turn cold to the world. He tells Namond that Kenard lied and stole the package. When Namond can’t get himself to exact retribution, Michael beats Kenard mercilessly. When Cutty tries to apologize for running Michael out of the boxing gym, Michael shrugs him off. In front of Michael’s crew, Cutty tells Michael, “This isn’t you.” One of the men in Michael’s circle shoots Cutty, but Michael steps in to prevent the fatal shot. When Michael offers to wait with Cutty for the ambulance, Cutty tells him to go with his people and Michael takes off. Cutty recognizes, as Namond says, that “Mike ain’t Mike no more.”


2. Season 5 Episode 10 "-30-" 

Gary DiPasquale gambled away over three times his salary without any outward disruption in his life— a loss that would have set off red flags if there were any oversight of grand jury prosecutors. When Freamon confronts Gary about selling sealed grand jury indictments to Baltimore lawyers, Gary says, “I always wondered if they’d get their shit together. But that’s Baltimore.” That line immediately spoke to the famous last line of Roman Polanski’s best film, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” The parallels between The Wire and Chinatown are obvious, but tone is one arena in which they do not overlap at all. There is a resignation at the end of Chinatown that does not map to The Wire’s finale. To make a comparison to another famous movie, the series finale has a greater kinship sensibility-wise with the final scene of The Godfather. The ascendancy of a new generation is painted as irrepressible rather than as ungovernable and amoral. There are shades of darkness and menace in the finale, certainly, but the tone is as close to hope as The Wire ever ventures. Though it’s devastating to see Dukie become Bubbles, we see Bubbles eating a meal with his family. Amidst the ruin is quiet hope. 


1. Season 4 Episode 13 “Final Grades”

Season four is best season because it captures both hearts and minds. It deftly showcases the relationships between politicians, police, criminals, and educators without shortchanging any of the storylines. The level of complexity that is maintained is the show’s greatest legacy. Season four doesn’t preach, simplify, or go overboard on bleakness or hope. Considering the dramatic subject matter, the tone is extremely measured, which allows the message of total lack of progress to resonate.  

When Bodie says, “I feel old,” there’s absolutely no irony. The kids grow up too fast and the few adults who try to help them almost always end up making the situation worse. McNulty gets Bodie killed. Carver gets Randy sent back to a group home. Prez gets Dukie ‘promoted’ to high school. It feels like anyone trying to do good is working against fate. There is a dark sense of inevitability as each of the kids descends into a morass of adult problems.

Michael is the only kid who is not situationally worse off at the end of the season— though you could say that his psyche is in the worst place of them all. Michael managed to escape making his given plight worse by refusing the help of any adult who reached out to him. He made himself impervious to other people’s well-intentioned, but misguided and poorly executed, efforts.  

“Final Grades” is an astute exploration of ego. Carcetti is the biggest failure on this front. His inability to set aside his pride in order to get funding for Baltimore schools is made to look even worse against Wee-Bey’s ability to transcend his ego and allow Colvin to adopt Naymond. Carcetti’s selfish actions speak to a pattern of people in power— they convince themselves that the self-interested decision and the right decision are the same thing.