To The Wire’s evangelical fan base, the show’s debut date – June 2nd, 2002 – feels momentous fifteen years later, but at the time it was unremarkable. In its earliest days, the series was a curiosity; a dry, inaccessible, and confusing alternative to polished HBO flagship programming and ostensibly similar cops-and-robbers fare like FX’s The Shield. Read our own Shane Ramirez’ exploration of The Wire’s genre ambitions, and it’s easy to forget that many of the show’s considerable stylistic and thematic achievements only revealed themselves once the entire text had been written.
Along the way, it wasn’t always obvious to viewers what creator David Simon wanted his creation to be, or say, or do. It was dense, and difficult, which is likely why The Wire doesn’t so much have fans as it has champions; but conversational appreciation of the series tends to center less on “The Dickensian Element”, and more on the moments and characters that exist as vivid totems from a show that was scarcely watched but rabidly loved. “Timeless” is a term so commonplace that it almost lacks definition, but The Wire, with its endless list of characters and sprawling, intersectional narrative, truly fits the description.
The show still resonates fifteen years later, in second (or third or fourth or fifth) viewings. The Wire YouTube rabbit hole is real, and it saps time and assaults productivity with an onslaught of moments you remember, and others you can’t believe you forgot. We happily disappeared down that rabbit hole, and came back with this list of yearbook-style superlatives, a conceit that celebrates a truly superlative television series that was as much a police drama as it was an awakening education.
Best Dressed: Omar Little
The actual best-dressed character on The Wire is probably Stringer Bell, who seems to put a consistent effort into his appearance that is unmatched by any of the series’ other characters (I challenge you to find an image of Stringer ruffled, unkempt, rumpled, windblown, or otherwise disheveled. Seriously, it doesn’t exist), but Stringer doesn’t win this award for two reasons. First reason: Omar’s trench coat look, accessorized with a Kevlar vest and a shotgun, is iconic. Timeless. Subtle, but expressive. Menacing, but refined. Tactical, but stylish. Truly a robbery outfit for any season. Second reason: There’s no way Stringer Bell could pull this look off:
Honorable Mention: Stringer Bell
Best Hair: Snoop Pearson
This is a show about plain cops who work eighty hour weeks on municipal salaries, drug dealers with almost uniformly short hair, and politicians who strive for a style best described as “unobjectionable.” Google “White Bread” and you may just as likely find a picture of Mayor Tommy Carcetti as you will a picture of brioche. Which is to say, not a lot of imaginative or particularly memorable hair styles to go around in The Wire. Thus, Snoop wins this award, as she was the only character in The Wire to ask about their hair before being murdered. That line – “How my hair look, Mike?” – punctuated one of the series’ most memorable deaths, and perfectly epitomized Snoop, a soldier until the very end.
Honorable Mention: Orlando
Best Nickname: Bubbles
The Wire featured characters called “Stinkum,” “Fat Face Rick,” “Wee-Bey,” “Cheese,” “Bushy Top,” and a whole slew of other inventive street names. It’s a crowded field, but for best nickname, there is really only one choice to make: “Bubbles.” It may not be the most imaginative, descriptive, or hilarious one, but “Bubbles” has unmatched staying power. Bubbles himself is among the most visible Wire characters, appearing in all five seasons in roles of varying importance (by the end, the series arguably belongs to him as much as any character). His arc is as transformative as any on the show, and for the majority of that arc the audience doesn’t even know his real name (it’s Reginald Cousins). He’s just “Bubbles.” In fact, in evidence of the permanence of “Bubbles,” even the nickname has a nickname – other characters often lovingly shorten it, to just “Bubbs.” There are scarier nicknames, more illustrative nicknames, and more creative nicknames, but The Wire wouldn’t be The Wire without “Bubbles.”
Honorable Mention: “Snot Boogie.” This is America, and we are all Snot Boogie.
Best Personality: Bunny Colvin
In this instance, Best Personality can be understood as “the character that would be the most fun to be around.” There is probably a segment of the Wire audience that would choose McNulty here, which is the wrong answer. Yes, he’d always be available for a drink, or to look at trains or whatever, but you’d spend most of that time listening to him bitch about his own stuff, which is completely uninteresting and therefore not fun. The correct answer here is Bunny Colvin, who is almost always pleasant, has a weathered, wise sense of humor, is genuinely empathetic, and has a never-ending supply of stories from the good old days. There is no day bad enough to withstand brightening from a cup of coffee with Bunny Colvin.
Honorable Mention: Slim Charles. Consummate pro, honorable, and loyal.
Best Sense of Humor (Funniest) – The Bunk
Not necessarily Bunk Moreland, because it always seemed like Bunk Moreland would assume his jolly persona as a way to hide something broken or remorseful that lived inside himself. You can see it come out when he talks to Omar at the train station, or when he drinks as if there is a finite amount of alcohol in the world and the supply is dwindling. “The Bunk,” however, Moreland’s self-confident, tongue in cheek, third person alter ego, is as close as the series comes to comic relief. The Bunk likes fun. The Bunk rolls with the punches. The Bunk chews on cigars and teases McNulty. Bunk Moreland is natural po-lice, a working man trying his best; The Bunk is a class clown.
Honorable Mention: Snoop. That Home Depot scene.
Biggest Flirt: McNulty
McNulty. It’s tough to buy McNulty’s tortured-genius shtick, but that doesn’t stop him from selling it.
Honorable Mention: The Bunk, McNulty’s go-to wingman.
Most Athletic: Cutty
There’s a lot of athletics-adjacent activity that happens in The Wire, with foot-chases and fisticuffs, but Cutty is the only character that can claim to be an actual athlete. Sure, Avon was a Golden Gloves boxer in his day, but Cutty owns his own gym. He has the distinct physicality of a Pit Bull: coiled, ropy, and powerful. He also jogs through one of the series’ most memorable montages in season four’s “Election Day.” He boxes, runs, and he has a generally imposing physique; Cutty is the only “Athlete” in The Wire.
Honorable Mention: The boy Michael. Fast hands, and he has no qualms delivering them. In this scene he appears to punch Kenard’s jacket off his body, and he only hits Kenard in the face. Seriously. Look between 26 and 27 seconds.
Most Changed: Ellis Carver
The Wire is often referred to in literary terms that praise the show’s scope and narrative style – novelistic, Dickensian, and so forth. What these descriptors sometimes miss, while focusing on the broad view of urban decay in capitalist society, is the series’ almost unmatched ability to craft organic, relatable, trackable character arcs. It uses static elements – often opposing and parallel – to establish the poles of it’s universe. Clay Davis, unredeemable asshole, is on one side, and Bubbles’ sponsor, selfless shepherd, is on the other. Bunny Colvin and Stringer both work at reform, but face similar resistance on opposite sides of the spectrum. The way the show plays with dualities and establishes these roles within its universe is both an effective shorthand and a devastating foreshadowing tool. In Season 1, it’s immediately obvious that jaded, lazy officers Pogue and Mahon are meant to starkly contrast McNulty, Daniels, and the natural po-lice in The Detail. Later, in Season 4, it’s heartbreaking to watch the series’ youthful protagonists assume mantles made familiar by other Wire characters, with Michael, destined for either Chris Partlow’s Grim Reaper role or Omar’s vulture lifestyle, and Duquan, headed for Bubbles’ role, proving that natural intelligence and ability aren’t enough to overcome a poisonous environment.
The use of these established, static types allows for truly compelling characters to streak across the Baltimore universe, breaking loose from one fate or another and learning from the systems around them. Bubbles (we hope) finds salvation at the series’ conclusion. Mayor Carcetti ends his arc as another craven politician, aiming only to secure power – a far cry from the doe-eyed optimist that the audience first meets. But it’s Ellis Carver who makes the most believable and encouraging transformation.
When The Wire begins, Carver – like his partner and buddy, Herc – is a cowboy. Not necessarily detestable, but plainly short-sighted and ineffectual, a head-knocker who cares more about more about kicking the ass of Baltimore’s symptoms than about curing the city’s disease. However, as the five seasons progress, Carver changes without a hint of contrivance. You can see him absorb the tutelage of Bunny Colvin; you feel his pain when he understands, through Randy, how the system continually fails its subjects; you rejoice when he appears late in the series, understanding the value of community policing and building relationships. The argument The Wire crafts is still present: Ellis Carver could be the world’s best cop, and his best intentions would likely be smothered by the institutional atrophy that surrounds him. But it still feels great to see him try.
Honorable Mention: Bubbles – er, Reginald Cousins
Most Likely to Succeed: Greggs
Greggs spends most of The Wire torn between a life in hard-drinking professional isolation (McNulty style) and a law-enforcement life marked by collaboration, influence, and passion. She’s one of the series’ most gifted and committed detectives from the beginning, emerging as a natural leader in scenes with other drug detectives. However, she appears drawn to some of the self-destructive tendencies (mostly a lot of drinking and dishonestly) that prevent her colleagues from maintaining stable personal lives and fruitful professional lives. When she is confronted in Season 5 with the gross transgressions of McNulty and Lester, Greggs is left with what feels to the audience like a final choice: turn a blind eye, aligning herself with selfish rogue elements within the force (no matter how well-intentioned), or try her best to affect change within an established set of ethical parameters. She chooses the latter, reporting McNulty and Lester to the department and ending their careers in the process. The choice is difficult to watch, knowing what the three had been through in seasons prior, but it positions Greggs as a rising star who possesses a well of natural talent matched by a true moral compass.
Honorable Mention: Michael. See again: he hit the jacket off Kenard’s body.
Saddest Moment: Michael and Dukie’s Goodbye
The Wire is a tragic show, but it’s not always a sad show. There are funny moments, poignant moments, gripping moments, and yes – there are sad moments. Those sad moments appear with less frequency than the series’ instances of absurdity or straightforward drama, but they bear outsize influence on The Wire‘s essence. They are the punctuation marks, the beats that drive home the polemic Simon and Burns craft with each season of the show. There are a solid number of fitting choices here – the series can be crushing on an intensely personal human level, a wide-angle level, and an inescapable, unsolvable existential level. Those broad and terrifying reflections of systemic futility are what separate The Wire from other series that do human drama as effectively, and they don’t come more tragic than Michael and Dukie’s poignant goodbye.
This is a moment without trauma – there are no gunshots, no wake of bodies, no death but the deaths of the future of the two young men on the screen and the community that they came from. When the audience first meets Duquan and Mike, they are just kids. Kids in an unfortunate setting, but the signifiers of their youth are recognizable in any milieu: they make trouble, scuffle with other boys, try to fit in at school, navigate their surroundings, etc. This scene, with its weighted pauses and clumsy goodbye, communicates just how far the two have strayed from their innocence. Duquan is being dropped off to live with junkies, finalizing his initiation into years of inhumanity and struggle. Mike is headed somewhere dark and dangerous that we can’t exactly pinpoint, but it’s clear what he is leaving behind. When Dukie asks him to remember the summer a year back, when they got into a scuffle with another group of boys, Mike’s answer devastates, and tidily encapsulates The Wire’s view of urban decay: “I Can’t.”
Best Scene: ?
“Best” is a dumb, indefinable title, but lets try and bestow it anyway! Because it’s indefinable, “Best” could stand in for most momentous, or most emblematic scene in the series. A few come to mind:
- Wallace’s Death: The murder of Wallace, committed by his close and equally young friends, was the moment that snapped audiences to attention, announcing The Wire as a different kind of show. The scene is horrifying and executed (hilarious pun!) perfectly. Michael B. Jordan, in his first major role as Wallace, cries and begs and pisses his pants in a performance that is still nearly impossible to watch. Bodie levels a gun at and verbally assaults his friend, but you can tell that the words are more for Bodie’s benefit than Wallace’s. He’s talking himself into it, convincing himself that the unforgivable act is inevitable, a product of Wallace’s weakness and not Bodie’s rage or the toxicity of their surroundings.
- Snoop Buys a Nail Gun: This scene, a throwaway gag that serves as the introduction of Snoop’s character, exemplifies the way The Wire could expertly weave humor into its tragic narrative. The show is doggedly realistic and unstylish, but is able to secretly imbue its stark view with mythicism – think Omar falling four stories and walking it off, Brother Mouzone’s persona, or Snoop and Chris’ grim assumption of Grim Reaper Mantle. Which is not to say that Snoop’s trip to Home Depot is inherently unrealistic – it’s simply tonally inconsistent with the rest of the show in a way that enhances the realism of The Wire instead of puncturing it.
- The “Fuck” Scene: This will forever be referred to as “The Infamous ‘Fuck’ Scene,” and was an early example of how The Wire would continually eschew typical narrative style in favor of originality and unconventionality. McNulty and Bunk say nothing but “Fuck” in this scene, over and over with different inflection, yet the specifics of their communications are never obscured by the conceit.
These are great scenes, but none of them pack the emotional wallop that comes with the series true best scene:
- Avon and Stringer on the Rooftop: A friend of mine once said about the death of Stringer Bell, “It was an end to one of the greatest American stories ever told.” He was right. That death, and the above conversation that preceded it, brought conclusion to the Barksdale arc with a sense of tragedy and irony that the series would never again match. Stringer and Avon stand on a penthouse balcony, looking out over their kingdom – a kingdom that each knows is about to crumble, without fully grasping the reasons why. They have double-crossed one another, and the result is two men saying a goodbye they don’t clearly understand. The sequence is layered with tragic subtext, but what makes it truly transcendent is the bittersweet sentimentality woven into their farewell. They reminisce about a childhood in the projects, and the audience remembers three seasons of criminal brotherhood between them. After the goodbye, Avon’s story continues behind bars, and Stringer’s comes to a bloody end. This last time on screen together is a truly beautiful and human conclusion to one of the greatest American stories ever told.