Like a new chapter in a grand and sweeping novel, The Wire returned tonight, opening up its fourth season on HBO. Perhaps The Great American Novel is making way for something else. If that's so, I'd argue that The Wire is a Great American Story, made up of some of the richest and most fully realized characters ever to grace the television screen. And like The Sopranos, a Great American Story that just happens to be about mob guys and their families, The Wire just happens to be about cops and drug dealers and politicians.
But it's really about people and their stories and lives, the way the best stories always are. The sum is greater than the parts, which are of course meticulously constructed from outstanding writing, superlative acting, and marvelously realistic and gritty and beautiful images of Baltimore, the stage on which The Wire takes shape. The show seamlessly flips between characters with no conscious decision to cast any in "good" or "bad" light. All are just doing their thing, getting by, doing the best they can, just like all of us.
Episode One does a wonderful job of (re)-introducing and then transitioning through the myriad of characters, checking in and advancing the story of each as the viewer is caught up on events and circumstances. It's also nothing less than miraculous that there is no true main character or even characters on The Wire. Baltimore is the main character, maybe, or human nature, or crime, or justice (or lack thereof), or some combination of them all. Or maybe it's McNulty and his hopes and demons, after all.
The beginning of the fourth season was significant both for the new characters and situations introduced as well as some major players that do not show up at all (Omar and Bubbles and Avon Barksdale most significantly, as well as the police brass that played such a major role in Season Three).
New to the scene is a quartet of middle-schoolers from the hood, kids poised in such a way that we're not sure which side of the law they'll eventually end up on. We spend the most time getting to know Randy, a good-looking kid with corn rows who sells candy and seems to be reasonably well looked after by his mother, and DuQuan, a poor, awkward, and outcast boy who is nonetheless obviously bright.
After DuQuan is bloodied up, the neighborhood kids decide they must retaliate as they are the only ones with the right to beat him up. Randy devises a plan to lure the larger, older group of offenders into an ambush of piss-filled balloons. This backfires rather quickly, however, and turns violent.
Later on, Randy is lured himself into a more serious storyline involving gang-related murders between Marlo's crew and the remnants of Barksdale's guys. Fruit, a Marlo dealer introduced to us in Season Three, gets brutally shot in the face at point-blank range over a beef involving a girl. Randy later agrees to a request that, unbeknownst to him at the time, leads to a payback murder. How this terrible knowledge affects the boy will be something to watch.
Marlo, for his part, is now coolly and confidently wearing the drug kingpin crown that he sought (Barksdale-man Bodie tells Lex early on that "Marlo has the city by the ass"). Even the police, for now, can't understand how he can be controlling so much of the city's drug trade without "bodies dropping."
It seems, however, that his people are adept at stashing bodies in hard-to-find places (a trip to a hardware store to purchase a high-end nail gun and a scene in which creepily young hit men, Snoop and Chris, board up an abandoned row house bookend the show). Marlo and crew is also up on Lester and Kima's famous bulletin board as the target for their ongoing quest to get "hard targets" "up on a wire," so the chase will be on soon enough.
The school system is a new setting in the ever-evolving focus of The Wire's eye this season. Prez, who left the police force after a series of awful decisions (and some brilliant behind-the-scenes investigative work), is now teaching at a Middle School. The principal and vice principal launch from "lambs to the slaughter" talk at the sight of him (white, clean cut) to visibly impressed when they learn he used to be "a police."
There's a brilliant back-and-forth that takes place where we see teachers getting trained to say IALAC (I am loveable and capable) as police officers are getting trained on terrorism "soft targets." The implication is that both training environments are wildly out of step with the realities of the street.
Politics are taking an ever-increasing role on the show. This was underscored by the emphasis on Tommy Carcetti's long shot campaign to get elected as a white mayor of Baltimore. Carcetti must split the black vote between incumbent Mayor Royce and fellow city councilmen and (former) friend Tony Gray if he has any shot at winning. Royce, a crafty politician but seemingly poor administrator (crime is way up) – perhaps a commentary for how our leaders tend to first win our vote before proceeding to fail us – muses that Carcetti needs to learn what it's like to be "out in the woods."
And off into the woods Carcetti is, which makes for some of the lighter moments of the episode, such as a high minded speech he issues to a bunch of bored constituents at a senior center before being asked by an old lady, "Is it the Salisbury steak for lunch today, or is they doing tacos?"
Comedy comes from strange and unexpected corners on The Wire, such as when Detective Bunk Moreland offhandedly says to Lester, "You my real partner, Lester – my life partner," to which Lester replies, "Don't tease, bitch!" As Lester walks away, Bunk drawls, "Look at that bow-legged motherfucker… I made him walk like that."
At other times the humor is more ironic or pointed, such as when Bodie says of his underachieving drug dealers, "Young 'uns don't have a scrap of work ethic nowadays." And particularly subtle and effective were the drug dealers' cries of "Pandemic! Pandemic!" as a way of announcing what likely is a new street-name for the product.
As the multiple storylines play out, I'm hopeful that we'll see more of McNulty, who still seems to be trying to continue his mission of getting to know his community rather than simply "cracking heads." It's great to have a show smart enough to respect the intelligence of its viewers, to allow us to figure out what this might mean.
Maybe it's a commentary on US foreign policy in the Middle East, or perhaps it’s a cry to tone down racial profiling and brutal police tactics in inner cities. Or maybe it's just McNulty being McNulty.