In the season finale of The Wire, former gang-banger Cutty Wise (Chad L. Coleman), knee-capped in the previous ep for unsuccessfully attempting to pull a kid away from the Corner, lies in a Baltimore hospital bed while his roommate watches Deadwood on his set. Cutty, who's in as an ER patient without insurance, doesn't get HBO on his half of the room; no insurance means he only gets to watch four channels – whatever, one presumes, can get pulled in by antenna. It's not HBO, it's just teevee.
The ironic ref to Deadwood, another critically lauded but ratings challenged cable series, is apt; like David Milch's western, The Wire concerns itself with a large and dangerous community. Both shows are as focused on life in the streets as they are the backrooms inhabited by the people in power. But while Deadwood wraps its drama and its ironies in calculatedly artificial dialog, David Simon's police procedural aims for – and achieves – a more naturalistic tone.
Each of The Wire's four seasons has had one overriding plotline; this year's centered on the Baltimore school system where former screw-up cop Prez (Jim True-Frost) has found his vocation as a math teacher. Through Prez (hopeless as a cop, decent as a teacher), we meet a group of young "hoppers," 21st century Dead End Kids who struggle to survive the neighborhood and only incidentally think of school. The primary quartet – Namond, Michael, Randy and Duquan (a.k.a. "Dukie," which is frequently pronounced "Dookey") – wind up connecting with the adult police who we've seen from the series' beginning. But it's not always to their benefit. When Randy (Maestro Harrell), for instance, gets labeled a "snitch bitch" for inadvertently talking to a cop, the repercussions prove catastrophic for both him and his foster mother.
Another series regular, junkie real snitch Bubbles (Andre Royo) also ties into the "schooling" plotline with even more heartbreaking results. Dedicated to taking a boy under his wing to teach him the tricks of surviving on the streets, he pushes his latest "student" Sherrod (Rashad Orange) into re-enrolling in school so the boy can pick up the math skills necessary to street peddling. But his plan falls apart when Sherrod falls victim to his mentor's junkie scheme to poison a thug who's been victimizing Bub's. The look of torment on the remarkable Royo's face in the season's climax as he comes to grips with what he's done is some of the rawest emotional television ever lensed.
Inextricable from the school-set plotlines – which prove to be a more despairing updating of Up the Down Staircase (a book and movie once used to pump student teachers with vim and vigor as they headed out to urban schools) – is the usual host of dealers, druggies, cops, and politicians all making their living, in one way or another, off the decaying urban setting. Foremost among the cops are homicide detectives Freamon (Clarke Peters) and Moreland (Wendell Pierce) who make things uncomfortable for the boys downtown when they discover that the city's lower homicide stats have resulted from the diligent efforts of two gang enforcers who've been dumping their bodies in boarded-up buildings. For their efforts, they're reviled more than lauded until someone in the city's new administration realizes that the bad stats can be stuck on the outgoing administration.
Even with its focus on the school system, The Wire's writers realize that one of the prime pleasures of this show remains watching smart investigative police work – and Freamon and Moreland are two of its most enjoyable practitioners (the third, Dominic West's Jimmy McNulty, largely sat this season out, though his much-missed character promises to return full-force in the show's fifth and final season). Though the title wire-tapping operations that comprised a large percentage of the cop work in the first three seasons were severely curtailed this year, this proved to be in service to one of the series' overriding themes — the way that city and interdepartmental politics curtail – and frequently hamper – real police work. Early in the season when Detective Freamon's investigations into where drug monies were going proved embarrassing for the area's politicos, the Deputy of Operations moved a new supervisor into the Major Crimes Unit, a longtime political hack guaranteed to hamstring Freamon's investigation. The act drove Freamon out of Major Crimes and into Homicide, where he still, happily, proved to be a hard-working pain in the ass.
The politically-driven obsession with jiggered stats shows up both in the police and school world: the latter, much to Prez's dismay, as the small connections he makes with his students get trashed once he and the rest of his peers are forced to start teaching the upcoming state tests to all their students. Teaching to the test supplants real education, and, even then, when the less-than-stellar test results come out, we learn the school system has ways of making the numbers sound better than they actually are. In both cases, the infatuation with good statistics keeps hard-working cops and teachers from doing their jobs – a point we see repeatedly made on The Wire.
That Simon, co-creator Ed Burns and the rest of their writers (among 'em, crackerjack urban novelists like Richard Price and Dennis Lehane) show this without us losing interest in The Wire's vast cast is a tribute to script work that consistently favors character over polemic. I haven't even mentioned the show's roll call of finely etched drug dealers and gang-bangers – canny businessman Proposition Joe (Robert F. Chew), who tries to merge the city's drug dealers into a co-op; psychotically swashbuckling free-agent Omar (Michael K. Williams), who steals a major drug shipment from the co-op or Chris and Snoop, the pair using Baltimore's abandoned tenements as their own personal cemetery, being the ones that particularly stood out this season – but they're just as vibrant and richly characterized as the police. The show even manages to make day-to-day city government gruntwork entertaining without falling back on Sorkin-esque wisecrackery.
Which brings me to this season's other major plotline: the campaign and election of white city mayor Tommy Carcetti (Aiden Gillen). After effectively running against the city's popular black mayor Royce with a campaign promising to clean things up, Carcetti (who we can't help rooting for since we've already had three seasons to see how bankrupt the current administration is) takes office, only to learn that the city's school system has a $54 million deficit. Unable to merely pass this off on his predecessor, the Democrat mayor is forced to travel to Annapolis with his hat in hand to the state’s Republican governor. But he walks away from the table when it's clear that bowing to the governor will work against his own plans to run for the office in two years.
The move, we realize, is the first of many betrayals against his constituency that Carcetti will make in the interests of furthering his political career. Though Simon and the rest of his writers are too open-eyed to believe that simply throwing money at a problem is the final solution, they also recognize a street-level truth: that sooner or later, you have to pay the bills. It's a fact the city's leaders have made a career out of ignoring, and the results become more visible the further you get from City Hall. Though the election is long over by the end of Season Four, we still see campaign posters plastered on the city's run-down buildings – only now they're just one more bit of neighborhood detritus.