Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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Time of the Season: S3 of the Wire (2004)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on May 11, 2007

“Yeah, right. We natural po-lice.

See now, this is why I’m loving TV so much right now. For so long it was such a relatively artless medium (though probably not as much as some thought), that it feels like the possibilities are endless now that people are starting to take the medium seriously. Only a few movies of recent years have really thrilled me in their scope and imagination, by contrast, the excitement of legitimately great television is new, shocking and fairly awesome.

Season three of The Wire is better than the first two seasons. As you know if you’ve been keeping up with recent blog entries of mine on the subject, this is no small feat–really at this point in my watching, The Sopranos seems sort of easy, facile and even kind of sloppy by comparison. Keeping up this level of artistry over the course of three seasons without getting repetitive or just running out of things to say is an unbelievable accomplishment, but the show manages to do it without drawing unnecessary attention to its greatness–you’re able to conclude that this is a Great Show without it spelling it out for you.

So then, the dock workers of season two are gone completely, leaving the main thread of the first season–McNulty and his unit’s investigation of Avon (who’s now out on parole) and Stringer, as well as the dealers’ attempts to fend off competition from zealous up-and-comer Marlo Stanfield and his crew, and the conflict between the two brothers. Going along the one-institution-a-season thread of 1 and 2 though, the show also introduces a new plot line with idealistic but tough Baltimore coucnilman Tommy Carcetti, and his plan to oust the mayor in the next Maryland election. And there’s even a third main plot, with the soon-to-retire Major Bunny Colvin’s decision that he was mad as hell at the Baltimore murder rate and wasn’t going to take it anymore, setting up a drug-safe zone in Baltimore (labeled “Hamsterdam” by the hoppers) where the dealers could deal without police reprisal if they refrained from killing each other while doing so.

There’s a whole lot happening this season, but as usual, the most interesting parts of the show come courtesy of Stringer and Avon. Even before his release from prison, it was clear Avon and Stringer were about to get into some serious issues–between Stringer’s being responsible for Avon’s cousin D’Angelo getting got, his undermining Avon’s authority by teaming up with Proposition Joe behind his back, and his new aspirations to legitimate businessman status, he had clearly outgrown second-in-command status. And once Avon got out and made it clear he has no plans to leave his gangster ways behind, you knew it was only a matter of time before the differences between the two men turned one on the other. Easy to see coming, sure, but no less tragic to see these two once-brothers in a race to sell the other one out, and the inevitable arc of Avon and Stringer’s dilemma provides the season’s greatest drama.

The show’s new foray into politics still makes for some great stuff as well, however. The political world had always been visible in the show’s backdrop, with orders coming down from Mayor Royce and filtering through asshole captains Burrell and Rawls down to the grunts in Baltimore homicide, but now the shady deals, backstabbing and buck-passing are brought to the forefront. It isn’t narratively groundbreaking stuff, necessarily (guess what? Politicans are corrupt, etc.) but it doesn’t really need to be–Carcetti is a pretty compelling stick-in-the-mud figure, and it’ll be exciting to see the actual race against Royce in the next season.

And the Hamsterdam plot is the season’s secret weapon. Playing out the scenario that every decent police probably imagines in his head at least once: “What if I actually tried to make a difference?” The Wire shows Maj. Colvin bending the rules of his administration to the breaking point in order to really get things done. Even though the morality is decidedly sketchy, it’s fairly touching after two years of seasoned cops begrudgingly accepting what they’re given to see a plot written around someone who still believes, and it’s heartbreaking as all hell to see him ultimately fail to see his vision out. The Wire is by nature a cold show, but in some of Colvin’s scenes, it also displays greater heart than most modern dramas could ever be capable of.

Television. I have such hopes for it.

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