WARNING: This article contains pretty massive spoilers for The Wire. If you’ve yet to watch it and don’t want to know what happens… just go pick up the DVD boxset already.
Let’s just get my opinion out there before we start: The Wire is the best TV show ever made. Got it? Good.
Now that that’s out of the way, there are many things that make it brilliant. The slow-burn plots that are allowed to unfold at a steady but eventful pace. The authentic, sometimes to the point of being indecipherable, dialogue. The acting, with subtlety and nuance beyond pretty much anything else I’ve seen on television.
For me though, its real success is its characters. An ensemble show like The Wire relies on its characters more than most. It’s a tough balancing act having such a big cast, and making the show gel.
Thankfully, even the most minor of characters feel fleshed out. They are engaging, and you care about them. They feel real. I can’t think of one role that fits purely into a caricature or a stereotype, and doesn’t in some way challenge and overcome the viewer’s preconceptions.
With this in mind, I will hold back any more gushing compliments about what makes the show a success, and just talk about the top seven people that make The Wire’s Baltimore so damn believable.
D’Angelo is a big presence throughout the first three seasons of the show, even if he only lives to see halfway through the second series. We are introduced to him early on in the show’s first episode. He’s on trial for murder, and escapes conviction after the key witness is bribed to change her testimony. In the courtroom he looks remorseless, and understandably happy to escape conviction. What we should expect from his character seems obvious: he’s a typical drug-pushing thug.
We get to know D’Angelo best through his time in ‘the pit’ – the low-rise towers he deals drugs from with Bodie, Wallace, and Poot. He looks out for his comrades-in-arms, acting as a mentor and helping them out in small insignificant ways. He teaches them how to deal effectively, and in a warped world, he comes across like a caring big brother to the young dealers in the pit.
He just doesn’t seem to fit into the brutal world around him. Deep down, (you know, excluding the murder charge), D’Angelo is a gentle soul hardened by the harsh world he lives in. He identifies particularly with Wallace, a 16 year old dealer who also doesn’t have the heart for the brutality of the Baltimore drug trade. He supports his decision to get out of the drug trade, and offers advice wherever he can.
Perhaps the best thing about D’Angelo isn’t the depth of his character, his character progression, or the brilliant performance by Larry Gilliard Jr, but the fact that he consistently defies expectation. Much like the show itself, D’Angelo constantly evolves, and you can never quite put your finger on him. RIP D’Angelo, you were taken from us too soon.
Preston ‘Bodie’ Broadus
‘Bodie’ is a mainstay throughout the first four seasons of the show, working on the front line of the drug trade, standing on corners and in the pit for the Barksdale organisation, and later pushing the product of Marlo Stansfield.
Much like D’Angelo, we first get to know Bodie properly through his time in the pit in the first season. And again, like D’Angelo, we feel we know what to expect from him. Unlike D’Angelo, what we expect is what we tend to get.
He’s a Baltimore youngster, entangled in the drug trade through his unfortunate circumstances, toughened up by the rough streets and the crappy hand life has dealt him.
He’s initially so focused on getting ahead in the drug-selling game, always unafraid to take arms against whomever he perceives to be a threat. So ambitious that he even helps to murder his friend Wallace to get in the good books of his superior, Stringer Bell.
Yet there is more to Bodie than mindless thuggery. He’s intelligent, vociferous, and rallies against rising drug lord Marlo Stansfield when he orders the murder of co-worker Little Kevin. Like D’Angelo and Wallace before him, he’s worn out by ‘the game’. Even Jimmy McNulty, a cop with a notorious detestation of dealers and drug traffickers, respects Bodie for his loyalty to his Barksdale allies and hatred of Marlo for his ruthless killing spree.
McNulty’s respect is what gets Bodie killed though when one of Stansfield’s lieutenants spots the pair together discussing Marlo’s crew. Just another young life plucked from the streets of Baltimore too soon.
What sort of a list would this be without the best whisky-swilling, womanising, smart-ass cop on television? A pretty crappy one if you ask me.
Wonderfully brought to life by British actor Dominic West, McNulty is the perennial pain in the ass of everyone he encounters. He’s brash, outspoken, and no matter what happens, in McNulty’s head, McNulty is always right. On top of that, he’s a drunk who sleeps around, with a track record for adultery. The guy’s a bit of a mess. We should hate him, right?
Oddly, he’s one of the most likable characters on the whole show. Anyone who I’ve ever spoken to about the show ranks him in their top two favourite characters. Despite the inevitable chaos that follows McNulty around, he’s funny, idealistic, and a complete perfectionist. McNulty always fights to the end to produce the best case possible and put the biggest bastard he can find behind bars.
My favourite McNulty moment is arguably my favourite moment of the whole series. Jimmy gets drunk in a bar, and drives home. Squawking along to Flogging Molly on the stereo, eyes half shut, he takes a sharp turn, and crashes his car into a concrete bridge strut. Staggering out of the car unharmed, he assesses the car damage, judges the angle of his misjudged turn, and grumpily climbs back in.
Instead of driving off, he reverses the car back up the road, drives the car even faster than before, and smashes up the side of his vehicle further to finish the job. It’s the most character defining moment possible, summing up his hunt for perfection and chaotic nature in one moment of madness.
To quote the man himself: ‘What the fuck did I do?’ You won our hearts with your charm and recklessness, McNulty.
Lester, another cop in the Major Crimes Unit alongside McNulty, is the yin to McNulty’s yang. Where Jimmy is impatient, Lester is methodical, and happy to let things take their course. When Jimmy shouts his mouth off about being one of the best policemen in Baltimore, Lester sits quietly, observing, modest. Freamon is summed up perfectly by his nickname, ‘Cool Lester Smooth’. The great thing though is that ultimately, they’re two sides of the same coin. Both tenacious, fiercely intelligent and talented police officers,
Lester is also a symbol for the effect of in-office politics and corruption in the police force. After successfully convicting a politically-connected criminal, Lester is effectively shelved, pushed into the pawnshop unit for 13 years (and four months, Lester would be keen to remind you). A tragic waste of an exceptionally gifted officer in a town painfully short of them.
Still, we get to follow his re-emergence, and it’s a fun ride along the way. He’s the thinking man’s sort of a cop. A 21st century Shaft. I think that sums it up pretty succinctly?
If The Wire were Shakespeare, then Stringer Bell would be Macbeth. The guy’s smart, ambitious, ruthless, and a little bit evil. Stringer is consumed by his ambition to make money, and eventually his desire to turn the Barksdale drug ring legit. Sounds pretty Macbethian to me.
The second-in-command of the Barksdale organisation, if someone threatens him or the Barksdales, Stringer will not hesitate to arrange their murder. But unlike Avon Barksdale, his partner-in-crime, his aggression is more calculated. No doubt that he certainly has a temper, but that is balanced with an dastardly mind, constantly machinating his next move.
One of the series’ most intense and memorable moments is when Stringer reveals to his friend and business partner Avon that he ordered the murder of Avon’s nephew D’Angelo. Avon attacks Stringer, but Bell overpowers his friend, pins him to the floor and yells why he ordered D’Angelo’s death. He’s a man seemingly in control, now on the edge. Vitriolic, passionate, and heartbroken all in one, it really is unimaginable to think of anyone beside Idris Elba that could make Stringer Bell so believable and vivid.
It was the role of a lifetime for Idris Elba, and for a reason. Stringer rocks.
Roland ‘Prez’ Pryzbylewski
At first, Prez is incompetent, disrespected, and he wouldn’t say boo to a goose. So maybe it’s fair to say he has the most dramatic trajectory for any character during the show’s five-season run.
Prez is sent to the Major Crimes Unit at the beginning of the show’s run, as one of the many supposedly incompetent officers dumped on Lieutenant Daniels. Much like Lester Freamon, Prez proves to be a surprise package, showing a natural aptitude for the paper trail, even managing to crack the pager codes used by the Barksdale crew.
He also has a satisfying character moment when he punches his dragon of a father-in-law, also a Major in the police department, square in the face in front of a crowded room of witnesses. But he isn’t suited to the rigours of police work.
Out in the field, Prez covers himself with far less glory, blinding a teenager in one eye by pistol whipping him, and even worse, accidentally killing another police officer in plain clothes while pursuing a suspect.
This leads him to quit the force and become a middle school teacher, encountering ‘corner kids’ Michael, Randy, Namond and Duquan along the way. This is where Prez shines, in particular taking Duquan under his wing. He’s the sort of teacher these kids need, a dedicated and sympathetic one who understands their difficult lives, never patronising them.
We barely see Prez in the show’s final season, which is a damn shame, because there’s a lot to like about the guy.
Shakima ‘Kima’ Greggs
If nothing else, the cast of The Wire is made up primarily of men. And that makes sense, with crime and the police being the main subjects of the show. It just makes it all the more important that the female characters are strong, capable, and engaging.
Enter Kima Greggs, a character about as far away from the ‘damsel in distress’ stereotype as I can imagine. The good thing is that while some of the characters may take note of Kima’s gender in a male-dominated workplace, the writers have just made her another cop, nose to the grindstone each day, doing police work. It doesn’t matter that she’s a woman, not really, which is as it should be.
Her relationship with police informant Bubbles shows a softer side to her character, and the interactions between the two make for some touching scenes. The pair are so very different, and yet very much the same – people muddling through life, making the best of it.
The job puts a strain on her personal life, much like it does for McNulty. But she battles through it, much like the others. That is what makes her great – she is just like another cop, imperfections and all. She’s human.
That’s the strength of the show – man or woman, young or old, criminal or cop, every single character in The Wire is deeply believable, and more importantly, damn entertaining. If you haven’t watched it yet, what the hell are you doing reading this still? Go tune in!
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