The third and fourth seasons of The Wire become a taut duology. I normally write these posts part of the way through the season after the one I’m working on, and season 4 really feels like it directly grows out of the third season, still fitting the same themes and motifs.

Part of this is because season 3 introduced the political world of Baltimore. There was a plan to spin-off this story into it’s own series. This did not happen so season 4 has the stories from this planned series added in. At the same time this continuing story helps to connect the end of the old drug gang and the rise of the new one.

While we’ll get into this stuff a bit more in the season 4 post let’s go back and look out our Barksdale crime syndicate. Stringer always was the more aspirational of the group with our third season showing he’s trying to get as much distance between him and everything as possible. Similarly Avon is coving the more street-level elements of the crew’s problem

The big thing everyone remembers from this season is Hamsterdam, an attempt to negate the aspects of drug trafficking by making “free to sell/buy” zones. Really this storyline takes a bit to build up. We see Colvin dealing with being pushed for stats prior to the election. We see him really getting tired of cops being raised up on this idea of stats.

This problem of learned behavior flows through to the next season and the examination of the school system. After 3 seasons diagnosing some of the problems with the police the school system is explained to viewers pretty well as another system worrying about numbers more than reality.

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Colvin is the big link between these two chapters, but drug game wise the move from the Barksdales to Marlo’s crew is the big link. It’s in the vacuum that Marlo really stands out. Thing is Marlo stands up as the darkest elements of the Barksdales but with nobody to counter him. Again his learned behavior is the problem with the drug trade, to just get worse and worse.

Hamsterdam was supposed to change that. The answer we always throw up, as people with a brain, is that we need an end to the drug war. That addicts need help through treatment, that harm reduction campaigns need to be given serious funding to stop the medical epidemics that the life of drug users cause. But, and there’s a big one here, what do you actually do? Day one, day two, how does this stuff actually roll out. It’s the problem of having the answers but not really having the answers.

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As the third season comes to a close the political ramifications come into focus. The modern American city is a clusterfuck of political BS so the risks of a free-zone are beyond most people’s political interests. What we get from The Wire is that politicians need stats to get elected. Citizens are on the receiving end of all this information and have no real clue whether these things represent anything tangible most of the time. Everything is obscured behind this smoke screen of politics, so more often than not people don’t really respond to numbers. They just want to hear someone talking up their favorite issue. If drugs laws were changed it would fall back into that same problem: how do you explain things to people?

How do you show that things work? I remember writing a paper in school and the numbers on drugs are just terrible. However, trying to frame the problem and any solution is also near impossible. Add to that the branches of the government purposefully pressing for more drug war funding by basically lying and bullying people. Like they show at the end of the season if a city did decide to look the other way, even just in a small area, they would forfeit millions of dollars they would receive from the feds. So you can’t even test this stuff out and see if it could work.

In the end the drug problem is something that exists in part because we don’t talk about it. Personally I think there has to be some way to help addicts, but similarly there are a number of problems caused by the war itself: namely any arrest puts a person in the system and once you’re in the system they have you forever. As it stands when a city, like Baltimore recently, pushes for loads of arrests to show they’re cleaning up the city, it leads to problems getting jobs and housing. You went from having a problem with crime to now having 2 more problems in the mix.

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These are complex problems. I personally don’t think there’s one key that opens every door. Partisanship has led to many of these problems as much as institutions. Only by leaving our quick answers behind are we ever going to find a workable solution. And only by accepting the complexity of the issue does any sort of real answer manifest.

If the fourth season shows anything it’s that talking about problems is quite different than living them. The third season though is all about that problem with execution. Stringer, with his aspirational lifestyle and corporate mindset, just can’t execute on getting out. And while the idea of a man only having his word will come back up in, you guessed it, season four, this is the moment we see things step up for our main characters.

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While the political story continues into next season, in many ways it feels like the show has taken a wrap. Season 4 will give us many new characters and locations. However it takes away from us the investigative unit, in all but name. I can safely say season 3 was the best season of the show so far. We finally get a consistent look for the show, the writing is all quality, and yet it took 2 seasons worth of story to really step off the way it did. Next time season 4, the season about education, and oddly the least “The Wire” season of The Wire. But, quite possibly, it’s the best season of TV ever made.