When The Wire fell silent ten years ago, it was a critical darling but far from a hit. The show’s most-watched episode was its second-season premiere, which managed to pull in 4.4 million viewers — a number Game of Thrones regularly quintuples. Toward its end run, viewership was barely registering on the ratings scale. The series never won an Emmy; amazingly, it was only ever nominated for two (both for Outstanding Writing). Yet a decade later, The Wire can reliably be found atop just about every Best Shows Ever list, right alongside HBO contemporaries like The Sopranos and Deadwood — a cohort you can blame for helping turn “prestige TV” into a thing.
Creator David Simon, who spent more than a dozen years on the crime beat at the Baltimore Sun, produced and co-wrote the series with Ed Burns (no, not that one), a veteran Baltimore police officer who logged hours with the city’s homicide and narcotics departments and also worked as a public school teacher. (Sound familiar?) Their intention was to draw from their own experiences to create a smart police drama, but the show quickly morphed into more — namely, an examination and ultimately an indictment of the institutions that form the foundation of American society.
Drawing lines between heroes and villains in The Wire is no easy task, and neither is determining which of its 60 episodes are the best — or “worst” — of the bunch. The show just doesn’t work that way. Its sprawling, serialized style (the New York Times called it “The Television Show That Thinks It’s a Novel”) ensures moments of both beauty and heartbreak in each episode. They stay with you. Still, Jimmy McNulty did teach us one thing: The best way to tackle a problem is with dogged determination, a strong dose of obsession, and an unmitigated willingness to piss off a lot of people. With that said, here’s our highly subjective ranking of every episode of The Wire. Don’t agree? Sheeeeeeeee-it.
60. “Ebb Tide” (Season 2, Episode 1)
The show’s most-watched episode also happens to be its worst. Coincidence? Maybe. When season two rolled around, fans were jonesing to dive back into the world of kingpins and corner boys. What they got instead was longshoremen. For a lot of viewers, shifting the action from the projects to the docks was an unwelcome twist. That group includes Omar Little himself — at a 2014 Paleyfest reunion, actor Michael K. Williams admitted that the change in scenery left him “real bitter.”
59. “Collateral Damage” (Season 2, Episode 2)
To be clear: While season two gets a lot of flak, newcomers shouldn’t skip it completely. If given a second chance, even the most die-hard season-two haters will notice bits of nuance and depth they probably missed entirely the first time around. The addition of (future Oscar nominee!) Amy Ryan as Port Authority officer Beadie Russell is one of the season’s bright spots, and her partnership with McNulty is a fruitful collaboration that blossoms into more a couple seasons later.
58. “More With Less” (Season 5, Episode 1)
If season two is the most polarizing season, season five is the most outright hated, mostly because it strays into satirical territory with its serial-killer story line (more on that later). Meanwhile, dead bodies are being pulled from vacant buildings all over the city when a budgetary crisis forces Mayor Carcetti to choose where to divert his funds: the schools or the streets. And perhaps most notably, we now have the media involved, as much of the season takes place in the newsroom of the Baltimore Sun, which is dealing with the impact declining ad dollars and print readership have on investigative journalism.
57. “Hard Cases” (Season 2, Episode 4)
One of the main issues with season two can be summed up in two words: Ziggy Sobotka. The ne’er-do-well son of union leader Frank, Ziggy is that guy at the bar at closing time — the one who’s making a very loud show of demanding another drink (and quite possibly employing a duck as his wingman). Sure, his out-of-control behavior is all building up to something, but having to endure his antics until then makes most Ziggy-full episodes a bit of a slog.
56. “Hot Shots” (Season 2, Episode 3)
If long spans of Ziggy can be painful to endure, it’s even worse when he’s hanging out with his cousin Nick. This is one of those episodes. Fortunately, even the fence they’re dealing with — George “Double G” Glekas — concludes that Ziggy’s a maláka. (That’s Greek for “asshole.”)
55. “Transitions” (Season 5, Episode 4)
Look — it’s McNulty restaging select corpses to make it seem as if there’s a serial killer targeting the city’s homeless population! Which, if we’re being honest, isn’t the craziest thing he’s ever done. But the sight of him (with an assist from Freamon) using false teeth to leave bite marks on a victim is, for lack of a better word, silly.
54. “Unconfirmed Reports” (Season 5, Episode 2)
Barksdales and Greeks and Bubbles, oh my! Just when you thought you’d seen the last of a Barksdale, Marlo goes to visit Sergei Malatov (remember him?) in prison, but finds Avon sitting in his place. Bubbles, meanwhile, continues to be the main bright spot in season five as he works to maintain his sobriety. Unfortunately, this also happens to be the episode where McNulty comes up with the brilliant idea of pretending there’s a serial killer on the loose, with the goal of getting more money funneled into the department. Even Bunk shakes his head.
53. “Undertow” (Season 2, Episode 5)
While Avon has always been content to operate by the code of the streets, Stringer Bell — who moonlights as a student at Baltimore City Community College — has been trying to bring a corporate mind-set to their drug business, applying what he learns in the classroom to his everyday dealings. He even engages his economics professor on the best way to deal with having an “inferior product,” which elicits some sound advice. Stringer’s leadership style sets him apart from the people he works and runs with — and will eventually be his undoing.
52. “Time After Time” (Season 3, Episode 1)
As if to underscore the point that season three would be an entirely new chapter in The Wire’s narrative, it begins with the razing of the Towers, the housing project where the Barksdale organization gained its stranglehold on Baltimore’s booming drug trade. But decimation goes beyond the physical. It becomes a business problem that sets the stage for a major turf war with Marlo’s crew — plus a power struggle between Stringer and Avon.
51. “Backwash” (Season 2, Episode 7)
The title refers to a comment D’Angelo Barksdale makes while discussing The Great Gatsby in the previous episode, “All Prologue,” to describe the negative condition that persists in the wake of a tragic event. In this case, it’s the death of D’Angelo himself and the fracture that begins to form with what is left of the Barksdale organization. He may have been the black sheep of the family, but he was also its heart. Meanwhile, Stringer uses Avon’s incarceration to push his own agenda, which includes partnering with Prop Joe — despite Avon’s adamant stance against sleeping with the enemy. Tick-tock, tick-tock.
50. “Soft Eyes” (Season 4, Episode 2)
Here’s a piece of advice given to cop turned teacher Roland “Prez” Pryzbylewski about how to best deal with the kids in his class: “You need soft eyes,” or the ability to look beyond the surface of what is staring you in the face. It’s a phrase Bunk will repeat to Greggs later on, and in a way, it’s also an instruction to the viewer — abandon any preconceived notions about the institutions that form the foundation of American life.
49. “Lessons” (Season 1, Episode 8)
Ranking all of the characters on The Wire is a difficult a task, but Bunk Moreland would be close to the top. And just above him would be Drunk Bunk Moreland… especially when he ends up locked in the bathroom of a woman he met at a bar, wrapped in a fuzzy pink robe and burning his clothes in a bathtub to eliminate any “trace evidence” of his adultery. That’s Drunk Bunk!
48. “Refugees” (Season 4, Episode 4)
Throughout its run, The Wire welcomed into its writers room a number of well-known crime scribes (including Dennis Lehane, who co-wrote this episode), a practice that only added to the series’ novelistic storytelling style. For example, there’s this great bit of foreshadowing: While drinking with Bunk and discussing how Marlo managed to get so powerful without ever dropping a body, Lester posits the possibility that Marlo is a killer who’s just good at hiding bodies. (He’s right.) Also foretelling: Omar, being Omar, robs Marlo’s poker game. Marlo warns him that won’t be the end of their dealings.
47. “Stray Rounds” (Season 2, Episode 9)
It’s not every day that the police are tasked with infiltrating a brothel. Good thing the squad has McNulty, who takes one (well, two) for the team when he “accidentally” gets seduced by a pair of prostitutes. You can’t say the man is not dedicated.
46. “Dead Soldiers” (Season 3, Episode 3)
If you thought the war being waged on the streets of Baltimore was bad, try sitting in on a Comstat meeting, the weekly sit-down where Ervin Burrell and William Rawls tell Baltimore’s finest how they’re doing a shitty job. Like any other “business,” there’s a distinct hierarchy to police work, which The Wire examines in full. The episode is also notable for introducing the “detective’s wake,” a Baltimore police tradition where the body of a deceased officer spends one final night drinking with his colleagues. Health department regulations be damned!
45. “Duck and Cover” (Season 2, Episode 8)
The fact that this is the first episode in which Idris Elba does not appear automatically pushes it to the bottom half of this ranking. The aforementioned Ziggy-duck situation pushes it down even further.
44. “The Detail” (Season 1, Episode 2)
You know those before-and-after pictures people hold up in weight loss commercials? The Barksdale task force is the law enforcement version of the before picture: a motley crew of largely inexperienced cops and zero-shit-giving humps just waiting out their days until retirement. Though some of them will eventually transform into “real police,” right now the Barksdale crew is the more well-oiled machine, and the team you’re rooting for. Bonus: D’Angelo dishing out deep observations about power and labor in America as it relates to the Chicken McNugget.
43. “Storm Warnings” (Season 2, Episode 10)
You wouldn’t think that some bespectacled dude in a freshly pressed suit and bow tie would be able to put the fear of god into West Baltimore’s toughest drug dealers. But you would be wrong. The inclusion of Brother Mouzone — the nerdiest enforcer/hit man to ever emerge from New York City — is yet another way The Wire plays with cop-drama tropes. Meanwhile, back in Sobotka-land: a spiraling Ziggy shoots and kills Glekas and doesn’t even try to flee the scene.
42. “Not for Attribution” Season 5, Episode 3
McNulty’s whole “let’s fake a serial killer” ploy isn’t going well. People just don’t seem to care about homeless people dying, so Bunk enlists Freamon to talk some sense into him. Naturally, Freamon instead tells McNulty to go bigger.
41. “One Arrest” (Season 1, Episode 7)
This episode’s main selling point is the debut of Clay Davis, the shady senator behind one of the show’s most popular catchphrases: Sheeeeeeeee-it! (If you want to learn how to say it correctly, you’ll need to take a lesson from the Whitlock Academy.)
40. “React Quotes” (Season 5, Episode 5)
Everyone’s a liar! As McNulty gets off on staging new and more elaborate “murders,” the media keep taking the bait — particularly the lazy, quote-fabricating Sun journalist M. Scott Templeton (played by Oscar-winning Spotlight filmmaker Tom McCarthy), who even fakes a phone call from the “serial killer,” thus giving the police the attention they need to get a wiretap. Atta guy!
39. “Took” (Season 5, Episode 7)
Whether you think it’s sharp satire or just too silly, McNulty ups the “no, you’re a liar” game with Templeton by calling him — as the serial killer — to complain about the many errors in his reporting. Elsewhere, Omar continues to close in on Marlo, and proves why he’s the most feared man in the streets.
38. “Port in a Storm” (Season 2, Episode 12)
If The Wire’s season-one finale taught us anything, it’s not to expect many happy endings (unless you’re McNulty infiltrating a whorehouse). Season two reiterated that, as Frank’s body — throat cut — is dragged from the harbor. Nick turns himself in and agrees to tell the police everything, while Serge gives up the Greek. But it’s too late — Vondas and the Greek are already at the airport. Once again, after months of hard work, the police get to clear a handful of cases, yet nothing has really changed.
37. “The Pager” (Season 1, Episode 5)
Just when you thought Team Barksdale would forever be one step ahead of the police, McNulty & Co.’s persistence pays off when they get permission to clone D’Angelo’s pager. There’s just one problem: The dealers use a code the cops can’t crack. Enter Prez! After months of being the village idiot, Pryzbylewski actually proves to be adept at something — puzzle-solving, of all things. Prez’s all-important victory kick-starts one of the show’s most compelling character arcs.
36. “All Due Respect” (Season 3, Episode 2)
What Sam Mendes did for plastic bags in American Beauty, Bunny Colvin does for paper bags in this early season-three episode (written by crime-fiction legend Richard Price): After a drug bust gone wrong ends up in a detective being shot, Colvin schools his underlings on the importance of civic compromise, explaining how the brown paper bag provided an easy solution for creating peace between the police and the public when it comes to open consumption laws. The lesson: Finding a “paper bag” solution to the area’s drug problem could help reduce murder rates. May we all learn more lessons from Bunny.
35. “Home Rooms” (Season 4, Episode 3)
Prez learns important life lessons the hard way as he contends with a classroom of kids whose main exposure to adult behavior is what they see in the streets. McNulty, meanwhile, is a new man. After reconnecting with Beadie, he’s turned into a regular family guy, and Stringer’s death teaches him that his job is just a job. (Translation: Dominic West took some time off during season four to return to the stage in London, so shot all of his work for the season in just a few weeks.)
34. “Old Cases” (Season 1, Episode 4)
If ever one needed to illustrate the power that an actor brings to a writer’s word(s), the “fuck” scene would be it. For five minutes, Bunk and McNulty investigate the scene of an old case and unexpectedly realize it’s linked to Barksdale’s people. They even manage to solve the complicated logistics of how the murder happened (young woman, a knock on the window, turns on light, takes closer look, tap-tap-tap, boom). And they do it all with dialogue that consists entirely of variations of the word “fuck.” On top of being funny, it says a lot about Simon’s respect for his audience’s intelligence to trust them to connect the dots.
33. “Straight and True” (Season 3, Episode 5)
While it could be easy to imagine that drug dealers and users would quickly embrace Colvin’s “free zone” concept, it would ring false to the inherent distrust they have for law enforcement. And The Wire isn’t known for false notes. So, in a brilliant move, Colvin meets with with Bodie to lay out the rules of the free zones, then watches as they slowly catch on. The episode also marks the first time we see Chris Partlow, Marlo’s levelheaded (and very likable) right-hand man.
32. “The Buys” (Season 1, Episode 3)
With any good small-screen slow burn, there comes a moment when the audience is rewarded for their stick-to-itiveness. That moment arrives when D’Angelo finds Bodie, Wallace, and Poot playing checkers on a chess board and decides to teach them the rules of the game, which just so happen to mirror the rules of their game — and they’re the pawns. The episode is also notable for introducing Omar, everyone’s favorite drug-dealer-robbing Robin Hood of West Baltimore.
31. “Hamsterdam” (Season 3, Episode 4)
Bunny Colvin’s vision of a more structured approach to West Baltimore’s drug problem finally comes together, and gets a name: Hamsterdam, the result of some drug dealers not knowing what or where Amsterdam is. The idea: Police will look the other way on drug use as long as there’s no violence. If it seems like a narrative stretch, consider this: In 1988, less than a year into his first term, then-Baltimore mayor Kurt L. Schmoke (who later appears in the show as the city’s health commissioner) stood before Congress and laid out his many reasons for wanting to legalize drugs. (There are plenty of people who still like the idea.)
30. “The Wire” (Season 1, Episode 6)
That the episode title mimics the series title indicates one thing: It’s on! Cracks are beginning to form in the Barksdale organization’s carefully cultivated structure. Namely: D’Angelo, who is beginning to understand that he — much like his protégé Wallace — is wired differently from those around him, including his kin. Also, following the brutal murder of his boyfriend, Omar exacts his revenge by offering himself up to the police as a witness to the Barksdales’ many misdeeds.
29. “Homecoming” (Season 3, Episode 6)
Usually we see Bunk when he’s cracking wise, bombed out of his mind, and/or dealing with the vomitous aftermath of being bombed out of his mind. But “Homecoming” gives him a nice slice of drama to bite into as he harangues Omar (his old high-school classmate!) for meddling in a murder investigation, reminding him of the strong sense of community that used to exist in the neighborhood. Bunk’s nostalgia for their shared past serves as a sharp reminder of the different paths they took, and they’re not the only ones. Elsewhere, Avon’s “homecoming” from prison turns into a wake-up call to just how different his and Stringer’s goals are.
28. “Game Day” (Season 1, Episode 9)
Up until this point, The Wire had played out as mainly a “cops and robbers” kind of crime show (albeit an unusually complex one). No longer: Freamon’s task force follows the Barksdale crew’s money trail directly into the bank accounts of several prominent politicians, thereby heightening the show’s political dimension, which had so far only been sniffed at. Meanwhile, Herc and Carver stumble upon the annual Eastside-Westside basketball game and we’re suddenly reminded that the police don’t even know what Avon — who is standing right in front of them — looks like. Fortunately, Sydnor recognizes him from an old boxing photo, meaning the police finally have a face they can stick on their board.
27. “Slapstick” (Season 3, Episode 9)
Though the episode is no Marx Brothers movie, the title reflects the almost absurd nature of what goes down, from a couple of Barksdale soldiers shooting off Omar’s grandmother’s church hat (and violating the longstanding Sunday truce) to the always-careful Carver sloppily moving a body out of Hamsterdam. One of the series’ most heartbreaking moments comes when Prez, now a beloved and vital member of the MCU, accidentally kills a fellow officer. That the officer was black only further politicized the matter, and makes it as relevant a story line today.
26. “Alliances” (Season 4, Episode 5)
Much like Avon and Stringer before them, Marlo and Chris have a yin-yang thing going on: Marlo is the man with his name on the office door, but it’s Chris who keeps the soldiers in line and doesn’t hesitate tell Marlo know if he disagrees with a particular business strategy. In this case, it’s Marlo’s harebrained scheme to bring down Omar: rob a bodega and kill a civilian, then blame it Omar. Yeah, that’ll work. Meanwhile, Randy Wagstaff is convinced that Chris is turning people into zombies and shares this suspicion with his friends. Just when you start to forget that these kids are still just kids, they remind you.
25. “Know Your Place” (Season 4, Episode 9)
Even when it’s not being directly addressed, a seething layer of racial tension is always present in The Wire. That conflict comes to a head in season four with the election of a new white mayor. Though Carcetti is serious about cleaning up city hall, doing so would require firing several prominent black leaders — not exactly a good look. Fortunately for Carcetti, he’s strategic and slimy, and has the benefit of having the well-connected Norman Wilson (the late, very wonderful Reg E. Cathey) as his right-hand man.
24. “The Dickensian Aspect” (Season 5, Episode 6)
The title wryly refers to the show’s most-cited literary comparison, and the point hits home when Bunk follows up with Randy, who has spent the past year in a group home. The golden heart and innocence he had just a year earlier is gone. Who’s to blame but society as a whole?
23. “Unto Others” (Season 4, Episode 7)
“Vulnerable” isn’t a word we normally associate with Omar, but it’s the only way to describe his situation in jail, where he’s being charged with a murder he didn’t commit. So he decides to call in some favors. His friends in power can’t make the charge go away, but they do manage to move Omar to a safer facility. (All in the game, yo.)
22. “Moral Midgetry” (Season 3, Episode 8)
Stringer is at a crossroads. After running the show while Avon was in prison, he’s now stuck playing the second B in B&B. And he discovers that he might be the most moral guy out there in the “legitimate” world he’s been trying to break into. Avon’s not having any of it, and after more than a full season of tension, the moment of reckoning arrives. Avon: “I bleed red and you bleed green. I look at you these days, String, you know what I see? I see a man without a country. Not hard enough for this right here and maybe, just maybe, not smart enough for them out there.” Without missing a beat, Stringer matter-of-factly tells Avon he had D’Angelo murdered — because it was what needed to be done. It’s a powerful scene that manages to surprise; there’s always one more layer to peel away from a character. And it sets what might’ve been the show’s best relationship on a path to destruction.
21. “Misgivings” (Season 4, Episode 10)
What makes season four’s kid-focused plotline so compelling is that it becomes clear that the parents — or lack thereof — are part of the problem. But show these kids a little kindness, respect, and discipline, and they’ll do the same. When Namond is arrested for selling drugs (at the insistence of his mother), Colvin ends up bringing Namond home to stay with him and his wife for a few days, and sees an entirely different (and charming) side of the teen. Who knew?
20. “Reformation” (Season 3, Episode 10)
Prop Joe tells Stringer that the Barksdale organization is facing a “crisis of leadership,” but he may as well be talking about the Baltimore police department. Or the Baltimore mayor’s office. Or… you get the point. Everything’s a goddamn mess: The New Day Co-Op wants to cut ties with the Barksdale crew in order to make nice with Marlo; there’s a Sun reporter sniffing around Hamsterdam; and Brother Mouzone has returned with the explicit goal of exacting revenge on Omar.
Yet, with all that going on, the biggest moment here is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot of Rawls hanging out at a gay bar, which was never referenced again. Try finding another series — or showrunner — with that kind of narrative restraint. When asked about it four years later, Simon admitted, “We could have cannibalized Rawls’s moment in the gay bar and advanced that moment, but I’m not sure we would have created any more theme, and on some level it was very satisfying just to grant the notion of a closeted gay man’s sexuality a moment on screen and then move on. There was something very compelling and real about just acknowledging that but not making it into grist for a storyline that didn’t add anything to our portrayal of Rawls.”
19. “The Target” (Season 1, Episode 1)
In a way, The Wire’s pilot is its own worst enemy. It’s dark and deep and complex and requires the viewer’s undivided attention, which explains the common Wire-trier’s refrain, “I tried watching the first episode but just couldn’t get into it.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette TV critic Rob Owen echoed that sentiment when he wrote that the episode “gives so little, it almost begs to be abandoned; then a scene or a smidgen of character development offers a hook that might keep viewers interested. But TV shows, no matter how complex or thought-provoking, shouldn’t require that much work.” We respectfully disagree. Yes, the episode is dense — but so is the rest of the series. It’s a litmus test for your willingness to go all-in on one of television’s most elegantly crafted series.
18. “Margin of Error” (Season 4, Episode 6)
While there are usually clear lines drawn between the various political, police, and public school story lines, this is one episode when they all collide. It’s Election Day in Baltimore and the winner is… Clay Davis, who manages to scam $20,000 from Carcetti to help guarantee him a win, then simply pockets the cash. Sheeeeeeeee-it, that’s just Clay being Clay. Meanwhile, Randy lets it slip that he has intel about Lex’s murder. Prez, knowing all too well that Randy has just just endangered his own life, appeals to Daniels and Carver to keep a special eye on the kid to keep him safe. It’s the beginning of Carver and Randy’s beautiful (albeit short-lived) kinship, and a reminder that tiny favors can turn out to be heroic deeds (unless you’re dealing with Clay Davis).
17. “The Hunt” (Season 1, Episode 11)
The Wire never sugarcoated the transactional bureaucracy that goes on within a police department. Forget coffee and doughnuts; favor-trading and backstabbing are the preferred currency here, as illustrated by the dispiriting aftermath that goes down after Detective Greggs gets shot during an undercover deal gone wrong. Also left floundering: a newly sober Bubbles, whom Greggs had promised to help keep off the streets. Unaware of the shooting, Bubbles tries to call her but instead gets thrown into a police car, interrogated, and beaten — a sobering moment that helps humanize an addict’s struggles.
16. “Back Burners” (Season 3, Episode 7)
New seasons bring new telecommunications technologies — and with it, new hurdles in the MCU’s quest to get that titular wire going. In season three, disposable burner phones become the communication device du jour, presenting the team with a yet another puzzle to solve. While the Hamsterdam experiment is having the desired effect on crime stats, it’s also disrupting the nature of the neighborhood. As Herc puts it, “You mess with the environment and some species get fucked out of their habitat.” Indeed: Watching Bubbles make his way through the neighborhood at night — witnessing what addiction looks like from the outside — is as eye-opening for the viewer as it is for the beloved CI.
(Interesting side note: We largely have The Wire to thank for the now-ubiquitous term “burner,” a fact that infamous NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden poked fun at back in 2016 and led to a rather fascinating Twitter exchange between him and Simon.)
15. “Corner Boys” (Season 4, Episode 8)
Prez has stumbled upon an effective new teaching method: Don’t let the kids think you’re teaching them at all (and hey, it works). Colvin attempts a similar approach with his class by attempting to engage them in a conversation instead of lecturing them. Their ongoing debate leads the kids to question society’s hypocrisy: “Like you all say: don’t lie, don’t bunk, don’t cheat, don’t steal or whatever,” Namond says. “But what about y’all, huh? What, the government? What it — Enron? … We do the same things as y’all, except when we do it, it’s like, ‘Oh my god, these kids is animals.’ Like it’s the end of the world coming.”
14. “All Prologue” (Season 2, Episode 6)
It’s safe to say that television has never seen a character quite like Omar Little: an openly gay stickup man who makes his living robbing drug dealers and never backs down. It’s an undeniable treat for viewers every time he’s onscreen. Nowhere is this more evident than when he’s called as a witness against Bird in a murder trial. Within seconds of taking the stand, Omar has got the courtroom wrapped around his finger. This is Omar’s shining moment. The lightness of his courtroom antics serve as a contrast to the tragedy that befalls D’Angelo in prison, where Stringer pays an inmate to strangle him and make it look like a suicide. Like Wallace’s death before it, D’Angelo’s murder is a profound loss to the series’ deep bench of flesh-and-blood “bad” guys.
13. “The Cost” (Season 1, Episode 10)
Though The Wire is no stranger to action, it’s typically more nuanced than outright pulse-pounding. “The Cost” is one very notable exception. When a drug deal between Barksdale front man Orlando and Savino ends up being an ambush, an undercover Greggs ends up paying the price when she’s shot in the neck and chest. In the immediate aftermath, the case against Barksdale becomes almost inconsequential; the only thing that matters to Daniels’s team is that Greggs makes it through. The wire be damned.
12. “A New Day” (Season 4, Episode 11)
From Carcetti to the Co-Op, a “new day” seems to be what everyone in Baltimore wants. It finally comes thanks to Freamon, who, after Herc stops Snoop and Chris only to find a nail gun in the car, wonders if they might be using that nail gun to turn the many vacant homes of West Baltimore into makeshift grave sites. If only he had been wrong.
11. “Cleaning Up” (Season 1, Episode 12)
When watching The Wire, it’s easy to forget that the boys in the Pit are just that: boys. Whereas other kids his age had math homework, Wallace was making sure the cash count matched the drugs sold. But much like D’Angelo, Wallace is from a different stock than those around him. His sensitivity is a liability in West Baltimore, not something anyone who wants to climb the ranks of the Barksdale organization can be associated with. So, in what’s certainly the most excruciating two-and-a-half minutes of the show’s history, Bodie and Poot turn a gun on their childhood friend, who, while pissing his pants, futilely pleads for his life. It’s gut-wrenching, and meant to be. “Wallace was the heart of the show,” Michael B. Jordan told Jonathan Abrams for his recent oral history All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire. “[David Simon] wanted to rip that heart out and really use Wallace as a harsh example of sometimes being the victim of your circumstances.” Mission accomplished.
10. “Clarifications” Season 5, Episode 8
You knew the moment was coming, but that doesn’t mean you were prepared for it: the death of Omar, which occurs in one of the very rare moments where he lets his guard down. He’s buying a pack of cigarettes and doesn’t think anything of the kid that’s in the convenience store with him. In true literary fashion, it’s that kid — Kenard, whom we first met in season three pretending to be Omar in the same way a kid might pretend to be Superman — who does the deed. It’s the cycle of life in The Wire.
9. “Mission Accomplished” (Season 3, Episode 12)
“Who the fuck was I chasing?” In the wake of Stringer’s death, McNulty — holding a copy of The Wealth of Nations in his hand — realizes that all of the evidence he spent years collecting on Stringer has taught him absolutely nothing about who Bell really was. It makes McNulty (and the audience) wonder whether it was all worth it. Colvin wonders the same in regard to Hamsterdam, which has been dismantled; and Avon is left to deal with his decision to sell out Stringer. In the final episode of the third season, the reset button has been hit once again. Much has happened; nothing has changed.
8. “Bad Dreams” (Season 2, Episode 11)
Yes, a season-two episode in the top ten! Drama with the Greeks turns into a full-on Greek tragedy when Frank makes it clear he’ll do everything in his power to protect his son, whether it’s making a deal with the police, further entrenching himself in the criminal underworld, or both (which perhaps isn’t the wisest move). It’s here where the season hits two deeply emotional high notes: First, when Frank visits Ziggy in prison, and we see each of them for who they are — a scared kid who craves his dad’s approval and an in-over-his-head father who has failed at protecting his family. Later, we watch as Frank heads to a doomed meeting under the Key Bridge, helpless to do anything to change his fate. It’s these moments — where you find yourself caring about characters who are either very bad or very annoying — that set The Wire’s emotional bar impossibly high.
7. “Sentencing” (Season 1, Episode 13)
Justice is blind, and severely broken. That’s the only conclusion one can logically come to as the credits roll on the first season finale. Sure, the police got Avon Barksdale and a whole courtroom full of his underlings, but Stringer is still free to run the business. And with no prior record, Avon will be out of prison by the time you can shout, “Where the fuck is Wallace?” Then there’s Wee-Bey, who will take the rap for as many murders as horseradish-filled pit beef sandwiches the police will feed him. It’s not a happy ending, but it is a chillingly realistic one.
6. “That’s Got His Own” (Season 4, Episode 12)
It’s all about the numbers: At Edward Tilghman Middle School, the students are preparing for a statewide exam, even though many kids are (rightly) complaining that the questions don’t relate to them. At the MCU, Marlo’s body count is rising, which the higher-ups worry will destroy the BPD’s murder rate for the year. Bubbles, meanwhile, has a dead body of his own to contend with: Sherrod, his young protégé, has ingested the cyanide that Bubbles was planning to give to the man who keeps attacking him. It’s the rock bottom that he needs to finally kick his habit once and for all.
5. “Late Editions” (Season 5, Episode 9)
In the lead-up to the series’ finale, a funny thing starts to happen: The “kids” from season four — who made us believe that under the right circumstances, even the most systemic circumstances could be changed — begin to morph into the characters that preceded them. Michael, a young man with a code, evades assassination but becomes his generation’s Omar; Dukie follows Bubbles’s path; and Marlo becomes the new Stringer Bell. It’s one of the more painfully poignant lessons the show has to offer.
4. “Final Grades” Season 4, Episode 13
While Omar may get most of the love, Bubbles is right up there with him on the list of The Wire’s best characters. Sadly, his normally cheery disposition takes a turn this episode when he turns himself in for the death of Sherrod, and then attempts to hang himself in the interview room. (Fortunately, he gets saved in time, pushing him back onto the path to sobriety.) But the police have bigger problems to worry about: namely, the number of bodies that are piling up as Freamon and the MCU continue to find corpses. Tired of the way Marlo does business, Bodie decides to take McNulty up on his offer to talk — a move that, inevitably, leads to his murder.
3. “–30–” (Season 5, Episode 10)
Though The Wire’s final season was one of its weakest, it didn’t put a damper on the finale. The show was able to break free from the limitations of the season’s McNulty serial-killer story line and put a period — or at least a question mark — on the fates of its main characters. More than anything, the episode serves as a callback to Namond’s astute realization that the system is rigged against them. The various characters’ attempts to bring lasting change to the systemic issues facing America’s inner cities were admirable, but in the end, it was all for naught. That was the point. Is it depressing as hell? Sure. But it doesn’t stop the series’ conclusion from being wholly satisfying, if only as a chance to say a final farewell to the people who spent five seasons bringing the show to life.
2. “Boys of Summer” (Season 4, Episode 1)
After the disappointing move from the Towers to the docks in season one, the news that the fourth season would largely be set at a local public school — and full of kids — might have given fans pause. Yet it turned out to be the show’s best season, starting with the standout premiere. Meet Michael, Namond, Randy, and Dukie, four middle-schoolers who are at the age where kids in West Baltimore choose between school or the streets. Trying to push them toward the right path is Prez, who reinvents himself as a public school teacher. Ultimately, though, he’s the one who’ll do the learning.
1. “Middle Ground” (Season 3, Episode 11)
Fans of The Wire came to understand pretty quickly that no character was impervious to death. And when it comes, it’s probably going to be a violent one. But Stringer? String? When new BFFs Omar and Brother Mouzone corner Stringer on the top floor of a building he’s hoping to develop, everyone knows what’s going to happen — what has to happen. That includes Stringer himself, who, badass till the end, tells them to “Get on with it, motherfuckers.” (Well, that last bit is actually cut off by gunfire.)
Amazingly, that’s not even the moment that makes season three’s penultimate episode the series’ best: It’s an earlier scene between Avon and Stringer, as they sit on the rooftop of Avon’s penthouse and reminisce about their misspent youth. Avon recalls the time that Stringer stole a badminton set, even though they had no yard in which to use it. The memory makes them laugh, but it also points to how Stringer has always aspired to have more and be more. The scene is wrought with emotion — love, fear, regret, and a layer of tension that can’t be ignored. Neither knows that the other has betrayed him, and that only one will survive the season. George Pelecanos, who wrote the episode, called it “the best thing I’ll ever have my name on.” We don’t disagree.