The Wire: Every Season, Ranked

The Wire: Every Season, Ranked

Unlike most police based dramas, The Wire not only dedicates more than a single episode to a case– framing entire seasons around individual cases in order to show the full scope of what goes into police work– there’s a consciousness avoidance towards the “good versus bad” narratives that often permeate crime procedurals. 

RELATED: 10 Things You Didn’t Know About The Making Of The Wire

The Wire prides itself on realism, to the point where Baltimore– the series’ own setting– is the true main character. While the series features a recurring cast, priorities change from season to season. Each season of The Wire focuses on a different aspect of Baltimore, with the only consistency the law enforcement’s involvement. 

The end result is a series that changes dramatically from season to season, but never at the expense of any quality. Even at its worst, The Wire is home to some of the smartest television ever written– all five seasons contributing to an incredible story.

Updated on July 7th, 2021 by Colin McCormick: The Wire is one of those shows that keeps gaining new viewers years after it has been off the air. Viewers will always want to see what has earned the series its reputation as one of the greatest shows of all time, especially with every season available on HBO Max. For anyone looking to check out the HBO crime drama, they can find more about each season, their unique focus, and how each of the seasons ranks from the worst to the best.

5 Season 5 (2008)

Split image Gus in newsroom and McNulty in finale scene The Wire season 5

If The Wire has any weak link, it’s the fifth and final season. That said, season 5 isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination, just short and a bit extreme. Focusing on Jimmy McNulty inventing a fake serial killer to manipulate the media into giving the police more funding, the story arc actually highlights the dangers of fake news quite well– a thread that’s actually helped the arc age quite well. 

That said, it’s still a strange story beat and one season 5 can’t dedicate enough time to on account of featuring 10 episodes instead of the 12/13 that had become commonplace. While the last three episodes are some of the series’ best, season 5 has a comparably difficult time moving its pieces. 

But that isn’t a bad thing, and season 5’s focus on journalism is a change of pace akin to season 2. The Wire opts to end on a more intimate note than it perhaps should have, but season 5 is still excellent television that wraps up virtually every story beat in a satisfying manner. This is surprising considering how disconnected all five seasons are in the grand scheme of things. 

4 Season 3 (2004)

Split image Carcetti in office and Stringer Bell death scene in The Wire season 3

This is specifically showcased through Bunny Colvin’s implementation of Hamsterdam, a free zone for drug use meant to centralize Baltimore’s drug war. While some audiences might find the concept outlandish (much like McNulty’s fake serial killer,) it’s an extreme meant to contrast how inherently extreme the drug war is. 

RELATED: Each Main Character’s First And Last Line In The Wire

Season 3 also sees the downfall of the Barksdale Organization, as personal drama between Avon and Stringer tears the two apart. Similarly, the BPD inch in on the Barksdales as they make slip up after slip up while the Stanfield Organization begins to dominate the Baltimore streets. 

Naturally, this does mean quite a bit of time is spent with new faces (not even counting the introduction of Cutty, who ends up getting a considerable amount of screen time,) but it all pays off as one of The Wire’s grandest narratives. Season 3 is the only time the series juggles so many balls in the air, and while it can be exhausting to follow, it’s exceptional television. 

3 Season 1 (2002)

Split image Lester in office and D'Angelo playing chess in The Wire season 1

Season 1 is notoriously difficult to get into, and the first few episodes expect viewers to pay an extreme amount of attention early on lest they fall behind. The Wire expects more out of its audience than the average TV show, but it gives more in return. Season 1 centers itself on the BPD’s season-long investigation into the Barksdale Organization. 

A considerable amount of time is spent on highlighting how the investigation is continually undermined by the greater Baltimore Police, thriving in spite of itself, while underlining the systematic issues which lead to the rise of figures like Avon & Stringer Bell and the perpetuation of the drug war. 

Throughout the first season, Jimmy McNulty serves as the main focal point for the BPD and D’Angelo for the Barksdale Organization. While Jimmy is indeed the closest thing The Wire has to a protagonist, D’Angelo’s character arc in season 1 is extremely compelling and his gradual disillusionment with his own family lends to some of the series’ best drama. 

2 Season 2 (2003)

Split image Frank Sabotka in dockyard and Omar testifying in court The Wire season 2

Pushing the Barksdale Organization and the drug war into the background, season 2 centers itself on Baltimore’s dockyard, now specifically focusing on the logistics of the drug trade (along with deeper levels of organization crime & human trafficking.) A great deal of the season focused on the Sobotka family, framing their downfall like a proper Greek Tragedy. 

RELATED: 10 Movies To Watch After Bingeing The Wire

Frank Sobotka finds himself suffering from the actions of a disappointing son– Ziggy– while his nephew, Nicky, has his life torn apart in an arc that directly parallels D’Angelo’s. Season 2’s change of pace can be jarring after the intimate drama season 1 focused on, but the Sobotkas are some of The Wire’s best-written characters. 

The Barksdales aren’t a non-presence either, as season 2 lays some very important groundwork for Jimmy and Stringer’s arcs coming into season 3. At its core, though, season 2 is about the downfall of one man and America’s abandonment of the working class. 

1 Season 4 (2006)

Split image students in class and Marlo Stanfield in Thw Wire season 4

Michael, Dukie, Namond, & Randy are four of The Wire’s more compelling characters, and the tragedy of watching four young lives fall apart in gut-wrenching. But it’s also real, raw, and incredibly important to recognize. What these boys go through isn’t just drama, it’s rooted in real life– in systemic issues which inherently plague the American school system. 

Season 4 manages to introduce as many new faces as season 3, but with a finesse that’s rarely seen in television. The school system ultimately feels like a natural extension of both the BPD and Baltimore’s political scene while telling the definitive narrative about public education in the United States. 

NEXT: The Wire’s 10 Best Storylines Of All Time, Ranked

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