15. The Wire: Season 3 (2004)

It’s Got: Hamsterdam, Carcetti’s rise, Cutty opens a gym, Stanfield vs. Stringer vs. Omar, it’s NOT the one with the school kids.

I loosely divide up the five seasons of The Wire in my head. There are the three seasons that examine important structures in Western civilization (1, 2, and 4) and the two seasons that demonstrate what happens to someone when they try to challenge those structures (3 and 5). As important as it was to shine the spotlight on the War on Drugs, the working class, and especially the school system, I think I slightly preferred those latter two seasons. (Let’s just get this out of the way… you probably won’t like how highly I rank Season 5.) The narrative tension that comes with seeing a character trying to delay the inevitable shitstorm headed his way just adds a little extra OOMPH to the usual social commentary and careful character study that The Wire was known for.

It took me a little while to “get” The Wire. More on that in my irritatingly positive Season 5 review. This is one of those series that gives you a bunch of characters and a minimum of world building right from the jump. It’s tough, it’s the TV equivalent of being thrown into the deep end of a pool with almost no idea how to swim. But ultimately stories as detailed as The Wire can reward you like nothing else can. Season 3 was around the point where I fully realized what this show and its characters were all about, and it was even better on a rewatch. A big reason I rank this season so high is just because nearly everyone I associate with The Wire (save the kids in Seasons 4 and 5) are all in Baltimore and figure prominently into the story.

I look at Season 3 and I can’t believe just how much is in here. There’s McNulty recommitting himself to the Stringer Bell case, and dragging Daniels, Kima, and Bunk in with him. There’s the Barksdale empire fighting wars both from within and out on the street, as Marlo Stanfield stakes his territory and a gang war erupts. There’s the usual wild cards like Bubbles and Omar, who get themselves caught up in these turbulent conflicts. There’s the introduction of Aidan Gillen’s Tommy Carcetti, a seemingly idealistic politician with serious ambitions. There’s Cutty, a drug dealer who’s released from prison and finds that reformation is a tumultuous road.

And finally, there’s “Bunny” Colvin, a major who wants to make a difference before he retires, and the character who gives this season its real thoroughline. He sets up “Hamsterdam,” a small area within Baltimore in which police turn a blind eye to the drug trade. This was the most fascinating aspect of the season for me, and again, gave the season some tension as Colvin tried to hide his social experiment from the top brass as long as he could.

Given the scope and density of these twelve episodes, it’s pretty hard to be bored. Especially if you’ve already come this far after two seasons, and are interested in how all these stories are going to turn out. The commentary is a bit more potent in the seasons that have a slightly narrower focus, but the third season is thoroughly engaging from beginning to end.

If I Had to Nitpick…: This is REALLY a nitpick considering I enjoy it, but Cutty’s subplot seemed a bit rushed. From jail to attempted reformation to joining Barksdale’s crew to the boxing gym, it seemed like his subplot was taking place over a really long stretch of time compared to everything else.

Notable Episodes: This one is a little tricky because it’s kind of a single 12 hour episode. But “Hamsterdam” and “Homecoming” have compelling developments with the gang war, Bunny, Cutty, and Carcetti, and “Middle Ground” totally predates Game of Thrones‘ knack for having big gamechanging events in the penultimate episodes.

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