The Wire adopted the British television method of doing no more than 10-13 episodes per season, which made the seasons more compact, tightly written, with a character focused arc. There's a hardly a weak episode in the bunch. Unlike TV series like Buffy and Farscape - which ended up with at least five each year - mainly because they had to spit out 22 episodes per year.
This season as stated previously has been touted by critics as amongst the best in television history. While, it does tend to hit you over the head with a few themes, it does so in a manner that is both realistic and more show than tell. There are two great scenes:
1) Bunny Colvin, an ex-police commander, works with a group of troubled kids as part of a sociological study/program. In the program they have the kids build models in three person groups, without any directions. The group that builds their model first, gets to go to the restaurant of their choice. Bunny takes three of these kids to a fancy French restaurant, with steak, etc.
The kids quickly realize they are out of their depth. Embarrassed and humiliated, they awkwardly order their food and on the way home, one kid begs for french fries. It's a painful scene to watch - because it makes you aware of the differences in class and race, and how ingrained they are in our culture and how difficult to overcome. Compare to S1 - where D'Angelo takes his girlfriend to a similar restaurant and knows exactly what to do, or Stringer Bell who has no problems - yet still, even polished as he is, feels out of place.
2)Pryz is trying to teach math and has been forced by the school administration to teach language arts in order to improve test scores. In public schools - it becomes all about the test scores. The schools with the highest test scores - get the most in federal and state funding grants. The policy is set by people who have doctorates in education and spend a lot of time running statistics - they get to the point in which they believe the data, the people don't exist. The Wire subtly underlines this in this scene. The Area Superintendent, Doctor something or other, with her shiny ass Ph.D, and her test score stats, wanders into Pryz's classroom and watches as he tries to teach an old Greek play to a bunch of black inner city kids. Note the program is heavily white - Last of the Mohicans, Shakespeare, and Greek Plays. It's not James Baldwin, Tony Morrison, or Frederick Douglas, nor do we have Ralph Ellison. Don't know if you've read Feminore Cooper's Last of the Mohicans? But it is a poorly written and racist book that is not worth the time of day. Yet, the test givers chose it over far better written novels. Racism in action. This is shown subtly in The Wire - when Pryz asks the kids, once the school board administrator leaves, whether they want to read Last of the Mohicans or prefer to learn some math? He takes out the dice, the ruler, and other hands on tools and starts teaching them practical mathematics. Pryz bonds with the kids, shows them how math is something they will use daily, helps them work it out and stops the using the books.
It becomes apparent after a while that school is both an education in "socialization" and "learning how to think" and that "test scores" which are really just a means of the district keeping track of how well they are doing, have begun to push the other two main purposes to the wayside.
What I love about the Wire are the characters. The story can at times feel grim. Brilliant but grim, with a sense of hopelessness. But the characters and their stories give you hope, they all push towards the light.
OMAR who has caught on to Prop Joe's machinations and as he did with Brother Mouzone regarding STringer, he's doing with Marlo on PRop Joe. Prop Joe's no dummy - he figures out right quick that Omar is holding a spade and Marlo a shovel, and he's just crawled out of his own grave.
Herc is in a mess with several people. Carver and Bunk are furious with him for screwing up the questioning of Randy. But Lester coolly and calmly talks to Herc and gets the information they need out of him. Lester is amazingly good at dealing with people and keeping his temper. He takes Bunk back to the lot and immediately figures out where the bodies are - sealed up in the vacant houses like in a tomb. Herc's also in trouble for what he did to the Minister that Bubbles set him up with. Bubbles got Herc good. Daniels...is being a bit too kind, they need to fire Herc's ass, but not for the Bubbles mess, for something else.
Mayor-Elect Carcietti is attempting to change things...but eating piles of shit in the process. He has to play the politics, and the politicians he's dealing with are corrupt. Burrell knows how to play the game and lets Carcietti know it. While Valcheck lets Rawls know that there is no way in hell a White Cop can become Commissioner in Black Baltimore. Although he says it far more subtly - "they are grooming Daniels, what, you thought you'd get it Bill? Bill - this is Balitmore!"(Poor Rawls, who keeps asking why they don't just fire Burrell - they can't. The ministers get in the way. The lobbyists. The unions.) You get to see it from Carcietti and Norman's point of view...and it ain't pretty.
There's little scenes - the small one's with McNulty, who looks at the asshole cop who beat up the kids and gets kicked by those same kids as payback, with a sort of resigned disdain. He gets the tale from both the cop who got kicked, and a corner kid who knows what happened. Oddly bonding with the corner kid, Bodie, who he knows from the first season. Several years have passed. We may be on the fourth year of the series, but I'm guessing it's closer to six years for McNulty.
The Wire is like all tv shows about the details. In story telling like everything else - the devil is in the small print or the details. Little things like Bunk's realization of what Lester has told him regarding where the bodies are...he's been over that same ground so many times now - and the bodies are smack dab in front of him - in the buildings, sealed with a nail gun. Or Omar following people around in a yellow cab, invisible. There's the kids on the corner..eating their take-out dinner, never at home. The dope fiend mother of Michael, Michael who asked Marlo to get rid of his Daddy, and Marlo who tells Chris (Marlo's hitman) that Michael may be siding with or be a snitch - or that's the word on the street.
And the arcs feel like life. Outside of season 1's cop shooting, there's been relatively little melodrama in this series to date. It's not predictable, things sort of evolve and you can see what will happen if you pay enough attention, yet are always to some degree surprised.
The Season 4 Final of The Wire was gut-wrenching. But effective. Interesting how each season of the Wire ends with a music vid montage of where each character has ended up and where they will go next, neatly wrapping up the season, but opening it up for the next season. This Season - the focus was on four-five kids, each pseudo-adopted by different cops and adults. You see what happens to each, and which cops succeed and which fail. Bunny Colvin has the most success, but that is largely due to Bunny's own background and his own standing in the community, of the adults that try to help - only those that have "power" succeed. Bunny and Chris Paltrow both get what they want, and they have the most power - both find ways to empower their charges. And the Wire is unpredictable in how it depicts Bunny helping the son (Damon) of hitman Wee-Bay, who is shown as a bully and having more money that the other kids, vs. Chris turning Michael, the sensitive kid that Bodie manages to convince to sell drugs, but is resisting getting more involved and who defends Duquane against Damon's bullying, into a hitman that rivals Damon's Dad. Hard. You even watch Cutty and Chris fighting each other on who will help the kid. Cutty tries kindness and tries giving Michael power in the form of his fists, but Michael who has been molested - fears kindness, Chris goes the opposite route and provides protection, kills the threat, and gives Michael power - in a gun. Switch over to Bubbles - who tries to save a boy and tutor him, but inadvertently ends up killing him with drugs - which devastates Bubbles to such a degree, Bubbles turns himself in, and then attempts suicide. Then there is Carver and McNulty who try to help two corner kids who are witnesses to murder, only to wind up either getting the kid killed or beaten. Finally Pryz who tries to save Duguane, but loses him to Michael...Michael who can give Duquane an actual home. The final scene of the season is a haunting one - of Damon looking out over Bunny's surburban hood, with the trees, and houses with their porches...birds tweeting in the trees. We end with hope...but we still see the corners looming in the distance.
The other stories, Omar, the cops, sort of take a back seat this season to those four -five kids. Their stories entwine with the kids. And we bring in S2, with the Greeks at the end. Will state of the various subplots, I found Omar's by far the most fun and entertaining, and Bubbles the most tragic.