Lets Just Legalize It

The Wire: Season 3

We're into the third season of The Wire and the show feels like it's undergone a bit of a course correction. Although one can understand, logically, why the producers elected to move away from the drug dealers down in the African-American portions of Baltimore for season two == different perspective helped to flesh out all the various ways drugs had pervaded the city -- but it didn't make for the most thrilling season of television. The producers seemingly had to recalibrate.

The third season, then, takes the show back to the settings and people it explored in the first season. The shows brings us to the Barksdale syndicate, it's leaders Stringer and Avon, and their business as drug dealers. It doesn't just focus on them (and the team of police attempting to bring them down via the wire), but also expands its scope to another rising group of drug dealers, the politicians running the city, and one police Major with an idea on how to combat drugs without actually waging a war on them. It's an intriguing and very different season from what we'd seen before.

The season finds the Major crimes unit -- McNulty, Greggs, Pryzbylewski, Freamon, Carver, and Herc, under the leadership of Daniels -- following Barksdale and Bell as they continue operating their drug organization. There's some static between the two men as Barksdale gets out of prison and tries to take back over some control of the syndicate despite Bell having run it for over a year. This raises tensions and threatens to split the friendship of the two men, which could lead to violence and war between them.

While these two figure out the new order for their group, other parts of the city are shifting. Under the guidance of Major Howard Colvin (Robert Wisdom), the narcotics division of the Western District sets up "safe harbor" zones for drug dealers. These three zones, all vacant and abandoned tenements, ,are given over to the drug dealers where they can peddle their wares as they see fit, free from drug busts. This, in effect, legalizes Baltimore in these areas, making them into something like Amsterdam (or, as the dealers call it, Hamsterdam). It's an interesting "solution" such as it is, but if the higher-ups, or the politicians, ever caught wind, the experiment would fall apart. This despite it actually providing great results for the city. Can something like this stand or will the experiment blow up?

Hamsterdam really feels like the primary story of this season. Yeah, there's a lot else going on -- the Barksdale group, the other drug dealers, the introduction of Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector) -- but you get the sense that this experiment in "legalized drugs" is what the storytellers really wanted to get into this season. They raise the question about whether something like this could work and, if so, what would that mean for the war on drugs (spoiler: the war on drugs is pointless and fruitless, which is the real answer).

It does feel a like fiction that anyone high up in a police department would ever think something like Hamsterdam was a good idea, but then this is a fictional account of the drug war in Baltimore, so a little slack is due to the show. With that said, the results would be about what you'd expect were something like this to happen. The drug dealers are off the main streets and away, and while they're free to peddle their shit the regular citizens have their streets back. Crime overall goes down, citizens are happy, and it seems to prove the point that just fighting the dealers doesn't really fight the war. It's pointless to try.

But then we also get those dealers that don't bother to play in the new system. One of those dealers is Marlow, the violent new upstart who has his own crew and designs on being the power player in the drug game in West Baltimore. Marlow doesn't get a lot to do here -- he's mostly talked about in hushed whispers, or glimpsed by other players in the game -- but when he shows up he makes his violent streak clear. Hector does a great job with the character, giving him a cool and collected kind of evil, a very different take on the dealers we've seen from the Barksdale gang.

I do feel like the show doesn't really give the Barksdales, Avon and String Bell, the fair due, though. They're the focus of the wire, the targets of Major Crimes, but there's so much other stuff going on this season that the "arksdale slingers feel like an afterthought. It's nice to have them back, to get some connective tissue from them to the first season, but I really wish we could have had a season devoted solely to them, maybe as they battled Marlow, with Hamsterdam taking up a different chapter of the story. It works, but it doesn't work well, and considering the violent ends met for these characters by season's end, we needed more time with them (and not just because Idris Elba is an amazing actor, but that is part of it).

Of course, the real story in this season of The Wire, as it is ever season, is that no matter what people try the system will always beat them back down. the Major comes up with a great idea to control the drug war, but once the politicians find out about it they quash it. The destroy Hamsterdam, sending the dealers back out to the streets, and violent crime goes right back up across the district. They had proof it worked but that's not how the system goes. Everyone needs control and anything outside the normal order has to be destroyed at all costs.

And, in normal fashion, just as the Major Crimes team gets the evidence to take down the Barksdales, most of the power players end up dead with no one to charge. It's hard to make a case stick when there's no one to stick it to. This, too, proves a point of the futility of the war: the criminals don't play by the same rules as the cops. The cops have their cases, and they have to follow law and order, while the dealers are out there slinging and shooting and killing each other. The dealers are more effective at dealing with themselves, and they know of much more effective ways to take each other off the streets (i.e., via a gun), and that only ruins what the cops are working on. What's the point in making their cases? That's what the show wants to show us.

The Wire is absolutely compelling this season, and it has a lot of great stories to tell (and points to make). It's a little messier here than in the first season, but that only sets up what's the come in later seasons. I'll take a little messiness for the complex and rich tales this show provides every time.