My crew cheated a bit and watched the final episode of season four last night, letting me sum things up below the fold.
One point I guess I'd like to emphasize a bit against the current critical trends is that the "realist" reading of The Wire really doesn't capture all that's going on here, as we can see in the incredibly improbable course that one ring took over the course of the fourth season.
The most interesting thing, in the big picture sense, is the way that as time goes on the show has managed to maintain its widening gyre of pessimism while also showing a great many things go right. One of the major trends of season four was for great advances to be made in the realm of police work. Despite the end of Hamsterdam, the Western District police -- in the able hands of Major Daniels and Sergent Carver and with Office McNulty walking the beat -- are much more functional than they were in season one or at the beginning of season three. Carcetti wins the election, and immediately really does set about making good on his promises to get more serious about police work. Rawls and Burrell are both somewhat befuddled by this new era but are, in practice, happy to go along if that's what the mayor wants. Daniels is promoted to colonel. Major Crimes is going to be reconstituted, and McNulty's going to rejoin the team. By the conclusion of season four, people are finally ready to roll up their sleeves and do the sort of police work the show's hero -- McNulty -- has been pushing for since the beginning.
But times have changed. McNulty isn't the hero of the show anymore; he's more like a bit player. What's more, while in an earlier moment we might primarily worry about major crimes getting double-crossed or re-disbanded, now our pessimism runs deeper.
What good would building a case against Marlo Stanfield possibly do in a world where kids are "educated" in a way that will offer up an endless supply of new players? Even more depressing, it's not that the kids "can't be reached." If that were the problem, we might think that someone down the line could reach them if they tried harder or got smarter. This, no doubt, is where Colvin is left off. Believing his program was working and could have worked had only they gotten more support from the Hall.
But Colvin's perspective is limited. He hasn't been following the whole picture. He doesn't quite see that if you do reach the kids, you ruin them -- Bodie, Randy, and Namond weren't saved from the game, they were simply ruined as players, rendered unsuitable for the life they're fated to live. Namond, of course, may be saved in the end but the measures required -- adoption by Colvin -- are too extreme to work systemically. Carver, by playing by the rules, puts himself in a position where he no longer can save Randy, he has to abandon him to the logic of the system. Even more cutting is the advice Prez gets from the Assistant Principal -- he can't put all his energies into saving Dukie because a whole new class of kids is going to come up behind him. Nor, needless to say, can Colvin simply adopt every kid from his special class.
Meanwhile, the unexpected reappearance of Spiros Vondas reminds us that the Major Crimes crew isn't necessarily as clever as they like to think. They think of themselves as having made progress over the past several seasons. Getting Major Crimes established as a permanent division. Finally nailing the Barskdales. Triumphing over the ineptitude of Lieutenant Marimon. Getting back to work on the case against Marlo's crew. But they lost track of the Greek way back when. They know that, but they don't realize how relevant the Greek remains, that he's still the ultimate source of the dope in Charm City. Nor does it even seem to have occurred to them over the past two seasons to wonder about this question.
They were onto Prop Joe briefly at the beginning of season three, but dropped that investigation in part because they never grasped Joe's significance. They thought of him, potentially, as a way to get closer to the Barksdales. But the Barksdales -- like Marlo -- are down the chain from Joe. And Joe, in turn, is down the chain from the Greek. The very same Greek who they once were close to and who, thanks to his friend in the FBI, seems to be untouchable.
Meanwhile, on the crime front it looks like Carcetti may get to have his cake and eat it too. He's resolved to lower the murder rate dramatically, and also resolved to stop playing games with the stats. Luckily for him, the discovery of the bodies in the vacant buildings means that the world itself is conveniently playing games with the stats on his behalf. This huge spike will go down on Royce's final year, and if the case is solved the clearances will come on Carcetti's watch and it seems likely that the murder rate will, in fact, go down. His first year in office will be a "success" and he'll be positioned to make his run at Annapolis. All without anything really changing in Baltimore.