The Wire came out during a time when television producers realized that they could make shows that were actually good in a meaningful way. The Sopranos sparked a golden age of television, and The Wire was hot on its heels to become arguably the best television show of all time.

I recently rewatched the series from start to finish, and genuinely found it better the second time. The slowness of season two was more compelling because I saw it in a wider context than I had my first time through. Season five is still hot garbage, but the overarching narrative throughout the show more than makes up for it.

The final season of The Sopranos didn’t exactly do much better. I’m still waiting for the Golden Age of Series Finales.

What I found compelling this time around was being reintroduced to Jimmy McNulty. The first time I watched the show, I was convinced that Jimmy was the main protagonist of the series. He’s not killed off, he’s charming and handsome, his character is explored in detail, and he has that infallibility in his detective work that is common across all cop show protagonists – they always catch the bad guy due to their unfailing ingenuity, even if the Bosses do everything they can to get in the way.

The Wire is special because there are no clear “good guys” and “bad guys” in the show. The most sympathetic characters are indeed those involved directly in the drug trade; this could be because they are children which naturally plays to our sympathies, but it can be said more generally that the creative team goes to great lengths to humanize a demographic that is almost unanimously depicted as one-dimensionally violent or evil in every other piece of media. The drug dealer exists as an evil scourge plaguing our world, but in The Wire, D’Angelo Barksdale is far more appealing and likeable than any other character portrayed in season one – except for maybe Bubbles.

One of the few redeemable qualities of season five

So in a show without clear heroes and villains, how can I say that Jimmy McNulty is the villain? Particularly when he’s on the side of police, no less; the side that doesn’t overtly use murder to negotiate their business dealings. I am definitely not saying that Jimmy is the villain because of his infidelity or even his show-polluting atrociousness in season five. That’s the flavour to his character and is irrelevant to his villainy.

Jimmy McNulty is the show’s villain because in his heart of hearts he wants the War On Drugs to continue. He might want it to be fought with more resources and to go after the generals instead of the soldiers, but ultimately, he is so passionately committed to the War On Drugs that the show portrays it as his literal vice. Policing is Jimmy’s drug; he is addicted to the War On Drugs. We are sucked into enabling his addiction because of his charisma and charm, and believe along with him that maybe we just need an extra few days on the wire, and drug crime will be eliminated forever. We’ll shut down Avon Barksdale; we’ll shut down Marlo Stanfield; these are the outcomes we cheer for. They don’t get to win!

The Wire is about the institutions of Baltimore, and in this depiction, speaks about the institutions of America more broadly. We see quite clearly how these institutions function only to perpetuate themselves – through policing stats, through political ambition, through an educational system detached from the realities of the children it is ostensibly there to educate. All of them function in ignorance of the actual problems because all of them are hyper-focused on keeping their heads above the water in an unsustainable status quo. The reality that they all seem to ignore is the reality created by the War On Drugs. This ideology manifests this problematic reality that all of these institutions do their best to dance around because denouncing the actual problem would mean confronting the status quo – likely ending their career.

Or being condemned to the “sympathetic” villainy of modern Marvel movies.

In season three, we see two approaches to dealing with the actual problems of the War On Drugs. The first is put forward by Major Bunny Colvin who creates safe zones where drugs can be sold without police interference. It is a very clear indictment of the pointlessness of the War On Drugs. What is less clear, but equally compelling, is the equivalent mirror being put forward by Stringer Bell. Bell and Prop Joe put together a co-op to try a new form of drug dealing – one closer akin to a normal business than to the “gangster shit” that dominates the Game in most other circumstances. They hold votes, they negotiate territory, they resolve differences diplomatically – all in an attempt to distance themselves from the widely acknowledged problems of illegal drugs: murders, insecurity, unpredictability, and police interference. Both factions want a better way to accommodate the hard reality that drugs will never go away.

Jimmy is mostly ambivalent to Colvin’s experiment. He looks more favourably at fucking over the Bosses than he is at what Colvin is actually trying to accomplish, and in no way sees the connection to what Bell is trying to do. He even resists focusing on the target of Major Crimes who is actively killing people, preferring to fixate on Stringer Bell because he knows that’s where the War belongs. Bell sees the wisdom of what Colvin is trying, and is explicit in this when he comes to Colvin at the end of the season to betray Avon. They both are trying to find a way to get around the dysfunctional status quo. It can be just a business as much as any other; the bodies are created by the War.

All the bodies.

The second nice thing I’ll say about season five is that it showcases the Sisyphean meaninglessness of the War On Drugs. The police win. Marlo and Avon are arrested; their gangs dispersed. But we see as the season ends that Michael turns into the new Omar, that Kima becomes the new Jimmy, Carver becomes the new Daniels, and Duquan becomes the new Bubbles. The pawns have already been replaced so often throughout the show that the bottomless pit from whence they come has already been well-established. The boulder goes up the mountain once again, and the War continues – and for what? A few people got promoted, and many more died. Jimmy’s belief that policing ought to confront the War On Drugs more effectively is only a means of finding a more efficient way of getting the boulder up the mountain.

The War On Drugs is the villain of The Wire. The champions that we’re used to seeing from other cop shows are seen here perpetuating it in all its pointless glory. There cannot be any heroes because all of the characters are produced by a villainous system. There are only survivors, mercenaries, and profiteers. The only reasonable heroics would be to challenge that system itself, and under that rubric, ironically it is Stringer Bell who ends up on a pedestal higher than Jimmy McNulty.