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The Wire is the greatest TV show of all time. You can debate that statement, and I’ve even done so myself. But when it comes to displaying the complexities of life, The Wire has it all. Granted, it has a VERY slow start, and many people can’t even get past the first episode (Protip: Don’t start the series late at night when you’re tired). But for anybody who stuck with the show, they’ll tell you just how good it is. And with so many mind-blowing moments in the series, it’s kind of hard to pick out the 10 best episodes.
But I think I’ve done it. There are five seasons of The Wire, and each one is a masterclass in storytelling (Yes, even Season 2. Quiet, you). But certain episodes definitely stand out more than others. Whether it was because of key plot points all coming to a head, or a favorite character meeting their demise, these are the episodes that really stuck with fans of the acclaimed show. I think I did a pretty good job with my selection, but with 60 episodes, some of your favorites are bound not to make the list. If your favorite isn’t here, feel free to discuss your favorite episodes in the comments section below. Oh, and minor spoilers ahead.
10. Hamsterdam, Season 3, Episode 4
Written by George Pelecanos, “Hamsterdam” is about an idea so crazy that it just might work. To make sure violent crimes don’t spill out into other parts of the city, Howard “Bunny” Colvin (played by Robert Wisdom) sets in motion a project to make it so drug dealers can only distribute in a specific area of town so that it can be monitored and contained. It’s modeled after the idea of Amsterdam because there are less strict drug laws there, but some of the dealers have never even heard of Amsterdam before, which leads to them mishearing it as “Hamsterdam,” hence the title of the episode.
This is the politics season, and we get to see Carcetti (played by Game of Thrones’ Aidan Gillen) show his interest in running for mayor. And he sounds like a mayor who’d care, too. Little do we know that he would just be using Baltimore as a stepping stone. We also get a lot of movement on the ground level with Marlo, and Bubbles plays a key role in this episode as well. Really, I think I just love how only a show like The Wire could even toy with a concept like “Hamsterdam” and still make it work.
9. Reformation, Season 3, Episode 10
“Reformation” is a good follow-up to the “Hamsterdam” narrative, since it shows how the plan is falling apart. Meanwhile, Proposition Joe (played by Robert F. Chew, and lowkey my favorite character on The Wire) and others are affected by some murders early on since the police are getting closer and closer to them with their investigations. And then, you have Brother Mouzone looking for Omar. Remember how I mentioned how the first episode of The Wire is slow? Well, this is the kind of episode where you’re happy you stuck around. There are so many moving pieces, and by this point, you’re hooked.
I love how politics seeps into every aspect of this episode, and how a plan like “Hamsterdam,” which seemed to actually be working, has to be shuttered because of the optics of it all. Plus, I love that we get to see Rawls at a gay bar. You would expect this to be a huge plot point like it was for Vito on The Sopranos, but no. This is The Wire we're talking about here. We don’t need to make a big deal about that. Rawls is a high-ranking police officer, but he’s also secretly gay. So what?
8. The Cost, Season 1, Episode 10
Omar (played by Michael K. Williams) is one of the most complex characters in all of television, and the fact that he’s willing to wear a wire during a meeting between Stringer Bell and Prop Joe, just shows what a risk he’s willing to take. But he’s not the only one willing to take a risk, as Detective Greggs (played by Sonja Sohn) goes undercover and manages to get herself in a situation that no police officer wants to be in. This episode probably has one of the most shocking endings in the entire series.
I’m not going to spoil it, but the end of this episode does it for me. All that intrigue up to this point explodes in this episode. I consider it the best in Season 1, and that’s saying a lot. Especially when with Michael B. Jordan’s performance this season as Wallace.
7. That’s Got His Own, Season 4, Episode 12
An episode in what many consider the best season, “That’s Got His Own” is strong in every area of the city that it’s covering. When it comes to the school system, we see the teachers being forced to teach only Math and English in preparation for the state test since test scores mean everything. On the street level, we’re seeing a higher body count, which of course makes the police nervous because it’s going to screw with their numbers, and the higher ups want those numbers low for the media. It’s as real as it gets.
This episode hits hard. As a teacher, I’ve seen how test scores can weigh heavily on a school’s decision-making process. And the street level stuff in this episode is as compelling as ever. I especially like Bubbles’ arc in this episode. Solid stuff.
6 All Prologue, Season 2, Episode 6
I catch hell for this all the time, but Season 2 is my favorite, and this episode is one of the reasons why. Omar’s in court and he’s speaking out against Bird from the Barksdale crime ring. He makes the lawyer look stupid, and is as appealing as can be. And who doesn’t love Omar stealing the show? Meanwhile, on the dock side of things, we find that Frank Sobotka (played by True Blood’s Chris Bauer) is in trouble with the cops narrowing in on his union. Also, Prop Joe puts Frank’s son, Ziggy, in his place. Good. Because Ziggy sucks.
As mentioned, the Omar stuff is great, but the end with what happens to D’Angelo really stings. You really don’t know how much you care about these characters until something like that happens.
5. Middle Ground, Season 3, Episode 11
A friend of mine says that all the best episodes of The Wire are the penultimate episodes of each season, and he may be right since “Middle Ground” is a winner. The Hamsterdam experiment is crashing and burning in this episode now that the higher ups are made aware of it. And many people’s second favorite character (after Omar), Stringer Bell (played by Idris Elba) has his most important moments in this episode.
This is a deeply emotional episode, with Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale having a heart-to-heart. I really don’t want to say much more about this episode since it comes attached with a lot of surprises, but keep in mind, you’ll feel for this one.
4. Mission Accomplished, Season 3, Episode 12
The following episode to “Middle Ground”, the title of this episode is almost sardonic in nature. Following the events of what happens at the end of “Middle Ground”, Detective McNulty (played by Dominic West) is upset that all his detective work was for nothing. Also, “Hamsterdam” is shut down, bringing a conclusion to something that probably would have been good for Baltimore, but had to be dismantled because of the image it created.
This is a bittersweet end to a season. Despite all the hardships and events that occurred, you got a sense that there was real progress being made. But in the end, it feels like nothing has been accomplished. Season 2 may be my favorite, but Season 3 probably has the best overall arc.
3. Bad Dreams, Season 2, Episode 11
Another penultimate episode, Frank’s son, Ziggy, has to pay for his crimes, and Frank himself finds he’s willing to sacrifice everything for his son. Plus, all the pressure that’s been bubbling up to the surface with Frank comes to a head in this episode, and he does something that damns him forever.
This is a riveting episode if you’ve been into all the activities concerning the docks and the family that works them. A lot of people say Season 2 sucks, but this is the episode I always bring up, and even they have to admit that, “Yeah. Okay. That one’s pretty great.”
2. Late Editions, Season 5, Episode 9
Yes another penultimate episode, “Late Editions” is tragic because it shows the cyclical nature of the show. Many of the young characters from Season 4 (the school season) make up or replace some of the other slain characters that we came to respect and even love over the course of the series.
“Late Editions” and the next entry are the main reasons why I think The Wire is better than Breaking Bad. Season 5 is the weakest in my opinion (mostly because of a weird serial killer story line), but this episode is heartbreaking in that you realize that nothing is going to change. The next generation is just going to inherit the problems of the last generation. How true to life that is!
1. 30, Season 5, Episode 10
I was a little reluctant to place the last episode as the series’ best, but it just wraps up everything—and yet, leaves everything completely open—that I decided to put it at the top spot. The serial killer story line reaches a strange (and very depressing) conclusion, and the cops get in trouble for going above the law (sound familiar to today's times?).
Like “Late Editions,” the strength of this episode is in the fact that no matter how hard people work, in the end, nothing really changes. The Wire, while engrossing beyond belief, is also so vital a show because it gets to the heart of why certain areas are the way they are. And the last episode of the series makes it clear that through its entire 60 episode run, things will always stay the same. That’s just human nature.
And that’s the list. What do you think are the best episodes of The Wire? Let me know in the comments.