I’m working my way through The Wire for the third time right now. I’m also finished. It’s a fascinating, fantastic show–not news, i know–and it gets better with every repeat viewing. What makes the show unique is that nearly all the characters are morally ambiguous. The law-and-order characters largely craven self-promoters or careerists interested in nothing else but advancement. The criminals are largely just ruthless capitalists looking to make the most of their desperate situations. And the politicians and bureaucrats? They’re all mostly assholes.
So who are the most villainous villains on The Wire?
- Mayor Clarence Royce. Concerned solely with protecting and consolidating his power, Mayor Royce is ultimately responsible for the misery in the city, between leaving the police department hamstrung and turning the city over to big developer interests. The body count attributable to Royce is higher than anyone on the show.
- Bill Rawls. Unlike Commissioner Burrell, who is simply the apotheosis of the Company Man, willing to eat as much shit as necessary to insulate the powers above him in exchange for the comfort and security of his position, Deputy Commissioner Rawls is an active manipulator, stealing and taking credit for the ideas of those under his command, and willing to throw anyone above or below him under the bus if it will suit his advancement.
- Marlo Stanfield. The only street character on this list and he’s only here because of his willingness to murder wholly uninvolved bystanders to further the interests of his organization. At least (faint praise) the citizens murdered by the Barksdale Organization were active or potential witnesses against their enterprise, the ones murdered by Marlo were merely in the way.
And what about the heroes? There are very few. McNulty has flashes of heroism but he’s also engulfed in ego. Carcetti starts out promising but ultimately surrenders to the city, keeping the chair warm while looking toward becoming governor. Even Daniels, who evolves from a quiet career-oriented officer to a force for change, also surrenders to the entrenched powers of the city, leaving law enforcement altogether. For me, the heroes of The Wire are those who endeavor to make significant changes in whatever small part of the city they can touch.
- Major Colvin. Facing retirement, Colvin looks back on his time in the Baltimore Police Department in command of the troubled Western District and realizes that he’s leaving behind a city that is just as fucked as when he started. He takes a bold step: de-criminalize drug dealing and use in a handful of small, blighted areas and focus the majority of his resources on real police work. Misguided? Sure. Effective? Arguably so. And he only did it to do what, in his mind, would bring the best increase in quality of life to his district as quickly as possible. And after being drummed out of the department he foregoes thankless private security work to instead work with troubled middle school kids.
- Cutty Wise. In his mission to give his life meaning when he realizes he no longer has the drug game in him, the former gang enforcer works long, hot days as a day-laborer and then teaches kids boxing in the afternoon and evening. While Cutty’s motivation is never entirely clear and he’s always a little out of his depth, but nevertheless he becomes a stable presence and role model in many of his athletes’ lives. Also, like Colvin, he quits a thankless job as part of the system–being a truant officer merely to get kids to school one day a month so the school gets funding–to keep working as a day-laborer and running his boxing gym.
- Bunk Moreland. A talented detective, Bunk manages to successfully toe the line between following orders while also following through with effective police work. He pushes back successfully when he can and parts ways with those around him when necessary, particularly when McNulty goes too far down the rabbit hole. Bunk solves murders, works in the interest of justice whenever he can, without overreaching.