Every season (or every chapter, more like) of The Wire has its own theme. The first covers "the street," the second "the supply," while the third chapter turns to "reform." Those three, taken together, also form one of the show's most compelling arcs: the tragedy of Stringer Bell, and it's tempting to call them the greatest achievement of the show. But it's the fourth season, purportedly centered on education, where The Wire begins to tip its hand, slyly hinting at a more ambitious goal than simply masterfully-written entertainment. It's there, in other words, that we start to see the emergence of a new theme for the show beyond each yearly installment.
What makes season four so different? Essentially, it downplays the procedural, cat-and-mouse aspects of the first three seasons. There are still cases being worked by the police--Herc's missing camera, Bunk's intervention in Omar's wrongful arrest--but the narrative arc of cops vs. dealers takes a back seat to Michael, Duquan, Randy, and Namond (the four corner kids introduced in this season). Unsurprisingly, the writers have a hard time keeping the level of tension up without a caper to solve, and so the show takes a more leisurely pace.
But in a lot of ways, the slowdown suits The Wire a great deal. At the heart of creator David Simon's critique of the police institution in Baltimore, there's always been the belief that the lack of support for smart, high-level casework in the department not only allows the drug trade to flourish, but actually encourages it by swamping the legal system in corner arrests that it can't possibly handle. The fourth season is his chance to show how that happens without the distractions of "better" cops, like McNulty and Freamon.
From a wider view, however, The Wire has never been a typical procedural show. It can't be: it's rooted in the realities of Baltimore, not the fantasy crimelabs of CSI. Above all, it refuses to treat either side of the drug trade as inhuman or irredeemable--in this, The Wire stays far from the caricatured authoritarianism of Law and Order. Simon and the show's other writers don't want scapegoats, they want to show that the corner gangs are actual human beings--ones that have grown up in experiences that shape them differently from most viewers, but not so much that we can't feel a kinship with them.
In the book that he co-authored with his Wire collaborator Ed Burns, The Corner, they write (on the topic of welfare):
... To do more than tender the bribe would require empathy, charity, and connectedness, and in thirty years we have summoned up nothing close.It becomes clear, when even the limited amount of separation between citizen and criminal allowed on The Wire is minimized, that this is part of Simon's point: to give viewers a perspective that forces their empathy, charity, and connectedness to emerge. Gangsters like Slim Charles, Stringer, or Bodie are shown richly and warmly, but without dismissing the destructive actions they often take (Slim Charles, especially, is so enjoyable to watch that it's sickening to be reminded of his work as a hired killer). Even the show's most unrepentantly villainous characters, Chris and Snoop, have an inner life and a complicated relationship with the world around them.
Empathy demands that we recognize ourselves in the faces at Mount and Fayette, that we acknowledge the addictive impuse as something more than simple lawlessness, that we begin to see the corner as the last refuge of the truly disowned. Charity asks that we no longer begrudge the treasure already lost. And connectedness admits that between their world and ours, the distance, in human terms at least, is never as great as we make it seem.
They aren't so different from us, Simon is saying. As with Stringer Bell, they could very well be us, if it weren't for the warping effects of the drug world. That's the perspective that gets lost when the battle against drugs becomes a "war," and the opposing sides are reduced to soldiers. It could be a genuinely transformative viewpoint for many people. Which is why it's such a shame that The Wire is the greatest show that nobody ever watched.