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Case Number 09819

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The Wire: The Complete Third Season

HBO // 2004 // 720 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // August 8th, 2006

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All Rise...

Judge Adam Arseneau keeps the devil way down in the hole.

Editor's Note

Our reviews of The Wire: The Complete First Season (published January 5th, 2005), The Wire: The Complete Fourth Season (published January 9th, 2008), The Wire: The Complete Fifth Season (published August 25th, 2008), and The Wire: The Complete Series (published December 17th, 2008) are also available.

The Charge

Rules change. The game remains the same.

Opening Statement

The Wire is the finest television drama currently on the air that nobody watches. Despite numerous awards, near-unanimous rave reviews from critics hailing the show as an American masterpiece, ratings have been consistently mediocre for HBO's gritty crime drama, the show taking a back seat to the network's more popular offerings.

Slow and deliberate with a complex plot and authentic street slang make The Wire an impossible show to follow for the casual viewer, but long-time fans recognize the show as one of the smartest, sophisticated, and rewarding television shows ever conceived.

Facts of the Case

Trying to summarize a single season of HBO's The Wire a few measly paragraphs is an arduous task, if not flat-out impossible. With its complex, winding plots, dozens upon dozens of characters, and nuanced developments, there is absolutely no way to accurately transcribe the true events of The Wire: The Complete Third Season without breaking out the episode transcripts. But here goes:

With notorious criminal lord Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris, Remember the Titans)incarcerated, his lieutenant Stringer Bell (Idris Elba, Law & Order) has been left in charge. Free from Barksdale's gangster influence, Stringer has made more than a few changes in restructuring the operation, making peace with other crews, and increasing the sophistication of the business. With Barksdale returning, Stringer worries that his carefully constructed empire will soon fall back to the thug life, especially when Barksdale starts beefing with a young up-and-comer named Marlow.

Meanwhile, Lt. Daniels (Lance Reddick, Oz) and his task force is still pursing the Barksdale gang, trying to keep up with the movements of Stringer Bell and put the man under. McNulty (Dominic West, Mona Lisa Smile) is still wrestling with his own personal demons, while Greggs (Sonja Sohn, Slam) tries to adjust to married life.

Omar is still playing the stickup game, robbing Barksdale's stash houses. An old school thug named Cutty gets released from prison and tries to pick the life up back where he left off, but finds he no longer has the heart for the hustle.

Under political pressure to reduce the weekly felony tab for the Western district, Major Colvin (Robert Wisdom) devises a new controversial strategy to combat crime, which has ramifications that will shake the police department and the Mayor's office to its foundations.

All 12 episodes from Season three are included:

• "Time After Time"
• "All Due Respect"
• "Dead Soldiers"
• "Amsterdam"
• "Straight and True"
• "Homecoming"
• "Back Burners"
• "Moral Midgetry"
• "Slapstick"
• "Reformation"
• "Middle Ground"
• "Mission Accomplished"

The Evidence

"It's Baltimore, gentlemen. The gods will not save you."

Created by David Simon (of Homicide: Life on the Street fame) as a drama based loosely on his experiences of former homicide detective Ed Burns, The Wire soon transmogrified into a "treatise about institutions and individuals," according to Simon. Often described as "TV for the hopeless," its complex plot set against the urbane backdrop of Baltimore, nuanced and ambiguous character development, and myriad of subplots gave the show unparalleled depth of focus, incorporating nearly every aspect of life on the streets, good and bad.

No more a simple cop drama than real life can be equated down to a simplistic genre, The Wire tells a story of a city in all aspects—cops to thugs, dock workers to politicians—and examines the forces at work that keep a city like Baltimore moving. Creator David Simon summarized the show as an examination into "the inherent cost of being an individual in any modern institution," be it drug culture, criminal enterprises, bureaucracies, or politics. In the institution versus the individual, the individual has no chance; or to put it in Simon's words, "whoever you [are] in Baltimore, you [are] getting f**ked."

Brutally honest, frequently dystopic, and socially scathing, The Wire is a product of Baltimore the way Law & Order could never exist in any other city but New York. It pulls no punches in its less-than-optimistic portrayal of street life and the jaded perspective of most of its citizens. With a terrible homicide rate and widespread street violence, The Wire is built around the total abandonment of the social contract that holds the rest of the country together, leaving cities like Baltimore as microcosms of their own self-destruction and decline. Simon destroys the illusion that cops are any different than the thugs they chase down or that politicians are any different than criminal kingpins.

The protagonists in The Wire possess that intoxicating moral ambiguous that is the hallmark of fine HBO dramatic television. The so-called "good guys" are often assholes, and the "bad guys" have a certain honor and respect about them, making for terribly compelling television. The cops are alcoholic, wife-cheating, racist, violent, and antagonistic, yet uphold the law in a position of respect. In stark comparison, the drug dealers who terrorize the streets and degenerate the culture do so in a structured, organized fashion, a code of thieves if you will, with a certain amount of personal integrity that makes them identifiable and even admirable. These boundaries of "good" and "bad" are extremely flexible, with characters often moving from positions of admiration to loathing, but there is a certain invisible barrier between the two sides that limits too much lateral motion. A bad cop and a good thug can come close, and even grow a certain grudging respect for one another, but never the two shall meet. After all, the game is the game.

Stringer was a fascinating character in Season One, but his season to shine is in Season Three as he emerges from the shadow of Avon Barksdale and begins to organize the drug trade in Baltimore like a business venture. His character is transitory, in flux between the two defined character archetypes, running the hustle but acting like a businessman, with a foot in each world. Season Three has much to say about the distinction between politician and gang lord, and how often the two inhabit the same moral flexibility and artificiality. As Stringer Bell tries to go legitimate, he finds he has exchanged the hustling game of the streets for an entirely new game, one infinitely more complex and dangerous.

If Season Three has a central motif, it is the shattering of the American mythology that no matter who you are, success will come if you work hard. In The Wire, decision is often made before free will even factors into the equation. In Baltimore, it does matter who you are and there is no escaping this sobering realization. The more you fight against it, the harder the fall will be back down to Earth. It is a depressing theme for a television show, but nobody said a drama had to be uplifting.

To satisfy the name requirements, some wiretapping and surveillance technology appears in Season Three. The police department has to cope with the increasingly sophisticated operations of Barksdale's gang, who have gotten wise to the traditional surveillance methods in previous seasons. Using "burners" or disposable cell phones prevents the police from ordering any wiretaps on the hoppers, a remarkably sophisticated (albeit expensive) way of avoiding detection. I find this slow, methodical cloak-and-dagger style of espionage and wiretapping in The Wire fascinating, portrayed realistically as a procedure involving numerous technical and legal hurdles, affidavits, signed documents, etc., to initiate.

The other main plot arc in Season Three concerns "Hamsterdam," a social experiment of sorts devised by a police major in order to combat the drug problem in his area of town. Under pressure from the city to reduce his crime stats, Maj. Colvin decides to round up all the dealers and force them into a dilapidated abandoned corner of the city, where they would be free to deal drugs unhindered by the police. At first suspicious of the police motives, the hoppers soon realize the proposition is legitimate and "Amsterdam" takes off. It becomes so successful in fact, that Colvin can no longer control his Frankenstein creation. Crime drops sharply in the rest of his district, so much so that his superiors become suspicious, and the conditions in Hamsterdam degrade to the point of a front-line war zone.

Tackling the hypocrisy of the war on drugs head on, this plot arc is incredibly compelling. An idea both brilliant and asinine, the experiment proves a surprisingly success, so much so that its entire existence becomes a great shining liability for the police department and the city government. What had originally set out to be a method of tweaking crime statistics in Baltimore ends up legalization of drugs, something that the federal government would probably be a little upset about if they caught wind. Hamsterdam itself became the most hellish environment, full of coked-out junkies, fires, violence, and unsanitary conditions, but the effect on the surrounding Baltimore neighborhood was immediate. Since all the dealers moved out of the neighborhoods, the streets are now safe again and the townsfolk are happy about the change. As the controversy rages, the dichotomy of this aberration would threaten to tear apart the entire country, were it allowed to be released outside the streets of Baltimore. Ironically, the simplest solution to the war on drugs, a war that the United States has no logical hope of winning, is to simply legalize the affair and control it.

As in previous seasons, The Wire: The Complete Third Season is a single story arc divided into 12 episodes, with each episode a literal continuation of the previous. This is not the kind of show you can simply "turn on" at will, as individual episodes are meaningless out of context, nor is it the kind of show you can come into at the start of a season fresh to the material. Unless you have seen all of the previous two seasons, don't even bother picking up The Wire: The Complete Third Season, because you won't have a chance in hell of figuring things out. I could literally spend a week writing about this show, all the tiny little plot points, the characters, the subtle nuances that make The Wire one of the finest shows in my collection, but I'd be awfully tired. Also, my fingers would cramp up something fierce.

The transfer to DVD is top-grade, boasting an extremely clear, detailed image, with deep black levels and no noticeable defects. Color saturation is excellent, with reds just scaled back before to the point of bleeding. A Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround presentation as well as 2.0 Stereo tracks in English, French, and Spanish. The show itself has no score whatsoever, a deliberate decision by creator Simon not to manipulate the viewer through musical cues, so there is not much distinction between surround modes. Both have clear, center-oriented dialogue and plenty of on-site ambient and environmental noise, with no noticeable discrepancies or issues.

The Wire: The Complete Third Season offers up a respectable amount of supplementary material. Five episodes have commentary tracks by creator David Simon and assorted other cast and crew, including Nina K. Noble, Richard Price, George Pelecanos, Joe Chappelle, and Karen L. Thorson, and are laden with behind-the-scene production information and writing motivations. An hour-long recorded Q&A session with David Simon and cast and crew is informative and goes extremely deep into the motives of the creators behind the goals and ambitions of the third season, but it does discuss plot details that would be considered "spoilers" for people who have not seen the entire season to completion. The second interview, a 30-minute Q&A with David Simon at Eugene Lang College puts Simon at the mercy of a class of writing students, with incredibly informative results.

Like all HBO television shows released to DVD, each episode has a selectable "Previously on The Wire" and "Next Episode on The Wire" teaser and a small episode synopsis, perfect for keeping track of the myriad of plot points. Finally, an extremely useful flow chart feature divides the gigantic cast into two sides, "The Law" and "The Street," sorting individuals by their respective police unit or gang, and is invaluable in keeping track of who's who.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

I think this is my least favorite season of The Wire, but that statement is of itself is rather benign, like admitting that I prefer a million dollars in small denominations over larger bills. Factually correct, but slightly irrelevant.

Each season thus far has been a radical departure from the previous, with its plots labyrinth, unexpected, fresh, and compelling. The return of the Barksdale gang as a primary focus picks up where Season One left off and sacrifices some of the originality between seasons. Though the season is completely different in subject and tone than Season One, at times it cannot help but feel slightly repetitive. But just slightly.

Also, my wallet hurts. It's a shame these HBO seasons cost so much darn money.

Closing Statement

I have never watched a television show that felt so satisfying after a season finale than The Wire. The show is so sprawling and epic, so grandiose in its storyline and development that by the time the final episode rolls, satisfaction and accomplishment washes through you. Sophisticated and intelligent, this is extremely rewarding television.

The Wire may very well be the best drama on television today, and the more people who are aware of this fact, the better. With the fourth season currently in production, now is the time to start at Season One and get caught up.

The Verdict

Not guilty on all charges, save for some minor damage to the tourist industry of Baltimore. I know I sure don't want to go there anytime soon.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 95
Audio: 93
Extras: 60
Acting: 96
Story: 98
Judgment: 97

Perp Profile

Studio: HBO
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
• English
• French
• Spanish
Running Time: 720 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Crime
• Drama
• Television

Distinguishing Marks

• Q&A with David Simon and Creative Team at The Museum of Television & Radio
• Conversation with David Simon at Eugene Lang College
• Audio Commentaries with Creator David Simon, Director Joe Chappelle, Writers Richard Price and George Pelecanos, and Producers Karen L. Thorson and Nina K. Noble
• "The Players" Cast Index


• IMDb
• Official Site
• Wikipedia entry on The Wire

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