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"It's Baltimore, gentlemen. The gods will not save you."
—Commissioner Ervin Burrell
Baltimore is back, baby. If you feel the need to make stories that blow past the boundaries of detective/crime drama, you need to be working a Baltimore setting. Homicide: Life on the Street set the bar. The Wire doesn't just jump that bar, it executes a triple somersault and lands perfectly on the other side.
The Wire is a show about Baltimore, taking you through a different segment of the city in each season.
Season One is focused on the police and the drug trade. One of the unique aspects of the show is that, rather than having a crime each week, each episode is just a chapter in a single, season-long case for the Baltimore police Major Crimes Unit. Thus, the viewer sees in great detail the political wrangling on either side of the drug war, as financial constraints, personal vendettas and career opportunism get in the way of the guys just trying to do their jobs - whether those jobs are maintaining law and order or keeping up a steady supply of heroin to Baltimore's numerous "fiends".
The show's scope broadens from the street corners to show how all parts of Baltimore -- and by extension every US city -- are complicit in the social machine that keeps the drug trade alive and buoyant.
Season Two moves to the ailing Baltimore docks and their uneasy racial balance of power, as dock manager Frank Sobotka discovers the price for taking money from organized crime -- even if he's only doing it to keep the docks from dying.
Season Three returns to the streets of Baltimore, but also looks at the city's politicians, in particular up-and-coming mayoral hopeful Tommy Carcetti as he plays all sides to get into a position of power. Thus, the season is able to show how street-level policing is dependent on the whims of those higher up the food chain and examine the issue of reform.
Season Four is about education and continues to show Carcetti's rise as he runs for mayor, but a large chunk of the air time now also focuses on four young friends: Dukie, an impoverished son of junkies; Michael, a troubled victim of abuse who looks out for his younger brother; Namond, born into a junk-dealing family; and Randy, a small-time huckster just trying to get by. These four youths find themselves equally attracted and repelled by the opportunities and dangers of Baltimore's drug trade.
The fifth and final season wraps up the stories of everyone that has been featured in the show thus far, while introducing a new set of characters, a series of reporters working for The Baltimore Sun, a newspaper that is constantly suffering cutbacks and buy-outs as the experienced old guard are replaced with naïve new reporters. Two such reporters subsequently become involved in a scam by one of the MCU's detectives to bring down new drug kingpin Marlo Stanfield.
With the rotating focus every season, the show is anchored by the police officer characters and the often ignored power struggles that go on within major city police department. The rank and file detectives and patrol officers are often portrayed as helpless pawns of their superiors, who are more concerned with their own petty vendettas and personal ambitions than the city and its citizens. Detectives regularly find their investigations spiked the moment they start to become a financial burden for the department or threaten the status quo.
Counterbalancing the police are the city's drug dealers, who range from the the ruthless Marlo Stanfield and Avon Barksdale, to the more affable "Proposition Joe" and ambitious social climber Stringer Bell. Also in the mix is Omar Little, a deadly Robin Hood-like figure who robs drug dealers, the drug-addicted police informant "Bubbles", and the mysterious European crime lord known as "The Greek", who supplies both drugs and prostitutes to the city of Baltimore.
The Wire is rife with social commentary and the liberal political views of show creators Simon and Norris. The most overt theme of the series is the notion that the "War on Drugs" is a complete and total failure in its current form of "lock up the drug dealers and throw away the key" logic. In addition, there is the more nihilistic notion that the institutions that make up the American way of life are irreversibly corrupt, and that it is impossible to reform them. To try to reform them is to be crushed by the system.
Although the series has been critically acclaimed, The Wire never managed to earn anything more than a small but devoted following. Part of the reason, says co-creator David Simon, is that it has a primarily black cast representing the racial makeup of the real-life Baltimore. Indeed, the show's best-rated season is its second, which was the only one to have an equal number of white faces, being set in Baltimore's docks.
- Abandoned Playground: Several, considering that Baltimore is a shooting gallery. Most notably, Nick laments Ziggy in one in Season 2, Marlo holds court in one for most of Season 3, and Lex is ambushed by Snoop in one in Season 4.
- Absentee Actor:
- Dominic West during much of the fourth season (his character, McNulty, works as a beat cop); this was done largely to accommodate West, due to him landing several movie roles during the period that season four filmed.
- McNulty disappeared through much of season two as well, getting assigned to "harbor unit", which the writers then promptly turned into a key plot point of the season. The writing is overall so strong that major characters cycle in and out of the narrative, and if something life-altering happens to a character (for instance, a life prison term), it's permanent, and the overall arc is so strong that it supports it completely, and we simply focus on other characters.
- For whatever reason Leander Sydnor is not included in the Major Crimes unit in Season 2, but returns for 3-5, the only original member still on the unit at the end of the show. His absence from the Second Season is mentioned in universe, but never explained.
- Abusive Parents: Unfortunately numerous, particularly in season four. De'Londa Brice is emotionally and borderline physically abusive to her son Namond, Michael and Bug's mother Raelene and Dukie's caregivers are neglectful and Michael's stepfather is strongly implied to have sexually abused Michael.
- Adaptational Attractiveness: Inverted with Jay Landsman. See for yourself--the real Jay Landsman (Lieutenant Mello's actor) and the fictional Jay Landsman both appear in the show. Conspicuously, the fictional character is at least 50 pounds heavier than his Real Life counterpart.
- Aesop Amnesia: At the end of Season 1, Herc is seen giving a couple of rookie Narcotics detectives a speech about the importance of being a Guile Hero in their work. He immediately forgets all about that lesson in subsequent seasons.
- Affably Evil:
- Proposition Joe. "Don't believe we've met. Proposition Joe. You ever steal from me, I'll kill your whole family."
- Spiros and the Greek.
- Clay Davis.
- Clarence Royce.
- Brother Mouzone.
- Alliterative Name: Brianna Barksdale, Bodie Broadus.
- All Lesbians Want Kids: Averted with Kima, who essentially becomes a deadbeat dad.
- Amoral Attorney: Maurice Levy
- Antagonist in Mourning: McNulty spends 3 seasons trying to build a case on Stringer, and finally gets him on tape incriminating himself. That very afternoon, Stringer is betrayed to Omar and murdered. McNulty is distraught.
McNulty: I caught him, Bunk. On the wire, I caught him. He doesn't fucking know it.
- Anti-Hero: McNulty and Omar, most prominently. Both of them are mostly Type III but McNulty sometimes shows signs of a Type IV, especially in the final season. Bubbles is a Type I.
- Anti-Villain: Most of the people on the bad side of the law could qualify, as very few of them consciously choose a life of crime or actively take pleasure in suffering and fear. With the notable exception of the Stanfield gang, of course. Of particular note are D'Angelo Barksdale, Bodie and Co., and Frank Sobotka.
- Anyone Can Die: To the point that by the final season, most of the Barksdale clan's members who weren't arrested were killed on the streets; long-running characters like Bodie and Omar Little are killed off suddenly as well.
- Arc Words:
- "New Day!" Carcetti runs with the slogan "It's a new day in Baltimore", and multiple drug crews form the New Day Co-Op.
- "The game": "It's all in the game."; "The game is the game."
Cutty: The game done changed.
- Artifact Title: A literal wire, rather than a metaphor for walking a thin line, only plays a major role in the first season. Wiretaps of one variety or another are central to several operations. The title also suggests pulling the thread.
- Back for the Finale: Pretty much everyone that's not dead has one last hurrah as a One-Scene Wonder at some point during the final season. Even Nicky and Johnny Fifty from Season 2's docks plotline show up for cameos.
- Badass Beard: Prez in the series finale.
- Badass Boast: Omar in the first season: "Lesson here, 'Bey. You come at the king, you best not miss."
- Badass Bookworm: Brother Mouzone, who enjoys reading Harper's. He even references it by saying, "What's the most dangerous thing in America? A nigger with a library card."
- Badass in a Nice Suit: Brother Mouzone, who wears a suit and bow tie at all times. Mocked, at his own peril, by Cheese.
- Badass Longcoat: Omar Little.
- Bad Guy Bar: Orlando's is the strip club, plotting nefarious deeds variant. Butchie's bar is the dingy, neutral variant; criminals from a variety of different organizations seem equally likely to spend time there, and it is the location of choice for Stringer Bell or Proposition Joe to parley with Omar Little from season two and onwards.
- The Bad Guy Wins: Scott Templeton, who wins a Pulitzer for his fabricated story while Gus is demoted.
- Played earlier and a lot more devastatingly at the end of the second season when The Greek and his cronies get away scot-free with the police still having no idea who they really are. Made worse when they resurface in the story a couple seasons later and we see that they've managed to avoid prosecution and are back in business in Baltimore.
- Bald Black Leader Guy: Cedric Daniels and Howard Colvin.
- Battle Couple: Omar and his three boyfriends, Kimmy and Tosha.
- Being Evil Sucks: Unless you manage to get away with it. Though even that isn't always what it's cracked up to be, ask Marlo.
- Being Good Sucks: Not surprising considering the cynical nature of the show. Then again: the bad guys don't always have it easy either (see above).
- Big Applesauce: McNulty puts Omar on a bus there to get him away from drug deal retribution, the West Side's drug connection runs through there for the first few seasons, and drug deals (and eventually hitmen) show up from New York periodically.
- The Big Board: A corkboard laying out all of each case's suspects. Also, the white board in the Homicide division that shows all the open cases, unsolved ones in red. The big board eventually spilled out over the walls as the cases grew larger.
- Big No: After a mother's son catches a stray bullet during a shootout.
- Bilingual Bonus: A brief sub-plot in series one concerned two older cops named Polk and Mahone. "Póg mo thóin" (pronounced Pogue Mahone) is Irish for "Kiss my ass".
- Black and Gray Morality: Whenever Stanfield and his crew become involved, particularly in his ascendant Big Bad status in Seasons Four and Five, The Wire arguably slips into this trope instead.
- Black Comedy: Quite often. The most hilarious examples include Bodie ordering a wreath for his friend's funeral in Season 2 or Herc and Carver trying to apply Good Cop, Bad Cop routine in Season 1.
- Blood Knight: Snoop, in spades.
- Blue and Orange Morality: Chris and Snoop have some... odd ways of looking at life and death. Snoop seems to think that killing is a natural part of life, and it makes no difference who does it, or whether or not they deserved it. If someone says it's their turn to die, it's simply their turn to die.
- Bluff the Impostor: Chris and Snoop's questioning of New York drug dealers in the fourth season.
- Break the Cutie: Randy in Season Four may have been a mischievous and somewhat naive teen, but he's also a sweet and likable person that no one wanted to do bad things to. That is, until Randy told a teacher about the vacant house murders. Once that happened, and once everyone in the neighborhood got wind of what Randy said, things started getting really bad for him, very fast. At first, it was mild, with the kids at his school not wanting to associate with him. Then it escalated into daily fights; enough to the point that his legal guardian forcibly withdrew him until he can be transferred to another school. Unfortunately, that never happened, because several nights later, two random thugs tossed Molotov cocktails into his guardian's house and set it on fire. While Randy was intact, his guardian was so horribly burned, she was unable to care for him anymore. As a result, Randy had to go to a group home with other volatile neighborhood kids who beat him up everyday for what he did, despite Carver trying to adopt Randy to avoid that fate. Needless to say, when Randy briefly reappeared in season five, he had become a hardened, violent individual.
- Brick Joke: When Ziggy meets Sergei Molotov for the first time, he derisively calls him "Boris" as a dig at his Russian heritage. Near the end of the season, when Sergei is being interrogated by the cops and refuses to speak, Kima just shrugs and calls him "Boris" because he won't tell her his name. He rolls his eyes and mutters "Why is it always 'Boris'?"
- Brief Accent Imitation: Proposition Joe when calling the police to ask about an officer, fakes not one, not two, but three different voices and dialects, one for each time his call is transferred.
- Briefcase Full of Money:
- Marlo's bribe for the Greeks in the fifth season. Mocked, because the Greek won't accept it as it comes, dirty from the streets.
- Stringer Bell also gives a case full of drug money to "the faucet", a corrupt public official willing to approve building plans in return for a bribe only to later find out that the man he sees is just a random public official and the whole thing was just an elaborate scheme by Clay Davis to swindle him out of cash. This can be seen as a subversion of the trope of sorts as Levy points out that a State Senator like Davis wouldn't be willing to risk his career by walking around with briefcases full of drug money to give to public officials who might rat them out.
- Butch Lesbian:
- Kima drinks, sleeps around, and kicks in doors right along with the men of the series.
- Snoop as well. She has the "one of the guys" aspect down nearly to a tee, wearing almost exclusively baggy men's clothing (concealing her fairly feminine build seen on the one exception), being one of the top two enforcers for Marlo, and with a voice deeper than most males on the show. Her sexual orientation is only once referred to, and that fairly obliquely (where she claims that she, like Bunk, is "thinking about some pussy"), but the actress who plays her is also a Butch Lesbian.
- But Not Too Gay: The fairly prominent gay character of Omar never gets a sex scene, and over three boyfriends and five seasons, only has two on-screen kisses (three if you count kissing Brandon's forehead in an early episode): he barely even touches the third boyfriend, Renaldo, even in a non-sexual way (possibly as a result of some controversy about the fairly steamy make-out scene with his previous boyfriend, Dante). Mostly, however, this is averted as Omar is one of few characters who never hides his relationships, and what we do see is still a lot more than some examples from other media.
- Butt Monkey: Ziggy, though he mostly brings it on himself. He can arguably be seen as a Deconstruction of the trope, once you see his fate at the end of the season: he gets so tired of being the punchline of every joke that he snaps and murders George Glekas after he cheats him in a business deal and humiliates him. He gets a lengthy prison term for the crime.
- Camera Sniper: Happens a lot, particularly in season one. For instance, the scene where Bubbles is doing his red hat trick and Kima is on the roof photographing them.
- Cardboard Prison: It takes Bodie about three minutes to break out of juvenile hall.
- Career Killer: Brother Mouzone, on loan from New York to bust some heads in Baltimore.
- Catch Phrase:
- McNulty: "The fuck did I do?"
- Bunk: "Happy now, bitch?"; "Givin' a fuck when it ain't your turn to give a fuck."
- Proposition Joe: "I got a proposition for you."
- Clay Davis: "Sheeeeeeeeeeit." This is apparently the actor's catchphrase, Slate.com pointed out that he was using it in previous roles.
- Omar: "Indeed."
- D'Angelo: "Mos' def'."
- The whole damn cast: "All in the game."
- Snoop: YERP!!
- Interesting use with Lt. Mello. His actor, former police detective Jay Landsman, had his own real life catch phrase: he used to pretend to light up a joint and pass it around when something crazy came up in discussions with fellow officers, saying, "Good shit, right?" The writers incorporated it into his character; Lt. Mello does the same thing when scoping out potential locations for Major Colvin's "experiment".
- Celebrity Paradox:
- Method Man plays Cheese, but Wu-Tang Clan songs have been heard on the radio at least once. We get a clear view of his Wu logo Tattoo on his hand in Season 4.
- The reference to former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke in Season 5 despite a guest appearance by the same in Season 3, playing a health official.
- In one episode, McNulty pontificates that the core cop cast of the show are among maybe ten or twenty truly good cops in Baltimore, among the names he gives as examples of other cops is Ed Burns, who is of course one of the show's creators and was indeed a cop (though was many years retired by the time he made the show, possibly you could say it was a different Ed Burns).
- The real Jay Landsman plays Lt. Mello, while Delaney Williams plays "Jay Landsman". Made more confusing in a scene in the fifth season where Lt. Mello, Jay Landsman, and Detective Munch, based on Landsman, all appear in a bar.
- Omar is a Fan of HBO's Oz although many Actors (Herc, Carver, Rawls, Daniels, Bodie, Freamon and Cheese) on The Wire have appeared on it
- Characterization Marches On: Proposition Joe is implied to be illiterate in Season One, when Avon mocks him for carrying a clipboard as a coach even though he can't read. Later episodes reveal Prop Joe to be quite intellectual. His prequel short shows that he was an excellent student who sold his test answers to fellow students.
- Chastity Couple: Omar and Renaldo are not shown so much as holding hands, in comparison to Omar's being shown as affectionate with his first two boyfriends.
- Chekhov's Gun:
- The "get out of jail free" card.
- Chris' spit on Michael's step-father.
- Dozerman's stolen service weapon.
- The nail gun in season four.
- Daniels' past corruption investigation, which is mentioned briefly in the Pilot and becomes relevant in the Finale, 5 seasons later.
- Chekhov's Gunman:
- Colvin, who appears briefly in Season 2 only to become very important in Seasons 3 and 4.
- Kenard, who appears briefly in Season 3 as a kid on the street proclaiming, "It's my turn to be Omar!" He returns in season four, and then in Season Five is the one to shoot Omar. The best part is that this wasn't even intentional on the writer's part, they only found out later that it was the same kid and he just happened to be cast for both roles. In one interview, Dennis Lehane jokingly declared that I Meant to Do That.
- Chekhov's Skill: Michael learning "The Game".
- The Chessmaster: Many including Stringer, Prop Joe, etc. though their successes vary. Probably the most successful however, is Lester Freamon who is a magnificent bastard despite being a good guy.
- Children Are Innocent: Played straight with characters like Michael's brother, Bug, and then defied with characters like Kenard, who lies, steals, kills Omar, and is eventually arrested. Not to mention swears like a sailor on leave. He's even seen about to set a cat on fire before being distracted by Omar.
- Child Soldiers: Not always the case for every West Baltimore kid, but it's certainly expected, given the ruthless nature of the drug game. In some cases like Bodie and Poot, they voluntarily joined for the monetary benefits and because it's almost encouraged by their environment. The most blatant and tragic case is Michael. Although he became a very good soldier for Marlo Stanfield, he joined because he needed an escape from his horrible living conditions and neglectful parents.
- Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: Stringer.
- McNulty for pretty much the entire series.
- Proposition Joe.
- The City: Baltimore.
- Clear My Name: A strange example. Herc and Carver arrest a cash mule and turn the money over to the Major Crimes Unit. However, it is several thousand dollars short of the amount that they heard being discussed on the wire. So Daniels tells them to get it back before he reports them - Herc and Carver tear apart the squad car and find that it has somehow gotten under the spare tire in the trunk. Carver notes that Daniels will never believe they didn't try to steal it. And since they have both seen each other doing so in the past, neither of them really believes the other didn't hide it there.
- Cluster F-Bomb: In Season One, McNulty and Bunk spend an entire scene investigating a crime scene while muttering nothing but variations of the word "fuck".
- Comically Missing the Point:
- Consummate Liar: Quite a few of those, but Clay Davis and Scott Templeton are the best examples.
- Continuity Nod: Frequent references to prior events and conversations; especially evident in the final two seasons.
- Cool Old Guy: Lester Freamon is the oldest of the detectives and at first glance is considered a "hump" who spends all his time painting miniature furniture. He's soon revealed to be the smartest guy on the whole damn show. There's a reason they call him "Cool Lester Smooth".
- The Coroner: Dr. Frazier in the first, second, and third season.
- Corrupt Corporate Executive: Andy Krawczyck.
- Corrupt the Cutie: Carcetti starts out idealistic and messianic, but slowly but surely gets dragged into the politics game.
- Country Matters:
- McNulty fails to get away with indirectly applying the word to his ex-wife in Season One. The word also features in a line in Season Three which is so offensive it shocks Stringer.
- Bird, the charming gentleman who spouts this word, and many other slurs, several times at Kima and the other detectives while in homicide's interview room. He's actually so offensive and obnoxious that even Daniels joins in on the ass-kicking.
- Ziggy to Double G. It doesn't end well.
"Thieving. Greek. Cunt."
- Cowboy Cop:
- Some fans think of McNulty as a Deconstruction of this Trope. He can be seen, though, as a Reconstruction of it as well. He's got most of the traits associated with it, but instead of spending his time busting punks on the corners (which his superiors actually want him to do), he's smart enough to get results by patiently spying on them to build up evidence. He's just as rebellious as most classic examples, but he shows that a Cowboy Cop doesn't have to be a violent hothead to have an effect on crime.
- In the second episode of the second season, a dead body floating off the coast of Baltimore and a container full of suffocated European women set the plot of the season in motion. The case of the dead women was supposed to go to the marine unit in a different sector of the city, but Jimmy McNulty (who had been transferred to the marine unit out of spite by his boss in the previous season) has different plans. He painstakingly maps the location where the dead floater was found. Then, using a tide chart, pins the 13 dead bodies and the floater (which are connected) back on the Baltimore Police Department as revenge. Then he laughs as he faxes his report to his former commander.
- Lester Freamon would also qualify as a bit of a "quieter" Cowboy Cop, thanks to him being easily the best Chessmaster in all of Baltimore in his own right.
Rhonda: Shit, Lester, you've got this all figured out.
- Herc and Carver at various points in the earlier seasons, especially in the "roughing up suspects" department. They certainly see themselves as this in seasons one through three. Needless to say, it doesn't work out for either of them.
- Crapsack World: Almost every aspect of the setting.
- Creator Cameo: David Simon plays a reporter during Frank Sobotka's arrest, and briefly at the Baltimore Sun in the final season. Other writers and producers have appeared in minor roles on the show, including Dennis Lehane as bored cop Sullivan in the special equipment room in the Season 3 episode "Middle Ground" (with a porno magazine called Irish Lasses, no less).
- Crime-Time Soap: The show focuses drastically more on personal and professional relationships and favors than "real police work", yet still portrays police work in an accurate manner. It's the way it shows how such relationships shape crime and police work, always in a realistic and believable way, that makes it so authentic.
- Crime-Time TV
- Cuffs Off, Rub Wrists
- Cultural Posturing: Facing a serious challenge from Carcetti (who is white), Mayor Royce (who is black) redesigns all his campaign materials in African colors to inspire racial solidarity at the ballot box. Even lampshaded by Carcetti.
- Da Chief: Commander Rawls, who rips his underlings to shreds with gusto.
- Darker and Edgier: The generational shift in Season 3 is represented this way, with Marlo representing a Darker and Edgier amalgamation of Stringer's conservative and calculating nature, and Avon's brutality and pride. Similarly, Chris Partlow is a darker and edgier version of Wee Bey Brice while the Stanfield bit players also seem to be a little rougher around the edges than their Barksdale counterparts.
- Dartboard of Hate: Sobotka has one with the face of Bob Irsay, the owner of the Colts who moved them from Baltimore to Indianapolis.
- Dead Guy on Display:
- Brandon in Season One, presented on the hood of a car as a warning.
- Also in the case of every informal policeman's wake held in an Kavanaugh's Pub, when the body of the deceased is put on the pool table with a cigar and a glass of whisky in his hands.
- Deadpan Snarker: Most of the characters get their moments to some degree, but the ones who stand out include Bunk, Lester, and Norman Wilson.
- Death Is Dramatic:
- Usually averted, but the scene of Stringer's death had quite an aesthetic tinge to it.
- Bodie's last stand is also fairly meaningful up until its seemingly anticlimactic end.
- The death of Omar is a biting aversion, from the initial killing shot, to his murder not making the paper, to his name tag almost being switched up. Also Played With for the rest of the series whenever a corner boy tells some tall tale of how he fell.
- Snoop's death is also surprisingly poignant.
- Demoted to Extra: The fifth and final season gives this treatment to various (fairly) major characters from previous seasons such as: Roland Pryzbylewski, Randy Wagstaff, Namond Brice, and Dennis 'Cutty' Wise, among others.
- Derailed for Details: In Season 4, Prez tries to set his class a Train Problem and they pester him for details that would be relevant to an actual journey (which station it's leaving from, what the purpose of this guy's trip is, etc.), but not to the basic maths problem he has in mind.
- Despite the Plan: In Season Three, an otherwise simple robbery by Omar and his crew turns deadly when they realize that the house is more heavily guarded than they were expecting, and they have to shoot their way out, resulting in deaths on both sides of the gunfight.
- Disposable Vagrant: McNulty brilliantly fabricates a fraudulent serial-killer case around or inverting this trope using forsaken vagrant victims in order to attract media and political attention and divert funds to real police work. He even "abducts" one live vagrant to further drive the point home.
- Disproportionate Retribution: In the fifth season, Marlo gets wind of someone spreading rumors that he's gay. His reaction? Order the guy who started the rumor murdered, along with his wife and kids.
- Dissonant Serenity: Brother Mouzone.
- Divided We Fall
- Does This Remind You of Anything?: In Season 5, when (McNulty) goes to the FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit for help on the serial killer he made up, the profile describes him perfectly. You can see in his face that this isn't lost on him.
- The Don: In Season 2, "The Greek", unnamed patriarch of the Greek crime syndicate. He's very soft spoken, has a calm civility of another age, masking an icy ruthlessness.
- Don't Answer That:
- Zig-zagged; in the first season, a detective tries to make one of the Barksdale clan's top soldiers (D'Angelo Barksdale) write an apology letter to the (fictional) family of a man killed for witnessing against him. Amoral Attorney Levy's reaction is something to behold. This also counts as a case of Shown Their Work, as this is a common trick the police use to elicit written confessions from crooks who don't know better.
- Played with hilariously in a later episode, where they convince a young punk that a photocopier is a lie detector. The kid confesses because he assumes the jig's up now anyway.
- Or the infamous Big Mac Bluff.
- Double Meaning Title: In the first two seasons, the title obviously refers to the wiretapping techniques that the police use to catch drug dealers. After they stop using the wire around the third season, it can take on a variety of more metaphorical meanings.
- It can refer to the act of "walking the wire"--that is, to the metaphorical "balancing act" that Baltimore cops must perform in order to fight crime while staying loyal to the forces that perpetuate it.
- It can refer to the proverbial "thin line" that separates cops from the criminals that they fight.
- It can refer to the metaphorical wire that connects Baltimore citizens of all walks of life, thus ensuring that one group's actions always affect the other.
- Do You Want to Haggle?: The reason for Proposition Joe's name.
- The Dragon: From Season 3 through the end of the series, Chris Partlow fills this role for Marlo Stanfield, though his constant training and use of Snoop may amount to making the two of them Co-Dragons.
- The Dreaded: Omar fucking Little. Even Chris and Snoop -- Chris and Snoop -- get nervous when he's hunting them. Chris and Snoop themselves also count.
- Driven to Suicide:
- Bubbles in Season Four. He is saved just in time. Also, "No Heart" Anthony Little (Omar's older brother) got his nickname from a failed suicide attempt after he was sentenced to several years in prison; he tried to shoot himself in the chest, but ended up with only a contact wound "and a new nickname".
- McNulty comes VERY close to the edge over the course of Season 3, he seems very tempted to simply stay on the the train tracks.
- Drowning My Sorrows: McNulty's nighttime antics of drinking buckets, getting into a car accident, re-attempting that accident, and going home with his waitress after ending up at the diner.
- Dying Moment of Awesome: Bodie, who carried it like a true soldier and fought.
Yo this is my corner, I ain't goin nowhere.
- Empathy Doll Shot: Discussed in Season Five, when Gus complains about a fellow journo's habit of submitting these.
- Empty Cop Threat: Almost never happens because the gangs have more credible threats and can act more swiftly. The cops acknowledge that this threat is empty once - right before it's noted that lying to the Grand Jury can be prosecuted.
- Ending Theme: A downbeat song called "The Fall".
- Enemy Civil War: Season 3 turns into this rather quickly.
- Enhance Button: Prez at one point in Season 3 works some magic with a security footage on a computer and gets a license plate number by blowing up the right portion of the image.
- Epigraph: Each episode begins with one, usually spoken by a character in the episode. The only episodes which avert this are the finales for Seasons 4 and 5, where the quotes are instead a notice for animal control ("If animal trapped call 410-844-6286.") and a quote from H.L. Mencken ("...the life of kings."). However, they are both displayed prominently in the episodes themselves.
- Equal Opportunity Evil: The Greek's syndicate includes Greeks, Ukrainians, and Israelis (in addition to whatever nationality the Greek himself really is) and does business with both Polish and black associates.
- Escalating War: The entire fight between Valchek and Sobotka in Season 2 stems from when both men donate stained glass windows to a local church, and Sobotka refused to withdraw his larger, more expensive window which had been installed first. Valchek has Sobotka investigated in terms of where he got the money, having police ticket the Union worker's cars, and doing a "random" DUI screening in the morning to catch the Union guys coming out of the bar, so the Union retaliates by stealing his valuable district surveillance van from right under his nose and shipping it from port to port, sending him photographs from each destination. And even better, even after Sobotka is killed, the van continues to travel around the world, and when Valchek gets the final envelope there's even a bit of what sounds like admiration in his voice.
- Establishing Series Moment: Officer McNulty's conversation in the diner in the first episode demonstrates that this series has a different outlook than your usual police procedural, and demonstrates where on the Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism the series falls.
- Even Evil Has Standards:
- Many of the gangbangers respect a "Sunday Truce" prohibiting violence on that day. When two clueless hitmen spot Omar taking his Grandma to a church, they make a move on him. Both Omar and Avon are completely livid at this breach. Avon orders the hitmen to replace Omar's grandmothers hat, which was ruined in the attack.
- Omar's code of not killing anyone not in the game as well.
Bunk: A man must have a code.
- Omar doesn't curse at all for four seasons. Only in Season 5, he refers to Marlo as a "Bitch" twice in response to the death of his old friend Butch.
- Avon and his sister put family before everything else, Stringer and Avon always put a high value on their genuine friendship until business gets in the way.
- In Season 4, Chris killed Michael's step-father in a drastically different fashion than anyone else. Whereas Chris executed other people in a calculated way to avoid being discovered (i.e. by killing people in a vacant house and then boarding the houses up to hide the body), with Michael's step-father, he beat him to a bloody pulp using nothing but his fists and spit on his face after doing the deed. Most viewers understand that he was murdered with extreme prejudice because Chris was disgusted that he molested Michael. Despite Chris being a cold-hearted assassin for Marlo, he has no mercy for pedophiles. In other words, to Chris,Michael's step-father didn't deserve a clean death inside a vacant house, but a brutal bludgeoning for everyone to see. Even Snoop was shocked when she watched him commit the act. Ironically enough, this act was the one Bunk used to imprison Chris for life, thanks to the DNA he left behind when spitting on Michael's step-father's face.
- Bodie bordered on evil territory at times, but even he couldn't stomach Marlo's methods for dealing with his enemies.
- Evil Matriarch: De'londa Brice and (to a lesser extent) Brianna Barksdale.
- Evil Will Fail: In The Wire Season 1, the nature of "The Game" of drug dealing has everyone looking out for themselves, to the point where innocent bystanders or even friends who might pose a risk have to be dealt with. It's this repeated brutality that ends up winning allies for the investigation team again and again from players who want out after someone they care about gets hurt.
- Expecting Someone Taller: In as many words (or facial expressions, if you must).
- Expospeak: Very little from a story standpoint, and no As You Know explanations. You can't skip an episode to follow the plot, and if you don't have a cursory knowledge of each season's field, then be sure to have a web browser open and a pause button handy. The closest the show gets is Bunk and Lester saying as McNulty flirts with women in a bar:
Lester: Ain't he married or some shit now?
- Expy: Johnny, Bubbles' friend and fellow addict, is basically an extension of Leo Fitzpatrick's character from Kids. Carcetti is based on current Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley (though O'Malley himself apparently exists in the world of The Wire, having been referred to once in Season 5).
- Facing the Bullets One-Liner: Stringer Bell's last words, when cornered by Omar Little and Brother Mouzone, are "Get on with it motherf-".
- Failure Is the Only Option: No matter who gets put away, the Game is the Game.
- Faking the Dead: The audience is led to believe that McNulty is dead, and a wake is being held for him in a Baltimore pub; that is, until he then starts laughing uncontrollably when one of his fellow officers makes a joke about him. It turns out that the "funeral" is a retirement party in the uniquely morbid style of the Baltimore P.D.
- False Rape Accusation: An 8th grade girl has sex with two boys, and when it is revealed they only had interest in her for the sex, she accuses them of rape. In the end this ruins quite a few lives and sending ripples through the entire criminal underworld.
- A Father to His Men: Colvin, especially towards McNulty and Carver.
- Five-Bad Band: Two notable ones:
- The Barksdale Organization (Season 1).
- The Greek's organization (Season 2).
- Flash Back: Used once. In the Pilot. To a scene from earlier in the pilot.
- Foil: In the second season, Nick and Frank Sobotka serve as a foil for D'Angelo and Avon Barksdale. Both are uncle-nephew duos who are born into the same business, and both involve the nephew trying to break away, but their respective environments (working class Polish vs. inner-city Black) and subtle differences in character dynamics form a contrast.
- Foreshadowing: The chess conversation in the first season; McNulty's confession that he doesn't want to end up "on the boat" in the pilot; Kenard pretending to be Omar; almost all of Bodie's appearances in Season Four foreshadow his death; Prez not wanting to see Randy get chewed up by the system, many other instances.
- Four Lines, All Waiting: A rare example of this done well. You sometimes have to wait several episodes for a minor plotline to advance at all, and it might be by a single line of dialogue; however, since you really have to be paying attention to enjoy this show at all, it usually works.
- Freeze-Frame Bonus: During a police/community meeting about drug dealing in city neighborhoods, a chart shows the success of enforcement efforts with drug arrests going up between 2003 and 2004--however arrests for every other crime are down. This of course reinforces the third season's premise that the drug war distracts from real police work.
- The Fun in Funeral: The Baltimore police have a tradition of holding rowdy Irish wakes for their own, collimating in a passionate sing-along of the Pogues' "The Body of an American". Even the black cops seem to love the tradition.
- Gangsta Style:
- Played straight frequently, but shown to be ineffective, because most 'gangstas' have no idea how to use guns. A shootout between two gangs is shown in season two where they fire like this, (half the time covering their eyes) and the only person they hit is an innocent child upstairs in an apartment not far away.
- Actively defied by Marlo, Chris and Snoop - the first thing they do on recruiting Michael is teach him how to shoot properly. He lampshades the trope later when he's teaching Dukie how to shoot; he tells him not to do any of that "gangsta bullshit" when using his gun. Cutty and Slim are also shown aiming down the sights when shooting. The minor drug dealers may not know how to shoot, but the professional muscle know how to do it right.
Snoop: Fuck them west coast niggas. In B'more, we aim to hit a nigga, you heard?
- Generic Ethnic Crime Gang
- "Get Out of Jail Free" Card: Omar in Season Two (for testifying in a court case). In the end, the card itself hardly matters.
- Gilligan Cut: An incredibly drunk McNulty in "Duck and Cover":
McNulty: I'm looking you in the eye, Gus, and I'm telling you, I'm not driving a car tonight!
- Go-Karting with Bowser: The East side and West side gang lords have a truce day where they meet and play a high-stakes basketball game. This series is full of examples of this, fairly cordial interactions between sworn enemies.
- Good Adultery, Bad Adultery / Sympathetic Adulterer: In Season 1, D'Angelo hooking up with Shardene despite having a wife and young child (who he led Shardene to believe he was separated from) was depicted very sympathetically. His wife Donette hooking up with Stringer in Season 2 wasn't depicted so sympathetically, especially since Stringer was the one who arranged D'Angelo's death.
- Good Cop, Bad Cop: Subverted: season one, episode five has this shtick turning into "Bad Cop, Pissed Cop".
- Good Guy Bar: Kavanagh's, the bar where McNulty and Bunk regularly go to drink, and where the Irish wakes are held.
- Good Scars, Evil Scars: Omar has a pretty distinctive antihero scar running down the left side of his face, which goes a long way towards solidifying him as a Badass. Interestingly, that scar isn't a prosthetic--Michael K. Williams actually has a scar like that, which he got from a bar fight.
- Gratuitous Foreign Language: In the second season's opening credits, a passport ostensibly from the Russian Federation (despite still having Communist stationary and reading "Union of Soviet Socialist Republics" at the top of one page) reads: ??????????? D????? ??????????? (Fedorovskal Dovlasch Lschtvkrfyrsht). The passport's gender reads M and something that looks like a cross between an F and ?, and the "transliterated" name is "Dobrav Naberezhnyi".
- Greedy Jew: Maurice Levy, the Amoral Attorney who profits handsomely by protecting drug dealers, makes a number of references to his Jewish culture, while Rhonda Pearlman, his honest counterpart, is also Jewish, but you'd never know it.
- Greek Chorus: The touts, who you constantly hear (and sometimes see) in the background shouting out the name of the latest brand of heroin. "Brands" like "pandemic" and "election day special" are amongst the more memorable ones. These are often punctuated with shouts of "Five-O!" or, famously, "Omar! Omar coming!".
- Or in once instance, "Haha! Check out that little kid getting his ass beat!"
- Grey and Gray Morality: Doesn't matter who you work for; the cops, the drug gangs, the schools, the government or the press. If you dare to buck the system in the name of what's right, then the institution to whom you were loyal will find a way to destroy you for it. If you play loyal and are willing to do horrible things for your superiors, then you may be rewarded, or you may be chewed up as cannon fodder. Nobody is portrayed as better than anyone else in this regard.
- The Guards Must Be Crazy: Bodie escapes from juvenile hall in suburban Baltimore by simply grabbing a mop bucket to pass the guard booth and then walking out the side door.
- Guns Akimbo: Done briefly by Marlo during a target practice session.
- A Half Dozen Guys in A Basement: The Major Case Squad, for basically all of the show's run.
- Harmless Villain: How many see Marlo Stanfield. It really comes back to bite the cops in the ass with a brutal subversion.
- Headbutting Heroes: A minor case in Season 3. The MCU is slowly turning into a dump unit for solving impossible cases, but McNulty doesn't want anything with it and continues his investigation on Stringer Bell. On the other side, Lester Freamon is compliant out of loyalty to Daniels and happy to do actual police work after years in terrible units. They both annoy each other at the beginning, with McNulty appealing to Lester's pride and longing for puzzles to solve and Freamon berating Jimmy for being a selfish jackass pissing on the unit he himself created. Hilariously, they both give themselves food for thought.
- Hidden Depths: Pryzbylewski is initially dumped on the Barksdale detail because he's an incompetent officer who once accidentally shot up his own car in a panic. On his first day he accidentally discharges his gun in the office, and later gets another car destroyed by needlessly inciting the local community. The only reason he doesn't get fired is Nepotism. However, after being restricted to office duty, he begins to excel and becomes a specialist in penetrating the drug dealers' heavily slurred, slang-laden, and coded communications. He also becomes a decent teacher during Season 4.
- Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Shardene.
- Homage: The opening scene of the fifth season copies (almost shot for shot) a sequence from Homicide: Life on the Street (another David Simon series) in which two detectives use a copier to fool a suspect into telling the truth.
- How's Your British Accent?: McNulty (played by Brit actor Dominic West) puts on a ridiculous English accent to go undercover at a brothel in Season Two.
- How We Got Here: Done in a very roundabout way with the children followed in Season 4. Over the course of two years we see how they'll become characters very similar to Bubbles, Omar and so on.
- In-Series Nickname: Quite a few of them, several of whom are Only Known by Their Nickname.
- Bird (real name: Marquis Hilton).
- Bodie (real name: Preston Broadus).
- Bubbles / Bubs (real name: Reginald Cousins).
- Bunny (real name: Howard Colvin).
- Cheese (real name: Melvin Wagstaff).
- Cutty (real name: Dennis Wise).
- Herc (real name: Thomas Hauk).
- Poot (real name: Malik Carr).
- Prez / Prezbo / Mr. P (real name: Roland Pryzbylewski).
- Proposition Joe / Prop Joe (real name: Joseph Stewart).
- Shamrock (real name: Shaun McGinty).
- Slim Charles / Slim (real name unknown).
- Snoop (real name: Felicia Pearson).
- Stringer Bell / String (real name: Russell Bell).
- The Greek (real name unknown).
- Wee-Bey (real name: Roland Brice).
- Ziggy (real name: Chester Karol Sobotka).
- Becomes a plot point when Bunk has to track down Dozerman's service weapon, and the only evidence he has to go on is the thief's nickname: Peanut. It brings up hundreds of hits in the police computer.
- Landsman ties two murder cases together on the tenuous grounds that each has a suspect known as "D".
- Also concealed a minor bit of characterization: Cheese is Randy Wagstaff's Disappeared Dad.
- Herc and Carver try to cover up using the listening device (hidden in a tennis ball) by crediting their information to a fake informant (Herc's cousin) they named "Fuzzy Dunlop".
- Incredibly Obvious Bug: Inverted; Herc hides a camera in a brick wall during the fourth season, which is then immediately found by a drug dealer and placed in a pigeon cage. In the second season, that same cop buys a small microphone from
his ownhis partner's money, intending to record some incriminating evidence quickly and then return the mic for a refund. They place it in a tennis ball in the gutter next to the dealer's street corner, but he unknowingly picks it up and throws it into traffic out of boredom. Hilarity Ensues.
Carver: Fifteen... hundred dollars.
- Incredibly Obvious Tail: Stringer should really have been concerned that Bodie and his friend didn't notice the black SUV that was no more than one car behind them every step of the way from Baltimore to Philadelphia and back again. If it hadn't been Stringer's men, there would have been trouble.
- Infant Immortality: A young kid who catches a stray bullet in Season 2.
- Inherent in the System: The overarching theme of the series is that the characters are trapped inside the machinations of the city of Baltimore, and no one can ever really shake up the system.
- Insistent Terminology: Lester Freamon, a highly capable detective, was forced into pawn shop unit for thirteen years "and four months".
- Instant Death Bullet: Quite frequently for a show renowned for its realism, though justified at times.
- Invisible to Gaydar: Omar, Omar's various boyfriends, and Word of God confirms this about Commander Rawls.
- Ironic Echo: Many. Prominent examples include:
"I'll take anybody's money if he's giving it away." Senator Davis, Namond Brice.
- Ironic Nickname: Little Kevin.
- It Will Never Catch On: In one of the prequel shorts, we see a young Omar robbing an innocent man at a bus stop with his older brother Anthony. When Omar is disgusted with the robbery and forces Anthony to return the man's money, Anthony rolls his eyes and says "You're not cut out for this shit." Yeah...
- John Munch: Makes a cameo in the fifth season as a bar patron
- Jurisdiction Friction: Inverted. Several times, the Baltimore PD wants the FBI to come in and take over, but they refuse because they only want terrorism or corruption cases.
- Just a Kid:
- Bad idea, Omar.
- Said by Vinson during the final minutes of the series finale, regarding Michael's rise as the new stick up man, a la Omar.
Vinson: "But you just a kid."
- Karma Houdini: Subverted by Marlo's ambiguous fate. Played straight many times: Maurice Levy, Andy Krawczyk, Scott Templeton, Valchek, The Greeks, and Senator Davis, among others.
- Karmic Death:
- Omar is killed by a small child in a convenience store in the fifth season. The same kid who had seen Omar having a shoot-out in the street back in season three, and who Bunk noticed imitating Omar. He had previously stated in the series that he didn't consider children as a threat.
- Cheese's death at the hands of Slim Charles as retribution for selling out Proposition Joe, his own uncle, which Cheese had essentially implicated himself in during the speech he was halfway through before Slim shot him.
- Snoop's death, as Michael got the better of her by using the same techniques and advice that she and Chris Partlow had taught him.
- Stringer's death also qualifies, as it's a direct result of his attempts to set Omar and Brother Mouzone against each other.
- Kick the Dog: Marlo, at least once in the fourth season (for example, flagrantly shoplifting lollipops just to intimidate the security guard). This being The Wire, though, it's played as much to explore his ego issues as to establish that he's just plain evil. The payoff of this Kick the Dog moment comes when he has that same security guard murdered for daring to ask him to stop.
- Kick the Son of a Bitch: Whenever Obstructive Bureaucrats like Burrell or Valchek get shit in the way. One especially memorable instance happens in Season 2, when the kicking is done to Burrell by Valchek.
- Killed Mid-Sentence: Stringer Bell and Omar.
- Kingpin in His Gym: In Season One, Avon Barksdale and Russell "Stringer" Bell were shown working out at the gym and on the basketball court while planing gangland operations.
- Knight in Sour Armor: The vast majority of the good cops in The Wire know perfectly well just how much of a Crapsack World Baltimore really is, and how little of what they do will change it. However, this doesn't stop them from trying.
- The Last DJ: Lester Freamon was this before getting a second chance in the first season. McNulty and Daniels too, even though Daniels does eventually enjoy a string of rapid promotions, he is ultimately forced to retire his post as commissioner because he's unwilling to compromise his principles.
- Last Stand: Bodie: "This my corner, I ain't runnin' NOWHERE!"
- Law Procedural: Occasional, especially in later seasons.
- Loads and Loads of Characters: Around 30 regulars as of the end of season four, plus recurring and irregular characters.
- Lovable Rogue: Omar Little.
- Lyrical Dissonance: When the Greek mobs go fugitive and Season 2 ends, they play the genuine Greek pop song "Efige, Efige". Its mood sounds just about right, but if you speak Greek you instantly realize it's actually a Break Up Song: "She's gone, She's gone." On the other hand, the Greeks have just gone fugitive.
- MacGuffin: Old Face Andre's ring in Season 4. Marlo demands it from Andre after his stash is stolen. Omar steals it from Marlo in a poker game. Officer Walker steals it from Omar when the latter is arrested for murder. Michael steals it from Officer Walker in retribution for breaking his friends' fingers. Marlo spots it on Michael's hand, but chooses to let him keep it.
- Make It Look Like an Accident: D'Angelo is killed, and the scene is dressed to make it look like a suicide.
- Mama Bear:
- Averted. Namond and D'Angelo have some of the worst mothers around. Both continually press their sons into the drug game (read: mortal danger) to maintain their own lifestyles. Both are eventually called out on it, in a brutal manner. Wee Bey allows Namond to live with Bunny Colvin, for a chance at a real future. When D'Angelo is "suicided," McNulty goes to his girlfriend with his suspicions instead of his mom because "Frankly, I wanted to tell someone who cared about the kid." The ironic and sad thing though, is that his girlfriend didn't really care about him either.
- Wallace, Michael and Dukie's mothers were even worse, since they were all junkies who couldn't care less about their sons' well being. Wallace ran away from home and lived in the low rise projects with other (presumably) runaway kids for this reason. Dukie was constantly deprived of essential needs, and had to rely on what his teacher gave him, and eventually stayed in Michael's place, which he acquired after getting involved in the drug game. In Michael's case, he was forced to take responsibility of the welfare money issued out to his mother every month, because she kept using it on drugs instead of food, clothes and other household essentials. If Michael didn't step up to the task, he and his little brother would have starved.
- Manly Tears:
- Omar fixing up and then walking on a broken leg. Ouch.
- Seeing his boyfriend, Brandon's, mutilated corpse.
- In the aftermath of Dante accidentally shooting Tosha during an ambush because he wasn't paying attention to where his gun was pointed in Season Three. In fact, Omar cries a lot, and yet he is still never less than manly.
- May-December Romance: Of all people, Lester ends up with Shardene in late Season One, and they remain together for the rest of the series; she shows up again in the finale.
- Minor Crime Reveals Major Plot: Season Two: Wharfie with suspicious amounts of money buys a stained-glass window for a church + Shipping container full of dead prostitutes -> International drug and human smuggling cartel, city-wide crime organizations merging.
- Missing White Woman Syndrome: Discussed Trope in "Unconfirmed Reports", inspiring McNulty to cross his Moral Event Horizon.
- Mobile Kiosk: In Season 3, Bubbles starts selling white t-shirts to the drug dealers and users around Baltimore from a shopping trolley. Later in the season and in Season Four, he starts to expand his operation, offering cans of paint, pirated DVDs and other such assorted goods from his trolley. Later, he uses two trolleys, so we can say that he goes trolleys akimbo, right?
- Mob War: In Season 3, between the Barksdale and Stanfield crews.
- The Mole: Agent Koutris, who feeds information to the Greek about the joint BPD-FBI investigation into his activities in exchange for counterterrorism intel.
- Momma's Boy: D'angelo shoes some signs of this early on, but Namond fits this trope fully.
Bodie: "Your momma is what niggas call a 'Dragon Lady'."
- Montage Out: The season finales.
- Mood Dissonance: Omar's sort-of Leitmotif is... The Farmer In The Dell. On the other hand, Omar whistles it so that in resembles a marching music. Since he only whistled it, the tune resembles that of the very relevant 'A-Hunting We Will Go'.
- Mother Russia Makes You Strong: 'Boris' points out that American prisons are not real prisons as he has been a 'guest' to the actually harsh Ukrainian ones.
- Never Heard That One Before:
Bunk: Not gonna give us your name? How 'bout we just call you Boris, then.
- New Job Episode: Not an actual episode. McNulty is forced to work in the Baltimore Marine Unit for half of the second season as revenge by his former commander.
- No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Chris Partlow delivers a gruesomely fatal one to Michael's stepfather, Devar.
- Not-So-Harmless Villain: As has been said, many considered Marlo Stanfield to be a wannabe punk who wasn't worth much trouble, especially compared to Avon Barksdale. This includes both gangbangers and cops. However, by the end of the fourth season, they all see just how wrong that assumption was, as he proved himself to be far more ruthless than Avon ever was.
- No Good Deed Goes Unpunished:
- Before Season 1 started, Lester Freamon had been forced to work in the pawn shop unit for, well, doing his job investigating a homicide.
- McNulty gets a similar treatment at the end of Season 1 for getting people in his homicide unit involved in the drug case that Season 1 was all about.
- Haynes and Gutierrez also find this out the hard way in Season 5.
- Bunny Colvin's reward for cutting the felony crime rate in his district by 14% and improving the general quality of life for its citizens is to be busted down to lieutenant, fired in disgrace, and vilified to the media as an "amoral" and "incompetent" man who "buckled under the pressure" of his command.
- Not So Different: During a trial Omar destroys Levy's attempt to discredit him as a witness by pointing out that his description could very easily be about himself.
I got the shotgun. You got the briefcase. It's all in the game right?
- Number Two: Various characters in the drug trade, including Stringer Bell in the first season, Spiros Vondapolous, Chris Partlow and Slim Charles.
- Office Golf: Burrell does a lot of this.
- Old Media Are Evil: Averted, as many of the staffers at the Baltimore Sun decry the death of traditional newspapers, and are just trying to make it through the day without getting hit with buyout offers or a lack of people to cover story beats.
- One Steve Limit: Averted surprisingly often, such as with Dennis "Cutty" Wise and Dennis Mello; Roland "Wee-Bey" Brice and Roland Pryzbylewski; William "Bunk" Moreland and William Rawls; Tommy Carcetti, Thomas "Herc" Hauk and Thomas "Horseface" Pakusa; Johnny Weeks and Johnny "Fifty" Spamanto; Ray Cole and Raymond Foerster. Probably due to Loads and Loads of Characters.
- Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: Several actors do this in their more emotional moments. Idris Elba manages to avoid it as Stringer Bell. Michael K Williams as Omar affects a pretty good Bawlmer accent for the most part, but slips a couple of times into his natural Brooklyn, particularly noticeably when he's acting across from Ernest Waddell, also from New York (and who uses his real accent). In the scene where Carcetti is pretending to make a phone call, he sounds very Irish.
- Pac-Man Fever:
- Michael's little brother is clearly playing Pokémon Red Version in a Game Boy Advance, yet the sounds it makes are beeps and boops.
- Namond is shown playing on his X-Box, without the TV in view, and, despite showing him playing Halo 2 in other episodes, we hear random stock ninja sounds playing over and over.
- Pet the Dog:
- Rawls telling McNulty that Kima's shooting wasn't his fault - albeit in the most abusive way possible.
"You, McNulty, are a gaping asshole. We both know this. Fuck if everybody in C.I.D. doesn't know it. But fuck if I'm gonna stand here and say you did a single fucking thing to get a police shot. You did not do this, you fucking hear me? This is not on you. No, it isn't, asshole. Believe it or not, everything isn't about you. And the motherfucker saying this, he hates your guts, McNulty. So you know if it was on you, I'd be the sonofabitch to say so."
- Wee-Bey Brice's love of his pet fish could qualify, and his fourth-season decision to let Bunny Colvin take custody of his son so he could have a chance at an actual future definitely does.
- Omar showing affection to the adorable baby of a dope fiend hitting him up for a free fix is the first sign that he's more than just a criminal. In Season Three, it's revealed that he also takes his grandmother to church once a month.
- Landsman's letting Bubbles off, and "fuck the clearance".
- Arguably, Mayor Royce's consideration of Hamsterdam.
- Cutty opening a boxing club in Hamsterdam, and Avon and Slim Charles seemingly dismissively laughing off Cutty's request for some funding for the gym. It turned out they were laughing because the amount of money he was asking for was too low, and Avon donates five thousand dollars more than Cutty asked for.
- The only time Chris Partlow isn't seen scowling is when he discusses his love of club music. Also with his kids
- Even Marlo Stanfield gets one. Despite repeatedly demonstrating that he's the coldest motherfucker in the series, he also keeps good care of a coop of pigeons, even hiring someone to take care of it.
- Phrase Catcher: People describing McNulty as an 'asshole'.
- Plot Armor:
- The cops and politicians justifiedly have it way easier than anyone on the street. Nobody in the game knowingly shoots a cop. Through the course of the series, the number of officers to die in the line of duty amounts to one, and that officer was not a character until his death to friendly fire at the hands of Prez.
- Highlighted effectively by the Barksdale crew's panic after accidentally shooting an undercover officer.
- Also shows the consequences as the police then kick in every damn door they have a lead on the very next day. Shooting a cop is VERY bad for business.
- Poirot Speak: Omar's boyfriend Renaldo.
- Police Brutality: Most officers on the show at least one incident of brutality towards suspects in their custody, and this is simply considered part of the Game.
- Police Procedural: In this case a huge Deconstruction.
- Politically-Incorrect Villain: Any time a gangster refers to Omar using an anti-gay slur instead of his name, take a shot.
- Prequel: Omar, Proposition Joe, McNulty and Bunk's backstories were shown in short vignettes before the premiere of the fifth season, to heighten speculation about who would die.
- Prison: Season Two, more briefly in season Three, still more briefly in Seasons 4 and 5.
- Product Placement: An aversion: Verizon pops up with great frequency, especially in the early seasons. This is because Verizon handled most of the payphones and inner-city telecommunications in Baltimore at the time, not because of paid consideration.
- Punch Clock Villain: Various individuals of the Barksdale organization would qualify; D'Angelo pretty much treats his criminal actions as a profession.
- Putting the Band Back Together: What Lt. Daniels spends most of Season 2 doing. The hardest one to get back is, of course, McNulty.
- Rabid Cop:
- Detective Collichio in the fourth and fifth seasons; he becomes so exasperated by the actions of the street dealers in Baltimore that he takes out his frustrations on a middle-school teacher driving to work.
- Officer Walker decides that the most reasonable response to Donut's constant car thievery is to break his fingers.The boys get their revenge on him for this.
- Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: The MCU.
- Rainmaking: Senator Clay Davis in Season Three.
- Reality Ensues: Happens quite a bit. Most notably in Season 5 with Omar's death.
- Real Men Wear Pink: Omar is so tough that he can walk down to the corner grocery store in a turquoise silk bathrobe and drug dealers will still toss their stashes to him out of fear.
- Real Song Theme Tune: Tom Waits's "Way Down In The Hole", performed by a different artist each season (including Waits himself in Season 2).
- Reasonable Authority Figure: Quite a lot of them considering the cynical nature of the series, though none are without flaws. Cedric Daniels is shown to be a good cop at heart, but he's very ambitious. Howard Colvin is a father to his men, but he risks everything on a poorly conceived gambit that inspires some angry tirades from cops. Frank Sobotka does everything he can to save the docks, but essentially sells his soul to do so. Carcetti seems to be one during his early career and political campaign, but his ambition causes him to go down the same roads as everyone else. Prez turns into one over the course of Season 4, though he'd already shown himself to be a truley incompetent and even violent cop.
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Happens more often than the average show. McNulty has gotten more than one over the course of five season, even Rawls slipped one in while trying to console Jimmy in the wake of Kima getting shot. Omar got a nasty one from Bunk in Season 3. Carver got a rare lenient one from Colvin on how he isn't much of a police officer. Even Avon calls Stringer out when he grows tired of him trying to avoid war even after Avon is almost killed. The best one had to be Nick Sobatka slapping Frog hard with his "You Know You're White?" speech.
- Reassigned to Antarctica:
- McNulty, at the end of the first and third seasons (the latter being used to allow Dominic West to be Written-In Absence while filming several feature film roles).
- Daniels, when he's assigned to Evidence Control.
- D'Angelo after he returns home from jail.
- Santangelo is demoted to beat cop following the end of the Season 1 Barksdale case, but ends up liking it way more than being a Homicide detective.
- Lester Freamon, stuck in the pawn shop unit for thirteen years. And four months.
- Alma at the end of Season 5 to the bureau in rural Carroll County after backing up Gus when he revealed to the bosses that Templeton was making up stories.
- Reckless Gun Usage: Kima is assigned to a murder of a State's witness in an alley. There's quite a bit of backroom scheming because it's a mayoral election year, so she under pressure from one side to solve the case quickly and from the other to bury it. It turns out, a pair of drunken knuckleheads two blocks away were shooting at beer bottles and hit the guy by accident.
Det Norris: So these idiots are shooting forties two blocks down, and now this Carcetti fuck gets to be mayor? What a town.
- Red Oni, Blue Oni: Several.
- Jimmy McNulty is the Red Oni to Bunk Moreland's Blue Oni. On occasions when he's paired with them, Lester Freamon and Kima Greggs fill the Blue Oni role as well.
- Avon Barksdale is the Red Oni to Stringer Bell's Blue Oni.
- Bodie Broadus is the Red Oni to Poot Carr's Blue Oni.
- Ziggy Sobotka is the Red Oni to Nick Sobotka's Blue Oni.
- Reformed but Rejected:
- Ultimately subverted. Cutty Wise is shocked at the state of the world after his release from prison (he's held up at gunpoint by a dealer soon after getting home); most of the third season chronicles his unsuccessful attempts to find work and go straight. He eventually joins the Barksdale crew, but realizes "the game ain't in him no more" and opens a boxing gym instead, which flourishes with young trainees.
- Potentially played straight with Michael's stepfather in Season 4, although the entire arc is shrouded in ambiguity.
- Right Hand Versus Left Hand: When Avon Barksdale gets sent to prison at the end of Season 1, he and Stringer Bell start pulling their gang in separate directions. Stringer is a businessman at heart, and wants to turn the gang into a mostly nonviolent Thieves' Guild that finances legitimate business investments. Avon is a thug at heart, and is obsessed with controlling as many corners as possible, even if it inevitably leads to war and police investigation. Their conflict reaches its nadir in late Season 2, when Stringer tries to trick Omar into assassinating Brother Mouzone, Avon's new enforcer.
- Road Sign Reversal: played for lots of drama.
- Running Gag: Herc's issues with surveillance, Omar's attempts and failures to get Honey Nut Cheerios and Donut's intermittent, and hilarious, appearances in various high-priced SUVs.
- Rustproof Blood:
- Subverted: at first, it appears that Michael has shot Chris and Snoop, but it turns out that it was a training exercise with paintball rounds.
- Played straight, however, with the blood of the store clerk left to frame Omar.
- Ruthless Foreign Gangsters: The Greek. While Baltimore's drug gangs rule over petty kingdoms and fall apart almost as soon as they rise, the Greek's empire is a serious international crime syndicate.
- Sarcastic Confession: Major Colvin did tell the other majors that he was planning on legalizing drugs in his district. They just thought he was kidding.
- Save Our Students: Played fairly straight. Prez struggles to adopt to his new life as a teacher, and the class barrier between him and his students makes his transition very difficult, but he grows pretty quickly and gets his class in line within the first school year. Even still, he cannot win every battle.
- Scary Black Man: Most of the gangs' enforcers. The cops even have a shorthand for less-than-useful witness descriptions, "B. N. B. G." ("Big Negro, Big Gun").
- Schmuck Bait:
- Herc and Carver roust a corner of the drug dealers, when one of the youngest ones grabs the drug stash and takes off through the alleys. The cops all tear off in pursuit, and then another kid comes walking by, casually picks up the real drug stash, and disappears.
- Season 5, during one of the corners "time out" moments. Kenard blatantly stashed a brown bag "package" in plain view for the western "knockos" to see. Without question, militant cop Colicchio snatches the whole corner. When he reaches inside the package, he pulls out a hand full of dog shit.
- The Scream: Omar's reaction after viewing the mutilated body of his lover Brandon at a Baltimore morgue. The camera cuts to McNulty's sons (who are waiting in the main lobby for their father) freezing in shock when he screams.
- Screw the Rules, I'm Beautiful: In Season 3, Rhonda uses a short skirt and a seductive smile to convince Judge Phelan to authorize a wiretap that the cops technically don't have a valid probable cause for.
- Secret Test of Character: Stringer sends Bodie and some other Mooks to Philadelphia to pick up some drugs stashed in a parked car. He has Bodie memorize the route and plans to check his odometer down to the tenth of a mile. What Bodie doesn't know is that Stringer has a car following Bodie the whole time, and the route he picked goes right through a construction zone (necessitating a detour) just to see how Bodie would handle it.
- Series Fauxnale: The ending of Season Three, since David Simon wasn't 100% sure whether The Wire would return for the fourth and fifth seasons.
- Serious Business:
- The annual basketball game between the Barksdale crew and Proposition Joe's men. The entire neighborhood shuts down to watch it and Avon thinks nothing of paying $20,000 to hire a ringer for his team.
- Business doesn't get more serious than a stained glass window at Father Lewandowski's church. Because of a beef over that window, lives are destroyed, careers are made, a union is brought low, and the MCU is formed.
- Shaggy Dog Story: One of the main themes of the show is the idea that no matter what, the game is always on. Which is pretty much reinforced with the last montage showing how every character is replaced by someone in one way or another.
- Sherlock Scan: Lester: "This is a tomb. Lex is in there." Cue baffled looks from his colleagues.
- Shirtless Scene: McNulty, Avon, Daniels, D'Angelo, Omar, Stringer.
- Cutty's roommate in the hospital is watching Deadwood. The man chuckles to himself, "Ha ha ha, he called him 'cocksucker'!" It's probably a bit of a Take That.
- In Season Four, Little Kevin mentions SpongeBob in a conversation with Bodie and some other runners. Bodie chides them for watching too many cartoons.
- In Season Five, Dukie and Bug watch Dexter and are obvious fans. This is probably another Take That, calling the show childish.
- When Bunk and Lester are interviewing the crew members from the ship in Season 2, at one point Lester yells "English, motherfucker!"
- Omar and Dante are shown watching a season six episode of Oz together.
- Some of the cops choose music on their car stereos to compliment their mood. When rallying to shut down Hamsterdam, Rawls plays "The Ride of the Valkyries". When prepping to chase drug runners down alleys, Herc chooses the Shaft theme.
Herc: He's a complicated man, and no one understands him but his woman.
- In the second season, Brodie discovers that radio stations are different outside of Baltimore by accidentally tuning into A Prairie Home Companion. When we cut back to him later, he's still listening to it.
- Shown Their Work: When it was on the air, The Wire was considered to be quite possibly the most realistic, accurate, and brutally honest television show on the air. One sociologist called the show the greatest sociological text ever created.
- Shrouded in Myth: Omar. After he is shot by Kenard, the story makes the rounds through the streets getting bigger each time it's told. When another character who knows the truth tries to correct someone, no one believes him. 'The bigger the lie, the more they believe.'
- Sir Swearsalot: Played straight with almost every character from the police, the politicians, corner boys, workers, and fiends. Notably averted by Omar Little, who (after one incident early in Season One) never swears at all. When he finally breaks his habit in an explitive-laden public tirade against Marlo, it's a sign of his degenerating composure and state of mind.
- Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Definitely on the cynical side.
- Smoking Is Cool: Omar and Bunk.
- Smug Snake: Ervin Burrell, Maurice Levy and Clay Davis.
- Sophisticated As Hell:
Bubbles: You're equivocating like a motherfucker, man.
- Spell My Name with a "The": The Bunk.
- Spoiler Opening: Every opening contains clips from episodes later on in the season, but they don't make much sense until you see them in context.
- String Theory: The Major Crimes Unit's pegboards are a fairly low-key example.
- Stylistic Suck: McNulty's intentionally horrible British accent--Dominic West is British himself.
- Super Window Jump: Unfortunately, it doesn't work too well for Omar; he ends up with a broken leg that never fully heals.
- Surrounded by Idiots:
- Stringer feels this way at times in Season 3.
- Don't forget Jimmy 'I'm the smartest asshole in three districts' McNulty.
- Suspect Is Hatless: The Baltimore Homicide Unit equivalent for a generic useless description is "Big Negro, Big Gun" or "BNBG" as coined by Bunk.
- Suspiciously Apropos Music: Subverted with the music that plays as Ziggy gets his ass handed to him in Season Two.
- Swiss Bank Account: The unsophisticated Marlo has to be schooled about this (Antillean off-shore version) and even then he decides to visit the bank in person to verify that his money is actually there.
- Sympathetic POV: The story is seen through the perspectives of cops, drug dealers, foreigners, students, politicians and the media.
- Ted Baxter: Cheese is the game's version of this. There is not a single season that he appears in where he doesn't get completely punked out at least once, and if he weren't Prop Joe's nephew he probably wouldn't have gotten anywhere near where he got. And then when he finally was on top of the drug game, it lasted all of one scene before Slim Charles put a bullet in his brain.
- Terrible Interviewees Montage: In the second season, with people who all claim not to speak English. Later in Season 3, The Bunk, when trying to recover a police gun, interviews several convicts who can't help him, including some who try to sell him other guns.
- Theme Music Power-Up: Omar whistling "The Farmer in the Dell".
- Thieves' Guild: Stringer trying to run syndicate meetings according to Roberts' Rules of Order.
You ain't got the floor. Chair don't recognise yo ass.
- Third Person Person: Bunk, Omar, Bubbles and Cheese all do this from time to time.
- Those Two Bad Guys: Chris and Snoop in Season 4.
- Those Two Guys: Bodie and Poot in the first two seasons; Herc and Carver throughout the series.
- Took a Level in Badass:
- In the series finale, we find out that like many rookie teachers after a few years, Prez has become a pillar of authority, with a Badass Beard to boot.
- Between the third and fourth seasons, Carver also Took a Level in Badass after taking to mind Major Colvin's lecture about needing to know something about the street, and not just bust heads.
- Trademark Favorite Food: Omar loves his breakfast cereal, particularly Honey Nut Cheerios, which he finds hard to get.
- Tragic Hero: Frank Sobotka.
- Trauma Conga Line: Season 4 subjects Randy and Bubbles to this, especially in the Wham! Episode.
- True Companions: A lot of the cops might hate each other. In fact, a lot of them do. But when a cop gets shot, the all forget their differences and all work together.
- Two-Teacher School: Averted in the fourth season. Multiple scenes show teachers at an inner-city Baltimore school debating issues such as curriculums, test preparations, and overall teaching structures; we also see shots of teachers giving lectures to their classes. Played straight when it comes to actual class focus, however.
- Twofer Token Minority: Korean-African-American Lesbian Detective Kima Greggs is at least a twofer, though her tokenhood is questionable given the show's diverse cast.
- Ubermensch: Omar Little, personal-code warrior.
- Utopia Justifies the Means: Bunny Colvin's Hamsterdam project can be considered a mild example. It greatly improved public safety and quality of life for Baltimore citizens, but it involved allowing criminals to peddle drugs unhindered, and brutally punishing the dealers who refused to move to the free zone.
- Viewer-Friendly Interface:
- Apparently, on The Wire, Halo 2 features its title at the bottom of the screen at all times during gameplay.
- For the most part, however, this is averted: most applications seen on the show are plain Win32 GDI apps running on Windows XP. The animations on the dock monitoring software are a little unbelievable (a little truck drives away with the container?), and once a search for "suspects" was done using what appeared to be the Windows Explorer File Search (with a call to the contact done through the Windows Telephony dialog), but jaggy, aliased 2D polygons and unframed text boxes in clunky custom programs are far more believable on a city police computer than full-3D operating systems that can enhance a 4 pixel area.
- Viewers Are Geniuses: You're expected to keep up with multiple plot lines, a dozen-plus characters and their sub-stories, and all their field terminology with no Expospeak provided.
- Villainous Breakdown:
- Omar shows signs toward the end of Season 5 as his physical condition deteriorates and his Roaring Rampage of Revenge becomes more and more disasterous.
- Marlo screaming into an empty corner at the end of the series.
- Stringer has one in "Middle Ground", unfortunately for him it gets cut short by Brother Mouzone and Omar showing up.
- Villains Out Shopping: Several times. In the third season, Herc and Carver run into Poot and Bodie while all four of them are on dates. The fourth season opens with a hilarious scene of Snoop buying a nailgun at Home Depot. In Season 1, McNulty catches Stringer Bell out grocery shopping and has his children tail him, a fact that doesn't impress his estranged wife.
- Villain with Good Publicity: Senator Clay Davis.
- Vomiting Cop:
- McNulty in Season One, when he listens to the tape of Kima getting shot. Slightly different from most examples in that he's not even at the scene, and when it actually happened he kept his cool. It's only in reliving the experience when he loses it.
- In Season Two, it looks like Beadie's about to throw up after the discovers the 13 dead girls in a shipping container, but she keeps it together. Not bad for a woman whose main work experience up to that point was taking tolls, and a hint that she's a lot tougher than she looks.
- Watering Down: Due to its heavy focus on drug gangs, The Wire features the drug version of this trope in spades. Numbers are thrown around between the gangs to talk about the strength of their product; 'Take it to ten' or 'This stuff is ninety', referring to what percentage of the product is actually the drug, and in hard times, they weaken their product by cutting it with whatever similar-looking substance comes to hand to make more profit. In Season Two, there are five deaths and eight hospitalizations in the Correctional Facility because the supply of heroin has been cut with rat poison.
- We Will Not Use Photoshop in the Future: Averted: On the eve of the election, Mayor Royce distributes flyers near polling places that show Carcetti with a notorious slumlord. Even though they immediately determine them to be fake, Carcetti doesn't have the time to properly debunk them.
- Wham! Episode: Usually the second-to-last episode of each season; most memorably, the eleventh episode of the third season.
- What Have I Done: One of the intonations of McNulty's catchphrase, "The fuck did I do?"
- What Measure Is a Mook?: Averted. Nearly every one of the street thugs has a backstory and character development, and the deaths of even minor mooks are given dramatic weight.
- What the Hell, Hero?: Bunk on the night after Jimmy's Jumping Off the Slippery Slope.
- Where Are They Now? Epilogue: Seen at the end of each season, with an extra-length one at the end of Season Five.
- Where Were You Last Night?: In Season 5, McNulty has such a scene with his lady, who knows he's cheating.
- White Gang-Bangers:
- The hoppers in white neighborhoods are generally portrayed as posturing wanna-bes. Herc visits Kima just to joke about how incompetent they are and suggests there should be Affirmative Action for white gangbangers. Herc and Nick Sobotka both deliver a "You know you're white, right?" line to a white gangbanger.
- White Mike is a mid-level dealer who seems to have a better grasp of the game. Given his nickname, he apparently associates with black gangs.
- Window Love: A staple of the second-season prison conversations.
- Worthy Opponent: At the end of Season 1, Stringer Bell tells McNulty "nicely done" at the trial. Which echoes McNulty saying the same to Stringer in the pilot.
- Wretched Hive: Bodymore, Murdaland. Note that the show goes out of its way to show "Hamsterdam" getting worse.
Rawls: If we were the size of New York, we'd be clocking over four-thousand murders at this pace.
- You Are Too Late: A common occurrence. Most notable in the second season where, due to an FBI mole, the Greek's organization twice gets tipped off just in time to destroy the evidence or murder the key witness. One scene literally cuts back and forth between the cops frantically typing up warrants and the dealers washing the heroin down the drain.
- You Bastard: David Simon is very clear that everyone is responsible to some degree for the problems depicted in the show. His finale letter basically tells his fans to get up and do something about it.
- You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: Marlo to Proposition Joe, who taught him the more complicated aspects of the game. It comes back to bite Marlo, as it leads to the discovery of the Grand Jury mole, which ultimately brings down his organization.
- Young Entrepreneur: Randy.
- Zipping Up the Bodybag: We see Omar's body bag being zipped up in the morgue at the end of an episode. Furthermore, in this scene, it's shown that there was a mistake with the ID tags, which the ME has to correct, which further emphasize the point: he's no longer a character, just a statistic.
It's all in the game.