HBO's "The Wire" remains one of the greatest television series, bar none. I've put off writing up a top ten list for it for too long, and it's time to correct that. Please note that the picks below are unranked and ordered by airdate. Clearly, the first and fourth seasons were my favorite ones. Some minor spoilers ahead.
"Old Cases" - The moment I fell in love with the series was when Bunk and McNulty visited an old crime scene and managed to expertly recreate the crime and turn up new clues, while conversing only through the utterances of the F word. This is also the episode where we get some good backstory on Lester Freamon, who was my favorite of the police characters in the series, and a peek into the McNulty's past through the contentious meeting with his ex-wife.
"The Hunt" - In the aftermath of the shooting in the previous episode is an intense one, not only because of the immediate threat to a major character, but because it suddenly accelerates the entire wiretapping operation. Also, poor Bubbles winds up caught in the middle of the situation, and put into the kind of dilemma that was all too familiar in "The Wire" - despite his attempts to stay clean, the demands of the investigation all but shove him back off the wagon.
"Sentencing" - No happy ending in this first season finale, where poltical tusseling over the case, both among the police and the dealers, result in the hammer falling hardest on the wrong people, and little real change being brought about. Watching what happens to D'Angelo is heartbreaking. This was also the first instance of the show using a season-ending montage, catching us up on everyone in the show's sprawling cast, and showing life in Baltimore going on.
"All Prologue" - Omar's court appearance is one of his most delightful, especially when he lands his biggest blow to Levy during the cross-examination. However, this is also the episode that brings this year's chapter of the Barksdale storyline to a head. The ending is one of the biggest shocks in the series, and sets up the major arc with Stringer Bell for the third season. Though well done, I found the second seaosn investigation into the docks one of the weaker parts of "The Wire."
"Reformation" - Brother Mouzone is easily the most outlandish character in "The Wire," with his speaking style and fashion choices. However, it is immeasely satisfying to watch him team up with Omar against Stringer Bell, as the feaud between stringer and Avon Barksdale reaches its inevitable, violent conclusion. And it should be notes that this was the episode that finally got the show it's first Emmy nomination, for David Simon and George Pelecanos's script.
"MIssion Accomplished" - The third season's Hamsterdam storyline and the rise of Carcetti were designed to highlight how political and governmental dysfunction contributed to Baltimore's drug problem, and the finale does a great job of hammering that home. Colvin's experiment was one everyone knew was doomed to fail, but it's fascinating to watch how the fallout helps some people climb even as it causes the downfall of others, setting up the rest of the series.
"Boys of Summer" - The fourth season starts with one of my favorite scenes, Marlo Stanfield's enforcer Snoop buying a nail gun from a home improvement store for nefarious purposes. This is before we're even introduced to the four boys who will be at the center of this year: Namond, Michael, Randy, and Dukie, whose fates will be decided by the end of the year. And we learn that Prez, our first season troublemaker, is now entering the school system as a junion high math teacher.
"Margin of Error" - The election episode is a big, exciting hour that is a big turning point fo rthe Carcetti storyline. However, it's also the episode where we see several familiar regulars start stepping into surrogate parent roles for the boys, with Prez and Dukie and Carver and Randy most prominently. Looking back, you can see all the good intentions and all the naievte, more poignant when you know most of them will end up falling through the cracks and becoming victims of the system.
"Final Grades" - The most stunning episode of the entire series watches nearly all the the plans of the well-intentioned adults fall apart, and three of the four boys we've been following this season seem lost to the street for good. What happens to Randy, and Carver's inability to intervene, are especially gutting. There is so much tragedy packed into this finale, I was sure that many of the events had happened over multiple episodes. Only the final shot seems to suggest any hope.
"30-" - I wasn't a big fan of the last season of "The Wire," feeling that the show had gotten repetitve with McNulty's fake serial killer. However, that final, epic montage checking in with so many, many familiar characters all over Baltimore, is sensational to see. It's David Simon's final word on how the cycles of crime and drug use are perpetuated, though there are moments of hope throughout. The final glimpse of Bubbles with his sister is my favorite.
"The Target," "Cleaning Up," "That's Got His Own," "Clarifications."