Top 25 Characters from The Wire: Numbers 25-11

I already had a lot to say about this series earlier, but didn’t get into the terrific cast of characters both because my post was already long, and I had this post in mind. If you’ve never watched the show, you may think a list of 25 characters is a touch of overkill. However, if you have watched it, you’re probably thinking to yourself: only 25?

There’s never been an ensemble as deep as that of The Wire, which completely eschewed stars and delved into the lives of dozens of characters and how they affect, and are affected by, the city of Baltimore. The cast grew exponentially as the seasons went on, with the show introducing several new characters at once in an attempt to expand the scope of the show and the picture of Baltimore. Managing all these characters was a Herculean task, one that the show managed on an incomparable level. All the characters mattered, and each fit into the puzzle perfectly. When you consider that other shows have difficulties managing casts of less than ten, you start to get an appreciation of what The Wire did with five times that amount. When putting together this list, I came up with a list of over 50 names of characters I enjoyed that were vital to the show, so that should give you an idea of why a list of 25 top characters is a perfectly acceptable number.

By “top 25”, I’m taking a few things into consideration. “Best” is too abstract an idea to apply to any type of standard, but I did try and decide which characters were the most unique, which actors performed the best in their roles, which characters were most significant for the show, who was the most memorable, etc. Then my personal tastes and favourites were factored in, and viola, a “Top 25” is made.

A note on spoilers: because I know not everyone is caught up on all five seasons of this show, but I still want as many people to read this as possible (I’m vain that way), this list will be as spoiler-free as possible. I will have to reference some events in order to talk about the characters, but no major events will be discussed (especially the ultimate fate of any character). Also, since characters move up and down their career fields throughout the series, I’ll avoid referring to character by title as much as possible. When it is needed to refer to a character by their job title (i.e., Lieutenant, Judge, Mayor, etc), I’ll only refer to the job title the character holds when we are first introduced to them. That said, if anyone wants to get into spoilers, I’ll gladly do so via comments (with spoiler warnings).

25. Jay Landsman (played by Delaney Williams) – Ah, the Fat Man; how he makes me chuckle. Landsman is an excellent example of how the show shapes three dimensional characters. On a normal network show, he’d be a one-dimensional supporting figure who checked in every once and awhile, gave a wiseass one-liner, then left (kind of like the guy on Law & Order who always says something while eating sandwiches). But on The Wire, we get a funny guy who reads nudie mags at work, who is sympathetic to those who want to do real police work, but self-interested enough to play by the bureaucratic rules. Just when you think you have him figured as a cynical middle-manager, he’ll make the right decision instead of playing for the stats. Fun fact: Jay Landsman is based on a detective by the same name who was the original inspiration for the character Detective Munch in David Simon’s Homicide: Life on the Streets, and who also acted on The Wire as Dennis Mello.

First appearance: Season One

24. Frank Sobotka (played by Chris Bauer) – The heart and soul of season two, it took me awhile to warm up to Frank Sobotka (and season two in general). Gruff, brash, and crooked, Sobotka isn’t an easy guy to warm to, until the season develops and you get to know him, and more importantly, his motives better. As the season develops, it quickly becomes apparent that Sobotka, and what he represents, is one of the more poignant stories the show will ever tell. There’s a lesson there about ever judging this show before it has had its chance to tell its story. In another time and place in American life, Frank Sobotka would’ve been a giant; a community figure with real power and influence instead of the one who is desperately trying to hold on to what little place he and his still have in the world.

First appearance: Season Two

23. Dennis “Cutty” Wise (played by Chad Coleman) – After the massive influx of new characters in the second season, I was prepared to be more patient with the introduction of new characters and the expansion of the world of The Wire in season three. At first, Cutty seems merely like a way to expand the story to the prison system, and the experiences of those recently released. But as the season develops, he becomes less of an example, and more of a character. Still, if his arc would’ve ended with season three, as it easily could have, Cutty doesn’t make my shortlist of 50. It’s season four when he becomes a key figure in the heart of the show, so much so that when he makes a brief appearance in season five, I was surprised at how delighted I was to see him.

First appearance: Season Three

22. Nick Sobotka (played by Pablo Schreiber) – Frank Sobotka should probably rank higher than his nephew, so this is a personal choice. Starting this season with guys like Frank, Horseface, and Ziggy didn’t make it the easiest watch, so a relatively good guy like Nick was essential to keep the audience invested. I liked Nick instantly, despite his flaws, and wished the best for him, even though this show had never given me reason to expect it.

First appearance: Season Two

21. Clay Davis (played by Isiah Whitlock Jr) – Perhaps the most venal character in the history of the show on my top 25? Shee-it, Clay Davis may be unrepentantly craven, but he does it with such glee that it’s hard not to enjoy his presence on my TV. The credit goes to Whitlock, particularly the way he is able to juggle Davis’ emotional roller coaster in season five. Although, it’s possible he makes this list just for his catchphrase by itself.

First appearance: Season One

20. Wallace (played by Michael B. Jordan) – A big part of what makes this show so great is how top to bottom it is. The first season involved the investigation into the biggest kingpin in West Baltimore, and to tell the story, the show follows the street from said kingpin (Avon Barksdale), all the way down to a sixteen-year-old dealer within that organization named Wallace, who is given as much time and characterization as the kingpin and some of the police doing the investigation. Moreover, this kid, who is so small-time that those in the upper reaches of the organization don’t even know his name, becomes a central cog in the overall narrative, showing how even the smallest details matter. Wallace is at the emotional centre of the season, providing two of the series most powerful moments. Plus, I loved him the instant he pointed out that Alexander Hamilton wasn’t no president (neither was Franklin for that matter).

First appearance: Season One

19. Randy Wagstaff (played by Maestro Harrell) – I can’t think of any other show that could take a three season show based in an adult world, then abruptly shift the focus away from its adult cast to a group of four middle schoolers, and then turn out the best season in its history (and, thus, the best season in the history of television). I liked Randy instantly, with his ready smile and entrepreneurial ways, and your heart instantly goes out to him when he’s placed in the impossible situation by the school and the police. As with all the kids of season four, you want the best for Randy; even if after four seasons of this show you’ve been conditioned to expect the opposite.

First appearance: Season Four

18. Tommy Carcetti (played by Aidan Gillen) – For two seasons, the show flirted with the political arena before diving headfirst in the third. It does so with the introduction of idealistic young councilman Tommy Carcetti, who seems like a self-important, but well-meaning asshole. For the rest of the series, throughout all his politic moves, we’re left to decide which is the truer description of Carcetti, self-important or well-meaning, until it’s made abundant clear. I went back and forth on him throughout, proving what a well-rounded character he is and how strong Gillen is in the role.

First appearance: Season Three

17. Felicia “Snoop” Pearson (played by Felicia Pearson) – The meanest, toughest, most foul-mouthed muscle in the history of the show is a woman. I’d like to give the writers credit for one of the more original characters on the show, but Snoop wasn’t their creation, but rather the character was based on the real life experiences of the actress Felicia Pearson herself. In part, her spot on this list is shared with her running mate Chris Partlow, as the two spent most of their first full season as feature characters (season four) as the spectre of death (if you saw them walk into a scene, you could be fairly certain that someone was about to die). But Snoop is easily the more memorable of the two (if for no better reason than the opening scene of season four), thus the spotlight is hers.

First appearance: Season Three

16. Avon Barksdale (played by Wood Harris) – This might seem a little low for the series’ original kingpin, but Avon was portrayed for most of season one almost as unknowable. The investigators don’t even get an ID on Avon until late in the first season. Sure, we were privy to Avon moments that they weren’t, revealing him to be both a ruthless criminal and at times, genial family man, often in the same scene. He was an effective adversary, but ultimately was never as interesting as others within his organization. That said, as the seasons wore on, it became clear why he, and not his second-in-command Stringer Bell, was the true power in the organization.

First appearance: Season One

15. D’Angelo Barksdale (played by Larry Gilliard Jr) – It takes a special show to introduce a character as a drug dealing murderer, and then spend the rest of the season making him one of the most sympathetic characters on the show. This show wasn’t as interested in what characters did as it was in why they did it, with D’Angelo providing a perfect example of how a decent person can go bad in the wrong environment. And when you see Dee’s home life, it ain’t hard to understand how he ended up how he did. Nor is it hard for your heart to go out to him, even if he’s a drug dealing murderer.

First appearance: Season One

14. Marlo Stanfield (played by Jamie Hector) – Avon Barksdale was a monster. Marlo Stanfield is worse. Some people didn’t give Jamie Hector enough credit for his work as Marlo, thinking him too quiet or stiff. Those people are dead wrong. Instead, Hector gave an amazingly controlled performance that was absolutely haunting. A complete sociopath who had no value for anything but the pursuit of power, Marlo Stanfield was the best villain the show ever had. Yes, better than Avon, and here’s how I know: when it appeared that the MCU wasn’t going to catch Marlo, weren’t you hoping at least a little bit that maybe Avon could do the job for them?

First appearance: Season Three

13. Ellis Carver (played by Seth Gilliam) – I don’t think there’s another character on this show that changed as much from episode 1 to episode 60 than Ellis Carver. When we first meet him, he’s just a knucklehead, no better or worse than his partner Herc. He has some ups and downs over the next few seasons, but ends up as one of the few truly honourable characters by series end. He earned it, by gradually becoming a better cop and a better man, to the degree that it took a few seasons for me to realise that I had begun to enjoy the character (and hate his erstwhile partner).

First appearance: Season One

12. Preston “Bodie” Broadus (played by J.D. Williams) – On the other side of the law, Bodie had a maturation process similar to that of Carver. When we first met him, I thought he was a brash punk. By the end of the first season, I HATED Bodie. But the kid had a survivor’s mentality, despite the fact that he was never more than a pawn in other people’s games (a smart-ass pawn, but a pawn nonetheless), and that mentality won me over as he matured, developing into a fondness for the guy. Looking back at season one, I realise even that which made me hate him really wasn’t his fault, but rather the reality of the situation he was placed in by others (those in position to use their pawns). Although, I guess it’s possible that he simply won me over because he’s TV’s best-ever spitter.

First appearance: Season One

11. Roland “Prez” Presbylewski (played by Jim True-Frost) – I just finished re-watching the first season of this show, and was reminded at what a completely worthless hump Prez is when we first meet him. I remembered that he was a goof, but forgot just how much of one, since he already starts to become a sympathetic figure by the end of the season. Still, it’s hard to reconcile that a guy like that could come close to being a top ten character on the best show in the history of television. Of course, it’s satisfying character arcs like that which Prez undergoes that helps make The Wire the best show in the history of television, so it all fits.

First appearance: Season One

To continue to numbers 10-1, click here.

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6 thoughts on “Top 25 Characters from The Wire: Numbers 25-11

  1. Pingback: Top 25 Characters from The Wire: Numbers 10 - 1 « Critically Speaking

  2. Pingback: TV Review: The Wire - The Complete Series « Critically Speaking

  3. Pingback: 10 Memorable Episodes of ER « Critically Speaking

    • I didn’t feel like any of the new characters from season five had the time to develop into fuller characters, since they were competing with 50 some-odd established characters by that point (contrasted with one season characters from seasons one or two, who didn’t have to share as much time in as few episodes). As for Gus specifically, I felt that he didn’t the same depth of other characters, as we saw very little of his bad side. He was Saint Gus in a show where there are no saints. With more time, I’m sure we would seen more of the bad with the good, but we didn’t have more time (the flip side is Scott, who was almost all bad with no good).

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