One truth of TV that’s universally agreed upon, both by critics and fans, is that The Wire reigns supreme as one of the best shows of all time. When the best of the best are laid out and compared, it’s usually The Wire that comes out on top. Watching The Wire has become a metaphorical Mecca for TV fans.
What makes it the must-see show of this generation? It definitely broke rules with its serialized format, which made each episode feel like a chunk of a larger story without betraying the plot’s intrigue. In doing so, it wrote a whole new set of rules that Netflix shows would devoutly subscribe to. It also rattled viewers with its blunt realism, capturing the gritty detail of Baltimore’s drug epidemic. But really, none of this would matter if it wasn’t for the characters that David Simon created.
The Wire is populated with many well-rounded characters, each with their own unique ideologies. They’re so realistic that fans can feel as though any one of these characters might be walking the streets of Baltimore in real life. Whether it be due to their look, catch phrases, or dubious decisions, every character on The Wire has a particular way of standing out.
In honor of the show’s fifteenth anniversary, here is The Wire: 15 Greatest Characters, Ranked.
15. Ziggy Sobotka
At first, Ziggy Sobotka seems like one of the more annoying characters on The Wire. But that’s the point. By the end of season two, audiences can’t help but pity poor Ziggy, looking back on his previous actions with newfound empathy. Ziggy’s arc begins and ends in season two, but it still leaves a huge impact.
James Ransone was perfectly cast in the role of Ziggy: a short, scrawny kid born into an environment known for its masculinity. Ziggy compensates for his insecurity by being a jokester, but more often winds up as the butt of the other dock workers’ jokes. Ziggy’s quest for respect escalates when he decides to get involved in drug dealing, a decision he soon regrets.
Ziggy has two of the more overtly emotional scenes in The Wire. The first comes moments after he kills a person and breaks down in his car. The second is a conversation between Ziggy and his father, after Ziggy gets arrested. In their talk, when Ziggy takes a mild shot at his absent mother, his dad tells him to leave his mom out of this. Ziggy offers a heartbreaking reply, “She’s out of it, don’t worry.”
14. Kima Greggs
Kima is a character who is hesitant to offer her loyalty, but once she offers it, her loyalty is iron clad and lasts for life. She’s tough, willing to tell a fellow cop in a particular scene to go screw himself if he asks inappropriate questions about her sexuality, but also just as willing to beat up a perp to defend that cop. In a way, Kima was the backbone of Baltimore’s special crimes unit.
From the moment Kima was introduced, viewers got a sense for her unwavering devotion to Cedric Daniels, her lieutenant. But when the investigation into Avon Barksdale picks up steam, Kima becomes close to McNulty and inherits some of his bad habits. Throughout the series, Kima constantly has one foot in two worlds: one in the realm of good, upstanding cops, and the other in the realm of insubordinate cops.
The investigations of the special crimes unit takes a toll on every cop involved, particularly Kima. She breaks up with her partner over infidelity, and occasionally falls out of favor with Daniels. However, she eventually reclaims a good relationship with both.
13. Frank Sobotka
Season two of The Wire caught heat from fans for abruptly shifting focus away from the special crimes unit and onto the Baltimore docks. Some Wire apologists will excuse this by saying Baltimore is the true main character of the show, but, however you look at it, it sucks to get pulled away from great characters so abruptly. Fortunately, many of the new characters that took center-stage in season two are interesting enough to warrant our attention.
The focus of season two is primarily on Frank Sobotka and his crew of dock workers. Frank plays many roles during his time on the show. He is an inspiring leader who nonetheless quivers when crime washes up on his docks. He is also a somewhat distant father, who still cares deeply for his son. And by the end of the season, Frank goes down as a tragic hero.
12. D’Angelo Barksdale
In a show filled with people stuck in situations they’d rather be free of, D’Angelo Barksdale is perhaps the most tortured. No matter how entrenched he and his family have become in the Baltimore drug trade, D’Angelo can never quite make peace with his position in the game. Nor can he reconcile the lives that ended on account of him.
The instigating event of the series is arguably D’Angelo’s release from prison. As punishment for his past mistakes, D’Angelo is demoted to a lower position in his uncle Avon’s drug enterprise. With more time to think and a new set of protégés under his guidance, D’Angelo begins to question his place in Avon’s syndicate. His dilemma only gets worse when bodies start to hit the floor.
After killing of a man who testifies against him, D’Angelo enters a moral crisis that reaches its apex when a dealer under his supervision meets a similar end. D’Angelo eventually cooperates with the police, but his conscience is never truly clear.
11. Beadie Russell
In more ways than one, Beadie Russell is a rarity for The Wire. She is a character who doesn’t crave power or some form of upward mobility. She also isn’t brimming with anger, and isn’t self-destructive. Beadie is probably the purest character on The Wire.
Beadie is undeniably a high point of the divisive season two. When we first meet her, she seems perfectly content in her role as port patrol officer. Her prominence in the Baltimore police force rises after she stumbles upon a crate on the docks filled with thirteen dead bodies. Beadie participates in the investigation into the bodies, and gains the admiration of basically every Baltimore police officer she comes in contact with. Ultimately, Beadie falls back on a simpler life with her children.
10. Roland “Prez” Pryzbylewski
Prez is to The Wire what Wesley is to Angel. He’s a character who starts out obnoxious, but evolves so convincingly that he becomes one of the show’s most likable characters. Prez’s journey takes so many turns throughout The Wire, crossing between various microcosms within his city’s ecosystem. After a while, you begin to think he understands Baltimore better than anyone.
When we first meet Prez, he’s the ideal fortunate son. As the husband of a high-ranking officer’s daughter, Prez is practically immune from getting fired by the police force (at least for a time). He’s put in the special crimes unit, but after pistol-whipping a teenager, he gets put on desk duty by Lt. Daniels. Rather than diving deeper into his self entitlement, Prez uses his down time to break codes that eventually make significant advances in the Barksdale case.
From then on, the audience is for Prez all the way. He copes with all his mistakes by working to make himself, and the lives of others, better. Prez’s good work peaks when he takes on a job as a math teacher in season four.
9. Cedric Daniels
When it comes to The Wire, it doesn’t get more awesome than Lt. Cedric “What is my rank?” Daniels. Played flawlessly by Lance Reddick, Daniels is the perfect TV boss: tough as nails, but more fair than the highest court. He always has his unit’s back, but never goes easy on them if they mess up.
Daniels himself isn’t perfect. He has a history of close scrapes with dirty money. And, though he handles his problems with notably greater class than someone like McNulty, Daniels still allows his professional life to rupture his personal one. Lastly, Daniels always struggles between looking out for those under him and impressing those above him. Level headed as he is, he is always unquestionably ambitious.
However, at the end of the day, Daniel’s better self always wins. The politician in him can never truly compete with the police officer in him. His career might not always flourish, but everyone under his command respects him.
8. Jimmy McNulty
Dominic West is the perfect actor to portray Jimmy McNulty. Nobody else could pull off that grin with such ease. McNulty is utterly despicable, both as a cop and as a human being. But that smug grin, followed by his unassuming act, amounts to a character audiences can’t help but love.
Right out of the gate, we understand McNulty to be a rule breaker with no respect for the chain of command. Hated by many for disregarding the Baltimore police’s crime record and, subsequently, its public image, McNulty only ever cares about getting the job done by whatever means necessary. As cynical and occasionally insightful as he can be, McNulty is always somewhat naive.
The anger McNulty has towards corrupt bureaucracies eats him up inside, and wreaks utter havoc on his personal life (and his liver). Most would attest to The Wire being an ensemble show. But anybody who’d peg McNulty as the lead would be content in knowing that The Wire‘s main character is a fascinating individual.
7. The Corner Boys (Namond Brice, Randy Wagstaff, Michael Lee, Duquan “Dukie” Weems)
Season four of The Wire is regarded by some as a seminal season of television. Shifting focus to Baltimore’s school system, season four spends the majority of its time with four students: Namond Brice, Randy Wagstaff, Michael Lee, and Duquan “Dukie” Weems. Together they make for the most eclectic character grouping on The Wire.
Each Corner Boy has a distinct personality they bring to the group. Namond is the cocky, aggressive one; Randy is the charming entrepreneur; Michael is quiet with a dark side; and Dukie is the soft-spoken, sensitive one. Together they provide a season full of endlessly watchable dynamics born of their conflicting character types.
The boys are with each other through thick and thin, until life inevitably splits them apart. One winds up more fortunate than the others, another carves out a name for himself on the street, while the other two fall through society’s cracks. The time they spend together makes for some rich and genuinely moving hours of television.
6. Bunny Colvin
Unconventional thinkers are rarely rewarded on The Wire, and nobody gets a worse deal for thinking outside the box than Bunny Colvin. In his final days on the police force, Colvin is willing to risk his reputation on a crazy idea that, while certainly imperfect, is undoubtably effective. Sadly, his superiors only care about the imperfection.
In season three, Colvin makes the controversial decision to set up “free zones” for drug dealers in Baltimore’s Western District. Here dealers can sell to users without fear of punishment from the law. When Colvin unveils the results of his plan to high-ranking officers, he is accused of legalizing drugs. They don’t care that Colvin, more than anyone, invests deeply in the well-being of his community.
Due to his actions, the Baltimore police diminish the amount of Colvin’s pension. Despite obstacles, Colvin forges on, applying his insights to helping troubled youth in Baltimore schools. He never quite accomplishes the changes he seeks to enact.
5. Bunk Moreland
As Baltimore’s coolest cop, Bunk Moreland’s contribution to the Baltimore police force is unprecedented. Even though Bunk is never an official member of the special crimes unit, he is an absolute professional, working as a detective in homicide. He is leaps and bounds better at his job than McNulty, though Jimmy has to be reminded of this from time to time.
Before his days as a cigar-smoking detective, Bunk grew up in a particularly rough pocket of West Baltimore. Bunk’s life could have gone in any number of ways, but in the end, he chose the way of the badge. Though he is as heavy a drinker as anyone the force, Bunk delivers on every case. His composure stays cool throughout, unless he feels pressed enough to give someone a blunt talking-to (namely Omar).
4. Omar Little
In the city of Baltimore, there are cops and there are drug dealers. And then there’s Omar, a wildcard who defies classification. Omar’s most recurrent occupation during The Wire is a thief who steals from prominent drug lords. But Omar is also so many other things: an urban myth, an openly gay man, and a devoted grandson, to name just a few.
In a role that made him a household name, Michael Kenneth Williams was perfect to play Omar. Williams captures Omar’s cunning ways, while also filling him to capacity with raw emotion. The actor made Omar seem like a combustible agent in the game, as well as a flesh and blood human being. As far as most people are concerned, Omar Little is The Wire.
3. Stringer Bell
Though he is a smooth operator with keen insight in business mechanics, Stringer Bell never quite fit into the game. Despite being wise in almost every conceivable way, Stringer can never fully comprehend the drug enterprise, or rather he can never separate it from his notions of legitimate enterprises. Stringer Bell does many awful things on The Wire. At the finish line, the crime Stringer is most guilty of is simply wanting more for himself.
Stringer is the brains behind the Barksdale operation. In many ways, he is the man who is actually in charge of Avon’s syndicate. This is particularly true during Avon’s brief stint in prison. Stringer is sharp as a tack, but he’s foolish enough to believe that drugs are simply a means to more reputable ends. It is an assumption that ultimately does him in.
Idris Elba has achieved star-status since The Wire, and will go on to headline in the greatly anticipated Stephen King adaptation, The Dark Tower.
Bubbles’ story provokes a flood of emotion at every turn. As an addict frequently called upon to help the Baltimore police department, Bubbles experiences some of the darkest chapters in The Wire‘s run. Viewers relish Bubbles’ triumph when he takes money from McNulty and doesn’t use it to buy drugs, only to become heartbroken when, episodes later, he uses it for that very purpose.
Bubbles simultaneously acts as the heart of Baltimore and the heart of The Wire. He can summon enough spirit to get by, and can go out of his way to help others. However, his positive energy can disappear in an instant if a friend or associate of his gets hurt. Bubbles is dangerously reluctant to forgive himself, and his drug abuse is just another factor that keeps him trapped in an often nightmarish life.
Astoundingly, Bubbles actually finds one of the happier endings in The Wire. After gradually regaining the trust of his sister, Bubbles is allowed to join her and her daughter for dinner. Bubbles fights long and hard to achieve recovery, making his conclusion more cathartic than any other on the show.
1. Lester Freamon
In a cast of razor-sharp characters, it takes a lot to stand out. Lester Freamon’s intellect is rivaled by no one, on any side of the law. Lester acts as a thoughtful grandfather who is also able to maintain a cool facade. Nobody’s point of view on The Wire is ever truly the right one, but Lester’s perspective is often the most advisable by a long shot.
Lester harnesses McNulty’s disdain for authority and mixes it in with Daniels’ impeccable class, creating his impeccably interesting and wise personality. Even when he’s just working on small wooden figurines, Lester has a million things going on in his head. His detective work on the Baltimore police force is resolutely unparalleled, even by Bunk.
Clarke Peters deserves an Emmy nomination for every season he portrayed Lester on The Wire. His calm persona and patient eyes made Lester the greatest character on The Wire by a wide margin.
Who are your favorite characters from The Wire? Let us know in the comments.