To this day, The Wire (2002–2008) remains a top contender for one of the greatest TV shows ever made. It's been off the air for long past a decade, but it's still hot with universal acclaim.
What made this TV show so good? Well, The Wire did so many things right, but there's really only one answer here: the characters.
Featuring some of the best writing ever put to the small screen, The Wire gifted us with characters who were dynamic, engaging, intriguing, with rich backstories and complex relationships that filled out the world of Baltimore and made every corner feel lived-in.
Indeed, The Wire was never a one-man show. This challenging drama had new characters showing up every season, in new settings, shedding light on different areas of Baltimore—and each one always showed up with flair, personality, and style.
If you ever wanted an epic-scale, character-driven TV show that delved into the varied psychologies of its complexly developed—and superbly acted—characters, you found it in The Wire.
No one can deny that The Wire's characters are what took the show from phenomenal to legendary. Here's how we rank the best of them and why they stand out in a show full of standouts.
10. Lester Freamon
Lester Freamon demonstrates early on that he's the profound, sagacious grandfather-type of the show.
Sly, crafty, and impressively shrewd, Lester is often one step ahead of his colleagues and superiors. In terms of raw intellect, his understanding of "the game" is second to none, and few can match his ability to read a situation and grasp what's really happening.
Much like almost everyone else in the show, Lester Freamon is a victim of trying to improve the state of things in a system that's fiercely designed to maintain the status quo.
9. Frank Sobotka
Frank Sobotka didn't have a lot of screen time compared to some of the other characters on this list, yet he's easily one of the most interesting people we've seen throughout the five seasons.
A hard-working man who cares deeply about the union he represents, Frank Sobotka found himself dragged into a world of crime that he never anticipated would be so dirty—or cruel.
He's willing to turn a blind eye to the import of drugs through his docks, but when he discovers a crate full of bodies, he begins to question whether the ends can justify the means.
As he tries his best to keep his union alive, he becomes a symbol of the honest man's struggle against the decay of America.
8. Brother Mouzone
Here we have another character who received little screen time: Brother Mouzone, the street assassin with a library card.
When we first meet Mouzone, it's immediately clear that he's a very specific type of person: well-dressed with a book in his hand and a carefully assembled gun in his coat.
He could have become a gimmicky character, but instead he becomes more real with each scene he appears in. By the end, he's a hitman unlike any we've ever seen on TV.
As if that weren't enough, Brother Mouzone is made even more meaningful when you realize he's meant to be a foil for Omar Little. They each make the other shine that much brighter.
7. Bunk Moreland
Jimmy McNulty's best friend and one of the only men capable of reeling him in, Bunk Moreland is the heart of The Wire. He's simultaneously the voices of reason and degeneracy.
While he provides a strong moral backbone that counters the apathetic nature of his police office, he balances all of that hard work with excessive drinking and philandering.
In that respect, it's easy to see why he gets along so well with Jimmy. Top it off with his dry humor and wry wit and you end up with a beloved character who's always welcome on screen.
6. Avon Barksdale
Avon Barksdale is the coolest cat in the entirety of The Wire and everyone in Baltimore—both friends and foes—knows it.
When all's said, Avon Barksdale is the epitome of effortless power. As the head of drug operations in Westside Baltimore, he carries a lot of weight and yet the crown never wears heavy on his head.
Avon embodies his role as drug kingpin with ease, earning everyone's respect—even when he's in prison.
This leads many others in the hood to imitate him (like Marlo Stanfield) in pursuit of similar results, but often they find that wearing the crown isn't as easy as Avon makes it seem.
5. Stringer Bell
Intelligent, clinical, and utterly ruthless, Stringer Bell represents the sharp divide between City Hall and the streets.
He constantly finds himself pitted between the heights of ephemeral criminal success and the difficulties of establishing a sustained career in quasi-legal Baltimore dealings.
In this regard, Stringer Bell encapsulates many of the ideas embedded in The Wire: he's always short of attaining the American Dream because the deck is stacked against him.
No matter how savvy he thinks he is, no matter how successful he is at crime, the truth is that he'll never be able to play those "away" games. He belongs to the streets.
4. Marlo Stanfield
Marlo Stanfield is the up-and-comer who's determined to make a name for himself—by taking over the Baltimore drug trade.
For this young man, nothing is ever enough. Even more ruthless than Stringer Bell, Marlo represents a shift away from the usual code of ethics on the streets, which shocks the other drug lords.
However, it ultimately becomes clear to Marlo that money will never amount to what he really desires: the respect, recognition, and reverence that's awarded to charismatic leaders like Avon Barksdale.
3. Cedric Daniels
Phenomenally played by the late Lance Reddick, it always felt like the role of Cedric Daniels was made specifically for him. (Of course, most of that comes down to him being a superb actor.)
Despite having the austere demeanor and wooden movements of a stereotypical police lieutenant, Daniels proves over the course of The Wire that he's much more than that.
Though firmly principled, he's also empathetic, wise, altruistic, and ambitious. He's always in pursuit of something greater, but rarely—if ever—sacrifices what he believes in to get there.
Cedric Daniels isn't just one of the most memorable characters in The Wire. He's among the most admirable, start to finish.
2. Omar Little
Omar Little is the rogue vigilante of the streets, the Robin Hood of Baltimore who knows that "it's all in the game."
As a career criminal, Omar Little has established his own personal code of ethics: he only targets drug dealers, never innocents.
And he doesn't target them because he's after their merchandise. He's simply interested in the cash they carry, which he's happy to take off their hands with the help of his trusty shotgun.
And yet, Omar's reckless approach often puts those around him in harm's way, meaning he tends to isolate himself.
A product of his environment, Omar Little is emblematic of every person who's been dealt a crappy hand in life and tries to make the best of it. Unfortunately, playing a crap hand is never easy.
1. Jimmy McNulty
Jimmy McNulty seems shallow and empty at first, but there's a lot of subtle nuance that makes him a fascinatingly complex character.
On the one hand, he has a good heart and tries his best to work for what's right. You might even say he's an altruist to some degree because he doesn't have much interest in personal glory. He simply gets satisfaction from putting immoral people in jail.
But he's also an absolute mess: a drunk, a loudmouth, a libertine, and even a bit of a narcissist.
Then again, these negative traits really only come out when his job is made so difficult by the bureaucratic nightmare of politics around him. He can't do what's right because the system—and its sprawling complexity—prevents him.
Often stuck between what's legal and what's right, he takes to his own moral compass... and frequently ends up in trouble.
Funny, good-natured, and bit of a Byronic hero, Jimmy McNulty is our clear pick as the best character in The Wire.