The Best Ever?

Over at the House Next Door, Andrew Johnston’s write up of the penultimate episode of The Wire begins by asking:

Is the best episode ever of the best TV drama ever QED the best single TV episode of all time? That’s not a philosophical conundrum I face where “Late Editions” is concerned, since my pick for the best series of all time is The Sopranos. Those who believe The Wire to be the finest series in the history of the medium, however, are going to spend a lot of time debating the question, since after two viewings it’s pretty clear that “Late Editions” is The Wire’s single best episode.

In the comments section, blog proprietor Matt Zoller Seitz suggests that:

Agreed that this might be the best single episode of the series, though the Ep in Season Three where Stringer Bell dies is up there as well.

I’d never dream of arguing against the general greatness of either episode. Both are incredibly satisfying and handle their climactic moments with an almost breathtaking confidence. And obviously, Johnston and Seitz have every right to their opinion about what episode is best.

But I do want to caution against the tendency to list concluding episodes with big events as the best. I think it’s natural, with any TV series, to look at episodes that provide some sort of game-changer or major resolution as the strongest (no doubt a poll of Lost fans would find favorite episodes clustered around the pilot and the season finales). These episodes tend to be the most memorable because of the catastrophic (from a narrative perspective) events they portray, but, especially with The Wire, I wonder if they’re really the best the show has to offer, or if the tendency to elevate them isn’t simply a result Big Things Happening.

I’d argue that where The Wire really shines is in the middle of its seasons. There are a number of shows that consistently provide strong beginnings and strong closes, but in a way that’s an easy thing to do. The Wire, on the other hand, really excels at weaving the complex narrative tapestries that comprise the bulk of the season. It’s solid all the way through.

Even still, I don’t know if I could pick a “best” episode at all. Especially with a show like The Wire, which, in each season, has a single, closely integrated story arc, it seems unhelpful to attempt to pick a best. They all work together, and singling one out as better is problematic because the best episodes only work as well as they do because of how they connect with the rest.

On a related note, here’s the BHtv clip in which Ezra and I discuss the greatness of episode nine and how the show’s political outlook makes it stronger.