Let’s just get this right out in the open: Few shows blur the lines between good and bad like The Wire (available to stream anytime on HBO Now). Good cops commit horrible acts, and the criminals they chase prove capable of having real heart. Still, there are some characters who, despite their positive traits, are unmistakably the bad guys. These characters rule the streets of Baltimore with intimidation and violence, committing heinous acts at the behest of others, giving the orders, and sometimes standing by and doing nothing while the city burns. While they’re all part of the game, they operate without a code, and without concern for anything other than being on the winning team.
15 – Tommy Carcetti
The future mayor of Baltimore, Tommy Carcetti (Aiden Gillen) starts out as a member of the City Council with the most noble of intentions, but as a white man running for mayor in a predominantly black city, he knows the odds are stacked against him. Though he uses his political savvy to take advantage of a split vote by his opponents, he ends up winning the mayoral election, a position he intends on using for the good of Baltimore. Once in power, however, it doesn’t take long for his good intentions to give way to political posturing, and before long, his promise of encouraging quality arrests for the good of the city gives way to an old political song and dance — altering the police stats to make him look better as mayor.
Many of the characters from The Wire were based on real people that creators David Simon and Ed Burns crossed paths with as a crime reporter and police officer, respectively. Carcetti’s career, however, has a few things in common with the political career of Martin O’Malley. A former Democratic presidential candidate, O’Malley had no love for how the show chose to portray the city of Baltimore and Simon has no love for him.
14 – Omar Little
Sure, he may have a code, and he readily proclaimed that he would never turn his gun on anyone who wasn’t in the game, but none of that erases the fact that Omar Little (Michael K. Williams) makes his living robbing and killing drug dealers. Even as the police admit to a begrudging respect over his “do it yourself initiative” at first, his methods prove too extreme as their extremely uneasy alliance with him erodes over the course of the series. Omar’s occasional display of humanity aside, he was still a villain whose efforts led to a lot of bloodshed.
13 – Prop Joe
“Proposition” Joe Stewart (Robert F. Chew) proves to be a cunning wit who could stand toe-to-toe with almost anyone. Known more for his level-headed decision making than for his ruthlessness, he was an adept businessman who’s willing to do whatever’s necessary to keep his product on the street. He’s also able to insulate himself from any interference from the BPD, and near the end of the show, he even begins to act more like a mentor to Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector) as he continues to expand his influence.
While that last move ends up costing him his life, he ends up dying the way he lived, offering up a proposition.
12 – Cheese
The nephew of Proposition Joe, Calvin “Cheese” Wagstaff (Method Man) runs his drug-dealing crew, and has the distinction of being the first one from the eastside to step foot on west Baltimore turf after Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) calls for peace in the name of profit. He’s manages to evade the Baltimore Police Department, outside of some heartbreaking confusion over his fighting dog, yet is cold enough to sell-out his own uncle as Marlo Stanfield aims to take absolute control over the city’s drug trade.
In the final episode, he makes an impassioned speech about how those that came before had “their time,” and that there was no real loyalty in the game. He’s proven right by Slim Charles (Anwar Glover), who shoots him in the back of the head without warning, making him the last death on The Wire.
11 – Bird
Angry, defiant, and foul-mouthed, Marquis “Bird” Hilton (Fredro Starr) makes his biggest impression when handcuffed to an interrogation table, spewing a string of vile insults to Officer Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn) while he’s accused of murdering a state’s witness. Though he’s often careless, regularly breaking one of the game’s key the rules by using the product he’s selling, Bird maintained his silence, even through a vicious “Western District way” beatdown. In the end, with Omar willing to falsify his testimony against him, Bird only grimaces as he’s handed a life sentence without parole by Judge Phelan (Peter Gerety).
10 – Maurice Levy
A devious lawyer lacking any sort of moral compass, Maurice Levy might only be seen briefly throughout all five seasons of The Wire, but his influence as a shrewd defense attorney is felt throughout the show. Starting off as a lawyer on retainer by the Barksdale crew, he eventually comes into contact with Marlo Stanfield, and after using information he obtains from the BPD, threatens to expose their compromised investigation against him, with Marlo walking away in a kind of stalemate.
Most of Levy’s influence as a corrupt lawyer in the pocket of the city’s wealthiest and most powerful drug dealers, his cross-examination of Omar Little (Michael K. Williams) ranks as one of the show’s best moments. Particularly when Levy derides how Omar makes a living and Omar manages to turn his argument against him, comparing how he uses his shotgun to how Levy uses his briefcase.
9 – Slim Charles
Slim Charles isn’t so much a villain as he’s a disciplined and loyal enforcer. Charles is so trusted by Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) that he’s the only person consulted about going to war with then-up-and-comer Marlo Stanfield. After Avon’s empire crumbles, Charles proves to be so respected that he’s later able to jump ship, eventually working his way up to become one of Proposition Joe’s top guys. He’s also the closest thing the game has to a winner by the time the series concludes, with Charles sitting across the table from the all-powerful Greeks.
Honestly, though, he earns a spot on this list simply for being one of the few people that’s able to thwart a robbery by Omar.
8 – Spiros Vondas
The second in command of a vast criminal network that reaches all the way into the FBI, Spiros, and his boss, known only as “The Greek,” have a long history with “Prop” Joe, who funnels their heroin supply into his crew of drug dealers. Over the course of the show, they eventually show an interest in young Marlo Stanfield, who attempts to win their favor with the gift of a million dollars. Spiros, however, derides the gift and refuses to accept it, telling Marlo his money “stinks” because it’s from the streets. It’s only after Marlo launders the money with the help of “Prop” Joe that he’s able to curry their favor.
In the end, while blood is routinely shed on the streets for power, Spiros, along with The Greek, sit around in their cafe, casually manipulating the strings.
7 – Avon Barksdale
As the mastermind behind the West Baltimore drug trade when he was introduced in the show’s pilot, Avon Barksdale is not only ruthless and calculating, but smart. He’s able to conceal his identity so well that the cops didn’t even know what he looked like until Detective Lester Freamon did some, well… detective work, and digs up his photo from an old boxing poster. While he’s apprehended at the end of season one, he continues to pull the strings both in jail and out on the street, manipulating the system to reduce his sentence from seven years down to one. He also shows bits of humanity, most notably by donating money to Cutty’s (Chad Coleman) boxing gym. Although when Stringer wants to expand their empire through truce and partnership, Avon only wants to go to war.
It was this short-sightedness that causes Avon to lose in the end, and his obsession with beating Stanfield ends up costing him everything.
6 – Clay Davis
We’re first introduced to Sen. Clay Davis (Isiah Whitock, Jr.) when a huge bundle of cash was found on one of his drivers. While then-Lieutenant Daniels (Lance Reddick) wants their operation to include a wiretap of Davis’ operation, acting Commissioner Ervin Burrell (Frankie Faison) pulls the plug on the entire operation — which is just a hint of the kind of influence that Davis wields. One of the only characters on The Wire with a notable catchphrase (“sheeeeeeeet,” Davis freely uses his power to demand bribes over promises he never intends to keep, while the city of Baltimore suffers as a result.
5 – Stringer Bell
A man whose ruthlessness is matched only by his ambition, Stringer Bell uses every opportunity he has to seize power and expand his empire, all with the intention of eventually leaving his gangster life behind. Though he has an end-game in mind, when push comes to shove, Stringer proves again and again that he is remorseless when it comes to the game, and he never thinks twice about taking care of loose ends.
While that’s a trait shared by many on this list, the fact that he’s able to operate in front of the BPD with near-impunity speaks to his intelligence. He may have ended up ranked a little higher if he was able to keep his cool after getting conned by Sen. Clay Davis, which not only prompts him to slip up on a phone call, but ends with him walking right into a trap laid for him by Omar and Brother Mouzone.
4 – Wee-Bey
One of the most trusted and ferocious soldiers in the Barksdale crew, Roland “Wee-Bey” Brice (Hassan Johnson) had been standing on a corner since the sixth grade alongside Avon and Stringer, and is essential to the hold on West Baltimore that they’ve created. When it comes time to interrogate Omar’s lover, Brandon, over a robbery early on in season one, with the handcuffs in his hands and a smirk on his face, it’s pretty clear that Wee-Bey took an active role in his torture.
While there was no doubting his violent tendencies, he proves to be loyal to the end, confessing to every murder the BPD has levied against Barksdale — and he does it all while casually wolfing down a pit beef sandwich (with extra horseradish). Still for all his viciousness, he’s willing to let former Lt. “Bunny” Colvin (Robert Wisdom) try and make something of his teenage son, Namond (Julito McCullum), while he’s content to simply run out his time behind bars.
3 – Snoop
Even for even casual fans of The Wire, a character like Felicia “Snoop” Pearson (played by the actress of the same name) definitely stands out. We first see Snoop in the third season as a minor character hanging out under the wing of Chris Partlow. The following year, her character opens the fourth season as she’s seen buying a nail gun from a big-box hardware store. When Snoop gets an order, she carries it out, never thinking twice about it, and grows suspicious of Michael (Tristan Wilds) their young trainee who always seems to question Marlo’s leadership.
When she’s eventually ordered to kill Michael out of suspicion that he was talking to the police, he proves to have the drop on her. As he holds her at gunpoint, her only reaction is to give him the nod and admit that he was always smart before calmly asking him how her hair looks before she’s killed.
2 – Chris Partlow
The character with the highest body count in all of The Wire, Chris Partlow (Gbenga Akkinagbe) rarely speaks, and when he does speak, it’s with an unsettling calm demeanor. As a key player in the Stanfield crew, he serves as Marlo’s chief enforcer, best friend, and most trusted advisor. Chris also takes an active role in becoming a mentor to Michael, after he finds a home among the Stanfield crew. In one of the show’s more nuanced moments, as Chris comes to realize a dark secret about Michael’s past, it’s clear he understands, and commits a brutal murder on his behalf to offer the two of them a kind of closure.
As the BPD eventually comes up with legitimate charges against Marlo, like Wee-Bey before him, Chris takes the fall. In doing so, he demonstrates his humanity by doing so under the condition that his family will be taken care of.
1 – Marlo Stanfield
Every act of violence committed by Snoop, Chris, and (eventually) Michael started with an order from Marlo Stanfield. Here is a character who brutally pushed his way to the top of Baltimore’s drug trade, changing the rules of the game as he saw fit while proving that he was willing to stop at nothing to secure his reign. When he learns about the police camera filming him, he also gets a chance to demonstrate his cunning by fabricating an elaborate story that ends up ruining Sergeant Herc’s (Domenick Lombardozzi) career. In the end, his attorney, Maurice Levy (Michael Kostroff) is able to get him off on a technicality (the technicality being that the investigation against him was funded under false pretenses), and he looks to be the big bad that ends up getting away.
Still, in a celebration after the ruling, Marlo, by now a multi-millionaire, is introduced to Levy’s associates, but ends up leaving the party in favor of the streets. Once back in his element, he picks a fight with a stranger (and wins) simply for mentioning Omar’s name, and it becomes clear that he doesn’t share the kind of aspirations that Stringer Bell had.
Honorable Mention: McNulty, Rawls, Mayor Royce, The Sobotka crew, Brother Mouzone, and a bunch of characters who did a little wrong while doing a little right.
This is an updated version of a post that originally ran on May 12, 2016.