Idris Elba recently admitted that he hasn’t actually watched classic HBO series The Wire, despite starring as drug kingpin Stringer Bell for its first three seasons. Obviously this is a huge oversight, but looking five seasons of brilliance in the face while about to go on press tour for Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is overwhelming. So let’s help Elba out by recommending ten different episodes he can start with.
1. Season 1, Episode 1: Well, duh. But it’s less simple than it seems, as this pilot hardly spends time setting things up and instead dives right in. “Got to, man. This is America.”
2. Season 2, Episode 12: The second season was so constrained within the docks that it wouldn’t have felt finished unless we found out what happened to the doomed middleman Frank Sobotka, but while we thought he might end up in jail, we could have never predicted how emotionally affecting his inevitable death would be.
3. Season 2, Episode 6: Omar Little, who has thus far operated outisde the system, steps inside it to testify against Brid, a known hitman who murdered Little’s boyfriend. Nothing can beat the sight of Omar with a tie over his usual oversized T-shirt and do-rag.
4. Season 5, Episode 9: Snoop asks how her hair looks and we find out what’s happened to Dukie, Michael, and the other kids from the neighborhood in one of the darkest episodes of the series.
5. Season 3, Episode 4: The relationship between cops and criminals is explained with shocking clarity and beautiful imagery in a monologue about Amsterdam, open container laws, and the failure of the war on drugs by “Bunny” Colvin, a man who knows his days running the Baltimore Police Department are numbered.
6. Season 3, Episode 11: I know it’s embarrassing to watch yourself, but Elba will have to suck it up because this episode is just that good. Elba famously disagreed with the decision to kill Stringer Bell and end his building drug empire, but if he saw the final result, he might have to change his mind.
7. Season 1, Episode 5: This is where unsympathetic cop Pryzbylewski first showed his depth by being the first person to crack the drug dealers’ pager code. Who knew he would go on to be one of the most beloved characters in the entire series.
8. Season 5, Episode 7: Kima Greggs was probably the only female minority gay character on TV at the time — some viewers were bored by her long Season 3 arc about her home life, but it all pays off here, where she reunites with her ex-girlfriend’s son. Meanwhile, Clay Davis proves why he’s one of the most dispicable politicians in fiction.
9. Season 1, Episode 2: Probably the most traditional cop show episode The Wire ever did, as it sets up the team of misfits we’ll follow for the rest of the series. Highlights? Just about everyone, but pay keen attention to the meticulous Lester Freamon. Notice how here, he contains all of the intelligence and steely resolve that later blossoms into the homicide detective he was always meant to be.
10. All of Season 4: Just start, and you won’t be able to stop. In fact, probably just watch the whole series front to back. But especially Season 4.