Over in the comments to the Andre categories, Jones has suggested another award for the most Tragic Figure on The Wire. I'm tweaking that slightly to announce our sixth and final category, the Tragic Hero. This is not necessarily the character to whom the saddest thing happens (Bubbles, Wallace, Randy); it's the character who most conforms to the classical model of the tragic hero, the character who challenges the godlike institutions that run the show and falls hard because of it. Unlike the Asshole/Bastard categories, which often go to the caricatures on the fringes of the narrative, this (even moreso than Most Improved and Heart of Gold) is the domain of the protagonists.
To better outline the category, here are my best guesses for the Tragic Heroes of the past four seasons. Three are easy; one is hard.
Season one: Jimmy McNulty, setting the whole series in motion and winding up on a boat for his troubles. Runner-up is his opposite number, D'Angelo Barksdale, who doesn't challenge the system with the same vigor--in fact, at the end of season one he upholds it by taking the sentence for his family. His tragic arc comes to a head halfway through season two.
Season two: Frank Sobotka.
Season three: Stringer Bell. Runner-up, Howard "Bunny" Colvin.
Season four: This is a tough call. Colvin makes a good run at changing the school system and he fails. That failure is a social tragedy, but he's cautious enough after getting burned on Hamsterdam that he doesn't pay a personal price. He even manages a small victory by saving Namond Brice--currently the only one of the four kids to end up better off than he started the season.
If you regard seasons four and five as a continuous narrative--and there are many reasons to do so--the Tragic Hero is clearly Omar Little, who bucks the system, steals from the gods (including the Greek), gets his friends killed, and follows them to an inglorious death. But looking at season four on its own, he ends up doing pretty well, albeit having set in motion his own demise.
Randy Wagstaff has one of the most tragic stories of the season, followed closely by Michael and Dukie. They're all abused by the systems they encounter (school, legal, street, social services), but a tragic hero is supposed to hold some exalted station and these kids are too powerless. They are simply victims. Protagonists in a naturalist novel, perhaps, but not a Greek tragedy.
The best tragic heroes in season four would probably be either Bubbles or Bodie Broaddus. Their stations are not exactly exalted either--season four plays out as a downscale parody of the grand tragic falls of seasons two and three. But unlike Randy, Bodie and Bubbles both challenge their local authorities (Marlo and the mugger) with more agency, both seem to have a better shot at success, and both fall much harder when they fail. I would give the nod to Bubbles here. Even though he gets that moment of grace from Landsman, his self-destruction is absolute while Bodie goes down fighting (and keeps himself out of the vacants).
I wonder if this departure from the classical models of seasons two and three in favor of a more naturalistic mode explains why season four was so powerful. Maybe, maybe not; season three is right up there with it as The Wire's best.
And as for this season? Omar is a contender, though he's paying off hubris from last season. McNulty and Freamon both think they can game the system when they, of all people, should damn well know better. Marlo has made a huge power play and lost--but will the case hold up? Also, unlike Stringer Bell, his goals are only to thrive within the existing criminal system, not to challenge it. He doesn't come anywhere near the "hero" label, even in the most purely dramatic sense. Gus Haynes could be in the mix, although his few challenges to Whiting and Klebanow so far have been fairly impotent, even petulant.
It probably won't be Scott Templeton; he plays within the rules of a broken system, and his fall isn't even guaranteed. Violating a professional code of ethics is a moral failure in The Wire, but not necessarily a bad career move.
What do you think? Did I miss anybody? Who's the tragic hero of season five? (One last time, a reminder: absolutely no spoilers for the series finale. I'll be quick to delete any comments if I even suspect they're giving away future story developments.)