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The Wire: Game Day

"Are you talking about a do over baby? ...That's not how the game is played." –Avon Barksdale

The Game is perhaps the central metaphor in The Wire and on game day we see it played out literally as a game. It’s a rigged game where both sides try to cheat (or at least stretch the acceptable rules of game to their advantage) and where just because you are ahead at half time, there is no guarantee that you will be ahead when the buzzer sounds.

The episode opens with the Barksdales trying to buy success in the intramural drug gang basketball game juxtaposed with Wallace wanting out of the metaphorical game. The writers play with the word “play” an awful lot as they make us think about what participants in all these games have on the line.

Let’s start with the basketball game. We take a break for the day from the game for the game. It’s instructive that Herc and Carver have no idea that this game is even happening when it’s the focus of everyone in the community. How little the police know continues to be fairly amazing, but it’s an honest appraisal because, to put it bluntly, they are not part of the community and how would they know. We deal in fleeting observations made when we pause from doing whatever it is we are supposed to be doing. The basketball court reveals a whole new set of relationships to both the audience and the characters. We see the competing drug gang, led by the well-dressed Proposition Joe, controls their own extensive territory (and are every bit as obscure to the police as the Barksdales). We begin to understand that these organizations are deeply embedded in the society of urban Baltimore. Finally, we realize that as good as the Barksdales are, that there are no Kings of Baltimore, except in the chess sense of leaders of competing sides.

Freamon opens a new game as well, the money game, every bit as obscure, so obscure in fact that they have to do a (very uncharacteristic) voice-over montage to make it explicable. It is not a game anyone is comfortable with when it starts to yield results, the look on Daniels face is obvious, but even McNulty looks uncomfortable as it dawns on him what this could end up meaning.

Omar makes his move in this episode, Daniels actually gets Avon out in the opening, and Proposition Joe is clearly outwitting him. It looks like they have Avon, but as it turns out Avon still has some game (sorry couldn’t resist that). I am reminded of a saying I once heard about football, “they were the superior team on paper, but the game is played on turf.” Avon makes the police tails, quick thinking lets him survive the most dangerous man on the streets, and both the police and Omar end up empty handed. You play the game because life is a contingent and tricky thing, and this whole episode is filled with the ups and downs associated with it. This show is full of suspense and excitement because you just don’t know how each episode will play out until it’s done.

Bits and Pieces

This might be a good time and episode to mention the elephant in the room on this series: race. Okay, there is rarely a good time, and I will return to the issue now and then because it’s inescapable. That said this episode had a cavalcade of the things that have always bugged people: corruption, basketball, the gangs as center of the community, etc. Without judging (today, because I will get around to it) the merits of the objections, I want to suggest two items that point up the dissonance this series created, particularly with African American viewers.

First, if you google some variation on “Best roles for African Americans in TV” or variations like “Best Black Television” neither the characters or The Wire come up very often or at all (and Omar gets all the love when anyone is included). This is a series that was named the best TV series ever by Entertainment Weekly and featured a huge array of meaty roles for African Americans. A point made when, Andre Royo (who played Bubbles) was quoted as saying, “We don't know if we'll be involved in a project that had that many people of color working with great characters and great story lines ever again. There was something powerful in that.” The tension between these two threads, great roles playing characters whom we really wish weren’t part of our society run throughout the series, and is a subject which we will return to as the series (and these reviews) progress.


"Maybe we won." –Herc

(you know, this episode had many great lines, and this is the first time I really felt like they missed the boat on the epigraph. Although, it does point up just how limited the vision of all the characters is to the whole game that we get to see from our couches at home)

Wallace: "I just don't wanna play. I just don't wanna play no more."

(if you want to understand this whole episode in one exchange this would be it)

Avon Barksdale: "Yo ref, yo ref, yo ref. what the fuck? The boy was fouled, clear straight up. How you not going to call that?"
Referee: "Look, if you want I can put time back on the clock and replay it."
Avon Barksdale: "Are you talking about a do over baby? Are you talking about a fuckin do over? That's not how the game is played, you can't do that, fuck, can you believe this shit? This nigga talking about doin it again!"
Referee: "Look, I don't want any trouble, ok."
Proposition Joe: "Ain't going to be no trouble over no ball."
Avon Barksdale: "Man, you supposed to be the ref right? Why don't you stand up for yourself. You pussy! You can't let any old lil muthafucka get in your face... understand? Now walk away, walk away, turn around and walk the fuck away, ignorant muthafucka."
Proposition Joe: "We cool?"
Avon Barksdale: "Yea we cool baby, you tell your people to come up here to the park Saturday at noon but of course if you come on the west side again without a ball I'm a light your ass up."

(more philosophy of crime fighting)

Freamon: "You follow drugs, you get drug addicts and drug dealers. But you start to follow the money, and you don't know where the fuck it's gonna take you."

McNulty: "Well, you know what they say: 'stupid criminals make stupid cops.' I'm proud to be chasing this guy."

(never a bad time to talk a little smack)

Herc: "What the fuck was that?"
Carver: "That was my Korean counterman."
Herc: "Sounded Chinese."
Carver: "Like you can fucking tell the difference."

Avon Barksdale: "Ayo what's up playboy? How come you wearin' that suit, B? For real its 85 fucking degrees out here and you try' na be like fuckin' Pat Riley."
Proposition Joe: "Look the part, be the part, motherfucker."

Three out four Junior College ringers (not as much got done but great characters and action in this one).


  1. It makes me sad that this show apparently isn't considered to feature some of the "best roles for African Americans in TV." The Wire features black actors across all the various positions in the city, from cops to politicians to newspaper reporters to educators to drug dealers to dock workers to dope fiends, all in various shades of grey. I'm always blown away by the depth and complexity of so many of the characters on the show, and it makes me sad that Andre Royo is right, and that most of these wonderful actors haven't found roles nearly as complex or compelling in the intervening years.

    As for the episode itself, this week really highlighted for me how well this show holds up on re-watch. It's such a rich experience the first time through, but it becomes even better on later viewings, as moments take on new significance or poignance when you know where the story is going. Nearly all the moments that stood out for me this week were little things that plant seeds for what's to come or that take on added weight in retrospect. Two developments, in particular, had a tremendous impact on me as I was watching, both nearly bringing me to tears. Interestingly, one because it ties to one of the show's greatest heartbreaks, and the other because it presages one of its greatest moments of hope. And to keep things spoiler-free, I'll leave it at that.

    I keep noticing that the epigraphs of the previous episodes often seem to come back to haunt the characters in subsequent episodes. First we had "a little slow, a little late" then "all the pieces matter" and now, "You come at the king, you best not miss" which absolutely hangs over the final moments of this episode. Perhaps we'll see that "maybe we won" takes on new shadings in weeks to come.

    Oh, D'Angelo. I'm sure you had no choice but to go along with Wee Bey and Little Man when it came to dealing with the unfortunate death at the party. "That's how they do," and you are pretty much in over your head, here. And I know that stuff haunts you and makes you feel like you want out. But you allowed Shardene's friend to be treated like garbage! I'm invested in your journey, and you have many qualities I find sympathetic, but I kind of hate you right now. Lying mofo. At least you are trying to do right by poor, haunted Wallace. You can't see a way out, but maybe that kid still has a chance.

  2. Agree with what Jess said about the great actors of this show not getting good parts after..Saw Michael K Williams on some Law and order episode where he played a terrorist with no complexicty at all..and we all know what he's capable of if he gets good material. It's a damn shame the hue of an actor's skin has to dictate the roles he gets.

  3. I agree with Jess. This time through this episode, I was struck with the amount of foreshadowing that I missed the first time through. I know the moment that nearly brought her to tears as it had the same effect on me.

    The scene with Avon and the referee struck me this time as well. Avon has a point; the guy should stick up for himself. Yet, fear is a powerful thing and watching this young man leave the court (leave the game) is a poignant moment.


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