I. In his essay “All in the Game” at The Oxonian Review of Books, Clif Marks points out that
Before the opening credits of the first episode, The Wire introduces its main themes of capitalism, violence, and decay, as well as the trope of the game. The murder of Snot Boogie over an alleyway dice game is the problem of urban America writ small, and The Wire spends the next five seasons elaborating the theme on a progressively broader canvas.
II. As Marks suggests, the scene explicating Snot Boogie’s robbing the dice game—the opening of The Wire—somehow encapsulates the entire series. Here’s the scene:
III. Later in “All in the Game,” Marks analyzes the way The Wire uses “the game” as a dominant formalizing conceit. I’ll quote at length:
The first institutions so portrayed are the police department and the drug trade, which is aptly called “the game” by all of its participants and those in the world surrounding it. At every level the game provides certain goals to its players who are governed by strictly enforced rules of conduct. The drug trade is organised in the form of a bureaucratic hierarchy, and even spawns its own particular ideology through which participants justify their own actions, and interpret and evaluate the acts of others.
The “game” operates as a metaphor for all institutions. In addition to its role as adversary in the drug game, the police department is also the setting for a second game of career advancement, which is entirely controlled by appearances. Crime statistics must be shown to be dropping, whether or not there is any real effect, and anything which might embarrass the higher-ups must be concealed. Likewise, educators’ teaching strategies are largely controlled by the need to perform on standardised state testing on which their funding, and local control of the school, depends. Thus, the explicit aims of public institutions are subverted by internal games that they set up. Even well-intentioned cops and teachers are forced to play bureaucratic games in order to survive in their organisations.
IV. I’ve spent points I-III of this essay trying to contextualize what anyone who’s seen The Wire probably already knows—namely, The Wire can be understood as a series of games folded into one ultimate game—the game—where the rules, the players, and the stakes are repeatedly displaced. I think that Marks’s essay is a particularly salient analysis of the costs that institutions and individuals alike incur playing such a game, and the extractions above, along with the first clip of The Wire might entice anyone who hasn’t seen the show to check it out. It’s great. In fact, it’s as great as everyone says it is.
The following points of this essay will trace a game piece that slips through various players’ hands in season four of The Wire. My argument is that “the game” is not merely an operational metaphor for the institutions depicted in The Wire, but an inescapable ideology that permeates every aspect of The Wire’s universe. Put another way, it’s not possible to not play “the game.” And while it is possible to affect change in “the game”—even to change its rules—individual agency is always susceptible to chance or chaos (or fate, if you prefer), which most likely comes in the form of some other player’s assertion of agency.
There are significant spoilers in the rest of this essay; I suggest not reading anymore if you haven’t yet seen The Wire but intend to see it at some point.
V. In season four, a large ring catches the eye of several players. This game piece changes hands through instances of both agency and chance. A compilation of all the ring exchanges exists as one YouTube clip, but I’m going to belabor the point by handling one exchange at a time (hat tip to Read Jack for having already organized these clips and making my work easier):
VI. Old Face Andre to Marlo:
The ring initially belongs to Old Face Andre (the verb “belongs” should be placed under suspicion, of course). “I’ve had it for a long time now; it’s got some sentimental values,” he reports to Marlo, who immediately and coldly dismisses sentiment, demanding instead, “What’s the real value?” Andre, already owing a debt to Marlo, tries to deflect the conversation by claiming he doesn’t know the ring’s appraised value. Marlo, a sinister bully, says “I’ll find out for you” before essentially forcing Andre to hand over the ring that had so much “sentimental value” to Andre.
Marlo’s promise is ironic beyond his (not-so) coded intention to steal the ring from Andre: He will, in some way, become an arbiter for the “real value” of the ring.
VII. Let’s step outside of the ring narrative for a moment to consider Marlo’s question again: “What’s the real value?”
The ring is a wholly appropriate game piece to illustrate the strange contours of the game in The Wire precisely because of its apparent superfluity. Let’s contrast the ring with another symbolic item from The Wire, the nailgun that Snoop buys in the opening scene of season four:
Besides delivering the horror/comedy axis that seems to mark all of Snoop’s scenes, the nailgun purchase also demonstrates some basics of capitalism. The nailgun, in contrast with the ring, is not superfluous. Furthermore, not only can the nailgun’s value be fixed, so too can the services of the home store employee (“You earned that bump like a motherfucker”). So even when Snoop appears to break the rules of the store’s game, she’s actually reifying the essential rules of the game by paying appropriately for goods and services.
In contrast, the ring’s value isn’t so much constituted by the game (like the nailgun’s value)—instead, the ring’s value constitutes the rules of the game itself. We can see this ideological operation more clearly in the ring’s transfer from Marlo to Omar.
VIII. Marlo to Omar:
Omar robs the card game (need I remark the meta-structure here?). Marlo says that the money being stolen is his money, to which the Robin Hood figure retorts, “Money ain’t got no owners, only spenders.” This is clearly one of the rules of the game, although by rules what I really mean to say is structuring properties, a structuring property that Omar demonstrates by robbing the card game. Tellingly, Omar repeats Marlo’s gesture in his attraction to the ring, which arrests his attention momentarily.
IX. Omar to Officer Walker:
Dirty Officer Walker (perhaps the most evil character in season four) arrests Omar for the convenience store murder Marlo’s outfit has staged. Omar insists there are “rules to this here game”; Walker repeats “Rules?” and throws Omar violently to the ground. By apparently breaking the rules of the game, Officer Walker of course demonstrates the existence of such rules. Omar is not the first to observe that Walker is in violation of the rules to the game. However, there is no authority for the players to appeal to—the game is the authority. Hence, the game is self-regulatory (it cannot be otherwise), and Officer Walker’s rule-breakings will be punished.
X. Officer Walker to Michael:
The boys at the heart of season four (I wrote about them earlier) humiliate Walker by throwing paint on him. Michael repeats the same gesture of arrested (if brief) attention when his gaze falls on the ring. Significantly, he unmasks himself at the same moment he steals the ring—from a police!—suggesting the revelation of true/new identity at this moment.
When Marlo takes the ring from Andre, the act isn’t so much a theft as it is an assertion of agency, or, more to the point, an infringement on Andre’s capacity to assert agency in the game. When Omar takes the ring from Marlo he commits the robbery unmasked and unashamed, confident in his identity as a strong player. When Walker takes the ring from Omar he does so in the confident ease conferred upon him by his mask of authority (his uniform) and his false morality (his badge).
When Michael takes the ring from Walker he signals a decision to play the game fully (and not just through a surrogate like Chris). Brash and unmasked, his bold move echoes Omar’s bold card game robbery, foreshadowing his eventual ascendancy to independent agent.
XI. Marlo sees Michael possesses the ring:
So the ring moves through an ellipse of sort, orbiting past Marlo, who seems stunned (okay, as close as Marlo gets to stunned) that Michael possesses it. Maybe this is because he thinks Michael took it from Omar, although this seems unlikely—what he really perceives is the strength of Michael’s agency to hold on to something that he himself has lost. What perhaps signals Michael’s strongest power is his apparent willingness to give the ring up to Marlo. I intuit perhaps a bit too much here, but I imagine that Michael, who we know wishes to earn his way in the world, is likely eager to repay Marlo as quickly as possible for the various debts he owes him—his accommodations, a contract murder, etc. Unlike Andre who hems, haws, and equivocates, Michael asserts the right to give and in this way retains power (of a sort) in the scene. Put another way, Michael has realized the “real value” of the ring—namely, the “real value” is slippery, unfixed, and contingent upon the ring’s relationship to other players.
XII. The various transfers of the ring in season four of The Wire illustrate a convincing and realistic take on relationships of value and power. The game is ideology itself, always external, uncentered, and changing, ultimately offering no fixed meaning. Sure, common consensus might exist for a time, a lifespan even, but the rules of the game are always subject to change simply by the fact that they can be understood to be rules—and it’s the players themselves who change the rules (players don’t usually bother to tell other players that they’ve changed the rules, of course). The characters who most strongly assert agency in The Wire tend to be highly individualistic and thus in conflict with institutions. And this might be The Wire’s central insight into institutions—that institutions are, at their ideological core, monolithic teams of players bound to outdated or ineffective or even cannibalistic self-imposed rules. It’s the agents who attempt to impose upon or infringe or cheat or revise these rules who succeed in the game—but only for a time. Because it’s not possible to win the game.
XIII. Let’s end by taking up the notion of chance. Why shoot dice? Why play poker? These games impose both risks and rewards; they allow players to assert agency through skill. But such games are also subject to an apparent force operating outside of the game—chance. An apparently random or meaningless death might be the strongest signal of the role of chance in the game, and The Wire often used an apparently chance or circumstantial death as a means to open another level of game play. Examples of such deaths include the floater in season two, Pryzbylewski mistakenly shooting another officer in season three, and the state’s witness who dies from a ricochet in season four. And yet The Wire functions here as a sort of panopticon, a omnipresent viewing machine that allows the viewer an impossible view of how the game (which is to say the structuring principals of The Wire itself) supersedes chance; chance is not actually outside of the game, but another constituting element of the game. There is no outside of the game. Or, as Omar succinctly puts it, “It’s all in the game.”