George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road performs exactly what its intended audience demands. Essentially a cartoonish two-hour car chase brimming with violent badassery, Fury Road precludes any real criticism. Poking at the weak dialogue, cardboard characterizations, and muddled motivations would miss the point. Fury Road looks amazing. It’s thrilling. It’s violent. It does what it was made to do. It’s a spectacular entertainment. (Spectacular in the Guy Debord sense).
Those who would contend there’s more to Fury Road, that would protest I’m missing some depth here, might refer me to the film’s feminist motifs. Yes, this is a film that critiques and rebels against patriarchal authority (going so far as to spell out its message in big block letters even). Maybe there’s a Freudian or Lacanian analysis in there too: Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa (she’s the real star of the film—Tom Hardy’s Max is a bland substitute for old crazy eyes Mel), shorn of both hair and an arm (castration symbols, no?) driving an enormous phallus (one dangling a big testicle full of fuel, power, no less) across the desert wastes, plunging it violently ahead to save some concubines (their eminence derives from their non-mutant genes and marvelous cheekbones—like Zack Snyder’s 300, Fury Road always privileges ideal body types over aberrations).
Where was I? It doesn’t really matter.
Ah, yes: I claimed that the movie obviates criticism.
Fury Road is a product, a commodity that successfully camouflages its very commodification. It’s fan service for our post global id.
The film has been nearly universally praised, as a quick tour through the aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes shows. I’ll lazily pull from RT’s pull quotes lazily: “This movie will melt your face off,” promises Christy Lemire. (Uh, okay). For David Edelstein, seeing the film a second time “became about digging the spectacle – not to mention the hilarious sexual politics.” (Were they really “hilarious”?) “An A-plus B-movie that at times feels almost like a tone poem to early-’80s excess,” writes Christopher Orr, who may or may not know what a tone poem is. Mark Kermode, a crank whom I generally admire, calls it “an orgy of loud and louder, leaving us alternately exhilarated, exasperated and exhausted.”
I stuff these quips in here to show how Fury Road precludes any real criticism. Like I said up front, it does what it intends to do, and what it intends to do is show us something wholly familiar in a way that makes us think that we are not seeing something wholly familiar. But for me, anyway, Fury Road does feel familiar, like any number of movies I’ve already seen. Maybe blame it on Miller’s earlier Mad Max films. Maybe they colonized our cultural imagination so much that any strangeness in Fury Road is difficult to glean, hence the filmmaker’s central trick: Speed the damn thing up. Less character development, less bothersome talking.
The first edges of that boredom actually creep in early, when we see how little is actually at stake in the film. Miller’s gambit is to keep Max constrained for the first quarter of the film—bound, chained, even muzzled. Tied to the prow of a rumbling car like some mythic figure, Max is relentlessly imperiled by spears and bullets and an apocalyptic sandstorm. But like some mythic figure, we know he’ll never die. Like the Roadrunner cartoons it so closely resembles, Fury Road imagines a slapstick world of zany cause-and-effect non-logic, producing kinetic anxieties in its audience that are ultimately relieved (over and over again) with a belief so strong that it cannot be suspended: Max will not die. Max can never die. There must be a sequel.
That promise of a sequel finds its affirmation in the film’s most clichéd final moments. (I’m going to discuss the end of the film now. Spoilers coming up—fair warning, eh?)
A fiction whose mission is to stage the journey of a woman fighting her way out of male-directed gazes and discourses cannot even feel like a “novel” and the established definitions that the term evokes. Maybe the novel as a form, as a genre of literary being, is a fantasy too. Perhaps the personage who creates must also come undone. Employing essayistic and filmic techniques, Zambreno implies an author as narrator-character first before Ruth’s entrance into frame. “I try to sketch her face, over and over and all I come up with is a furious pencil cloud. … She forms. Yet she is an indistinct blur. … My wonder child, wandering child. I am trying to push her out into the world.” An attempt to write the green girl eschews linear plot in favor of the anxious thrill of the present tense of writing (I think of Robert Walser’s The Walk); Zambreno places an implied author as the lens through which we perceive Ruth at the center of the narrative. The epigraphs that begin each scene also frame the shot we will witness — this is someone’s projection of an ego, a kind of literary cinema where the roles of audience and reader are collapsed by a hybrid prosaic-filmic lens: a sentence.
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.
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—froma 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.”