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.”
1. I’ve been rewatching David Simon’s Baltimore epic The Wire, generally regarded as one of the best if not the best, TV series ever. I’ve been watching with my wife, who’s never seen the show before. I’m going to riff on a few of the themes of season four of The Wire here, and there will be spoilers.
If you’ve never seen The Wire and you think that some day you want to see it (it’s as good as everyone says it is, so you should want to see it) you shouldn’t read this post because of the spoilers.
2. Season four of The Wire takes education as its central subject. Specifically, it examines the different ways in which personal circumstance and chance (and maybe fate) intersect with institutions. The simplest example of one of these institutions might be Edward J. Tilghman Middle School, but there are other institutions too—the city’s political core, including the Mayor and his advisers, the police and their various detention centers, and even the criminal organizations that foster their own trainees.
3. Season four gives us four eighth graders to care about. The first episode of the season, “The Boys of Summer,” establishes these characters as they prepare to head from childhood into a more complex—and violent—world:
Childish joy and youthful agitation mixes with real territorial violence here; everything that follows in the season shades this scene with a bleak irony.
4. Season four presents a series of possible mentor relationships, wherein various principal characters contend to steward, foster, educate, or otherwise help these four kids turn into four men.
Roland Pryzbylewski, one-time detective-cum-fuck-up, becomes the teacher Mr. Presbo. He idealistically tries to help the four kids, who all take his class together. Parallel to Pryzbylewski’s efforts in the classroom are Dennis “Cutty” Wise’s efforts in the boxing gym; he hopes to take these kids off the corners as well. Initially, Presbo fosters Randy and Dukie while Cutty tries to make headway with Namond and Michael.
As the season develops, different mentors present themselves for each of the kids. Almost all fail.
Cutty loses whatever inroads he had on mentoring Michael, who comes under the tutelage of the dark assassin Chris. Tellingly, Michael enlists Chris in killing off his brother Bug’s father; the assassination is Oedipal.
Mr. Presbo helps Dukie in real and meaningful ways, making sure that the indigent child has clean clothes and a place to shower, but also showing him a kind of loving respect wholly absent in his relationship with “his people,” hopeless, horrible drug addicts. However, after Dukie is promoted to high school early, Mr. Presbo realizes that he will have to limit his involvement with the boy. He sees that there will always be another Dukie to come along, and that he can’t “keep” the boy—only steward him for a year or two.
After a series of institutional bungles, Carver tries to protect Randy, but loses him to a group home. The last time we see Randy he receives a savage beating at the hands of his roommates.
5. (I should now bring up Sherrod, a dim bulb of maybe 15 who seems to have dropped out of school years ago. Homeless, he’s “schooled” by Bubbles, who first tries to make him return to Tilghman, and then, seeing the boy won’t go, tries to teach him some basic survival skills. Sherrod ends up dead though, and Bubbles, feeling that the death is his fault (which it is in part), attempts suicide. Another failed mentor.
We can also bring up Bodie, whom McNulty attempts to help, albeit the relationship here is hardly on the mentor/avuncular (which is to say, displaced father/son) axis that the other five boys experience. Still, McNulty tries to steer Bodie to a path that would help absolve the young man’s conscience. The path leads to the young man’s murder).
6. And Namond?
Namond is perhaps the most fascinating figure in season four, at least for me. He’s a spoiled brat, hood rich, the son of infamous Barksdale enforcer Wee-Bey Brice who is doing life for multiple murders. Namond is petulant and mean and immature. He bullies Dukie, yet he doesn’t have the “heart” (in the series’s parlance) to manage selling drugs on his corner, a weakness that comes to harsh light when a child of no more than eight steals his package of drugs. Namond is a mama’s boy, but bullied by an overbearing mother, a woman who encourages him to drop out of school to sell drugs for her own material comfort. He is not made of the same stuff as his father.
Namond is also creative, funny, charismatic, individualistic, and intelligent. Bunny Colvin sees these qualities and sees an opportunity to help—to really help—one person. And here is the moment of consolation in season four. It’s a consolation for Colvin, who has experimented twice now with programs that bucked the institutional path (Hamsterdam in season three; the corner kids project in season four), and perhaps it’s a consolation for Cutty, who is instrumental in connecting Colvin with Wee-Bey. But it’s also a consolation for the audience, who perhaps will concede that one out of four ain’t bad. (Although clearly, three out of four children are left behind).
7. The Wire’s emphasis on Baltimore locations, specific regional dialects, and its use of local, semi-professional actors afforded the show a strong sense of realism. Straightforward shots and short scenes added to this realism. What I perhaps like most about The Wire’s realism is its near-complete lack of musical cues: other than the opening song and closing credits soundtrack, the only music that appears in any scene in The Wire is internal to the scene, i.e., we only hear music if the characters are hearing it (in their cars, on their stereos, etc. — a la rule two of Dogme 95).
The Wire breaks from these formal realistic conventions at the end of each season, using a montage—a device it almost always avoids—overlaid with a song. Here’s the montage from the end of season four:
8. I include the montage as a means to return to point 6, Namond. The images unfold, giving a sense of where our characters (those who survive season four) will go next (the universe of The Wire is never static; our characters are always in motion). The montage settles (about 4:40 in the video above) to rest on Namond, working on his homework, clearly more comfortable if not at ease in his new life with the Colvins. A family embraces on the porch of the house behind the Colvin house, signaling that Namond has finally arrived in an institution that can protect and foster and nourish him—a loving family. A reminder of his old life as a corner boy enters the scene as the young car thief Donut pulls up, smiling; there’s an implicit offer to return to the corner life here. Then Donut blazes through a stop sign, almost causing a wreck. Namond’s troubled face signals that he’s learned something, but it also twists into a small grin. The shot lingers on the crossroads: open possibility, but also the burden of choice.
9. (Parenthetical personal anecdote that illustrates why season four is, for me, easily the most emotionally affecting entry in The Wire:
For seven years I taught at an inner city high school that was plagued by low test scores, low student interest, and violence. The school’s population was about 95% black, with most students receiving free or reduced lunch. I was still working at this school when I first saw The Wire’s Edward J. Tilghman Middle School, and although the depiction was hyperbolic in places, the general tone of chaos and apathy was not at all unfamiliar to me. There were fights at my school. Brawls. Gang violence. Murders even—student-on-student murders that still haunt me today (these didn’t happen on campus, but they were still our students). I recall one day leaving early—I had fourth period planning and my principal allowed me to leave once a week to attend a graduate school course—and being stunned to see two swat trucks pull up around the school and unload teams of militarized police.
Most of our students were good people trying to get a good education despite very difficult circumstances that were beyond their own control—poverty, unstable family environments, severe deficits in basic skills like reading and math. And most of our teachers were good people trying to help these students as best as they knew how in spite of a draconian, top-heavy management structure that emphasized the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) as the end-all be-all of education.
I’m tempted here to rant about tests like the FCAT and legislation like the No Child Left Behind Act, rant about how they drain schools of resources, rob children of a true education, and limit teachers’ and schools’ ability to differentiate instruction—but that’s not the point of this riff.
Probably more productive to let The Wire illustrate. I’ve sat in meetings like this one (I imagine many educators have):
The primary goal of the institution is always to maintain the institution, no matter what the mission statement might be.
What I’m trying to say here is that The Wire’s Edward J. Tilghman Middle School strikes me as very, very real).
10. I’ll conclude by returning to Namond and Colvin and suggest that this is the closest thing to a happy ending that The Wire could possibly produce. The Wire perhaps boils down to the evils of institutionalism (of any kind); Colvin (and, to be fair, Cutty and Wee-Bey to a certain extent) must take an individualistic response to bypass institutional evils. (In season five, McNulty will carry out an individualistic response to institutional apathy—which is to say practical evil—on a whole new level).
The Wire plainly shows us that life costs, that all decisions cost, and that decisions cost in ways that we cannot calculate or measure or foresee. Namond’s future comes at the cost, perhaps, of Michael, Dukie, and Randy, the children who are left behind. And here is the real evil of a mantra like “no child left behind”—its sheer meaningless as a philosophy inheres in its essentially paradoxical nature, whereby if no single child can be left behind then all children can be left behind—the institution simply redefines or “jukes” what “behind” means. Colvin’s solution, on one hand, is to pragmatically assess the costs and payoffs of managing his interest in education, in being “a teacher of sorts” (as he calls it). (This pragmatic side echoes his Hamsterdam experiment in season three). Colvin’s pragmatism is successful though not only because he realizes his limitations—he cannot help just any child, and certainly not every child—it is also successful because it is tempered in love.
Do yourself a favor and read Joy Delyria and Sean Michael Robinson’s send up of lit crit “‘When It’s Not Your Turn’: The Quintessentially Victorian Vision of Odgen’s ‘The Wire.'” Their essay is a reappraisal of The Wire that imagines David Simon’s Baltimore saga as a serialized Victorian novel contemporary with Dickens.