The Ring Game — Agency and Chance in Season Four of The Wire

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.

Let’s backtrack:

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 gameOr, as Omar succinctly puts it, “It’s all in the game.”

The Wire — Season Four Gag Reel

D’Angelo Barksdale Breaks Down The Great Gatsby (The Wire)

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (Full 1980 BBC Adaptation)

Congress Approves the Declaration of Independence (A Scene from HBO’s John Adams)

Chess Lesson (The Wire)

Liam Neeson, Improv Comic

Finally got around to seeing the first ep of Life’s Too Short the other night; funny, but not Extras funny—Warwick Davis is great though (I should mention that Willow was one of my favorite movies as a youth).

Tom Waits and John Lurie Go Fishing in Jamaica

(From the cult 1991 TV series Fishing with John)

Game of Thrones Season 2 Trailer

Capitalism, Innovation, McNuggets (The Wire)

We Review John from Cincinnati, David Milch’s Metaphysical Surf Odyssey

Let’s be clear from the get go — John from Cincinnati probably isn’t for most people. I liked it, despite its many, many flaws, but it’s pretentious, willfully weird, and hides its shakiness and lack of direction under opaque philosophical mumbo jumbo. It’s also frequently brilliant and occasionally transcendent TV, powered by David Milch’s trademark Shakespearean (or, more accurately, Shakespearean-by-way-of-Melville) dialog and a stellar ensemble cast, including Ed O’Neill, Rebecca De Mornay, Luis Guzman, and Bruce Greenwood.

So, what’s it about? Here’s Milch on Craig Ferguson, back in 2007 when the show debuted on HBO (right after the series finale of The Sopranos, a spot that probably helped to kill it at birth)—

If you don’t feel like watching the segment (and, if so, why not? –Milch is fascinating), here’s the takeaway: “I don’t know what it’s about…I don’t know the bottom line. But, uh, if God were trying to reach out to us, right, and if he felt a certain urgency about it, that’s what it’s about. And if God were trying to reach out to us and teach us something about the deepest nature of man, uh, he might use some drugged out surfers.”

Those drugged out surfers are the Yosts, a clan that takes its dysfunction three generations deep. Mitch Yost (Bruce Greenwood) is the young grandfather, a one-time surf star who retreats to his tree house after a bad knee injury. He and his wife Cissy (De Mornay) raise their grandson Shaun, a quiet and centered boy of 15 whose surfing career is just now emerging—much to the chagrin of Mitch. You see, Bruce and Cissy kind of fucked up with their only child, Shaun’s dad Butchie, a one time bad-boy superstar of the surf circuit who’s since degenerated into heroin addiction and alcoholism, living in a dumpster of a hotel, and barely seeing his son. Multimillionaire surf promoter Linc Stark (Luke Perry) is partly to blame for Butchie’s fate, and now he wants to sign Shaun to his company.

Against this backdrop of familial toil, a stranger — John from Cincinnati (uh, JC, if you will) arrives. John is seemingly childlike and naïve; he parrots back the words that others say to him and seems incapable of answering questions directly. He also possesses strange powers, powers that unfold throughout the series’s ten episodes and extend into the bizarre community of Imperial Beach. There are the Yosts themselves—Mitch begins levitating, Shaun comes back from the dead, and Butchie no longer craves dope—but J of C’s powers also influence those in the Yosts’ circle, like ex-detective, Bill Jacks, who fights the despair at losing his dead wife by communicating telepathically with a parrot. Jacks is played by Ed O’Neill in a performance that deserves something better than an Emmy or whatever bullshit they give actors for TV series. Ed O’Neill + David Milch = fucking gold. Seriously. Here’s five seconds of Ed O’Neill’s Bill Jacks, context unimportant—-

Jacks is the highlight of a strange circle of weirdos and grotesques that elliptically orbit the Yosts, including a number of ringers from Milch’s Deadwood (Dayton Callie, Paula Malcolmson, and Garret Dillahunt) as well as other fantastic character actors like Guzman, Paul Ben-Victor, and Willie Garson. Over nine days,  J of C enters into the lives of these characters, transforming their dysfunction into a more unified, if still unstable community. This was the theme of Milch’s Deadwood, only in JfC it’s writ large and bold, if not obviously apparent.

Where Deadwood took a cold hard look at capitalism and our grand national myths, JfC explores the miraculous in the everyday. What would happen if we witnessed miracles? Could we credit them? Could we credit ourselves to understand them, or to even accept them—could we allow ourselves to be transformed by them? This is the dramatic thrust of JfC. The series is not so much about interpretation, then—it is not simply a reworking of the New Testament set in Southern California—rather it is a TV show about witnessing, what it would mean to see a miracle.

To this end, there are many, many scenes of characters witnessing and reacting to events that affect other characters in JfC. In any other world, such witnesses might be surrogates for the audience, allowing the producers to communicate their vision and meaning, but in JfC, witnessing is not a passive process, or even a matter of voyeurism: witnessing is just as important as the event that is witnessed; indeed, witnessing is what allows the event that is witnessed some measure of phenomenological reality. This is no small thing when set against the miraculous, against what our rational, scientific minds have told us to resist.

Because John from Cincinnati traffics in the inexplicable, it was bound to alienate its audience. The show was cancelled after one ten-episode run, and there’s a sense in the later episodes that the producers knew they would have to wrap up too much business without enough time. Thus: clunky exposition; new characters who show up for no reason and then disappear for no reason; major characters explained away with a simple voice over line or two; etc., etc., etc.

All of this is only frustrating though if one is seeking an explanation from JfC, when I think what the show is really offering is a view to a view of the inexplicable, to what it is to witness what we are told we cannot rationally witness. Like Twin Peaks, to which it bears considerable comparison, JfC is a study in dialog, mood, tone, and characterization. Those searching for story will likely be disappointed. That isn’t to say that JfC doesn’t have a good story—I think it does—but it hardly gels at the end. To put it another way, JfC lacks the central, galvanizing vision of Deadwood or other HBO shows like The Wire and Rome. Still, I think that fans of Milch’s dialog could hardly be disappointed with JfC, and the cast is marvelous (particularly Ed O’Neill). I’ll end by sharing what is likely the standout scene of JfC, an esoteric climax of sort from the sixth episode. It’s probably a riff on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount—or maybe not—I don’t really want to analyze or interpret or even praise here—but it is a wonderful moment where Milch shows how community might happen. Recommended.

David Milch and Michael Mann Discuss Their New HBO Show Luck

See Banksy’s Opening Sequence for The Simpsons

In case you missed it: Last night’s episode of The Simpsons featured an intro directed by graffiti artist Banksy. The intro is a fairly grim, mostly unfunny satire of the how cheap South Korean and Chinese labor is used to produce The Simpsons animation and merchandise. Observe–

A Diddy in the Sun

I teach four sections of 11th grade AP English Language and Composition; I’m really hard on these kids. I also teach one section of 10th graders. I see these kids dark and early every morning, and I’m not very hard on them. It’s impossible to be, really. They–and I–are still sort of asleep. So, even though the FCAT is but a week away, when one assertive young lady in the class thought to tape record the new TV movie version of A Raisin in the Sun and bring it in, I agreed to let them watch it. After all, we’d read the play in class back in November, and watched the entire 1989 filmed stage production starring Danny Glover, as well as parts of the 1961 version starring Danny Glover.

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I’ve been using Lorraine Hansberry’s play in the classroom for years, with great success, I might add–the themes of race, economics, integration, assimilation, acculturation, generational change, and women’s rights continue to be as vital and thought-provoking as when the play was first produced a half-century ago. Which is why the early aughties revival starring Sean “Puff Daddy P-Diddy, No, Just Diddy (Diddy Dumb Diddy Do)” Combs seemed like a great idea. It was met with good reviews and ran to 88 performances. I know this play inside and out, and was excited to see a new version of it.

It was awful. Just plain awful. I can only hope that most of the people who saw it last week had some previous exposure. The depth of inter-generational conflict of Hansberry’s original text is drained of all energy and force, leaving only a weak trace of sappy melodrama. Both Poitier and Glover carried their versions, exploring the role of Walter Lee, a man whose dreams and ambitions are outmatched by the limited station thrust upon him. Walter Lee, properly, must be a man-child animal, lean and angry, a volcano ready to explode in rage and desperation. Walter Lee’s transformation into an adult man is painful; it almost undoes his family, metonymized neatly in the abortion his wife plans to have. Diddy, however, turns in one of the laziest one-note performances I’ve ever seen. He relies on every hackneyed trope of melodrama as a substitution for really emoting his part. In short, it’s impossible to believe that he’s Walter Lee. He’s just Diddy casually pretending to be Walter Lee. And the producers and director seem to know this. Whereas Walter Lee at least punctuates each scene of ARITS–and usually is at the forefront of catalytic action–the 2008 version reduces the scope of Diddy’s screen time, even omitting the famous “flaming spear” scene (my students were appalled at this elision–they determined that Diddy wouldn’t want to appear foolish). Furthermore, every single scene with Puffy Daddy (yes, I kept track) relies on the most saccharine of music to make sure the audience knows how to feel.

 

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It’s left then to a chubbyish Phylicia Rashad to carry the movie, and while she’s a great actress, her Mama Younger is far too keenly self-aware. She’s simply not Hansberry’s Mama; instead, she’s Rashad’s late aughties update on what Rashad thinks a strong black woman should be. The original Mama’s ideology is defined (perhaps even limited) by the Great Migration; ARITS is largely the story of this mentality clashing with the artistic, educational, and economic aspirations inherent in the Civil Rights movement. Rashad’s Mama is never confused or even especially distraught over this changing ideology, and even some of the original lines that show her distress are cut. It just doesn’t work.

Maybe I gripe too much–my kids enjoyed it on the whole, but conceded that it wasn’t nearly as good as Glover’s take. I have to admit that I liked John “Uncle Jessie” Stamos as Mr. Lindner. He brought a silly unself-conscious humor to the role that exposed the inherent conflict of the original character: a guy whose actions are incredibly racist who can at no point recognize this racism because it’s so indelibly entrenched within him.

Still, if you’ve never seen the play before, I recommend going to the Danny Glover version, or at least the Poitier “classic.” Our inaugural post was about A Raisin in the Sun.

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Comic Book Writers on The Simpsons

Even a die-hard Simpsons fan such as myself–I’ve been watching the show for over half of my life on a near-daily basis–cannot deny that the show has been in a slump for the past couple (some might say dozen) years. And so far, the 2007 season has been pretty awful–even the highly anticipated “Treehouse of Horror” episode failed to elicit a single laugh. So I was unduly excited by the first segment of last night’s episode, which featured three of our favorite comic book writers: Art Spiegelman, Daniel Clowes, and Alan Moore. Jack Black guest-starred as the owner of Coolsville, a new comic book shop where the elite underground trio gathers for a book signing (much to the ire of Comic Book Guy, of course). Somehow (and of course, if you watch The Simpsons, you know exactly how), this plot lasts exactly until the commercial break: in part two Marge opens a gym, and in part three Homer gets plastic surgery. Sigh. Luckily, Youtube allows us to preserve and isolate the most pleasing fragment of last night’s episode and watch it again and again obsessively.

Check out the super trio here (and take note of the prominent display of one of our favorite graphic novels ever, From Hell):

Lazy Friday: It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia

Last night, instead of finishing up James Joyce’s Dubliners like I should have, I watched the season premiere of the third season of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. I started watching this show last year; the FX network (on which the show airs) employed the excellent strategy of running season one reruns after season two episodes, and I quickly got hooked. Sunny follows the nefarious schemes and haphazard adventures of a gang of Philadelphia friends who are not real big on brotherly love. They own a bar that no one seems to go to, the typical site of many a scene. They drink like fish and smoke like chimneys, and are generally a detestable (or lovable, depending on your inclination) group of ne’er-do-wells (the quartet from Seinfeld have nothing on the Sunny gang when it comes to petty meanness, despicable dishonesty, and downright criminal behavior).

Last night’s episodes (it looks like FX will run two new episodes back-to-back, insuring that I’ll be groggy for my 5:30am wake-up call every Friday) were hilarious, particularly the season opener “The Gang Finds a Dumpster Baby.” Interestingly, both of the new episodes contained acid-trip sequences, which is always great in a situation comedy (a pistol-waving, balls-tripping Danny DeVito in the second season three episode, “The Gang Gets Invincible” plays like a classic Hunter S. Thompson moment).

I highly recommend this TV show: it’s frequently tasteless and always funny. Check out this clip from “The Gang Gives Back.”

The Biblioklept Salute to Eleven Great TV Shows, Not One of Them with Us Today–Part VI

Parts I, II, III, IV, and V — everyone’s doing it.

So way back when, when I first started this series (ah, those were gentler times) the original eleven shows I planned to feature didn’t include the two that now comprise the end of this list, for the simple reason that I wasn’t even aware that they had been canceled. Which is a cryin’ shame, because these shows still had a lot of mileage in them. What can you do.

10. Veronica Mars (2004-2006, UPN; 2006-2007, CW)

Teeming with neo-noir cool, tight plotting, and good ole fashioned teen angst, Veronica Mars managed to fill the Buffy-sized hole in my heart for a brief time. Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) is the teenage daughter of a private investigator. She’s ten times savvier than detective dad (and several hundred thousand times cuter), she manages to solve a lot of his cases–behind his back (my wife, incidentally hates Veronica–she thinks she’s a nosy brat). The first season of this show was an absolute masterpiece in TV plotting, a single season arc revolving around the murder of Veronica’s best friend. It maintained an intense and exciting pace over 20 or so episodes, never straying off course. Of course, not enough of you watched this show, and in June the CW network decided to pull it, replacing it with re-runs of a show about street tramps trying out for a “pop group” comprised of dirty strippers. Ugh.

I normally post clips of these shows, but to be honest, VM seems a little cheesy in Youtube-sized portions (the show is probably a little cheesy, perhaps). You really have to watch the whole thing. If you’re unwilling to Netflix it up, at least check out a full, divX quality episode here.

11. Deadwood (2004-2006, HBO)

Deadwood is the best TV show ever (or at least in the top three with The Andy Griffith Show and The Simpsons). Why did HBO cancel it? I don’t get it. I don’t get it. If you take the time to watch the first three episodes of Deadwood and still don’t like it, it’s probably because you’re not very bright (or perhaps you’re offended by lots and lots of cursing, which is fair I guess…actually my last proclamation is a little mean. I just really like the show, and if you don’t like it, fine, that’s fair, opinions are subjective, blah blah blah). Al Swearengen as played by Ian McShane is reason enough to watch every episode of this show twice. Observe some great Deadwood moments and tell me this show ain’t the bees knees:

(Incidentally, Kristen Bell–Veronica Mars–had a brief guest role on Deadwood–you can view a clip of that here, but it’s in Italian (the language, not the dressing)).

So that’s all folks, as a certain old young swine might say, but no fear–undoubtedly future lists will be populated by near-dozens of other TV shows that are sadly no longer with us–f’r’instance, how much longer could 30 Rock have? If we’ve learned anything through this series (you’re welcome), it’s that TV is precious, and we need to spend more time with our favorite shows each and every day.