Friday, August 01, 2008

The Wire, Season 1, Episode 9: "Game Day" (Veterans edition)

In case you missed it -- and, judging by the minimal comments, I'm guessing many of you did -- I decided to double up on "The Wire" reviews this week in order to get back on schedule. (If you didn't see 'em, here are the Veteran and Newbie editions of the review for episode 8, "Lessons.")

Same drill as usual. We're revisiting season one in two editions: one for people who have never watched the show before and don't want future episodes (or seasons) spoiled for them, one for people who have watched from first episode to last. This is the latter; scroll down for a newbie-safe zone.

Spoilers for episode 9, "Game Day," coming up just as soon as I put on my sun visor...

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

"Game Day" lives up to its name with all kinds of games being played -- or not being played -- by most of our characters.

There's obviously The Game itself, and this week both Wallace and Bubbs express a desire to stop playing it. By getting high to blot out the guilt over Brandon's death, of course, all Wallace is doing is becoming a different kind of player. Bubbles, after nearly dying over what turned out to be a burn bag, seems to be taking the wiser route by crashing with his understandably wary sister.

Then there's the game that Lester teaches Prez and Sydnor how to play, the scavenger hunt (as Prez aptly describes it) wherein they try to track down all of Avon's assets, as well as any contributions he might have made to politicians like Clay Davis. We got a hint of how a game like this might end last week when Burrell ordered Daniels to give back the money they took off of Day-Day Price, and Daniels doesn't look like he particularly wants to keep playing, either, even though he knows he has no choice.

The most obvious game, of course, is the annual West side vs. East side hoops contest, with an Avon-backed team going up against a bunch of guys supported by Avon's biggest rival, the very old (by standards of The Game), very wise (ibid), very sneaky (op cit) Proposition Joe Stewart. It gives me no end of pleasure to watch actor Robert F. Chew work as Prop Joe, but the real fun of the basketball story is the humanity it gives to Avon. Yes, he's a drug lord, and a killer, and he's not above cheating even at something as relatively small-time as a basketball game. (He just isn't as good a cheater as Prop Joe.) But he also has genuine pride for his neighborhood, can be very funny ("You can't even read a playbook! Be for real!") and does appear to hold some rules and roles to be sacred. Witness his tirade at the ref over the decisive non-call at the end of the game. Avon is furious at what he believes to be sloppy officiating, but he gets even angrier when the guy's terrified reaction makes it clear that he thinks Avon might kill him over it. That sort of thing's just not done, even by someone as cold and ruthless as Avon, and so instead he yells at the guy for not having the guts and referee-like demeanor to get right back in his face.

And the basketball game in turn leads to a game of hide-and-seek, as Daniels and the other guys in the detail attempt to get their first good look at the target. It's an exercise in futility; not only is Avon too good to get caught by them (love him wagging his finger at Daniels as he rolls by in the opposite direction; as I learned when I saw him play Jimi Hendrix a few years before this, Wood Harris has some of the most expressive fingers in the business), but, as McNulty explains to Prez, there's no value in it. They're not going to catch Avon doing anything remotely illegal, certainly not right after such a public appearance, and so all they accomplish is to remind Avon to be careful about police surveillance.

As I've written a few times before, Avon -- and Stringer, for that matter -- doesn't have as much screen time as you would expect given that the show is devoting an entire season to them as the detail's target, but episodes like this one give him enough stature that he has a presence even in others where he doesn't appear that much. And Jimmy's assessment of Avon -- "You know what they say: stupid criminals make stupid cops. I'm proud to be chasing this guy." -- and his dispassionate approach to him reminds you that, to Jimmy, this entire detail is little more than a game.

Meanwhile, Omar continues to show off his own playful side, disrupting Barksdale business in as loud and colorful a manner as possible. Last time, he whistled "Farmer in the Dell" while shooting at Stinkum and Wee-Bey; here, he threatens the crew at the Pit (minus D, Bodie, Poot or anybody else recognizable; they must have been on a food run) with "Y'all need to open this door before I huff and puff!"

But Omar's game turns deadly serious when he makes an overt play for Avon outside of Orlando's, inadvertently supporting his own argument from last week that "You come at the king, you best not miss." Given how pathologically careful we know Avon to be, Omar's not going to get such an open look the next time, will he? And Stringer's probably not going to have so easy a time telling Avon to be patient with Omar, either.

Some other thoughts on "Game Day":

-When Kima picked Shardene's face out of the photo array last week as a potential witness to turn, she had no idea how on the money her instincts were. Not only is Shardene as moral and malleable as she and Lester had hoped, but they find out that she's been dating D'Angelo -- and that she's not immune to Lester's charms.

-Getting back to the property scavenger hunt, that montage is something that doesn't exactly fit with the series' house style, but I imagine it was the only way to make Lester's long explanation about corporate charters palatable for the audience. Even nine hours into a show that has made it clear it expects you to think about what you're watching, that speech is asking a lot of the viewer. The upside is that, when we see cops in the future try to follow the money trail (and it's not a spoiler for the newbies to say that money trails will be followed in the future), we're now relative experts on this unglamorous type of policework, and so the show doesn't have to spend much time explaining what's happening.

-Along similar lines, because the show has spent so much time explaining the rules governing the wiretap, it then allows for scenes about what happens when the cops bend or break those rules, like Jimmy pretending Sydnor monitored the call about the stash house, or Herc and Carver's eavesdropping of Poot's phone sex leading to a tip on Wallace that they shouldn't be allowed to use.

-I don't know if the homage is intentional or not, but Prop Joe's tactic of keeping his ringer on the bench for the first half so he can jack up the wager at halftime reminded me a lot of the football game from "M*A*S*H" the movie, where Hawkeye and Trapper deliberately keep Spearchucker Jones out of the game long enough to inflate the rival coach's confidence. The guys in the 4077th have less respect for the sanctity of the game than Avon, though, as they wind up neutralizing the other team's ringer through less-than-legal means.

And now let's talk about how events in "Game Day" will ripple throughout the rest of the season and the series. In terms of foreshadowing, this is a good one:

-As mentioned above, Lester is going to keep chasing the money trail, season after season, and will always get shut down before getting far enough. The last time will be his own fault, of course; without his and Jimmy's shenanigans, Ronnie could have used Maury Levy to finally get at the cash.

-Bubbs' sister is right to be nervous about him. When we see her again at the start of season five, she reminds him that the last time she let him attempt to get clean under her roof (presumably this time), he eventually went upstairs and pawned her silverware. Seeing these scenes in light of what happens in season five makes them a little less painful, and in turn makes those later scenes more rewarding. Bubbs' eventual victory is that much sweeter for seeing how close he came once before.

-In hindsight, it's obvious that the seeds are being planted here for Shardene to wind up with Lester, but was it that apparent at the time? I remember being more surprised when we find out in a few episodes that they've hooked up, but I'm admittedly clueless about romantic signals sometimes.

-The fans who didn't like Marlo point to episodes like this one as an example of why Avon was a more interesting character. Marlo was all about The Game and wearing the crown, while Avon had more of a personality and outside interests. I would argue that this contrast is what made Marlo so fascinating; he was a generation younger than Avon, and several generations scarier. Marlo had no interest in geographic loyalty and likely wouldn't have cared about this basketball game, but had he gotten sucked in somehow, the ref would have been very justified in fearing for his life. One thing both drug lords have in common: their refusal to be patient when it comes to getting revenge on Omar Little.

Coming up next Friday:
"The Cost," in which the detail tries to find the stash, Stringer reaches out to Omar and Kima has a night out.

What did everybody else think?


Gourmet Spud said...

I'm admittedly clueless about romantic signals sometimes.

Did your wife sneak this line in when you ducked away from the computer?

Just want to reiterate how much I am enjoying these. It was interesting re-watching these episodes again recently with my girlfriend, who thought that Lester's scenes with Shardene were "creepy". I just smiled, knowing that she would eventually see that Cool Lester Smooth wasn't in it for the short-term.

Ted Kerwin said...

I remember thinking it was a little odd that the East Side West Side hoops game could empty out the projects and veteran police in Baltimore had no idea this game happened every year. Even the most jaded patrolman in Baltimore should have gotten some wind of this event, especially if it results in a large scale picnic the following weekend.

dronkmunk said...

Yeah, Marlo definitely would have had that referee offed.

Anonymous said...

A few things --
1) I'm definitely with the anti-Marlo crowd. Can't say which of the two characters is more realistic, but Marlo ended up feeling, at times, like a generic villain from a crime drama, since his ruthlessness was so relentless it could lapse into being one-dimensional.

2) Loved seeing how early they established Bubbles' attempt to get clean and his relationship with his sister. Makes that subplot in season 5 one of the highlights of the series - it's like everything else is backdrop to Bubbles' story of redemption.

3) So is the fact that nobody knows about the annual game a rare moment of implausibility in the show? Or is it just further evidence that nobody has attempted to police this area seriously, to stay with it and learn about the neighborhood rather than just occasionally bust heads and call it "sending a message"? I honestly can't tell...

Abbie said...

Re: why nobody knows about the big annual game, I don't think it's further evidence yet. I think it's our first inkling that the police might not be quite as knowledgeable about the streets as they think they are, and this is played out in future episodes, especially in season 3.

Anonymous said...

Re: Anonymous

I never had any particular affinity for Avon or Marlo, but, to echo a little bit of Alan up above, that Marlo is supposed embody some of the changes in urban life that the show is pointing out: the militarization of the drug war by the police leading to the hardening of the criminals, the lack of familial ties, the loss of a code.

I have always thought that someone could play around with the show's apparent sense of nostalgia for a bygone age which may or may not have actually existed in American cities. Were the old days in Baltimore, as exemplified by Butch Stamford (referred to by D'Angelo later this season) or Wee Bay's early days with CBS (convo with Bunny at end of season 4), really any more positive than the current environment?

Anonymous said...

I believe Simon said in a talk he gave that, while Marlo was deliberately created as an embodiment of the power imperative of the drug culture, there was no intent from Avon to Marlo to represent any historical transition. Avon may not be the embodiment of that "power imperative" but he does embody it and I can't help but bristle at talk of his humanity. If a man who has people, including women and boys, killed without remorse to protect his wealth and power can be said in any sense to have "humanity," I don't want any of that stuff myself. The dissociation of Avon's "human" moments from his barbarism is just creepy, like when watching Hitler play with children and dogs.

Anonymous said...

You are dead on about the comparison of the basketball game to the football game in the DVD again made me think of that immediately. One other example of "how the game is played"...the first scene when Avon's ringer's coach/agent starts negotiating with Avon and Stringer to get his pieces of the pie...
Watching these early episodes again further reinforces that while I agree with your always used (and I always quote you when discussing with friends" about the "greatest American drama in television history")I think that Omar might be my very favorite character ever in the greatest American drama in television history!
One question for you...have you heard anything yet on when Season 5 will be released on DVD?
Thanks for doing these, and hope you are rested from press tour

Unknown said...

she would eventually see that Cool Lester Smooth wasn't in it for the short-term.

Boy, they sure made you wait to find that out though. I totally forgot about Lester and Shardene getting together, then remembered again around season 4 I think... Funny how she disappeared for so long. I would like to have seen a lot more of them together; they seem like cool, peaceful people. And we sat through a lot of McNulty/Elena and Kima/Cheryl strife.

I agree with everything that the poster said who mentioned Marlo's moments of humanity being like the sight of Hitler playing with kids. At the same time, those moments really made his character for me. I simply hated him before those last few episodes--he felt very one-note and fairly uninteresting as a person. Seeing him bail out on Levy's party, though--that showed a real vulnerability, and true limitations of this vision he has for himself. It stood in such sharp contrast to the jaw-dropping arrogance, brutality, and careful determination he shows in the rest of the series.

That's one of the things that I love the most about this show--it makes me feel for everyone, whether I want to or not.

Season 5 will be out on the 12th (in the US at least).

Anonymous said...

Season 5 is coming out on August 12.

Anonymous said...

While I also find it a bit implausible that these same narcos who do buy-n-busts wouldn't know about the annual East Side v West Side game, remember this is the same department that had no idea who Avon Barksdale was in Episode 1.

I took the Avon scene with the ref to be a bit ambiguous. What I mean is, I don't really think he was being so much self-righteous as the rules as he was just interested in being piss off about the game and taking it out on somebody. The ref was just a convenient target. I feel like the ref basically couldn't say the right thing no matter what, that if had stuck with his original call, he'd get berated over that too! However, I don't think Avon would actually harm him, and Marlo probably would. Finally, I think the fact that I thought so much about this small scene is further proof this is the greatest written show ever on television.

Hard to imagine what a journey Prop Joe's story would take, after being intro'ed as a fat guy in a suit standing courtside.

Or that Bubbles would get as far as his sister's basement, but not up the stairs for dinner for 51 episodes.

I'm with you on the romantic signals; I was still on the (hopeful in a jealous way?) tip that Lester was just being older protecter guy on Shardene, we hear her in S2 talk about how he's got her going to nursing classes, but their actual romance isn't proven for 51 episodes. Actually, make that 50, cause in the episode before Lester says after capturing Marlo, "I hope Shardene is awake cause I do believe Lester Freamon is in the mood for love!!"

JT said...

"I'm definitely with the anti-Marlo crowd. Can't say which of the two characters is more realistic, but Marlo ended up feeling, at times, like a generic villain from a crime drama, since his ruthlessness was so relentless it could lapse into being one-dimensional."

The thing that a lot of people miss about Marlo is that he is the Darwinian man no the show. He is unlike Strigner, Avon, Prop Joe and the rest in how he does business. Yeah, it is easy to see why he might be called one dimensional, but the truth is that he (and, by extension his right hand "men," Chris and Snoop) have evolved how they deal on the streets beyond even what Stringer and Avon did, and they re both VERY ruthless in their business dealings.

what Marlo does is take everything he has learned and actually take it further, turning death into a much more matter-of-fact kind of doing business. For Marlo, violence is the essential tool of business, it is a final way of dealing with anything, no matter how small. As Bodie says himself, the game has changed. Stringer and Avon had boundaries but Marlo transcends them all. And in doing so, he is the Alpha-Gangster. A bad motherf-cker, ya'll.

Anonymous said...

I've always had trouble with the notion that Marlo is somehow much worse than Avon. They are both men who will ultimately always act in their own self-interest and not care about any collateral damage. Avon talked about family, but when push came to shove, he didn't back up that talk (giving an after the fact approval to Stringer's hit on D'Angelo). Neither has a problem killing citizens (Avon with Gant, Marlo with the security guard). Avon had no issues with killing five inmates in order to shave a few years off an already light sentence. That stunt in particular I would put up against anything Marlo ever did, five deaths in one night, all in the name of self-interest. Calling Marlo worse than Avon is like calling Hitler worse than Stalin. It might be slightly true, but it's ultimately quite meaningless.

Anonymous said...

Avon being human is what landed him in jail for a decade.

Marlo being ruthless keeps him out.

JT said...

Well, that and Jimmy's carelessness to take him down even by illegal methods.

Anonymous said...

avon tells the not-in-the-game man (the ref) to stand up for himself.

marlo kills him for standing up for himself (the security guard in season 4).

and i somewhat agree with the marlo is too one-dimensional crowd. can you possibly imagine marlo pulling off a scene like the one with avon and d at the nursing home? and when avon and marlo finally meet, it's avon charisma and attitude that carrys the scene.

Unknown said...

Michael Williams stated on the Opie and Anthony show recently that he was trying to hum "A hunting we will go"(and not Farmer in the Dell) from the Looney Tunes cartoons when Elmer Fudd was hunting bugs.

PS - I love the recaps

Unknown said...

That's confusing, then, because there's definitely a scene in which Omar says, "the cheese stands alone," and that's the last part of The Farmer in the Dell.

Anonymous said...

Michael Williams stated on the Opie and Anthony show recently that he was trying to hum "A hunting we will go"(and not Farmer in the Dell) from the Looney Tunes cartoons when Elmer Fudd was hunting bugs.

I don't thing what Williams is thinking as he whistles is determinative of what Omar is whistling. If you watch episode 12 of season 4 with the DVD commentary, when Omar is whistling the tune in the taxi while keeping an eye on Cheese, the writer of the episode, George Pelecanos, and the director, Joe Chappelle, discuss when Omar first whistled "The Farmer in the Dell."

Anonymous said...

earlier in S1 when Omar was whistling "Farmer in the Dell" it made sense because when he got to his target, the cheese (meaning the money) did stand alone.

It also makes sense that he would be whistling "A Hunting we will go" this time considering what he was up to.

Anonymous said...

Bodie and Poot were watching the game, like all of Westside was. They were not on a food run.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know the name of the song that was played during the scene when Daniels and his crew are following Avon? Thanks!

Unknown said...

Anybody knows what music Avon is listening in his truck during the chase ?
I hope some Wire fanatics gonna see this question...

VapourBay said...

'Calling Marlo worse than Avon is like calling Hitler worse than Stalin. It might be slightly true, but it's ultimately quite meaningless.'

The analogy is better with Marlo as Stalin, because Stalin was actually much, much worse. At least Hitler put something into infrastructure. He basically cared for the well-being of his people, with the caveat that he and he alone decided who his people were. Sounds a lot like Avon to me. But Stalin cared for power and nothing but. He had no nation, no people's interests at heart, and he stacked enough bodies to put Hitler to shame. Sounds a lot like Marlo.

Some might say we've gotten off-track with this, but in the words of my favorite character, "I'm just gilding your lilly.'

Gareth UK said...

I've discovered this excellent blog after a three week marathon of watching all 5 seasons.

Alan, just wanted to add my opinion to your comment about the money trail and its explanation being useful in future cop shows.

Doesn't the concept of "follow the money" date back to "All The President's Men"?

Anonymous said...

"I was still on the (hopeful in a jealous way?) tip that Lester was just being older protecter guy on Shardene, we hear her in S2 talk about how he's got her going to nursing classes"

Well, she's also living with him in that episode, so it's pretty explicit. But it was nice to know that it was a long-term thing, too, in season five.

justjoan123 said...

Oh, it was clear to me from the get-go that Shardene was serious about Lester. She was maybe a little embarrassed about how she came into his orbit, but from the moment she gave back that cash to the disgruntled clubber and got DeAngelo's attention she was desitned to be a good Good Girl. Lester saw that right off, and the sweet thing was that Shardeen did not see in him a Sugar Daddy or a protector, she saw a soul mate. The last we see of the two of them in the finale montage shows clearly how much she adores him, and how she brings the fun into his life.

Anonymous said...

@Micael...Rock the Nation by Michael Franti.

Ahmedkhan said...

After several viewings of this series, one scene from this episode has morphed, in my view, from incidental to remarkably entertaining and satisfying: Avon, who has had the cops made almost immediately subsequent to the game, schools them in the fine art of following. Recall that Daniels had earlier admonished McNulty that following is something his narcotics unit did well, building cases on such activity. So it's somewhat amusing to see Avon school them - time for Daniels and his crew to eat a little crow and maybe contract with Avon for a refresher seminar (it will help Avon recoup part of the 100 large he's just lost to Prop Joe.

WAM said...

One thing struck me while watching this episode -- when Daniels leads much of the unit to follow Avon, nothing was said about the possibility of getting a picture of him. Sydnor was shown consulting the boxing poster. Even if McNulty was right that Barksdale would never do anything illegal in or near so public an event, getting an up-to-date photograph of Avon is not nothing.

And even then, I don't think anybody was shown taking a picture of Barksdale.