Monday, August 4, 2008

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

n 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 to him.

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.

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