The Wire’s ninth episode is called “Game Day,” but it’s always game day in Baltimore. The street side of the show revolves around the “game” metaphor (I am still waiting for “drapersayswhat” to do a supercut of characters in The Wire saying “it’s all in the game”), and while this metaphor is just as present in this episode as in any other, the title refers to a literal game as well: the Eastside vs. Westside basketball game, an annual contest for “bragging rights to the projects.”
A confession: I am a Philadelphia sports fan. I was too young to remember the 1983 Sixers, so the city’s epic 25-year title drought was pretty much my entire life as a sports fan (I won’t even go into my college team, a certain birthplace of college football that has experienced nothing but abject failure ever since). Then, finally, in 2008 the Phillies won the World Series, and the streak was over. It was pretty exciting.
In the morally-ambiguous world of The Wire, there are few truly-noble characters, but there is no doubt that Shardene, the stripper from the county, is one of them. From the beginning, she is presented to us as an honest soul in a world of players. She pays back one disgruntled customer even though she didn’t actually take his money, and later she reveals her blissful ignorance of her true employers and their business. Perhaps that is what keeps her noble–she exists outside of the game (even more so than the arguably-noble Omar). She lives by a simpler code of honesty, fairness, and simple human decency. As Freamon puts it “she’s a citizen.”
At the start of “Game Day,” Stringer describes Omar as a modern Robin Hood who steals from the rich dealers and gives to the poor fiends. By the end of the episode, however, Omar proves to align with a very different character type. When he strolls into Prop Joe’s shop bearing a bag of Avon’s heroin as an offering, he tells Joe “we free.” Suddenly, this seemingly-noble folk hero is stealing from the rich and giving to the rich. Not exactly the socialist equalizer he is made out to be.
Bubbles: Mr. One day man. Wasn’t even that.
Walon: Stood up, though.
Walon: He ain’t anywhere near his bottom. Got to see that bottom coming up at him. Hard, too, cause he’s young, 24. Most people don’t get tired till they’re 35, 40. How old are you?
Bubbles: Young at heart.
Testers are out, and everybody is having run-ins. First, Bubbles recognizes Walon from the NA meeting he attended in “One Arrest.” Johnny, thinking Walon is there to get high, mocks the big man for his hypocracy. But then Bodie arrives and Johnny recognizes him as the boy who put him in the hospital. Johnny shuffles off to find a less-traumatic source for his next blast.
The Wire almost always restricts itself to a straightforward form of storytelling that gives it a sense of journalistic realism. As a result, the few scenes that do stray off the linear narrative trail stand out so much. There are the notable examples like the five montages that serve as season-ending epilogues. There are some other early anomalies, like D’Angelo’s brief flashback at the end of “The Target” or Avon’s slow-mo, soundtracked trip to the Pit in “The Wire.”
Wallace: I just don’t wanna play. I don’t wanna play no more, alright? I was thinking about going to school, over at Edmonson, ask if they’ll let me back in at the end of the semester.
D’Angelo: What grade?
D’Angelo: Ninth? Shit, you how old?
D’Angelo: 16, damn man, you supposed to be a junior by now.
“Game Day,” The Wire’s ninth episode, begins with a short series of quick shots of a basketball scrimmage. It is the second time this season that the cameras have taken us inside a gym to watch basketball practice, but there are some big differences this time. The first scene was less of a practice than a strategy session, with Avon holding court (literally and metaphorically) and setting a bounty on Omar and his crew. In that scene, the basketball is more of a pretense, an excuse for Avon to meet with his inner circle in a private setting. Nobody plays defence, no picks are set. Avon is the only one who shoots the ball.
McNulty: Hey Bunk, I’ll give you that burning trace evidence makes sense, but what the fuck did you plan to wear home?
Bunk: Huh? Aw, shit….Hey Jimmy, you know something? You’re no good for people, man. I mean, damn. Everybody around you…Christ.
One of The Wire’s most reliable sources of comedy is drunkenness, especially the champion barstool tag-team of McNulty and Bunk. They have many odd and hilarious drunken moments, but it is hard to get funnier than Bunk in a pink bathrobe (his second time wearing pink this episode), mumbling about “trace evidence” as McNulty tucks his barely-coherent partner into the same bunk bed he originally (and futilely) built for his sons.
“Lessons” marks our first glimpse at D’Angelo as a member of a social group within the Barksdale organization. To this point, the focus has been to the older generation (Avon and Stringer) or the younger generation (the Pit boys). But when Stinkum, Wee-Bey, and Savino roll into the Pit and snatch D’Angelo to go an an unannounced “beef run,” we finally get a look at how the young Barksdale interacts with his peers. The episode features two social settings (the roast beef lunch and the party at Little Man’s later that night) that show how uneasy D’Angelo is in his social world. Then, the next day, there is one wrenching encounter where that discomfort transforms into a broader discomfort with his role in the drug game and the world into which he was born.