The Bain of Baltimore

It’s as simple as that–Avon

For much of the first half of Season 1, the Barksdale crew is busy dodging police raids and fighting threats to their reputation like snitches and stickup artists. But the Barksdale crew is also a business, and as Dr. Suess says in The Lorax, “business is business, and business must grow!”

And so, in “The Pager,” we return to the back room office at Orlando’s for a second time, where CEO Avon and CFO Stringer take advantage of a spare moment between counting money and gunning down witnesses to plot an expansion into a new territory. If our first visit to Stringer in this room gave us a glimpse at the purely-economic aspects of the drug trade, our second visit, with the addition of Avon, gives a sense of how the financial elements team up with the executive elements to form a well-rounded corporation. It shows why Avon and Stringer are such powerful, dangerous partners, and it also shows how inseparable the financial and the executive really are.

Avon and Stringer discuss a plan that originated with Stinkum, who is on his way up in the drug world. Stringer gives Avon a report on the particulars: the Edmonson gulley is a “wide open” territory. It used to be run by “Tee Tee’s crew,” but after they were hit with federal charges, “most of them laid up somewhere getting high and shit.” (It is also worth noting the possibility that this is the same crew that Fitz and the FBI took down with their high-tech surveillance, a case that was set up by a tip from McNulty). The only dealer who stands in their way is Scar, a carpetbagger from New York City.

Avon listens to this report (although he keeps glancing distractedly at the surveillance camera monitor that watches over Orlando’s) and comes up with a quick course of action. “You holler at the boy Scar. Let him know, man, it’s time to take a stroll. If he give you any beef at all, we gonna put Wee-Bey and Bird on it.” It seems like a simple strategy. Use their superior muscle to either chase Scar away or kill him.

There is more to the plan. “And once we got him outta there, we’ll send in the smokers. They can run out all the little poop-butt locals and shit. Or, if you think there’s some cats in there who got game, then we put ‘em on our team.” Avon shows the ability to quickly devise a plan that accounts for multiple possibilities. It is also an interesting scene because we see an apparent reversal in Stringer’s role. While he is typically the man in charge, “the go-get-shit-done piece,” as D’Angelo calls him, here he just listens and says “all right” three times.

This is not a sign of submission. On the contrary, it shows how well Avon and Stringer have blended force and strategy, muscle and theory. In the middle of describing the violence they will employ to clear out the territory (the word smokers almost brings to mind clearing riots with tear gas), he stops to ask for Stringer’s opinion (“if you think”). This is the point at which violence meets finance.

After all, there is no need to kill everybody, especially if they don’t need to. In fact, this is not only a territorial expansion, it is a recruiting trip, an opportunity to look  outside of their usual Westside territory to hire some slingers “who got game.” This strategy will solidify their grip on the gulley while limiting the exposure that murder brings them.

This is long-view strategy, and it doesn’t stop there. Avon decides to give this new territory to Stinkum, the one who brought it to their attention in the first place. “He the one who saw the shot, so he gets a shot.” Here, they reward talent, but they also send a message to the other mid-level members of their crew like D’Angelo. The Barksdales reward initiative and the ability to identify new business opportunities.

When they call Stinkum up to give him the promotion, he is stone-faced, but attentive. This is a big step up for him, as Avon informs him that he will be getting “points on the package.” He is now a partner. But with partnership, comes responsibilities. “You make a go of it, you hear me? You working for yourself, too, so you gonna put out the strong product and you gonna get the locals behind it.” Avon outsources the gulley to Stinkum, and he gives him another important piece of backing: strong product.

Throughout the season, we have heard both hoppers and fiends complain about the “weak stepped on shit” that Avon puts out. This, too, is a financial decision. After all, if the heroin is “weak all over,” as Stringer says, then the fiends have no choice but to buy it. So the Barksdales can dilute product, safe in the knowledge that the demand will be the same or even more. Weak product leads to increased profits. But now they make an exception. Taking over new territory is always a challenge. By putting out “the strong product,” Stinkum can lure in the local fiends and turn them into loyal customers. Once the crew is firmly established, they can once again flood the gulley with diluted, stepped-on heroin.

If this business strategy sounds familiar, that is because it has become one of the central issues in this year’s presidential elections. Much has been made of Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s history with Bain Capital, and how this reflects on his ability to revive America’s failing economy.

The Barksdales are essentially an unofficial private equity firm. They spot a weak or inefficient company, take it over with superior strength, and squeeze out all of the profit that they can get out of it. Some call it hostile takeover or vulture capitalism. Others call it good business. Maybe they are the same thing.

After this strategy session ends, Avon tells Stringer and Stinkum to prepare for a money run. After they leave, we see Avon take a plastic bag and walk off screen to the left, constantly looking back at the monitors to make sure that there is nothing to worry about. The camera then pans to the right and reveals the room’s secret occupant: a giant safe. Here, we find the securely-entombed cash, the meticulously-reaped harvest of the urban world. Avon grabs stack after stack of money, and then he walks out, bringing it to some unknown destination. He is a true kingpin, holding the wealth of the city in a garbage bag.

When the debate revolves around Wall Street and politics, it is easy to lose sight of what is really happening with this unique blend of finance and aggression. But when we see a miniature version of it, like the one that unfolds in The Wire, it is clear that, whether the weapons are guns or documents, this type of takeover is always a violent act. In the unregulated jungles of the Westside or Wall Street, the strong keep growing through intelligence and force.

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3 thoughts on “The Bain of Baltimore

  1. This is my first time reading your blog and I’m really enjoying it! Glad to see some proper recognition and respect being given to the masterpiece that is The Wire. However you say that when Avon “stops to ask for Stringer’s opinion (“if you think”)”,” is the point at which violence meets finance. It also shows, in my opinion, the strength and unity between Avon and Stringer. While Avon is ‘The Kingpin’, he sees Stringer as his equal and treats him in this way. He values his friendship, loyalty and opinion.
    I love this moment because of that. Although both men are casually talking about violent and possibly bloody strategies of gaining new territory, we also see the personal side to this horrific business. These two men are childhood friends, they have grown up together and formed this business together. They respect one another. Drugs and murder are their livelihood, their life, and something so normal as their friendship thrown in amongst all of this shows us that this kind of lifestyle is normal for them. There is nothing strange or horrific about the industry they support. It is, after all, just business.

    • Thanks for your comments. The Avon/Stringer duality is one of the most fascinating relationships in the entire series. They have such different approaches to the game, which makes them such powerful partners, but those differences are also the same thing that destroy the partnership once the dynamic changes later in the series. I agree with your comment about how casual they are when discussing violence. That becomes even more pronounced with the understated Marlo in the final seasons.

  2. Pingback: The Wire, "One Arrest": Orlando's Indecent Proposal | The Wire Blog

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