“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.
In fact, the lunch begins with discomfort of a more physical type. Our first shot is a close up of Wee-Bey’s hand spooning a small mountain of horseradish onto his sandwich bun. D’Angelo looks on in awe, asking “damn, Bey, how can you stand that shit with all that hot shit on it?” Some people simply have a high threshold for pain. Unsurprisingly, Wee-Bey is one of them. He explains: “Man, trick is not to give a fuck, boy. I got this.” For Wee-Bey, it is not about being insensitivity. Pain is inevitable. It is about refusing to let the pain bother him.
This line is a brilliant echo of the epigraph of the first episode. Once again, we have somebody extolling the virtues of not-giving-a-fuck, this time from the other side of the law. In the first episode, that is the worldview of the humps and the bureaucratic hacks who approaching the job as just a series of tasks to slog thorugh in order to cash a paycheck or climb the ladder. But in the world of the street, it means something different. Wee-Bey is a drug dealer, and probably a killer as well (he is the one who held the handcuffs when they “arrested” Brandon). He seems to suggest that not-giving-a-fuck is just as essential to being a good gangster as giving-a-fuck is to being good po-lice.
But where does that leave sensitive D’Angelo. As with horseradish, he doesn’t have a taste for the violence that is a necessary component of for the game. This has been clear since the first episodes, where he wrestles with guilt over Johnny’s beating and Gant’s murder. While his relay of the information that led to Brandon’s killing doesn’t seem to weigh on him as heavily (especially when compared to the way Wallace takes it), he seems like he is nearing the limits of his tolerance for blood.
In fact, there are only a few things that keep him in line. One is his last name. He is “family,” as Avon reminds him at every opportunity. This is not like quitting a job. If D’Angelo wants out of a game that is, to him, a giant pile of horseradish, he will need to put his entire family out of his life.
The second thing holding him back is the money. He has several financial burdens that he has to keep up with: a son, Donette’s material demands (which D’Angelo complains about to Shardene), and his own seemingly-uncontrollable addiction to clothes.
His unclear position within the Barksdale crew makes matters worse. First he gets demoted, and then Stinkum gets a promotion and 20% of the package. In fact, this promotion is the very occasion that the boys are celebrating at this lunch. While these signs indicate that D’Angelo has stalled out within the Barksdale hierarchy, people keep dangling the carrot of promotion in front of him. The lunch scene marks the third time somebody suggests that D’Angelo’s promotion (or, rather, his re-promotion) is imminent (Stringer in “The Target,” Avon in “The Wire,” and Wee-Bey in this scene). This promise is seductive, but D’Angelo is starting to lose patience. “I’m here waiting,” is all he can say.
The lunch scene ends with a funny moment that is more weighty when considering the significance of “giving-a-fuck.” The fierce, carefree Wee-Bey takes a few bites of his sandwich. Suddenly, he is overcome by the rush of horseradish fumes scorching his sinuses. He bobs his head uncontrollably, eyes closed and tearing as his hand swats in a futile effort to wave away the power of the horseradish. The friends all laugh at his hubris, and D’Angelo giddily shouts “he gives a fuck now!” This reversal gives him pleasure for several reasons. First, it is a reminder that even the badass Wee-Bey has his moments of human vulnerability. More importantly, it is an important reminder to D’Angelo–everybody gives a fuck when the fumes become too overwhelming.
If the lunch humanizes the crew and makes D’Angelo feel more at ease about his place within it, the party at Little Man’s apartment later that night has the opposite effect. When D’Angelo arrives, the music blasting and the party is in full swing, but this celebration is not for him. In a series of shots, we scan the unsavory party through D’Angelo’s eyes: Wee-Bey grinds with a half-conscious stripper, Orlando shoots a look of wounded betrayal, Stinkum rolls a blunt, a stripper goes into a bedroom with Savino, another stripper cuts lines of coke. D’Angelo clearly feels out of place at this party, but he also disapproves of the debauchery. He even tries to scold Stinkum for breaking Avon’s rule about using drugs. “Special occasion, yo,” Stinkum says dismissively.
D’Angelo is disturbed by the drug use (especially for a man on the rise like Stinkum), but his reaction goes beyond that. He disapproves of this entire lifestyle, and he feels alienated from these supposed friends. Here they are, playing the role of hard-core gangsters in this apartment decorated with gaudy mirrored paintings of tigers and butterflies. Nobody seems to be having a good time, and in fact, the women are only there because they work for Orlando. Through D’Angelo’s eyes, the party has the seedy feel that reflects the moral decay of his peers.
If his first look at the party is unsettling, his last glance is downright horrifying. D’Angelo returns from a booze run to find the party “broke.” Everybody is gone except for the original crew, sitting around in their post-coital, post-coke-binge stupor. D’Angelo is annoyed that they sent him out on a useless mission, but the only emotion the friends can muster is Wee-Bey’s muttered disgust that “the Knicks done fucked up their draft again.”
D’Angelo is the only one who notices the dead girl in the bedroom.
He calls out to Wee-Bey, who treats her like just another pile of horseradish. He shakes his head at the annoyance and goes back to watching television.
When we catch up with D’Angelo again a few days later, he is in his apartment with Shardene (who was not at the party, once again justifying Kima’s decision to try to flip her). She is upset about her friend Keisha’s unexplained absence. Obviously, Keisha is the dead stripper. It’s fitting that we only learn the dead woman’s name when she is mentioned by a friend. To Wee-Bey, she is not even worthy of a name.
Shardene presses the reluctant D’Angelo for more information. It is a terrible position for D’Angelo to be in, even though he isn’t responsible for Keisha’s death. He knows the truth about what happened to her, but he also knows that the rules of his game dictate that he has to keep his mouth shut. “She was sick,” he says to her, clearly wanting the conversation to be over.
But nothing is over. He goes to the refrigerator, nervously opens a can of soda and begins to pour out his soul to Shardene, venting the feelings that have been building up within him since Pooh Blanchard, if not earlier. The speech is at once confession and evasion. While he never tells Shardene the specific details of his world (or of her friend’s death), this speech is an honest expression of his rapid disillusionment with the drug game and his desire to escape his present way of life.
“This game, this thing with my uncle, might not be right for me, I’m thinking,” he begins, admitting his desire for more in life. When he adds “nothing good to it but the money,” Shardene connects it to her job. Perhaps this explains why D’Angelo is attracted to Shardene in the first place. If D’Angelo hates his world, then he needs to find somebody outside of it. As his first real encounter with Shardene shows, she is ignorant of Avon, Stringer and the whole game. At the same time, she can understand him because she, too, is caught up in a game she doesn’t want to be a part of. Earlier in the episode, when Avon tosses Orlando out of the office, we see Shardene reading the want ads. She is already planning her escape, even if the best way out isn’t clear yet.
The escape route is equally unclear for D’Angelo, who can’t see past the horrors of the claustrophobic world he wants to escape. “You got people using each other, scamming each other, cutting each other up cause they late on a bill. Shooting folks because there might be a fuckin dollar in it. It gets to sometime like I can’t even fuckin breath. Like I can’t even get no air. You know what I mean.” It is interesting that D’Angelo uses images of asphyxiation when describing the way he feels in his world, and it is not the last time he will use such imagery. It is the only he life he knows, and yet it deprives him of the primal essence of living.
When Shardene suggests he “do something else,” he refuses to face the practical impossibility of leaving the game, and instead turns it back on Shardene and her distaste for stripping. She is one step ahead of him. “I am, I’m gonna have to. Shit, can’t stay pretty forever.” Perhaps that is the big difference between D’Angelo and Shardene, and the thing that prevents them from ultimately being happy together. She recognizes how fleeting life is, and how important it is to have something that last beyond the fleeting moment. She repeats “It’s not forever, right, Dee? And then what?” She needs him to see a world outside of his own, because that is the only world in which they can possibly be together.
Just as they are about to lose themselves in a moment of passion, D’Angelo’s world once again intrudes, this time in the form of a phone call bearing the news of Stinkum’s murder. The game never stops. People like Avon and Wee-Bey are at home in that game because they don’t give a fuck about the intense-but-fleeting pain of the horseradish, or a gunshot to the leg, or torturing and killing other human beings. It all goes away. But for D’Angelo, the world is forever, and the burn of the horseradish will perpetually singe his sinuses and stop his breath.