I have always had mixed feelings abouth ESPN football/everything columnist Gregg Easterbrook, otherwise known as the Tuesday Morning Quarterback. If I am being totally honest, I haven’t read him in years, and I have probably never read an entire column of his from beginning to end (of course, that is more likely due to the fact that his columns often reach lengths rivaling that of major pieces of legislation). As with any writer who has extremely strong opinions, he tends to put people off, and I can’t say I agree with all of his viewpoints.
On the other hand, he is incredibly well versed. Anybody who can pack a single column with detailed football analysis, discussion of entertainment trends, breakdowns of developments in astrophysics, political and social commentary, scores of inside jokes and superfluous cheerleader bios has to be doing something right. But the real reason I have always admired Easterbrook, and the reason I am writing about him now, is that he perpetually speaks out against all of the flaws and idiocy that have become entrenched within the institution of professional football.
In fact, looking back, I don’t think that it is an accident that I began to read Easterbrook in the early ‘00s. It was the same time I began to discover the anti-sports-journalistic-establishment writing of Bill Simmons, the anti-baseball-analysis-establishment theories of Baseball Prospectus, and of course, the anti-institutional brilliance of The Wire.
Call it my McNulty phase.
All of these “anti”s probably appealed to me because they suggested that there were other ways of looking at the world beyond what the mainstream (so-called) experts tell us. It also speaks to the power of a writer to explode popular myths by introducing new, better ways of looking at things. To my post-college mind, this spelled progress, both intellectually and socially. It can’t be an accident that all of these writers deal with sports (or, in the case of The Wire, games). They all suggest that even the most complex, competitive games can be won by a player with the ability to master a higher level of strategy (or at least stay one step ahead of the opponent).
This brings us back to Easterbrook, and one of his pet peeves of defensive play calling: the blitz (when a defense sends one or more players to go straight for the quarterback). Nearly every week (I don’t know if he still does this), he devoted a section of his column to this ill-advised and yet extremely-popular play. He called it “Stop me before I blitz again!” His problem is not with the blitz itself, which can be extremely powerful when used right. It is with predictable blitzing. An unpredictable blitz can catch the quarterback unaware, leading either to a sack, or possibly a turnover. But a good quarterback can easily beat a blitz, especially in high-likelihood situations like third-and-long. If they know it is coming, they can often dump the ball off to a running back or tight end, and since the defense has committed to the blitz, the receiver usually takes the ball for some big gains.
Which is all to bring us, finally, to Omar, his stunning murder of the about-to-be-promoted Stinkum, and the iconic advice he gives to a wounded Wee-Bey, who cowers behind a car: “A-YO, lesson here, Bey. You come at the king, you best not miss.” It’s a chilling line, spoken in the echoey voice of an unseen killer. The terror is heightened by the taunting whistle of “The Farmer in the Dell” and the jittery camera that mimics Bey’s panicked scanning for the phantom that just put one in his leg. It may be the most quotable line from the show’s most quotable character, and it is a natural choice for the episode’s epigraph. It even contains a direct reference to “Lessons,” the name of the episode.
But for all of that, the line, like the man speaking it, contains more than meets the eye. For one thing, Omar seems to be violating his very advice at the moment that he gives it. From a game-theory standpoint, the advice is sound. In fact, it is exactly what Easterbrook says about the Blitz. An attack on the king (or the quarterback, in the case of the blitz) is an all-or-nothing, high-risk/high-reward strategy. It forces the enemy into a decision, at the expense of all other defenses.
This concept plays out in many games. In D’Angelo’s preferred game of chess, this comes with an attempted checkmate. Often, the material required to put a king into check is so great that it leaves the rest of the board vulnerable if the attack fails. In the world of Avon’s Golden Gloves, the boxers leave themselves vulnerable to a counterpunch with every punch they throw.
So when Omar says this line to Wee-Bey, he seems to be considering himself the king. He refers to the scene earlier in the episode, when Bey, Stinkum and Savino ransacked Omar’s apartment (including, heartbreakingly, some polaroids of Omar and Brandon) and torched his van, all while Omar watched from across the alley under the protection of Shirley, the same fiend he gave free heroin to earlier in the season.The Barksdale lieutenants come close to him, but in the end, they gain nothing. All they do is rekindle the killer’s desire for revenge. It is only a matter of time before Omar’s rage explodes with the fury of the white van’s gas tank.
And now, the Barksdales must pay the price for their failure. We never find out how Omar successfully tracked Stinkum to Edmonsen Gulley, but he picks the perfect moment. Stinkum is focused on the task of killing the elusive Scar, and the inevitable promotion that will be his reward. He doesn’t give a second thought to the ominous cat that crosses his path, or the darkened doorway that hides a king with a loaded shotgun.
Omar is certainly a king, even if he has no true domain. He has already established his thorough awareness of the street world when he shows his knowledge of where Bird gets high. He is armed with an abundant supply of knowledge from the “word on the street.” He must have either heard about the planned-takeover of Scar’s corner, or predicted it based on his understanding of the subtle territorial dynamics of Baltimore’s drug trade. It is also worth noting that Omar already weakened the crew by helping the police take Bird off of the street. Even Stinkum, just before receiving that a shotgun blast to the chest, laments the absence of his killer friend: “I wish Bird were here for this.”
So if Omar’s advice makes sense when applied to the Barksdale muscle, how does the advisor himself do at taking his own advice? On the surface, it seems like he doesn’t do well. The attack on Stinkum and Wee-Bey is a partial success at best. Sure, he kills one of the best young prospects in the Barksdale crew, but he leaves Wee-Bey relatively unharmed and worse, alive to tell the story. As we see not long after the attack, Avon is now even more motivated to kill Omar. He commands a roomful of men, putting all other priorities on hold. Avon sees the attack on Stinkum as an attack on him, which means that Omar showed the blitz too early.
But that assumes a conventional interpretation of the conflict. But Omar is far from a conventional adversary. For one, he is too crafty to make such a mistake. If his goal were merely to take out some Barksdale lieutenants (men who, according to his sources, were involved in the abduction, torture, and murder of Brandon), he could have succeeded without alerting the Barksdales that he was the one who did it. Omar is too well-hidden and Wee-Bey is too far away. Had Omar not whistled and given out his advice, Wee-Bey would never have been able to identify the attacker (in the phone call that later comes up on the wire, one man makes the mistaken assumption that the shooter is Scar).
And beyond that, why didn’t Omar make more of an effort to kill Wee-Bey? His initial shot, the one that hit Bey in the leg, may have been hasty, but Omar probably had the opportunity to go after the car that Wee-Bey is hiding behind.
Maybe the answer lies outside of this two-player match. The battle between Omar and Avon can’t be fully understood outside of the third player in the game: the police. Consider the following possibility: maybe Omar misses Wee-Bey intentionally, knowing that he will go back to Avon and put the word out on the street that Omar is the attacker. This will most likely come up on the wire, which Omar knows about from his previous visit to the detail’s basement office. When the detectives get wind of this, they will try to bring him in for an interview. This is exactly what Omar wants (which explains why he is so quick to reply to the 9-1-1 message McNulty leaves on the burned-out dashboard of his van).
Omar’s reason for wanting to return to the office is subtle. The first time he talked to the detectives, he took caught sight of the bulletin board they were constructing. When he returns, presumably to be chided by the detectives, he uses one of Freamon’s remarks as a sufficient pretext to execute his real plan. Omar puts his hand to his mouth as if suppressing a laugh, and then lets his eyes wander to the board. The camera follows his glance, showing that his eye picks up a crucial piece of information: the photo of Orlando’s club.
At the end of the episode, we see Omar lurking across from that same strip club, stalking the urban castle of his true enemy, King Avon.
I admit that we can easily read this as a fortuitous chain of events, but the ability to plan, use diversion, and see hidden possibilities are the very things that make Omar such a fierce competitor. Avon sees the game as one of sheer force, which is why he rejects Stringer’s more-deceptive plan to lure Omar out with talk of a truce.
For Omar, the game is all about the plan. He understands that he needs to play the game differently, especially since he is grossly outmatched in terms of manpower. That is exactly why an all-or-nothing strategy like the blitz is a smart approach. He knows that he will never win a long, drawn-out war of attrition. Omar goes one better–he fakes the blitz, making what seems like a big move, all as a way to set up the bigger, more precise attack on the real, unsuspecting king. For the gangster, the football player, and the writer, this type of strategy, is the most effective way to combat a thoroughly-entrenched institution.