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.”
It is just one game, an unofficial event that brings together two sides of a fractured city for some friendly competition. But for Avon, whose Westside team hasn’t won in three years, this is not just a friendly game (although it might provide some solace to know that lowly hoppers Poot and Bodie think the losing streak is only two). The episode opens with Avon dropping $20,000 to bring in a ringer. His goal is not to win in a fair game, nor is it bragging rights. For Avon, this game is inseparable from the “game” in which he is the kingpin. What happens as the game plays out illustrates just how dangerous it is to confuse the real game with the metaphorical.
It is a common mistake, actually. Whenver I watch this episode, my mind goes back to the disasterous game of “Eschaton” that is one of the highlights of David Foster Wallace’s epic novel Infinite Jest (if you don’t want to work through all 1000+ pages of that book, you can check out the Decembrists’ video for “Calamity Song,” where they recreate the Eschaton scene). The game of Eschaton is an annual tradition at the elite tennis school that is one of the novel’s central settings. It is sort of like a live-action game of risk, where the players spread out across tennis courts that represent the world, and engage in nuclear war using tennis balls, rackets, and precise technical calculations of radiation effects, fallout, and the like.
In the novel, everything goes according to the rules until it starts to snow. One boy argues that the snow should mitigate the damage he takes, but the game’s creator disagrees. Snow reduces damage in the reality within the game, but the snow only falls in the reality outside the game. “It’s snowing on the map, not the territory!” the creator shouts, in an echo of Alfred Korzybski’s famous dictum. The boy can’t see the difference, launches some balls in protest, and all hell breaks loose.
The inability to see the distinction between the “map” and the “territory” is a common mistake. It is one that Avon makes repeatedly within his own fenced-in court, as he sits on the bench and coaches his Westside stars (and one ringer from Eastside).
The map may not be the territory, but in Avon’s world, territory is everything. This leaves no room for maps and metaphors, be they in a basketball game or a game of chess. Games are luxuries best left to the underlings.
In this scene, there are actually several games going on at once. First, there is the game itself, a community gathering to celebrate a friendly rivalry (which is reinforced by the “big ass party” that the loser has to throw for the winner, a communal celebration for both sides after the competition has ended). Then, there is the gamesmanship that surrounds the bet between Avon and Eastside kingpin Proposition Joe (who makes his first appearance in this scene). Finally, there is the struggle that swirls in Avon’s mind, where basketball is not so much a game as yet another extension of the corners.
After a few shots of the game itself and the fans who have gathered to watch it, we get our first sense of the most-literal game. Stringer gives Avon the scouting report on Prop Joe’s ringer, a professional from Italy. This leads to some amusing trash talk between the kings/coaches (it is also worth noting: the fact that the kingpins are also coaches shows how central the drug trade is to the projects). “You got to go all the way to Europe to get you a ringer?” Avon taunts. “Naw, he home now. But I see you pulling boys out the junior colleges. He from Eastside, went to Dunbar.” Here, we see an interesting attitude towards the rules. Ideally, a game like this should be played by the best ballers currently living in the projects, but both coaches have brought in outsiders. This might be technically against the rules, but both men seem to accept this gamesmanship as an inevitable part of the event. Instead, they quibble about the ethics of who can be a legitimate ringer.
Avon proceeds to criticize Joe’s appearance. “Why you wearing that suit, B? For real, it’s 85 fucking degrees out here and you trying to be Pat Riley.” Prop Joe gives us our first taste of his “way with words” when he offers the advice: “Man, look the part be the part motherfucker.” Joe has faith in the power of the external (“look the part”) to influence the essence (“be the part”), but Avon is not impressed. “You walking around with a fake fucking clipboard!” he shouts, his voice almost cracking with outrage. “You can’t even read a playbook. Be for real, bunch of bitches.”
The two rivals blur the lines between genuine outrage and friendly trash talk, but there is a real ideological debate going on here. Avon keeps repeating the phrase “for real.” He wants a level of honesty (even if this doesn’t extend to his use of ringers), and is upset that Joe plays the part of the coach with such enthusiasm. The problem is, Avon has trouble keeping the levels of reality straight in his own mind.
If he could see more clearly, he would realize that,clipboard or no, Joe has his playbook down cold. For Avon, the game is the bet, and both game and bet are life, with his pride and ego bound up in them. Prop Joe can separate appearance from the reality, and we see this in the way he uses the game to manipulate the bet.
He creates the appearance that he is a basketball mastermind, but the subterfuge masks the fact that he is really a mastermind of gambling. He pulls off a sophisticated trick that exploits Avon’s devotion to appearance. I call it the Double Ringer Hustle.
In the first half, Joe matches Avon’s ringer with his own slightly-less-skilled player. This leads to a 12-point Westside lead and a cocky Avon. Joe insists the game isn’t over, saying “you never know.” Avon, puts his trust in the truth of appearance, saying “I know man, we up 12.” This confidence opens the door for Joe, who offers to double the bet to $100,000. Avon agrees. Then Joe, the master tactician, nods to a player sitting on the end of the bench. He is fresh and ready to play, and a quick cut to the image of Avon’s team, hydrating and catching their breath on the bench, shows how uncertain that lead really is.
The second ringer takes over, faking out anybody unfortunate enough to be defending him. He could have learned this deception from his coach. Avon seems upset, but he has to acknowledge that he got played by a better chess master. It’s not until the final play that Avon really explodes and loses sight of what is actually happening. Avon’s ringer goes for a layup and there is contact, but the Ref doesn’t call it. Joe’s second ringer takes the ball full court to take the game. The Eastside players and fans celebrate while a sore, wounded Avon goes on the hunt.
He corners the Ref and begins to accost him. It is a frightening scene. We know how important this game is to Avon, and how much money he invested in its ability to solidify his reputation. Presumably the Ref knows who he is as well. He must be terrified of what could happen if he pisses off Avon Barksdale (Consider the fact that Avon was willing to sentence the three members of Omar’s crew to death for taking $40,000. He loses three times that amount in this game). The Ref tries to salvage the situation with a concession. “Look, if you want, I can put time back on the clock and replay it,” he nervously offers. This only sets Avon off further, and what follows is one of Avon’s ugliest moments in the series.
It starts out as more of a tantrum than anything. Avon’s limbs flail as he bounces around uncontrollably. “You talking about a do-over, baby? That’s not how the game is played! You can’t do that!” His speaks and movies like a spoiled child who just learns that the world doesn’t always comply to his definition of “how the game is played.”
Suddenly, Avon remembers himself. He reestablishes his position of power, and the tone shifts to cruel aggression. “Man, you supposed to be the ref, right? Why don’t you stand up for your fuckin self? You pussy! You can’t just let any old motherfuckin nigger get in your face, you understand? Now walk away.” It is hard to watch the scene without feeling the Ref’s fear and his powerlessness. Here is Avon as pure bully, tormenting and emasculating an innocent man to cover up his own powerlessness at the hands of the smarter Prop Joe.
It is a low point for Avon, and one character in particular looks on with disgust: D’Angelo. There is a great shot of his face as his uncle mercilessly tortures this man. We know that D’Angelo is already becoming disillusioned with the drug game, and at this moment, he seems to lose his final fragment of respect for Avon. After the game breaks up, we see the crowd disperse to go their two separate directions. They all seem happy with an entertaining afternoon. Only Avon is left with a bruised ego and an empty wallet.
Like the boy in Infinite Jest, Avon can’t tell the difference between the map and the territory. In his world, everything is a reflection of his ego. Everything is about his power and his reputation, and everything threatens to take those things from him. As a result, a simple game of basketball proves costly in all of those respects.
Avon’s flaw seems to be his failure to understand the very purpose of a game. We create games as miniature versions of the outer reality. As we play in those miniature worlds, we enact the possibilities of that outer reality from a safe distance, enabling us to understand the potential outcomes without suffering the consequences. Eschaton enables us to play out an all out nuclear war without actually destroying the planet, just as Monopoly enables us to build or lose a real estate empire without actually going bankrupt.
Avon focuses his rage on the Ref because that poor man represents an authority figure. Outside of the fence, the authority figures (who are even then scrambling to track down Avon) are invisible, abstract, terrifying. For once, he can stare down an authority figure and call him a pussy to his face.
For Avon, the game doesn’t end when the final whistle blows. His life is a game, and perhaps that has drained the power out of the actual games, the diversions that we create to socialize and explore our limitations. Instead, it just becomes another skirmish in yet another endless, unwinnable game.