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.
Until 2009 rolled around. The Phillies lost to the Yankees in the World Series, and all was right with the world. I was a loser once again.
That’s the problem with games. There’s always another one around the corner, and today’s thrilling win is tomorrow’s devastating loss. In the world of games, there really is no end. There is always one more term in an endless series.
The brief conversation between Herc and Carver that gives “Game Day” its epigraph is like all of their conversations: both absurdly funny and surprisingly profound. It plays out on a rooftop, where the partners keep watch over an eerily-empty Pit. Herc is playing his own personal game, tossing pebbles into a nearby bucket of tar. It doesn’t seem like he is keeping score, but it is a game nonetheless. He has clearly developed into a pretty skilled pebble-tosser after countless hours on this roof. It calls to mind the scene in Groundhog Day where the immortal Phil Connors shows off his talent for flicking cards into a nearby hat. “So this is what you do with eternity,” Rita observes. “Now you know,” Phil answers matter-of-factly. Apparently, time is the only thing needed to master any skill.
For Herc, the steady rhythm of the pebble-tossing sparks a meditation on the inexplicable nature of seldom-travelled corners of the urban world. Herc wonders how those pebbles got up there, and there really is no answer to the question. Perhaps a bird brought them up there one at a time (maybe the same bird from James Joyce’s hellish vision of infinity), or maybe there is some practical explanation (maybe the pebbles keep the tar from eroding) or a metaphysical one (the pebbles as remnants from a cosmic game like the one in the Italo Calvinio story from which I borrowed the title of this post). Either way, the question is troubling because it forces us to acknowledge how much uncertainty we live with, how many seemingly-pointless pebbles lay scattered throughout our world. Herc does his part to combat that uncertainty with his little game. He gathers the scattered pebbles into the centralized location of the bucket, mindlessly bringing order to the chaos.
Perhaps that is a metaphor for the very reason these two detectives are on the roof in the first place. They play out their parts as soldiers in the war on drugs. Their goal is to clean up the corners, and wipe the drug trade out of the city. But here is yet another unwinnable game, as Carver himself pointed out back in the first episode. “You can’t even call this shit a war,” he tells Herc. “Wars end.” Right from the beginning, the game is defined as both unwinnable and infinite. Or perhaps it is unwinnable precisely because it is infinite.
So it is fitting that the (slightly) more perceptive Carver is the one who notices how oddly-empty the pit is. It feels like a ghost town, and he senses that something is out of place. Herc, however, stays on his train of thought and indulges in another fantasy. This time, he imagines some sort of theoretical doomsday weapon that the police implement unannounced, ending the drug war once and for all. “Maybe we won.”
Even in this scenario, Herc imagines himself somehow the loser. He and Carver are stuck on the roof like the soldiers of the battle of New Orleans, left behind to fight a war that has already been won. The truth isn’t much better. There will always be stray pebbles on the roof just as there will always be hoppers in the courtyards. The game will continue, whether in Philadelphia, down in the Pit, up in Burrell’s conference room, or in a basketball court across town.