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.”
“Game Day,” The Wire’s ninth episode, begins with a short series of quick shots of a basketball scrimmage. It is the second time this season that the cameras have taken us inside a gym to watch basketball practice, but there are some big differences this time. The first scene was less of a practice than a strategy session, with Avon holding court (literally and metaphorically) and setting a bounty on Omar and his crew. In that scene, the basketball is more of a pretense, an excuse for Avon to meet with his inner circle in a private setting. Nobody plays defence, no picks are set. Avon is the only one who shoots the ball.
Avon: So what you think, homes?
Stringer: I’m thinking this is the worst part of the game here, man. Best we do is break out even, right?
Stringer: I’m saying, this shit got personal. Ain’t nothing else to it.
Avon: So you talking about letting it slide.
Stringer: For a time, maybe.
If the scene where Avon and Barksdale promote Stinkum illustrates how seamlessly the partners work together, the shocking murder of that same newly-minted executive provides the first hint of the possibility of a rift between the two. Avon’s response to the news is instantaneous and fierce. He gathers all of his muscle into the office at Orlando’s (interestingly, D’Angelo is not at this meeting, and he doesn’t learn of Stinkum’s death until the next day) and diverts all of his into the hunt for Omar.
D’Angelo: We doing good. We doing good, you know, if you say we doing good.
One of the most maddeningly-frustrating moments of Season 1 is when Avon makes a surprise visit to the pit with Stringer and Stinkum in tow, and I’m not just talking about the odd slow-mo entrance and seventies-style synthesizer music. It is a rare moment of a king coming down from his castle to walk amongst the people. He looks around as low-level hoppers serve their hungry clientele, and it seems to be a world away from the office in Orlando’s, with its giant safe and security monitors.
If the first four episodes of The Wire are intentionally stingy with details on Avon’s personal life, “The Pager” lets it all out. First, there is the opening scene which portrays Avon as a prisoner of his own paranoia. Then, near the end of the episode, we get a rare glimpse into the Kingpin’s psyche. What we see is a chilling portrait of the deeply-rooted existential crisis that dominates his life.
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!”
Avon Barksdale, kingpin and target, lives in two worlds. He is like that famous optical illusion that shows an image of either an old lady or a young woman, depending on how you look at it, but never both. He is a much more badass version of that image, sure, but similarly hard to define, similarly hard to pin down to a single interpretation. The more you look the less certain you are of what you are looking at.
The police are a drug kingpin’s primary natural enemy. They are the ones who are most likely to topple his empire, putting him away for decades or even life. The Wire supports this notion by focusing on Daniels’ detail and their attempt to take down the Barksdale crew. But after the introduction of Omar’s small, tightly-formed three-man crew in “The Buys,” the Barksdales are forced to fight on a second front, one that exists on their own side of the legal divide.
In the rapidly-shifting contexts of The Wire, it is sometimes hard to tell whether a character is the king or a scurrying rodent. The title of the first episode, “The Target,” suggests a similar level of complexity. There is a clear literal meaning to the title (Avon, who becomes the target of the new, reluctantly-formed detail), but a close examination of all the episode’s targets shows that there is more to it than just taking aim.
D’Angelo: I’m saying, this nigger was coming at me like, like he was trying to end me.
Avon: This ain’t about him. It’s about you. You can’t play him out of that lobby. You can’t take a beating neither. So the first thing you do, you get all emotional. You pull your gun out. You do some dumb shit that now we gotta work around.