“…a little slow, a little late.”

Note: These posts are not meant to be plot summaries, but commentaries (for a more in-depth description of what we’re aiming at, go here: The Wire). While we will make every effort to avoid including spoilers about later episodes, do not read this post unless you have watched the episode we are discussing.

As the lead-in quote hints, episode 5 of The Wire’s first season is about inadequacy and consequence. This theme feels almost like further exploration of the previous episode’s focus on the different worlds we occupy in that the many different worlds of The Wire contain dramatically different ways of failing and dramatically different consequences as well.

The most obvious example comes up in the conversation that gives us the quote.

Avon is at the hospital visiting his brother and has dragged a reluctant D’Angelo along with him. Entering the hospital room, he tells D’Angelo how important family is, and for a second we get the impression that this is to be the lesson of the visit. It quickly becomes clear, though, that Avon has an entirely different point to make.

With D’Angelo’s other uncle lying in a coma before them, Avon asks: “Does he scare you?” And just as we think that perhaps he is going to reprimand D’Angelo for being afraid of his own uncle, his own blood, Avon admits that he is also scared of the man laying motionless on the bed. It is in his explanation of this fear that we finally get a deeper understanding of his character.

“If he were dead, I could carry it better.” Avon says. If the man were dead and conveniently buried in the ground somewhere, Avon could move on. The soil has a way of helping us forget things and move on. With a coma, on the other hand, he is obligated to visit his brother and face what is basically death anyway. Avon has clearly been affected by his frequent visits to the hospital. There, waiting for him each time he comes to visit, is a reminder of the heavy consequences brought by even the tiniest mistake in the drug world.

“You only got to fuck up once… Be a little slow, be a little late, just once. How you ain’t gonna never be slow? Never be late? That’s life. Yeah. It scares me.”

He says this almost casually, but in many ways this fear rules his life and makes him who he is. He visits out of familial obligation, but clearly he is aware of the effects these visits have on his psyche. Each time he sits in the visitors chair looking at the all-but-dead man on the bed, his mind is telling him: “There, but for my own vigilance, go I.” How many times has he sat here over the years, communing with his greatest fear, and how much has this frequent meditation contributed to forming his current persona?

These visits are clearly the reason why he is so successful in the drug game. Simultaneously, they are the reason why he is so obsessively careful that even his hyper-vigilant underlings at times look on him as if he is taking things too far.

This episode is the first one in which we really see Avon going about his everyday business. Up until now we have caught occasional glimpses of him as the man behind the man behind the man, but we have never had a chance to see how he carries himself when he is alone.

The paranoia revealed by this observation is beyond careful. He has the phone lines ripped out of his apartment because one person called and hung up. He refuses to use the same pay-phone twice. Even in the back room of his fortress above the strip-club, surrounded by lackeys and the extremely competent Stringer Bell, he still checks his surveillance cameras several times before opening his safe and removes the money quickly, as if someone might burst in at any second. We even learn that he had his girlfriend killed because he was worried she knew too much and might talk.

As we discussed in episode 3, Avon is the king on the chessboard, the most essential piece in the game. For all the efforts the police puts into watching his soldiers (pawns, bishops, knights…), it is all aimed at capturing him. And so, like the king, Avon moves very little, one space at a time, and never without meticulously surveying the entire board first.

While even his close associates occasionally think he is too paranoid, we as the viewers are uniquely aware that he is, in fact, being hunted by extremely clever people.

D’Angelo, noticeably uncomfortable in the hospital room, shares Avon’s fear but, unlike Avon, he carries his fear blindly, having never faced what he is afraid of. By confiding in him, Avon hopes that his fear and — by extension — his vigilance will perhaps rub off on his nephew. Avon can be as careful as he wants, but he could easily be brought down by ineptitude in his crew. Whereas Avon might have had another man killed or beaten for the sort of mistakes D’Angelo has recently made, he is obligated to try to impart some wisdom on him instead.

To varying degrees, the rest of the episode follows this theme, and we are introduced to various failures among the players of The Game.

McNulty is in the process of failing as a father. He struggles to drunkenly assemble a bunk bed he was meant to have finished weeks before. The disparity between his success as a detective versus his failure as a parent is spelled out for us when he arrives at his ex-wife’s place to pick up the kids and finds that he is too late and they have already left. Turning to leave, he sees that one of the boys has left his bike laying out in plain sight and hides it. The act is a small success for McNulty the detective, but for McNulty the father, is was a little slow, a little late, an act that will never be noticed by his ex-wife or children.

Herc and Carver’s interactions with Bodie this episode offer quite a bit of comic relief, as well as highlighting their various ineptitudes. Bodie, who is clearly more clever than the two officers, spends most of the episode throwing their attempts at manipulation back in their faces. Most notably, he sees through their good cop/bad cop routine and manages to drive the so-called good cop (Carver) to physical violence. As Herc holds Carver back, Bodie quips, “You’re supposed to be the good cop, dumb motherfucker.”

Later, while waiting around at the police station, Bodie tries and fails to hustle the officers at pools. Herc reminds him that if he’s going to run a hustle, he should stick to what he knows.

These scenes are interesting examples of superiority and inferiority and how the two can fluctuate depending on the arena. Herc and Carver underestimate Bodie in the interrogation room and end up looking silly. Bodie underestimates the officers at the pool table and ends up losing money.

When Bubs visits Johnny in the hospital, we see yet another of the varied results of failure. Johnny screwed up a simple hustle and wound up severely injured, shitting into a bag.

The episode ends with Omar’s partner (in more ways that one), Brandon, being found by the Barksdale crew playing pinball with friends. Earlier in the episode he is seen wearing a jewelled necklace in the shape of a dollar sign, a vanity that clearly shows his mind is on the rewards of The Game rather than The Game itself. His cocky vanity is alluded to even more as he casually plays the game of pinball, saying “I’m the king of this shit!”

Of course, his statement is proven false by the very fact that he has uttered it. The king does not brag publicly and draw attention to himself. In fact, the real king is safely tucked away in his strip-club fortress while his pawns, bishops and knights do his bidding. In this case, his bidding is the capture and punishment of Brandon. The episode ends without the audience knowing his fate, but it is fair to assume the punishment will be severe.

While the theme of failure and consequence may seem vague in this episode, it is nevertheless apparent that David Simon is establishing a sense of the different roles and worlds the characters occupy and the varied consequences of failure from one to another.

Continue to enjoy the other essays in this series here for free, or show your support by purchasing all 13 as an e-book.

David Warkentin is a Toronto-based writer whose work can be found on his Amazon author page. If you do twitter,

One Response to ““…a little slow, a little late.””
  1. David in San Jose says:

    Nicely done.

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