“…and all the pieces matter.”

The quotation that opens episode six of The Wire’s first season has a double meaning.

The first meaning is most apparent if we place the quote within the larger context of the conversation in which it arises. In this scene, Freamon and Pryzbylewski are having a discussion while monitoring the wire they have on the pay-phone. Pryzbylewski tries to log a monitored conversation as “not pertinent” to their investigation because there was no talk of drugs. Freamon explains to him why, when you are trying to piece together elements of a criminal conspiracy in which codes are used, almost any conversation between the key players should be considered pertinent.

In Lester’s own words: “We’re building something here, detective, and we’re building it from scratch. And all the pieces matter.”

The most obvious metaphor to draw on in this case is that of a jigsaw puzzle. To get the total picture, you need all the pieces, even the ones that don’t seem to have anything interesting on them.

The second meaning of the quote, which is actually the thematic focus of the episode, is a throwback to the chess metaphor introduced in episode three. We have just come out of episode five, in which we get more acquainted with the king, Avon Barksdale. Episode six, then, takes a closer look at the other pieces on the chess board, specifically low-level pieces like Wallace and Bodie.

The key scene, thematically speaking, is the one in which Avon Barksdale makes a rare trip to the pit to reward/check up on his crew. The scene’s importance is spelt out for the viewer by the overdubbed soundtrack that plays over Avon’s entrance to the pit. All through its five season run, The Wire was characterized by its unique use of music. Music in The Wire is almost always atmospheric, meaning that if the viewer hears music, it is because the characters are hearing music from a radio or juke-box. An actual overdubbed musical soundtrack is generally only used during the poignant montages that mark the end of a season. If you are aware of this, the presence of such a soundtrack here is a not-at-all-subtle indication that this scene is important.

In this scene, the chessboard organization of Avon’s drug outfit is clear. He walks through the scene accompanied by his queen, Stringer Bell, who walks abreast of him. Less important, but still a powerful piece, Stinkum follows a few paces behind. Avon’s knowing eyes travel around the pit as he arrives. The play over the stash house, the lookouts, the actual dealers and D’Angelo supervising. More than anything else, we are meant to notice just how in tune Avon is with his crew and how they function, a characteristic that will be contrasted later with the relative disconnection between the top brass of the police and the rank and file.

Avon is here to reward everyone involved in the capture of Omar’s boy Brandon. As Avon explains this to D’Angelo, Stinkum makes his rounds, checking up on things and delivering wads of cash to the people who contributed to Brandon’s abduction. While Avon does not deliver the cash or offer congratulations personally, the very fact that he has come out from his remote fortress is a huge gesture to his underlings. It is a gesture that acknowledges that in a well oiled, functional machine, all the pieces matter. In paying these small pieces for their contributions to the organization, Avon is, in some respects, actually oiling the machine.

The message of this scene, that all the players are connected, mirrors the imagery of the opening scene of the episode. In this scene, we see Brandon’s mutilated corpse lying in a back lot somewhere. The camera then pans along a makeshift power splice that runs across the street to the abandoned house where Wallace and Poot live. It is from this cord that Wallace and Poot draw power for their few appliances. Again, David Simon has spelled it out beautifully. The wire (which is the title of this episode) is a conduit of power that connects the low-level players to the nefarious acts of the king himself. Wallace draws his livelihood from his affiliation with the Barksdale crew, and while he has not committed a murder himself, he is intimately connected to the act.

These illustrations of efficiency in the drug game are held up next to the incredible de-ficiencies of the police force, a contrast amusingly displayed when Satangelo misses an opportunity to photograph Avon Barksdale because he’s busy pissing.

The problems of the bureaucratic organization of the Baltimore Police is most succinctly outlined in the scene where McNulty, Freamon and Greggs discuss Major Rawls and his interference with their case. Rawls wants to charge three murders that he knows won’t result in a conviction just so he can get better stats. Doing this would put Barksdale on the defensive and undo much of the work McNulty and his crew have put into getting a wire.

“He’s gonna charge murders he can’t prove just to get the stats?”

“And fuck up our case in the process.”

The three then discuss their options, and eventually decide that their best bet is to try to convince Daniels to say something to Rawls. It is important to note that we watch part of this exchange literally overtop of a chess game that is going on in the foreground, just in case you forgot what your themes were.

This conversation illustrates that, unlike Avon and his drug crew, who operate clearly according to the rules of chess wherein the king is the leader, the police force is not unified under one king. In fact, it is as if several different kings are all making unrelated moves with pieces who have little control over their own actions, but nevertheless see the layout of the board better than those making the moves.

If we think back to the first meaning of Freamon’s quote, it is almost as if Rawls is trying to steal a section of the puzzle to turn it in for credit, ignoring the fact that the bigger picture will be completely ruined by this theft.

Herc and Carver’s frustrations with Bodie also makes this point. They catch him once and he walks right out of jail. They catch him again and he is released by the juvenile courts. Their frustration and confusion are symptoms of a system whose parts bear almost no relation to one another.

This stark contrast of organizational efficiencies goes a long way to explaining the problems of Baltimore and, by extension, many other cities in America. The drug game is sleek and efficient, but this virtue comes at the cost of having to operate outside the law and run the risk of being brutally murdered. With the relative safety and security of being a unionized police officer comes the knowledge that the very organization in which you are employed will be the biggest hindrance to you performing your duties.

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


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