“Maybe we won.”

The Wire is filled with metaphors. In fact, one could make a fairly decent drinking game out of taking a shot each time an on-screen event appears to carry a deeper thematic meaning. Many of these metaphors are easy to spot, such as D’Angelo’s explanation of chess in episode 3 and the desk-moving debacle of episode 4, but just because a metaphor is easy to spot, it does not necessarily follow that its meaning will be obvious or simplistic. To the contrary, when The Wire’s writers allow a metaphor to stand on obvious display, it is not a clumsy, heavy-handed mistake, but a sign that the comparison is so rich and nuanced that the viewer cannot be allowed to miss it.

Such is the case with Episode 9, titled “Game Day,” in which the most significant action is centred around an event with extensive metaphorical significance.

After the countless references to The Game over the course of the season thus far, it should be fairly obvious that the West vs. East basketball game that stands as the episode’s focal point, is meant to serve as a microcosm for The Game itself.

The Game has already been explored several times in previous episodes, most memorably in the third episode, where the writers used chess as a means for exploring concepts such as roles and restrictions. But whereas the chess metaphor was best confined to the pieces on the board and the way in which they move, the basketball game of Game Day offers a far more expansive view which, we shall see, extends beyond the court.

Generally, when a character in The Wire refers to The Game, they are specifically referring to the drug game. These references tend to be made by people who are themselves deeply involved in the drug game — whether they are the dealer or the pursuing cop. As such, their observations are made from a limited perspective.

If you ask a player on the basketball court about the game they are playing, you will get a description confined to the action as seen by this player: the score, how they have been playing, the momentum of their team, etc.

If you ask a spectator, their description will be similar, privileged by a better view of the entire court, but also coloured by personal preference and the behaviour of the crowd around them.

If you ask the ref, you will find that he sees the game with completely different eyes, consciously trying to ignore dramatics and personal taste, instead focusing only on possible violations of the rules, regardless of which team is guilty.

Ask the coaches and you may find that, while they are focused on the game and the performance of their players, they are also conscious of the players on the bench, past and future games, the potential acquisition of new players, finances, etc.

Finally, ask the owner and they may not even be watching the game, instead focusing entirely on statistics and finances, or merely enjoying the lifestyle their riches afford them.

The first view, that of the player on the court, is best captured by the titular quote, spoken by Herc when he and Carver are puzzling over the lack of activity in the normally bustling pit: “Maybe the whole thing is over, nobody bothered to tell us. Maybe we won.”

That Herc’s perspective is meant to be representative of that of a court-bound player is pointed out to us by the fact that, in his boredom, he is occupying his time by throwing pebbles in a paint can, a small-scale version of basketball.

His comment, while it is spoken in jest, is meant to portray the shortsightedness of his limited perspective. If there is no one else on the court, he assumes that the game is not being played. Carver, the more intelligent of the pair, realizes that something is amiss and moves to investigate.

Freamon, practically quoting the speech that Daniels made to his wife in the preceding episode says the following:

“You follow drugs, you get drug addicts and drug dealers, but you follow the money and you don’t know where the fuck it’s gonna take you.”

Due to his deeper understanding of both the street-level behaviour and the financial activities that support it — not to mention his remote location away from the action in the office — Lester could perhaps be characterized as a coach in our basketball metaphor.

His observation begins to show us just how far The Game reaches and how blurred the line between teams becomes at this level of removal. After all, Senator Clay Davis, ostensibly on the same team as the cops, was found to be financially involved with the drug dealers.

Barksdale and Bell, who could be thought of as coach and owner, respectively, are seen early in the episode spending thousands of dollars to acquire a star player for their team. This shows us just how much of the game is played off the actual court.

The events of the basketball game itself also serve to mirror the off-court plot of the episode. This is made evident in a few key moments.

First, Proposition Joe’s ringer comes in, turning the tide of the game just as Sydnor visually identifies Barksdale for the first time. As Barksdale begins to lose on the court, he is also losing ground on the streets, where one of his key advantages has just been neutralized.

Second, when a player on Barksdale’s team is fouled, the ref doesn’t call it. This happens immediately after the viewer sees McNulty committing his own foul, logging a recorded conversation as having been visually confirmed by Sydnor when, in fact, no one witnessed the call at all. In both worlds, Barksdale has been fouled, and in both worlds, the perpetrators will get away with it.

This brings us to the metaphorical role of the ref who, instinctively, one might be tempted to think of as the police. But since the cops are clearly meant to be represented by the team that is playing against Avon, the ref’s role is somewhat more interesting. In fact, the ref is not the police, but the law itself. He represents the legal system that exists as a separate entity from both the criminals who break it and the police who ostensibly enforce it.

The message is simple: The law is not a clear, efficient and impartial system of control. Like the referee, it can be taken advantage of by either side and it can make mistakes. When people say that justice is blind, they mean that it is meant to render judgment without partiality. In the case of The Wire, it simply means that it doesn’t see very well.

More interesting even than the ref’s shortcomings, is Avon’s reprimand when he confronts the ref about his bad call.

After being chewed out by Avon, the ref sheepishly replies that… maybe he could put some time back on the clock, to which Avon replies:

“Are you talking about a fucking do-over? That’s not how the game is played!”

In a truly interesting and significant move, Avon stops criticizing the ref’s call and starts criticizing his abilities as a ref in general:

“Man, you supposed to be the ref, right? Why don’t you stand up for your fuckin’ self? Pussy. You can’t just let any [motherfucker] get in your face. You understand?”

Avon’s plea is for consistency. He is, in fact, attacking the ref for listening to his initial complaint, pointing out that he should not allow himself to be bullied. By extension, he is criticizing the ref for ignoring the foul in the first place. If there is to be a law, then it should be applied consistently, not with favouritism, ineptitude or backtracking.

Of course, this sentiment is unusual coming from a criminal who breaks the law for a living, but clearly Avon’s comments are meant to acknowledge the hypocrisy of breaking the law to catch a criminal, or — in the case of Clay Davis — not enforcing it when the perpetrator is a senator.

Once Lieutenant Daniels gets the news that Avon has been spotted out in public, he immediately insists that they follow him. McNulty sees this as a mistake the second he hears it, reminding Daniels that they have no charge on Avon and that “we get him on voice alone or we don’t get him.”

Daniels insists, however, and the scene where Avon is tailed from the court is used to connect the microcosm of the basketball game to the macrocosm of the real world. As Barksdale begins to toy with his pursuers, we are reminded that this is a part of The Game as well. It is not over just because the buzzer has gone off.

in a bold move, Avon decides to drive right past Daniels, making eye contact and waving a “naughty-naughty” finger as if he is scolding a child. With this act, he proves himself to be on the same level as McNulty. He knows he is being tailed, but that they have nothing on him. They get him by voice or they don’t get him at all. One can only hope that this experience will drive Daniels to take the Barksdale investigation more seriously. In the words of McNulty, “Stupid criminals make stupid cops. I’m proud to be chasing this guy.”

As a whole, this episode is a crash course in understanding The Game. We are shown, in no uncertain terms, that The Game is incredibly complex. To say that it is like a game of basketball is to oversimplify, for The Game is not confined within the boundaries that define the court. The Game is the ref, the coach, the benchwarmers, the spectators, the financial support, and on an on.

When you back your perspective away like this, you realize you are no longer looking at just a basketball court, but society itself. The line that defines what constitutes The Game cannot really be drawn anywhere.

In the end, one might conclude that The Game doesn’t exist, that it is just a label imposed on society. The alternative conclusion is The Game is everything.

This leads us, finally, to Omar, who clearly seems to draw the latter conclusion, and is the one character who was not represented metaphorically in the basketball game. Omar does not play a well-defined role in any system. He only plays The Game. This is evident from his habitual whistling of “The Farmer in the Dell,” and his propensity for nursery rhyme (“Open this door now, before I huff and puff…”).

Omar seems, at times, almost supernatural in his ability to see The Game so clearly for what it is without being restricted by its rules. This ability comes directly from his rejection of systems and their superficialities. By ignoring the broken system that struggles ineptly to control society, Omar is able to see through to the way things really work.

We are, nevertheless, reminded of his fallible humanity at the end of the episode when he attacks Barksdale, only to end up taking a bullet himself. Here, he has failed to follow his own advice, which he imparted in the last episode: “You come at the king, you best not miss.”

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