“all in the game…”

Like an essay that introduces, builds and restates its argument, Season 1 of The Wire ends as it began, by addressing the tent-pole themes that have supported the narrative since the first episode. Having worked its way through numerous sub-themes that gave its overall argument shape, it is able to present a much clearer view of the themes it introduced so many hours ago.

The 13th and final episode is called “Sentencing.” In the purely literal sense, the title refers to the in-court sentencing of key members of Avon Barksdale’s crew. This courtroom sequence mirrors that of Episode 1, in which D’Angelo Barksdale was acquitted by the manipulation and bullying of the witnesses against him.

The sentences handed down at this hearing serve as a final tallying of points for the game McNulty started playing when he first whispered into Judge Phalen’s ear at the beginning of the season. They also serve to remind us that the “official score” of the courtroom has little to do with reality.

In very much the same way that the events of the basketball game in Episode 9 proved to be but a small component of a much larger process taking place well outside the boundaries of the basketball court, so too could events of The Game be said to take place outside the boundaries of the court of law and even the larger system of justice that the courts represent.

This disconnection from reality that seems to plague the justice system can be observed in the way the court of law sees fit to sentence the king, Avon Barksdale, to a considerably smaller sentence than his distant underling D’Angelo, as well as to allow Wee Bey to take responsibility for a handful of murders he didn’t even commit. These verdicts, which took a substantial amount of time and effort to bring about, are clearly a poor reflection of real-world events.

Outside the courtroom, by contrast, we have seen Barksdale and Bell handing down harsher and more permanent punishments with regular efficiency, including demotions, beat-downs and quite a few death sentences. While this “street justice” is hardly more desirable than its legal counterpart — especially given how flippantly it allows the taking of lives — it is certainly more effective at accomplishing its immediate goals. Wallace’s murder, for example, was brutal and tragic, but it was also extremely efficient in saving Stringer Bell from prosecution.

That the police department is not just less efficient, but almost counterproductive in its efforts is proven by the unofficial sentences it hands down to McNulty and Daniels at the end of the episode. If their job is to pursue criminals and expose corruption, both men spent the season doing their job extremely well. The system, rather than rewarding this behaviour, punishes them, reassigning McNulty to his nightmare job, and denying Lieutenant Daniels a promotion to Major.

With these examples before us, it is not much of a stretch to say that the system seems to be actively working to prevent the “justice” it claims to pursue.

D’Angelo’s extremely incriminating confession, which becomes inadmissible when he eventually declines to cooperate, is another example of the system effectively sweeping out its own legs. A room full of people heard D’Angelo talk in great detail about specific crimes committed by his uncle’s crew, but even direct admissions like this are still rendered worthless by the rigid and labyrinthine system that oversees the process.

It is also in this interview that D’Angelo introduces us to a far more broad interpretation of “Sentencing,” an interpretation conveyed by the following quote:

“You grow up in this shit. All my people, man. My father, my uncles, my cousins. It’s just what we do. You just live this shit until you can’t breathe no more. I swear to God, I was courtside for eight months, and I was freer in jail than I was at home.”

Quite simply, D’Angelo is describing his life as a sentence. This sentiment, specifically the extent to which people are determined by their situation and surroundings, captures one of The Wire’s most prominent themes, which was introduced by the “Snot Boogie” story in the very first moments of Episode 1.

As we have seen in the earlier episodes, it is rare to see The Wire passing an actual moral judgment on its characters. Instead, the writers choose to present us with meticulously detailed descriptions of the factors that lead people to their choices. Whether these choices are “right” or “wrong” is left to the viewer to decide.

Indeed, to hear D’Angelo describe his life and his family, it is easy to see that, in many ways, he was doomed to be a criminal before he could even think to make a choice.

After seeing Wallace swept away by The Game in Episode 12, it is hard not to sympathize with D’Angelo’s position. It certainly is a grim and stifling picture he paints of his situation. It is completely understandable that he would want to find a way out of it.

When his mother arrives to convince him not to cooperate with the police, her speech feels like cheap, selfish manipulation. As we watch her using his family to guilt him into staying silent, her actions seem to confirm his earlier comments about being smothered by circumstance. If we listen closely to what she says, however, we see that she makes several decent points.

Most notably, she points out that D’Angelo is not unique in being born into this grim situation. Despite his obvious distaste for violence, he is certainly not innocent of it, having murdered someone just prior to the first episode. So what makes him so special that he should be permitted to start a new life somewhere else, leaving countless others to rot in prison in his stead?

In the end, for all the sympathy we have for his situation, D’Angelo comes off as something of a hypocrite for failing to see the perspective of others. Surely if he doesn’t want to be blamed for being a product of his environment, he can hardly blame his uncle for suffering the same fate. Even the king is simply playing out the cards he was dealt.

As his mother points out, if D’Angelo were to remove Avon from the game, he would hurt everyone in his family, even the children who aren’t involved in illegal activities. By D’Angelo’s own admission, he isn’t capable of stepping up to fill his uncles shoes if this happens.

D’Angelo’s myopic inability to see past his own situation is mirrored in this episode by McNulty’s meeting with the FBI.

The audience is no doubt on McNulty’s side as he scoffs at the idea of letting Barksdale and Bell go in order to “pin some politician’s pelt to the wall,” but as frustrating as it is to think of all the evils perpetrated by the Barksdale crew going unpunished, the FBI agents are simply drawing their line at a different place in the sand than McNulty has drawn his.

McNulty himself was disgusted by Burrell’s desire to punish the low-level operators in Barksdale’s crew, while leaving the masterminds untouched. Now, as the FBI expresses their interest in pursuing what they are obligated by regulations to see as the more important target, he angrily disapproves. He is, in effect, looking at a chain of corruption that stretches all the way from the dirt to the sky and arbitrarily placing all the blame on a few links somewhere in the middle.

Throughout the season, McNulty has proven himself to have an exceptional understanding of the police department and the streets they police, but he seems as yet incapable of realizing that other organizations suffer from similar restrictions and imperfections.

This idea of institutional imperfection will continue to be a significant, overarching theme for the entirety of the show’s 5-season run. Like McNulty, we have only been properly exposed to the bureaucracy of the police department. The coming seasons follow this theme as they introduce and explore some of Baltimore’s other institutions. Unsurprisingly, these institutions, while different in many ways, share similar shortcomings, specifically from a structural standpoint.

In Episode 13, we see that the minor themes of the season, themes like borders, restrictions, alienation and duty, have all been building this larger theme of institutional inadequacy. Bearing this in mind, we see an elegant and pointed argument coming to its temporary conclusion as the season ends. This parting criticism is introduced in the very first scene of the episode.

In this scene, Bunk shows the newly awake Kima a photo array, asking her if she can point out her shooters. She identifies Little Man immediately, but admits that it was too dark for her to be sure about the other assailant.

Bunk, clearly frustrated, goes into great detail about the long list of evidence that points to Wee Bey, essentially asking Kima to lie about what she saw in order to make his job easier. In this moment, many viewers will probably share Bunk’s frustration. Not only is the evidence against Wee Bey very damning, the viewer is sure of his guilt, having actually watched him participate in the attack.

Nevertheless, Kima stubbornly replies: “Sometimes things just gotta play hard.”

Coming out of the previous episode, with it’s heavy themes of choice and morality, it is difficult not to think of Kima’s refusal as an admirable moral choice, and while there is no reason not to admire her for her scrupulous character, her actions in this scene actually serve to mimic the way in which the rigid rules and protocols of the justice system are inadequate in trying to make sense of real life.

Kima’s unwillingness to point the finger at Wee Bey is, in a way, a sign of unquestioning faith in the system. The trouble is that — as The Wire has shown us — the system she believes in is not actually functional.

Good clockwork is reliant on gears that perform specific tasks in exactly the right fashion. The justice system, defined by rigid regulations and protocols, is meant to function in very much the same way. The trouble with systems structured in this way is that the people who serve as the gears and mechanisms are not meticulously machined parts, but idiosyncratic individuals who are, quite often, ill-suited for their job.

Knowing this, we see that we cannot even begin to pass judgment on the values and ideals on which the system purports to be founded, because it is in the very structure of the system that the roots of its inadequacy lie. To blindly have faith in the ideals behind a broken system is like living your life according to the time on a broken watch. Criticizing the ideals behind the same system is like criticizing the very idea of time simply because your watch doesn’t work. Both approaches miss the core of the problem.

This is what The Wire is trying to show, exposing the system as a complex labyrinth of jurisdiction and conflicting interests. The real word is complex and interwoven and cannot be easily categorized without considerable details being lost or skewed. It is this fundamental inadequacy of the rigid systems that define our society that ensure that individuals will be compartmentalized and misrepresented, sentenced without the luxury of a trial.

Omar’s reappearance at the end of the episode serves to remind us that, despite the attempts of our systems to make sense of the world, it is still governed by the chaos of individual action.

The fact that he is shown robbing a dealer in what is clearly the South Bronx shows that the lessons of The Wire are not just applicable to Baltimore, but American cities in general.

His parting words, with which the season officially ends, are “all in the game…”

Given all that we have seen, these words can be taken quite literally. As much as we try to split the world up into component parts in order to make sense of it, nothing can truly be separated off. The dealers, the police, the junkies, the lawyers, Omar himself, are all playing the same game. It is only the superficial structures of institutions like the justice system that create the illusion of separation.

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

2 Responses to ““all in the game…””
  1. Jim says:

    Hey. Just wanted to say I really enjoyed reading your analysis all the way through. I hope you get time for the other seasons.

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