Checkmate: “The Game” and Infinite Deferral

17 Nov

One of the final moments in season 1, episode 12 of The Wire brings us outside Orlando’s, where hordes of heavily armed police are waiting outside for orders to bust in and arrest Avon. McNulty and Daniels, being the only detectives there, note how excessive this treatment is and walk right in themselves. What follows is the definition of anti-climax: The two find Avon and Stringer in a room and silently case the joint as Avon turns his back to them, voluntarily offering himself up for arrest. No fight, no chase, no sense of finality conveyed by a clever line or a solemn ‘Miranda-ing.’ The only line that comes close is “Catch you later,” a double-entendre from McNulty to Stringer. But this is, of course, completely unsatisfying, nothing but a promise to continue playing the game.

This scene is both impressive and disappointing. It felt to me much like the last few turns of a chess game – after the intense, drawn-out conflict, the king is ultimately not taken. His capture is simulated any number of times when he is put in check, which makes the satisfaction of the finishing blow unattainable. Not only is saying “checkmate” mandatory, but it is also mandatory to alert the opponent if a move they make would even allow you to put them in checkmate. The capture of the king is always done virtually before it is done actually, draining the meaning from his actual capture. As a result, most chess players do not even go through that final motion.

Our discussion of “the game” as both a metaphor and a reality in The Wire might gain from this comparison to chess. The armed police outside of Orlando’s are definitely at play, playing a childish make-believe game of Cops ‘n Robbers. McNulty and Daniels treat Avon and Stringer more like rivals than hated nemeses, and there is something cordial about the way Avon admits his, albeit momentary, defeat. By the end of the season, it is also possible to notice some bleeding through between the police’s vocabulary and the gang’s vocabulary, demonstrating just how close these two groups were as they attempted each attempted to outplay the other.

“The game” generally presents itself in the show as a powerful force, a form that dictates the practices that make Baltimore tick, but as the season draws to a close, we start to see “the game” take on its pejorative meaning, as in “not real” or “a distraction from serious things.” The game of cat and mouse that the detail plays with Avon is, despite its immense complexity, ultimately a distraction from the justice that McNulty strives to serve. In the final episode of the season, we have Daniels telling Carver that he can either teach his cadets that the police department is “about the work” or “about some other game,” setting up a distinction between the idea of the game and the good that law enforcement is capable of doing.

Yet the disappointing part of Avon’s arrest is that is entirely protocol, procedures playing themselves out. Since the consensus both in our class and in our readings for these past weeks has been that The Wire is not a “police procedural” in the classic sense, it is tempting to call it instead a “Playthrough” or “Gameplay Drama.” Normal police shows are about solving cases and catching criminals, whereas The Wire seems to be more focused on the games that get played instead of solving cases and catching criminals. Much like the final turn of chess, the protocol replaces the act. Understanding “the game” as distraction has even greater consequences for the kids in the projects, who drop out of school to essentially participate in a huge game, an obstacle to their entry into the real world. Omar is the only one who seems to actually enjoy the game – for him, work and play are the same. Unfettered by institutions and their protocols, he has the rare ability to actually play the game in two senses. He is a metagamer, creatively coming up with moves that adhere to protocol without following it. On that note, and considering how much “the game” seems to be about struggling with personal versus institutional identity, I find this piece of internet novelty key to understanding The Wire:

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