A note on this series of posts: Some of you are watching The Wire for the first time. Some of you are scholars of the show. I’m doing my best to respond to the episodes as they’re presented me, both so these pieces will be accessible to anyone who is watching the show for the first time, and so I can concentrate really hard on seeing what I hadn’t seen before. That said, I hope this discussion will branch in many directions, so if you want to talk about foreshadowing, or watching the show after having seen it, talk away, just please label your posts as spoilery or for veterans. And I’ll be hanging out in comments, so if you’ve got questions, ask away.
As is the case in the famous opening scene of the series, in which McNulty struggles to understand the series of events that lead to Snot’s murder, much of the first three episodes of The Wire are devoted to translation between the argots and customs of a Baltimore rendered multicultural by bureaucracy and the drug trade. McNulty’s informant’s explanation that they had to give Snot admission to a game that was rigged against because, “Got to. It’s America, man,” explains why the men tolerated Snot, but not the rules of the dice game itself. No matter how much the characters learn by study or in conversation with each other, their excavations keep uncovering huge new structures to be mapped and navigated, much less understood.
We see Bubbles teaching Johnny that running a scam requires a little cash investment, lowering the price of heroin rather than eliminating it completely because: “We not burning no eleventh street chumps, here.” When they’ve obtained the drugs, the lessons aren’t over. “You got to pace that shit,” Bubbles tells his fragile protege, who rushes cons and hits. “I’m trying to give you a little game, man. You want to pretend like you know something.” When Johnny ends up in intensive care, Bubbles, an inveterate teacher, takes his skills to the detail, naming Barksdale crew members for Kima, and lecturing Leander Sydnor on the importance of losing his wedding ring and dancing on dead soldiers before he poses as an addict.
D’Angelo Barksdale and the crew he leads in the Pit are constantly bickering over the meaning of the world around them. Johnny’s attempt to scam them becomes the occasion for a debate about prestige and elevation. “Hamilton. He ain’t no president,” insists Wallace. “No ugly-ass white man get his face on no legal fucking tender less he president,” D’Angelo counters grumpily. It isn’t the first time they’ll disagree on how the world works. “The nigger who invented those things still working in the basement for regular wage,” D’Angelo will tell him as they discuss the wonders of chicken nuggets, insisting as he always does on the essential calcification of the social hierarchy. “He still have the idea, though,” Wallace says, seeing the gleam of satisfaction where D’Angelo only sees drudgery. D’Angelo’s lecture to the Pit crew about how chess works is a dual act of translation, an attempt to explain the game that also tells the audience why he’s so eager to convince the boys working under him that they should foreswear ambition. “It ain’t like that,” he explains to Bodie, who is convinced that if he gets to the other side of the board, he can win. “See, the king stay the king. Everything stay who he is…The pawns in the game, they get capped quick. They out of the game early.” He doesn’t get through: “Unless they some smart-ass pawns,” Bodie immediately insists.
Daniels is meeting with similar frustration in his attempt to educate Herc, Carver, and Pryzbylewski in the art of being decent police, something that appears worryingly inconsistent with being decent human beings. After they drunkenly (revealed in a pullback that reveals how many beer cans they’ve crushed and scattered on the ground) attempted to exert their authority in the Towers, sparking a riot and in the course of which Prez strikes a teenaged boy and blinds him, Daniels delivers a withering lecture to them about how to keep their jobs. He’s disgusted by the harm they’ve wrought, of course, the fact that they’ve put him in a position where he has to tell his wife “You don’t give your people up to IAD. You don’t do that.” But he’s also angry that they have no sense of how to protect themselves, an extension of knowing how the system works and is set up to protect even men as foolish and as violent as them.