“You cannot lose if you do not play.”
There’s a minor spoiler or two here. You might not even realize that they’re spoilers as you read them, but I thought I should mention it.
So there’s a moment in S1E1 that I forgot to mention, and it’s part of what makes rewatching The Wire so darn rewarding. In a passing exchange, McNulty mentions the detail to which he’d least like to be assigned: the boat. It’s a throwaway the first time you watch it – you have no idea how important that line will be (it’s the gateway to the entire second season). It’s a fatalistic, almost heartbreaking line upon second viewing though. Now you know that no matter how hard you try – in fact, maybe because of how hard you try – you’re going to end up exactly where you least want to be. In the world of The Wire, at least.
Episode two is full of kindred passing moments – tiny individual beats that speak volumes, informing both the straightforward narrative we’re slowly starting to follow (on first viewing) and the complicated worldview that is illustrated by that narrative (particularly after watching more than once). I won’t recount the episode step by storytelling step, but I want to highlight and unpack a few of these seemingly simple sequences:
*The detail shows up at the new office – hidden away in a basement, next to the boiler room – and we see immediately how shafted they truly are. There’s not even furniture down there, but there’s a phone. And it’s ringing. No one cares if this detail succeeds, nor are they willing to lift a finger to help them…but there is still an expectation that the work will get done. In a way, it reflects what Stringer tells D’Angelo when he moves him to the low-rises: you screwed up, so now you’ve got to prove that you can make something out of nothing.
*One of my favorite lines of the season comes during the Chicken McNugget discussion in the pit (even despite the fact that a lot of D’Angelo’s dialogue feels wooden, most notable “money be green.” Even this can be explained away though – D’s not cut out for this line of work, and you can feel it in his speech. More on this later). The guy who invented the McNugget might not have seen a dime from his creation, but Wallace dismisses the importance of this with his sweet-faced hopper mentality: “still had the idea though.” We’re already falling for this kid, this innocent child with the worker bee mentality – an American mentality, really, maybe even Jimmy McNulty’s mentality – it’s not so much about the credit as it is about how you attack the problem that’s placed in front of you.
*A minor detail, but worth mentioning: it’s during this episode that we first see Rhonda’s attraction to Daniels. Of course, she’s still sleeping with Jimmy – against her better judgment – but there’s a spark. And there’s no spark between Daniels and his wife, who have a very businesslike political arrangment kind of marriage. Similarly (and I don’t remember if this is episode one or two), as soon as D introduces his girl to the bosses, Stringer is overtly checking her out. Groundwork is all there.
*Bubs and the hats might be the prototypical example of a sequence on The Wire: Kima and company are on the roof, taking pictures as Bubs slaps a red hat on the heads of the major players in the Barksdale organization. We’ve got a sense of what’s happening already, but Herc and Carver don’t – and there’s no immediate explanation. This show trusts its audience to figure things out or at least stay with those things until the explanation arrives. At the same time, we’re sticking close to character development for Bubs: he’s helping the cops out of his anger about Johnny, yes, but how’s he doing it? Through a business hustle. Bubs, more than anything, more than an addict even, is a businessman. There’s no way to realize that at this point of the show, but in retrospect, it’s shockingly clear.
*Back to D’Angelo – this whole season, in some ways, is about watching him break. That storyline builds, of course, to “what happened to the boy, String?”, which happens to be one of those all-time great television scenes (The Wire has five or six of them, I think – I’ll try to count them out as we hit them). The end of D’s interrogation is pure perfection: his lawyer (Levy) shows up to save his ass, calls him out, treats him like an idiotic child – and D still stands up like a tough guy, eye-fucking the cops as if he just beat the case on pure killer instinct. Levy drags D out of the precinct, slaps him in the back of the head, and D flexes again – he’s entirely impotent. And since we’re on the foreshadowing tip, I’ll just briefly mention Stringer throughout season three here. No matter how bad you are, there’s somebody who completely neutralizes your power when you step out of your lane.
*Which brings us back to Marla Daniels, who tells her husband that “the game is rigged, but you cannot lose if you do not play.” This is true for the law enforcement game. It’s true for the drug game. It’s true for the politics game. In a way, it sums up the attitude of a lot of the children towards the education game – you’re going to fail if you try, so there’s no point in trying at all. The point that The Wire makes early on (then spends five seasons complicating, illustrating, and exploring) is simple: there is no winning.
It’s nihilistic, really.