S1E3
“The king stay the king.”

Again, minor spoilers abound. Proceed with caution.

The corollary to last episode’s “you cannot lose if you do not play” is this week’s “the king stay the king” — when the game is rigged, there’s no avenue for ascendency. So the question becomes this: if you can’t move up, why bother trying? In y though, people do try. They try all the time. McNulty tries to fight the system, basically declaring himself the de facto head of an entirely new system within the boundaries of the old one. Stringer tries to move up constantly, first from the poverty of the life into which he was born, then out of the illicit lifestyle he has created for himself. Bubs tries to get better. D’angelo (and later Ziggy, among others) try to rise up from the undesirable roles they play in their communities, striving to become the big, powerful, important man they’ve always wanted to be. The quest towards a better life might a Sisyphusian task, but for a lot of folks, it’s still the only journey they can envision.

I’ll hold on D’angelo here, since this is, in some way, his season. It’s clear to see that in his mind, he’s the next Stringer – a mind for business, an ability to school the young ones, all the money and prestige that comes along with being the brains of the organization. Problem is, he’s more McNulty than Stringer. He sees another way of doing things, of running the drug game without killing and violence, of living the high life without having to get your hands dirty. He actually co-opts McNulty’s language when talking about the game, illustrating right there that he doesn’t have the right stuff – if the police can influence you at all, let alone that readily, you can’t run the streets. You could see an alternate universe in which D could find himself on the side of the Baltimore Police, and he’d probably make a decent detective someday. His sad lot then is that he was born in the wrong place, on the wrong side of the game, with the absolutely dead wrong uncle.

Shardeen becomes the ideal counterpoint for D in a lot of ways, although we might not realize it as we’re watching it the first time around. We know she’s more than just a stripper because of her big awkward glasses (yes, even The Wire sometimes missteps into clunky symbolic character clues), but we still see her in the early episodes as a gold-digger really, someone who is into D because of his cash and perceived power. And there, exactly, is D’s fatal flaw: it’s not his power that he uses to get ahead, not his smarts or his business acumen or even the fact that he killed a guy – it’s all Avon. The tragedy of D’angelo Barksdale is one of self-reliance, or more accurately, a lack thereof.

Episode three introduces us to three major players in the show’s future, and each is brought to our attention with great subtlety and attention to the details that define their personalities. I’ll flip through them in order of importance, starting with Valchek, who we first encounter in a closed door police conference, working to get his screw-up son-in-law Presbo off the hook. Amazingly, he succeeds. Presbo might be the worst cop on the force – he’s clearly not cut out for the job, or at least the part of the job for which he wants to be cut out (shades of D’angelo) – but he’s got suction with Valchek, who is the absolute master of suction. In fact, Valchek might be the best example of retroactive inevitability in the whole show. When we meet him, it should be clear that there’s only one place for him to end up. And spoiler alert: he gets there.

Part of Valchek’s success comes back to our recurring theme: stay in your lane, know what you’re good at, don’t make waves. Valchek’s not natural (or even particularly good) police, but he’s an absolute master of “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” Lester Freeman, on the other hand, is nothing if not pure unadulterated police – and we get our first sense of that in episode three. Until this episode, Lester is lumped in with the other undesirable castoffs sent to fill out Daniels’ special detail. He sits at his desk all day, handling paperwork and carving model antique furniture (the perfect hobby for a the kind of cop he turns out to be), and giving not even an inkling that he’s capable of offering even the most rudimentary assistance on this case. And then it happens: he overhears that Avon was a Golden Gloves boxer, and he sees an angle. He can help this case. He doesn’t spend any time explaining himself. He goes out and contributes. There’s no drama here – there’s just a natural police doing natural police work. And now, with Lester, this case actually has a chance of being cracked, although we STILL don’t know that.

(Two other minor details from Lester’s introduction: first, he gets winded climbing up the stairs to the gym, which is just a sweet, perfect little character moment – we’re watching a guy who has been on ice for years, and he’s just now decided to thaw himself out. Second, the entire sequence introduces the world of boxing, which plays a substantial role in season four {and three, I believe}. Minor stuff, but tight storytelling.)

And then. Finally.

Omar.

I’m not sure there’s ever been a more perfect introduction of any character anywhere ever, although you wouldn’t realize that on first viewing. First pass around, he’s just some guy in a van. The only possible reaction to him is “who the fuck is that?” But in retrospect, I mean, Jesus: it’s the introduction to the baddest dude in Baltimore, and it’s entirely in character. He’s calm, taking it all in, completely undetected and under the radar, looking down on the whole drug trade, entirely unimpressed by the raggedy operation – and we get this all with just a handful of words. Later, Sydnor and Bubs are out doing hand-to-hands, Kima is doing surveillance them, and OH SHIT SO IS OMAR (that’s virtually word for word from my notes). We still don’t know who he is. A cop? A dealer? All we do know is that this dude is smart; his one line in the scene is “well now,” and we get it. He’s taking it all in. He’s got this game figured out in a way that no one else does. It’s not long before we see him rush the stash house, ruining life for both the crooks and the cops, entirely changing the game, and (if you haven’t bought in already) boldly announcing that you’re watching something that (a) you’ve never seen before and (b) is markedly better and more complex than anything you have seen before.

And we still don’t even know that Omar’s gay.

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