“…a little slow, a little late.”
There’s a scene in episode five that surprises me every time I see it (and I’ve seen it five times now), mainly because I never remember that it even exists. In fact, it’s the scene that contains the “…a little slow, a little late” quote. Avon (with D’Angelo in tow) goes to visit his brother, who happens to be in what appears to be a coma caused by a bullet to the temple. The scene – an admittedly weird one, seemingly outside of and disconnected from most of the rest of the narrative – opens an important window onto Avon’s character. We’ve already seen signs of the kingpin’s extreme paranoia, beginning from the top of this episode, when he tells Wee-Bey to get the phone line out of (one of) Avon’s girlfriends’ apartment. Bey hesitates (“we going past careful”), but like the solider he is, he follows orders. In the long run, Avon is right to mistrust phones – his crew is careful, and they’re not paranoid, and downfall is still inevitable.
The coma scene lets us know that Avon is aware of and realistic about this inevitability. All it takes for everything to fall apart is to be “a little slow, a little late,” and, he rightly wonders, “how you ain’t never gonna be slow, never be late?” There’s probably never been a Baltimore drug dealer as thorough about his operation as Avon (although Prop Joe might have something to say about that—that’s not a spoiler, is it?), and even he knows that it only goes so far. It’s impossible to stay on top forever.
The recipient of Avon’s lesson is, of course, D’Angelo, who seems destined to come up late and/or slow sooner than later. He’s a thinker, but not cut from the street smart Avon or business savvy Stringer molds. It’s more accurate to describe D as an overthinker, hung up on the moral implications of his actions, and even more hung up on other people’s perceptions of his actions. He takes his girl to a fancy restaurant down in the Inner Harbor, and really, that’s the whole point of being part of the game, right? You take the risk for the money, and the money doesn’t do you any good if you don’t spend it on some of life’s finer things. That’s her take on it, at least: “you got money, you get to be whatever you say you are.” No one in that restaurant can tell or remotely cares about how D made his cash (and to some degree, who really cares at all about the drug game? It’s the violence that matters – we’ll revisit this idea during the “Hamsterdam” era, I’m sure), but he can’t shake the idea that everyone knows, everyone thinks he’s out of place, and everyone stands in judgment. His is an entirely different kind of paranoia than Avon’s, and certainly far less productive.
Back on the detail, Lester’s not paranoid, exactly, but he’s certainly concerned about how slowly the investigation is moving. They get up on D’Angelo’s pager, and it’s a huge moment, and they turn the pager on…and they wait. It’s a complete anti-climax, but perfectly in keeping with Lester’s overall policing style: be patient, keep your head down, and wait until you stumble across something you can use. The trick is that you’ve got to hurry up to get to the waiting, and the Baltimore Police Department doesn’t do hurrying up all that well. Getting up on the pager is helpful and somewhat timely, allowing the detail to catch the flurry of activity surrounding Wallace leading Stringer and company to Brandon (who happens to be at the same arcade as Wallace and Poot – coincidence, sure, but also a reminder that these are all kids, and kids who basically travel in the same circles, at that). The pager isn’t enough though; if they were up on the payphones in the pit, they’d have direct actionable intelligence (or at least as much as they could expect to get from Stringer over a phone). The bureaucratic nature of the BPD (and of the American legal system in general) almost dictates that they’ll always be all kinds of slow, and at least a little late.