“Maybe we won.”

Proposition Joe is an amazing character. The first time we meet him, he’s coaching the east side projects basketball team against Avon’s west siders. He’s wearing a suit – not the fancy, multi-button monstrosity you might expect from a stereotypical gangster, but something off the rack, mismatched, even. It’s modest and low-key, much like Joe himself. Avon gives him shit about it (and the fact that Joe is carrying around a clipboard, even though he has no idea how to draw up a play), and Joe’s calm and rational response is: “look the part, be the part.” In actuality, Joe does the opposite – he doesn’t look in any way like the ringleader of a major drug organization, and that’s probably why he’s so successful. He even hustles Avon Barksdale and gets away with it. And we don’t know it yet, but this guy is going to prove to be awfully important the rest of the way – we might not even realize exactly how important he is the first time around, but Prop Joe just as essential to this story as anyone outside of the central characters.

Prop Joe’s smooth success leads us to another quick moment that I love: once Joe puts in his ringer during the second half of the game, we get a clear illustration of the difference between Avon and Stringer. Avon knows immediately that he’s been scammed, and his focus shifts straight to Prop Joe – he’s not seeking revenge, but he’s already filed this one away as a loss. He’s already thinking about next steps. Stringer, meanwhile (and remember, he’s the “brains” of this operation), is still wondering who “this midget” taking over the game is. String is a details man. Avon is the visionary. If we want to draw the connection to the last essay, we can look at it like this: String has to work within the system, and like a good company man, will keep hacking away at the problem in front of him until he’s told to do otherwise. Avon simply reframes the conversation when he feels it’s time to move on.

And then we get maybe the defining Avon Barskdale sequence. The cops follow him from the game – three cars, completely surrounding him – and Avo knows it’s them. He drives for a while, pulls over, and just sits by the side of the road. He drives up one block, doubles back, and does everything he can to throw the police off his tracks. It’s not because he’s got anything on him, or that he’s heading to some high level drug meet; he later tells Stringer that he was on his way to get a haircut. But Avon Barksdale is nothing if not careful, and he’s certainly not about to let anyone follow him, ever, for any reason. Ditching the cops is something any criminal mastermind might do though; Avon has to take it a step further. As he passes Daniels, Avon gives him the old Dikembe Mutombo “not in my house” finger wag. It’s not enough for Avon to lose the cops. He wants them to know that he knows they’re onto him, and he’s not going to let himself get caught.

The cops, of course, only stumble onto the game in the first place because the streets are so quiet; it’s by making their way to the game that they get their first real Avon sighting. And with all the legwork that they’ve been doing on the roofs, on the wire, tracking the paper trail (which begins in earnest during this episode), it’s some good old-fashioned luck that leads them to Avon. Or so it seems. It’s Poot – one of the lowest level guys in the game – who lets slip that the boss is on the sidelines. There’s no degree of difficulty there, no police work – it’s an old-fashioned slip of the tongue. Watching the series again though, it’s much easier to realize how real police work has led to this moment: when Herc and Carver show up at the game, it’s Bodie who initiates conversation with them. They’ve built a rapport through their many encounters, and it’s second nature for him to go ahead and talk to the cops. And so, the lesson in terms of police work: sometimes, it’s not about getting the guy to directly flip on someone higher up. Sometimes it’s just about developing a relationship.

The playwright Tony Kushner says (and as usual, I’m paraphrasing here) that all any dramatist can write is relationships; everything else – including race, politics, gender, whatever – is just informing those relationships. Sometimes it’s hard to realize that this is true even on The Wire, where (as we’ve already discussed) we’re constantly watching the creation, maintenance, and deterioration of social systems. At base though, I think David Simon and his writing team are arguing that those personal relationships are both the foundation for and antidote to those systems. Bodie’s rapport with Herc and Carver gets the cops information that they couldn’t get by busting heads (or even taking pictures from the roof).

Similarly, Wallace’s personal relationship with D’Angelo allows the former to make the decision to get out of the game. It’s impossible to imagine Wallace going to Avon, Wee-Bey, or even Stringer with his plan to go back to school (as a freshman at sixteen years old) and being heard, let alone supported. But D not only listens, he gives Wallace some money to get started on his new life, probably because D sees so much of himself in the kid, and probably wishes on some level that he could get out of the game himself. Knowing what we know about the end of this season (and I’ll avoid the specific spoilers, but it’s getting hard to dance around the inevitable), this becomes a heartbreaking exchange (and prepare yourself, because I’ll be using the word “heartbreak” a whole lot in the next three essays): Wallace is so close to starting over, even though the odds are stacked against him, but you can’t help realize (at least in retrospect) that he really has no shot – there’s no system or structure set up to help him survive outside of this world. Re-watching this scene after you’ve watched the whole series, you’re struck by (okay, this is slightly more spoilertastic) exactly how big of a break Namond gets in season 4. And maybe this goes against the whole premise of the last two paragraphs, but whatever: as important as relationships are, sometimes they’re not nearly enough to safely extract someone from a system that’s harming him. Sometimes (most times?) you’ve got to have a stronger system in place to protect him.

Which brings us, quite coincidentally, to Bubs, and his slow-growing desire to get clean. Early in the episode, we see Bodie hit the pit with a new batch of yellow-top testers. The fiends rush him, and he decides it’s not worth the trouble to conduct this bit of business in any kind of orderly (or even human) fashion, so he tosses the testers to the ground. The fiends scramble to grab them (it looks an awful lot like Hamsterdam), and Bubs is right in the middle, excited to have grabbed more than his share. We get to watch that excitement shift almost immediately though, as he’s almost embarrassed by the presence of Waylon (the speaker from the NA meeting). In the honest conversation that follows, we see glimpses of how this could all work out for Bubs – he’s starting to really think about quitting, and he’s got both a personal relationship and a system in place to help him. It’s not a guarantee of getting clean, but it’s certainly his best start.