Kings and Pawns

The Wire: Modern society as an elaborate chess game
by David Schwartz  posted August 1, 2008
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Making The Wire, Museum of the Moving Image, July 30, 2008

This video essay is part of a series on The Wire. Also on Moving Image Source: Dana Polan on the show's Balzacian universe, Nelson George on its complex portrayal of black America, and video essays on the Season 1, Season 2, Season 3, Season 4, and Season 5 credits by Andrew Dignan, Kevin B. Lee, and Matt Zoller Seitz.

The Wire views modern life as a medieval game—or, to be precise, a chess game. Its narrative is filled with strategies, gambits, captures, stalemates, checkmates, and the constant attempts of its players to prevail—or at least to avert their own demise—by outwitting their opponents. It is a game determined by the actions of the kings (represented by the drug chiefs, union leaders, politicians, school principals, and newspaper publishers). Yet most of the pieces are pawns, doomed foot soldiers trying to make it to the other side of the board to be promoted.

The drug dealers who deploy their muscle and wits to maintain control of their corners, the insubordinate police major who circumvents the law and creates a drug-free zone to try to clean up the streets, and the white mayoral candidate who draws a black councilman into the contest against the black incumbent so that the two will split the African-American vote, paving the way for his own victory—all comprehend that society is a game and that you always need to think a few moves ahead.

As detailed and realistic as the series is in its multilayered portrayal of present-day Baltimore, The Wire is also richly literary in the way that metaphor and symbolism are integrated into the very fiber of the show. Episode 3 of the first season contains a prime example.

The leisurely three-minute scene where drug dealer D’Angelo Barksdale takes time from a money pickup to teach his young charges, Bodie and Wallace, how to play chess, is a microcosm of the entire series. Indeed, it is so overtly symbolic that it might come across as heavy-handed if it wasn’t so rich with insight, wit, and significance. The scene opens with a jagged series of quick pans, the camera darting around the apartment project courtyard, catching quick glimpses of youths who seem to be stationed in posts around the perimeter. Throughout the season, this courtyard is the chessboard on which the game between the dealers and cops is played out—the dealers trying to hide their transactions through an elaborate relay of secret gestures and surreptitious handoffs while the cops observe from hidden posts, planning their raids. Chess is a game that combines intellect and physical force, in the service of a turf war. As in a real war, it’s all about controlling territory.

When he enters, D’Angelo laughs at Bodie and Wallace for playing the kid’s game of checkers. This joking challenge to their manhood hauntingly foretells the devastating climax of the first season, when Bodie confronts Wallace and tells him to stand up like a man and accept his death.

The heart of the scene is D’Angelo’s translation of the rules of the game into street slang (“This the king pin. Aw right? Now he da man. You get the other dude’s king, you got the game.”) Grasping the importance of the king, Bodie asks about the pawns (“What about the little ball-headed bitches there?”) and D’Angelo explains the rule of promotion: if a pawn gets to the other end of the board, it can be promoted to the most powerful piece—the queen. But the pawns are usually captured—the chess equivalent of death—before they make it there. D’Angelo explains, “The pawns, man, in the game, they be capped quick. They be out early.” Always looking for the angle, Bodie says, “Unless they some smart ass pawns.”

As it turns out, nobody in the scene is a smart-enough-ass pawn. After D’Angelo’s uncle, Avon, orders Wallace’s execution, D’Angelo turns against Avon. As payback, D’Angelo is strangled to death in prison. Bodie is gunned down in a later episode.

As engrossing as the chess scene is on first viewing, it gains in power on re-viewing, not only because we know the tragic fates of the three characters but also because we see how the chess lesson can be applied to much of the other action in the series. After all, in chess, the pieces don’t control their own moves. And series creator David Simon’s worldview is much closer to that of Greek tragedy—with its ambitious protagonists unaware that their fate is not entirely in their own hands—than to the more conventional view of most American literature, and television, where personality triumphs and good defeats evil.

A few minutes after the chess scene comes a throwaway moment that seems at first like little more than teasing banter between two detectives once their boss has left the room. The eternally impertinent Jimmy McNulty, whose disdain for authority is balanced by his ingrained professionalism, says, “I wonder what you gotta do to get thrown off this police force.” The world-weary-before-her-time detective Keema Greggs says, “Keep up with some of your shit and you just might find out.”

Viewed with DVD hindsight, this edgy little moment—insubordinate humor followed quickly by cautionary advice—is a nifty piece of foreshadowing that pays off 57 episodes later, when McNulty indeed comes up with some career-ending shit, faking evidence for a non-existent serial-killing spree in a wildly ill-conceived attempt to move forward with his legitimate but surreptitious investigation of a high-powered drug ring.

The Wire is most likely what many critics claim—the best American TV series ever produced. It is probably also the greatest justification for the existence of DVDs. (Weighing in at about two pounds, the five box sets that contain the entire series—Season 5 is released August 12—are more valuable ounce for ounce than the drugs sold in the show.) Re-watching the series, one can see exactly how the chess game unfolds and absorb the hidden depths and significance in the many multifaceted scenes during the series’ 60 hours.

For The Wire is ultimately much more intricate than a chess game. Like D’Angelo, who can be a cold-blooded dealer one moment and an introspective, thoughtful mentor the next, the characters are not simply black or white (pardon the unavoidable pun) or abstract, like chess pieces. They are complex, deeply flawed humans. (There is not a single main character in the series who cannot be described at some point as an asshole.) And while chess is played out on a single board of 64 pieces, The Wire is more like the mind-boggling 3D variant of the game, in which transparent boards are stacked on top of one another, with pieces able to move up and down among different levels. Each new season introduces a new main locale—or chessboard—but the actions in all the locales are deeply interconnected.

In this view, all of urban life, and by extension, American life, is a big game controlled by the forces of capitalism. The greatest victory may very well be the one that McNulty achieves. By getting himself thrown off the police force, he is forced out of the game. He is finally able to get into the car, as his own man, and say—as a pawn who has escaped the chess board—“Let’s go home.” 

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Courtesy HBO
Michael B. Jordan and Larry Gilliard, Jr. in The Wire.

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July 30, 2008 Making The Wire

KEYWORDS

video essay  |  television  |  The Wire

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THE AUTHOR

David Schwartz is the Chief Curator at the Museum of the Moving Image. He is also a Visiting Assistant Professor in Cinema Studies at Purchase College.

More articles by David Schwartz