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Chess Motif in The Wire

April 6, 2009

My first post and it’s not about novels. Well, The Wire is similar to a novel – so blah! THIS POST HAS SPOILERS FOR ALL FIVE SEASONS OF THE WIRE!

The game of chess, I think, is a crucial element in The Wire’s rich tapestry. It serves to give an important metaphor to the ruminations and the machinations of characters throughout the five seasons. It’s not only referred to but its presence is found in different ways. Let’s look at selected moments where this motif pops up.

In season one, probably the most evident use of the chess motif is the explanation of the game by D’Angelo to his crew. This scene not only serves as a brilliant way of explaining the rules of the game, but also, it gives us a parallel between the chess game and the Game. It becomes increasingly evident throughout that the Game is operating on the same rules as chess; the hoppers/pawns are ‘capped quick’ while the ‘King stay the King’.

Who is the ‘King’? In S1 it is definitely Avon and to a lesser extent Stringer (although, perhaps he is the Queen as Wallace said). However, they do not stay the ‘King’ and ‘Queen’ forever – does this mean that a new game has begun or is there something else in play? Is the institutions they are in the ‘ruler’ of the Game? It seems that every single player in the Barksdale gang is being moved like pieces on a chessboard, and they’ll end up in their inevitable positions eventually.

Each character or rather, what the character represents can almost be aligning with the pieces in chess. For example, the pawns are the hoppers; they are destined to be taken out of the game quickly. They serve as a barrier between each side, taking the fall for the bosses. In the Game, you can never be in it forever; each piece is seemingly predisposed to move as their chess counterpart moves.

This chess motif isn’t only in the drug Game, but it can be attributed to the Baltimore police. In S1, Lester says ‘that all the pieces matter’ – a lovely metaphor for the differences between The Wire and other television. It can also be about chess, or a jigsaw puzzle, but in chess, ‘all the pieces matter’. In the police, it seems that the cops on the beat are the pawns – often being used as a barrier for the ‘top-floor bosses’. They put more cops on the street to make it look like they’re preventing crime.

Take a step back and you’ll see another chess game being played: the politicians. It is interesting that the bosses in the police are the Kings, the bishops etc but in the game being played by the politicians they are the pawns. As Carcetti says in S5 (I think) ‘drop on your swords’, Royce says something similar to this as well. Are the politicians the true King and Queens? I don’t think so because they are still pieces, who is the player moving them?

However, what if you do not play, as Marla Daniels tells Cedric ‘you cannot lose if you do not play’ but is it as simple as this? Well, he does continue to play but in a new position. He begins as a pawn he changes to become King (for a very short time). Although, on the wider scale he is still a pawn.

The image of D’Angelo explaining chess is used twice, in S1 and a short clip in the montage in S5. That short clip of his hand moving a piece acts as almost a bookend between the entire series. All the politics, the policing, the drug dealing of the five seasons are all movements on a chessboard. The montage in S5 shows a collection of clips from the previous seasons, perhaps, telling us that these things will repeat themselves. It shows us characters morphing into other pieces; Michael becomes the new Omar, Dukie the new Bubbles (although that is a very simplified observation). As the tagline for The Wire tells us:

In the projects. On the docks. In City Hall. In the schools. And now, in the media. The places and faces have changed, but the game remains the same.

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