Although I haven’t been counting, I feel like this phrase must have been uttered at least two dozen times over the entire season. As I was doing my close reading, I really started thinking about all the things that result from the “games” that each character plays.
For Kima and the rest of the street level police, constant danger is “all in the game”. When Kima gets shot, she accepts it as a natural consequence of her job. But as she lies in the hospital bed, she debates whether or not staying in the game is worth it. Her girlfriend wants her to transfer to a desk job, but Kima feels that she belongs on the beat. Even though she’s seen the dark side of the police game and has the scars to prove it, it is difficult for her to give it up.
For Johnny and Bubbles, harassment from drug dealers, living in the slums, and the danger of disease is “all in the game”. This is particularly noticeable in the episode I analyzed for tomorrow (ep. 5), when Johnny tells bubbles that in addition to the beating he received at the hands of the pit crew, he has learned that he’s infected with HIV. Bubbles asks Johnny why it has to be this way, why they can get stomped by drug dealers and be powerless to fight back, to which Johnny replies “It’s all in the game, right?” In the game the drug users play, getting screwed by dealers is a given, and since society focuses on confiscating drugs instead of treating addicts, dirty needles and fatal disease come with the territory too. Bubbles encourages Johnny to stay in NA, but Johnny insists on getting back in the game. In parallel to other characters we see, although they realize the consequences of the game, they are powerless to change it and find themselves unable to escape.
For Wallace, Poot, D’Angelo and the other street level members of the Barksdale organization, the game is all they have. The younger members are public school dropouts, and as Stringer puts it “What, you think a nigger’s gonna get a job? You think these niggers gonna be like, ‘Fuck it, lemme quit this game here and go to college’?” Once they’re in the game, they’re in it till they die. With no other opportunities, they are forced to stay in the game, even after they realize the moral consequences that come with the violence inherent to the drug trade. When Wallace wants to get out of the game and return to school, D’Angelo, who is beginning to harbor similar desires, supports him. But as we see with Wallace’s (and SEASON TWO SPOILER: D’angelo’s) deaths, the only way out of this game is in a coffin.
There are a lot of parallels between these sets of characters. As the season progresses, members of each group begin to question whether staying in the game is worth the risks. But as we see, getting out of the game is not easy. Kima struggles to resign to a desk job because she is a street cop at heart. Bubbles struggles against his addiction to get clean and get his life back on track. Wallace and D’Angelo want to get out of the game, but are held back by the allegiances they’ve made and the opportunities they’ve given up. Like the Greek tragedies David Simon based the show on, the characters are all doomed, victims of the institutions or “games” they’re players in. Whether they’re soldiers for the police bureaucracy or Avon’s crew, even if they're just junkies living from score to score, they all share the same struggle, and unless they can find a way to break free from the game, they will all share the same fate.