1.2: Puppies and Parasites

By Peter Honig

“I owe you, okay?”—Cantrell

Daniels is immediately reluctant to head the newly-formed Barksdale Detail, but it’s not until the opening scenes of “The Detail” that he begins to realize the real scope of his predicament. It’s starts off with the detail’s exile to the basement, but then he sees the parade of humps who Burrell gave him for the case. They appear to be a ragged assortment: two lazy drunks hiding behind seniority, a dull wall-shooting reject, and a mute wallflower absorbed in his own strange trinkets. Daniels asks for more manpower, and he gets the department’s waste (“dead wood,” “garbage”). At this point he realizes that he is being dragged down into the quicksand of departmental politics courtesy of a special force known as “suction.”

Suction is almost a unit of currency in the Police Department, as well as any bureaucratic institution. It is a unique kind of reward that an underling receives from a superior. Its can take the form of preferential treatment, access to information, protection from harm, and most importantly (especially for those company men with an eye on a higher rank) a leg up in the fight for promotions. Of course, nothing comes for free, and there are many different ways for an underling to attain suction (anything from nepotism to obedience to silence). In this case, Daniels finds himself totally without suction.

He needs better men, and his first impulse is to run to Pearlman for help. As he explains the situation to her, he begins to understand the ugly politics behind the case. Instead of allowing Daniels to pick his men, Burrell lets the other Lieutenants send whoever they want. Thus the humps. The real problem for Daniels is not so much the men, as it is the fact that Burrell didn’t even give him a choice. “He’s sending me a message on this,” Daniels says, repeating Season 1’s most-used phrase. The priority is not to bring down the Barksdales. Burrell just needs enough arrests to appease Phelan. Daniels asks Pearlman to go up the chain to the DA on his behalf, but she has no more power than he does. He begs and tries to sweet-talk her, but all he gets for his efforts is a lame fragmentary cliche: “make lemonade.”

So he goes to somebody more on his own level. The man is Cantrell, the Lieutenant who happily dumped the dangerously trigger-happy Prez onto Daniels. This scene is a high stakes negotiation carefully hidden behind the cordial tone of colleagues. It starts out with Daniels complaining about the humps he inherited (including a classic misjudgment when he calls Freamon a “cuddly housecat”) and he finally gets an explanation for why the incompetent Prez is still on the force. He is Major Valchek’s son-in-law. Like D’Angelo in the first episode, a family relationship protects an underqualified underling. Suction at its finest.

Daniels then states the true stakes of the negotiation. “I can’t carry him on this.” He wants to dump Prez (undump him, really), but Cantrell rejects that idea. “You know I can’t. I would but I can’t. I gave Valchek my word on this.” It is clear that the key element here is Valchek and his power. By giving Valchek his “word,” Cantrell earns a favor from a valuable superior.

Daniels doggedly follows Cantrell onto the elevator to make him say this explicitly. “So you got suction with Valchek?” Daniels asks. “Yeah,” Cantrell admits, “I cross him on this, I’m fucked on the next round of promotions. For Christ’s sake, Cedric, I’m right there with you on the short list for Major.” This confirms what Bunk previously told McNulty about Daniels’ ambition. More importantly, it shows that the negotiation is really about a lot more than personnel. It is about the Lieutenants’ power. These men are equals, but they are also competing for the same promotion, a competition which Daniels seems to be losing a grip on.

And this is where Daniels begins to ruminate on the nature of “suction” in the force. In a frustrated tone, he describes the flow of power and influence in the Baltimore political world. “Valchek has suction with the First District Democratic Club, and they got suction with the Mayor, and I’m the runt without a tit here.” This line paints some interesting and disturbing images of the power structure.

The phrase “runt without a tit” conjures an animalistic image, a Darwinian struggle where squirming puppies fight for the limited maternal sustenance of their mother. Suction is our most primal instinct (suckling is one of the few impulses that are fully developed at birth). In the opening section of The Corner, Simon and Burns describe the role of the drug trade on the corner with similar language, calling it a ”life-giving elixir.” For the police, the primal elixir of suction keeps Prez on the force, and gives Cantrell a powerful advocate in Major Valchek.

But a closer look at Daniels’ description of suction reveals a disturbing distortion of this flow of energy within the hyper-masculine world of the force. The chain of suction that goes from Prez to Cantrell to Valchek to the First District Democratic Club to the Mayor is not a nourishing system; it is a parasitic one. Anybody with any degree of power will attract people willing to do whatever it takes to leech off of them. It is less like nursing puppies and more like the grotesque conceit of The Human Centipede, where multiple people are surgically linked to form a single digestive tract. Of course, nobody wants to be at the back end of that.

Just as things seem hopeless for the power-starved Daniels, Cantrell slips up. As he rushes off of the elevator, Cantrell tries to end the negotiation with a dismissive “I owe you, okay.” Daniels’ eyes immediately widen as he sees the opportunity and chases down his rival. “Give me Sydnor.” He recognizes that holding onto Prez is valuable to Cantrell, but also to Valchek. If the Major is willing to offer suction to Cantrell for protecting his son-in-law, he will also offer it to Daniels. There is always plenty of suction to go around.

Cantrell relents, saying “Fine, Cedric, fuck, whatever, Jesus Christ.” He is exasperated, and he should be, because Daniels just worked him over in two ways. First, Daniels’ offer to protect Prez (“for as long as I can”) earns him suction with Cantrell, which he immediately cashes in for Sydnor, Cantrell’s best man. And second, by offering his own suction to Prez, he positions himself to gain favor with Valchek (and at the start of the next episode, we see him cashing in on that as well). Daniels skilfully subverts the parasitic chain in order to improve the detail in a tangible way (as long as Prez doesn’t screw it up). The tightly-wound Cedric celebrates with a rare outpouring of emotion: he smiles.

This negotiation shows the true inner workings of a system powered by parasitic suction. Maternal suction nurtures a genuine and lasting connection between parents and children. Parasitic suction, on the other hand, is impersonal. Any host will do, as long as the parasite can feed. The fact that the end of the negotiation is framed around a display of three flags (city, state, and nation) shows that this type of power flow runs all the way up and down the chain, uniting all of our interconnected hierarchies.

The bigger problem with a parasitic system is that it virtually nullifies any consideration of skill. It becomes a system dominated by favoritism and political wrangling. Prez keeps a job at which he is dangerously incompetent, and worse yet, the men who protect that incompetence end up securing their own promotions on the backs of that same protection. With all of these political parasites feeding off of the system, merit becomes the real runt of the litter.

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