The Wire, part three: On Suction

by zunguzungu

The thing about “suction” is that it sucks both ways. I’m particularly susceptible to this line of thinking given all the time I’ve spent reading about patron-client relations in African politics, but it’s significant that we first learn the term in reference to a client who must placate his patron: Prez’s sergeant refuses to take Prez back to help Daniels because, as he says, he’s got suction with Valchek and needs to stay on his good side for the next round of promotions. In other words, it’s not a power structure but an alliance between a stronger and a weaker party, a situation of asymmetrical reciprocity. But if this sucks for both parties (in the colloquial sense), both parties are also drawn together.

McNulty’s story, for example, initially begins with his precarious position between patrons: does he owe his allegiance to Judge Phelan (with whom he goes “way back”) or to his Deputy-Ops, Rawls? Having seen the entirety of the series, I’m actually struck by how inadvertent his initial faux pas appears to be (telling the truth to the judge’s questions); though the last four seasons condition you to expect McNulty to be in full on maverick mode from the start, he plays his initial apology to the deputy ops quite sincerely, and seems genuinely relieved when Landsman engineers his return to the fold (in fact, not for nothing does Landsman tell McNulty he can come home only after McNulty gives the right answer to the question “Who do you serve?”). McNulty’s “what did I do?” isn’t bullshit; he seems genuinely confused about what he’s done, and genuinely believes it when he tells Rawls that the judge “fucked me too.”

In this sense, McNulty’s education in the inner workings of patronage obligations is our own. Initially, we think Judge Phelan is the good guy, and that Rawls is a total prick, but we’re only half right: because Phelan has no obligation to McNulty — because his gifts are private and therefore without social signification — he is actually more dangerous than Rawls. He is under no obligation to return any favors, and can withdraw himself from McNulty at any time (as he essentially does). But, as we see with Daniels and Prez, even the world’s greatest fuckup can’t really alienate his superior in this system; it is built into the logic of it that a superior would much rather put a bad client on the shelf (as with Freaman first, and eventually McNulty) than actually cut them loose. This is, of course, the big difference between the police and the gangsters (who cut people loose left and right), but I’ll get to that in the next post (the difference between the police logic of “suction” and the way the term “bitch” gets used to naturalize the logic of the crime syndicate).

For now, I just want to note that in season one, then, the problem is not systemic, it’s McNulty’s clumsiness: while we see a variety of different characters rubbing different social networks against each other to get what they want, McNulty gets himself into trouble because he doesn’t seem to have a clue what he’s doing. Because he hates the system, he cannot respect its power. But by season five, we see something dramatically different, a system which has simply broken down. But it doesn’t just break down because the money faucet gets turned off: it breaks down because the result of turning off the tap reveals that the policemen need their job more than the job needs them. And for the first time, we see the asymmetrical reciprocity arrangements get abused: not only are the police stripped of the bare minimum they need (and the only concession allowed them is that they are allowed to take work elsewhere) but — for the first time perhaps? — we see a police patron completely disavow his obligation to his client, when Carver cuts Collichio loose. Season one is all about gravity; season five is all about decaying orbits.