This article contains The Deuce spoilers.
The Deuce Episode 2
Last week was all about nostalgia for a bygone New York, and the sleaze that decorated it like so many Christmas lights. Well tonight, David Simon opened his presents during the second episode of The Deuce, and we’re actually getting a far better clarity about what this series is going to be. Because in spite of all the flesh and peep show perversion that is baked into its sales pitch, this is not really about the service at all. What we have here is a series about labor and industry… and how the stagnation of an ancient business model (prostitution) is about to give way to the unionizing of a new robust market. Yep, leave it to the creator of The Wire to find the political and economic padding beneath the porn industry’s bedding.
Indeed, the show rather wisely did not even mention pornography directly in its pilot. Oh sure, there were some grim and grimy nudie theaters in the background of those slick 42nd Street redressings of Hamilton Heights. However, as this episode later drills down, porn is hardly the billion-dollar industry it is in 2017. It’s not even an industry; it’s an untapped market full of entrepreneurial opportunity, as the demand is being currently met by the cruddiest of alternatives. As episode two, aptly titled “Show and Prove,” displays, the porn industry was still mostly illegal in 1971. The unusual amount of exposition dumped about the subject matter was useful for this reviewer, since my understanding of that “field” comes from movies set years later after the attempted “mainstreaming of porn,” such as seen in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver or Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights. Yet there was apparently a time, even in ‘70s New York, where this was still considered a little too seedy.
Porn is sold in brown paper bags in smut shops around the Deuce, and theaters served as the grossest of pickup spots for professionals looking to service theatergoers while they chewed popcorn and watched what would now be called “softcore” (no penetration). Most tellingly of all though is that the prostitutes who were showing up on the screen were not even given credited names. (The horror!)
So the stage is thus set for the hour’s first of two narrative threads: how do you make money in porn, exactly? It’s introduced to the story when Ashley, fresh from getting a gruesome armpit wound by C.C. for wanting a night off, is getting nude photographs taken for her on the down low. The fact that she’s doing this without C.C.’s permission is dangerous and guaranteed to come back to haunt her. For despite having the curves of a pinup model, in the sex industry, her gender is devalued to being little more than that of cattle. Not that trying to audition while on the hush-hush is giving her any more power.
The photographer makes dippy promises about movie stars getting their big break in porn (the only one I’ve ever heard about that maybe being true for is Joan Crawford), and then demands that Ashley pay him $40 for the privilege of disseminating her pics to the “filmmakers.”
Meanwhile, Darlene has an even greater indignity that she should’ve nevertheless seen coming: that one john who paid her for the chance to film them having sex has “shockingly” sold that film to the nascent porn providers who sell it over the counter in the kind of establishments that make Rudy Giuliani weep. And there is no recourse for Darlene either. Since pornography with visible penetration is illegal in 1971, there is nowhere she can turn regarding IP theft or defamation, and in fact the porn industry is so meager that the store selling the films winds up (temporarily) shutdown later in the hour due to the said selling.
Darlene eventually runs to her “daddy” in Larry, who can barely be bothered to look up from his breakfast about the situation.
The subplot that fully exploits this element though, and gives our first inkling of how porn can be repackaged as empowering by HBO, is the trials and tribulations of “Candy.” While she owns a fairly clean and well-located studio apartment, it is obviously no place to raise a child. Instead, she gets to visit her son on the weekends while her mother watches on. Reproachfully. Mommy Dearest loves her daughter, but is all too aware of how Candy (real name: Eileen) earns her living… nor can she stop with the passive aggressive comments about Eileen growing out of playing the Mystery Date board game.
Still, this is about as good as life can ever get for Eileen when she is a woman on her own, earning what she can under a red street lamp. The pimps in the apparently small Times Square sex trade (does everyone really eat breakfast at the same time?) humor Candy. For now. Larry is the next up this week after the pilot’s Rodney to try and convince Eileen that she needs an “escort.” Of course they really just want to dip into her money, as well as anything else. And eventually, they’re going to stop asking nicely, such as Larry’s smiling threats over coffee.
But even if she doesn’t have to worry about pimps putting the squeeze on her, she still could end up in a dire situation with no one to help (as we’ll get to momentarily with Lori), or get cheated by the worst kind of john. And even then, her larger income still doesn’t translate to more than a studio apartment. That’s probably why Candy is so enamored at the sight of lights, camera, and filtered action on the porn set.
At first, she’s wisely skeptical about the “movie business.” As a business that has existed since at least the dawn of flash photography—if one doesn’t count drawings and painting alternatives—there is something to be said about only being paid for one “ride” while audiences will be able to enjoy the exploits indefinitely. But that just means there is space for a new industry mogul, which all signs suggest Eileen could become.
First of all, when she agrees to appear in a pornographic film, she reveals to have a more natural knack for it than others. Despite being a novice, she can fake it better for the camera—although I’m still not sure why the street protocol of no kissing is disregarded when a camera gets involved—and she also has a fascination with the whole process. Indeed, she is figuring out quickly that unlike walking on a street, she could technically make these herself and own the films that get distributed. As opposed to dealing with the kind of sketchy clientele who would run into the night to pay for sex, she could potentially be producing films for the ample sex shops who would pay accordingly. And, in theory, the work is a lot safer in a semi-professional setting as opposed to behind locked doors with strangers paying by the hour or less.
Then again, the only way to start moving into such a conceptually liberating market for herself is to, well, lure away other pimps’ prostitutes from their currently limited industrial prospects.
Which brings us to the other major issue: capital. Eileen doesn’t have the money yet, but an idea is forming. In the meantime, The Deuce reminds viewers just how grotesque this lifestyle is for women who by choice or circumstance have been pushed onto the streets by the current business plan.
The hour also thus begins by showing the day-in, day-out toll of being policed for an illegal activity. Cops show up and with beleaguered weariness arrest the courtesans on 42nd Street without proper identification. Into the Paddy Wagon they go, and back to a jail they know so well that they have already picked their choices for Chinese takeout. Presumably Officer Flanagan might also be taking one or two upstairs for some “private” interrogation. After all, he tried to give such business to Abby last week, and it’s noted tonight that he’s not wearing his wedding ring.
The episode even ends on the monotony of this lifestyle getting broken up once Rodney makes an admittedly amusing comment about these beat officers’ duty: What’s it like sweeping up leaves on a windy day?
The more disturbing elements come, however, in scenes between C.C. and Lori. The pimp with the smoothest lines is already grooming Ashley’s replacement with Lori. First, we see him sampling the merchandise and apparently being quite pleased with the wares too. She’s dealt with pimps before and does everything she can to avoid rolling her eyes at his thrifty promises, yet she is both perhaps too comfortable with C.C. and still a bit wide-eyed about his words.
Lori wants to be a “star,” and C.C. fills her head with images of them running away to France… or somewhere. He just needs his bitches to be earning him top dollar every night, and once he has enough, he’ll be out of this cesspool. It’s hard for me to know if he’s aware he’s peddling a steaming line of bullshit or if he actually believes in it at the moment. Either way, it’s almost impossible to imagine him not making these exact same promises to Ashley once upon a time.
During his romancing, however, C.C. also takes Lori to a ’71 porno theater in an attempt to preemptively terrify her. Whispering sweet nothings about how his hoes will be treated like the queens of the Deuce, C.C. then warns if she ever runs off with another pimp or betrays him that the cut and discarded prostitutes who are forced to service these theater patrons for $5 a go will be the “Ghost of Christmas Future.” Whether he uses knives, forced heroin, or any variety of weapons to inflict that fate, it seems likely that he’s done it before.
Whatever he promises, she is at the end of the day nothing but cattle to him. This is crystallized in The Deuce’s most disturbing scene yet. When Lori is taken by a john masquerading as a cop into the back of a suspiciously unmarked car, C.C. shows up with a knife that he sticks deep into the dirtbag’s stomach. And for once, this act of violence has justification. The john wasn’t an undercover cop; he was an apparent serial killer (and, as we later learn, a well-liked biology teacher from the nearby high school!) who planned to kidnap Lori for presumable dissection. C.C. sees through the con and sticks a knife and fork into the scheme. But then, even as Lori screams under the dying body lying on her lap, C.C. tells her to get back “on the bike” and go earn him some more money on the street corner.
Right now, the labor of the sex industry is completely at the mercy of its current capital: pimps who are worried about “the game,” and how the fuzz, their competition, and even their employees might want to bring them down. Perhaps those employees just want a better alternative than ending up with a dead murderer rotting on their lap while being told to clean themselves up for another go?
The rest of the hour followed the two plotlines that have yet to really intersect with the sex industry in any meaningful way. The first involves James Franco’s Vinnie losing his straight and narrow vision when he’s offered to own a bar by a mobster. He’s already on shaky ground getting into bed with organized crime, but now Vinnie is getting the chance to be his own man, supposedly with a simple landlord who wants a thousand dollars every month, plus a percentage.
That’s all fine and dandy until the strings show up later, Vince. Still, he is going to retrofit a gay bar in his own image, so yay?
The other storyline of note is one of an apparent soft reboot. Last week, Abby was introduced as a girl who could ace her exams in her sleep (or while sleeping with her professor). During the second episode, however, she has apparently flunked out of every class on her sophomore docket at NYU. Presumably this must be about something more than laziness or disinterest. If she was so smart last week, did something happen that would cause her to want to give up academia or a formal education?
It’s unclear, but she’s now living a craphole in Midtown, so she’ll soon enough find a path into the series’ main narrative.
And as that narrative becomes clear, The Deuce promises a far more challenging and subversive work than its glitzy pilot. This is undoubtedly for the best since wistful whimpers about urban decay can only go so far in a serialized format, however even though the second episode really improved on the show’s through-line, it was admittedly a little slower and lot less hypnotically ugly.
Luckily, this appears to be mere table setting. If last week was the prologue, here is the first chapter of how the porn industry came to be. If it’s building to a climax, then the weeks to come have a solid foundation right here.