This The Deuce review contains spoilers.
The Deuce Season 2 Episode 3
How is this world so ugly yet so beautiful?
The Deuce is all about beauty, ugliness and the ways they intersect. Porn itself is both ugly and beautiful. The people involved can be so damn pretty – all dolled up, clean, and shining. At the same time, porn is a commercialized bastardization of an act of love at best, or an ugly exploitation of our bestial urges at worst. The Deuce is this dichotomy writ large. And never has it been clearer than in “Seven-Fifty.”
“Seven-Fifty” takes us to the world of 1970s Los Angeles for the first time. Previous period television masterpiece, Mad Men, was infamous for using the West Coast as a major tonal shift for certain episodes. The Don Draper of 1960s Los Angeles was very different than the Don Draper of 1960s Manhattan. When Lori heads to 1978 Los Angeles, however, she very much remains herself – just more refined, and yes: beautiful.
CC can’t make the trip because despite all of his projected worldliness, he’s never actually flown before and is quite afraid of planes. This means that Lori, for the first time since she stepped off the bus in New York, is entirely on her own. The experience is transformative. People respect her here – like the talent scout who congratulates her on her victory and whom she later chooses to have a consensual (and free!) sexual encounter with. She carries the money around, not CC, so she can tip an expectant hotel consigliore. The sun in shining and she is in demand in a much different way than she is used to being.
Life is beautiful but of course when she returns to New York it becomes ugly once again. CC, in a fit of jealousy and loss of control throws her best supporting actress award against the wall, breaking it. How can life be so beautiful yet so ugly? Things are somehow getting better but also staying the same. It’s not that nothing gold can stay, it’s that nothing gold ever was.
“Seven-Fifty” is full of these contrasts and occasional fake outs. Los Angeles is pure, vibrant fun for all involved. All of the porn actors, directors, and producers are gathered for a truly glamorous event. Still, an increasingly drunken Harvey can’t help but point out the hypocrisy of it all. All of the clips for the nominees don’t feature any genitalia.
“The real talent is keeping his dick hard for 14 hours,” he says. “I’m saying we shouldn’t be embarrassed by what we do. We should be proud of our perversions.”
Even at this most celebratory event, the industry that should be most proud of its perversions is still conscious of the ugliness lurking beneath. Of course that doesn’t stop Harvey from beaming with pride after he wins his best director award.
No character on The Deuce continues to typify the show’s understanding of this beauty and ugliness of our perversions than Eileen This poor woman just can’t buy a win. Eileen has never looked more professional or been more autonomous. She wears suits. She negotiates deals at industry events with male professionals who see her as a peer. Harvey tells her that he could not have made this film without her and the award is just as much hers as it is his. Eileen is self-actualizing into…well, simply a person. Even on the street where she refused to belong to any pimp, it was hard to shake the impression that she belonged to the Johns anyway.
And then some asshole porn exec says he’ll write her a check for $10,000 for her Little Red Riding Hood movie if she blows him on the spot. Candy stays silent for a beat, looks away, and then acquiesces, immediately transitioning from “Eileen” back to the effortlessly seductive “Candy.”
It’s ugly all around. It’s a violation. Los Angeles was supposed to be the land of opportunity, not this. Following the act, Candy sojourns to the bathroom to emotionally recover. She seems understandably hurt. Then when she’s back in New York, however, something strange happens. As her answering machine reads off list after list of bad news, bills, and responsibilities, Eileen places her signed check in front of it like a powerful talisman. The experience was ugly. It shouldn’t have happened. And yet Eileen has once again found a solution to a problem. More than that she has continued her dream. It was ugly but now life can be beautiful once again.
Visually, “Seven-Fifty” is at its most beautiful when Abby takes to the streets with Dorothy to assist the downtrodden prostitutes of New York. Dorothy’s “boss” as it were in this endeavor knows that their band of helpers is unlikely to enact any real change because the economics are what they are. The money machine demands flesh. Little do they know that the machine is starting to change. It’s starting to realize that there is millions of unreported income out there in Ed Koch’s New York. For now though, Abby and Dorothy sit in a cozy van, handing out coffee to any ladies of the night who need a break.
The scene is so viscerally warm. The helpers’ humanity is so rich as are the girls as they provide new pictures of their kids for the van’s “family” board. The camera stays with Dorothy as she cannot yet go outside and face her old life on the streets. As the others leave, you can almost feel the rush of cold arm that surges into the van. The world out there is ugly but it’s so damn comfortable and homey in here.
Something that The Deuce deserves more credit for is introducing organized crime into its world without becoming a show about organized crime. The mafia is so inherently interesting to audiences in a prurient curiosity that it has a way of overshadowing everything else. Power is as appealing as it is intoxicating so it’s hard for a viewer not to fall into the intoxicating world where gangsters can do whatever they want.
The Deuce has to feature the organized crime world because to not do so in a story about ‘70s New York would be dishonest. It also, however, has to make sure to do so in the correct doses. Kudos then to Michael Rsipoli’s Rudy Pipilo for somehow being the friendliest and most accommodating mob boss in the history of fiction.
Based on everything we know about mobsters on HBO, Paul’s decision to break away from the Pipilo next should not go very well for him. Instead, Pipilo lets him go with minimal convincing and wishes him well. Not only that but he urges Vincent to let Paul know that life could become a little more difficult for him soon.
Likewise Frankie should have been killed 20 times over for his continual use of a mob-owned property like his own personal piggybank. Pipilo doesn’t intend to kill Frankie though – just cut him loose.
“Next order of business. Your fucking idiot brother. We’re leaking money, Vince. On account of him being flesh and blood, I’m not gonna hurt him,” Pipilo tells Vincent. And even that decision feels like it could be reversible with Frankie, unbeknownst to anyone yet, has just won a Laundromat in a card game.
The Pipilo gang is one of the most unexpected depictions of the Italian mob we’ve seen on television in sometime. Maybe it has to be that way. Maybe the Pipilo gang is a far much more realistic of organized crime in the middle of the 20th century than we’ve been led to realize through other pop cultural sources. This level of almost benevolent strongman-ness seems like exactly what the world around it is crying out for.
Again: change is coming. We know that from a basic understanding of American history and from Ed Koch’s cipher on the ground, Golman, buying offices in Times Square to usher in the new family friendly world order. No one else on the show does, save for maybe Chris Alston. In the moment this somehow feels like the way things work. When a rival gang opens up a “loss-leader” parlor down the street where underage girls give hand jobs for $7.50, it’s only natural that a good fellow named Tommy should burn it down. Because while the world is ugly as long as the ugly people take care of the ugly work, maybe we can all have some fun.
Of course that’s all bullshit. There’s nothing about the natural state of the world that demands that we need strong men to look after all of it. That’s what makes the conclusion of “Seven-Fifty.” Amid my obsession in the ugly beauty of this world, I sometimes lose sight of its denizens’ obvious trauma. Dorothy has suffered in a very real, very awful way from her time as a glorified indentured servant. It’s remarkably brave of her just to merely return and be inside the beating heart of the beast once again.
Even braver is her moment with CC. We’ve seen CC at his lowest and we know just how pathetic he can be – afraid of flying, reliant on the women around him, living in a destitute apartment. But CC occupies a mythic position in the lives of the women he’s controlled. Lori is showing signs of independence but nobody has declared their independence more loudly than Dorothy. And it’s terrifying.
After throwing Lori’s award, CC comes to the Hi-Hat in a rage. He sees who he knew as Ashley coming into the room.
“How you been, Ash?” he asks.
“My name’s Dorothy,” she says.
After an eternity of silence and consideration, CC says, “You have a good evening, Dorothy,” and leaves.
“Who was that?” Dorothy’s friend asks.
“Nobody,” she says.
David Simon’s shows are so good at world building and the world of The Deuce is utterly singular and believable. It’s hard not to marvel at the beauty and ugliness of it all. What The Wire and now The Deuce are really trying to do though is not just document the beauty or ugliness of the world but the occasional bravery of the people within it. The world feels so real in The Deuce, which is to say, infinite and insurmountable. Bless those little people who find their way in the disgusting majesty of it all.