This The Deuce review contains spoilers.
The Deuce Season 2 Episode 4
The best shows have a way of making us look like fools. Or at least that’s what I’m telling myself to feel less bamboozled by the events of “What Big Ideas.” Through the first three episodes of The Deuce season 2, the uneasy beauty of the world this show has created has continually struck me.
Sure there has been darkness creeping in from the corners but like a certain New Jersey musician, I was blinded by the light of it all – the lights of Time Square, the vibrancy of these characters, and their infectious happiness at the ever-mutating state of their surroundings. The ‘70s, man. Prostitutes have been getting off of the streets, into cozy little parlors, or better yet becoming movie stars and winning awards. The best shows make us look like fools occasionally and it’s because the best creators can’t help but glorify whatever they’re depicting. Like Scorsese, David Simon and George Pelecanos create an environment where everything looks so. Damn. Fun. It’s all been so intoxicating that last week I even re-examined the role of the mob in The Deuce. Maybe, I reasoned, if organized crime is inevitable, we should just thank our lucky stars that it’s such a seemingly genial and well-meaning mob.
Now, in “What Big Ideas,” those tinges of darkness have fully emerged. The rock has finally been lifted up to reveal all the little squirming creatures below it. The Deuce is on fire…literally.
The thing about the mob is that a simple act of capitalistic gamesmanship can quickly become an out and out war. That’s where our characters find themselves this week. Tommy burning down the rival parlor on Rudy’s orders was always going to merit a reprisal. That looming reprisal hangs over the majority of The Deuce, even for the characters who are blissfully unaware. Vincent isn’t a mobster. He hates this life. But he’s a realist and knows that this is the only way things can be. He’s happy when he visits Paul as Paul is picking out what luxurious marble he wants in his new upscale club’s bathroom. Vincent is wants to be supportive of Paul’s decision to go it alone but he also knows it means he’s exposing himself to danger without the “Italian’s” protection.
If we were still in The Deuce’s joyful first three episodes, we may have higher hopes for Paul. After all, Frankie has lasted through three episodes without any consequences for continually stealing from the mob-supported quarter joints. That was then though this is now. And now we have yet another burned down parlor and the death of a 16-year-old girl to go with it.
Bobby, Vincent, and the rest of the Pipilo gang thought they had the moral high ground when they find out the rival parlor was employing underage girls. Just like everything else in this carefully manicured and kept world of vice that turned out to be bullshit. Bobby wasn’t keeping a close eye on the IDs and Kitty was really a 16-year-old girl named Stephanie Esposito.
The scenes following the death of Stephanie are superb. Moreso than ever Dorothy proves not only how much she’s changed but also what an important character she is in this cast. Bobby, Vince, Abby, and Dorothy all have a tense meeting of the minds at the Hi-Hat and discuss what should be done. The Deuce has had all the appearances of one big happy family thus far. Pimps co-exist at the Hi-Hat alongside johns and cops. Everyone is welcome at Vince’s club. Still, it’s clear here just how steep some divisions are.
Vince and Bobby are decent men trying to make the best of their imperfect world. Yet, they can’t possibly understand how much that current world benefits them. They’re the good guys in their own heads. Yet to Abby and Dorothy, Vince and Bobby are still much cogs in this grinding patriarchal machine that oftentimes enslaves women – even if they’re perfectly nice, decent cogs.
Oftentimes, the nicest of people with the best of intentions face steeper criticism than the out-and-out awful among us. Because we expect better of them. Abby and Dorothy expect better of Vincent and Bobby because they have the curse of empathy. People are willing to overlook the mob’s dealings, Frankie’s indiscretions, and many other players in this big exploitative cultural clusterfuck because of course that’s always going to suck. Vincent and Bobby shouldn’t. So Bobby has to wear this. He has to own this awful decision and pay for the girl’s funeral once Abby and Dorothy find out who she really was.
Naturally, Vincent insists that he’ll pay for the funeral, himself, and not ask Bobby. “I just want to make sure this get done,” he says. Vincent understands he has an added level of responsibility because of his fundamental decency. That’s noble enough, I suppose. It’s also easy to see, however, how it could come across as holier-than-thou to Abby. Must be nice to have all this money to pay for a funeral for an underage girl who died on your watch. Of course, it certainly doesn’t help Abby and Vincent’s interactions that Vincent chose this week of all weeks to return the flirtations of one of Abby’s friend, the photographer, Viv. Vincent and Abby have a particular arrangement and this is “in bounds,” so to speak. It’s just that timing is everything. This is the jungle and there are bad men with torches out there. We’re all supposed to be tightening up, not letting loose.
Some of “What Big Ideas’” best scenes beyond the Abby/Dorothy/Vincent/Bobby meetings are Dorothy’s quest to find out who Stephanie really was. In one sense she fails miserably. When the time finally comes for Stephanie Espoitio’s funeral, no one even knows if she was Catholic or not. When Dorothy discover’s “Kitty’s” identity and goes to her father’s house, she is met with a simple “You a whore too?” and then the door is slammed in her face.
Still, Dorothy’s discovery of Kitty’s name is a real victory. The forces at play on the streets are too big for any one person to change. As Dorothy’s boss said last week, the best they can do for these girls is offer them a warm place to take a break and a cup of coffee at the end of the shift. We’ve seen time and time again, however, the power that names have. Dorothy reclaimed her own name and then successfully defended herself against CC last week with the power of that name. Because of her efforts here, the girl being buried will not be a Jane Doe or a Kitty but rather a Stephanie Esposito. That matters.
This is undoubtedly a dark outing for The Deuce. Vince and Black Frankie witness Tommy murdering a rival gang member on the streets. There are also real moments of progress though like Dorothy reclaiming Stephanie’s name and finding a doctor to tend for the ladies of the night (though it’s unclear if he can be fully trusted yet). It’s just that the relationship between the appeal of this world and the sins of it has been inverted. While once everything looked to be beautiful with just a touch of ugliness underneath – the ugliness is out in full display. Thankfully that means there is still some goodness to be found below.
Despite the situation on the streets of Manhattan becoming more dire, things in the porn studios are seemingly progressing. The Mayor’s office has been a looming presence all season and Detective Alston has continually resented it. The Mayor’s office wants to change New York and everyone on the ground level thinks it’s perfectly fine. Curiously, no one in the Mayor’s office has asked the prostitutes what they think of all this. The success of the porn industry once it got off the streets, however, is a pretty good advertisement for the future of New York.
Larry is going full blown into the world of pornography with a smile. This week’s cold open is both charming and illustrative of the changing social mores in this realm. Yes, Larry is being welcomed into the studio and off the streets but his photographer knows that all the directors want to see is a black man scowling…and oh yeah, his dick. Larry is more than willing to show the porn world his member (“Jeez. Hate to see that thing angry,” the photographer says) but he’s not willing to ditch the smile just yet.
The porn industry is simply getting better in “What Big Ideas” as everything else gets worse. When Lori is frustrated by an overweight cameraman with asthma, CC goes ahead and invents the concept of POV pornography. He suggests that the tourist in the shoot be the one holding the camera so that viewers of this film can more easily imagine themselves getting serviced by Lori. It’s an idea so novel and so brilliant that the director, Bernie, immediately shoots it down, lest he admit that CC has outsmarted him.
In Eileen’s more progressive studio, ideas are not restricted. Larry is frustrated with the lines of dialogue he’s been given in a scene where he plays a prisoner and a hot prison guard seduces him. Instead of rewriting the scene, Eileen tells both actors to improvise.
“All you need to know to know is that you hate him and he’s hot,” she tells the actress and then says to Larry. “You know what you need to do. Just say what you need to say to get her in here and get her clothes off.”
Eileen is still learning and growing in these artistic pursuits. Harvey is lukewarm on her Red Riding Hood idea but can never bring himself to say no to this woman, she he gives her the green light to write the script. Eileen then realizes she can’t write scripts for shit so she brings in an outside party. The budget is already swelling and new lighting and cameras need to be bought. Moments like her encouraging Larry to improvise, however, show why this is all worth it for Harvey. Despite how badly she wants to be, Eileen isn’t necessarily a creative type. She struggles to write and struggles to articulate the artistic visions in her head in a convincing, meaningful way. In the porn world, however, that just makes her more special and more valuable. She’s something more important than a writer; she’s a person.
“Yeah that’s the man I know,” Darlene says as Larry successfully seduces the prison guard and the two begin to passionately kiss. Thanks to Eileen’s vision, something real has happened on camera…and in pornography, no less. Most movies and TV shows would give anything to capture something authentic on film. Eileen does it just because she doesn’t know any other way.
The Deuce is not unlike Eileen in that sense. It doesn’t know any other way to be than to present the world as the show sees it. For three weeks that world has been rose-colored and sweet. Now it’s turned to shit like everything seemingly always must. Things haven’t gotten darker and more difficult on The Deuce because the show wants it too. It was inevitable. Because even when things change for the better in the comforts of indoors, on the streets they can only ever get worse. It’s a shame the streets still have to look so damn glamorous.