This The Deuce review contains spoilers.
The Deuce Season 2 Episode 5
“I saw on the news they even got women astronauts now,” nickel joint operator Irene says partway through “All You’ll Be Eating is Cannibals.”
She’s right, of course. Sally Ride became the first American female astronaut in 1978, the year that The Deuce Season 2 is set in. Ride would go on to become the third ever woman in space in 1983, one year after Svetlana Savitskaya and 20 years (!) after Valentina Tereshkova.
Making it to outer space has long been one of mankind’s greatest aspirations. How could it not be? It’s literally the farthest thing we can see. It is heaven itself. To this day, I’m shocked that The Onion’s Neil Armstrong on the moon headline was not the actual headline in newspapers across the country.
Scientifically and perhaps even spiritually or artistically there may not be a greater human achievement than space flight. In the 1970s, an astronaut was the most impressive thing a person could be. And now, in the world of The Deuce, they even got women astronauts, I hear.
Progress almost never goes the way you want it to. Sally Ride represents a monumental shift in sexual politics and gender relations for her time. If a woman can be an astronaut, what can’t she be? Well, she can be anything she wants I suppose. That doesn’t mean that the vast majority of women in David Simon’s New York will ever get to be.
The Deuce is still having its fun in its midway point through the season. Frankie sold the Laundromat that he owned for all of a day and is now in the movie business as a producer alongside Eileen. Mike and Black Frankie engage in some of their own madcap extracurricular activities, robbing a card game that features a one-handed man and a plenty of cool hats seemingly without incident. The world here is bright, the opportunities are there. I hear there are even women astronauts right now. But what The Deuce is trying to articulate this season above all is that truly important change for mankind and women doesn’t always mean meaningful change for men and women.
Consider who Irene is talking to when she shares her knowledge of current events. Shay is fresh out of rehab and ready to start her life anew. Irene escorts (no pun intended) her back to her apartment before concluding that there’s no way Shay can stay clean in that place. So instead Irene brings Shay to her place where she promptly kisses her.
Shay is naturally taken aback a bit but not that taken aback. Why wouldn’t this happen? She’s spent seemingly her whole adult life as far as we know it being used as a convenient piece of meat. Why should that stop now, even when she’s fresh out of a facility?
“You ever been with a woman?” Irene asks.
“Not for fun. Sometimes for work,” Shay says absently, and then adds. “It’s ok. I’m into it. You’re a little like a guy anyway. Except you got boobs and no dick. It’s ok. Really. Dicks are assholes. I’m so sick of dicks.”
Sally Ride is upside down in some gyroscope somewhere in Cape Canaveral, preparing to enter the infinite blackness of space. At that very same moment Shay is hundreds of miles away, determining whether she’s ok with being someone else’s piece of meat, provided this someone else doesn’t have a dick.
Perhaps that’s an unfair summation of things. Irene does seem to sincerely care for Shay, having gotten her clean and stayed by her side through the whole experience. Still, part of this can’t help but come across as slightly predatory. Shay didn’t really ask for this. She didn’t ask for anything other than to be done with dicks. And hey, maybe she is now. Maybe this is the happiest current possible ending. And that’s saying a lot.
In “All You’ll Be Eating is Cannibals,” The Deuce checks in with its women and doesn’t always like what it finds. Most episodes of The Deuce are about the women of this world but “Cannibals” takes an even deeper interest.
Lori is finally ready to verbalize the despair she feels with the lack of control in her life. The episode opens with a brutal, ugly scene in which CC sees through Lori’s cagey attempts to get fully repped by Kiki Rains. He punches her in the stomach and strikes her across the face. For two seasons now we’ve understood that Lori lives under someone else’s thumb. Still, through the first four episodes of this season we’ve seen signs of her breaking away and reclaiming some of herself. The Deuce can’t help but remind us that that’s not what this is. There are no amounts of California trips that can up end the fundamental relationship between her and CC. What’s more important – Lori herself knows it.
“You think it’s a choice?” she tells Eileen in her Red Riding Hood audition. “What am I supposed to do now? Say ‘hey CC, changed my mind. I’m sorry. I’ll see you later.’ Do you see the fucking reality of this? There is nothing about me that belongs to me.”
Eileen is one of the few people who should see the reality of this. She never belonged to a pimp but she did in a sense “belong” to the same life that Lori did. While her reaction to Lori’s sudden truth is sympathetic, it’s curiously lacking a sense of real empathy. She warmly commends Lori on her performance.
“I wasn’t acting,” Lori says.
“I know. No one’s that good. At least no one we work with,” Eileen responds.
This is the best that Eileen can do for Lori now. Eileen is deep into her Red Riding Hood porn movie and treating it with the sincerity of Scorsese directing Apocalypse Now. She wants all the best actors she can find. She wants the best cameras. She wants the best everything. And in the passion of her own creation, she doesn’t seem to realize that that likely won’t be possible.
Eileen is such a fascinating creation for The Deuce Season 2. While her life was tragic in season 1, in season 2 It’s like she belongs to a different show entirely where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts. Her single-minded pursuit of this silly little porn movie is so sincere that it can’t possibly work out, right?
“Who knows? We could even cross over!” Eileen tells Kiki Rains during a casting session to which Kiki laughs.
Maybe Eileen’s movie will cross over. Maybe she’s right that the porn movie from the wolf’s point of view is played out and audiences are ready for a ready for a more empowered Little Red Riding Hood. That doesn’t jive with the world we’ve seen though – the world where the best that Shay, Lori, and even Darlene can hope so is a break from all the dicks. It’s unlikely though. Then again, it was also unlikely that there would be women astronauts now.
The characters of The Deuce are all varying levels of ordinary. No one on the show is an ubermensch. No one, save for Rudy Pipilo and his associates, have real power. But maybe Eileen is different. When Eileen meets with Lori she kind of intimates that this the life Lori chose. Eileen through luck, hard work, or some combination of both doesn’t have that life anymore. She’s done something we’ve seen only one other character do in Dorothy: she got out of the street life. She may very well be extraordinary. The problem with extraordinary people though, is what do you do with the rest of us? What does the world have to offer to those in The Deuce who have the audacity to be ordinary? In some way, that’s the central question that the show is dealing with.
Paul thought he was extraordinary and that he could go it alone with this restaurant venture without the backing of the mob. As it turns out, rival gangs may be the least of his problems. Opening a restaurant is hard, you see. Paul and Kenneth both had the vision and with the help of Vincent, the money. Money and vision do not a restaurant make, however. Paul and Kenneth disagree about Paul’s opulent vision for the place. And the citizens of the district he wants to place it in set to disagree with Paul’s “lifestyle.”
“They walk around, shirts open, grabbing each other. They’re everywhere now,” concerned citizen Mary says, who apparently was bussed in from Pawnee, Indiana. The whole experience is trying enough that Paul finds himself in some kind of underground sex dungeon by episode’s end, reveling in some flesh since nothing else seems to make any sense.
The Deuce is mostly flesh. And that’s why it has such a deep understanding and appreciation of the “ordinary” among us. We are all subservient to our baser instincts from time to time. Shouldn’t we build a world that allows for that? Thats’ what Abby and Vincent have both been trying to do, albeit in vastly different ways.
Vincent thinks he’s the good guy because he, along with Bobby helped build a capitalistic structure in which women could sell their bodies from the relative safety of the brothels. That was all fine and good – until the brothels started to burn down. Abby, with the help of Dorothy, is trying to do something similar. That economy of flesh can’t fully be torn down so they might as well make sure the girls are well tended to.
Still, regardless of the similar approaches, Abby can’t help but realize that Vincent can’t have skin (again: no pun intended) in this game. His family, Bobby, experienced some real embarrassment when he was per walked out of a brothel for his wife and kids to see. Abby’s closes friend, Dorothy, experienced something far worse on the streets. Abby is rightfully pissed with Bobby for indulging in this life and rightfully pissed with Vincent for profiting off of it. But as Vincent points out: what else can they do? This is the ordinary world and we are the ordinary people. We can’t kick ourselves loose of it. We may as well make it a little better.
It’s with that in mind, that Alston and Gene Goldman’s scenes finally take on a sense of urgency. Alston’s struggles with Goldman and the mayor’s office have mostly taken a back seat this season and understandably so. The backroom politics of a changing New York just aren’t as interesting as seeing it happen on the street level. In “All You’ll Be Eating is Cannibals,” though, Alston takes the change to the streets.
The NYPD conducts an actual, honest raid on the local brothels without a forewarning. To everyone on The Deuce, this still seems like a waste of time. The system is the system. The money is the money. The flesh is the flesh. You can’t make it go away – only get it off the streets. At the same time, however, we understand that Times Square looks fundamentally different now, in our world. Koch’s “touristification” of New York will ultimately work on some level. The world will get at least marginally cleaner, if not better.
It’s a vision that none of the “ordinary” characters of The Deuce operating under the ordinary city rules would dare entertain…save for maybe Eileen or Dorothy.
“I got something I want to say to you,” Dorothy tells CC when he arrives to intimidate her as she attempts to negotiate with pimps. “I want to say thank you. All that shit I survived it. That just showed how strong I was. It made me who I am today, which is your worst nightmare.”
Dorothy is CC’s worst nightmare. Not because of what she can do to him, but how she can help change the rules of his world. Things are already changing in The Deuce but it all doesn’t happen at once. It takes someone like Dorothy to wrestle the change away from the ether and bring it to the rest of us. She’s a goddamn Sally Ride.
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