A review of tonight’s The Deuce coming up just as soon as you hear the one about the blind guy at the seder…
“They just decided they want to make porn flicks. Like they sat down with their guidance counselors and made a plan.” -Lori
This week’s episode, “There’s An Art to This,” opens with a scene that deliberately echoes Lori’s introduction to CC in the series’ pilot. This time, it’s Larry waiting at the bus station for young women he can sweet talk into a life of sex work. With Lori and CC, the punchline was that she needed no convincing, because she came to New York specifically to become a prostitute, prompting an amused CC to realize he didn’t have to work so hard. With Larry and newcomer Brenda, the joke goes even further: Brenda has not only come to the Big Apple to join the burgeoning porn industry, but she’s already done enough research that she has no need for Larry’s assistance, leaving him utterly flummoxed about what the world is becoming.
He’s not the only one — including Lori herself, who’s more than a bit disconcerted by her own encounter with Brenda on a porn set. (It’s the adult-film equivalent of all those scenes on The Wire about how each successive generation of corner boys is allegedly colder and more remorseless than the one before.) Women still have very little power in a business run by men like Rudy and the men in his organization, but that they have any power or agency at all feels like a miracle compared to where things stood during Season One. And it’s leaving the pimps out in the cold, both figuratively and literally — particularly on nights where most of the women are either on film shoots, at massage parlors or working at a peep show, while the men wind up walking the street. By the time Larry inquires with Candy about becoming an adult film actor himself, it feels like the only path he has left to feel relevant in a business that’s leaving him behind.
If Larry is baffled by the cultural shifts, then Lori, Abby and Candy all spend “There’s An Art to This” inspired by the new women in their orbits to try to effect even bigger change, whether for their own careers, the larger world or some combination of the two.
Lori, for instance, is taken aback by how many Brendas she’s been meeting lately. She’s almost comically oblivious to the notion that, had porn been more mainstream five years earlier, she’d have been a Brenda herself, rather than casting her lot with a man like CC. But his needless shakedown of Bernie in the season premiere reflected that CC’s still thinking like a pimp and focusing only on short-term hustles rather than her long-term career management. When she realizes one of her co-stars has a real agent — and a female agent, at that — it sets Lori’s gears turning. Why can’t she have an agent like a “real” actress? Why can’t she fly to Hollywood to attend the awards ceremony for which she’s been nominated? Kiki the agent suggests big plans for Lori’s career, but only if she can find the strength to cast aside CC and accept that she’s not a prostitute anymore.
Candy, meanwhile, is years past her time strolling the Deuce looking for johns, but she’s still bumping up against the limits of what even an encouraging patron like Harvey will let her do. Fed up with the scripts he keeps giving her — when she explains that the “Daddy knows best” scenario isn’t her fantasy, Harvey smugly replies, “Oh, that’s someone’s fantasy” — she begins exploring the idea of writing and directing her own movie based on the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale. Her desire to branch out is only bouyed by a glimpse of Genevieve Furie, a female porn director who has gone more legit as a maker of slasher movies. (Furie: “It’s still porn, but different.”) This, Candy thinks, could be her some day, with the right idea and a bit of luck. And Furie encourages her, albeit with an unwitting insult, when her blunt career advice for Candy includes, “Stop using whores. They’re dead around the eyes.” (Maggie Gyllenhaal’s best moments on the show often involve those unplanned transitions from the invulnerable Candy to the extremely vulnerable Eileen, and this one was beautiful in how quickly it came and went before she got it back under control again.) Candy never lost the light in her own eyes, but it’s hard not to feel judged and hopeless when even a respected industry role model is so judgmental at the thought of prostitutes transitioning into more legitimate branches of entertainment.
Abby actually spends much of the hour not focused on her activist work but letting Vincent take her on a tour of his vision of Brooklyn. Their relationship isn’t one of the more exciting aspects of the show, though at the moment that almost feels like the point. They’ve settled into quasi-monogamy, even as they’re each more focused on professional endeavors. Every now and then he can sense her being on the verge of losing interest, which leads to a grand gesture like this, and it’s not entirely ineffective. When they stop at his Aunt Celeste’s house, for instance, she can actually distinguish Vincent from Frankie in a childhood photo, and seems pleased to know better on this score than Vincent himself. Their bond isn’t entirely broken yet. But Vincent’s still involved in the sex industry, while Abby’s interested in either tearing it down altogether or at least ripping control away from guys like him and giving it to the women who are doing all the work. Vincent’s eager to keep their romantic day going, where she’s easily lured away by news of an activist meeting at a nearby church.
And who should Abby happen to run into at this meeting? Why none other than Ashley — or, as she revealed her true name to be not long before hopping on a bus out of town late last season, Dorothy. She has not only remained out of the business, but is now an activist herself, using the knowledge she gained working for CC to recognize the most useful ways she can help all the women who are still doing this job.
It’s an electric moment for both women — and for both performers, but particularly for Margarita Levieva in the way so many different emotions wash over Abby as she recognizes the face of the woman whose life she essentially saved years before. Darlene left town but came back, and the hold of the life is too strong for others to leave at all. But Dorothy only returned on new terms, with a new look and mission, inspired to prevent other people from enduring what she went through.
There’s only so much any of these women can do — prostitution still exists 40 years after the events of this episode, and the porn trade is still dominated by men (now by tech bros who don’t even make the videos they profit from) — but they’re trying. And for this week, at least, they’re trying even more than usual.
Some other thoughts:
* When Vincent takes Abby on the Brooklyn tour, he wisely leaves Big Mike in charge of Club 366 rather than handing the keys over to his idiot brother. It’s great to see how much Mike has grown in his years as an essential man in the operation; the quiet guy we met at the Hi-Hat sure wouldn’t have felt comfortable regaling an entire nightclub crowd the way Mike does here.
* Lori’s co-star suggests she appear on Midnight Blue, a real-life local access show hosted by Screw publisher Al Goldstein that debuted in the mid-’70s. Here’s an early clip of Goldstein interviewing Hustler‘s Larry Flynt:
* Alston solves the tourist murder, but not in a way that suits Gene Goldman’s purposes, by helping the male prostitute suspect Skeets give a statement pointing to self-defense. But for all of Alston’s protests that Koch won’t do any more for the neighborhood than previous administrations, Goldman still has the juice to boss the young detective around if he wants to.
* Candy’s lunch date with her now teenage son provides another motivation for her to make a big splash with her Red Riding Hood idea: She needs the money so he can finally move out of her mother’s house and back in with her. It’s sweet to see her helping him navigate relatively simple and innocent relationship problems and satisfying that she gives him useful advice.
* That’s Alysia Reiner from Orange Is the New Black (and a half-dozen other current series) as Lori’s potential new agent Kiki, and Dagmara Dominczyk (who had a small role on Succession as a lawyer for the family company) as Furie.
* Bobby has really taken to the pimp’s life, starting up a new family with one of the massage parlor women (even as he’s still living with Vincent and Frankie’s sister and their kids), and putting the moves on yet another. And unlike Larry or CC, he never has to stand out in the rain while working.
* This week’s songs: Jim Carroll Band’s “Wicked Gravity” (Abby at the Hi-Hat), Ray Barretto’s “Wicked Gravity” (Candy and Harvey argue on the porn set), “Drivin’ Wheel” by Albert King (Vincent leaves Mike in charge of the club), “Let’s Get High” by Nice & Tight Band (Todd visits Paul’s bar), Fat Larry’s Band’s “Lookin’ For Love” (the fight outside Paul’s bar), “Keep It Comin’ Love” by KC & The Sunshine Band and “Do What You Wanna Do” by T-Connection (everyone partying at 366), The Ramones’ “You’re Gonna Kill That Girl” (Hi-Hat baby shower), Sylvester’s “Down, Down, Down” (Matty the Horse tries to run a protection shakedown on Paul), Ornette Coleman’s “Giggin'” (Bobby and Black Frankie at the massage parlor) and Patti Smith’s “Ask the Angels” (Vincent and Paul are both stressed at the Hi-Hat).
What did everybody else think?