‘The Deuce’ Recap: Too Close for Comfort – Rolling Stone
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‘The Deuce’ Recap: Too Close for Comfort

Deep bonds are no match for even deeper prejudices, as Candy, Todd, and more suffer at the hands of friends and family

the deuce

Chris Coy as Paul and Aaron Dean Eisenberg as Todd in this week's episode of 'The Deuce.'

Paul Schiraldi/HBO

A review of this week’s The Deuce, “You Only Get One,” coming up just as soon as this hat makes me look like Joan Collins…

A very familiar face returns to the Hi-Hat in “You Only Get One,” as Darlene — or Donna, as she goes by once again — stops by the bar to ask for Abby’s help in becoming a nurse despite her criminal record. Abby comes to Donna’s meeting with the appeals board, eloquently arguing that knowing her “made me realize that people are surprising, and what you do isn’t necessarily who you are.” It’s a good line, but the board doesn’t seem impressed, particularly once they find out that Abby still works at the same bar where she met Donna all those years ago. What Abby does goes a long way towards telling the board members who she is.

We’re getting close to the end now, and most of the surviving characters have known each other at least as long as Abby and Donna have. In theory these bonds help them see what makes one another tic beyond the things they do to make money. Yet throughout “You Only Get One,” old friends and relatives deeply hurt one another by seeing the job ahead of the person.

Vince, still hurting over Frankie’s murder — and, at this point, unaware of who did it and why — lashes out at Rudy, suggesting that Frankie was taken out for keeping the amateur porn profits to himself. “It’s just business,” he says coolly. “Isn’t that what you people say?” Rudy’s a gangster and a killer, but relatively gentle compared to the John Gottis who are rising up in the Family, and you can see that his feelings are hurt by the accusation. (“‘You people,'” he parrots, wounded.)

Harvey (who’s been unfortunately absent for much of this season) rips apart the script for Candy’s movie — after admitting he only skimmed it. Worse, he suggests that Candy should just let her rich boyfriend pay for the film, triggering all of Candy’s hang-ups about both letting a man care for her and her history of having sex for money. It’s been clear for a long time now that Harvey’s affection for Candy runs deeper than a shared passion for the cinema, and that he wishes more had happened between them than being mentor and protege. That frustration has curdled into bitterness, so when he sees that his comments have hurt her, he — like Vince with Rudy — doubles down rather than backing down, and calls himself “the dumbest john ever” for giving her lots of money and only getting headaches out of it. Later, Candy reconnects with her son Adam, who has a sketchy plan to sell t-shirts, if only his mom will front him $1,000. Her interrogation of his business plan quickly reopens all the old wounds, from the lies Candy and her parents told Adam about what she did and who his father was to the humiliation Adam experienced when her film career went public. The other boys called her a whore, Adam says, and, “I think they were fucking right!” Among the many gifts Maggie Gyllenhaal has brought to this role is her ability to convey how hurt Candy is even as she is keeping a stiff upper lip, and this scene’s a master class in that.

Lori’s off on her own to do a personal appearance at a strip club, so she has no old friends to insult her directly. But as the bouncer at the club suggests, her fans feel like they know her, which in turn makes them feel emboldened to act like they’re as much a part of her life as she is of theirs. One fan named Craig thinks he’s doing her a kindness by telling her, “You could be so much more than this,” but it only makes her feel worse about herself and her profession, and the fact that the two have become sadly indistinguishable. Later, a creep follows her to her motel room(*), acting entitled to a date with her and growing ever more belligerent and scary as she refuses to open the door and invite him in. The whole incident leaves her so shaken that she buys a gun from a pawn shop. And rather than head back to Greg and Kiki in L.A., she appears to be driving back home to Indiana, where I don’t imagine she’ll be greeted as warmly as Mr. Ross greeted Melissa a few episodes back.

(*) Or does he? The scene is edited in a way suggesting no time has passed between when the creep is banging on the door and when the motel manager arrives and says there’s no one out there. So it could just be drug-fueled paranoia on Lori’s part. But we’re also getting the scene so much from her point of view, and the terror of Emily Meade’s performance is so visceral that it’s meant to feel like one happens right on top of the other, when in fact the first guy left well before the manager showed up. This isn’t the kind of show that tends to mess with narrative trickery, but the timing of it at least had me wondering. 

Some of the hour’s most emotional sequences involve a relationship where the hurtful words were clearly spoken a long time ago, between Todd and his parents. Now at the end stage of AIDS, he’s no longer competent to make his own medical decisions, and Paul (years before gay marriage was the law of the land) has no right to take him home from the hospital without approval from an official family member. Paul says Todd hasn’t seen his family since 1969, and it’s not hard to fill in the blanks about why. Todd’s parents, Phyllis and Jonathan, come to the city to say goodbye, but Todd’s AIDS-induced dementia is too far gone for him to recognize him. This is a mixed blessing. Phyllis seems eager to let bygones be bygones and do what she can for her son, and she makes every effort to get to know about his life with Paul. At one point, she even notes that all Paul has talked about are Todd’s acting jobs, when she’d like to know what he and Todd do for fun. For her, what Todd does is not who he is. For Jonathan though, the two are the same. He is mostly quiet and reserved throughout the visit, needing prompting from his wife to even help his dying son get into the hospital bed Paul has rented for the apartment. And as Paul proudly talks about Todd’s career, Jonathan finally asks about the films Todd made that featured gay male sex. It’s not an over-the-top outburst — which makes it even more painful, because Jonathan isn’t depicted as a cartoon villain, but just an ignorant man who let his prejudices drive his son away — but it’s enough to send him away from the apartment and the dying child he can’t stand to be around. And after Todd dies, Paul is inspired to call his own estranged father in Lexington, and perhaps see if another family divide can be healed before it’s too late.

But when is it too late? Ugly as the first Candy and Harvey scene is, the two make peace late in the episode when he finds her asleep on his office couch, after she has spent a lonely night watching clips from her movies in search of some greater truth about her work. She had intended to make a movie about all the stories she experienced and heard from other women who have done sex work over the years, some funny, some scary, most of them entertaining. “But I was ignoring what happens,” she confesses. “There’s a cost to this. To all this. Do you ever think about that: what we do? I mean, what happens to these women?” Harvey clearly hasn’t thought as much about the issue as someone like Candy — who was one of these women, and found, as Andrea Dworkin would put it, an anecdotal way out — but he acknowledges that “they disappear.” Harvey’s not a bad guy, but his chosen career doesn’t allow for much introspection on the larger problems and sociological implications of the porn industry. All he can do — all anyone can do on a David Simon show, in the face of uncaring, unflinching institutions — is to be there for a person he knows well and cares deeply about. So he offers to fund whatever it is Candy’s movie will become.

What Candy does isn’t who she is. But it still occupies a lot of her physical and emotional life. It’s the same for everyone on this show (and for many of us in this world). Sometimes, though, it hurts when the two become indistinguishable.

Some other thoughts:

* The episode opens with the Martino clan (plus past and present love interests like Abby and Andrea) gathered to watch the video that Frankie made earlier this season. As Frankie prepares to tell a very old and familiar story about a fight on the baseball field, for a moment the living brother and the dead one are speaking in perfect harmony. I never expected Frankie to make it out of the series alive, but now I’m wondering if either twin will, after Vince murders Pasquale — who, it turns out, is the son of a made guy in the Gambino Family — to avenge Frankie’s death.

* Bobby pressures the injured john into getting Black Frankie sprung from jail, but only after the women at the French Parlor again point out how little the Dwyer men do to earn a massive cut of the profits. With Frankie Martino dead, there’s no real reason to keep referring to Bobby’s sidekick as Black Frankie, but old habits seem to die hard on this show.

* When Candy and Harvey are talking near the end of the episode, she talks about wanting to make a film featuring a character who’s a composite of women she knew from the street. This makes sense for what we know of her plans, but is also something of an in-joke, as Candy herself is a composite of at least two different people (one a prostitute who worked the Deuce without a pimp, the other porn director Candida Royalle).

* George Pelecanos’ name isn’t on this script, but he either had a hand in it or was top of mind when the scene with the line “Greek men love cars” was written, given how much space each of his novels devotes to describing the cars its characters drive.

* Donna returns in the flesh, but Larry has yet to make a contemporary appearance this season. Still, it felt right to see his face briefly (in a clip from Red Hot) when Candy is watching her old movies, and for that to happen in the episode that brought back the artist formerly known as Darlene.

* Party like it’s 1985: Right before his wife confronts him about the state of their sham marriage, Gene is reading Iacocca: An Autobiography, by auto executive Lee Iacocca. That book was everywhere for a few years, and even turned Iacocca into such a well-known figure that Phil Hartman memorably played him on Saturday Night Live.

* Finally, this week’s music: “You Don’t Know What You’ve Got” by Joan Jett (Abby tries to get Loretta to tell her about her new mystery man); “Words” by Fantastic Four (Vince finding out about Pasquale’s car); “Stut” by Sheena Easton (Lori arrives at the strip club); “If You Want My Love” by Slyder (Lori in the strip club dressing room); “She’s a Devil” by Contagious (Lori strips); “Dreamer” by The Daybreakers (Lori signs merch for her fans); “Gloria’s Step” by Bill Evans (Jack Maple gives Chris a hard time about the faked arson case); “Is It Love” by Gang of Four (Abby begs Vincent not to do whatever he’s planning); “Street of Dreams” by Little Jimmy Scott (Paul plays one last record for Todd); and Billy Joel’s “Tell Her About It” (on Pasquale’s car radio as Mike and Vincent bump him from behind).

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