A review of this week’s The Deuce, “This Trust Thing,” coming up just as soon as I stand on your menu…
“I gotta go, Vince.”
This is Mike, late in this hour that comes late in the series. He has recently been diagnosed as HIV-positive, and his recent bout with pneumonia suggests that he’s at, as his doctor says, “the end of the beginning,” if not the beginning of the end. So when he turns up at the Hi-Hat, he no longer has the time or energy for the kind of games he and Vince have been playing together for close to 15 years. He doesn’t say where he’s going or what he plans to do, just announces that he’s going, and walks out, over Vince’s protests, without another word.
If The Deuce itself hadn’t already entered the beginning of the end stage in the third season premiere, it’s certainly there now. Only two episodes remain, and “This Trust Thing” is acutely aware of that — as, it seems, are many of the characters. Not in a meta, Abed-from-Community-knowing-he’s-a-character-on-a-TV-show sort of way, but in the sense that everyone seems to know that they are nearing the end of a particular stage of their lives. Some, like Mike and Paul, may be nearing the end of their lives, period (assuming Paul is right that he has the virus), and Rudy Pipilo’s life comes to an end altogether, courtesy of a few bullets from longtime henchman Tommy Longo. Mostly, though, the women and men of The Deuce are ready to move on from what they’ve been doing for a long time, if only the world will let them.
That desire to get out of a bad situation ranges from minor characters like Haddix (who wants Alston to arrange a transfer to a cushy post where he can serve until he’s eligible to collect his pension) and some of the ex-parlor workers (who have cut a better deal for themselves without Bobby in the middle) to the major players.
Lori finally reaches her breaking point with her entire life in L.A., firing Kiki as her agent after reluctantly filming a gang-bang, and dumping Greg after she walks in on him having sex with another woman in their bed. Kiki defends herself as getting work for a client who’s in a professional lull, while Greg suggests he’s blameless because Lori has sex with other men all the time. Kiki at least understands the nature of Lori’s profession, even if she’s blind to how distressing Lori has come to find the work itself. Greg, though? He’s just a more respectable, less violent version of Lori’s last pimp, hoarding and wasting all her money and thinking of her as nothing but a prostitute he can exploit. He’s a pussycat compared to CC, who would have gone nuclear after receiving a scratch on the face like the one Lori gives Greg, but the end result is the same: Lori has given up her body and her spirit without seeing any money from the endeavor. And her options seem sparse.
Paul, though he hasn’t been tested himself, assumes he’s HIV-positive and will soon follow Todd into the dark. He spends much of the hour going over old photos and looking back on all the friends and lovers he’s lost. But he also has plans for the end he thinks is coming, as he asks Abby to liquidate all his assets and donate them to Gay Men’s Health Crisis (the HIV/AIDS nonprofit now known simply as GMHC). But when a protest of Mayor Koch(*) leads to violence and an arrest, Paul looks reinvigorated, even happy. If he’s really dying, he’ll at least go down fighting. And if he’s not? Well, maybe he’s found a new cause to throw himself into, rather than Todd’s black-box theater projects.
(*) One thing unclear from the scene where Gene Goldman flirts with Paul at the bathhouse: Do Paul and other men in the community know what Gene does for a living? Given how much resentment there is for Mayor Koch (whom everyone believes is closeted and self-loathing), and how welcoming people like Paul are to Gene, I would guess not. But by juggling so many characters in a show with so few episodes per year, nuances like that sometimes get missed, which takes away an added layer from a scene like that.
Abby has a lot on her plate courtesy of Vincent, who looks like hell and goes everywhere carrying the gun he used to kill Pasquale. Abby’s rightfully alarmed by whatever she believes the pistol represents, and it briefly seems that she, like Lori, will be leaving her boyfriend for good. But Vince, ever the smooth talker even in dire times like these, talks her into returning, naive in the belief that Rudy can protect him from the other Gambinos. Instead, Rudy dies for the Martino brothers’ sins, sticking his neck out to claim he approved the Pasquale hit, and in turn being taken out by the duplicitous Longo. Whether Tommy is acting on his own or on orders from Carmine doesn’t much matter. Rudy was always written as a kind of best-case-scenario Mafioso: a crook who nonetheless cared about honor and doing right by the people in his organization, and who would let guys like Paul slide under the right circumstance. The forces rising in the Family are far less warm and cuddly, and more apt to bring an end to the fun and games so many Deuce regulars have (mostly) enjoyed for so long. (Abby, for instance, may not find it so easy to sell off Paul’s assets if and when the time comes.)
Rudy’s not the episode’s only casualty. Candy’s mother Joan finally succumbs to her illness, and her death in turn seems to sever Eileen’s connections to the rest of the family. Her father won’t even look at her during and after the funeral; later, Candy hangs up on Adam’s phone call after realizing her son was too high to attend. Candy isn’t overtly looking to get out of porn, either, but she’s spent much of this season building to the epiphany she gets here, courtesy of the waitress at the diner in the opening scene. Where Candy sees someone verging on magical (“You’re like the wind, watching you work”), the male customers just see someone to flirt with, harass, and humiliate when all else fails, and the waitress has no choice but to take it, telling our heroine, “I work for tips. What world do you live in?”
Later, at Harvey’s office, she finally puts it together, explaining, “What men want — no, what they’ll pay for — that becomes the world. And we’re all whores from this.” The film she wants to make is still porn, but Harvey is chastened enough by the way Candy reframes what they do that he finally offers to kick in some of his own money to finance the movie.
And it’s during an early rehearsal that Candy opens up about her origin story — even if only we and Harvey can tell that, whereas the lead actress assumes she’s being given useful backstory for her character. In recounting the story of how she got pregnant at 15, went to her father for help, and then was abandoned by him at the apartment where he took her for an abortion, Candy finally clarifies exactly why she has been adamant for so long about not asking for the protection or financial support of a man. Harvey — one of the few men Candy has ever let support her, even a little — understands the meaning of the story immediately, and is touched by it. But his response is a mess, as he takes her vulnerability as a chance to act on his longtime crush, kissing her on the office sofa. He quickly recognizes the move for the mistake it was, but the damage seems already done. Once again, a man has tried to make the world into what he wants — right after he has forked over a lot of cash — and Candy is expected, even briefly, to go along. Maybe the series ends with the two of them still making movies together, but it feels like we are getting closer and closer to her realizing that, like Lori, she just can’t do this anymore.
Some other thoughts:
* One character bucking the getting-out trend, sort of, is Melissa, who comes back to the city after accepting what was obvious to Vince the day she left town: that her father would never be able to let go of the work she did. Her friend Reg being sick offers her the chance to work as a costumer, so maybe she’ll find a way out, after all?
* The Deuce writer Carl Capotorto hasn’t acted since the end of The Sopranos, where he played Paulie Walnuts’ cousin, Little Paulie Germani. He gets back in front of the camera here to play Paul’s friend Bruce, who has somehow avoided contracting the virus when most of his peers have died from it.
* Each episode inevitably has at least one subplot that feels like a victim of the cutting-room floor. This time out, it’s Loretta, who meets her boyfriend’s mother for the first time and finds out he’s invented a story of how the two of them met. Did they first encounter each other through her former life in sex work? Through the anti-porn protesting? We can only guess at that, and at whether more context will be provided in the remaining episodes, given how much else is going on.
* Party like it’s 1985: In Reg’s kitchen, Melissa finds a cabinet full of Coca-Cola cans, which Reg’s ex hoarded, presumably in response to that year’s arrival of New Coke. (The return of what would be called “Coca-Cola Classic” didn’t come until summer.)
* When Rudy is smacking around Tommy, he tells him, “You gonna lie to me, lie to me with some respect!” As someone who has followed David Simon-affiliated shows for a long time, I was slightly disappointed that Rudy didn’t follow up by saying that he was not Montel Williams.
* This week’s music (and with Club 366 closed, the soundtrack is a bit lighter of late): “My Ambition” by Marcia Griffiths (Abby and Pilar at the apartment); “If We Never Meet Again” by Keely Smith (Rudy comes to the mob bar); “Casino” by Love of Life Orchestra (Gene and Paul talk at the bathhouse); “Lament of the Lonely” by Honi Gordon (Rudy scolds Tommy)’ Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ’69” (Lori catches Greg with another woman); and “Mind & Time” by Ornette Coleman (Bobby considers his options to bring back his former employees).
* And finally, one correction to last week’s recap: Lori is from Minnesota, not Indiana. When we last saw her in that episode, she was continuing her personal appearance tour.