A review of tonight’s The Deuce coming up just as soon as I’m working with Marshall McLuhan…
“Go home. If you stay, you’ll die.” –Darlene
Through their past collaborations together, David Simon and George Pelecanos have had something of a tradition: Pelecanos will write the penultimate episode of a season (in one year of Tremé, he wrote the antepenultimate episode instead), and Simon will give him a terrible thing or three to do to some of that show’s most beloved characters.
Those shows were Pelecanos working for Simon, though, where here they’re co-creators and co-showrunners, so the penultimate job for The Deuce season one goes to another novelist-turned-screenwriter in Megan Abbott. And though the episode seems built like a vintage Pelecanos Episode, it doesn’t turn out that way at all. Even in a world as dark and sad as this one, The Deuce allows for the hope that occasionally, things can go okay.
From the moment Ashley decides she’s had enough of C.C.’s abuse and mistreatment and neglect — declaring “Fuck this” after he once again gives Lori preferential treatment — until the final scene of “Au Reservoir,” I was convinced that her walkabout would end badly, whether C.C. luring her back into his life, or the violent end of hers. That’s just how I’ve been conditioned by the Simon oeuvre, which features plenty of examples of people like Ashley who decide to get out of a doomed situation, then either lose their nerve or fail due to forces beyond their control. Instead, Ashley gets to enjoy a few carefree days in the city crashing with Abby and hanging around with White Frankie. For the first time in a long time, she’s not selling her body. She cleans up Abby’s pigsty of an apartment as repayment for letting her stay, and when she and Frankie have sex, it’s because she likes him, not for money. (She may harbor some fantasy at first of him helping to rescue her, but it becomes clear quickly that this guy — who admits to being technically homeless — can barely take care of himself, let alone her.) And when Abby winds up with a check from her wealthy father that she doesn’t feel she deserves or wants, she gives it to Ashley (née Dorothy) to help her get on a bus to see her sister in Buffalo and find something else to do besides sex work. The hopeful look on Dorothy’s face as she rides the Port Authority escalator, away from the “Welcome to New York” sign that greeted Lori in the premiere (and that surely greeted Ashley years before) was a welcome relief at the end of an episode where I was holding my breath not only for her, but for so many of the characters trying to find a way out of their present circumstances.
There is a violent death in the episode, one scene before Dorothy gets on the escalator, but it’s of a pimp, not a prostitute, and it comes like a bolt from the blue, as Leon puts a bullet in Reggie Love for disrespecting Melissa while she was trying to enjoy some of Leon’s hopple popple after a tough night on the streets. The show has been warning us of the potential for a Leon explosion, given how he rightly disapproves of the way the pimps treat the prostitutes, and how he’s stepped to Larry and others in the past. Pulling out a gun and shooting Reggie, though? That was shocking, and in a strange way a relief of its own, because it meant that Melissa would be spared the abuse that was surely coming had Reggie succeeded in dragging her out of the diner. Instead, he lies on the floor, Melissa runs off, and an unapologetic Leon — who has just had his own “Fuck this” moment, but in a very different way — calls the cops to tell them, bluntly, “I just shot a n—er. Come and get him.”(*)
(*) Per Pelecanos, this was based on a real-life incident and phone call, albeit one that happened in Baltimore, not New York, and was previously attributed to Cutty on The Wire.
Dorothy leaves the life on an escalator, while Reggie will go out in a body bag. Everyone else is still here, though “Au Reservoir” powerfully demonstrates over and over why anyone with the ability to follow Darlene’s advice to Ginger quoted above should do so.
Candy is now splitting her time between the porn jobs Harvey can throw her and the escort job he helped her get. The latter at first seems to be a step up from her work on the Deuce, in a higher-class hotel with a higher-class john, but as soon as they’re done having sex, it reveals itself to be the same old nonsense, as he rushes to vomit in the toilet, then orders her to get out. As Candy puts it, “I mean, it’s fucking, Harvey. There’s less of it. There’s more of the bullshit people do before they fuck. It’s still fucking.” So is porn, though at least there you can see her getting to exercise some creative muscles in between the acting, whether she’s serving as Harvey’s art department or offering direction to some of the other performers.
When she was on the street, Candy largely managed to get by without the services of a pimp, and now in this new porn-and-parlor economy, so are most of the prostitutes. Or, rather, they’re leaning on newfangled pimps like Bobby Dwyer (who also can’t help playing favorites with the staff, and who has to step in when Shay overdoses), while C.C., Larry, and Rodney all find themselves without purpose in the arrangement Vinnie gave them. They’re making money without having to work as hard for it, but they have gone into pimping for more than just the money, as C.C. so eloquently puts it: “We become extraneous in this whole situation. Pussy is still the pussy, money’s still the money. But the pimp? Who is he right now?”
Where the other characters are presented as needing to get the hell away from the Deuce, if possible, we see that Abby has run here as part of a Poor Little Rich Girl act of rebellion — and one that her parents are both wise and self-assured enough to accept as such, given how casually her father responds to Vinnie’s presence at the party, when Abby assumed both he and the borrowed dress from Ashley would create a much bigger stir. She’s still a dabbler, still living in a glorified squat and tending bar because it excites her to do so, but at least she’s a well-intentioned dabbler who provides Ashley with the exit cash she needs.
If only Ginger or Candy or Melissa or any of the other women could enjoy similar charity, they might have a chance of not being there the next time a razor or pistol gets pulled out at the wrong moment.
Some other thoughts:
* This is the closest we’ve come so far to an actual White Frankie story, in that he spends most of the episode hanging out with Ashley or doing work for the Mob independent of Vinnie. Seen in this light, you can almost empathize with him when he tells Rudy, “I don’t fuck up nearly as much as people say I do.”
* While Candy is helping Harvey make porn that will be sold and viewed at shady stores like the one Fat Mooney runs — and where Lori is proud to show off her work to the customers — Paul gets to enjoy his friend Tom’s work in the groundbreaking gay porn film The Boys In the Sand at a big movie house. This stuff is edging closer and closer to the mainstream, as we get another warning of when Tom passes along what he’s heard about a movie we’ll know as Deep Throat. Tom marvels at the idea that it could feel normal to watch people having sex on film, and Paul replies, “Maybe it is.”
* A busy week for Officer Alston: Sandra decides to stop treating him like a source and start treating him like a man she’ll have sex with, and the precinct gets a new captain who claims to not be on the take, and wants Chris’s help to get rid of the “meat eaters” — including Officer Haddix, now running a separate shakedown on an indignant Bobby — so the precinct and its people will be home to more honest “grass eaters” only.
* Dorothy’s line about Ashley being the slave name C.C. gave her is both a joke and not a joke, and it’s something I wrestle with a bit in writing these reviews: in the event we know a prostitute’s real name, which name do I use? Candy or Eileen? Ginger or Bernice? Thunder Thighs or Ruby? I’ve experimented with going back and forth (as I do here in writing about Dorothy/Ashley) depending on the circumstance (Eileen goes on a date with Jack; a john dies while Candy is giving him oral sex) but worry that it’s confusing to read, even if most of the women are play-acting to a degree in their hooker personae, and those roles should maybe be treated as such.
One more to go. Not sure yet if I’ll be talking with Simon and Pelecanos again, since our pre-season interview already covered a ton of ground, but I look forward to discussing the finale and the season as a whole with you.
What did everybody else think?