‘The Deuce’ Explains How It All Works In ‘Why Me?’

Senior Television Writer
10.15.17 11 Comments

HBO

A review of tonight’s The Deuce coming up just as soon as you pick me because I’m a brunette…

“In this town, nothing’s dirty anymore.” –James Schuster

Many shows generate drama out of plot or character arcs. Simon/Pelecanos shows don’t skimp on either of those things, but they tend to start in a different place: process. The narrative philosophy of all of these series, and The Deuce in particular, seems to be that in order to understand these characters and the problems in their lives, you first have to understand how their jobs and the world around them work.

We’re in arguably a plottier section of the season than when The Deuce began. The massage parlor is open for business, Vinnie is getting in tighter with Rudy Pipilo, Candy has attempted to leave the street behind for good by getting into porn, etc. But “Why Me?” is still focused first and foremost on the process of it all, and the complicated, co-dependent relationship between the pimps, the prostitutes, the pornographers, the cops, the mobsters, and even a middleman like Vincent Martino.

We see, for instance, the way that multiple forces — the Lindsay administration, the courts, and the Mob — are coming together to make New York a safer place for sex work, in more ways than one. The obscenity laws are being struck down left and right by a series of court rulings, giving someone like Harvey Wasserman more opportunity to make films and give work to women like Candy (who wants to never walk the Deuce again) and Lori (who for the moment is enjoying her relationship with C.C.). The aggressive police sweeps of the Deuce by beat cops like Alston and Flanagan provide incentive for the pimps to take their business off the streets and into the massage parlor, which becomes a win-win for almost everybody: the Gambinos get a cut, Bobby and Vinnie get a cut, the pimps get a cut, and even Alston’s boss Sweeney gets a cut (the same way he does from a more legit business like The Hi-Hat), and the city no longer has this very public embarrassment for tourists and residents alike to see. The women are still being taken advantage of, in every way possible, but at least it seems a safer environment for them to work.

And even within each individual sphere, we get a good look at how the various hustles operate. Candy is a willing student, accepting that she’s not great at improvising dialogue, and later a good teacher as she gives Lori a key piece of “acting” advice: “The camera’s the john. Fuck the camera.” Harvey is willing to tell her everything she can pick up, but also has only so much work for her at the moment, and has to offer her a slightly classier form of prostitution — working for an escort service run by a woman — to pay the bills until demand catches up with the changes in the laws.

After White Frankie’s clumsy approach to the pimps last week, Vinnie does a more effective job of laying out the massage parlor arrangement — they pay a flat fee per night to rent a room, and in exchange get to keep whatever the women make, with fewer hassles from both cops and unruly customers — and his pitch along with increased police presence along the Deuce is enough to get Reggie and Rodney to sign up, though Larry remains skeptical. (C.C., meanwhile, manages to extract a much higher fee than planned for Lori’s role in Harvey’s movie. As a guy obsessed with the trappings and legend of the pimp lifestyle, he has no interest in changing things up unless he is going to get paid a lot to do so.)

I’m a sucker for this level of wonkiness, particularly in a world that doesn’t automatically lend itself to it, though there are times throughout this season, and this episode, where the process can be hard to decipher. White Frankie and Big Mike’s mission to follow the money being collected from the porn machines around the city isn’t entirely impenetrable — Pipilo just wants them to figure out how much his counterparts in the Genovese family are skimming from this business that the two Families are collaborating on — but the details of it ultimately seem less important than the fact that Rudy is impressed by the job Frankie and Mike do not only with following the collections, but with Mike’s brainstorm (inspired by spending so much time in and around both porn shops and the massage parlor) to erect individual viewing booths at each store so that they can have more customers watching more movies at once. (And by allowing customers to masturbate out of view of anyone else in the store, it’s also the porn equivalent of the first wino who thought to use a brown paper bag to get around the open container statutes; laws will still be broken, but in a way that makes it much less worth the police’s time to intercede.) Vinnie has already proven himself an exceedingly honest and useful partner, and now the rest of his crew is shaping up into a value proposition for Rudy, even as Vinnie himself is growing more and more uneasy with this aspect of the business.

And Pipilo is in a privileged position within The Deuce hierarchy. Not only does most of the money flow up towards him, but he knows much more about what’s happening and why than almost anyone else on the show. Alston, Flanagan, and Sandra sit in that squad car and debate why the intensity of the rousts has increased. The pimps wonder the same as either they, their prostitutes, or their cars get taken away. Frankie and Mike don’t know much about the arrangement between the Families, just as Harvey isn’t sure why the laws are changing, just that it benefits him.

And then you have characters like Abby and Paul, whose only involvement in this world is that they work in a bar frequented by everybody else. Midway through the episode, they have an exchange about sex that’s both charming and naive, given everything happening around them:

“It’s just sex,” Paul says. “If you stand back and you think about what we all look like chasing each other, you’d have to laugh, right?”

“If it wasn’t so much fun,” Abby admits, “it’d be ridiculous.”

It’s easy to take that attitude when you have other ways of making money, even if in Paul’s case, sex can lead to arrest for “misdemeanor faggotry” or “being homosexual north of 14th Street.” They know less than the other regulars about how much money is being made from sex, and what it’s costing — in either cash or pain — everyone involved. But we know it, because The Deuce is so elegantly laying it all out for those of us who get to just sit back and watch at home.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@uproxx.com. He discusses television weekly on the TV Avalanche podcast. His next book, Breaking Bad 101, is on sale now.

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