The Deuce Reminds Us How Dangerous It Is To Be a Sex Worker

Photo: Paul Schiraldi/HBO.
For an HBO show including pimps, prostitution, and a descent into pornography, The Deuce is surprisingly empowering to women. Lead character Eileen “Candy” Merrell (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a sex worker who’s savvy enough to work on her own and protect herself, free of any pimps managing her time or cash flow. “Nobody makes money off of my pussy but me,” Candy tells a pimp trying to add her to his “stable.” Between the dazzle of Candy’s strength, and the subversive bravado of Minnesota native Lori (Emily Meade), it’s easy to forget how dangerous life as a sex worker actually is. But, Sunday night’s “Show And Prove” shows and proves with one chilling scene just how scary prostitution can quickly become.
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The Deuce scene in question arrives towards the end of the episode, and takes a hauntingly dark turn. Things start out typically enough, with Lori seemingly being dragged out of what should be a “date” in handcuffs. It’s implied the man pulling her out of an apartment building is an undercover cop, and Lori was the target of a sting operation. Because sex work is technically illegal, this isn’t much of a shock. When C.C. (Gary Carr) asks the man, later identified as a beloved Long Island biology teacher named Rolfe Hermann (Salvatore Inzerillo), why Lori is under arrest, the “officer” says with hate in his voice she is, “A fucking whore.” C.C. ignores the lurid comment and asks what precinct the man is from. When the solo “cop” says “The 1-5,” the pimp fatally stabs him. “The pigs do not set a sting like that without a backup cage car waiting to cart your ass off,” C.C. yells at a crying Lori, explaining his reasoning. “And ‘cause there ain’t no 1-5 precinct.”
Finding out the man was lying is creepy enough, but what C.C. uncovers in his car is haunting. The pimp goes through a dufflebag hiding in the faux officer’s car, and uncovers a ton of rope — the kind you always see tied around dead women in serial killer movies — and a Super-Matic Hot Shot model E-24. For those don’t spend their time around livestock, the device is a powerful cattle prod. A cattle prod. It also seems like a pipe, or a different type of heavy, metallic cylinder, was stashed in the bag as well.
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Clearly, Rolfe was planning to torture and possibly (probably) kill Lori in a disturbingly violent way. But, what is truly so scary about the situation is the fact she would have followed the fake officer into this deadly situation quietly and without much of a challenge. As a sex worker, Lori believes it’s only a matter of time until she’s arrested for doing her job. So, when Rolfe “arrests” her, she goes with it, barely fighting against her handcuffs. She knows causing a commotion will only make her punishment even more severe.
As we see throughout “Show And Prove,” sex workers who are polite to the police get Chinese food — not serious jail time. Thanks to this system, sex workers are one of the vulnerable members of The Deuce society. It is wildly easy for a man with legitimately violent aims to capture one of these women and harm them in any way he so chooses. As officer Rizzi (Michael Kostroff) questions a reported rape, “One complainant [is a] known pros, so who’s to say?”
This entire incident with Rolfe, which leaves Lori traumatized and her would-be attacker dead inside of his car, harkens back to Candy’s Deuce pilot episode conversation with pimp Rodney (Method Man), who is trying to manipulate the mom of one into joining his “herd.” The flashily dressed man warns Candy, “It’s a scary world out here… Volatile,” telling her about sex workers who have been “cut” or assaulted on the job, presumably by johns. “This one girl I knew, thought she could handle it herself,” Rodney says. “Got served a Drano cocktail.” Lori wasn't poisoned in the middle of a “date,” but she was nearly kidnapped and cattle prodded to death by a man who spends most of his time around children.
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Obviously, Rodney has one blind spot during his hard sell to Candy: pimps can barely protect “their girls,” as they continuously, and uncomfortably, refer to the women they control, abuse, and exploit. Darlene (Dominique Fishback) was the victim of a rape fantasy “date” gone horribly dangerous during the pilot. During the series premiere, a john gets overly aggressive with Darlene, leaving her with a sore arm and actual bruises all over her face. She parlays the violence into a bigger rate, but it is still alarming to see proof that a sex worker like Darlene isn’t safe from the most vicious whims of her clients, pimp or no pimp. “Her man,” Larry, is so inept, he couldn’t even protect Darlene from a john turning the young woman into an unwilling porn actress. An unidentified customer filmed his encounter with Darlene, which she agreed to, and then sold it as wide-release pornography, which she didn’t consent to. It’s a disturbing violation Darlene can’t get retribution for. Again, it’s not like she can call the police.
If The Deuce were a far less ambitious series, it would completely lean on self-sufficient characters like Candy for an easy-to-digest fairytale filled with “hooker with a heart of gold” tropes and bad wigs. But, The Deuce isn’t that show — and it’s all the better for it.
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