After four episodes — half a season — of the filthy New York City streets, seeing Darlene (Dominique Fishback) in her hometown is jarring. Part of it is just Darlene. In New York City, where the lights are bright and the sounds are aggressive, Darlene is already a formidable presence. Against the backdrop of small town living, Darlene is a freaking supernova. In comparison, her childhood friends look freakishly quaint. They're worried about the latest town gossip. Darlene is more interested in convincing them to go back to New York City.
On paper, Darlene perhaps lives a tragic life. Part of what makes The Deuce so successful is that Darlene is never a tragedy. When she lies to her friends in her hometown, spinning a tale about being a fabulous model in Manhattan, she seems powerful. Her assessment that she "doesn't do anything she doesn't want to do" feels true. We want to believe in the fantasy. It's possible Darlene believes this fantasy to a degree.
For the same reason, Bernice (Andrea-Rachel Parker) doesn't seem desperate when she approaches Darlene and requests to accompany her back to New York City. Actually, it's damn good networking. Bernice is just as powerful when, after being rejected by Larry Brown (Gbenga Akinnagbe), she announces her statement of purpose: "I'm not getting back on that bus." And she doesn't — she joins the ranks of Rodney's (Method Man) women and earns the name "Ginger." ("Bernice" simply wasn't fuckable enough.)
Later in the episode, we learn that Larry "sent" Darlene home to fetch a new recruit. At least, that's how he sees the situation. Whether or not Darlene agreed with these terms isn't clear. It's probably a mixture of both — Darlene went because she wanted to go home. She also went because Larry Brown wanted her to go. The real question is: Does it really matter?
As Ashley (Jamie Neumann) tells Abby (Margarita Levieva), it doesn't really matter to whom you're beholden. Daddies, husbands, and pimps: They're all the same. When Darlene goes home, she runs into an ex-boyfriend, who seems eager to win her back. Were she to marry this doleful ex, would their relationship be any different from her current relationship with Larry Brown?
This point is never more clear than when Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal) sleeps with Jack (Will Chase). With him, she's Eileen, but, again, what's the difference? After they screw, she quietly masturbates on her side of the bed. While she does, he rubs her back like a feeble, useless bird. Jack might as well be a customer. Then, after the fact, he insists on paying for a cab. He hands her a wad of cash as she walks out the door — just like a customer.
Jack also gives her this useless compliment: "You're different." Get out, Jack.
Candy has never had a use for men — that's been her motto since the pilot. She don't need no man. After Candy's attacked by a customer, Rodney (Method Man) argues that she does need a man, or at least a pimp. Their exchange on the streets of New York is going to be what gets Gyllenhaal her Emmy win. Rodney tells a bruised, beaten-to-a-pulp Candy that she needs a pimp to protect her from abusers. She begins to cry. She refuses his advances. She points out that all Rodney can provide is a shoulder to cry on — Q.E.D., all men are useless.
The pimps talk as if they protect and control the women, but this episode proves they do not. Later, we see Lori (Emily Meade) crying on C.C.'s (Gary Carr) shoulder at the Hi-Hat. He says she had a rough experience with a customer, probably much like Candy did. Hm. Seems as if you couldn't prevent that one, huh, C.C.? In the face of violent customers, the pimps can do very little to protect their women. Similarly, Barbara (Kayla Foster) and Melissa (Olivia Luccardi) are running their own scheme. They're stealing from customers and pocketing the cash for themselves. Now, who's the pimp and who's the pimpee?
Even Abby, as annoying as she is, isn't letting the men in her life take control. A friend takes her to a party, seemingly a date, but she really only goes so she can retrieve her camera. Then, she refuses to wear her leotard at the Hi-Hat. The elastic is chafing, she says defiantly. Take that one, Vince.
The reverse happens with Sandra (Natalie Paul). Because she's a woman reporter in the '70s, she appears to be independent. But she's also beholden to a man: her editor! Their exchange happens like every journalist-editor conversation you've ever seen on screen.
Him: We want a human interest piece!
Her: I want to talk to the police officers! I want to dig deep! I want to write something real!
Her: Gr! I am a defiant woman!
Their conversation does highlight race, however. Sandra writes for the Amsterdam News, a Black publication. Her editor doesn't want her reinforcing stereotypes about the Black community. She insists that the Black pimps handle just as many Black women as they do white women. This conversation feels like meta-commentary from the showrunners.
Sandra also requires a man to gain entry to the Deuce. In a way, she's no different from the sex workers of the Deuce — she's using Alston (Lawrence Gilliard, Jr.) to gain access to a pimp. They may not be having sex, but there's the suggestive promise of sex dangling between them. And Alston certainly wants it, which is the only reason he's willing to help her out. Power, sex and money: They're all kind of the same.
Paul (Chris Coy) isn't beholden a single man specifically; he's beholden to The Man, i.e. he's a gay man in New York. He's arrested at a porn theater for soliciting sex. This is painful, considering the police turn a blind eye to all the heterosexual sex work that occurs in the Deuce. Vincent (James Franco) bailing him out is just further proof that Vince is one of few mother figures in the Deuce. Actually, it's Mike (Mustafa Shakir), an increasingly curious character, who posts the bail. (We learn in this episode that Mike is very good at drawing.)
But even after he spends some time in jail, Paul lives. He's thriving in a way the other characters are not. His threesome with his boyfriend and a handsome stranger might be the first time we've seen actual sexual pleasure on this show. (Abby and Vince's pool table encounter doesn't count.)
Frankie's got a crass theory about all this — "When it comes to sex, the gays get the gold." — and it does nothing for the story except to prove that Frankie doesn't need to exist. The only pro to his character might be that he doesn't seem to be trying to control anyone else. He wants money, and he wants to talk about sex. That's a little relatable.
The Deuce is undergoing a revolution. On every layer of the seedy midtown industry, things are changing. While the women are resisting their pimps, and Vince is providing a safe haven for the oppressed of the city, Rudy Pipilo (Michael Rispoli) is getting into sex work. It's official: He's opening a boutique brothel. In the words of Tommy Longo, "Not everything is a $20 jerk job." Pipilo guesses that men who will pay $30 for a blow job might also pay $100 for a nice hotel room and a woman in a slinky nightgown. He's right. And just like that, the women of the Deuce have an opportunity to move inside.
They could work at a boutique brothel like Rudy's or, they could make good on the show's dek and start making porn. Luckily, Harvey (David Krumholtz) returns at just the right time. Things have changed, he says. All of a sudden, New York judges don't care about pornography.
The Winning Deuce-Bag
This week's award goes to the dude at Abby's cool college party who says he wears an army jacket ironically.
"Why the army jacket?" Abby asks.
"Irony. Everyone wears them," he says. All the cool kids are doing it, Abby! It's fun to wear things and also hate the thing you're wearing! It's fun to hate yourself!
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