If The Deuce were a network show, it might focus solely on Candy's (Maggie Gyllenhaal) journey towards master pornographer, or film auteur, or whatever it is she wants to do (or will end up doing). She's grade-A protagonist material, and Gyllenhaal is such a maestro in her role, it almost seems silly that the camera ever trains its lens on someone else. Sorry, why do we care about Rudy Pilpilo (Michael Rispoli)? Can't we just observe Gyllenhaal and her colleagues (Darlene, Ruby, Melissa, Shay, and really just any woman onscreen) theorize about the culture of American business in various crocheted halter tops?
Of course, then the show wouldn't be a baby of David Simon, he of the nimble, multi-class drama. The Deuce shows us the whole river, from the squeaky-clean mouth, through its tributaries, down to the silty river delta. The top of the river in this case — we're riding with this metaphor, y'all, get on board — is Rudy Pipilo, the mobster. He rules this land, and our favorite characters are just pawns. Even Vinnie (James Franco) is at his beck and call , although Vinnie provides the avenue where all the characters meet: The Hi Hat, a joint based on a real bar in the Deuce.
But back to Candy. She's always been a businesswoman; she runs her own show as a sex worker. Now, it's abundantly clear that she's going to become a pornographer. The episode begins with her chatting with the other women of the Deuce — Shay (Kim Director), Darlene (Dominique Fishback), and Ruby (Pernell Walker) — about the possibilities of porn. She points out that "half the people" in Europe walk around naked, which is exactly how I picture Europe, if we're being frank. If they can sell porn in Europe, we'll be able to sell porn here soon enough. (She was right! Except Instagram is still weird about nipples. Weird.) Shay says Candy's been bit by the acting bug. Which, not really. She's been bit by the business bug! He wears a tie.
As a result, Ruby takes Candy to a porn set, which isn't actually a movie set. The filmmaker, Harvey (David Krumholtz, looking like a tired substitute teacher), isn't actually using film. He just pretends to make a movie, then charges people to come and watch it all happen. Then, if the police try to arrest him, he says he's making performance art. Candy's confused — couldn't he be making more money by, er, actually filming the deed then selling the movies? She also has some opinions about his lighting for the movie, which proves that women should be the ones making porn. (Who knows how to light a woman? A woman! Because we have to know these things!)
Vinnie's new bar is coming along, which is good news for the Deuce. Vinnie, especially in this episode, is an unconditional caretaker. When his brother-in-law Bobby (Chris Bauer) suffers from what looked like a heart attack, he's the one who offers his sister some money for the medical bills. He maintains that any and all clientele are welcome at the Hi Hat; he encourages Paul (Chris Coy, who manages to steal one of the more violent scenes of the episode with a glorious pained expression) to bring the clientele from Penny Lane back to the bar — previously, the joint was a gay bar. He opens up his bar to the sex workers of the Deuce without question and, when the Hi Hat does open, it's an elixir of seedy Manhattan wildlife.
The bar isn't without trouble, though. Courtesy of Frankie — also James Franco, and an utterly useless character in my book — Vinnie angers Mickey Spillane (Mark Noonan), an Irish enemy of Rudy. The machines in the bar, it turns out, make a lot of money for Spillane, and it's not okay if Frankie breaks into to them for a buck or a hundred. (Frankie destroys a lot of things in this episode, which speaks further to my theory that he's useless. So far, he's effectively a device for wreaking havoc. His only value is as a scene partner with Vinnie. James Franco has really good chemistry with — no surprises here — James Franco!)
This trouble leads to a violent incident at the bar. Mickey's blowhard henchmen brings a gun into the bar, planning to shoot Vinnie it seems, but Big Mike (Mustafa Shakir) intervenes. Big Mike enjoys a curious amount of screen time in this episode, but the show is better for it. He's a drug addict who spends his days in the Deuce. He has a haunting glare. When Candy propositions Mike, his stare sends her scurrying across the street. Big Mike seems lost. Until, that is, Vinnie gives him a job as a pseudo-bouncer at the Hi Hat. Vinnie, the Mother Goose of the Deuce. (The Mother Deuce!)
Naturally, Abby finds her way to the Hi Hat as well. She spends the episode looking for work. Or rather, turning her nose at various job opportunities. She walks out of a job interview — how daring! — and also walks out of a job selling "Flower Power" over the phone. Call me a snob, but "Master Blaster Flower Power" sounds like a product made up by a junior varsity improv team. She then goes to the Hi Hat and starts waiting tables for Vince. Abby at the Hi Hat is painful; she's got opinions on the sex trade, and none of them are good. She rolls her eyes at C.C. (Gary Carr), who tells her proudly, "I had a college girl once." C.C. says his college girl was educated, but stupid. Hey, he pretty much described Abby!
C.C. and Lori (Emily Meade), meanwhile, are grappling with the incident from last week. Lori's frequenting the tunnel, which is a great way to make quick money, but not a good business strategy. The way to do it, C.C. explains, is to get regulars. Repeat customers will serve you better in the long term.
This is something Darlene knows well, almost too well. This episode, Louis (John B. McCann) returns; they watch Mildred Pierce together and Darlene falls asleep playing the small spoon to Louis's big. The image is a perverted romantic tableau — if the wallpaper weren't so yellow, the bed not so bare, and the woman not so frantic to scuttle back to the streets, their date might actually resemble the beginnings of a romantic comedy. Even when Darlene hastens back to Larry Brown (Gbenga Akinnagbe), she sounds like a 15-year-old apologizing for overstepping curfew. Larry is less angry at Darlene, and more disappointed. It's as if he knows she, like Candy, has designs on a different life.
Alas, Candy and Darlene's future still feels far-off. I, impatient television viewer that I am, want them to go into the movie business together now. Darlene loves movies — she's reading Tale of Two Cities now. Candy wants to make movies.
The signs aren't good, though. Harvey's not interested in the hassle of making movies, and without him, Candy isn't going to make it very far. Her face when Harvey tells her "no" is devastating — and it's made all the more upsetting by Candy's painful interactions with her customers this episode. One tells her she might have crabs. Another begs her to have anal sex, to which Candy says a wholehearted "no." Whether or not Harvey's going to help her, Candy might just start making porn, as the life in the Deuce isn't getting much better.
The Winning Deuce-Bag
This week's award goes to Gentle Richie (Matthew James Ballinger), who says he doesn't like "hierarchical oppression" but is also a pimp. Also, for being the guy in the bar who makes obscure music requests, even if it's the Grateful Dead.
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