The Deuce: Episode 2 Review

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    The soundtrack to The Wire is entitled, “And All the Pieces Matter,” referring to the importance of details and the littlest of things in putting together not just the story, but also explaining how every person had worth in that world. From Avon Barksdale, Marlo, and Stringer all the way down to Dookie, not a single character on that show didn’t play a larger role within the context of David Simon’s universe.

    (***The theme, Curtis Mayfield’s “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go” for The Deuce is thematically terrific, and does also bring back feelings of “Way Down in the Hole” doesn’t it?)

    It’s relevant today because Simon’s new series also seems to be following that same path. We’re still learning the names of many of the key players, with only a few rising to the surface. The script isn’t exactly repeating names as much as it is accentuating faces. We know who these people are, or we’re getting to that stage, and we recognize them without a name tag.

    That’s the most important thing right now, because although we see a James Franco or a Maggie Gyllenhaal, we’re watching a world evolving before our eyes. Simon and George Pelecanos are painting it, with vivid color palettes at times, but with a darkness many showrunners and executive producers would run from, because it’s tough to be this bleak.

    Yet, two episodes into The Deuce, it’s already clear this is an EARLY masterpiece. It’s a difficult watch, but it’s relentless in its level of depth and its willingness to pull back curtains on multiple stages simultaneously. If the first chapter was the introduction, we began the real exposition this week, and if anything, what we found out about these men and women is they’re all simply trying to survive.

    Last week, Darlene cried while watching A Tale of Two Cities with a john that had no interest in anything but spending time with a young female and watching a movie with her. This week, she got a library card, and though we don’t see her ask for the book by name, we can infer immediately she’s interested in reading the Dickens classic, which she didn’t know existed before that night in the older man’s apartment.

    Also in the first episode, C.C. showcased a dual persona, one Dr. Jekyll and the other Mr. Hyde. He was supremely cordial to Lori, seemed to be the “nice” pimp, but he’s the one that sliced up Ashley in a seedy bathroom at the end of the episode for daring to suggest a night off due to a downpour. This shouldn’t, and wasn’t a surprise, and this week, there was more of the same, although the bad C.C. was on full display. Even in his softer moments, he was rationalizing why it was okay for him to be a scumbag.

    He wants off the streets. He wants to find the right woman, settle down, raise a family, and all that nonsense. But to do it, he needs a “proper pile,” which means he’s going to “go to war for my scratch” for the time being. He also takes a fatherly role with Lori, but threatens that she’ll be the two-bit whore in the XXX theater going down on the dregs of society if she ever leaves him or thinks she can make it on her own.

    Later, a potential murderer (or at the very least a violent rapist) picks her up, impersonates an officer, and lures her to a station wagon. He has a bat and rope, among other goodies, but C.C. saves her life by shanking the guy before he can get into the car. There’s no “Precinct 1-5,” and nothing about him said cop. What’s funny is I knew he wasn’t police before any of this happened, just because of how he was dressed. It didn’t matter. This was done to illustrate the constant danger of this style of life, especially at this point in history in the hellscape of New York City.

    Candy fills in for her friend (and “colleague”) Loretta at a pornographic movie shoot and gets her first taste of that life. It’s here that Simon and Pelecanos choose to begin unleashing the unseen side of the industry. The two Viking men ejaculate far earlier than the future viewers of the film would believe, and we don’t see it happen. What we see is both Candy and her co-star’s faces covered and coated in fluid that looks like one thing, but is something entirely different.

    In this case, it’s “cold potato soup” and it disgusts the other woman. It also repulses me mightily, and makes me anti-Campbells for the foreseeable future.

    Recall two weeks ago in the pilot review, I wrote that Simon and Pelecanos would be depicting the porn industry, but wanted to execute it in such a way that it wasn’t arousing and was not pornographic. This is one of those moments, as any chance of finding sexual satisfaction in the movie is taken away by the sheer grossness of the entire shoot, and the soup secret ensures no one is in the mood afterwards.

    Candy steals a copy of the film and immediately heads home to watch it, but before she leaves the basement locale, she asks one of the assistants, Naomi, pointed questions about key lights and fill lights and the differences between using aluminum and white sides of a board in reflectivity. She’s someone that very much doesn’t like her money split in any way. It’s why she’s thwarted both Rodney and Larry Brown’s advances to be her pimp. She seems interested in porn, but it may be more to RUN a studio than get naked on camera.

    She has a son, and her mother continually pressures her that the boy needs his mother. “I’m doing the best I can” is the response, and Candy gives her money to buy the poor child Operation, which might inspire him to become a doctor. It did the opposite for me, as I sucked mightily at it.

    As for Vincent and Frankie Martino, boy are they in trouble. They have no idea how deeply they’ve embedded themselves within the Gambino crime family, and although capo Rudy Pipilo (Michael Rispoli) seems relatively cordial as he lays out the way to skim money off the top of Bobby Dwyer’s (Chris Bauer) business to work down Frankie’s debt and offers to hand a new bar to Vinnie, we know where this is going.

    Abbie didn’t do much this week, except fail out of school, refuse to go home, accept a pair of hugs and an envelope from her mother, and move into a complete dump with shady people all around her in a terrible part of New York City. The last we see of her, she’s looking through the want-ads on a dirty mattress. The Deuce was smart to limit this side of the story. We’ll get much more from her going forward, as she still has a connection with Vincent, but there’s no rush to tell every story in every episode. That would be a mistake, and it’s one Simon and Pelecanos know to avoid.

    The woman that struck up the ill-timed conversation with Darlene in Vincent’s bar will be one to watch as well. Larry Brown tells her he doesn’t know her game, but makes sure she’s aware that she’s cruising for problems if she gets near his girls. “Conversations don’t pay the bills,” he says to Darlene before forcing her back out on the street. She might be some kind of reporter. There’s more to her character than just a lesbian, if indeed that’s what’s being implied.

    We also met Paul Hendrickson (Chris Coy) when Rudy takes Vinnie to take a look at Penny Lane. It’s a “fag bar,” as The Deuce continues to write what needs to be written, regardless of whether anyone will have a problem with it. In a period piece, some ugly or now inappropriate things must be included or the authenticity is lost. What we learn about Chris is he’s a smart guy and one with a keen eye for his business, including rotating through liquor and changing things up so as not to leave dead money on the table. Vinnie immediately likes him, because he’s real, he’s honest, and he has a brain.

    It was subtle, but this was a fantastic scene in the episode, and whereas we’re likely to see many people take Martino down a dark road, Chris might be someone that provides some semblance of either hope or at LEAST sanity in an otherwise sad daily existence.

    Similarly normal (at least I think so) is NYPD patrolman Chris Alston (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.), who treats the women of the night he collars with some level of dignity. He’s not mean to them. He’s doing a job. His partner, Flannagan, who we met with Abbie in the pilot, might be sketchy, but doesn’t appear to be a total jerk either. But, the police are corrupt in 1970s New York, with many in the pockets of the mob, and others out for personal scores. Ralph Macchio arrives as Officer Haddix, and basically all we see of him is a guy cracking jokes and acting in a cynical fashion. He’s been around for a while, and he seems tired of vice.

    The cast is growing, and when the names become second nature, we’ll be in better shape, but we are beginning to understand motivations of the vast majority of the cast. Simon and Pelecanos delved into the micro, rather than the macro, exposing the attractive blonde’s photoshoot, complete with hairy armpits and an unimpressive pay day, the aforementioned first experience on a porn set with Candy, and the pimp life. C.C. says no one is more alone in the world than a pimp. Everyone wants to see them fail, the police either want money or a pimp’s scalp, and fellow hustlers just want the stable of women for themselves.

    It’s tough to feel sorry for C.C., Larry Brown, or any of the rest, but again, this is life on the streets in 1970s New York. This is the life these people have chosen. Lori, who has acted above it all and perfectly street savvy ends up shaken after he saves her life, and she may never be quite the same again. Darlene is a sweet girl, but she’s ruined herself. That movie is on the streets, even if she got the last two copies. Whatever Larry tries to do for her, that stain probably won’t wash off. On a more surface level, they both lost money on the deal as well.

    That’s going to be the lasting lesson here. None of these individuals understands just how bad their lives actually are, and for some of them, they never will. They are wading in a lake of fire, but this one’s covered in bodily fluids, crimes, and pure, unadulterated, X-Rated despair.

    The outlook for the characters of The Deuce is sobering, and one wonders whether there will be a success story anywhere to be found before the show completes its journey.

    The one question we don’t have at this stage is whether this is a quality product. The Deuce is already shaping up to be one of the top standouts in a crowded year, and an early Emmy favorite in multiple categories in 2018. Ernest Dickerson did a great job directing, and Pelecanos and Richard Price wrote a hell of an episode.

    It was rather vile at times, but that’s exactly how it SHOULD BE, and likely will be, every Sunday night. There are consequences later for what’s done today, and a dog eat dog world will lead to bad decisions with disastrous penalties. Curtis Mayfield sang it this way:

    Everybody smoke
    Use the pill and the dope
    Educated fools
    From uneducated schools
    Pimping people is the rule
    Polluted water in the pool
    And Nixon talking ’bout, “Don’t worry”
    He say, “Don’t worry”
    He say, “Don’t worry”
    He say, “Don’t worry”
    But they don’t know
    There can be no show
    And if there’s hell below
    We’re all gonna go

    I’m @JMartOutkick and you can reach me at No, I will not spread out like a lioness.

Written by Jason Martin