Throughout this entire first season of The Deuce, I’ve been struck by the frequency with which Simon, Pelecanos, and their writers have turned narrative expectation inside out. It’s been such a key component in the show’s modus operandi, in fact, that it feels like something they determined from the jump, in some kind of all-hands-on-deck meeting: Look, we’re telling a story that’s loaded with inherent clichés (the hooker with the heart of gold, the pornographer who’s really an artist, the cop who wants to put an end to the corruption around him, the farm girl the pimp grabs right off the bus), we’ve got to pick the ones where we’re going to make people think they’re ahead of us, and then give it a twist.
For example, in this week’s episode, “Au Reservoir,” Ashley breaks away from C.C. It’s not out of some sudden sense of traditional morality, or a newfound desire to turn her life around; she’s initially just resentful that she has to pound the pavement and his new favorite Lori doesn’t (she’s doing the movies, he explains, and “she gotta be rested for that shit”). Her initial response is an understandable “Fuck this,” and she finds herself, luckily enough, entering an extended hang with Frankie. It’s lovely to see her stretching her legs a bit, even as the possibility of violence bubbles underneath; after all, in the very first episode, he showed her the consequences of fucking with C.C. That threat lurks during her entire subplot, up to the final frames, as she boards the escalator at Port Authority – will he be waiting at the top, nervously fingering that straight razor?
But then… he’s not. It’s a similar bait-and-switch to the journey taken by Ashley’s dress, which Abby wears (along with Vincent) back home, to some ritzy party, with the express aim of shaking up her folks. But she doesn’t really succeed, since her father is clearly used to her nonsense, and this Vincent seems like a nice enough fellow, and she’s working. No need to get bent outta shape, certainly not in front of all these people, even if half of them are standing on the dance floor with their jaws unhinged.
And then there’s Leon, kind Leon, den mother and diner proprietor, who turns away when the pimps strong-arm the girls (a not-infrequent occurrence), and seems likely to do so again, until, well, he doesn’t. It’s a beautifully constructed sequence of events; looking the other direction when faced with terrifying man-on-woman violence is a precedent established in the aforementioned closing scene of the pilot, and (as in life) the violence occurs so quickly, it feels over before it’s even started. And the girl in question’s response is, to put it mildly, complicated – it’s not the “my hero!” moment he may have been looking for.
The other element that’s particularly noteworthy this late in the first season is the show’s willingness to indulge in long threads, which are now paying off. The most obvious example, of course, is the move of prostitution from the streets to the massage parlors; as Alston notes, that’s “been the plan for a long time now,” and we saw the beginning of that plan all the way back in episode three, with the meeting between Rudy and the city lawyer, chopping up and marking off real estate in the lower ‘40s. But even this episode’s overdose was carefully planned – that was the girl who was zonked out at Leon’s when Candy was looking for a fill-in actress last week, and the one shooting up in the john at the Hi-Hat even before that. If the two-girl cash-lift operation seemed like a colorful detail last week, this was when we saw it go sideways, with eventually deadly consequences. And, in a similar set-up, we can pretty safely predict trouble for Bobby, if he can’t get this crush on one of his employees under control.
And oh yeah, with all that going on, there was more porn production in this episode. Eileen’s eventual ascension to the director’s chair is even clearer, first in sharing “trade secrets” with Lori about a trade she’s just learned herself, and then in just straight taking over acting coaching for her scene when Harvey appears able to do no better than “We can pretend, can we not?” She is, unsurprisingly, good at it. And, in a show where it’s easy to focus on the grimness, the sheer joy on Lori’s face, the thrill in her eyes as her own image is bounced back at her from that machine, is perfection.
A few other things:
- The business with Eileen’s father gets a little goose for its eventual payoff, confirming to Harvey that she got into the life due to “Daddy stuff,” but “Not in the way you mean. You’re thinking like a fuckin’ degenerate.” Note how savvily she slides off the subject, and how he volleys the joke back (“I am a degenerate”) to let her out of the conversation. Informative, but graceful.
- Fun fact: Boys in the Sand was a real movie (in fact, it screened earlier this year at both the Quad Cinema and Metrograph in New York), and they even got the date right: it premiered on December 29, 1971, at the 55th Street Playhouse, and it was, in fact, reviewed in Variety and advertised in the New York Times. Its success and acceptance is widely acknowledged as a key early point in the Golden Age of Porn; the next would come the following June, with the release of – as it’s explained here – “a real fuck film” with a $100K budget, about a girl with a clitoris in her throat. Wonder if that’ll be in the season finale?
- Also a real thing: the distinction between “meat eaters” and “grass eaters” in discussion of police corruption, a term brought into the public consciousness by the Knapp Commission Report, which we discussed last week.
- The best little conversational touch occurs when the pimps, talking shop about their newfound extraneousness, note that their copious free time has apparently afforded multiple matiness of Fantasia.
- Darlene’s advice to Ginger – “Go home. If you stay you’ll die” – feels like foreshadowing. But again, we’ve learned what happens when we follow traditional assumptions on this show.
Listen to film editor Jason Bailey discuss “The Deuce” every week on “The Deuce Rethread” podcast, via the DVR Podcast Network. Subscribe here or listen here: