Because you can find recaps elsewhere, and because we long for the watercooler talks of '90s yore, two editors, Geoff Rynex and Sam Eichner, will be using this space to have a weekly conversation about HBO's The Deuce, David Simon and George Pelecanos's unflinching portrait of the sex industry in 1970s New York.
Sam Eichner: This was probably the first episode where I could feel the show drawing its various limbs together into a neat little human knot. The city creates a safe haven for Rudy Pipilo and co.'s prostitution parlor, then forces ("sweeps") the girls off the street, then takes a cut on the back end. It's a win-win for the city, and a win-win for Rudy, and a win-win for Vince. The pimps are the only real losers here. You could feel them, in this episode, really losing their grip on the business. I wonder if it will force their hand—whether some chaos and climactic sort of violence will come from it. The scene where C.C. busts into Harvey's film shoot, in a yellow jumpsuit, black fur and cane, acting like he owns the place (man, does Carr have some gravitas or what?), and demands an inordinate amount of pay for Lori is perhaps an inclination that things are heading in the wrong direction, keeping-the-peace-wise. One gets the sense that everyone's routine yet fragile acceptance of the other's place in the ecosystem of the deuce is starting to deteriorate. What do you think?
Geoff Rynex: I agree that everyone is starting to come together, or, more importantly, a system is starting to come together. We now know where everyone stands and how everyone gets their piece of the pie in the new order. All the corners have been indicted, both the city and precincts are getting a cut of the parlors and the pornmakers are increasingly free to keep film in the can (which somehow makes the tableau of all the men watching it live seem less weird). The organized criminals seem to be even more organized and poised to make a hell of a lot more on the sex trade than before. But I'm going to take issue with the idea that the pimps are the only ones losing out. The whole new situation is a prime example of trickle-down economics being the same kind of unrealistic fantasy that true communism is. Someone or someones always there to take an extra piece to the point where there’s no more benefit to the workers. In this case, that’s visualized with Darlene in her “room” at the parlor, which looks a lot more like a prison cell with a wash basin that strikes more of a 19th-century prostitute note than a 1971 one. And let's not forget all those budding film editors out there, who no longer have work cutting out the hardcore from the porn loops.
You can tell things are starting to get more serious by the way Rudy decides to handle the skimming of his machines. When it was chump change, Pipolo didn’t think cracking down was worth the hassle. Now, it is. Which gives us a line about the future of porn in America that passes for wide-eyed optimism in the universe of The Deuce: “Right here, made in the U.S.A. Not some other country’s shit. Imagine watching a movie with American girls, speaking American, getting reamed in every hole and swallowing cock without any hassle from the law.”
I hadn't thought about the potential for a violent pimp uprising, but you're right about Carr, and it's entirely possible that's foreshadowing more desperate times and more chiving. In the case of the pimps, it's feeling like a mom and pop shop being swallowed up by an overstaffed conglomerate.
I'm curious what you think about Candy's future at this point. It looks like porn is set for boom times, but Harvey, despite his sincere sympathy, doesn't have any work for her behind the camera right now, and the best he can do is try to set her up with slightly less grimy prostitution work. I love their dynamic though. The porn director who cares is a nice twist on the hooker with a heart of gold trope.
SE: I like Harvey and Candy's dynamic, too. It's a sort of breath of fresh air for the viewer to see a man in Candy's life who isn't trying to fuck her or fuck her over (I'm not counting Jack, here, because he's not really with Candy, per se). When Harvey came back upstairs to Candy's apartment and she kind of assumed he wanted sex, I have to admit I kind of assumed he did, too, which tells you something not only about where the characters' minds go but where the viewers' minds have been conditioned to go. The Deuce is fucking cynical as hell.
I think things are looking up for Candy. In an ideal world, she'd end up producing films with Harvey in Vince's massage parlor and everyone would live happily ever after—or as happily ever after as one can reasonably expect to be while making porn in the '70s. Honestly, though, I was more intrigued by her running away from her mother's house—ostensibly because her father (or ex-husband?) came home. The murkiness surrounding Candy's genesis as a prostitute is perhaps the biggest mystery of the show thus far, and one I hope is in part resolved by the end of this season. Depending on which way it goes, that reveal has the potential to really upend our idea of Candy.
I've also been taken by the moral/artistic complexity of making a show about prostitution and porn. It first came to mind during the second episode, when Candy first does porn. And it definitely came the fore in this episode, which for all intents and purposes features a clip from a legitimate soft core porn starring Maggie Gyllenhaal as Candy as a slutty teacher fucking her student. Richard Brody, the New Yorker film critic, made a point about Schindler's List that has stuck with me ever since I read it: that there was a movie-within-that-movie begging to be made, a meta-documentary of the extras Spielberg chose to go into the gas chambers, one of whom was reportedly traumatized during the making of the movie. I'm not saying Maggie Gyllenhaal portraying a prostitute portraying a promiscuous teacher in a soft-core porn is at all the same as what those extras experienced on Schindler's List, but it is fascinating to consider the overlap between artifice and reality in The Deuce. I can't help but wonder if the striking verisimilitude of Gyllenhaal's performance and that scene in general is in some way due to the fact that, in order to film a making of a soft core porn scene with some verisimilitude, you have to more or less film a soft core porn scene. And that perhaps the vulnerability Gyllenhaal's character feels is not separable from the vulnerability Gyllenhaal feels herself. What do you make of that? Am I overthinking this? If so, please navigate this conversation back to the show.
GR: I didn’t expect a Schindler’s List reference to make it into our Deuce discussions. Well done. Up until now I had just assumed candy’s son was the product of a john’s broken condom or something. it never occurred to me that it was just a regular guy in the regular world who still has contact with his son. But I find myself uninterested in Candy’s origins as a prostitute. I feel like everything I need to know about her is shown to me in her exasperated sighs and sunken eyes. As good and as layered as most of the characters are, this show, to me, isn’t a character study. It’s telling a big story very intimately and from ground-level, and I think it only comes across as character-driven because of the talent of everyone involved. In that way, we are watching the story of the extras, and the guards when they go home, and the guys who operate the gas chambers.
There was a lot in the TV analysis community in the lead-up to The Deuce’s premier about how the creators and directors went out of their way to keep the sex on the show from being scintillating (Gyllenhaal also became a producer on the show in order to have some say in how that was handled) but then of course the entire point of what they’re doing, in the show’s universe, is scintillation. It’s a very fine line they’re toeing, successfully, to the point where I haven’t given much thought to the philosophical or real-world implications of filming an actor filming porn. Whatever’s happening though, it’s all working.
My big concern right now is my mounting dread at the idea that there’s not going to be a big, satisfying resolution to this phase of our main characters’ lives. This is a story that’s going to span more than two decades, and I don’t think we’re going to see anything resembling a reality-suspending montage of the fun-loving halcyon days of porn. I’m starting to think that, for the most part, we’re going to be denied any kind of closure, and instead left with a feeling of “well, that’s just how the world is.” Are you getting any sense of where you think this is all going, aside from the Great Pimp Revolution of ’71?
SE: The same sense of dread is mounting for me. A part of me thinks the show just as well could've begun where we are now, more in media res, less at the very beginning and more at the point where things are just starting to rev up. I can already feel my disappointment in the season finale—because it really is just getting good. And this wouldn't be an issue, normally, but like you've said, the fact that we know this story is spanning more than two decades makes you wonder if this was all a waste--an entire season wasted as background for the next. I don't know. I hope in the short term we get something resembling a climax. So far, nothing really brash or intense or show-altering has happened. There is some suspense, at least, in the knowledge that that is likely to happen in the next few episodes. How exactly it will go down, though, is sort of a mystery to me. I don't think we're done with Candy's familial ghosts. And I do think at some point we're going to see some fissures in some of the stronger relationships between the pimps and the girls.
I want to return, briefly, to something you've said, about this show not being a character study, and more a big story being told very intimately. I think that's a very apt way of looking at it, because as a character study or character-driven show, it has been somewhat disappointment (despite the strength of the performances). Really, it shares as much if not more DNA with a Nat Geo or History channel doc than a standard prestige television drama (you're in a better position to say whether this was equally true of The Wire). This is a show that's dedicated more to exposing the ecosystem of this world more than anything else—which of course accounts for the heavy, meticulous plotting; and viewed in this light, it's much more impressive.
What are your predictions, if you have any?
GR: It's really because I'm such a cliche fan of The Wire that I spot what Simon and Pelecanos are doing with all this. There is very much a sense of documentary to that show, and, despite all the shiny period details and high-profile actors, that's very much what The Deuce is too. It's a show about a system, and systems become so big and so entrenched that they become intractable, and, inevitably, that means that the typical stories of redemption and the deserved happy endings for our beloved characters just don't ever materialize. If you've ever wondered what happens to a character on a show or in a movie after the credits roll, that's how I'm expecting this season to play out—just a bunch of people living lives that aren't at their conclusion, and thus don't get a conclusion.