Photo: Paul Schiraldi (HBO)

From the moment she entered the bus terminal, I could tell there was something different about Brenda Peterson. She’s too sure of herself: Not in the way “Shit, C.C.” way that Lori gradually revealed upon her arrival in New York City, but a self-possession that’s a little more upfront. Even before she drops the hammer on Larry—she has no time for the pimp’s sales pitch, because she has a standing appointment at Gotham Modeling & Film—she’s interrupting his asking-and-answering routine. She’s impressed by his intuition, but there will be no bait and switch here.

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She’s not going to work for Larry; she’s not even going to have sex on camera under the assumption that it’ll lead to less compromising work down the line. Brenda’s in the city to act in porn specifically. Cue the comic chops of Gbenga Akinnagbe: “You know they’re going to exploit you, right?”

In “Our Raison d’Être,” we saw The Deuce like someone returning to their old hometown for the weekend: We note all the things that have changed, we reminisce about the way things were. It’s not unlike Vinnie walking the Coney Island boardwalk in “There’s An Art To This,” peering through the slats at the spots where he and the other Martinos would’ve dumped water on the couples necking below. “There’s An Art To This,” meanwhile, is like deciding to move back after that magical weekend. You’re reaping the benefits of changes, but you’re also contending with the consequences. It’s in the stark realization that the world keeps turning when step out from behind the bar. It’s in recognizing that you’re no longer the new kid on the block inspiring envy and jealousy in your peers—in fact, you’re feeling some of those emotions yourself. To put it in a very Deuce metaphor: Taking the plexiglass out of the peepshow booth is easy. It’s dealing with the perv who gets his arm stuck in the window that’s the hard part.

Like last week, The Deuce uses Vincent Martino as a lens into these changes. The Brooklyn hotshot who proved himself to Rudy Pipilo in season one is finding out that he’s not indispensable. (There are, after all, two of him.) “There’s An Art To This” grounds this anxiety in his relationship with Abby, but it’s felt elsewhere: Club 366 doesn’t need Vinnie to keep the party going, and Paul doesn’t need him to have a sit down with Tommy Longo. It’s a concern that begins simmering when Abby gets a record signed by the musician who’s day-drinking at The Hi-Hat, but it never boils over. Instead, Richard Price’s script uses it as a tension that underlines Abby and Vinnie’s scenes together, ratcheting bit by bit until she skips out on dinner to hit up some mysterious event in a church basement.

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It’s less important as a barometer in that particular romantic subplot than it is as a shared feeling among the many different types of relationships that exist on The Deuce. Those who are accustomed to being in charge, to being depended on, are finding that might not be the case in the brave new world of 1978. And since it is 1978, those characters are more often than not men: Vinnie, Larry, and C.C. for instance. There’s a telling tableau during the baby shower scene, when the Hi-Hat operator is kicked out of his establishment to sip champagne in the cold with the pimps. They’re increasingly on the outside, looking in.

“There’s An Art To This” does a lot to color in the big picture of The Deuce. The episode shows capitalism sinking its hooks into what used to be under-the-table, off-the-books sorts of enterprises. The “business” part of “show business” is creeping into pornography: An awards show out in Los Angeles, agents on the sets. The Deuce being The Deuce, Lori’s meeting with Kiki Rains leaves us wondering if an agent is just a pimp with an office and a Rolodex, though Kiki does manage to say all the things to Lori that Larry fails to say to Brenda in the cold open. By the middle of the episode, Larry’s pimping himself, trying to get into one of Eileen’s movies. You know they’re going to exploit you, indeed.

Photo: Paul Schiraldi (HBO)

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It’s competition, and it’s everywhere. Bobby’s on a takeout run when he notices a bunch of mattresses going into a nondescript building, which he realizes is another Marty Hodas-run rival to the The French Parlor. Paul, despite swearing off mob money for his new club—pitched in “There’s An Art To This” as a place of Nick-and-Nora-type glamor—plays Rudy and Matty They Horse off of another after Rudy’s protection plan fails to keep an actor buddy from getting his head cracked outside of Paul’s. Eileen, feeling like she and Harvey could be making more money and booking longer engagements for their work, seeks inspiration first from a grindhouse director with the awesome nom de film Genevieve Fury, and then in the back catalogue of The Brothers Grimm. With all the different incarnations of predator on display at any given time on The Deuce, it’s little surprise that Eileen’s isn’t the episode’s first mention of a Big Bad Wolf.

“There’s An Art To This” needs all those scenes of Vinnie and Abby’s romantic getaway because so much else of the episode is either steeped in symbolism or projecting out to the future. Alston’s continued investigation of the tourist murder from last week also provides some sturdy ground, pieces of a procedural feeding the show’s episodic requirements. But even that case of self-defense—which requires some coaching in the interrogation room—is largely setup for Alston-Goldman, round two. It’s a brewing conflict The Deuce keeps serving in small samples, each passive-aggressive confrontation another tease to the Luke Kirby fans in the audience. (Where’s my Jack Crew Crew at?)

Alston and Goldman are guys who share a goal of a safer New York City, but differ on how to get there. Alston, the compassionate cop, treats the denizens of The Deuce as people first and criminals second. Goldman, whose city hall ambitions probably don’t stop at the Midtown Enforcement Project, tips his hand with a rhetorical question about the city’s greatest crime fighters: Sheetrock and cranes. Like Larry with Brenda, Alston might think he’s dealt with someone like Goldman before, but this guy’s something else. He’s persistent, he’s savvy, and the fact that we’ve seen him at Paul’s might mean that he has a vested interest in incidents of cruising gone awry. He represents both halves of the cold open: He represents change on The Deuce, but he also knows the old guard’s way of answering their own questions.

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Stray observations

  • This is a fantastic episode for Gbenga Akinnagbe. In addition to his cold-open punchline, he brings some real vulnerability to the scene between Eileen and Larry. Larry’s a scumbag, but that doesn’t prevent Akinnagbe from squeezing some pathos out of that line about Eileen and Harvey never casting black men.
  • The Deuce is a show of social circles that intersect within a relatively small community, and it does such a smart, subtle job of showing that. When a new face is introduced into that community, the show doesn’t brush them aside: Brenda does eventually show up for her meeting, which plays out in one of Lori’s scenes from “There’s An Art To This.” And Goldman showing up at Paul’s reminded me of how Officer Haddix is caught in the season’s opening pan across the dance floor at Club 366.
  • Speaking of the 366’s clientele: Andy Warhol stops by on Vinnie’s night off. “You know who that is, right?” Mike is asked, to which he replies, “I know he needs a better wig.” (Which is rich considering that mop that James Franco is wearing as Vinnie.)

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