Photo: Paul Schiraldi ((HBO))

I’m sure The Deuce creators David Simon and George Pelecanos wish they could travel back in time and shoot their show in the actual Deuce. What a location! New York in the 1970s never needed any digital enhancements or set-dressing to produce a dramatic effect. Between the trash, the graffiti, and the moral depravity, all filmmakers had to do was to point a camera anywhere, and there’d be something to see—and more often than not, it’d be something that’d make audiences nervous.

This week’s excellent episode “We’re All Beasts”—one of the series’ best—gets a lot of its juice from the idea of NYC as an endless source of inspiration. Over the course of the hour we see a lot of the making of Eileen’s opus Red Hot, and we see her completely alive to the possibilities of her art. She’s making use of what she knows, almost instinctively understanding both the erotic and aesthetic potential of peep show dancers, Times Square streetwalkers, and high-class hotel “dates.” She’s synthesizing cinematic influences left and right, from Fritz Lang to Tex Avery.

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And she’s getting a little turned on every time she takes her crew into the streets, the subway, or heck, even an abandoned parking lot. This whole city is her set, and her muse.

Plot-wise, the Red Hot scenes in “We’re All Beasts” keep pushing this storyline along the path it’s been headed all season. Eileen has either misunderstood or misrepresented (or both) what it’s going to take to get her movie made the way she wants, and so she’s burning through money while suffering setback after setback. Her “very L.A.” male lead Lance is being a snippy jerk about the grubby New York locations, and the weird psychological underpinning of his character. Frankie’s wife is a disaster as Grandma, costing the production a whole night of shooting at a very expensive hotel lobby location. A reel of footage gets lost on a subway train. The zipper of Lori’s “Little Red” costume—the only one they have—keeps getting stuck.

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Even when Frankie signs on to a truck-jacking “caper” to raise some cash to finish the film, he gets stuck with a shipment of left shoes. Nothing’s right… literally.

Eileen just keeps pressing forward, taking whatever she can get from whomever can give it, while trusting her vision. Every fix she tries seems to work pretty well. She senses right away that Larry’s a better lead than Lance, because he’s so attuned to the character of The Wolf that even his ad-libs are spot-on. Meanwhile, her years of experience on the streets have purged her of any fear. Some tough guys want to give her cast and crew a hard time? She’ll turn them into her security detail. Some cops roll up in the middle of an outdoor sex scene? She’ll tell them she’s shooting a student film and invite them to watch. (“I love this fuckin’ town,” she marvels, after the police prove agreeable.)

In the episode’s best scene, Eileen sits in a car with Lori and thinks back on the first time they met, “out on the old stroll.” She’s subtly directing her star, asking her to remember—and to channel—the cockiness and courage she showed when she initially arrived in New York, all ready to take a bite out of the Big Apple. Lori says she’s got it all wrong, and that she was never that brave. But one of Eileen’s strengths—as “Candy” and now as a filmmaker—is that she can grasp the fantasy version of the sex trade as well as the reality. That’s what makes her a great saleswoman… and potentially a great artist.

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Photo: Paul Schiraldi ((HBO))

Much of the rest of “We’re All Beasts” is about some Deuce characters trying out Eileen’s kind of honesty and pragmatism. For example after the police return all of Bobby’s employees and equipment (including one unwieldy cigarette machine), he gets his bum of a teenage son a job at The French Parlor For Gentlemen, figuring that the big TV news story about the parlor-raid means that there’s no reason for him to hide what he does for a living any more. Similarly, Vincent finally realizes that it’s become obvious to Abby where he gets his money, and he suggests to her that rather than cutting ties with the mob—which would be pretty impossible, and wouldn’t change the way the Deuce is run—he’ll funnel his cut of the prostitution business into Abby and Dorothy’s mission.

Abby initially doesn’t want anything to do with a poisoned revenue stream, until she starts to consider the possibilities of what she can do with that cash. For one thing, she sees that Dorothy’s struggling on two fronts: getting the street-walkers to hop onto her bus and to take advantage of her services; and dealing with a frustratingly paternalistic partner who seems more interested in negotiating favorable terms with the pimps than in hearing Dorothy’s insights into what the girls need. So Abby just hands Vincent’s money over to Dorothy, to help a desperate prostitute take a bus home—trying to heal something broken for once, rather than just applying palliative care.

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I suspect that Abby’s extreme measures may cause problems in the weeks ahead, given that at the moment the only reason the pimps tolerate Dorothy’s charity is that she’s not actually trying to “rescue” their earners. Until such trouble comes, though, this one gesture appears to have given Abby a new way to think about her relationships: with Vincent, with the demimonde, and with money. The episode ends with the couple attending the debut of Paul’s new bar, which is a beautiful place, built with love, filled with joy, and featuring an opening night performance by the amazing Ms. Sarah Vaughn.

That’s the dream: To take what New York gives you, good and bad, and to be productive with it. That’s what dawns on even the cynical, unambitious Harvey, when in this week’s final scene he looks at a rough cut of Red Hot and in a hushed, awed voice says to Eileen, “Jesus… You got something here.”


Stray observations

  • Speaking of characters being honest(ish) with each other, C.C.’s one scene this week is pretty remarkable, as he asks Lori about what it’s like working with Lance, and she grumbles about how Candy is making her pair off with Larry instead. Her complaints about Larry are exaggerated and insincere, and C.C. surely knows it. But he doesn’t care. It’s clear he already knew about the Lance/Larry switch, and he’s just checking to see if she’ll lie to him.
  • Here’s an unexpected liar, though: Gene Goldman, Ed Koch’s designated vice-purger, is seen this week at home with his wife and kids, quizzing one of his youngsters about the U.S. presidents; and then later he’s unwinding in a gay bathhouse, sneaking off to a private room for a sweaty quickie. Goldman may honestly intend to clean up New York, but until that happens, he’ll take full advantage of what the sordid parts of the city have to offer.
  • I’m enjoying the casual absurdity of the Red Hot shoot, like when Eileen’s talking to Jocelyn and in the background an actor half-dressed as a fireman practices axe-swings with his dong hanging out.
  • Frankie casually sells Rudy Pipilo 25% of Red Hot for 20 grand. I’m sure that won’t come back to haunt anyone, huh? The mob—on a handshake deal—assuming it’s owed a quarter of the movie’s profits? If you’ve seen the documentary Inside Deep Throat, you probably already know that the mafia’s part ownership of Deep Throat became a thorny issue the longer that movie stayed in theaters, as the Colombo crime family bought into the picture and forced other backers out, reportedly using the movie as part of a nationwide money-laundering scheme.
  • “We’re All Beasts” is credited to writers Megan Abbot and Stephani DeLuca, and to director Susanna White. It should be pretty clear by now that I was knocked out by this trio’s work; but I especially want to tip a cap to White. This episode uses shadow more boldly than any Deuce I’ve seen since maybe the two directed by Michelle MacLaren. Too many prestige dramas over-rely on a sort of overcast look, where everything’s dim and gray. But The Deuce tends to surround vividly saturated colors—like neon and flashy fabrics—with deep, encroaching blacks. You see that this week in two scenes especially: when Abby reluctantly accepts Vincent’s money while her face is almost completely swallowed up the darkness at their bar’s back table; and when Eileen shoots a Red Hot sex scene in an empty parking lot at night, with just crude bright lights illuminating naked skin and the car’s paint. Just beautiful.

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