Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

On The Deuce, there’s no clear way out and no easy way down

Photo: Paul Schiraldi (HBO)
TV ReviewsAll of our TV reviews in one convenient place.

Major League Baseball’s infield fly rule isn’t that hard to understand. When there are runners on first and second (or when the bases are loaded) with less than two outs in an inning, the umpire can preemptively rule that a shallow pop fly that’s obviously headed into an infielder’s glove is an automatic out, effectively stopping the play and freezing the runners. The point is to prevent trickery and confusion on the basepaths—to keep fielders from intentionally dropping the ball and turning one out into two.

So why does Frankie Martino—while gut-shot and dying—feel compelled to poke fun at his twin brother Vincent for not understanding the rule? Maybe Frankie’s just going out the way he came in, taking one last shot at “the good brother.” Or maybe he’s letting Vincent know that what just happened had to happen. Frankie was obviously out. If someone hadn’t made that call, Vince might’ve ended up getting tagged too. A double play.

Advertisement

I can only assume Frankie’s dead, because everything about the way credited writer Will Ralston frames this Deuce episode’s final scene—and everything about the way James Franco directs and plays both sides of it—indicates we’re now down to one Martino brother. That’s the impression we’re supposed to get, I’m sure. But I’ve been wrong before, assuming a clearly dead TV character is actually dead. (I’m looking at you, The Walking Dead.) Either way though, the closing scene of Frankie slipping away is crucial to bringing all the pieces of “They Can Never Go Home” together.

Advertisement

For the episode’s first half-hour, nothing much of consequence seems to be happening. Eileen scouts actors for her next movie, attending off-off-Broadway plays with Hank. Lori takes a break from practicing for her potential music career to fly into New York, enduring a dispiriting audition for a miserable-sounding low-budget slasher film. Detective Alston ramps up the prostitution stings at a flophouse Gene Goldman is trying to pry away from its stubborn owner. And Frankie? He’s getting hassled from all sides, because of his excessively adulterated cocaine and his obstinate unwillingness to give Rudy Pipilo a cut of his amateur porn business.

Then the storylines begin to converge. Frustrated with how her Women Against Pornography friends seem to support censorship, and their willingness to work with the anti-feminists in the Reagan administration, Abby invites Eileen to come to a meeting to explain how an explicit X-rated movie can be the product of one woman’s perverted muse. “Make them tell you you’re wrong,” Abby says.

Advertisement

And they do. Viciously. In a scene every bit as devastating as the assassination of Frankie Martino, Candy screens footage from Red Hot to WAP and gets absolutely leveled by Andrea Dworkin—yes, Andrea Dworkin—who argues that her from-the-streets-to-the-director’s-chair story is merely “anecdotal,” and does nothing to help the countless women who’ve been brutalized by prostitution and porn. The women’s back-and-forth is remarkably even-handed. Although Andrea can’t remember the name of the person she’s yelling at, that’s the only significant way she’s painted in a bad light. Otherwise, she gets to make a case Eileen finds hard to refute: that even her “feminist erotica” is insidious, because it makes sexual violence and exploitation “thinkable.”

Photo: Paul Schiraldi (HBO)
Advertisement

Lori’s subplot would seem to confirm Dworkin’s point of view. She’s one of the most popular actresses in adult movies—and can’t walk a block in New York or L.A. without seeing her face on a magazine cover or hearing a fan call her name—but her accomplishments and her reputation barely get her any leverage on a porn set, let alone in legit showbiz. The movie she’s auditioning for would have her playing a hooker who gets murdered, after seducing a deranged serial killer whose mind was warped by his mother’s life as a prostitute. That’s the kind of cautionary tale even Women Against Pornography could love. (Or maybe not.)

So Lori’s feeling pretty low when she runs into some friends on her old Times Square stomping ground. Vincent treats her like a star when she walks into his bar, even though she insists, “I’m still a whore, I just got famous for it.” He replies, “Even when you were a whore, you weren’t a whore,” and then asks his DJ to keep playing the song she requests: Dusty Springfield’s recording of Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s soulful ballad “No Easy Way Down.” The bar empties out, and Vince and Lori start to dance, and then to kiss. But when he insists on putting a condom on before the action gets any hotter, it hurts her feelings. Later, back in L.A., she finally takes her turn at an open mic night, but no one seems to be paying attention. Completely defeated, she tell her agent, “Whatever you want me to do, I’ll do,” adding, “I can’t do anything else.”

Advertisement

The only Deuce character who seems to be on an upswing this week—at least temporarily—is Bobby, who’s raking in so much money from his outcall business that he’s hiring more women and handing Rudy fat envelopes. But it’s clear that midtown Manhattan hotels are growing increasingly annoyed by Black Frankie pulling up and depositing prostitutes at their doorstep. And that’s before one of the clients chokes on lobster during kinky sex-play, then dies before he can receive an emergency tracheotomy.

Meanwhile, Goldman gets frustrated by New York real estate laws that favor the rights of property owners—no matter how many busts Alston stages at the buildings the Koch administration desperately wants to flip. So even though Alston’s peers remind him that, “You’re not a realtor, you’re a fucking cop,” he makes what could be a fateful decision, enlisting an associate’s off-the-books goons to conduct a little light arson in the basement of one of Goldman’s targeted properties. In Times Square and in the culture at large, the tide seems to be turning against sex work.

Advertisement
Photo: Paul Schiraldi (HBO)

But where does that leave the sex-workers? “They Can Never Go Home” takes its name from one answer to that very question. In the cold open, Frankie and Vincent help Melissa pack her things so she can move back with her father Matthew. Vince pulls the dad aside to give him a little advice: “Whatever’s already been said and done, just let it be.” Then he asks Matthew, “Can you do that?” and the anxious father replies, “Could you?” The Martinos plop down onto a couch, flanking Big Mike, watching Melissa pull away, knowing this happy homecoming is already off the rails.

Advertisement

Within days, Frankie will be dead, suffering a reckoning for the many, many mistakes he made. Because when society sets out to clean up a red light district, its agents rarely individuate. Anecdotes are unpersuasive. There are no exceptions to the rule.


Stray observations

  • I need some hive-mind help: The movie Lori auditions for has such a familiar-sounding plot that I was sure I must’ve seen it. I’ve watched dozens upon dozens of cheapo ‘80s slashers, and the premises don’t vary that much, so it’s possible the film here is just a pastiche of the likes of Maniac and The New York Ripper and Silent Night, Deadly Night. But as the casting director was describing the film, I could almost picture it.
Advertisement

Share This Story

About the author

Noel Murray

Lives in Arkansas, writes about movies, TV, music, comics, and more. Bylines in The A.V. Club, The Week, The Verge, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone.