Photo: Paul Schiraldi ((HBO))

Because next week brings The Deuce’s second season season to a close, it’s tempting to spend this recap speculating on how the year’s various storylines might wrap up in the finale. But this latest episode, “Nobody Has To Get Hurt,” is pretty much an hourlong reminder that patience is a virtue. Twice—twice—different characters explicitly state that the projects they’re working on are going to take years to come to fruition. There’s a larger warning here: On the Deuce, all shortcuts are really just loops, taking the corner-cutters back to square one.

Gene Goldman cautions just this very thing to the ever-cynical Detective Alston, noting that Mayor Koch’s new tactic of using code-violations to pressure respectable Times Square landlords into evicting the sex trade will be gradual, but potentially more permanent. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the neighborhood, Dave up and quits Dorothy’s streetwalker-aiding mission, because he says her eagerness to change everything overnight is going to get them both killed.

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This is television, not real life, so if The Deuce co-creators David Simon and George Pelecanos wanted to, they could jump ahead in their timeline, and let us see how these various initiatives will play out. In fact, that’s what they’re likely going to do at the start of next year’s third and final season, just as they did this year. For right now though, a big part of what this show is trying to explore is how it feels to be far, far away from a goal—heading in the right direction, but inching along.

Conversely, it’s also about being at the end of one of those long journeys, having taken a severely wrong turn. Sorry for burying the lede here, but the biggest development in “Nobody Has To Get Hurt” is that somebody does get hurt: C.C., who gets stabbed by Bobby and clubbed by Frankie in the dingy back office of The French Parlor For Gentlemen.

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The title of this episode comes from the old mob bosses Rudy and Matty the Horse, who marvel that they can make so much money off of porn legitimately, without having to rob anybody or kill anybody. But then C.C., frustrated that the mafia has pressured him into “selling” Lori, makes an ill-advised power-play. First, he has abusive sex with her, reasserting his claim. Then he insists to Frankie and Bobby that he still owns the rights to all of her earlier work (Red Hot especially) in perpetuity, and that they should advance him some cash against future earnings, lest he take advantage of what he knows about their personal lives.

A few minutes later? Well, to quote what Black Frankie says to his employers as he’s standing over C.C.’s bloody corpse: “You murdered the shit out of that motherfucker.”

The Martino brothers’ “friendship” with the pimps has been tenuous for a while now—and especially after Vince started dating Abby. They’re compassionate toward the prostitutes (and, let’s be honest, make a lot of money off of them, both in the parlors and when they come in to drink at the bars); but every time C.C. stepped into the Hi-Hat, acting like he was a valued regular, Abby visibly bristled.

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This season has followed up more thoroughly on a theme introduced last year: How do the pimps handle the ego-crush of making money without really being needed—or wanted, for that matter? In this episode, that crisis of obsolescence comes to a head; and C.C., always the most easily bruised of this bunch, does not roll with the punches.

Ironies abound in C.C.’s death. Earlier that same evening, he was the one arguing to his colleagues that they shouldn’t make a move against Dorothy, because it’d create more problems than it’d solve. And before Rudy Pipilo makes C.C. an offer he literally can’t refuse—$15,000 to cut all ties with Lori—Matty the Horse suggests to Lori’s agent that there’s an cheaper way to fix the C.C. problem. (“No, do it clean,” she says.) Like the title suggests, nobody had to get hurt. Oh well.

Photo: Paul Schiraldi ((HBO))

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In the rest of this episode, people wrestle with how much autonomy they actually have. Eileen has perhaps deluded herself into thinking that she’s at the start of a promising career as a respectable New York adult filmmaker, who can micro-manage the editing of her movies, right down to whether a close-up is “dirty” or “clean.” (That’s industry parlance, by the way, for whether or not a shot focused on one actor also has part of another actor in the frame.) But behind her back, the financial backers are already planning to take her work and do with it whatever they like—from re-cutting it to leaving Larry off the poster.

As for Larry, his recent dual fascinations with both the craft of acting and of proper representation of the black experience on film leads him to model his porn career on the great Woody Strode, who always maintained “dignity” even in a Hollywood that tried to exoticize him. Playing a runaway slave in a new movie, he challenges the filmmaker to fix the inarticulate dialogue written for his character.

At the same, in two separate storylines, some of The Deuce’s gay characters debate the freedoms and constrictions of living openly as a homosexual in the late 1970s. Paul insists to his actor friend he should be happy to be typed by casting agents as queer, saying that it’s better to be in that “box” than have to pretend that he’s straight 24-7, like Rock Hudson. And after Gene gets picked up outside Paradise Alley by an out-of-towner “friend of Dorothy,” he pushes back against the surprise that he’s actually a family man. “I’m a husband and a father, and I like to be with men,” Gene says. To him, coming out of the closet would give him fewer options as to who he could be, in public and in private.

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Perhaps the most pertinent inquiry this week into personal identity and planning for the future involves the Martino brothers, as Vince pays a visit to their father (played by Armand Assante!) to get some advice on how to proceed with his relationship, while Frankie has a fling with a sophisticated woman who challenges the pride he takes in his own laziness, asking, “What’s going to happen when you get old?”

The Martinos’ pop tells Vince something similar to what Gene says to his new lover—that it’s better for a man to live two lives, satisfying his urges in secret while publicly supporting domesticity. As for Frankie, he seems genuinely reflective after his bit of afternoon delight. It’s possible that for both these boys, what they learn in this episode will be a real turning-point. But whatever changes they make, on The Deuce, nothing’s going to happen right away.


Stray observations

  • Pelecanos is the credited writer for this week’s episode. (Simon is set for next week’s finale.) But the more interesting name in the credits belongs to Tanya Hamilton, who’s had a few TV assignments over the past couple of years (including Queen Sugar and Black Lightning), but is still best-known for her excellent 2010 indie feature Night Catches Us. I hope she gets to make more movies. In this episode she and the cast show an excellent feel for how, in this particular world, a casual encounter can turn violent—and, oddly enough, vice-versa. Case-in-point: Marty going from being on the brink of execution at the start of the hour to talking about marketing details a few scenes later.
  • The one storyline this season that has yet to pay off all that much is the one involving Eileen’s son. It is a fairly unusual problem she has: worrying about what happens to him if she ends up becoming famous for porn. But The Deuce’s writers haven’t exactly nailed the kid’s character. He’s still more of a dilemma than a person.
  • On the flipside, I’m suddenly very intrigued by Shay’s drug addiction, a storyline that last week merely seemed symbolic of the larger pull of the Deuce. (She was getting clean and had someone who loves her, and still ended up back on the streets and strung out.) But now she’s gotten Rodney hooked on hydromorphone, and he’s out casing pharmacies. I know it contradicts what I wrote at the top of the review, but I can’t wait to see what happens next.

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