Photo: Paul Schiraldi ((HBO))

By the end of this week’s The Deuce episode, “All You’ll Be Eating Is Cannibals,” Eileen’s finally ready to roll on the first shot of her opus Red Hot, the movie that will… change everything? Maybe?

With The Deuce, such things are hard to predict. Unlike with some of TV’s other recent historical dramas (Boardwalk Empire say, or Manhattan), we don’t really know what’s eventually going to happen to the characters on this show. We know what’ll happen to this place: It’ll get cleaned up, and sooner than anyone thinks. But will that necessarily mean hard times for Vincent, Frankie, C.C., Darlene, Lori, Larry? That’ll depend how prepared they are for the big shift that’s coming.

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In this episode at least, the denizens of the Deuce are beginning to separate into two camps: Those who can see the writing on the wall, and those who don’t see the wall at all.

Which brings us back to my question: Which one’s Eileen?

Her obsession with Red Hot suggests someone who’s racing to beat an expiration date: looking for a way out of her industry before it’s too late. But I doubt she’s thinking about her movie like a businesswoman would. As I mentioned last week, there’s something personal and profound she wants to say—about sex and danger and New York—that’s bigger than even she can articulate. All Eileen knows for sure is that the college boy she hired to her write her script missed the point, penning something too focused on the Big Bad Wolf instead of Little Red Riding Hood. (“The hero is the fuckin’ heroine,” Eileen says to Harvey’s secretary, who in return astutely describes the movie’s vision as “like an erotic Taxi Driver.”)

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There’s something to be said for how realistic Eileen’s expectations are for Red Hot’s prospects. At best, she thinks, it’ll gets an R-rated cut, play drive-ins around the country, and makes millions. At worst, it’ll be stuck in America’s dwindling red-light districts, and Frankie—whom Eileen coerces into investing some of the money he made from selling back his dry cleaning store—loses a small pile of dough that he otherwise would’ve handed over to the the mob in a late night poker game. (“This’ll be the blown bet you tell people about for the rest of your life,” Eileen tell Frankie, as a way of getting him hyped up for the risk.)

The best scene in “All You’ll Be Eating Is Cannibals” subtly breaks down what it means for this particular set of characters to have attainable goals. Not long after C.C. knocks Lori around—having quickly and angrily deduced what she’s up to with her new agent—Eileen invites her over to her apartment, to offer her a part in Red Hot, pending an audition. Lori’s impressed that someone a lot like herself, who started on the streets and then moved into movies, has her own apartment and doesn’t owe anybody anything. Eileen shrugs, “This is the life I chose… You chose something different,” prompting Lori to go on a rant that makes her sound exactly like Little Red: “an in-over-her-head kid, wolf on her tail.”

Eileen’s been around a while and knows what’s what, so she doesn’t say to Lori what’s undoubtedly on the mind of everyone watching The Deuce: C.C. has no legal claim on anyone. Lori may have needed him around when she was illegally having sex with strangers for money, but no one’s busting porn stars, and at this point in her movie career, her pimp’s become more of a liability than a necessity. But of course there’s more to this relationship than just a business arrangement. Eileen—back when she was “Candy” full-time—stayed independent, primarily because she always understood the pitfalls and mind-games of a “partnership.”

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The question of what hold these pimps really have over their employees becomes a recurring motif in this episode. We see Darlene asserting herself more, frustrated by the disconnect between her college life (where she has intelligent conversations with a handsome African classmate) and her work life (where she demands that one of Larry’s sleazy clients pay her double, because he wants to watch one of her porno movies on the hotel TV while they screw). We see Irene encouraging the freshly rehabbed Shay to take a break from Show Land, only to then get confronted by an irate Rodney, who wants Shay back on the clock, immediately. We see C.C. trying to intimidate Dorothy while the latter’s doing community outreach, working to tear down her self-esteem by insisting that she’s still his “bottom-dog bitch” and that “people don’t never change.”

If you want to get high-falutin’, you could say that these scenes where the sex-workers and their handlers try to figure out their possible futures together reflect the larger dynamic of a New York in transition. The presumption of most of this show’s characters is that the fundamental order of the Deuce will never be disrupted. Sex will sell, the mob will control it, and the cops will take a cut. The nature of the market may shift—from street-walking to massage parlors, and from pornographic loops to feature films—but the market itself, and the hierarchy behind it, shall remain, eternally.

Photo: Paul Schiraldi ((HBO))

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That’s why C.C. can be so sure that Lori will stay loyal, and why he presumes that Dorothy will eventually become “Ashley” again. It’s why Vincent doesn’t take Abby seriously when she gets upset about him paying off both the mafia and the police, or when she demands that he ban the loathsome Bobby from the Hi-Hat.

In a way, Bobby’s the real tragic figure in this episode. Abby sees him as a relic, and an exploiter. Meanwhile, he’s still fuming about having shut down his parlor in advance of a raid that never happened, and then Koch’s task force raids him for real, with TV cameras in tow. “What the fuck is this?” he growls. “Nobody told us.” He should be chilled to the bone that his protection money is no longer buying him squat. Instead, by the end of the hour, he’s snapping at his wife that everything’s going to be fine. And he seems to believe it.

Countering Bobby’s misplaced confidence, Paul this week runs the gamut of unease. His new club is in trouble before it even opens. His imported tile is cracking in the steamy New York climate. His capacity is being capped at 120, rather than the 150 he wanted. The one piece of good news he gets comes via the Village’s citizens’ zoning board, thanks to the presence there of multiple gay men and women, who are sympathetic to both his plight and his plans.

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Still, the whole process of opening this new place is emptying his bank account and wrecking his love life, since his boyfriend Todd is another one of those folks who doesn’t really get why he needs to own a nicer bar. To release some of his tension, Paul pays a visit to an establishment so run-down that it doesn’t even qualify as a club: It’s just a crumbling building, behind a broken fence, where men go to cruise.

Like Eileen, Paul still has one foot in this world of raw lust—and of people making money off of it. And like her, he has a vision of something better, that he’s having a hard time getting other to see. It’s impossible to say whether they’re in the process of pulling themselves out of the muck. But they’re right to want to try.


Stray observations

  • A couple of The Deuce’s major characters take in two very different but on-point shows over the course of this episode. Larry sees Paul Schrader’s potent working-class dramedy Blue Collar, and walks out repeating the dialogue, imagining himself as another Yaphet Kotto. And Paul checks out an off-Broadway production of David Mamet’s breakout play Sexual Perversity In Chicago. Assuming that Paul’s seeing the famous Cherry Lane Theater production (with F. Murray Abraham and Peter Riegert!), the chronology’s a little wonky, since that run started in the summer of ’76 and ended in the spring of ’77, while Blue Collar didn’t open until February of 1978. But who cares, really? Besides being an under-seen classic, Schrader’s movie is a fine example of how the best American filmmakers of the era were grappling with the themes of race, class, and work. (Also: Schrader wrote Taxi Driver!) And Sexual Perversity—perhaps better-known by the title under which was adapted to the big screen, twice, About Last Night—represents a culture where smutty talk’s becoming much more mainstream.

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