Photo: Paul Schiraldi (HBO)

“It’s just fucking.”

Through the first ten episodes of The Deuce, how many times has Eileen said those words, or some variation thereof? When she became a high-end escort? No big deal, she said… It’s still fucking. Whenever she calms a streetwalker’s nerves on a porn shoot? Relax, she’ll say… It’s just fucking.

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Yet when a Hollywood indie producer offers her $10,000 for her Red Riding Hood movie, in exchange for 10% of the gross and a blowjob, Eileen hesitates. She pauses, long enough so that those of us who’ve been watching “Candy” navigate the blue movie business for over ten TV hours now can project just about every possible emotion and mental calculation onto Maggie Gyllenhaal’s stung, slack expression.

Of course, Eileen takes the deal. She’s done worse, for less. But this particular job? It may not be so easy for her to shrug off as just another roll in the hay.

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The 10k Eileen that gets from Alex Pullman (if the upstart studio Falcon Head) is at the high end of the dollar figures tossed around in this week’s episode of The Deuce. The title “Seven-Fifty” refers to the lowest of the low: the $7.50 rub-and-tug that Black Frankie gets at one of the new parlors which Rudy Pipilo’s rivals are opening up between 7th and 8th. Rumor has it that these interlopers are cutting corners, using undocumented immigrants and underage girls. But the real problem is that all these jamokes—Pipilo included—have been thinking too small, and too short-term. They’ve flooded Times Square with sex, and have depreciated the market value.

As always with a David Simon show, money—and whatever power and status it conveys—is at the center of what The Deuce is really about. Or at the least, it’s what “Seven-Fifty” is about.

It’s certainly what’s on Darlene’s mind, when she discovers that one of her white co-workers is getting paid more per scene (and not even for a DP!). She leans on Larry, who half-heartedly talks to her director—while still trying to agitate for his own potential porn career. Larry and Darlene get the same blunt, cold answer: They don’t matter that much to the adult film industry, because they’re black. Six years after we first met them in The Deuce’s first season, these two are undeniably better off than they once were. They lead a less risky life, and they make more money. But there’s a limit—apparently—to how far they’re going to be allowed to go.

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And that’s the real existential crisis facing this show’s characters here in season two. Eileen wants to use her connections and skills as a pornographer to make a real movie, and to leave behind the criminal syndicates and surly cynicism of her New York associates. Then she gets to California, and learns that the people out there are shitty and judgmental in their own way. Paul, meanwhile, is borrowing $20,000 from Vincent in hopes of opening a new gay bar away from any of the blocks that the various mafia families control. But while Rudy initially seems cool with Paul doing his own thing, he later privately suggests to Vincent that no matter where the kid goes, he’s probably going to need some protection.

None of these folks who’ve ever had mob ties should be able expect to buy their way out—at least not until something really changes in New York. The sex trade may be evolving, but the NYPD’s “Public Morals” squad still demands that merchants kick into their pad, and the mob still considers different areas of operation to be their “turf”… even though some bosses and some would-be entrepreneurs have begun brazenly pushing those limits, trying to grab some of the porn, prostitution and drug money that’s thick on the ground in Times Square.

A lot of “Seven-Fifty” takes place in Los Angeles, where Harvey, Eileen, and Lori are at the Erotic Film Awards, winning trophies. Harvey, as always, is blasé about the whole ceremony. (“We should be proud of our perversions!” he bellows, after watching one too many awards show clips emphasizing acting and story instead of genitalia.) But when Lori wins Best Supporting Actress for Family Head, she, like Eileen, starts thinking about how she can parlay prestige into… well, anything other than degrading S&M scenes and part-time hooking.

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Part of what has Lori dreaming big is that C.C. stays home in New York while she’s in L.A. When she comes home, statuette in hand, all he can think is that this’ll let him raise her rate to two grand per straight screw. “I won this for acting,” she insists, right before he breaks the award and snarls, “Don’t forget what you are.”

Photo: Paul Schiraldi (HBO)

This has been the tension running through this season, hasn’t it? By the end of season one, C.C. and Larry were questioning their purpose as pimps, in a New York where their ladies were being forced off the streets and into the parlors. Now in 1977 it’s becoming clearer than ever that these guys are just dead weight, holding down Darlene, Lori… and even Eileen, who worked independently but is still both bonded to and stained by the culture of 42nd Street. These newer New York porn stars—and the even more glamorous adult film actresses out west—don’t bear the burden of history.

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But between Lori’s growing awareness of her C.C. problem, and Eileen’s exhaustion with men who only try to make her feel special long enough to ejaculate, it’s clear that something’s got to give. If the women don’t cut themselves loose, it’s possible that Ed Koch and his “Times Square Action Plan” will take care of it for them. Detective Alston is skeptical about yet another politician paying lip-service to cleaning up the city, but his boss makes the persuasive case that Koch and his moneyed backers aren’t motivated by civic pride—or even by the rising tide of religious and feminist moralism we see in the protests outside the Erotic Film Awards—but rather by raw greed.

The fact is: Every cash-only peep-show booth and brothel in the Deuce is lost tax revenue. And when it comes to taking what’s owed, the government’s even more unforgiving the gangsters.

This is a fascinating question: Who’s really beholden to whom, and for how long? That’s why the key contrast in “Seven-Fifty” is between two characters who spend most of the episode on opposite coasts. While Eileen is trying to convince herself that there’s no difference between fellating a Hollywood honcho and taking money from a john, Ashley has just returned from California herself, and is working with an organization that attends to the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of sex-workers.

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All episode long, Ashley seems antsy about the possibility of running into C.C. Will he still assume he has a claim on her? Will he svengali her back under his control?

Unlike Eileen, Ashley—or I should say “Dorothy,” her real name—doesn’t bend when a man who thinks he owns her stares her down. C.C. sees her at The Hi-Hat, gets up in her face, and then walks away when she doesn’t respond. “Who was that?” a man at the bar asks. “Nobody,” Dorothy replies. Way ahead of the rest of her former friends and enemies, she’s had a life-changing realization. Who owes whom? Who owns what? Those questions only matters if you think they do.


Stray observations 

  • Some choice cuts in The Deuce Jukebok this week, including The Flamin’ Groovies’ “Shake Some Action,” Elvis Costello’s “Waiting For The End Of The World,” and Lou Reed’s “How Do You Think It Feels?” (with its pointed refrain, “And when do you think it stops?”).
  • Pop and porn references abound in “Seven-Fifty.” Harvey thinks it’s hilarious that C.C. suffers from “fear of flying.” At the awards show, our heroes compete against the actual X-rated classic Barbara Broadcast, directed by Radley Metzger and starring Jamie Gillis. One of the porn stars talks about how she’s doing an X-rated parody of Westworld. At the awards show, the biggest legit star is comedian Jackie Gayle. And at the disco, John Belushi is hanging out, doing blow. (“He’s a maniac, but he spends.”)
  • Subplot to keep an eye on: Just when Rudy makes the decision that Frankie has to be fired (but not killed, because he’s family), Frankie hits a hot streak at a poker game, and “wins” a dry cleaning business. Is the rotten Martino brother one lucky S.O.B., or is this laundry—and whatever Frankie chooses to do with it—going to be more trouble than it’s worth?
  • Oh, by the way, hello, I’m Noel! Your intrepid Deuce reviewer Erik Adams has passed the baton to me for the remainder of this season. I love this show, and am hoping I can unpack it as neatly as Erik has for so long.

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