The Deuce, season 1, episode 6: “Why Me?”
Directed by Roxann Dawson. Written by Richard Price and Marc Henry Johnson.
Happy holidays along The Deuce!
Yes, we get a fairly significant time jump here in this episode — the last time we checked in with the pimps, prostitutes, prowlers, and punks along Times Square, it still seemed to be late summer, and Vincent’s “massage parlor” was naught but some walls and big visions.
Now, it’s the Christmas season, and the streetwalkers along 42nd Street shiver as they try to squeeze out a decreasing profit from their johns, who are themselves shivering their asses off (just in more clothing.) Vincent’s massage parlor is now ready for its grand opening, only it’s light on staffing — what’s a whorehouse without some whores? But this being The Deuce, success is only a business deal away as Pipilo and Longo basically rent out some women from a different massage parlor over in Queens.
But what Simon, Pelecanos, and episode director Roxann Dawson manage to do with this story is pull back our view so we can see the big picture — Pipilo’s massage parlor scheme isn’t just a wild shot in the dark, but a guaranteed Sure Thing. Y’see, Pipilo’s contacts “downtown” with the Mayor’s office and the NYPD have sent unofficial orders down to the 14th Precinct along the Deuce: crack down on street solicitation. Pimps, prostitutes, none of them are free from arrest, and Larry Brown (a very strong performance by Gbenga Akinnagbe this episode) spends his holidays bemoaning the fact that his sweet ride was be towed away and impounded by the cops. What’s the purpose of all this? To force the pimps to shift their trade away from the streets and into the “legitimate” private massage parlors that Pipilo controls. The show does something very smart here: rather than just tell us up front what Pipilo and the Mob’s plot is, Simon, Pelecanos, and company have us gradually get the idea as the characters along the streets begin to understand it. We have more knowledge than they do, but we’re only about a step or two ahead of them.
Speaking of things occurring gradually, I do wish that the season had been slightly longer, a la the 12- or 13- episode seasons of The Wire, rather than just the eight episodes we’re going to get this year. Both because I enjoy the show in general, but also because some of the character decisions or plot developments here are less clear than they should be with the truncated timeline. That’s an unfortunate bum note here — given the substantial (not enormous but still notable) leap forward in time, what should we as the audience make of the fact that Abby is still tending bar at the Hi-Hat? Is she doing it out of personal choice or merely inertia? We see that Candy has been shooting porn with David Krumholtz’s Harvey Wasserman for a while now, but we still don’t totally know how the other women on 42nd street have reacted to that change in status. In another show, that might not be an issue, but this series is very much about process and about work environments, so these changes matter, even if they’re ultimately minor in the larger thrust of the series.
On the other hand, here we get to see the genesis of an idea, a major change, within the confines of this episode itself. Big Mike, Vincent’s strong-but-silent hired muscle, has a eureka moment as he begins silently sketching the first private viewing booth on his notepad. Frankie attaches a tacky name to it — “Masturbatorium” — but the idea is quite perfect, allowing patrons to pleasure themselves in public without it really being in public. Of course, Big Mike will probably not see much money from the idea, as the big shots and fatcats with connections like Rudy Pipilo will inevitably begin to rake in the profits.
As in most things along The Deuce, it basically comes down to business and profit, labor and management — capitalism in microcosm, concentrated along a couple of blocks in Manhattan. And not the swanky part. But not everything breaks down that way — people make decisions based on personal feeling. They’re not just simple slot machines that you pump quarters into and hope to get something out of, despite the way the capitalist world wants us to behave sometimes.
No, there’s personal satisfaction, even spiritual satisfaction involved in all behaviors too. As the episode closes, Darlene is offered a pretty good deal (I mean, all things considered) by Larry — if she does more porno films, she can increase her demand on the street, and make more money off her street fame. But Darlene demurs; she asks Larry what she’d do in fifty years when she had her own grandkids, and the porno flicks were still around for all to see? Despite some prodding from the pimp, she can’t shake the idea that, despite it being essentially a promotion, she would be doing something she didn’t agree with. If we’re the so-called “normal” people, the fine, upstanding, law-abiding folk so far removed Darlene’s world, we may scoff at her decision. ‘How can a prostitute,’ we might ask ourselves, ‘think anything is below her dignity?’
We would of course be complete idiots for asking such a thing. In The Deuce, all these people are human beings trying to survive in a world they did not create and did not ask for, and they make their own personal rules along the way, holding on to their threads of humanity while they can. As Curtis Mayfield sings in the opening song, “if there’s Hell, we’re all gonna go,” and the decisions we all make, whether we’re hookers or folks who write reviews of TV shows about hookers, will be our attempts to stomach as much of our personal degradation as we can while trying to get the most out of the world around us, compromising ourselves, corrupting ourselves, finding the light in the darkness, and, above all, surviving. While we still can.