‘The Deuce’ Recap: Dreams Deferred

A review of “All You’ll Be Eating Is Cannibals,” this week’s episode of The Deuce, coming up just as soon as I get you a Whitman Sampler and a puppy…

“There is nothing about me that belongs to me. It all belongs to him!” -Lori

Midway through “All You’ll Be Eating Is Cannibals,” Candy and Jocelyn discuss the flaws in the script for Red Hot, which is meant to be a film about female desire but gives the guy (or wolf) all the best lines. “She’s gotta realize,” Candy explains, “that she can turn the tables anytime she wants.”

By the time the hour ends, filming for Red Hot has just begun, with Lori in the title role. Candy — thanks to some last-minute financial help from Frankie, via his dry cleaning money(*) — has a chance to make her movie and strike a blow for female agency as well as desire. But the episode finds other women trying to turn the tables, with very mixed success.

(*) Candy is desperate enough to overlook Frankie’s knack for dragging down anybody who gives him a shot. And sure enough, within a few scenes of him becoming a producer, he’s making decisions without Candy’s approval, like giving his wife Tina a role or offering to cut the wiseguys in on the film.

Our two showcase scenes involve Lori, who is finally reckoning with how much of her own life she willfully, eagerly handed over to CC that day she met him at the bus station. She assumes she and Kiki can keep him from figuring out that they’ve been plotting together, but CC is as clever as he is insecure and cruel. He lets Lori attempt her part of this particular con game, then offers his response in the form of a punch to the gut and a backhand across the face. He leaves her whimpering on the bed as he boasts that if Kiki wants half, “She can have the half that’s bleeding.”

It’s a more violent, dehumanizing and despair-inducing outburst than when he smashed her porn awards trophy a few episodes back. It’s so ugly that Lori has no choice but to acknowledge that CC can’t be managed or manipulated or sweet-talked, and that her bravado in getting into his car all those years ago was horribly misplaced. This leads to an anguished conversation in Candy’s apartment, when an attempt to discuss Lori playing Red is derailed by Lori’s self-consciousness about the bruise on her face. Candy went through plenty of beatings and other humiliations in her time as a prostitute (we were unfortunate witnesses to a few), even if she was smart enough to avoid throwing in her lot with someone like CC. Candy bluntly outlines the difference between the choices she and Lori made, and — after Lori explodes in rage and tears over the hopeless state of things — points out a way that the CC situation can be turned to her advantage: as method-acting inspiration for her upcoming star turn in the movie. It’s a powerhouse moment between two characters with a long history (and two of the show’s best performers in Maggie Gyllenhaal and Emily Meade). The most poignant moment in it is a really understated one: Lori quietly saying “It’s nice” when she gets a look at the apartment and sees the kind of life she could have had if she’d followed the independent path.

Lori fails to turn the tables on CC, but playing Red could be a way out if the movie is as big as Candy is convinced it will be. (She’s so sure in the rightness of her cause that she’s willing to film the thing on city streets without a permit, to Harvey‘s dismay.) Irene, on the other hand, manages to temporarily get one over on Rodney by taking Shay directly from detox to her own apartment. But things get complicated when it becomes clear that her generosity in paying for rehab came out of desire as much as friendship. Shay goes along with it because Irene’s a calmer port in a storm than Rodney would be. But there’s already a sense that Irene has become just another john, who’s paying for Shay’s services with food and lodging rather than cash.

Dorothy, meanwhile, runs into brick walls in her attempt to help Dave help improve working conditions for the local prostitutes. The local residents don’t seem interested in compromising to make peace with the pimps; most of the pimps still remember Dorothy as Ashley, so they have no respect for her or her efforts; and CC keeps lurking nearby to unnerve her. Her ongoing presence in the neighborhood makes CC look bad: Not only did he let her get away, she’s now become a loud and opinionated advocate for women’s rights. In turn, he does his best to make her feel bad, denigrating her as his “bottom bitch.” But where CC still owns every bit of Lori, to her everlasting regret, he has absolutely no claim on Dorothy anymore, and she lets him know it. He tries to act tough after her big speech and suggests that people can’t change(*), but she leaves him speechless for once by laughing in his face and walking away. His hold on her is broken — for now, at least.

(*) It’s always interesting to see which of the great modern dramas (of which this is very much one) believe in humanity’s capacity to change and which don’t. Blown Deadline shows tend to take a bifurcated view: people as a group, and institutions in general, are entrenched in their positions and very difficult to change, but individuals have the power to improve themselves if the cracks in the system open up enough to allow it. Bubbles got clean. Sonny from Tremé turned his whole life around. Candy and Dorothy have both elevated themselves from where they were when we met them.  

And in the aftermath of Kitty’s death and Vincent‘s insistence on paying for her funeral, Abby finally allows herself to put two and two together about how her boyfriend makes his living and where all those cash envelopes go. Having worked at the Hi-Hat for five years and slept in Vincent’s bed almost as long, you would think she already knew. But Vince is also circumspect about such things, and Abby’s position at the bar is sweet enough that she might have subconsciously not wanted to probe too deeply into it. And her power to object is limited, since she manages but doesn’t own the place. For the moment, all she can do is ask for Bobby to be banned from the premises (Bobby, in a racist wallow of self-pity at the end of an episode where he’s already been perp-walked on live TV, whines, “All of a sudden, I’m lower than a n—-r pimp?”) and storm out in the hopes that Vincent will follow through.

The hour closes with promise, as Candy calls action for the first shot of Red Hot, but the way these shows work, it’s best not to get hopes up too high. The system has a tendency to smack down anyone who tries to buck it.

Some other thoughts:

* There’s not a ton of crossover between the David Chase and David Simon creative family trees, but there’s been some Sopranos/Deuce synchronicity from the start thanks to the actors playing the wiseguys here (Michael Rispoli played Jackie Aprile Sr., while Daniel Sauli was Patrick Parisi). This season has added some more. James Gandolfini’s son Michael is playing Bobby’s oldest son Joey. And Carl Capotorto, who played Paulie Walnuts’ cousin Little Paulie, is on the writing staff and co-wrote this episode with Richard Price. (Previously, he was a writer on Terence Winter’s Vinyl.)

* Capotorto, who’s gay, was a young man around the time these episodes take place. George Pelecanos told me at the end of last season that they hired Capotorto to help provide greater insight into Paul‘s world. There’s a lot of grounded, and often explicit, detail to Paul’s story this time out. Stressed out over the club’s impending opening and feeling distant from Kenneth, Paul slips out to an abandoned building playing host to an after-dark queer bacchanalia. And earlier, when he tries to fight back against homophobia at a zoning board meeting, he finds an ally in an older gay board member who speaks from clearly painful experience about what it’s been like being gay in this city going back decades to even less enlightened times. It’s a small moment, but so well-etched that I kind of wanted to follow that guy home for a while before we got back to our 27 other ongoing stories.

* Paul’s night out also has him passing several trans women, in an episode where trans visibility is higher than it’s been at any other point in the series so far. Big Mike‘s girlfriend is trans, and she tips him to the heist that he and Black Frankie pull off later in the hour, in a way that impresses Tommy and Rudy.

* Though this show, like previous Blown Deadline productions, tries to hit every plot point from A to Z, occasionally these shorter seasons (compared to when The Wire did 12 or 13 episodes a year) require shortcuts. So we jump from Candy still struggling to put together financing in last week’s episode to her already well into the casting process with Kiki. There’s even a reference to her being stuck using a high-profile actor named Lance Minx as the Wolf.

* Though CC is pretty monstrous throughout the hour (really, throughout the series), the episode balances him a bit with Larry. He’s able to gently cajole an exhausted Darlene into continuing to turn tricks on top of her movie work. He’s still a pimp, but we know that Darlene has a very different and less volatile relationship with him than Lori or Ashley/Dorothy have ever had with CC, and it’s important to be reminded from time to time about the complicated interpersonal dynamics between the women and their pimps. (See also Loretta‘s frustration that Larry’s acting dreams have turned him into an absentee pimp.)

* Party like it’s 1978: Larry feeds his acting hunger by watching Blue Collar, the directorial debut of Taxi Driver writer Paul Schrader, and then delivering his own spin on Yaphet Kotto’s dialogue. (This is both a nod to Taxi Driver itself, which Candy and Jocelyn discuss while trying to fix the Red Hot script, and to Kotto’s days at the lieutenant on the Simon-inspired Homicide: Life on the Street.) Meanwhile, Paul and Kenneth take in a performance of David Mamet’s play Sexual Perversity in Chicago, which would later be adapted into two different films called About Last Night (the 1986 one starring Rob Lowe and Demi Moore; the 2014 one starring Kevin Hart and Regina Hall).

* This week’s music: “Honey” by Marvin & Johnny (Bobby and Haddix at the parlor), Michigan & Smiley’s “Time to Be Happy” (playing at the Hi-Hat), Fred Williams’ “The Dance Got Old” (Candy and Jocelyn discuss the script), Blondie’s “Bermuda Triangle Blues” (Irene brings Shay to her apartment), Wire’s “12 X U” (Candy comes to the Hi-Hat looking for investors), “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” by Crystal Gayle (playing at the pizza parlor), Paul Desmond’s “Will I Know” (the parlor is raided) and Iggy Pop’s “Sister Midnight” (Abby, Vincent and Bobby argue at the Hi-Hat).

What did everybody else think?

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