If The Deuce pilot introduced us to the world of the series — New York City circa 1971, from Times Square to the streets of Brooklyn — as well as its principal figures, then the series’ second episode demonstrates how its ecosystem functions on a daily basis. Most TV writers approach world-building as an extension of an established premise or a narrative, but co-creators David Simon and George Pelecanos do the exact opposite: Narratives organically arise from their environment. Whether it’s inner city Baltimore or post-Katrina New Orleans or Iraq circa 2003, the goal is to establish setting, illustrate its breadth and depth, communicate the scope of inquiry, and then track the various stories within.
Needless to say, this can make for a frustrating watch for impatient viewers, but The Deuce admirably keeps the action at a clip by both deepening the established milieu and expanding the setting in “Show and Prove.” Episode writers Pelecanos and Richard Price illustrate how the various parties casually intersect as if it’s the cost of doing business: Hookers work their corners and sunlight in amateur porn; pimps collect from, and ostensibly protect, their stable of girls; cops keep the peace by 1) bringing the girls downtown when they don’t have their property vouchers and 2) raiding porn shops that don’t “cut the loops,” i.e. splice out hardcore sex from their movies. Like a body, the system functions because everything is connected.
Price and Pelecanos best express this idea during the scenes at the station, when the cops and the girls just shoot the shit while waiting to be processed. Officers Alston (Lawrence Gilliard, Jr.) and Flanagan (Don Harvey) order Chinese food for all the girls and allow them to eat it outside on the terrace before they have to eventually return to their cells when the supervisor arrives. Alston, the most sensible officer Simon and Pelecanos have introduced so far, remarks to one of the girls with a black eye that she can always go back home if she wants. “Oh, shit, you know what? I completely forgot to get an education. You believe that?” she snarks back. Alston smiles and shakes his head. The tenor of their exchange defines the relationship between the law and the street at that time: somewhere between begrudging acceptance and the barest amount of respect. As Vincent says, in response to why he lets prostitutes drink in his bar, “At the end of the day, they gotta drink, too, just like anyone.”
“Show and Prove” also illustrates the various transactional relationships that define the majority of the series’ characters. In a sense, everyone’s gotta pay somebody. For the girls on the street, it’s to their pimps. The episode primarily follows C.C. (Gary Carr) and his new girl Lori (Emily Meade) as he shows her the ropes. It’s the best thread in “Show and Prove” by far because it captures the nuances and surprising complexity of the pimp/prostitute relationship: After sex, C.C. opens up to Lori, telling her how lonely he feels in his chosen profession because of its competitive, ruthless nature; everyone wants him to fail, from his peers to his charges.
C.C.’s long monologue functions as both a sincere confession and an act. He wants to both establish a tender relationship, but also communicate that Lori best not wrong him in any way. It’s a testament to Carr’s performance that he can convey those competing motivations at once, all while his character is under the influence of cocaine. “You ever been to France?” he asks on his way out the door. Lori shakes her head. “Yeah, me neither,” he responds wistfully. That closing remark feels both random and a logical extension of their prior conversation; it’s great precisely because The Deuce never provides any explicit roadmap on how to read that exchange.
Yet, Price and Pelecanos go to lengths not to over-glamorize or romanticize the pimp/prostitute relationship. Sure, pimps perform intimacy or compassion, but it’s obviously all predicated upon their girls’ financial success on the street. Two pointedly ironic moments capture this idea best: First, Larry (Gbenga Akinnagbe), a particularly rough and demanding pimp, tries to court the independent Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal) into coming under his wing, claiming that he’s a sensitive soul, but he can’t help himself from cursing out Darlene (Dominique Fishback) during his pitch. Second, C.C. watches Lori ostensibly handcuffed by an undercover cop posing as a john, but after deducing he’s just a degenerate rapist, he stabs him to death outside his car. Though Lori is traumatized by the event, C.C. semi-politely demands she get back out on the corner, saying that it’s like falling off a bike.
“Show and Prove” doesn’t portray the prostitute community as willfully naïve or ignorant of the ugly realities, either. There’s Candy, of course, who pinch-hits for a friend in a porno short and becomes entranced by the filmmaking process (she’s especially fascinated by the lighting apparatus). But she’s the one girl who isn’t pimped up, which opens up opportunities to control the means of production, so to speak. Look at Darlene, a girl under the thumb of the abusive Larry: Though she appears to be slow on the uptake, Darlene proves she’s emotionally savvier than most. She knows how to manage Larry’s volatility in public, as he comes close to attacking a reporter (Natalie Paul) snooping around the street, and also tries to read literature in her off hours. She understands that Fat Mooney (E.J. Carroll), a porn shop owner, makes 100 percent of the profits off a movie she made without her full knowledge, and does her best to stop it, albeit unsuccessfully. Meanwhile, the other girls look out for each other, understanding that an attack on one is an attack on them all.
The last major thread in the episode involves Vincent (James Franco) and his construction foreman brother-in-law Bobby (Chris Bauer, best known as Frank Sobotka on The Wire), who join forces with capo Rudy Pipilo (Michael Rispoli). They set up an arrangement where the mob will offer cash payments to Bobby’s workers every Friday as opposed to the checks they receive from management that they aren’t able to cash until Monday. This gives Vincent and Bobby some much-needed extra money and helps Frank (Franco), Vincent’s brother, get out of the hole with the mob. Meanwhile, Pipilo shows Vincent a gay bar on its way out and offers him the chance to turn it around on his own. Vincent is hesitant to get further into business with Pipilo, but Rudy convinces him that he’s just like any other landlord and that every business owner pays rent one way or another. Time will tell if that holds true, but considering that he’s a mob boss, chances are Vincent will get more than he’s bargained for.
In the end, “Show and Prove” demonstrates that it’s just another day. Alston, Flanagan, and detectives Grossman (Brian Muller) and Haddix (Ralph Macchio) listen to roll call as Rizzi (Michael Kostroff, another Wire alum) details the day’s violent crime in the 14th precinct: homicide, aggravated assault, robbery, rape, and so on. Meanwhile, the cops take the van out to pick up the girls on the corner yet again. “The hos go in, the hos go out. Like sweeping leaves on a windy day, ain’t that right, officers?” remarks Rodney (Method Man) as he watches the proceedings. “Solid bullshit.” But it’s that solid bullshit, and the lives of those living in and trying to escape it, that make up the world of The Deuce.
Other Tricks and Pricks
• Ernest Dickerson directed this episode. Though he previously helmed episodes of The Wire and Treme, he’s arguably best known as a DP for many of Spike Lee’s early films like School Daze, Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever, and Malcolm X.
• As Fat Mooney’s shop is raided, he tells the cops that Sex USA, an adult film in the guise of a documentary, is playing at the Rialto while he’s being charged. It’ll be interesting to see how The Deuce covers the growing influence of mainstream feature-length porn and other European imports in the ‘70s.
• During the Viking-themed porn shoot, the director uses cold potato soup as a substitute for ejaculate. “Don’t squint,” he tells a girl on the shoot as she’s being sprayed in the face with the soup from a turkey baster. “You’re supposed to love Viking cum.”