close reads

This Is the Scene When The Deuce Finally Becomes Itself

Pernell Walker (center) and Don Harvey (right) in The Deuce. Photo: HBO

There’s a beautiful, funny sequence in the second episode of The Deuce. After doing a regular roundup of the usual prostitutes who work around 42nd Street, 14th precinct patrolman Chris Alston books them all into a holding cell and then starts to take their dinner orders. “I’ll have the No. 9 with lobster sauce,” one woman tells him. “The No. 9 already comes with lobster sauce — you sayin’ you want extra?” Alston asks. “Yeah.” He takes another order for egg rolls, and tells a third woman to look at the menu.

Later, the women and Alston sit outside in a small courtyard, eating their food, chatting. There’s more than one wide shot of the whole group of them — they lounge, limbs draped over tables and chairs, picking at their takeout boxes. Alston asks one woman about her black eye — why she accepts it, why she doesn’t just go back home. He’s curious, but it’s rote. He doesn’t expect to save anyone. Then another cop walks in, tells them the CO will be back soon, and they all dutifully shuffle back into the cell.

The pilot of The Deuce, created by David Simon and George Pelecanos, is a big, meaty, sweaty thing. It introduces more than a dozen characters; it sets scenes; it launches motivations and conflicts and tensions. It does its job. But there may be no better opening statement of what this series is about than this sequence from episode two, when Alston orders dinner for the working girls of the Deuce.

TV pilots cannot feel routine. It doesn’t matter how well constructed and carefully blasé they are: Pilots are the essence of newness. They exist to introduce things, and even when we’re watching characters do things they’ve always done, there’s a freshness to it that’s hard to shake. But the world of The Deuce is not really about novelty, even in the plots where its characters are doing their best to try something new. The Deuce’s sensibility is “the same as it ever was.”

It’s one of the best and most fundamental elements of shows like The Deuce (and The Wire and Call Me a Hero) — we watch characters struggle to make changes in their lives, and sometimes change does happen on an individual level. In the broad scheme, though, real social change happens with painful slowness, and most of the time it’s just a displacement of the inequities from one place to somewhere else. It’s a hard idea to communicate in a pilot episode. The Deuce’s lengthy first episode does its best to introduce a system, and to give us a sense of its scope, but it’s hard to show us that system’s history.

This sequence with Alston and the prostitutes he’s booked into a cell, though? This is the first time The Deuce really feels like itself. It’s funny and familiar, and relies on the humor and ease of all the characters involved. The women jeer at the police officers in the precinct room as they head into the cell — they already know where it is. The officers jeer back. Outside in the courtyard, the women sit in peeling, rusted chairs, fully relaxed into the back of their seats. Their legs are crossed and their arms are thrown wide over the chair arms. Their arms can be thrown wide: Each of them has one half of a set of handcuffs locked around her wrist, with the other cuff dangling free, looking like nothing so much as a piece of costume jewelry.

It’s a very small sequence in the scheme of things. But it does more than anything in the pilot to communicate just how casual and habitual this whole arrangement is. Rather than adversarial, it defines the cops and the prostitutes as grudgingly symbiotic. Alston sits at the same table with the women, not looming above them or hanging around inside. And that amazing line about the lobster sauce? It’s funny, and it’s also a measure of respect. He clarifies to make sure her order is right. It’s charming.

It’s also a broken, useless system, and The Deuce’s pilot and the rest of its first season will demonstrate the falseness of this convivial cops-and-whores family picnic. The cops don’t crack down on the women too harshly, but they’re doing very, very little to protect them, either. They’re doing almost nothing to stop the daily violence and exploitation that threatens their lives. If getting hauled into the precinct and sitting down with a nice box of lo mein is routine for these women, then the terrifying instability and danger of their lives is as well. The joke of the whole thing feels like it should be that the whores were all arrested and now they’re enjoying a casual meal with their jailers. The real joke of the thing is that it is a joke — all of it. The dance of crime and crackdown is completely futile, supporting a status quo that keeps prostitutes on a perpetual loop of arrest and release until they die or retire.

Even in its brevity and its general good humor, that knowledge is written into this lovely sequence, too. Alston chats with one of the women and asks after her black eye; her responses are almost mocking. Is he trying to “save” her? What other work is she going to do? And what’s Alston going to do about any of it — arrest the johns? Arrest the pimps? He’s not. So he sits with the women and tries to get their orders right.

The Deuce is about big social structures and big interlocking systems, but the series is best in its smallest moments. This one, where the routine of it all actually feels like comfortable monotony, and the little detail of the lobster sauce is also a little detail about the utter intractability of social inequality, is the first moment The Deuce really relaxes into itself.

And look, is this an overly obsessive reading of one small scene from a whole TV season? A small scene that doesn’t even have most of the main characters in it? It sure is. But this is the temptation and the invitation of a show like The Deuce, where the world is small, but the network is big. You’re best off finding one piece to help stand in for the whole. I’m not sure there’s a better choice than a shot of a prostitute leaning casually up against a precinct fence, half a handcuff dangling from one arm, eating her takeout egg rolls.

This Is the Scene When The Deuce Finally Becomes Itself