In a 2012 interview with Alan Sepinwall, Matthew Weiner said that one of the major parts of Mad Men was how it tracked “the crudening of our culture.” At the beginning of the series, ’50s moralism still reigned over social life, but small cracks began to show, like men refusing to remove their hats in mixed company and superficially taboo topics worming their way into mainstream conversation. By the end of the series in 1970, after the assassinations and the racial unrest and the ramping-up of Vietnam and the commodification of the counterculture, mores permanently loosened. People cursed more, compulsory respect for authority was falling, and a strain of subversion had taken hold of society. “One of my things is that human behavior doesn’t change,” Weiner said, “but certainly the manners change.”
It’s coincidence that The Deuce picks up mere months after the end of Mad Men, but it’s interesting to watch George Pelecanos and David Simon pick up that thematic torch from Weiner, both chronologically and spiritually. The grimy streets of Times Square are a far cry from a Madison Avenue skyscraper, but the former represents the culmination of what was only bubbling up to the surface in the latter. The Deuce covers a snapshot of a time and place when the culture was looser than ever, when all previous rules were moving off the table. It’s a tableau of figures that exist in a world of moral instability. The golden age of pornography is the series’ primary focus, but it’s also a microcosm for broader developments happening in the larger culture. Simon and Pelecanos convey this without judgment or condescension, and that shouldn’t go unrecognized.
After three episodes establishing characters, plots, and tone, The Deuce adopts a more observational mode in “I See Money,” capturing a full tableau in motion. Pelecanos and Lisa Lutz (who has sole credit on the teleplay) don’t jam the episode with incident, but instead allow the characters to just exist in their environment, leading their own parallel stories. This panoramic storytelling is easier said than done, and yet everything already feels ingrained and bone-deep. The casual confidence on display shouldn’t be a surprise considering the veterans behind and in front of the camera, but it still pops onscreen.
If there’s one major thread in the episode, it’s Candy’s disillusionment with prostitution. “I See Money” follows Candy on a series of especially terrible nights where she is mainly just going through motions. To get out of the rain on the streets, she enters a dirty movie to find clients. While fellating a guy, a rat finds his way onto his lap and near her head, startling her badly enough that she runs out to the lobby. As she catches her breath, another guy approaches her, suggestively asking if she likes movies.
Maggie Gyllenhaal gives one of her best performances in this episode by silently illustrating how much unique labor, both physical and emotional, goes into sex work. In one scene, she rolls a client off her body like it’s one of a million, and then subtly deflects his touch as she puts on her clothes, not wanting to deal with more than she absolutely has to. While she’s trying to simply unwind at the Hi-Hat, a heavy-set man asks her for a date, and director Alex Hall lingers on Gyllenhaal’s face as you watch it barely contort into a smile, actively fighting the urge to turn him down. Later, she’s completely shaken up when the man dies during oral sex, sending her on a bender just as she’s weighing a date from a legitimate suitor named Jack (Will Chase).
Lutz’s teleplay then walks a fine line during the dinner with Jack, showing how Candy tries to be Eileen but falls back on her work persona when she gets nervous or when things become too personal. Her discomfort on the date shows Candy at the end of her rope, but she’s finally pushed when all the dudes in the diner — the pimps, Frank, Big Mike, and Vincent’s new bodyguard Black Frank (Thaddeus Street) — give her a standing ovation for having a “deadly mouth.” It’s disgusting and uncomfortable, and you can see the last ounce of street spirit leave Candy as she exits the diner.
The rest of “I See Money” treats the other characters like a tapestry, partially out of necessity and partially out of the aforementioned observational approach. In any other hands, I’d say The Deuce is spread too thin, but Pelecanos, Lutz, Simon, and everyone else have such a good handle on how to approach character and setting that they can comfortably take the place of traditional story. The Deuce can deftly cut between Paul (struggling in a relationship with his more reticent, straitlaced boyfriend as well as his outsider feelings at the Hi-Hat), C.C. (who’s dealing with jealousy among his girls), and Officer Alston (who’s testing the limits of no-go zones while unintentionally teaming up with Sandra the reporter) with incredible ease. Almost everyone “profiled” in this episode is at a crossroads, and Hall and Lutz effectively capture the fractured states of all involved.
The most traditional storyline in “I See Money” involves the mob’s influence on Bobby’s construction site. Some of the workers decide not to pay the mob tax and wait to cash their checks on Monday, which doesn’t sit well with Rudy and his crew. Though Bobby swears things will get back to normal soon, Rudy tasks an enforcer to straighten out the “point man,” Bill Schmidt, so others will walk the line. It’s the first time that The Deuce has portrayed the mob in an actively violent light, but it was an inevitable step, and it occurs just when Rudy and Tommy Longo try to bring Vincent closer into their real estate ventures. Although the mob plotline can feel like an afterthought on a series like this, Pelecanos & Co. neatly fold it into the proceedings here, capturing the predictability of their influence on illegal vices.
Yet, “I See Money” is at its best when it portrays people at cross-purposes, desperately trying to understand their surroundings but failing to fully grasp them. Lutz places Abby and Darlene at the center of this idea; as Darlene shows Abby how to fix the buckle on her shoe with a safety pin, Abby openly asks her why she’s on the street rather than at home. It’s a conversation Darlene has had a million times, but Abby is only broaching it now that she’s outside of her privileged, college bubble. Abby pushes her to go see her aunt in Charlotte, but Darlene knows herself and why she does what she does, politely deflecting her advice. “I’m just trying to understand,” Abby says. “You don’t need to understand,” Darlene replies.
Later, Abby gives her a copy of Graham Greene’s Travels With My Aunt with a Greyhound ticket inside; Darlene smiles and returns to Larry. As hard as some might try, other people’s experiences will forever be outside of their own. Vincent might be cool with Paul, but he’ll never know what Stonewall meant to him. Candy might have a nice evening with Jack, but it’s unclear whether he’ll ever accept her true identity. Darlene knows what Abby doesn’t: Money affords the fantasy of escaping one’s circumstances. It’s a tough, crude world out there, and everyone’s just trying to get by with what they have. There’s nothing more to it.
Other Tricks and Pricks
• Watch how Hall shoots the sex scene between Vincent and Abby and compare it to the sex-work scenes. It’s a neat illustration of the difference between mutual passion and a one-sided fantasy.
• Zoe Kazan returns as Vincent’s wife, Andrea. She says that she misses him and wants him to come home, but Vincent knows too well what will happen, reminding her of when she lit his clothes on fire. “The fire thing, that was an accident,” Andrea insists. “Yeah, the first time, maybe,” Vincent replies.
• I want to ding the scene with Paul and Vincent because it feels a bit too didactic, with Paul explaining preferred pronouns and “queers rioting for three days,” but then again, Vincent would genuinely be indifferent and ignorant to those concerns. It’s nice to see how these two guys could come to a mutual understanding and be collegial, but they’d probably never be “close.”
• My favorite bit of irony: Bobby snarking about his doctor asking him to change his lifestyle after his heart attack while he’s taking a drag off a cigarette.