It’s spring of 1972 and the tide has officially turned. The streets are cleared of girls and pimps, and the sex industry has finally moved indoors. The mob has decided to split the Deuce profits. Rich, fancy clientele now hire prostitutes to come to their lavish apartments. Amateur pornography is popular, sometimes with an artistic bent. Boys in the Sand, the first gay porn to achieve crossover success, has run in theaters for 100 days. In a few short months, Deep Throat will hit theaters and change the world of porn even more.
What makes “Au Reservoir” the best episode of The Deuce so far isn’t the depiction of a newly liberated time, but rather how it honestly captures its characters’ experiences within that time. Written by crime writer Megan Abbott, from a story by her and David Simon, the episode doesn’t impose a contrived thematic umbrella nor move its diverse ensemble around like chess pieces. It simply observes how some people walk through a world in flux with confidence and how others fight back against what they no longer understand. For some, it’s a long time coming. For others, it’s a sign that the ball no longer resides in their court. Most importantly, Abbott and Simon don’t force undue moral judgment on their characters; they allow their bone-deep humanism speak for itself by just giving them a platform to express and act.
The episode kicks off with two key scenes: First, Ashley, C.C.’s girl, finally fed up with playing second fiddle to Lori and working at the massage parlor, decides to jump ship. Second, Rudy and his fellow capos decide to pool their resources to allow the porn and parlors to flourish in the Deuce. On one hand, a woman makes the choice to no longer participate in sex work, and on the other, men in power decide to make sex work more accessible albeit still under wraps.
Much of “Au Reservoir” follows Ashley as she tries to figure out what to do next. Abbott never explicates Ashley’s inner desires or even gives a strong indication as to why she decided to leave C.C. Instead, she and director James Franco observe her as she moves through the city without a purpose. First, Frankie chats her up at the Hi-Hat, where Paul invites the two of them to a showing of Boys in the Sand. (He doesn’t inform Frankie it’s a gay porn film so it might “broaden his horizons.”) After Ashley and Frankie spend the night at a hotel, she shacks up with Abby and pretends to be her cousin. Ashley cleans up the apartment and even loans Abby a dress for a glitzy party thrown by her rich parents. Over the course of the season, Jamie Neumann has played the character with quiet, knowing confidence, someone who has saved her reserves of wisdom for just the right time. This week, it finally comes out to great effect.
Though the sex trade has moved indoors, providing the girls and the masters with police cover, not everything is peaches and cream. Bobby struggles with myriad problems in the backroom: Shay overdoses on heroin; Barbara and Melissa are caught stealing a john’s money, which gets them both banned from the parlor; and Bernice, the girl Darlene brought up from the country, starts to crack under pressure. On top of all that, Officer Haddix, now assigned to the Public Morals Task Force, asks for a payoff from Bobby on top of what he’s paying to the 14th precinct and the downtown office. The massage parlor might provide a veneer of legality, but it’s still rife with problems.
Meanwhile, the pimps struggle with an existential crisis of their own. Now that they don’t have to hustle or keep track of their girls, they’re not sure about their role in the system anymore. C.C. and Rodney talk about not knowing how to spend their time. Larry wanders the streets worried that he’s lost his identity. But Reggie Love — already the most demanding, hard-nosed pimp — goes the other extreme: He gives Melissa a black eye and doesn’t allow her to eat at Leon’s for even a minute without pushing her out onto the street. He no longer has control over his territory and he’s flexing his might the only way he knows how.
On the pseudo-legal side of things, Alston finally hooks up with Sandra, further blurring the lines between his roles as a source and as her romantic partner. He also gives the new captain, McDonagh (Ed Moran), a tour of the Deuce, and his uneasiness at the new assignment only compounds when McDonagh pointedly asks him if he’s a “meat eater” or a “grass eater,” i.e. someone who stirs up shit or someone who grazes and does what he needs to do to get by. Alston has always been caught between a rock and a hard place, between trying to atone for his part in corruption and playing a part in it. Now, it’s going to get worse.
Finally, Eileen comes into her own on the porn shoots as both an actress and a cross between an art director and an acting coach. She encourages and advises Lori on how best to act, giving her the courage and esteem to find her own place on-camera. By the end of the shoot, she gives her best performance and finds pride in her work. Though Eileen splits her time between the camera work and sleeping with fancy clientele, she has found a modicum of normalcy and satisfaction after months of punishing labor. Even Harvey is impressed: He openly asks how someone like her ended up in “the life,” but he doesn’t get, nor is owed, a clear-cut answer.
At the end, Abby gives Ashley the money she received from her father for a bus ticket to upstate New York, and this time, she knows that Ashley isn’t returning to the streets. Leon shoots Reggie Love in his diner after he disrespects Melissa one last time. Frankie gets his “Masturbatorium” off the ground. Fat Mooney’s shop is overflowing with customers. The world keeps spinning toward a continually uncertain future, but everyone has to settle for an uncertain present.
Other Tricks and Pricks
• Captain McDonagh tells Alston that Benjamin Ward brought him in and that he would be first deputy by now if he weren’t black. In 1984, the real Benjamin Ward became the first black police commissioner of New York City.
• It was a nice touch for Abbott and Simon not to make Abby’s parents a caricature of rich New Englanders. They’re not appalled or surprised by Vincent’s presence at their party, and although her father is worried for her, he expresses pride that she’s doing well at the Hi-Hat.
• Ashley picks up a copy of Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant in Abby’s apartment and says she can’t make sense of it.
• Best line of the episode: Eileen changes the bedspread from green to red, informing Harvey that it’s a “horny color.” Harvey shakes his head and replies, “All of sudden I’m working with Marshall McLuhan.”