Winter has finally arrived in New York City. The girls are still on the street, sniffling and coughing, while the pimps languish indoors raking in their cut. The Hi-Hat still chugs along with the help of their regular clientele. Bobby’s “Pussy Palace” is almost ready to open. Rudy and his team make plans to expand their empire with the help of those in law enforcement and local government. Pornographers film their work without impediment. The cops are still on the prowl. There’s a citywide rhythm that has settled into the underground sex industry, but as a man once said, the times they are a changin’.
As 1971 recedes into the past, a new looser era begins to take hold, and with that comes policy changes that will benefit some and ultimately hurt others. As both porn director Harvey Wasserman and mob boss Rudy Pipilo learn in a key lower court decision, obscenity cases are being thrown out left and right. Those in power have slowly become accepting of, or at the very least indifferent toward, the proliferation of pornography, which opens the doors for folks like Rudy and Harvey to spread their influence far and wide. “Why Me?” captures the quiet calm before the storm when sexual freedom hits the mainstream. Film can now be in the cameras. Loops don’t have to be trimmed. It’s a whole new world.
What does this mean for the characters on The Deuce? Essentially, it means more responsibility and more hands in different pockets. When Rudy hires Frankie and Big Mike to tail the machine handlers — a.k.a. the people he has on payroll to collect the quarters from the peep show machines in porn shops — to see if they’re skimming off the top, Frankie asks why now. If he knows it’s been going on this whole time, why does he suddenly care now?
“Because there’s gonna be real money in it now,” Rudy says. “Right here, made in the U.S.A. Not some other country’s shit. Imagine watching a movie with American girls, speaking American, getting reamed in every hole and swallowing cock without any hassle from the law.”
Crude language aside, Rudy correctly diagnoses the changing mores of the culture. Before, Rudy collected money here and there from the few legitimate businesses that dabbled in the sex trade. Now, the industry will soon be flooded with bodies, purveyors, and, yes, money. So he cares if the handlers and shop owners skim, because now it actually matters. Moreover, he pays particular attention when Mike and Frankie come up with an “ingenious” addition to the porn shops: private stalls for the peep shows. “You know, so they can jerk off in there,” Frankie adds unnecessarily.
For Harvey, it means that he can finally make movies again without any hassle. Candy, now Eileen, has left the street and started regularly acting in Harvey’s films, but she’s not just interested in on-camera work. She would rather steadily work alongside Harvey than work for him. Eileen talks to her mother and tells her that she’ll soon have enough money for her own place and a babysitter, and that she’ll never work on the street again. But after the latest shoot, Harvey tells her he can’t give her anymore work for a month and that his margins are too tight to put her on the regular payroll. When Eileen asks what she’s supposed to do for money, Harvey sadly replies, “What you did before.”
Yet Harvey genuinely feels guilty about Eileen’s situation because he likes her, not as an “actress,” but as a professional. The scenes between Gyllenhaal and David Krumholtz are charged by collegial tension, the push-pull that occurs between people who are in the trenches together. When Harvey goes up to Eileen’s apartment, it’s not because he wants something from her, it’s because he wants to help. It’s refreshing to see scenes between men and women where there isn’t a possibility of sexual exchange because it adds a different emotional layer to the drama. Harvey gives Eileen a number to call for sex work between shoots out of something resembling friendship instead of pity. When she asks what the catch is, he’s upfront about it: It’s sex and “she,” the madam in charge, takes a cut. But he also promises her more work as soon as it opens up.
Meanwhile, there are new rules in the 14th precinct that affect the cops, the pimps, and the girls. Head honchos now want the cops to sweep the streets of everyone on the corners so nothing can be out in the open anymore. Though everyone assumes it’s just a final push for the end of the year (and an opportunity for cops to make more overtime pay), it quickly becomes clear that it’s more than that. Lieutenant Sweeney informs the pimps that every corner they work has been indicted, so they should consider accepting any offer that takes their girls off the street, including Vincent and Bobby’s new “massage parlor” that they all initially dismissed. Soon, Reggie Love, Rodney, Gentle Ritchie, and even Larry acquiesce to Vincent’s demands for women in his new business venture. Plus, Sweeney takes a trip to the parlor and tells Bobby that the 14th precinct needs a separate cut of the take to absolutely ensure there are no raids.
With lax obscenity laws comes a new world order in which the mob and the cops have commodified sex for their own benefit. By forcing sex off the streets and indoors, they’ve made it so that the sex workers have less control than ever. They’re totally at the mercy of people who themselves are at the mercy of corrupt officials who couldn’t care less about abstract values of autonomy and dignity. The industry may have surfaced from the underground, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t casualties along the way.
Take the final shot of Darlene sitting in her “room” in the parlor. It’s tiny and cramped, but most of all, it’s antiseptic. It has a clinical aesthetic that all but cheapens her efforts, and worst of all, she can hear her co-workers all around her and literally see the wall shake. But it’s either working in a whorehouse or in porn, and Darlene doesn’t want to do the latter because she doesn’t like the permanence of film. So, she’s stuck doing her job in uncomfortable, less-than-ideal conditions, all because more nefarious folks have found a way to profit off her body.
“Why Me?” is named after Vincent’s question to Rudy, about why he picked him to run these businesses. Rudy tells him that he’s an honest ally, and there aren’t many of those left. But the episode itself illustrates how dishonesty became normalized once people in positions of power decided a little exploitation was okay as long as everyone got paid. In a perfect world, sex work becoming commercial should benefit everyone and provide more opportunities than ever. But even at this early stage, we see how that can’t ever really happen, as long as “management” can pull the strings at the expense of workers. The world is changing, all right, one pubic hair at a time.
Other Tricks and Pricks
• James Carr’s “These Ain’t Raindrops” soundtracks the fantastic slow-motion montage of the cops harassing the pimps and hauling their girls down to the station. It ends with Larry and Alston watching Larry’s car get towed. Alston comments, “It ain’t in the holiday spirit.”
• The sweetest scenes this week both involve Abby. First, Abby and Paul share an exchange about the prudishness of the culture, and how sex isn’t as serious as those who try to legislate it believe. Second, Abby and Vincent listen to “Pale Blue Eyes” on the radio in bed and she reminisces about how she saw the Velvet Underground at Max’s Kansas City “in all their black glory.”
• When one of his porn actors fails to maintain an erection, Harvey gives him five minutes and then says, “Mankiewicz never had to wait around for a hard-on.”