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The Deuce Recap: Who Lights the Match?

The Deuce

What Big Ideas
Season 2 Episode 4
Editor’s Rating *****

The Deuce

What Big Ideas
Season 2 Episode 4
Editor’s Rating *****
Photo: HBO

A 16-year-old girl perishes in a massage parlor fire. Who is responsible for her death? Is it the mobster who set the fire as the latest salvo in an ongoing territory war? Is it Carlos, the parlor manager who forgot to check her room when he was rounding up the girls because he was drunk? Is it Bobby, who hired her as a sex worker in the first place when she was 15 years old, no less? Is it Vincent for dragging his brother-in-law into the business in the first place? Is it law enforcement for ineffectively policing the Deuce so that these incidents wouldn’t occur? Is it the government for stigmatizing sex work and subsequently refusing to provide adequate safety measures for workers? Is it her fault for being there in the first place, or her parents for not raising her with proper morals and a healthy sense of boundaries, or the public education system for failing to keep her on the straight and narrow, or an overly sexualized society for enticing her to work in its margins? The list goes on and on and on …

The problem with systemic oppression is that it implicates everyone and blame can’t exactly be localized. When Stephanie Esposito (or Kitty, as she was known in the parlors) dies, it sends waves throughout the sex community, at least to everyone below Rudy and his cohorts, who merely see her death as collateral damage. This is neatly epitomized by the lingering sound of fire engines bleeding into several scenes following the fire, connecting everyone including those at the farthest reaches of the system. Anyone who has profited from women’s sexuality or turned a blind eye toward their suffering has blood on their hands.

Abby and Ashley are quick to lay the blame at Bobby’s feet, not just for hiring Stephanie when she was under age, but also because he’s responsible for all of Rudy’s parlors. When Bobby drowns his sorrows at the Hi-Hat, they stare at him intently, struggling to talk around their feelings even though he knows what’s on their minds. He quickly lashes out at them, claiming that he didn’t use her. She was kept safe and nobody cheated her out of money. “I looked out for her. I looked out for all of them. But you and your fuckin’ friend are giving it to me like I lit the fuckin’ match,” he drunkenly sneers until Vincent cools the situation and forces him to go home.

Bobby isn’t wrong, necessarily. He didn’t light the match, and though he runs the parlors, it was Carlos who was managing the Geisha House, and it was he who was drunk on the job. At the same time, Bobby shirks any responsibility because he sees himself as a romantic, a lover of all the women under his charge because he listens to them and they fuck him. He can’t see that he’s part of a system that thrives on violence and objectification. Even though the workers are paid that doesn’t mean they’re protected. Despite objections to the contrary, the girls have always been disposable.

But Bobby gets under Abby’s skin when he goes right up to the line of implicating Vincent, who, as he notes, stands in the Hi-Hat “like a fucking church statue,” maintaining superiority without adopting any responsibility. Vincent thinks of himself as just a bartender, someone who knows everyone’s business yet remains outside of it, but that’s hardly true. He’s in his position only because of Rudy, who profits off of every bar, club, parlor, peep show, and sex worker within Vincent’s orbit. He gets paid by a man who started a turf war that led to Stephanie’s death. He’s as complicit as Bobby, but acts as the voice of reason, the guy who plays nice with all sides of the aisle.

Vincent somewhat recognizes this, and his guilt about Stephanie’s death leads him to try to get out of the parlor business entirely. Vincent tells Tommy that Black Frankie will deliver the parlor money because he wants out, but Tommy isn’t having it. “Out? The fuck is ‘out’?” he pushes back, but before they can get into it, Black Frankie points out a rival gang member eating pizza on the street. It’s not long until Tommy shoots him in the face point-blank as retaliation for the fire, shutting up Vincent completely. Vincent has always believed he has agency within Rudy’s organization, but the truth has always been that he’s completely under their thumb. There is no “out.”

Meanwhile, Ashley does the work to seek out Stephanie’s family in upstate New York only to learn that they are uninterested in identifying her body let alone providing a proper burial service. To them, their daughter was a whore, and Ashley is nothing more than a whore with a heart of gold. Back in the city, Abby stews with guilt and anger, partially because she runs a bar frequented by sex workers and abusers alike and partially because she’s helpless to change anything. In many ways, Abby is the classic example of a rich college girl who learns about oppression in her own backyard and decides to shoulder all of it because it feels better than not caring at all. Ashley has a higher stake in their shared activism, but Abby has seen the good life and can’t stand not doing anything. It doesn’t help that she’s in a long-term relationship with a guy who has his hand in all of the muck she’s trying to wash away.

On the law enforcement side, Alston pulls Stephanie’s case, which has caught the eye of Goldman and his team because of its connection to mob activity. While Alston’s supervisor keeps trying to get Alston to work with Goldman because he has access to federal funds that can be funneled into their precinct, Alston sees right through his naiveté. Goldman doesn’t know that parlor raids won’t work because midtown cops are in cahoots with the parlor owners, taking bribes for pre-planned raids that look good but accomplish nothing. Goldman doesn’t know that the cops he brings onto his team are humps looking to cash overtime checks. Goldman doesn’t know anything, and Alston has been around the block too many times to try to lead him down the appropriate path on the off chance that Koch has his precinct’s interests in mind.

In the end, Stephanie’s funeral only has Vincent, Abby, Ashley, and Bobby in attendance. There will be a stone so maybe her parents can visit her sometime. But as the pouring rain symbolizes, the memory of Stephanie will likely be washed away. She might have been a nice girl, but she remained on the margins and was an expendable commodity to those who looked out for her. She’s one of many women who will suffer similar fates. Most of the people at her funeral are stuck in the same tide, but they’re still alive. Change only begins when people stand up and say, “no.” Only time will tell if a change will come after all.

Other Tricks and Pricks

• Many, many subplots this week:

1. Candy continues to make progress on her Little Red Riding Hood film. She hires an outside writer (Danny Flaherty, formerly of Matthew Beeman fame) for script, even though Jocelyn offered to help

2. Frankie bottoms out at the dry cleaning business because it’s simply too much for him to handle

3. Larry stars in his first porn film, but when he has trouble with the lines, possibly because he’s illiterate, Candy allows him to improvise, which leads to some great material

4. Lori tries to leave C.C. after he continues to mess with her reputation at work

5. Shay overdoses at the peep show and enters a 28-day in-patient rehab.

• It’s really funny that C.C. accidentally invents POV porn when he suggests the guy getting a blowjob just hold the camera instead of the asthmatic cameraman who messes with Lori’s concentration.

• Vincent sleeps with Abby’s photographer friend Vivian after a gallery show in her honor at the Hi-Hat. Abby gives her consent, but she isn’t wild about it by any means.

• Words of wisdom from Harvey Wasserman: “I’ve read my fair share of Bettelheim. I am familiar with all the Freudian shit. Sex and death and, you know, annihilation of innocence and matricide and infanticide, etc. At the end of the day, it’s gotta be about the fucking.”

The Deuce Recap: Who Lights the Match?