Late in “All You’ll Be Eating is Cannibals,” Ashley, Dave, and Abby gather at a housing community where the pimps congregate to try to broker a deal between them and the residents regarding their illegal operations. Just as they’re getting into it, Ashley notices that C.C. has pulled up to watch the debacle and intimidate her. Though initially distracted by his presence, Ashley eventually confronts C.C. on the street, sarcastically thanking him for making her the woman she is today. C.C. throws it right back in her face, claiming that, if he wanted to, he could fuck her and have her working for him within minutes, and that her activist persona is just an act. Ashley calmly responds, “You’re right. Because the real me, she just wants to see you buried.” C.C. began the episode beating Lori for consulting with Kiki about being her manager, flexing strength when he has nothing else left as a means to control. But Ashley rattles him just by standing tall. She gets under his skin only by saying, “No.”
Written by Richard Price and Carl Capotorto, “All You’ll Be Eating Is Cannibals” features the women of The Deuce saying “no,” disrupting their routine for their own ends, standing up to the men in their lives, or finally realizing that they live in a cage that merely resembles freedom. The episode opens with Lori’s disturbing assault, but this rebellion filters through every facet of The Deuce. Flanagan’s mistress chews him out in the background of the Hi-Hat. Irene lies to Rodney about Shay’s whereabouts so as to make sure she stays clean and off the streets following her stint in rehab. Loretta, sporting a black eye from an abusive john, complains to Darlene that Larry doesn’t fulfill his pimp duties now that he’s caught the acting bug. Darlene forces a longtime regular to pay double just for merely suggesting they watch a porn film starring her on the room’s closed circuit TV during sex. While these examples might not represent a feminist tidal wave, the aggregate implies strong recognition of their oppression at the hands of the patriarchy.
For the series’ main ensemble, however, true freedom comes with a price. Take Lori, who’s falling apart after she finally learns that not only can she not reason with C.C. but that her professional success has amounted to nothing in her personal life. He will always view her as a whore, one that he can control with a fist one day and ply with gifts the next day. She breaks down in Candy’s apartment, finally articulating what she has fought so desperately to repress: She owns nothing. Everything she does belongs to C.C. and she doesn’t have the luxury to walk away. She might land a big part in Candy’s Little Red Riding Hood movie, but she’ll never be Candy, with her large apartment and burgeoning film career. When Lori throws Candy’s privileged position in her face after she offers some glib advice, Candy argues that they both chose different paths, which is technically true, but doesn’t account for her personal circumstances and her inability to escape. She might be on the rise, but she’s still trapped.
At the same time, Lori doesn’t take into account the sacrifices Candy made and the suffering she endured by tricking without the protection of a pimp. She made that choice and shouldered violence and degradation as a result of it, and even now, when she’s finally making headway in pornography, she still had to blow a studio exec for $10,000. She’s fighting every step of the way for funding, eventually bringing in Frankie and his $10,000 that he made from selling his short-lived dry cleaning business. The mayor’s office rejected her permit applications to shoot in the city because the context and subtext weren’t up to their standards. She might be living on easy street compared to Lori, but it wasn’t easy then and it’s not easy now.
Finally, there’s Abby, who continues with her activism but grapples with the hypocrisy in her own backyard. After refusing to serve Bobby in the Hi-Hat following Kitty’s death and the police raid at the parlors, she tells Vincent that she wants him banned from the bar. What follows is one of the very best scenes in The Deuce, a difficult conversation about the seedy foundation of their shared life. Vincent makes excuses for Bobby’s behavior, but when Abby confronts him about the envelopes he takes out of the parlors, Vincent weaves together a web comprising of lies and hard truths that conveniently exculpates him of guilt. The envelopes don’t go to him, he says. They go to pay off the building inspectors and the health inspectors and the contractors and the cops and the various other invisible tollbooths that populate the city. It’s a necessary evil for someone like Abby so that she can continue to support her artist friends and contribute to her causes.
Yet when Abby finally asks if the Hi-Hat is backed by the mob, Vincent lies convincingly and tells her it’s not, and there’s the rub. Abby isn’t pure, but it’s largely because of Vincent’s actions. He might refuse a cut from Black Frankie and Big Mike after they rob an underground gambling joint in the Bronx, but they’re still conducting business in his club. He’s not just a bartender. He’s a co-conspirator, and he’s tainted Abby as well. This isn’t spoken of during their fight, but it informs everything that’s said. Vincent refuses to ban Bobby because he’s family and Abby walks out, rejecting the guy she loves and the establishment where she works, at least temporarily. She and Vincent are, as Bobby rudely claims, both hypocrites, people who believe they’re upstanding citizens while ignoring where their bread is buttered. Saying “No” is one thing, but cleaning up your house is another thing entirely.
Other Tricks & Pricks
• The episode opens with Larry watching Paul Schrader’s debut feature Blue Collar in the theater and later practices Yaphet Kotto’s famous “lifers against the new boys” speech. (Blue Collar is one of my all-time favorite films and one of Schrader’s very best works. I expounded on it in Vulture’s ranking of Paul Schrader films.)
• Candy eventually goes to Jocelyn for help with the script after Matthew Beeman gave all the best lines to The Wolf and not the heroine. Jocelyn immediately understood Candy’s vision (“Like an erotic Taxi Driver vibe”) and was shocked that Candy even offered to pay her.
• Paul is in over his head and way over budget with construction on his new nightclub/lounge. After a fight with his boyfriend, he heads to a seedy part of town to an underground sex club and engages in anonymous sex. As much as The Deuce communicates the release Paul feels in that environment, it’s difficult to watch this scene and not consider the specter of AIDS that looms over this type of sexual liberation.
• Speaking of sexual liberation, Big Mike is apparently on the down low. He sleeps with a trans woman who turns out to be the inside person for his gambling heist.
• Shay speaks for many people this week: “Dicks are assholes. I’m so sick of dicks. If I never see another dick for the rest of my life, I swear …”