A show about sexual exploitation and the commodification of bodies, The Deuce can be an emotionally heavy series. Though The Deuce celebrates sex, and David Simon and George Pelecanos have gone to great lengths to neither demonize nor condescend to sex work and people’s prurient desires, it still has no interest in becoming a one-stop, guilt-free pleasure shop for its audience. The show routinely complicates its numerous sex scenes, ever aware of television’s history of glorification, and it frequently interrogates the intersection of lust and society, examining how one impacts the other. The Deuce might be about pornography, but it’s never actual pornography. Every ounce of entertainment comes with a little bit of medicine as well, and that’s the way it should be.
With that said, it’s exciting to see The Deuce engage in some fun every now and again, whether that means carving a space for humor and joy, or embracing the appetites at the series’ core. Simply put, “We’re All Beasts” is one of the series’ very best episodes because it’s fun. Written by Megan Abbot and Stephani DeLuca, and directed by Susanna White (all of whom do stellar work), “We’re All Beasts” follows Candy’s guerilla film-shoot of Little Red Riding Hood on the streets of New York. She and her threadbare production team deal with every financial, logistical, and creative obstacle under the sun. They constantly make on-the-fly changes, working with little time and even less money, determined to do whatever it takes to get the film in the can. In other words, it’s like every film production in the history of the medium.
While Abbot and DeLuca never shortchange the exhausting production process, they also demonstrate the inherent delight in a collaborative creative project. Candy is completely in her element as a director, capable of seeing the big picture while also laser-focused on the nitty-gritty micro details. She also serves as a coach for just about everyone on her team, despite this being her first project on this scale, and becomes something of a maternal executive figure for the cast and crew. It’s all on her shoulders and she never once forgets it.
Plus, Candy’s film brings out the best in just about everyone within its orbit. When Lance Minks, the film’s pretentious prima-donna lead actor, drops out as The Wolf because he can’t deal with the rough-and-tumble nature of the shoot, Larry Brown steps up to the plate. He pays Darlene to help him run lines and dives deep into the psychology of his character. He embraces his big moment and keeps up with the likes of Lori, Candy, Harvey, and everyone else on set. His priorities have completely shifted toward acting and his pimp life is basically behind him. C.C. calls him “a trick,” claiming he’s no longer a viable threat anymore.
Little Red Riding Hood even gives Frankie a time to shine as he keeps pace with the producer learning curve. Though initially out of place on set, he musters up the courage to fire his wife Tina after her bad acting costs the production $500 in location fees and an entire night’s work. When Candy learns that a couple reels were accidentally left on the train, she goes to Frankie and says they need another $20,000 to finish the film. He jumps in on a truck hijacking with Black Frankie, Big Mike, and Carlos, but the caper proves to be a bust when it turns out the truck is only carrying left shoes because of many past robberies.
Yet, Frankie eventually comes through in ridiculous fashion: He brings Rudy to the Deuce to see Candy film a scene where Larry chases Lori down the street. The scene goes belly up when the cops, believing that Lori is actually in danger, bust up the shoot, beat Larry with a baton, and take him downtown. Rudy, convinced that the whole affair was staged, marvels at how “real” the scene looked and offers Frankie $20,000 on the spot for 25 percent of the back end. Frankie takes the deal and saves the movie, even if it means getting the mob even more involved.
Meanwhile, off set, Vincent and Bobby are struggling to put the pieces back together after their respective jobs have fractured their personal lives. When Bobby’s son Joe (Michael Gandolfini, the late James’s son) ends up in jail, he decides to set him straight by throwing him headfirst into the real world. The only problem is that his “real world” isn’t exactly kid-friendly. Vincent refuses to give Joey a barback job at the club for all the obvious reasons (it’s a late-night shift, there are drugs and sex everywhere, no place for kids etc.), so Bobby is forced to bring him to the parlor, a much less appropriate establishment. Though the setting might be titillating, Joey isn’t thrilled to actually do grunt work and take orders from Bernice, the parlor’s black bartender. (Props to The Deuce for not hanging a lampshade on how Bobby’s casual racism trickles down to his children.)
In a somewhat surprising turn of events, Vincent finally comes clean to Abby about his involvement with the mob. Last week’s episode suggested that Vincent would uphold the lie, but The Deuce clearly has no interest in drawing out such obvious secrets. He promises Abby he won’t take money from the parlors anymore and that he won’t lie to her about the nasty machinations of their shared business. Abby reluctantly accepts his apology and eventually attends the opening of Paul’s club with him. Plus, she uses Rudy’s parlor money to help a prostitute escape the streets, giving Ashley the chance to pay it forward after chafing against the respectable side of community activism.
But while Vincent’s apology and Bobby’s ceaseless self-made frustration are episode highlights, “We’re All Beasts” lives and dies by its film-shoot scenes. The Deuce has never been shy about its cinephilia, particularly because of the proximity between the pornography industry and Hollywood in the 1970s, but the Little Red Riding Hood production is the closest the series has ever come to just staging a recreation of a gritty New Hollywood shoot. Scenes like the production team stealing shots on empty subway cars at three in the morning or Candy allowing a couple of cops to watch some street sex in exchange for turning a blind eye to their lack of permits feel ripped from stories in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls or other tell-all histories of 1970s cinema. The episode also invites an obvious meta reading regarding The Deuce itself. How many of these little production vignettes have happened to Simon and Pelecanos over the years on any number of their television projects, especially considering their frequent location shoots?
But most of all, “We’re All Beasts” makes room for these characters to be a part of something a little bigger than themselves. Sure, it’s just a movie, but a movie is never just a movie, and it gives everyone the chance to prove their worth. You can almost feel the excitement waft offscreen just by the way the characters carry themselves: Jocelyn anxiously keeping the ship steady, Harvey blowing his stack with every new financial hurdle, the glint in Larry’s eyes as he nails a scene, Candy mining Lori’s own personal history to get the performance from her that the film needs. It’s all show business, even if this business is just a little less reputable than the one on the West Coast. In the end, Harvey admits to Candy that she’s really got something, and even she can’t believe it. That’s art, baby.
Other Tricks & Pricks:
• In the episode’s first scene, a couple guys on the street recognize Lori during the shoot, but they can’t quite place her. She has a little fun with them, claiming that she was in Hal Ashby’s Shampoo and Donald Cammell’s cult horror film Demon Seed. They totally saw her in the latter.
• If David Krumholtz hadn’t cemented his MVP status before this episode, he clinched it this week. His freak-outs about the budget and location shoots are a series high point.
• We catch a glimpse of Gene Goldman’s wholesome family life as well as his secret trips to Turkish bathhouses. He might be the point man for Koch’s Times Square cleanup project, but his personal life isn’t as squeaky clean as his moral agenda.
• “I’m not talking about me! I don’t care if Red Riding Hood fucks ten black guys, a tenement full of Puerto Ricans, and a Palestinian hijacker! You cannot promote this!”