Season 2, Episode 2: ‘There’s an Art to This’
So much of “The Deuce” is about the power characters hold over one another, depending on where they place in the hierarchy of exploitation. There are mobsters and corrupt cops on one end, prostitutes on the other end, and people like Vinnie and Candy somewhere between, exerting power and control where they can but beholden to men who can snuff out their ambitions — or possibly their lives.
Yet the show occasionally reminds us that this little ecosystem is fragile, an illicit vice land that thrives only because those with real power are looking the other way. One line from this week’s episode signals its extinction:
“Do you know what are the two biggest crime fighters we have in this city? Sheet rock and cranes.”
The line comes from Gene Goldman (Luke Kirby), a member of Mayor Ed Koch’s Midtown Enforcement Project, which in 1977 was just a year old. (Here’s a fascinating archived piece from The Times on the real project, which drew criticism at the time for using private investigators to entrap prostitutes operating out of so-called massage parlors.) Goldman’s group has taken an interest in Detective Alston’s stabbing case because of its possible implications regarding the safety of tourists in the area. Although Alston has come to the opposite conclusion — that the tourist, in fact, was the threat — the facts don’t matter in the end. Sheet rock and cranes will turn Times Square into Disneyland one day. You can’t fight City Hall.
The great novelist and screenwriter Richard Price, who scripted this episode, plants this little detonation as an ironic counterpoint to trajectories that are mostly going up, up, up for our cast of characters. The big-money legitimacy of the adult film business on the West Coast has started to trickle over to the East, where crude peep show loops are starting to give way to higher production values, greater artistic ambition, legitimate representation and even a few awards nominations. For Lori, that means hope that she can parlay her supporting actress bid into a trip to Los Angeles and an honest-to-goodness agent — though C.C. will surely have something to say about both. For Candy, that means accelerated lessons in stagecraft from Genevieve Fury (Dagmara Dominczyk), an Eastern European director she idolizes, and a stronger case that Harvey should invest in more in her celluloid dreams.
Elsewhere, Vinnie whisks Abby away from the filth and stress of the neighborhood and gives her a tour of his past in Coney Island and a vision of their domesticated future. Paul also eyes a new, classier joint than the thriving gay bar he currently operates, and also maybe a way out from under Rudy Pipilo’s protection — which lately hasn’t been much protection at all. The pimps may be feeling marginalized, but otherwise, everyone is making money: the bars, the parlors, the peeps and the studio, not to mention the mobsters backing them and the cops paid to look the other way. For this illegal, violent, exploitative and viciously patriarchal business, this is as good as it gets.