“This is New York. People want to be surprised.”
One of the great joys of Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men was its observational style; the way it set up this world of flashy ad execs, their typically oblivious clients, tireless working women, and the domestic dwellings of '60s suburbia, using period trappings as a mere backdrop for its existential musings about men, women, and the crude depreciation of pop culture. If you lined the end of Weiner’s AMC opus up with the beginning of David Simon and George Pelecanos’ Times Square examination of pornography’s rise, they almost resemble natural thematic soul mates. After three episodes where characters, plotlines, and throughlines are introduced, the stage is set for The Deuce to truly settle in and examine just what this world means to those who inhabit it on a purely soulful level, instead of rushing us from one historical happening to another.
So, with that in mind, “I See Money” tackles the notion of falling in love within a world of exploitation. The Hi-Hat’s chief ‘tender, Paul (Chris Coy), finds himself out on a date with his lawyer beau, trying desperately to get him to come out dancing. But there’s no convincing the closeted professional, as he’s worried about his associates spotting his gayness in the wild. This only further reinforces Paul’s feelings regarding being an outsider in a straight man’s world – a crushing sense of not belonging that overwhelms him during each shift at the increasingly popular Times Square way-station. He relays this emotion to Vinny (James Franco) during a break (along with a poignant recollection of being present at the ’69 Stonewall Riots in Greenwich), to which the owner/operator informs Paul that everyone is welcome in his joint – gay, straight, trans, pimp, hooker. “This is New York,” Vinny replies with a smirk. “People want to be surprised.”
Who isn’t enjoying the unpredictability of her current career is Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal). The girl just can’t seem to catch a break out on the corners or in the theaters. If she’s going down on a creep during a showing of His Loving Daughter (’71) – one of Harry Reams’ uncredited pre-Deep Throat (’72) pornos starring Gina Fox – all the sudden a rat pops up and scares the bejesus out of her, causing Candy to head-butt the john and dash out of the auditorium (only to get propositioned by another on the balcony). The next night, Candy leads a fat man up to her usual dive spot, where he promptly has a heart attack in the middle of a blowjob, earning the prostitute a standing ovation, and the new nickname “Deadly Mouth” (which would be a great period-appropriate XXX title in its own right) at the diner. She needs to get the fuck out of Dodge, a look of dejection now permanently plastered across her face, even as she goes out on a date with an actual suitor (Will Chase) who’s interested in Candy beyond just a roll on a dirty mattress.
It’s difficult to overstate just how good Gyllenhaal is here, slumped and wandering through the piss-stinking gutters of NYC, unable to discover a shred of hope in them any longer. The actress so utterly owns Candy’s stress and strife, making it appear as through the world is caving in on her at all times. What certainly helps is the writing from Lisa Lutz (who takes sole credit on the teleplay); the distinct viewpoint of a woman scribe being injected into Candy and the other sex workers’ day-to-day existences (notice how Candy wants to become “Eileen” during her dinner date, but falls back on her work persona when challenged by the guy). Later, when Candy gives up on an evening and decides to drink with Ruby (Pernell Walker), the two lament how long a year in the life can feel for these girls who spend so many nights on their back. Lutz’s writing displays a distinct ear for dialogue between women, which is shown off by the hilarious way they chase the increasingly nefarious Larry Brown (Gbenga Akinnagbe) away with talk of periods and pliers in vaginas. Though The Deuce was created by men, Simon and Pelecanos need women writing for these ladies to really live and breathe on screen.
Meanwhile, Vinny’s money troubles quickly mount, as workers at the site refuse to use the Bank of Rudy Pipilo (Michael Rispoli) to cash their checks each week, thus leaving the barman to come up with the five percent per note. Then the cops get into a brawl at the Hi-Hat, resulting in an NYPD “taxation” on operations (and subsuquently leading Vinny to hire a resident gunman instead of simply buying a pistol from one of Big Mike’s [Mustafa Shakir] associates, Black Frank [Thaddeus Street]). Rudy keeps telling the kid about a new, huge “opportunity” coming down the pipe in the near future. At the same time, his ex (Zoe Kazan), is showing up again, talking about her and the kids missing Vinny’s presence at home (to which he reminds her of the numerous times she burned his clothes after suspecting him of cheating). All Vinny wants to do is roll around on the Hi-Hat's pool table with Abby (Margarita Levieva), as neither of them have any real delusions about the future, and are just trying to figure it all out in their own time. But that’s the beauty of where we are now with The Deuce – these characters are becoming so fully realized in such a short span of time that we truly care about the neon lights that fill their eyes, and what the implications of their current failures mean for even the most abstract of goals.
We’re at the halfway point of The Deuce’s first season, and each episode is becoming so jam-packed with information they’re difficult to accurately break down in any sort of linear fashion. But the main takeaway from “I See Money” might come via a brief exchange between Darlene (Dominique Fishback) and Abby, where the prostitute informs the cocktail girl (in so many words) that she’ll never fully understand her predicament because she doesn’t live it. Abby might want to help Darlene get out of the life (via a paperback of Graham Greene’s Travels With My Aunt and a Greyhound ticket), but it’s not her place to decide for another how to live. Darlene needs to take that quest, just like the rest of the individuals trapped in this 42nd Street microcosm, and decide if its sex, money, or love that she’s going to exist for.