Money and fucking still rule The Deuce
As the third episode of season 2, “Seven-Fifty”, shows the brilliance of a common David Simon & George Pelecanos theme. Things and people stay the same, no matter how hard characters try moving on from their pasts.
Sunny Los Angeles offers a welcome respite from New York in critical turning points in the episode. “Seven-fifty” is intense, filled with sucker-punches of heartbreak and joy as the characters discover new opportunities while confronting old versions of themselves.
Comedic moments and one-liners break up the grimmest scenes as a welcome respite. I laughed, cheered and was heart-broken within the same, final ten minute period. “Seven-Fifty” should get at least one Emmy nomination for the episode, for Maggie Gyllenhaal as Eileen plus Gary Carr’s work as C.C.
Spoilers abound so make sure you have watched “Seven-Fifty” before reading further.
The more people change
The Deuce’s third episode, “Seven-Fifty”, shows no matter how people change or move on, they remain anchored & defined by their past.
This week, I pick 5 characters to discuss around the theme of not being able to move beyond the past: Lori, Eileen, Larry, C.C and Darlene. They experience the same events, situations and riffs on the theme.
“You go back in time? Oh, I knew that”- C.C.
Cold open features Lori (Emily Meade) and C.C (Gary Carr) at the airport headed to Los Angeles. The Adult Film Association of America (AFFA) awards ceremony is that night and Lori was nominated for Best Supporting Actress. Of course she needs to go to the porn industry’s equivalent of the Oscars! C.C. just made his worst mistake all season by not going with her as we see when she returns to New York.
C.C. has never flown before and doesn’t understand how time zone changes work. He thinks the flight to L.A. will be four hours while Lori tries to explain it takes seven hours.
Defensive and sullen, he tries talking Lori out of going, suggesting she have someone else pick up her award just as Marlon Brando did. He finally hands her a stack of cash and sends her to the ceremony alone. C.C. just made his worst mistake this season by not going with her as we see when she returns to New York.
Lori is a star in L.A.!
Lori is in wonder of her upscale hotel room, complete with mint on the pillow. Without C.C. there to hold her back, Lori attends the ceremony, breaking through protestors to hit the red carpet. She joins Eileen (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and Harvey (David Krumholtz) there, who joke about C.C. probably shaking down the AFFA board for $50, had he attended.
A talent scout praises Lori’s non-sexual acting skills and encourages her to move to L.A. where she can build a successful career. She wins the award, parties and has sex for once just because she wants to, not for pay.
We all cheered for Lori here: her development as a character has been fantastic. Meade achieves a nice balance of tensions throughout season 2 episodes showing us how Lori enjoys her newfound successes while still under C.C.’s oppression. I have a hunch Lori will be signing with the agent she met in episode 2, very soon.
“I’m done tricking”- Lori
Lori returns with her award and tells C.C., “I won this for acting”, before announcing she is “done tricking.” Everyone at our house cheered when she finally said what has been coming all season. His first reaction to the award was to raise her fees to $2,000 a date.
C.C. smashes Lori’s award after telling her “Don’t forget who you are”, then goes over to the Hi-Hat trying the “Dear Abby” ploy to get advice and sympathy.
Abby gives him neither, but suggests he goes home, trying to prevent him from seeing Ashley. When that fails, Ashley savagely puts him in his place, in a stunning scene showing all of her growth and healing since season 1.
How will C.C. react to Lori’s declaration of independence? Will he decide to hurt Lori either physically or refusing to let her act in films and build on her career?. I am hoping his reaction just ushers Lori out to the West Coast sooner while giving her a successful escape route to a better life.
C.C. is always going to see Lori (and all women) as a collectible, like the Tiffany necklace he compared her to in “Our Raison d’Etre”. She will always be a whore to him despite her five years of hard work learning acting while making porn films. The harder she has tried to escape that history the harder he forces her to stay within it. A necklace desired by others, but always just a whore turning tricks for him.
Double penetration- “Do you fuck her twice?”- Larry
Since Larry (Gbenga Akinnagbe) hopes to become a porn actor, he spends more time on set where Darlene (Dominque Fishback) plays a stewardess. Larry struggles with the jargon and becomes confused when “DP” means “double penetration” instead of Director of Photography, as he expected. He asks an actor how double penetration works, “Do you fuck her twice?” “Not exactly” quips the actor who throws off his robe for filming and escapes. Soon Larry will have a bigger issue than how DP works and his would-be porn career will be ended forever.
Darlene discovers the rampant racism inherent to the porn industry at every level. White porn actresses are making $200 a day on her film, more than she and the other actors of color make for the same skills.
Darlene tells (she’s no longer asking) Larry to talk with Bernie (Steven Gevedon), the producer and match their pay to the white scale. Larry downplays it at first and Bernie tries saying it isn’t racism but rather supply and demand.
White men, who are the biggest customers of the industry, don’t want to see women or actors of color in their porn films. “There’s no demand for it” Bernie says.
Larry lets it go, but he is not happy and tells Darlene only that this will be their “last flight”.
“You’re the wrong part of the Oreo”- Darlene
Darlene fumes (rightly so) over the lesser pay she and the others are getting, so she confronts Bernie deliberately in front of the entire cast and crew. The brutal racist truth comes out, for everyone:
Bernie: “I told your man here, you’re the wrong part of the Oreo.”
Darlene’s response is perfect: “Blow it out of your ass, Bernie”, as she walks away. The racism hurts her but she refuses to go along with it, walking away to find something better.
“There was no fuzz on that peach”- Black Frankie
A major storyline in season two is how all the crime families keep opening new sex businesses. In “Seven-Fifty”, there are now so many peep shows, massage parlors and brothels that Black Frankie gets a hand job for $7.50 (which gives the episode it’s title) in a new joint employing immigrants and minors. Vincent (James Franco) points out that “loss leaders” are a marketing ploy as Rudy Pipolo (Michael Rispoli) promises to meet with his peers and stabilize the market. None of the businesses can keep going losing money with the market saturated.
“It’s money, not morals”
Gene Goldman makes the police suffer through a slide show of the Mayor’s (Ed Koch) plan to draw in tourism including a convention center (the Jacobs Javits Center). Cue “I Heart New York” and the rise of the “Big Apple ” marketing campaign.
Alston loses patience and talks with his mentor. This campaign is just another round of clean-up efforts by the city which will go nowhere but tie up police resources trying to shut down the sex trade in The Deuce.
His sensei points out this is all about development and money, not morals, since every cash business in the city isn’t paying taxes. Getting that lost revenue is part of the Mayor’s plan, since the cops will be raiding or closing every shop they can. Good luck Your Honor, the mob isn’t going to allow that very long.
The Deuce is about to become a battleground fought for by the City, the mob and the losers will be those the people caught between both groups.
Eileen gets an offer she doesn’t refuse
Eileen has mixed success in L.A. attending the AFFA awards with Harvey and Lori. She hopes to find investors for her porn version of Little Red Riding Hood adult film while she is there. Yes, Eileen feels a little jealous when Harvey wins for “Touch in the Night”; she only directed one scene in the film but it was the big scene everyone talks about. At least Eileen won’t be going back to The Deuce empty-handed.
She pitches her film to an investor. He thinks she is too old to play Red Riding Hood and wonders who she will be onscreen, Eileen notes she is the director and questions why she has to act, too. “You’re not gong to pony up unless I fuck on film?”
He offers to stake her with $10,000, if she gives him a blow job on the spot.
Gyllenhaal lets Eileen’s shock, disgust, disappointment & indecision flow across her face during a long, uncomfortable pause. Five years of learning, directing and successes banked yet this powerful man still sees her as just a whore/sex performer.
Eileen does as he asks, but as she bends down in front of him, it costs her a piece of her soul. Yes, she walks away with the check but for the rest of the episode, Eileen is saddened, angry, reflective. Yes, she has reinvented herself, done the hard work, learned all the lessons, yet the blowjob and check somehow strip away her power. Candy is a still-painful ghost in Eileen’s life.
She has some funding now, but whored herself out to get it. Eileen can’t get investors honestly for the film she wants to do without mob backing. Whoever funds the film will cost her badly, one way or another.
Our final glimpse of Eileen is watching her puttering around her apartment before safe-keeping the precious check that cost her so much.
“My name is Dorothy” – Ashley
Ashley’s last-minute reveal at the end of episode 2, “There’s an Art to This” was a fantastic surprise. Since her escape from C.C. with Abbey’s help, Ashley has become an advocate for sex workers and came from California to offer support to their former sisters.
More emotionally healthy than in season 1, the bruises on Ashley’s soul are still visible. Returning to The Deuce triggers old feelings, so she spends most of her time hiding in the bus. The bus is camper- cum- meeting place for her sex worker outreach. it is a dim, safe place where the women can mourn lost children, addictions and hope for better lives.
Ashley also must hide from C.C. while overcoming her fear of him so she can help the others. Key to supporting the sex workers is the understanding that they need resources, but are not broken. They need a lot of things, but don’t need “fixing”.
After making several excuses, she goes to meet Abby at the bar. Her courage in going back to the Hi-Hat shows in Neumann’s use of physicality. Neumann uses stooped posture, shrinking her body mass as emotions wash across her face. The constant, fearful glances everywhere signal Ashley’s fear of seeing C.C.
Neumann’s work pays off with gut-wrenching intensity when C.C. imposes himself upon her with an , “How you been Ash?” to which she replies “My name is Dorothy.” C.C. persists, tossing a “You have a good evening, Dorothy” full of barely leashed violence in his voice.
C.C. moves on as Ashley barely breathes. When another advocate asks her “who was that? she replies, lock-jawed and trembling, “Nobody.”
Pimps are losing the war for power
At the end of “Seven-Fifty, C.C. is left powerless with his top earner Lori now refusing to turn tricks for him. Former earner Ashley is free and no longer (outwardly) afraid of him. His other women have seen him uneasy, out of his depth and challenged . The times are changing beyond C.C. and Larry’s understanding as they lose power with every episode.
Even the women are cautiously resisting, making suggestions or even demanding as Darlene does with Larry. She tells him she’ll go to Bernie over the pay disparity if he cannot or will not do so. Lori and others counter and correct C.C. openly this season, thus challenging his power directly.
Larry’s inability to break into the porn industry due to racism is another path closed to blacks while whites gain wealth and power. Larry is trying harder than C.C. but institutionalized racism is a greater obstacle than he and Darlene can overcome.
The time of the pimp is drawing to a close. Larry and C.C. must learn to adapt or lose everything. Larry, at least, is trying and can keep trying. How much will racism cost him in the struggle for power? He has Darlene but his refusal to admit education comes from more than the street will hold him back. Will Larry be able to find a niche to get as much money and success as their white counterparts? Not in the porn industry circa 1977.
Once a whore, always a whore
Powerful men still define and undervalue Eileen, Lori and Darlene as whores and determine their value. Prices range from the $7.50 handjob of the title, Darlene’s lower than white actress film pay of $200 per day are the bottom of the scale. Balance that against C.C.’s proposed $2,000 date fee for Lori, and Eileen’s $10,000 blowjob check. The women’s value comes only from the prices offered by men for them. Men determine those prices, white men in particular.
None of the women, not even the unseen giver of the handjob, can break free from the limiting values men place upon them. As previous/current sex workers, Lori’s acting and Eileen’s directing can never be what defines them, any more than Darlene can get equal pay.
The sex trade has always been cruelest to those from whom the money is made. ‘Seven-Fifty” reminds that all talents are meaningless when men define and place value on the women.
Money and fucking still rule in The Deuce
My favorite gag was the DP scene with Larry and the jokes about C.C. shaking down the AFFA board.