Jamie Neumann (Photo: Paul Schiraldi)

It’s a strange sensation, feeling hope for the characters of The Deuce as an episode winds to a conclusion. But there it is: Ashley’s leaving town, Eileen’s taking control behind the camera, Alston has reasons to feel optimistic about his time at the one-four and about his relationship with Sandra. Things are working out in the short term, but you have to keep in mind that we’re still at the beginning of the story—even if that beginning is only one episode away from the finish line. This is still book the first in David Simon and George Pelecanos’ proposed three-part, naughty-paperback Tale Of Two Cities. It’s exactly the time that Jamie Neumann should stand, as she does at opposite ends of “Au Reservoir,” in the daylight. But then the avenging spirit of ’70s cinema leaps from the muzzle of Leon’s pistol, and we’re reminded anew of what type of story we’re watching.

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You cannot start fresh without saying goodbye, and “Au Reservoir” paints farewells and changes in similar tones: With subtlety and minimal explanation in some instances; with suddenness and violence in others. The Christmas decorations have come down, and John Lindsay received a drubbing in the Florida primary, so at least three months have passed between “Why Me?” and “Au Reservoir”—certainly enough time for more massage parlors to pop up, more dirty movies to go into production, and for Candy to start working with Harvey’s friend Alex. The indication of the most significant change to come is coded in film-history allusion: “It’s about a girl with her clitoris in her throat.”

James Franco (left), Jamie Neumann (Screenshot: The Deuce)

“Au Reservoir” brings The Deuce into 1972, placing season one’s penultimate episode between two major milestones in the mainstreaming of American pornography: The theatrical run of Boys In The Sand (a screening and party for which Paul attends with one of the stars—bringing Frankie along to surprise and “broaden” the most loudly homophobic Martino brother) and the release of Deep Throat, the movie Todd tells Paul about in bed. Part of the feeling that “Au Reservoir” gives off, that things are getting better, is tied to the impression that these characters are participants in a revolution: of public standards, of identity, of profitability. The sex trade is becoming a business, whether it’s in the movie theaters, on Harvey’s set, or in a manufacturing plant, where Rudy and Frankie take the blueprint for what’s now being called the “personal theater.” The banner at the Boys In The Sand screening summarizes the electricity in the air, the feeling that things are changing and will continue to change: “REAL GAY EROTICA IS HERE TO STAY.”

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It’s just about the most exciting hour you can spend thinking about business models building themselves from the ground up and labor forces in transition, because The Deuce doesn’t see a “labor force”: It sees people. People like Ashley, who’s been on the periphery for most of season one, defined largely by her abuse at the hands of C.C. or her jealousy of Lori. Here, however, Jamie Neumann gets a chance to alter that perception, throwing to the theme song with a well-played “Fuck this” before Ashley—or Dorothy, which, is that a Wizard Of Oz nod?—makes her way out of the life with the help of Abby and Frankie (mostly Abby). In the safe haven of Abby’s apartment, Neumann gets to find this friendly, funny, joyful version of her character, a shift that almost justifies Abby’s condescending, meddling ways. But Abby’s changing, too, inching past her savior complex even as she stages (and uses Vincent as a prop in) a big show of her big-city independence at her sister’s engagement party. She’s maturing enough (which comes with it a certain amount of savvy) to give her dad’s money to someone who can really use it.

Compared to the bus ticket Abby slipped Darlene a few weeks back, this gesture is more sincere, and less self-serving. And in giving her this storyline, the writers show the strength in Abby’s convictions, a welcome development for their most muddled character. These sisterly helping hands are extended throughout “Au Reservoir,” like when Lori gets taken under Eileen’s wing on the set of Harvey’s French-maid porno. Having sacrificed control for safety in her life as Candy, Eileen can find both behind the camera, and she can get the performance out of Lori that Harvey can’t because she’s been there. In light of this Vulture interview with Uta Brieswitz, I’m fighting the feeling that this scene would pack a little more punch if “Au Reservoir” were directed by Brieswitz, Michelle MacLaren, or Roxann Dawson, but James Franco at least has the “actor directing actors” context in which to frame Eileen taking the reins from Harvey. And Maggie Gyllenhaal acts the hell out of it, expressing her character’s command of the moment in purposeful strides and the tilt of her head.

These are looks of fulfillment (so is the shot of Harvey dragging on his cigarette that’s inserted into the sequence), and it carries over even after the nominal director apologizes for needing to film some of Eileen’s scenes at a later date. Neumann and Emily Meade hit similar notes in their grand “Au Reservoir” exits, moments of personal triumph fettered only by this week’s scenes from The French Parlor. In the grungy confines of the massage parlor, under lowlights and clad in lingerie, Darlene, Ruby, Barbara, Melissa, Shay, and Bernice experience something that’s far more degrading than anything we’ve seen on the streets. (At least there was someone around to get Shay to the hospital after she ODs.)

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Emily Meade (Screenshot: The Deuce)

That’s the fine line in The Deuce’s commodification of sex: The cringe-inducing sense that when a new customer walks through the door, he’s not picking a woman to have sex with—his picking a product. The “date” façade has been torn down, but the one that’s been put into its place is uglier and dehumanizing, the boudoir equivalent of making a selection on the various coin-operated machines seen throughout “Au Reservoir.” The middle men get cut out of the process, and wind up moping in the corner at Leon’s, complaining about all their free time and comparing notes on Fantasia. (Rodney likes the dancing hippos.)

Reggie Love has no intention of singing in their Greek chorus, and his discontent kicks off a three-act play at the diner, with interludes at the Hi-Hat and The French Parlor. This mini-tragedy is the great achievement of Megan Abbott’s script, the underside of all that onwards-and-upwards seen elsewhere in the episode. Since the earliest scenes of the pilot, Tariq Trotter has played Reggie as a figure of coiled menace, one without the occasional flashes of compassion and understanding that C.C., Larry, or Rodney have shown. Having to work with the parlors has only amplified this part of his personality—witness his strong-armed sit-down with Vincent—and the discovery of Barbara and Melissa’s threesome scheme cranks it up to dangerous volumes.

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Anwan Glover (left), Tariq Trotter (Screenshot: The Deuce)

Meanwhile, surrounded by examples of and stories about escape and freedom and home and sanctuary, Melissa finds a little bit of each at Leon’s, where the fry cook is doing his best to reproduce a Midwestern breakfast specialty, hopple popple, for her. Anwan Glover plays Leon with a gentle touch, and just like Abby and Bobby, the character expresses a sense of responsibility for the women who sit at his counter. When Melissa shows up with a black eye, and Reggie threatens to do worse, Leon can no longer stand idly by.

The Deuce is changing its stripes, but it still has teeth to spare; Glover’s towering frame dipping below the diner counter is a stirring reminder of this. This isn’t a tourist destination in which to don costumes of edginess and authenticity, like the one Abby wears on her return to trip to Connecticut. “We all gotta leave some place,” Darlene tells the dropout barmaid while reading the invitation to that party, a strong contender for line of the episode. But that title goes to this declaration, which turns prophetic shortly after Darlene drops it on Bernice: “Go home. If you stay, you’ll die.”

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Stray observations

  • My favorite part of The Deuce’s opening titles, and maybe one of my favorite parts of the new fall TV season, are the dancing marquee silhouettes who show up beneath Richard Price’s executive producer credit. I like to think they’re the reference point for one of the show’s most prominent visual motifs: Actors in profile and silhouette, a theme that was on display a few episodes back, and recurs in “Au Reservoir.” It’s in the Frankie-Ashley tableau embedded above, and even better in the kiss between Sandra and Alston, the intertwined outlines of Natalie Paul and Lawrence Gilliard Jr. set against the iron curlicues of the front door. If I had to guess, it’s that illusion of two people making one shape that made this a go-to image for The Deuce.
Screenshot: The Deuce

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Natalie Paul (left), Lawrence Gilliard Jr. (Screenshot: The Deuce)