Gbenga Akinnagbe (left), Gary Carr (Photo: Paul Schiraldi)

“Payoff” is the long con of serialized television. Anybody who’s watched a show that’s trying to be the next Breaking Bad, the next Mad Men, the next Sopranos, hell, the next Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, has felt the cheat. You give the show regular installments of your time, be they in weekly allotments or in big, binge-watching lump payments, and the payoff never comes. Or it falls flat. Or it isn’t worth the midseason drag, the tangential filler, the nagging feeling that Nicholas Brody and Homeland both should’ve died at the end of the first season. You wind up feeling like Rudy Pipilo in the backroom of The Hi-Hat, realizing that some asshole has been regularly making off with $5,000 of your hard earned peep-show change.

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The Deuce is not one of those shows. If you’ve been watching for the past six weeks with the hopes that The Deuce turns out to be the next Wire, “Why Me?” will reward those hopes. Like its Baltimore-set predecessor, The Deuce has put in its time building a world, populating it with flawed, fascinating people, and setting those people on one of many parallel and perpindicular paths. On The Wire, the intersections of those paths were tragic collisions, life-altering (or life-ending) incidents resulting from and exposing the failing institutions at the foundations of American life. “Why Me?” diverges from that model, because the good times are just starting to roll on The Deuce—it’s the intersecting interests that make for the payoff, and the show’s best episode to date. As a wise man once said, “You follow drugs, you get drug addicts and drug dealers. But you start to follow the money, and you don’t know where the fuck it’s gonna take you.

The money could take us to tragedy tomorrow—but it’s pornography tonight. Pornography, and other incrementally legitimized extensions of the sex trade. As foreshadowed by Harvey last week, the standards of decency are changing, and an obscenity hearing attended by several big Deuce players—Harvey, Rudy, Rudy’s newly introduced rival Matty “The Horse” (Garry Pastore)—feels like the opening of a floodgate. It’s also a big money-following revelation, connecting Harvey and the film that’s back in his camera to Matty and the coins that Matty’s colleague Marty Hodas (Saul Stein) is skimming off of Rudy’s peep-show take. (In classic HBO prestige-drama style, “Matty ‘The Horse’” and “Marty Hodas” sound nearly indistinguishable when spoken by Michael Rispoli, a touch of realism that’s also totally befuddling for much of “Why Me?”) This coincides with, and is potentially linked to, increased activity within the no-go zones, where multiple massage parlors have popped up and the officers of the 14th precinct are being tasked with a holiday-season scrubbing of Times Square. If somebody’s taking payments on the corner, they better be dressed like Santa Claus.

Screenshot: The Deuce

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It’s a thrill watching this all come together. Not just because it makes good on so much of what’s come before, but because there’s satisfying buildup and payoff within “Why Me?”, too. At the very top of the episode, we finally get to see James Franco sweat through a business proposition that even Vince’s considerable charms can’t cinch: A doomed offer to C.C., Reggie, Larry, and Richie, offering space at the massage parlor with no financial benefit. He’s out of his element in the barbershop (Bobby’s full-throttle racism isn’t helping any) and the pimps waste no time reminding him of this. “Why Me?” is a multi-front turf war in which the boundaries are shifting by the minute, fueling conflict and creating new alliances as The Deuce barrels toward a new status quo: The mob makes its full involvement in the local vice operations known. C.C. busts in on Harvey’s shoot, and his mustard jumpsuit somehow isn’t the most outrageous outfit in the shot. The street sweep unfolds across a slow-motion montage that ends with Larry’s car getting towed and Gbenga Akinnagbe being left out in the cold, isolated against shadows that look like they’re threatening to eat him up. Frankie crows about the stalls he and Mike have designed for the peep-show projectors: “We’re going to call it… a Masturbatory.”

It’s a joy ride that doesn’t take its mind off the costs. And that snuck up on me: “Why Me?” does a startling flip of its perspective in its final seconds, finally showing what it looks like inside of the massage parlor’s booths. Until that moment, in which Darlene silently contemplates the sad bottle of 75-cent Touch Of Sweden and the thin wall pulsing from the opposite side, “Why Me?” is careful not to take us past that threshhold. When Tommy takes Vincent and Bobby to Happy Landings, we only see the waiting room and Dino’s office. When the Happy Landings employees move to the parlor on The Deuce, they pop out from the door frames, like Scooby-Doo and Shaggy during a hallway chase. It’s not until we’re reunited with Darlene that we get a look at the low lighting, the dinky bed, the wash basin—director Roxann Dawson hems Dominique Fishback in, shooting the booth like a jail cell. Add that to earlier moments in which vertical and horizontal lines box Candy into a frame, and the ways in which the men of The Deuce are getting around the law start to look more and more like new prisons for the women of The Deuce.

Screenshot: The Deuce

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Follow the money. It leads to the people holding the strings, the Santas prodding their elves and reindeer hither and yon across New York City, dropping by to collect their milk and cookies. (Lieutenant Sweeney makes the cops’ role in all of this abundantly clear, first intimidating the street pimps before dropping by to work a little extortion on Bobby’s indoor model.) It’s how Frankie and Mike get the drop on Marty’s goons, and it’s how Sandra might find a new angle for her story, courtesy of Alston—who is not, I repeat not, a source. Those coinciding stakeouts give “Why Me?” a little mystery, a little episodic diversion, even as the powers that have always been start making their influence known—an influence suggesting that even if the party’s just getting started, they’ll be the only ones enjoying themselves.

“These are my allies, supposedly,” Rudy tells Vince at the end of the episode. “And all of them are a bunch of fucking thieves. Except you.” “How do you know?” Vince shoots back. “Because you’ve proven it time and time again,” Rudy says. “And I keep trying to tell you: I trust you.” At this point, in the first of three planned acts, The Deuce has earned my trust. It’s built out its little corner of the world, and the investments it made earlier in the season are beginning to pay dividends. Not everyone onscreen is going to get to enjoy those spoils, but hey: that’s how things usually went in Baltimore, too. It’s all in the game, and The Deuce plays it well.

Stray observations

  • I know that David Simon and George Pelecanos are sticklers for period verisimilitude, but I call bullshit on any radio station in 1971 playing a cut from The Velvet Underground’s self-titled album—even a relative crowd-pleaser like “Pale Blue Eyes.” There’s always authenticity in spurning Johnny Rivers’ neutering of “Baby I Need Your Loving,” though.

  • “Why Me?” joins a proud tradition of TV episodes set at Christmastime that aren’t about Christmas, like Mad Men’s “Christmas Waltz” or Cheers’ “The Spy Who Came In For A Cold One.” “Look at all these people dancing to my music” I thought the moment I spotted the seasonal window dressing.

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