Chris Alston scans the line of property voucher-less women at the precinct, and Sandra Washington sticks out. She’s a new face, but there are other reasons she doesn’t fit in among the sex workers corralled for the latest round of show-and-prove. To my untrained eye, it was the fact that she’s dressed to conservatively. But Alston zeroes in on one piece of the ensemble specifically: It’s the shoes. “Street walkers don’t wear Bonwit Teller,” he says, alluding to the now-defunct department store. “Saks, maybe, but never Bonwit Teller.”
Sandra is trying to gain and communicate a better understanding of The Deuce and its denizens, but she hasn’t been around long enough to grasp its customs and its rules—its codes, if you will. As an outsider looking in, she’s yet to develop a sensitivity to the tells and the giveaways that distinguish the genuine from the counterfeit in this world. Alston’s been around, though. He can tell a Rolek from a Rolex, and he’s just curious enough about things like Mayor Lindsay’s no-go zone to start sniffing around when something doesn’t smell right. Washington and Alston will strike up a mutually beneficial relationship—though maybe not in the way he’s thinking.
In The Deuce’s growing pile of thematic material—its notions of exploitation, its depiction of shifting American mores—“I See Money” ups the friction between the legitimate and the illegitimate. That means being able to tell the genuine article from a fake, but in a world ruled by double entendre and double meaning, it also means navigating the subtleties between a “date” and a date, or a “job” and a job. These characters have their own feelings about what they do for a living, but those feelings compete with and are informed by what society sees as legitimate work. It’s not just what’s seen as legitimate in the eyes of the law—it’s what other characters see as work that has value, tending bar versus passing the bar. And it has to do with escaping with what’s seen as legitimate work, where you get to be your own boss, call your own shots, and not follow the rules other people set for you.
That’s tied tightly to all of the characters working at the margins—everyone in the sex trade, but also the gangsters and the cops on the take—but it applies to the Martino brothers and Abby as well. Vince is on the record about his opinion of organized crime; he’s someone who wants to earn his living honestly, and he’s doing that at The Hi-Hat. But he still got in bed with Rudy, because he saw it as a way out for Frankie’s debts. Frankie accrues those debts because he wants to color outside the lines, making his money at back-room poker tables and not in any sort of 9-to-5 setup. Think back to his comments about his ball-playing days in the pilot: There was a system in place, a certain amount of he’d have to pay to earn his Dodgers uniform, and he said “Fuck it.” Frankie Martino doesn’t sow—he reaps, good and bad.
Lori hands audience-surrogate duties to Abby this week, so she can stand in for the privileged HBO subscriber who looks at characters like Candy, Ruby, and Darlene and asks “Why do they do it?” “I See Money” gets one of its best scenes out of this question, as Abby and Darlene’s bond strengthens over honest-to-the-point-of-awkwardness conversation and quick-fix shoe repair. (Shoes and watches—“I See Money” is fixated on its accessories.) It could fall into ugly, white-savior cliché, but the scene resists it in five words, potently delivered by Dominique Fishback: “You don’t need to understand.” And besides, she adds as she exits, they’re both making money with their sexuality. The difference is that Abby “only has to shake her ass for tips.”
In that conversation, Abby represents the same perspective Paul’s attorney boyfriend voices elsewhere in “I See Money.” They fail to notice that everyone around them isn’t afforded the liberty of choice; despite their own bucking of the norm, they’re too short-sighted to understand the constraints Darlene lives under, or that Paul’s definition of ambition might not come with a suit and a tie. Vincent has his own case of myopia—failing to think about how a fond recollection of his mother smoking Parliaments might come across as an insult to Paul—but the vibe he’s fostering at the Hi-Hat feels like The Deuce’s intersection of legitimate and illegitimate work writ large. It’s a zone where judgement is the no-go. From behind that bar, he can see how cushy Abby’s old life was, how Bobby can struggle to make his workers happy by means legal and illegal, how Candy’s work—the freedoms of which come with a substantial amount of risk and psychological baggage—can take its toll. The Deuce doesn’t have a sunny outlook on humanity, but the spirit of the show is kind and generous, even when the expression of that kindness and generosity is as seemingly insignificant as some free liquor.
In Candy’s scenes tonight, we witness her personal grind and its consequences. She’s beginning to display her cynicism and her weariness more openly; when Lori says C.C. doesn’t want her working the theaters, Candy responds “on my back, on my knees, all the same to me.” “I See Money” backs her up, blurring together lame pickup lines (“Do you like movies?”) and playing the answering-machine message from “Jack, the music expert” on a loop while she applies and removes makeup, tries on one outfit after another, sucks down cigarettes, and refills on vodka. “You always work the same corner?” one john asks her, as she stares into another shitty motel mirror, tallies another $40 in her head. The next john winds up dead, but hey: at least somebody’s breaking out of their patterns.
Because it’s not just Candy who’s affected by routine. There’s another show-and-prove round-up this week, a handy narrative method of introducing Sandra to Alston. Down at the construction site, the workers line up to get their envelopes—and one of the guys who dares to upset the system receives several strategically placed punches to tender areas. One of Ruby’s regulars always brings her the same bottle of rotgut, and he’ll never ask if she actually likes it. The rodent who prompts the episode’s first sexual mishap starts to look less like a symptom of negligent theater ownership and more like a symbol, of rats that go around and ’round in a maze. It’s not quite “the rat symbolizes obviousness” levels of blunt, but it’s definitely more than a furry piece of comic relief.
It also dispels the myth that getting out of the rat race will deliver you from the grind. There are still structures to the businesses run by guys like Rudy and Larry; beyond the human-interest angle, these unwritten rules are what Sandra’s reporting on. (There’s a scaffolding of support in place, too: When Barbara comes up short, she makes up for it by skipping out on the morning bread-truck shift with Melissa.) The Deuce isn’t trying to pull any sort of attempted “Prostitution or selling out to work at the big law firm: It’s all the same, bay-beeee” mind-blowing, but I think it does want us to recognize the parallels. No matter which side of your bread is buttered, you have to keep a sharp on The Deuce. There won’t always be somebody else there to let you know that you’re wearing a Rolek.
- “So what am I looking at?” “Your future.” There hasn’t been much time spent on the details of Rudy’s rehab plan, and the role that Vince will play in it, but from the looks of tonight’s final scene, it’s going to involve yet another business venture, one that involves giving The Deuce a booster shot of class and sophistication. Either that, or this is going to be a no-go zone with a business license, where the sex and drug trades come in from the rain, and the cops look the other ways.
- After Vincent hires more security for The Hi-Hat, The Deuce hears you about to ask “There are going to be two characters named Frankie?” Vincent doesn’t come up with the most creative nickname fix—he rechristens the new guy “Black Frankie”—but it does make me think of Pixies.
- In other dispatches from The Deuce’s changing New York, Sandra bought her shoes at the department store that was eventually razed to make way for Trump fucking Tower. If, like me, you were born after the building’s demolition, you might be familiar with the name Bonwit Teller because of the bait-and-switch Donald Trump pulled over the store’s Art Deco bas-relief sculptures, which were promised to the Metropolitan Museum of Art before being blasted into oblivion by a guy for whom this gold-plated bullshit represents an aesthetic ideal.
- I’ll make another prediction, though I won’t place any money on it because I’m no Frankie: When Candy gets around to making a movie, she’s going to show those clapping assholes at Leon’s what for by calling it Mouth Of Death. It’ll be like Deep Throat, but with a tinge of revenge horror.
- Nice touches of world-building: After Candy reports the dead john to the cops, she looks a few floors up, toward a green light in one of the windows. Turns out it’s Ruby’s apartment, the light indicating whether or not she’s working. (She switches it to red when Candy arrives.) Also, it seems like the women’s restroom at the Hi-Hat is serving as a de facto refuge, judging by what and whom are reflected in it when Abby’s in there during “I See Money”: First it’s Shay shooting up, then it’s Darlene taking a reading break.
- Based on Jack’s record-store selection, it looks like some lucky child of 1970s divorce is about to get a fresh copy of Steppenwolf Live.