Maggie Gyllenhaal (Photo: Paul Schiraldi)

There are plenty of smooth-talkers on The Deuce, but the show’s third episode prefers to be direct. In an episode titled “The Principle Is All”—so named for the ironic words of a guy who’s just broken the Mann act—Candy lays it out flat to a potential john with expensive tastes: “How do I know? Because nobody actually likes getting fucked in the ass.” The show is still patiently filling in the lines on its map of New York City, but this much is clear: This is a show about exploitation in every facet of American life, and “The Principle Is All” has plenty to say about it, whether it’s Candy’s matter-of-fact sidewalk dismissal or Gentle Richie’s Marxist notion of barroom chatter. “I don’t dig hierarchical oppression, man.”

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Everybody gets worked over somehow, whether or not they’re aware of it—or if they’re aware they’re even doing it. There’s no film in the camera; nobody told you who owns the machines at Penny Lane; the charmer at the adjacent telemarketing desk will go down on you—but then he’ll swipe your emergency cash. The desire to go legit that infused last week’s episode is made particularly urgent in this week’s, if only because it might get these characters away from the people who want to leech off of them.

It’d look a whole lot more despairing without the comic relief (thanks, Frankie) or Maggie Gyllenhaal in the role of Candy. When The Deuce threatens to sink itself into the muck of its adult books milieu, Gyllenhaal’s there to drag it out, with the exasperation she affects during the “nobody likes to get fucked in the ass” exchange, or the grace notes in her reactions to Harvey Wasserman (David Krumholtz, always a welcome presence) and the clients on her answering machine. When Candy shuts Leonard down, there’s catharsis; she’s spent “The Principle Is All” being talked at by other people. But the reality of the situation is that she can’t turn down his business completely—there’s a refrain of “time is money” throughout the episode, after all. And when she turns around to find that guy bleeding from his gut, you can practically hear her sigh “I’m getting too old for this shit.”

There’s a stream of aphorism running through “The Principle Is All” that threatens to undo David Simon and Richard Price’s script. A lot of it winds up in the mouth of James Franco (pulling triple duty as director), who sometimes sounds like he’s cribbing from The Big Book Of One-Man Show clichés during The Hi-Hat’s first night of business. (“What do I know? I’m from Brooklyn!,” he says at one point, as if it’s one coat in some hack actor’s attempt to paint the local color in his childhood neighborhood, between impressions of a jive-talking mailman and the lady who runs the bodega.) But to get hung up on a few bum lines is missing the bigger picture of The Deuce, which is still coming into focus.

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James Franco (Photo: Paul Schiraldi)

The pace of Vinnie’s business success doesn’t slow any this week, but The Deuce remains ever deliberate, ever patient. This might seem minute again, but “The Principle Is All” has this habit of pulling the eye toward the signs that name various Deuce landmarks, some of which haven’t been named before. (I can’t remember the House Of Korea sign showing up in a shot prior to “The Principle Is All,” but I’ve been referring to it by that name because I’d seen this episode prior to the series premiere.) I feel like that’s some forethought on Simon and George Pelecanos’ part, acknowledging that they dropped us into this world in the first two episodes and dumped a ton of information on our heads. Now that we can kind of feel our way around the landscape, they’re adding those finer details. Giving Vinnie’s new place a name gives it a sense of permanence; same with Leon’s, which used to just be “the diner.”

Think of it like Vinnie making introductions from behind the bar. He knows all the names, but he probably doesn’t expect them to stick with the other people. It takes repetition, or the sense that it’s important to remember the name or the person. It’s also like the scenes between C.C. and Lori, whose tunnel excursions this week serve as a miniature lesson in economics. If she focuses on those one-time jobs rather than building a client base, she is, in Candy’s words, leaving a fucking dollar for the other guy to pick up. (Though it’s hard to tell what Lori is avoiding by working the tunnel: Winding up in another kidnapping situation, or having to get saved from another kidnapping situation.)

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The Deuce is starting to feel solid beneath our feet, and The Deuce keeps building. Sandra Washington actually gets an interview this week, though she, like everyone in this world, has to pay to get what they want. When the owner of the old machines pulls a gun on Vinnie, Big Mike—The Deuce’s own Boo Radley, who contributes to Candy’s urge to get off the streets in “The Principle Is All,” then puts a drug dealer in a sleeper hold—jumps in and disarms him. Meanwhile, Rudy’s talk about cleaning up The Deuce seems to be tying in to Mayor John Lindsay’s bid for the Democratic ticket in 1972, the results of which tie Alston’s and Flanagan’s hands in terms of where they can make arrests. The Deuce has now set up enough of an ecosystem that we can see the consequences of one storyline carried out in another.

Margarita Levieva (Photo: Paul Schiraldi)

On the opening night of The Hi-Hat, most of the primary players from that ecosystem mingle. Vinnie schmoozes, Frankie cavorts, Rudy pops by, Larry and Richie talk shop, Abby and Darlene trade thoughts on Dickens. But Candy’s noticeably absent. (After witnessing a stabbing, who wouldn’t want to take it easy for the rest of the night?) But her absence feels, like the presence of those signs earlier in the episode, intentional. The Hi-Hat is a new spot, but it’s still part of an old world, where C.C. tells Abby about another “college girl” he knew (“She was educated but not intelligent”) and all the money in the jukebox goes into a mobster’s pocket. It seems like everybody in the joint is having a good time—and boy do those scenes ever crackle with electricity—but it looks exactly like the type of scene Candy is trying to remove herself from.

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Stray observations

  • Abby excuses herself from a smoky office, then we watch through a window as she lights up on the sidewalk. The argument about Abbie Hoffman and the Vietnam War goes straight into the pizzeria quagmire that Candy’s kid created for his little green army men. Later, at the deli, the scene hangs just long enough to catch Wasserman kvetching, with a mouthful of kishka, about the paltry kishka servings. This episode is so smart with its editing.
  • Believe it or not, Bobby’s anti-dissent screed was not pulled verbatim from the @-replies to the various shows of support for Colin Kaepernick and other professional athletes who’ve chosen to protest “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
  • If The Deuce achieves nothing else, I hope it re-introduces the insult “fucko” into the vernacular.
  • Frankie has some opening-night revelry dusting his mustache: “Look like you just blew the Pillsbury Doughboy.”

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