Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The end-times loom on this week’s The Deuce

Photo: Paul Schiraldi (HBO)
TV ReviewsAll of our TV reviews in one convenient place.

Who would’ve guessed that the conscience of The Deuce would be Rudy fuckin’ Pipilo?

At the start of this week’s episode, “Morta Di Fame,” the show seems to be setting Rudy up to be the bad guy. Last week, he complained about how the fear of AIDS was affecting his parlor and bathhouse income. This week, we learn that John Gotti’s crew is looking for opportunities to muscle out any mafia old-timer who isn’t earning. Rudy needs his people to tighten up their operations and pump up their percentages, unless they’d rather answer to Gotti’s goons.

Advertisement

Yet when Vincent warns Rudy that Paul’s having trouble making his nut, due to the declining gay bar clientele, Pipilo shrugs. He gets it. He’s not an unreasonable man—unlike the petty, classless thugs he sees sliding into positions of power in the New York families every day, flush with the kind of drug money that Rudy won’t touch.

Later, when Rudy finds out Frankie’s brokering a deal between a circle of sexy Yonkers swingers and the region’s porn kingpin—and is keeping the Pipilo crew out of it—he’s furious about the loss of some much-needed cash, sure. But he mainly wants Frankie to know what kind of sleaze he’s dealing with: a man who distributes kiddie porn on the sly, sneaking illegal clips into peep show booths.

Advertisement

Rudy Pipolo is not a good man. But for anyone who wants to stay in the sex business in New York, he may be better than the alternatives.

Advertisement

A lot of “Morta Di Fame” is about people weighing their options, armed with the understanding—if they’re smart, that is—that their lives and livelihoods are in the midst of a radical change. Paul, for example, seems to grasp intuitively that the AIDS epidemic isn’t the only threat to his business. He’s connected enough with New York’s moneyed class to know that politicians like Gene Goldman and cops like Chris Alston are working with real estate magnates to clean up Times Square. The city has earmarked nearly two billion dollars to hand over to developers for new hotels and historic renovations. None of that dough is going to land in the pockets of the smut-lords.

Paul though wonders about the wisdom of these new developments. He thinks driving sex underground—and gay sex in particular—could make the AIDS crisis worse. “Buildings don’t make people sick,” he grouses to Vincent. He thinks it’d be a lot easier to promote safe sex if willing partners were gathering in public, out in the open. Historically, prohibition tends to be a potentially dangerous overreaction to vice.

Advertisement

Meanwhile, it’s hard to gauge how Gene actually feels about any of this. Publicly, his loyalty is to the Koch administration and its wealthy backers. Privately, he’s spending his nights exploring the Deuce’s sexual underground (with condoms in his pocket, thank goodness).

Photo: Paul Schiraldi (HBO)
Advertisement

We do know Abby’s thoughts about the coming crackdown on sex-work though. She complains to her friend in the anti-porn movement that she’s not doing the cause any favor by allying with bible-thumping right-wingers and radical feminists. Abby wants to help the people involved with porn and prostitution—like her old friend Shea, who shows up on her doorstep near death. Criminal and economic punishment doesn’t strike Abby as the humane way forward.

Besides, it’s possible that the passage of time and evolving public tastes will take care of a lot of the social problems associated with pornography. More than once in this episode, characters openly acknowledge that the porn they’ve been producing is getting stale. Frankie gets excited about his new swinger friends’ amateur tapes because it feels more “real,” and therefore more… charming? Sweet? Hot, for sure.

Advertisement

This is the kind of erotica Eileen’s been pushing for since she stepped behind the camera—and which she creates out of thin air again this week. When Harvey asks her to fill in as the director for a stale ménage à trois sequence, she encourages the ladies to be more playful, making the scene sexier.

This kind of docu-realism seems to be what consumers want, too. And it’s hurting Lori, who appears to be on the verge of losing whatever power she’s accrued during her time in Hollywood. During a shoot where the director expects her to be gagged with a bandana and sodomized with a corncob, Lori storms off-set, claiming that as the star, she should be able to veto any scene she doesn’t want to do. But her agent is unsympathetic, insisting that in the Dark brothers era, stars have less clout. “Say yes to everything,” she advises.

Advertisement

The subplot involving Lori’s depressing porn shoot comes to an undignified end. The production is filming by the pool in a nice house, whose owner is letting them use the place so long as he can watch from his balcony (with his pants down, naturally). The crew then is forced to scatter when the neighbors call the cops. By then, their host has already gotten what he wanted out of the deal.

Photo: Paul Schiraldi (HBO)
Advertisement

Similarly, Bobby’s son Joey has some trouble with the young Wall Street studs he’s been catering to, as he shows them where to find the best drugs and sex around the Deuce. One of his yuppie pals makes a scene at Vincent’s bar, and gets tossed out—after which he too calls the cops. In the old days, with the protection money he’s paying, Vincent wouldn’t be hassled by the police. But the new kids on the force have bought into the mayor’s mission to clean up the city; and so they crack down on the bar for failing to post a liquor license.

The old alliances are breaking apart here in 1985, as the criminals are starting to be out-muscled by the rich. Mister, we could use a man like Rudy Pipilo again.

Advertisement

Stray observations

  • The splashiest music cue in this episode is Talking Heads’ “Once In A Lifetime,” which may be a little on the nose, given the way David Byrne sings about alienation and regret while the camera moves in on Vincent Martino. My favorite music cue this week is Thomas Dolby’s “White City,” a deep cut from one of my favorite ‘80s albums, The Flat Earth.
  • The timing is just slightly off, but the “new Durang” play for which Paul’s boyfriend is being considered could be The Marriage Of Bette And Boo, which opened at the New York Shakespeare Festival in May of 1985. The original cast included Olympia Dukakis, Mercedes Ruehl, and Joan Allen (in one of her first appearances on the New York stage).
  • Rudy Pipilo is embarrassed that his new car comes with a mobile phone. He is intrigued however about the prospect that rapidly advancing technology could result in pornographic holograms. (Now if only someone could figure out a way to get porn onto phones….)
Advertisement

Share This Story

About the author

Noel Murray

Lives in Arkansas, writes about movies, TV, music, comics, and more. Bylines in The A.V. Club, The Week, The Verge, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone.