One of the more surprising elements of the first two episodes of The Deuce is the byplay between Vinnie and Frankie, the twin brothers played by James Franco. It’s no shock that Franco plays them both well (when he digs out of his own colon, he’s an excellent performer); the surprise is that he and the show’s writers dodge the easy path of an antagonistic relationship. That’d be the simplest way to convey their differences, beyond the subtle contrasts in their humor and general disposition (one is a family man carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders; the other is a bullshit artist who owes money all over town, and you’d never guess it). And after all, by this point in the show, Vinnie is carrying his happy-go-lucky brother’s debt. But they still like each other, share jokes, bust balls. That’s family.
But such camaraderie in the face of trouble can’t hold forever, and it feels like we’re seeing some real cracks in The Deuce’s third episode, “The Principle is All.” This episode reconfigures the marquee writers again, crediting a collaboration between David Simon and Richard Price, while Franco directs (playing two roles and directing must be a bit of an undertaking, but nobody ever called Mr. Franco an underachiever). But as Vinnie prepares for the grand reopening of the Hi-Hat bar, he’s already fed up with Frankie’s lack of assistance and endless card games. Yet even he doesn’t seem to catch the full weight of Frankie popping open the vending machines and, later, taking a sledgehammer to them. Per his agreement with Rudy Pipilo in the previous episode, that’s fucking with somebody else’s money.
Rudy, meanwhile, is at the center of the episode’s most compelling subplot, following a scene concerning what initially appears to be about real estate development in the lower ‘40s, but lands on police declaring that area a “no-go” zone for drug and prostitution arrests – essentially, creating something akin to the fictional “Hamsterdam” of The Wire. What’s the story there? Who does that benefit? And how do they exert enough power over the police force to make it happen? Answers aren’t offered in this episode, obviously; as usual, Simon and crew are playing the long game. But it’s again striking that a Simon series is never just about its ostensible subject.
Meanwhile, are we all fucking terrified for poor Darlene? As with the pilot episode, she finds herself watching movies with aged client Louis – A Tale of Two Cities then, Mildred Pierce this time. Their scenes are lovely in and of themselves, underscoring the idea (not a new one, sure, but an important one) that for many johns, these encounters are less about sex than companionship. It helps that they’re both such sympathetic characters, and not just because she only takes the $20 out of his wallet; it’s the way she lights up when she’s talking about these movies. And for the briefest, briefest of moments, it looks like she and Larry (Gbenga Akinnagbe) might share that common experience, that joy even – “That tale of two cities,” he says, “that’s a good flick, I seen that.” But he puts the light out on her immediately. This is going to go to a bad place.
And Eileen/Candy is maintaining her keen interest in the world of hardcore, picking the brains of fellow sex workers who’ve dabbled. “You got bit by the acting bug,” one of them insists, but again, that’s not it; when she goes to a shoot, where guys pay $40 a head to watch a dirty movie getting made (and where, it turns out, there’s not even any film in the camera – the making-of show is the end product), she’s got her producer’s cap on. “The fuck is this lighting?” she fumes. “There’s no bounce.”
But when she sits down with the guy behind that shoot (the always-welcome David Krumholtz), and says, out loud, for the first time, “I wanna learn to make movies,” he rains on her parade. There’s no film in the camera because in America, in 1971, it’s just too risky; “You can do a feature if you make it educational, or whatever. But real hardcore…” And sure, they sell that stuff in Europe, and as she points out, “When do we ever leave a dollar for the other guy to pick up?” But for now, he’s not willing to take her on, and Franco – clearly, in this moment, an actor/director – holds on Gyllenhaal’s face for a good, long beat. She takes it very hard; this was something she was actually excited about, and knew she could do.
But this setback seems, if anything, purely temporary. The money’s not coming any easier. The tension between her and her mom is real, and her conversational jabs hurt. The answering machine messages are increasingly depressing. Thus far, The Deuce is not predictable, but I know one thing: Candy is not down yet.
A few more random thoughts:
- The episode’s big event is the opening of Vinnie’s bar, The Hi-Hat, and there’s something lovely about how they use that event to bring so much of the cast together. When you’ve got a big ensemble like this, it’s wise to occasionally bring the barely-related elements together, bounce characters off each other, and heighten their conflicts.
- By the way, is Frankie and Vinnie’s sister gonna get anything to do?
- Abby, the wise college freshman, seemed the character least in need of sex work in the pilot episode. But with an exit from school, a sketchy living situation, and a failed job (I mean, who among us hasn’t stormed out of a garbage telemarketing office) is sliding her down that desperation slope we discussed in the first recap.
- Sure, the mob lookout guy reading The Godfather is a touch on the nose. But keep in mind that in 1971, everyone was reading The Godfather.
Listen to film editor Jason Bailey discuss “The Deuce” every week on “The Deuce Rethread” podcast, via the DVR Podcast Network.