‘The Deuce’ Episode 5 Recap: “What Kind of Bad?”

This week's highlights include the return of Harvey, and an acting tour de force by Maggie Gyllenhaal and... Method Man?

In the pilot episode of The Deuce, we got a look at how a pimp takes on a new girl, a literal dramatization of the classic straight-off-the-bus story (with a twist, this being The Deuce and all). In episode five, “What Kind of Bad?”, we go back even further than that. What first seems to be that trip home that Abby so badly wanted Darlene to take (so badly, in fact, that she footed the bill for it), turns out to be less a catch-up/reset visit than a recruiting trip; she’s telling her friends about all the “modeling” she’s doing in New York, and she ends up bringing a casual acquaintance back to Larry. But she’s not “street ready,” so he ends up “selling” her: “Think of yourself as a ball player,” he explains. “They get traded all the time.”

That commodification of sex is, of course, the real subject of The Deuce, but the line between sex as product and sex as experience is blurred, in fascinating ways, by the continuation of Candy/Eileen’s arc. For all the misery of the previous episode, we find her back to the grind, right off the bat – but director Uta Briesewitz (a cinematographer-turned-director, with several of the former credits for The Wire) carefully frames that encounter with nearly the same compositions as a later sex scene with her maybe-boyfriend. But that one has a different outcome; he asks if she came, which (it seems safe to presume) is not usually part of the conversation. And when he can’t get her there, she finishes herself off – with her back to him. She doesn’t explain it, but it’s not hard to guess: she fakes it, performs it, so often that she’s not comfortable doing it for real in front of another person. Totally understandable, but you still have to feel bad for the poor schmuck, particularly when he offers her money for a cab. “Such a gentleman,” she muses. He has no idea.

What’s important about her encounter with the john who tries to rob her before busting her up is the decision of director Briesewitz – one of this season’s many female directors, a wise and certainly conscious decision when tackling such a male gaze-y subject – to show the beginning of the violence, but then to remain outside of the door he closes. She knows that what’s important isn’t the visceral impact of the attack, but its aftermath: the shot of Candy caking on her make-up afterwards, or the hard sale she gets from Rodney, who tut-tuts, “You keep expectin’ better but you keep getting’ worse.” It’s the most emotionally and morally complicated scene of the series to date, delving into the psychology of protection and presumed retribution that fuels the pimp/prostitute dynamic, while allowing both Method Man and Maggie Gyllenhaal to act up a storm. Look at how he puts that handkerchief up to her cheek – and how she initially leans into it. Watch what she’s showing, and trying to hide, when he reduces her to tears, then puts on her brave face and walks away.

At any rate, that encounter is apparently what it finally takes for her to swallow her pride and go back to pornographer Harvey (David Krumholtz), albeit only in an on-camera role (initially, at least). And it turns out he’s putting film in the camera these days, thanks to a change in community standards: “Apparently New York has none.” From everything I’ve read, the change-over really was happening this quickly; the sense of all bets being off, in this mid-to-late 1971 period, enabled the ramp-up to Deep Throat a scant year later.

And Rudy will be there for it, apparently. The mysterious business he wants Vincent to take on is a “massage parlor,” which he’d like him to make “classy but simple,” which I think is what we all strive for in our decorating choices, really. He’s absolutely uninterested – his incongruent conservatism is becoming one of the show’s subtle but successful character threads – but when presented with the option of it being an opportunity for poor brother-in-law Bobby, well, family is family and all that. What could go wrong?

A few more stray observations:

  • Paul is, as ever, a very good sport – it’d be easy to get bent out of shape by Vinnie’s presumption of artistic skill, Frankie’s assumptions about frequency of sex. But his bust in a porno theater is a reminder that this is still just two years after Stonewall, a time in which being gay in public was still a jailable offense.
  • A fascinating bit of background: while Richard Price gets a story credit for “What Kind of Bad,” the script is credited to Will Ralston & Chris Yakaitis. The latter was a researcher on The Wire, script coordinator on Treme and Show Me a Hero, and wrote one episode of Treme. And if that’s not enough evidence of the Simon company meritocracy in action, Ralston was supervising sound editor on The Wire, Treme, and Show Me a Hero, and supervising ADR editor on Generation Kill – albeit under a different name. That fascinating story is here; suffice it to say, I have a theory as to who wrote the “Dora prefers ‘she’” line in episode four.
  • Alston’s crush on Sandra has got him hanging out and dishing plenty of dirt about the vice beat, but he does not wanna talk about police corruption – even when she pointedly brings up the Knapp Commission. That name should sound an alert, even if you’re more a ‘70s movie person than a ‘70s New York history person: they’re the ones who heard Frank Serpico’s testimony.
  • Speaking of Sandra, you could make a whole episode solely from the conversation with her editor about the racial dynamics of her story for the Amsterdam News, and its issues of representation and stereotyping – like in, as he puts it, “those ghetto flicks” that are starting fill the grindhouses on the Deuce.
  • Best line of the episode: “Daddies, husbands, and pimps, they’re all the same. Love you for who you are, until you become someone else.” Close runner-up: “I gotta get home, your sister’s got some kind of Tupperware festival happening tonight.”

Listen to film editor Jason Bailey discuss “The Deuce” every week on “The Deuce Rethread” podcast, via the DVR Podcast Network. Subscribe here or listen here: