‘The Deuce’ Recap: Just When I Thought I Was Out

A review of this week’s The Deuce, “They Can Never Go Home,” coming up just as soon as I charge you one wig for half of my pie…

The title phrase of “They Can Never Go Home” comes up quickly, a warning Mike gives to Reg as they and Vince and Frankie see off Melissa as she returns to Michigan. Reg is excited his friend has reunited with her father and is getting a clean break from this life, while Mike and the Martino brothers understand that you can take the girl away from the life, but you can’t take the life away from the girl. Matthew Ross, who seemed so relieved just to see his daughter in the previous episode, now bristles at the thought of the work she’s been doing all these years, and clearly can’t follow Vince’s advice to just let it go. He can’t ever go home, either. He tells Vince that the world has been “taking advantage of her,” then adds, “of me,” and those two words are all you need to hear to know just how bumpy things are likely to get for father and daughter in the days to come.

But Mike’s warning applies throughout the hour, which is one of the darkest and most introspective episodes The Deuce has ever done. By the end of it, Candy has been forcefully told that her movies are doing more harm than good, Lori has convinced herself that the world will never see her as anything more than a whore, Black Frankie is in jail and charged with attempted murder after an outcall goes awry, and Frankie is lying dead in the lobby of Club 366, having pissed off one guy with a gun too many.

Frankie’s death is the episode’s biggest — or, at least, most permanent — development, but it’s not exactly a shock. Things were never going to end well for the more reckless of the Martino brothers, and it always seemed like a question of when — and by whose hand — rather than if. The episode foregrounds his impending doom by devoting an early scene to Irene trying desperately to talk Frankie into giving Rudy a taste from their amateur porn business, rather than risking the gangster’s wrath. When Frankie agrees, then petulantly changes his mind after Tommy alludes to Rudy’s unhappiness on the subject, it plays like the bad twin has just signed his own death warrant. But even though the episode keeps returning to the Rudy/Frankie question, it’s another one of Frankie’s extracurricular businesses that gets him killed — and on the night he and Vince have just celebrated another birthday together, no less. The drug operation he and Tommy have been running behind Rudy’s back leads to a heated argument with unhappy customer Pasquale, and then to Pasquale taking shots at Frankie when he leaves 366 for the night.

Frankie’s long been the more entertaining of James Franco’s two roles here. (I can only imagine the complications of Franco directing himself twice over in a scene where one of his characters tearfully watches the other one die.) But he’s always been local color rather than a crucial part of the show’s larger stories and themes. So losing him midway through the final season is sad but not crushing in the way some of this show’s other deaths — not to mention similar ones in past Simon/Pelecanos shows — have been.

Instead, it’s Vincent who’s gets caught up in a far more gutting scene at the club earlier in the episode. Lori, sad that her big New York audition for a non-porn film didn’t work out, decides to wallow by walking down the Deuce, where she falls into Mike’s arms and he steers her into the club to help her deal with whatever she’s going through. Vince plays his familiar role of sympathetic bartender, but he’s also smarting over the current state of things with Abby. So he slow dances with Lori and then leads her up to the VIP area in an attempt to kill two heartsick birds with one bone. But when he tries to put on a condom, it breaks the spell and makes things exponentially worse for Lori. Suddenly, they’re not two old friends hooking up at the end of a tough day. She’s a hooker, or a porn actress, and he’s a john or co-star looking not to catch any of the diseases he assumes she has. Despite Vince’s protestations about how bad the AIDS epidemic is in New York (which he knows about well, through his friendship with Paul), she just feels like a whore.

It’s a word the episode uses a lot, often involving Vince himself. Early in the hour, Mr. Ross laments that the world used his daughter as a whore; Vince retorts that he’s known a lot of whores in his years at Times Square, and “some are actually decent people.” At the club, Lori insists, “I’m still a whore. I just got famous for it.” Vince tries to parse the definition like he’s talking about what the meaning of “is” is (or, for us in 2019, what the meaning of “though” is), telling her, “Even when you were a whore, you weren’t a whore. Not ever.” And when the condom comes out — in an inverse of the time we saw her demanding a condom be used on a porn set — she again calls herself a whore. Now Vince’s argument is, “Some of the best people I’ve known have been whores.”

It’s no tragedy that these two don’t have sex, especially given what we know about why Vince wanted to. But the way in which it goes down, and how it’s sandwiched in between her losing out on the movie role and then getting a tepid response to her open-mic-night song, is crushing for where Lori is right now. The description of the movie — about a serial killer who murders women who remind him of his mother — just makes it sound like a different kind of porn, but it’s still a potential escape for Lori. Instead, in short order, she feels rejected as an actress, as a singer, and as a woman. Not in that exact order, but you get the point, and why she walks off the stage and tearfully informs Kiki that she’ll dive back into porn without any more complaints. “You win,” she says. “I can’t do anything else. You happy?”

It’s a devastating return to the Deuce for Lori, and an effective companion to the brutal scene where Abby takes Candy to address the Women Against Pornography meeting. We enter the gathering with our sympathies firmly behind the two regulars. Abby’s rightly worried that the group she helped start is now going to be exploited by Ronald Reagan, Edwin Meese, and other reactionaries associated with the Meese Report who wanted to attack not only pornography, but free speech in general. And we know that Candy has always been her own woman, whether she was a prostitute working without a pimp or a feminist porn auteur. She’s a woman making films about and for women, whether or not Harvey is on board with the idea. Plus, we’ve spent so much time in the company of Abby and Candy that of course they’re going to be the right ones here.

Only… that’s not what happens, exactly. Instead, Abby’s former colleague-in-protest Andrea makes a very effective argument for Candy’s experience as the exception that proves the rule — and, worse, as the kind of non-representative anecdote that can be used by both porn producers and aspiring porn actresses to justify their entry into a field that exploits, degrades, and hurts so many more. We know this. We’ve seen it throughout the series, and we see it in this hour. Melissa seemed perfectly content making porn, but once she patched things up with her dad, she was glad to quit and leave the city. Lori — who came to New York with her eyes wide open about the career she wanted to enter — tries everything she can to stop feeling like the woman that C.C. abused and controlled, and all of it leads back to her feeling like that’s all she can ever be. Even Candy — strong, independent, unapologetic Candy — walks out of the meeting chastened. Abby tries apologizing for how Andrea and the others spoke to her, and Candy calls them assholes. But as she walks away, she also admits, “Maybe I needed to hear some of that shit.”

The Deuce has always tried to walk a tightrope on its core subject. It points to women like Candy or Lori or Darlene, who enter the sex trade willingly and, at least initially, enjoy being a part of it. But it also depicts all the ways that the business is stacked against them from a financial and emotional perspective. Candy (like many of the show’s characters, Frankie Martino included) was inspired by a few real figures from the era, including the director Candida Royalle. But they were anomalous, as she is in the show’s fictionalized world. Maggie Gyllenhaal, Emily Meade, and so many of the show’s other performers play these women so well — so full of life and confidence and a sense of fun — that it can be easy to overlook the way things can go for women who come into this life. The money still largely goes to men who don’t do the work themselves. A lot of the job has moved indoors, or to hotels, but even here we see women standing on the Deuce itself, joking about worker’s comp from the shoes they wear and risking arrest or worse, for a whole lot of nothing. To quote Andrea, are they becoming auteurs?

It’s a slap of harsh reality to Candy, and to the audience, just as much as Lori’s fight with Vincent is, and Frankie’s death. Everyone comes to the Deuce looking to have a good time and maybe make some cash along the way. But this life can chew you up and spit you out. Frankie paid the most visible cost this week, but far from the only one.

Some other thoughts:

* The Alston and Goldman story still feels disconnected from everything else, and/or like it’s the first subplot to get trimmed whenever episodes come in long. This week, for instance, Chris releases Jack Maple and his people back to their usual transit beat, with Domenick Lombardozzi barely having gotten anything to do. Instead, it’s Haddix whose crooked ways prove more useful in getting rid of the corrupt landlord, as he hires an arsonist to stage a controlled fire in the troublesome building.

* That said, Paul subplots also tend to get scant screentime. But there’s something so poignant in seeing him care for the increasingly sick Todd — this time playing nurse to him while their apartment TV is showing a scene from Todd’s hospital soap opera — that those scenes make an impact, however brief they are.

* Even in a mostly grim hour, there were welcome bits of lightness, like Frankie giving brother-in-law Bobby a hard time about his ridiculous toupee, or a startled and lonely Vince trying and failing to talk Abby and Pilar into letting him turn their coupling into a three-way.

* Party Like It’s 1985: Lori and Greg watch a late Season One episode of the Judith Light/Tony Danza sitcom Who’s the Boss?; Black Frankie gets arrested at the Milford Plaza, a Midtown hotel famous in the area at the time for TV commercials using a jingle based on “The Lullaby of Broadway.”

* Finally, this week’s music: “No One’s Little Girl” by The Raincoats (Loretta and Abby arguing at the Hi-Hat); “Snatch It Back and Hold It” by Junior Wells (Alston and the transit cops get drinks); “Fantastic Freaks at the Dixie” by Fantastic Freaks (the art gallery); “Triola” by Tony Salvatore (Rudy at the French Parlor); “No Easy Way Down” and “I Can’t Make It Alone” by Dusty Springfield (Lori at Club 366); “More Than This” by Roxy Music (Abby asks Candy to speak to the women’s group); “Heartbreaker of the Year” by Denise La Salle (Frankie & Bobby eat at Leon’s); “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears For Fears (Frankie and Vince’s birthday party); and “Fever” by Sylvester (Frankie leaves 366, then runs back in after getting shot).

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