A dozen characters seeking a brown paper bag

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Dominique Fishback (left), Kim Director, E.J. Carroll (Photograph: Paul Schiraldi)
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You’ll be able to’t carry up the phrases “brown paper bag” on a David Simon present—as tonight’s episode of The Deuce, “Present And Show,” does, in reference to Fats Mooney’s under-the-counter wares—with out additionally invoking the wise words of the great Howard “Bunny” Colvin.

Colvin’s speech acknowledges that if people want something bad enough—be it a bottle of cheap hooch in friendly surroundings or a vial of WMD—they’re going to get it; any attempts by police to interfere are a waste of time, energy, and resources. Two episodes in, and it seems like The Deuce has a similar philosophy regarding solicitation and obscenity law. In fact, the vice squad’s sex worker round-ups seems to calls back to the introduction of Colvin’s decriminalized drug zone, the malaprop-ed “Hamsterdam”: The types of offenders that Alston and Flanagan’s bosses don’t want to see on the street are arrested, processed, and then treated to Chinese takeout and period-appropriate soda pop before they’re taken back to the holding cells in order to keep up appearances. This is their brown paper bag for prostitution, though it’s not really having the effects the Colvins of the world would prefer: The roll call later in the episode lays out all the murders, rapes, and bodega robberies going ignored while Flanagan is arguing with Ruby about the number of days in April and Mooney’s hardcore product is confiscated. Sex U.S.A. is playing down the street, but it has a brown paper bag that works: It’s a documentary, so it has artistic value in the eyes of the law.

“Show And Prove” is the next step for various Deuce characters seeking, if not to go entirely legit, than to at least find a brown paper bag of legitimacy. Porn and cheesecake might just deliver Ashley and Shay from one exploitative prick to another, but it’s also work that would get them off of the street and out of the rain. In line with Candy’s overriding independent streak—if her son’s going to get an Operation game, it’s going to be bought with her money—her attempt to break into this game isn’t going to depend on the people who Mooney doesn’t know (wink wink) or any Campbell’s-slinging basement pornographers. She’s going to learn how to do it herself, the Hollywood dreams tacked to the walls of her childhood bedroom manifesting in an entrepreneurial curiosity about lighting rigs and a reel of smuggled smut.

In that moment, Maggie Gyllenhaal gets to show the wheels turning in Candy’s mind; in similar “Show And Prove” scenes for Vince, the script does the thinking before James Franco gets a chance to register it. On a pure, writing level, I’m not sure where I stand on the runaway-freight-train momentum of the good Martino son’s storyline. In the course of two episodes, he’s completely reinvented House Of Korea’s business model and he’s brokered a potentially lucrative payroll scheme that makes his brother-in-law (Chris Bauer as Bobby, a construction foreman from a time when we used to make shit in this country) happy and help can cover Frankie’s debts. The mafia capo who’s fronting the payroll money, Rudy Pipilo (Michael Rispoli) is so impressed with Vinnie’s work that he’s offering him ownership (with certain financial obligations to Rudy, of course) of the dying gay bar Penny Lane.

Frankly, it’s a lot of ground to cover in such a short amount of time, especially when so much of the rest of the show is preceding much more patiently. Even in the bigger-they-come, harder-they-fall world of crime narratives, poising Vinnie for a third business smash doesn’t seem to gibe with, say, this week’s incremental Abbey scenes, in which she leaves the dorms, finds an apartment, and looks at the classifieds, and that’s it. There are only eight episodes in season one, so a certain amount of narrative economy is to be expected, but maybe the show could put some gloves on Vinnie’s Midas touch for a bit? (Then again, that’d only turn those gloves to gold, too, so…)

These rapid developments are interesting on a thematic and character level, though. They’re complications of Vinnie’s moral code, of the characteristics that kept him working two jobs on opposite sides of the river out of a distaste for organized crime. They raise the questions you want to be raised by this type of story, the “How far will this go?”s and the “Who does he owe?”s that make things exciting down the line. As Vinnie compromises to stay afloat, does it blur the lines dividing him from his brother? “I thought you hated all those fucking made guys” Franco slurs at himself in the red-neon haze of House Of Korea, speaking for anyone who might have thought, with as quickly as things have been coming together, that they’ve already learned all there is to know about Vincent Martino.

Because that’s the thing about The Deuce at this point: We’re still getting the lay of the land. There’s an informational tour of sorts in tonight’s scenes between C.C. and Lori, which provide the spine of “Show And Prove” while showing off the ugly underpinnings of the show’s world. (It’s smartly, smoothly plugged in to other portions of the episode, too: The “I bet I could do what she does” Jane Fonda chitchat connecting to Candy’s plot, the theater conversation illuminating the raid of Fat Mooney’s.) The Deuce continues to use Lori as an effective audience surrogate, Emily Meade’s know-it-all nonchalance continually upended by C.C.’s unpredictable behavior. She’s no naïf, but she doesn’t exactly expect to see a man get stabbed, either. Like Vinnie’s ethics, like the theoretical love C.C. espouses and the actual, sinister control he practices, it’s all a matter of degrees.

As its characters make moves to improve their stations, “Show And Prove” offers differing opinions about whether or not they can have any lasting impact on their worlds. Surveying the neighborhood after their first meeting at House of Korea, Rudy gives the outsider’s impression of The Deuce, an urban-improvement lament/gentrifier’s thesis about vacant buildings and wasted potential. The whole thing is laced with dramatic irony, considering what became of the area, how efforts to make it more friendly to people like the family at the diner (whose son is so distracted by Gentle Richie), at the expense of people like Ruby (whom Vinnie and Rudy pass in one of those ships-passing-in-the-night world-building moments The Deuce does so well), and to the benefit of businessman (legitimate or otherwise) like Rudy. “Stagnant around here. Got to get the water moving again” he tells Vinnie.

And then there’s the crack from Rodney that leads Alston to expand the scope of the evening round-up at the end of the episode: “Like sweeping leaves on a windy day.” When Darlene visits Fat Mooney earlier in “Show And Prove,” they speak about the criminal nature of their respective lines of work in similarly mocking tones; the police are never going to deter people from paying to have sex or from paying to see people have sex. It’s a compassionate approach (though even Alston has his limits), but it’s also a brown paper bag that blows away every 48 hours.

Stray observations

  • New character alert: Natalie Paul as Sandra Washington, the apparent reporter who approaches Darlene while she’s reading at House Of Korea. “You heard of oral histories?” she asks as Larry gets in between her and Darlene—and I’m guessing this isn’t the last we’ve heard from Sandra.
  • The Jane Fonda movie Lori and C.C. discuss is Klute, in which Fonda won an Academy Award for playing Bree Daniels, a prostitute working for herself in New York City.
  • “Show And Prove” continues to color in the outlines of The Deuce with the ongoing, profane-and-prejudiced athletic chatter between detectives Grossman (Brian Muller) and Haddix (Ralph Macchio). “I don’t even know what fucking sport you’re talking about” is an early contender for line of the season.
  • “Not underwear—leotards.” Vinnie is all about the minor distinctions.
  • Gary Carr’s delivery of these parting words to Lori just killed me: “Ever been to France? No? Well me neither.”
  • Parting words that sting in a different way: “You happen to remember where he put the cuff keys?”
  • Free, all-purpose excuse from the final scene: “I ain’t working, I was just going to get an Orange Julius.”

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