We’re at the midpoint of The Deuce, a fitting place to settle in for the show’s most artful and contained episode to date. “I See Money” continues to push the story’s many threads forward in typically methodical fashion, but it also — if only thematically — brings them together in a way the show hasn’t yet done, providing a more kaleidoscopic view of its characters and the system they’re operating within. It’s all courtesy of a deceptively complicated sentiment expressed by many in the episode: “I just want to understand.”
The episode begins with Candy soaking wet, smoking in a phone booth and avoiding the rain. There’s not much work for her and the other women working the Deuce on this particular night. “Guess I’m going to the movies,” Candy says to Lori. She enters a porn theater, and a patron propositions her as she walks into the dark screening room: “You like movies?” he asks. “I love movies,” she responds, seductively. She starts to give him a bl– job in one of the sparsely populated rows before a rat jumps out at her, squeaking; she screams, knocks the john’s head by mistake, and runs into the lobby. Another man approaches her. “You like movies?” he asks. Silence. She’s a little less responsive this time.
It’s a quiet indignity that foreshadows a much bleaker one for Candy, the orbiting center of the episode. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s brilliant performance in “I See Money” is largely, tellingly silent — she seems to be carrying more weight in each subsequent scene, her walk getting heavier, her eyes baggier, her color a little paler. Candy meets with some johns, drinking plenty after each encounter. She doesn’t look tired, exactly — just drained. But she perks up when a man shows a different kind of interest, bumping into her at a record store. He tries to make small talk, and her lack of responsiveness pushes him to get surprisingly revealing: His name is Jack, he’s got a kid who lives with his mom, and he doesn’t flirt very often. Candy — or Eileen in this scene — appears alternately puzzled, taken aback, suspicious, and charmed. Naturally, she gives him her phone number.
She reaches a new low point, however, after the sun sets, when she’s back at work and takes an older man up to her corner apartment. She starts to give him a bl– job — a familiar, foreboding image — and this time there’s nothing to get in the way. But after he finishes, he’s completely still on the bed — motionless, not breathing. He’s dead.
Candy is initially horrified, but once she leaves the apartment and gets back on the street, she only looks paler, more drained. She lets a cop know a man has died with the tone of a person who heard the news secondhand, wearied and sad, and heads up to Ruby’s place with that same defeated demeanor. “You retiring?” Ruby asks. “Guess I’m done too.” They drink and reminisce about Nicki — an old friend from the Deuce they lost last year, on a day so hot it stayed “90 degrees after midnight.” “God, it was last summer,” Candy remembers of when Nicki died. “Feels longer,” Ruby says.
We don’t get many details beyond the stickiness of that summer night, but Nicki’s passing is discussed like some sort of inevitability. It textures Candy’s progression in this episode, as her routine is punctuated by despairing intrusions: rain, rats, death. It informs tiny but revealing moments sprinkled throughout the episode, too: It’s in the way C.C. forces Ashley, his older prostitute who’s tired and shaken, to keep working while he takes his shiny new employee Lori home for some “shut eye,” or how Shay, another sex worker in her 40s, lurks in the background of one scene, seemingly so exhausted she’s about to pass out, then says in the next, “I don’t go home if I don’t earn.”
Shay says this to Sandra, the person whose entire job — within the show’s confines, anyway — is to “understand” the sex trade and the women operating in it. Sandra gets rounded up with some of the women, accidentally picked up by cops and thrown into jail. Officer Alston spots her, however, and notices she doesn’t belong. She introduces herself to him as a journalist, and again explains her mission: “I’m trying to understand why these women are in the trade at all.” He looks at her, amused. “When you figure that out, let me know,” he quips. “I’ve been on the job for years. I still don’t know the answer.” Before he lets her go, she asks for his number. While Alston’s excited about the romantic prospects of the request, Sandra’s eyes remain fixed on her story, and what she’s really — or, at least, primarily — asking for is a source. (Recap continues on page 2)
Navigating the transactional, complicated terrain of romantic relationships, more broadly, is a major focus of the episode. Candy barely knows what to say when a man shows a deeper kind of interest in her, or how to differentiate between that interaction and the kind she’s paid for. Alston and Sandra meet up for a half-date in the seedy center of Times Square, scouting out the area with a single order of a burger and fries to pick at. “I See Money” also expands, finally, to the LGBTQ side of 1970s New York, a satisfying extension of these questions about life, love, and sex: We see Paul, dating a relatively closeted attorney, invigorated by the burgeoning queer culture around him while trying to maintain his relationship, and Barbara and Melissa sharing a passionate moment of lovemaking before the former collects her cash stack and delivers it to her pimp.
Vincent, too, is reminded of the family in his life, as Zoe Kazan’s Andrea returns for the first time since The Deuce’s pilot. She tells him that she and the kids miss him, and that she wants things to go back to the way they were — an ideal that Vincent assures her is impossible. Vincent’s much too preoccupied for these family commitments, as he’s drawn deeper into the web of Rudy Pipilo and his crew.
There’s still plenty more setup on that front this week, and it’s unfortunately a little familiar: This is the episode where Vincent and his brother-in-law Bobby, who was drawn in last week, realize the dangerous consequences of working for guys like these, while still being introduced to major but risky new opportunities. Rudy’s machinations remain less immediately engaging than the surrounding action — a problem more acute in an episode that’s otherwise so thoughtfully and delicately constructed. Better is Vincent’s budding connection with Abby, who is settling in at the Hi-Hat. It’s not hard to see why he’s attracted to her; she’s young and without strings or responsibilities attached, as opposed to the wife and kids who depend on him.
Abby, meanwhile, is nurturing another connection: After bonding with Darlene in episode 3 over a shared love of literature, she bumps into her again at the Hi-Hat. Their encounter this time is in the bathroom: Abby’s just escaped a bar fight, breaking her shoe in the process, while Darlene is secretly sneaking some reading time. After a little chitchat and shoe buckle-fixing, Abby reiterates the episode’s dominating sentiment: “Why do you do this? I’m just trying to understand.” Darlene takes a breath: “You don’t need to understand.”
But Abby’s preconceptions remain entrenched, and she tries to play the savior role. She buys Darlene a bus ticket home, giving her a chance to see her aunt and find one of those “other ways to get by.” Darlene takes the ticket, grateful, but she probably won’t be gone from New York for long. Abby’s naiveté complements Sandra’s curiosity, but it also provides a distinct contrast from the essence of Candy, Ruby, Shay, even the late Nicki — women who have spent years on the street, who show it, and whose stories the series brings to painful, beautiful life.
As Candy recovers from the trauma of watching a man die, she listens to Jack’s voicemail over and over, in which he asks her to go out sometime and — funnily enough — notes that he’s home by 7 p.m. most nights. We watch her prepare for a real date: getting dressed and trying to decide on an outfit, and then just sitting and listening, observing a man who’s actually trying to get to know her. He’s doing most of the talking, though, and eventually asks what she “does.” “Don’t ask too many questions, Jack,” she says mysteriously, with enough wit to make it feel more flirtatious than secretive. He’s almost smitten: “You don’t go on many dates, do you?” She responds, again, without a word, but with a knowing smile. In that silent language of Candy, Darlene, and so many others in The Deuce, the central idea of “I See Money” emerges: What can’t be easily answered can’t be easily understood.