The show gains momentum as characters leap into the unknown

By David Canfield
October 08, 2017 at 10:00 PM EDT
Paul Schiraldi/HBO
S1 E5
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“What Kind of Bad?” begins with the familiar shot of a bustling diner, but it’s not the grungy hotbed for Times Square gossip and morning-after comfort food that we’ve come to know. Instead, it’s a quieter spot in Darlene’s North Carolina hometown. She cashed Abby’s plane ticket gift from last week’s episode and is now catching up and laughing with old friends. She’s dressed upscale, and her friends look impressed — but it quickly becomes clear that Darlene has arrived with an agenda and not just homesickness.

Posing as a glamorous model with a rich man on her arm and a luxurious life waiting for her, Darlene is trying to convince someone to go back to New York with her. “I do what I want when I want,” she boasts to her friends. But they’re not interested: They like to eat too much, they joke to Darlene, and would rather gossip about neighborhood boys than jet off to some uncertain life. Darlene’s pitching them a fantasy — we know she doesn’t get to do what she wants, and she’s hardly treated like royalty. And so it stings when her friends express disinterest in that fantasy. Who knows what they’d think of what her actual life is.

Darlene, disappointed, heads outside, where she’s greeted by Bernice, one of the diner’s waitresses. Bernice is fascinated by the big-city glamour that Darlene is selling, wide eyed at the prospect of working and living in New York as a “model.” In her, Darlene finds someone to bring back to Times Square: Bernice is eager to get beyond small-town North Carolina, even if she has no idea what really awaits her.

That desire for change is reflective of many characters in The Deuce, and it’s an idea positioned centrally in this episode. Whereas last week’s “I See Money” reveled in the ambiguity and complexity of the ‘70s Times Square life, “What Kind of Bad?” explores how and why people are drawn to its machinations and rapid changes — whether out of necessity, intrigue, or desperation — and finds newfound momentum in characters leaping into the unknown.

Bernice arrives in New York, disappointed but not scared away by Darlene’s reality, and is eventually passed from Larry — who’d given Darlene orders to bring a girl back — to Rodney, getting groomed to work the streets. Rodney gives her a new name: “Ginger.” Darlene, meanwhile, is back in New York, unbeknownst to Abby, who’d gone so far as to buy her new friend a plane ticket to get out of town and find something “better.” In a short amount of time, however, Abby too has been sucked into the dynamics of seedy New York, even if she hasn’t quite admitted it to herself. She’s continuing her fling with Vince and showing off new confidence at the Hi-Hat, even standing up and refusing service to disrespectful pimps.

This episode takes Abby back to the college lifestyle temporarily, as she’s picked up from work and taken to a party with old friends. They ask when she’s coming back to school; they rant, broadly and near-cartoonishly, about politics, venting against the Vietnam War and singing the praises of presidential candidate George McGovern. “I’m hoping McGovern could get in and end the f—ing war,” one guy says to Abby. Abby agrees, but then asks why he’s wearing an army jacket. He calls it “ironic,” and Abby winces, groaning, “Everybody’s ironic, huh?” Later, she refuses the joint being passed around, and before long, she’s on her way out without so much as a goodbye. It’s not her scene anymore. At the Hi-Hat, she’s not listening to rich kids like her talk about politics from afar; she’s seeing life up close, and it’s irresistibly real.

In “What Kind of Bad?,” we see another character veering off the straight-and-narrow and drawn deeper into Vince’s web. This time it’s Bobby, who just a week ago was scolding his brother-in-law for getting into business with mobsters at all, after they beat one of his workers into submission. Bobby’s not medically cleared to go back to work after his health scare; he’s bored, and he needs to make money.

After Vince initially rejects Rudy’s offer to run what is essentially a whorehouse, Bobby suddenly shows an interest in taking on the project. “Let me get this straight,” Vince says to him, frustrated. “You, with all the seniority in the world, union card since you were 18, married to my sister, f—ing rugrats all over the house, Mr. Bay Ridge himself — you’re gonna run whores for the f—ing wiseguys?” Bobby explains it’s about keeping his family afloat, but we know it’s about the thrill of it, too. It’s no accident that an earlier scene featured him sitting on the couch in his home, deep in thought, driven crazy by his energetic children. (Recap continues on page 2)

Vince eventually succumbs to Bobby’s wishes and enters into an agreement with Rudy, getting to work — in a secret arrangement with the city, per Rudy, because “they want as much s— off the street as they can get” — on building up the place. Here, Bobby seems happier than he’s been at any other point in the show, tearing down walls and pitching ideas for how to lay out the space. It’s more money, and it’s more exciting.

Of course, Bobby and Abby have options and resources in a way that many characters in The Deuce do not, and surrounding them in this episode are people similarly looking for escape, but in a more immediate sense. Paul, for example, is still exploring the underground LGBTQ world after our small introduction to it last week, but he faces frightening discrimination in this episode. After exiting a gay porn theater, he’s ambushed by cops and thrown into jail for “soliciting” — a B.S. charge — along with the other men in attendance. Big Mike goes to bail him out on Vince’s behalf and calls out the inhumanity in the police station. “These f—ing cops and their bulls— routes,” he yells for all to hear. “No humanity in these motherf—ers — am I right?”

It’s an experience that compels Paul to get further out into the burgeoning gay club scene — safe spaces where he can be himself without fear. “F— it,” he says to his friend while they wait in line to enter. “I want to be in the world.” Sick of hiding, he’s promptly entranced by the electric energy of the club when he walks in. He takes ecstasy and moves into the dance floor as we hear the refrain “I’m a long way from home” in the song playing in the background. For Paul, this is the best kind of escape: With balloons falling and everybody smiling, it manages to be simultaneously safe, sexy, sweaty — exhilarating.

Director Uta Briesewitz beautifully captures that feeling of utopia in a stirring, wordless sequence, only to directly, harshly contrast it with the ordeal Candy goes through in the episode. After confronting death and feeling the weight of her routine last week, “What Kind of Bad?” accelerates her need to ditch the life of prostitution. She’s growing closer to Jack, her love interest beguiled by her mysteriousness, but with that closeness come increased expectations: He invites her to an event with his boss that will feature “hors d’oeuvres” and “cocktails,” to which she can only respond, “I’ll have to see how my week’s going.” But in a harrowing encounter scenes later, when a john tries to rob her and she fights back, she’s beaten black and blue, her face so crushed she could never show it in front of Jack’s social circle. He leaves her a voicemail, reminding her she’s invited; she listens while she touches up her face, trying to hide her scars.

Rodney heckles Candy when she’s back on the street, forcing her to acknowledge that this has happened one too many times before. “It don’t look as bad as that ass-whooping you took last Christmas,” he says. “You keep expecting better but you keep getting worse. I mean, you go it alone — come a dark hour, you are alone.” Even as Rodney’s crudely mixing insults with a pimping offer, he’s not wrong. It’s why Candy breaks down in front of the pimps and sex workers on the Deuce that night, tears streaming down her bruised face. A man then approaches in a car, asking if she’s free. She stares out blankly into the distance without a response. He angrily drives away, and we can see it in her face: She’s done.

Desperate, Candy goes back to Harvey Wasserman, the amateur porn filmmaker she first met in episode 2. Harvey didn’t have any work for her back then, when she first inquired about moving into porn, but to her surprise he says that his lawyers tell him there’s been a change in the law. “Something about community standards,” he says to her vaguely. Candy asks him to clarify. “Apparently,” he explains, “New York has none.” He lets her know she can get to work in a few weeks. There, finally, is a potential light at the end of the very dark tunnel Candy’s been moving through so far. It’s that chance at escape — at something better — that she, like so many in The Deuce, has been craving. And it lands most poignantly in “What Kind of Bad?” because we know she needs that kind of chance most of all.

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  • 09/10/17
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