“Why Me?” introduces a major turning point for The Deuce. The show, until last week, had been moving at David Simon’s characteristically leisurely pace, allowing us to sink into the characters’ day-to-day lives. But circumstances around Times Square are changing, fast: stricter policing practices, loosening obscenity laws, and most importantly, a shift in where the money’s headed. A few episodes ago, it seemed unimaginable that pimps would be demanding prostitutes get off the street. But as Larry tells Darlene near the end of “Why Me?”: “With everything going on out there…. It’s about to be the movies or the whorehouse.”
That dichotomy is reflected in the episode’s two main story lines: Vince preparing to open up his new “place of business” with Bobby running the joint, and Eileen finally getting started in porn and trying to find her place in the industry. Their stories dominate more than usual, with many of the show’s more compelling side characters — namely Abby, Paul, and Darlene — only getting a scene or two apiece. Indeed, the third big story line has nothing to do with any character in particular: just the gradual legalization of porn. Altogether, it’s not a bad episode, per se, but it is definitely a more functional one than the gorgeous installments of the last two weeks.
Starting with Vince, it’s clear that our Hi-Hat manager is starting to get a bit overwhelmed, wearing a mix of physical, emotional, and moral exhaustion on his sweaty, downtrodden face. He and Bobby are trying to get the whorehouse up and running, visiting pimps and making offers in a barbershop, but initially there’s no interest — only incredulity at the idea that Vince and Bobby would charge hundreds of dollars to hole up their employees for the night. Vince pitches protection and comfort; Bobby assures he’ll be looking after things. But nobody’s buying what they’re selling.
Fortunately for them, things start happening outside the pimps’ control. With the new year approaching, the police have been ordered to institute strict new measures on the Deuce, an annual practice Alston calls “street sweeps.” “The whores of Times Square will be decidedly unf—ed from now until the holidays,” Rizzi cracks to his precinct. “[Everyone] goes in the wagon.” Indeed they do: pimps’ legally parked cars are being towed, while women working the streets are being lined up and carted away.
Sandra, observant as ever and still reporting from the sidelines, is too disturbed by everything that’s going on to even pick up on Alston’s persistent romantic interest in her. “Every shift, even daytime, they ran the wagon out at least twice,” she says of what she saw. Alston’s trying to ask her out on a date, and after some push and pull, he eventually succeeds — but her focus is squarely on these unsettling changes, and it isn’t a mistake when she refers to Alston as a “source” rather than a friend. She wants to know what’s going to happen.
Sandra’s not the only one: Everyone in “Why Me?” is preoccupied with how the industry’s going to look if police keep up their new cleanup mandate beyond Christmas. Some officers even see it as an opportunity to take the lead in profiting off of getting sex workers and pimps off the street. The same cop who essentially blackmailed Vince into giving him a small cut for keeping quiet at the Hi-Hat in a previous episode cooks up another scheme here, directly telling pimps they’ll need to relocate their “business” indoors, then letting Bobby know that women will soon be on the way courtesy of the NYPD — for a weekly finder’s fee, of course. (Bobby gruffly obliges.) The pimps, meanwhile, are back to meeting with Vince before long, letting him know that their needs have changed. They’re not pleased about it, but they agree to give his “P—y Palace” a try. They know they’re running out of options.
It’s all about new options, however, at the episode’s other end. We’ve got lots of focus on Rudy Pipilo this week as he enlists Frankie and Big Mike to check in on a convoluted, almost certainly sketchy financial agreement over his porn “machines” being leased to sex shops. The potential cheater in question is Marty Hodas, based on the real man of the same name who introduced “peep show” machines to Times Square. Frankie, Big Mike, and Rudy count quarters with him and catch him skimming, bringing the news to his own boss, Matty the Horse.
Why the sudden interest for Rudy? He’s noticing that porn might suddenly boom stateside, with obscenity laws continuing to be interpreted loosely, and says that he needs to pay attention to the business now. Later in the episode, Mike designs in a sketch drawing what we’ll come to know as the “peep show” — the private quarter-machine viewing of pornography. It’s yet another example of new money streams revealing themselves, with Rudy, as ever, catching on quickly. (Recap continues on page 2)
Rudy also stops by a courtroom where the latest obscenity case is being ruled on; he crosses paths with the director, Harvey Wasserman, who’s just taken Eileen under his wing. Many in the room cheer and snicker when yet another case goes their way. “What I think of these films as an individual is immaterial — as a judge I cannot stultify myself to satisfy my personal feelings and inclinations,” the ruling judge says. “And the evidence here is indisputable…. These personal freedoms are protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments.” Porn wins — again.
For rich, rule-bending businessmen like Pipilo, the possibilities of porn seem endless here. But when it comes to those trying to make a career out of it, the path to prosperity — to any kind of security — is far more difficult and less certain. The Eileen we see on Harvey’s set appears infinitely happier and more calm than the Candy who was walking the streets of the last few episodes. She’s creatively energized, excited by the work, and hopeful that it can lead to her getting behind the camera — “to learn to do what you do,” as she tells Harvey. But the workflow is slow, the money disappointing, and the job a definite adjustment. (In an early take, an actor accidentally ejaculates in her; later, she brings Lori by to fill in for a shoot, only for CC to storm in to remind everyone of who’s in charge, snagging money from everybody’s pockets.)
And while Eileen’s developing some trust and intimacy with Harvey, it only gets her so far. When he tells her he has no work for the next few weeks, she asks what she can do for money; with agonizing nonchalance, he tells her to do what she “used to do.” She’s hurt. In a lovely follow-up scene, however, he shows up at her door, embarrassed and upset with himself for saying it, and tries to make it right. His only remedy is to offer her a more upscale, temporary prostitution opportunity: vetted clients she can say yes or no to, and a woman as a handler. When Eileen learns a woman would be her boss, it agitates her, like it’s an even greater indignity than the idea of working for a man. In moviemaking, she aspires to that level of control, that autonomy — but for every step forward she takes, she seems to take nearly a full step back. If she takes the gig, that reality will be staring her right in the face.
Eileen is at least one step ahead. Beyond her, there’s the on-the-ground reality for women who haven’t made the leap that she’s made — women like Darlene. Everybody’s chasing money on The Deuce, and in “Why Me?” in particular: This is the episode where the gears start turning and the system starts to take on an intriguing if intimidating new shape. It’s leading everyone to wonder how they’re going to stay afloat, from Eileen to the newest Deuce worker, Ginger (formerly Bernice). For the most part, this development makes for a relatively busy, detail-oriented, plot-heavy episode — all the legal updates, especially, require a certain amount of unpacking, and a lot of time is spent on Pipilo’s scheme in a way that has too much to do with mechanics and too little to do with character.
But what character work “Why Me?” does is typically excellent: Eileen puts a painfully human face on the rapid changes driving the episode, and Darlene achingly emerges in its ending minutes, occupying the center of the haunting final image. As Larry tries to convince her to return to movies, Darlene just can’t get excited about the idea — especially after finding out, a few episodes earlier, that a porn she’d made had spread farther and wider than she could have ever imagined. “All those people watching me, the cameraman telling me ‘turn my eyes this way, that way,’ I hated it,” she says. “Movies are forever…. What if I have kids? What if my kids have little kids?”
Larry hears her, sympathetically, and gives her that ultimatum: If she doesn’t want to move into porn, then she’ll need to work in the whorehouse. But Darlene’s honing in on something more personal, emotional: The permanence of porn is scaring her not just because she’d be on tape. She’s questioning what her life is going to look like 10, 20 years down the road. She hasn’t needed to make a choice, even one as limiting as this, for a while.
That aforementioned final shot of Darlene resting quietly in her brothel room is despairingly claustrophobic. She sits on her tiny twin bed, listening to the loud voices outside and staring at the white brick wall. It’s a dramatic contrast to the expansive grime of Times Square — a dirty but vibrant open space where, at times, Darlene would be left to walk for miles and miles after a long night. Not so here. Now she’s cooped up.
Earlier in the episode, a woman describes the room’s vibe as a “stable,” lamenting that she isn’t a “horse.” The complaint resonates at its conclusion: Darlene just sits still as the room starts to shake, sex in the other rooms busy enough to nearly cause shelves to come crashing down. Then, in the episode’s final seconds, she turns, as if she’s just woken up. The questions are written across her face: Is this what she wants? Or is it back to the movies? Candy and Darlene are two of many left in an ambiguous position in “Why Me?,” with big decisions to make. New York is changing, and the life they knew is — for better or worse — quickly being “street-swept” away. Now they’re left to face with what they want their next chapter to look like.