As pimps contend with obsolescence, women practice solidarity and empowerment
Early in “Au Reservoir,” Officer Alston gives Sandra her juiciest scoop yet. The sex workers of Times Square are getting off the street and going into the brothel, he tells her, and not without a little help from the NYPD. “We pushed them into the parlors — been running women off the streets for awhile now,” he reveals. “That’s been the goddamned plan all along. Yeah, the parlors have been paying us.” She asks why he’d ever tell her such a thing; he responds dumbfounded. Later, they kiss, and the answer to the question is written all over Alston’s face. It’s not just that he’s attracted to Sandra — though he is. It’s that a corrupt, money-driven system of law enforcement and prostitution is rapidly taking shape, and that he’s motivated by the chance to put a stop to it.
That system is what drives the storylines in “Au Reservoir,” The Deuce‘s most emotionally complex episode to date. Various organized crime syndicates, including the one led by Rudy Pipilo, are coming together and making respectful agreements over territory. The cops are cleaning up the Deuce with the Public Morals Task Force, another subdivision to collect cash from parlors for keeping quiet, while a new commanding officer somewhat naively boasts of getting things on the straight and narrow. But while the mob and the police are profiting, the players in the heart of the trade — the prostitutes and the pimps — are struggling to adapt to the changes. As those with money and power wield influence, changing the game in pursuit of a dollar, the question “Au Reservoir” asks is where that leaves the rest of us.
The episode provides as close to a character spotlight as an ensemble piece like The Deuce can. Ashley, played by Jamie Neumann, moves to the show’s center after previously operating on the margins. Throughout this first season, we’ve seen her pimp, C.C., cruelly disregard her for his fresher employee, Lori. She’s forced to work while her younger colleague isn’t, she’s talked down to while the other is talked up, and now, as Lori moves into porn, Ashley is forced to wander into the claustrophobic parlor rooms alone. C.C. drops her off as the episode begins, and Darlene spots her outside the building. “Another day, another bunch of dicks,” she jokes to Ashley. Darlene walks in, but Ashley stays behind. “F— this,” she says to herself.
Ashley then wanders into the Hi-Hat, where she quickly catches Frankie’s eye. He flirts with her, and she flirts back. Paul’s bartending, and he tells them about a special red-carpet party he’s going to for Boys in the Sand, a Fire Island film selling like crazy. (The 1971 movie was a landmark for gay porn in real life.) He’s close with Todd, an actor featured in it, and the two invite Frankie — and, by extension, Ashley — along. While Paul and Todd spend an intimate night together, Ashley and Frankie do the same in a hotel, where she’s briefly introduced to a different way of life. He tells her that he doesn’t even have a place to call home, spending most nights out in the city doing what he likes; he has no belongings of note and no need for a personal space. Frankie asks if that makes him sound crazy. Ashley shakes her head: “Sounds like you’re free.”
Ashley, of course, longs for that feeling — her lack of freedom is a reality now made visually clear by the cell-like layout of her new place of work. While she explores life beyond prostitution, inside are miserable experiences of objectification and entrapment. Men arrive at the brothel periodically, at which points Bobby lines up available women for potential customers to literally inspect. Darlene’s getting through it, clearly unsatisfied but not beaten by the change of scenery. It’s those around her who are crumbling. Bernice feels violated and shamed, shrieking and sobbing as she asks, “Why do they keep trying to put it inside me?” (“Some ain’t built for it,” Thunder Thighs says to Darlene in response.) Shay, who often hovers in the corner of scenes like a ghost, seemingly always on the verge of collapsing, finally does, crashing down within the tight confines of her parlor room. And the cheating game played by Melissa and Barbara — wherein they have sex with johns together and take money from their wallets while they’re not looking — catches up with them, as they’re finally caught. Without the spaciousness of an apartment or the streets, they have nowhere to hide.
On the other side are the pimps, who are starting to feel obsolete. “Used to be, I’d get up every afternoon knowing what I needed to do with the night,” Larry says. “I knew what I was there for.” C.C. then chimes in: “P—y’s still the p—y, money’s still the money, but the pimp — who the f— is he right now?” While Larry aimlessly wanders the Deuce at night and C.C. runs after Ashley wondering what went wrong, we see Reggie acting on feelings of powerlessness more destructively. He berates Vincent for what happened to Shay in the brothel, refusing to look inward, and later does the same to Melissa after she tries picking up a piece of pie for Shay at Leon’s.
He’s on a rampage throughout the episode, at one point beating Melissa (offscreen) for getting caught scamming johns. But things come to a head when Reggie chews her out, yet again, this time for running late while at the diner. Leon, who spends the episode quietly bonding with Melissa, asks Reggie to let her finish her food. Reggie dismisses him, grabs Melissa, and drags her away — only for Leon to pull a gun and shoot him dead (leading to Anwan Glover’s brilliantly droll reading of the line, “I shot a n—er”). It’s a shocking moment that leaves Melissa paralyzed. (Recap continues on the next page)
Until Reggie’s death, Melissa was being punished for expressing solidarity with other women — whether coming to Shay’s aid in her time of need or navigating the life with Barbara, a friend and sometimes lover. That theme of women supporting women emerges as a crucial idea throughout the episode, in fact — the way participants in the sex trade or the burgeoning porn industry lean on one another to jointly make their way through harsh patriarchal systems. Melissa’s plight in the episode reveals the limitations of solidarity, but in other areas we see its vitality.
Our first glimpse of Eileen in “Au Reservoir” is in a hotel hallway, all done up, presumably taking Harvey up on his offer from last week to work with “vetted” clients in order to keep making money while she establishes herself in porn. She walks with the same gait and worn face that we saw before she gave up the Times Square life, only this time, it becomes clear she’s playing more of an escort role. (Or as she puts it, still “f—ing,” but with “more of the bulls— people do before they f—.”) She has another degrading experience with a john, a man of higher status but no less uncaring than some of her more unsavory Deuce regulars.
Eileen appears in much higher spirits when back on a porn set with Harvey and his crew. Over the course of the episode, we see her emerge as an artist. She stands behind Harvey as he tries directing Lori and her male costar, who have no chemistry and who make sex look “joyless,” per the filmmaker. She suggests little ways of improving the atmosphere on set, telling Harvey to buy the actors food — “not everybody f—s good on an empty stomach,” she cracks — and suggesting they replace the “puke green” duvet on the bed with a “horny” red spread. More specifically, we see her try to make the space a safer, more welcoming one for Lori, who’s alternately stiff and and vulnerable during filming. Eileen first takes her aside, complimenting her appearance and reassuring her that “There’s nothing to be nervous about — it’s just people f—ing around, right?” Then, in a stunning filming sequence, she essentially takes over for Harvey as Lori continues to struggle.
It’s almost as if she’s narrating while the camera rolls. “Jesus, look at that — she is so f—ing hot,” Eileen says, seductively, as she circles the set, looking straight at Lori. Eileen then turns her attention to the male costar, Andy, in an effort to make Lori feel more comfortable. “Oh, yeah, that’s right, Andy, lift her hips so I can see the inside of her thighs,” she commands. “Yeah, just let her feel each inch of your c—, one at a time. Feels good like that, right? … You’re getting us all hot.” Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Eileen’s creative juices flowing with irresistible inspiration in a subplot that speaks to the unique value of female artistry. It’s a powerful moment, the way Eileen spins a brightly lit, none-too-savory porn shoot into a genuinely empowering experience.
That feeling of empowerment seeps into the episode’s spotlight on Ashley as well. As it becomes increasingly clear that Frankie’s no savior — more of the opposite, really — he dumps his one-night-fling off at Abby’s. Abby is initially cold to the idea, hardened by her experience trying to “help” Darlene by buying a plane ticket for her back home. But as she spends more time with these women, we see her stop pathologizing them and start really seeing them. She’s still got plenty of maturing to do — she takes Vincent to meet her family at a country club solely to upset them, and hesitates before leaving Ashley alone in her apartment just long enough to convey fear of being stolen from — but she takes Ashley in, listens to her, and supports her.
When Abby asks whether Ashley is going to go back to C.C., it becomes clear that The Deuce will soon be down a cast member. Ashley’s finished. Abby takes a check her father made out to her — courtesy of Vincent telling him what a hard worker she is at the Hi-Hat — and writes it out to Ashley (or, actually, to Dorothy, her real name), saying, “You’ve worked longer and harder than me.” Abby’s showing her respect — like a bratty teen finally realizing the value of her elders. Abby brings her to the Port Authority, the image of Ashley leaving a sharp contrast to that of Lori arriving in New York, wide-eyed and trouble-seeking, from back in the pilot. Ashley rides the escalator up, the “Welcome to New York” sign behind her getting further out of view, and the camera stays on her in the episode’s final seconds. She’s neither relieved nor bewildered — just ready to move on.
The Deuce has always been smart and respectful enough to not condescend prostitution, to treat it as a tragic sob story that needs escaping. The final shot of Ashley leaving the life crystallizes the importance of this approach. We don’t see a woman excited by what awaits her, nor clueless to the horrors she’s leaving behind. Rather, through Neumann’s beautiful performance, we see a life lived, often difficult but survivable — her own. Ashley exited a trade that was only turning less humane, and while there’s a hint of optimism in the uncertainty of whatever’s next, there’s also the reality of what she’s leaving behind: a newly corrupt system powered by greed, already punishing the likes of Bernice, Shay, and Melissa. Even in an episode such as “Au Reservoir,” where several are empowered and where sexuality is embraced and not merely commodified, solidarity can only get some so far.