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)