“It’s America, right? Do we ever leave a fucking dollar for the other guy to pick up?”
There’s a scene in the third episode of The Deuce – cheekily titled “The Principle of It All” – where a mafia strongman is waiting outside for his boss, lazily reading a yellow-paged copy of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. Not only is this a rather showy signifier of the time period (as we’re a year out from Francis Ford Coppola’s landmark adaptation of that piece of lurid pulp), but also it’s a thematic bullhorn for what this hour means to the whole of the 42nd Street serial. Seeing the cover instantly brings to mind that picture’s opening monologue (“I believe in America…”), and how we’re once again watching a bunch of rats race through the gutter, kissing rings and hoping to achieve some semblance of a dream in this land of endless opportunity.
During this Episode, each character is looking to grab every dollar they can get their grubby paws on, whether that means prying open cigarette machines, taking shitty telemarketing jobs, or staging fake porn shoots and charging an inflated entrance cost so creeps can come get their jollies while two folks fuck before them. But creators David Simon and George Pelecanos are again charting these vectors inside of a rigged system, where power structures are being put into place in order to control the flow of money and outside influence. While the mayor of New York City (which would’ve been John Lindsay in ’71) is lobbying to both reduce the number of vice raids on adult bookstores and soften the state’s stance on pornography, mobsters like Rudy Pipilo (Michael Rispoli) are meeting with lawyers to discuss localization plans for smut palaces in the Times Square area. The pieces of this neuvo New York are slowly being arranged, and everyone’s going to (rightfully) want a piece of the action.
On the streets, its business as usual, as Vinny (James Franco) is adding the finishing touches to the Hi-Hat, the joint Pipilo’s set him up with, which will become a way station for all sorts of colorful criminal types. Trouble is, a hulking interest (Happy Anderson) barges in, barking about wanting his cut from the jukebox, cigarette machine and pool table. When he threatens violence, Frankie (also Franco) smashes them up and tells him to get the fuck out of Dodge, which prompts a sit down between the goon’s bosses and Rudy (which ends with the beast getting told to go fuck himself). Not one to be dismissed, the former shareholder shows up on opening night, only to be choked and tossed out on his ass by Big Mike (Mustafa Shakir), whom Vinny promptly thanks and offers to buy a round (or six) for his new champion.
Only Big Mike looks to be a natural byproduct of this budding cesspool of ill-gotten gains, roaming the streets and manhandling dealers instead of paying for his quick fixes. As the cops are instructed to deregulate the Deuce’s sex trade, drugs and violence are already starting to move in and set up permanent shops. Big Mike may have acted altruistically when his new hangout is threatened by another intimidating figure, but when he’s high and lumbering around these littered alleys, he scares the shit out of Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and the rest of the girls. Who knows what he’s bound to do while under the influence? There are already anonymous muggings and stabbings occurring within shouting distance from where the hookers are making their living each evening, and its clear that nobody really gives a shit, as a gutted punk is easily stepped over by passersby, unwilling to get involved or call the cops.
Cons of all sorts are being run, but none are as clever as the one being perpetrated by pornographer Harvey Wasserman (David Krumholtz). Acting as if he’s shooting a movie and opening the set to the public, Harvey charges $60 a pop to watch these actors fuck without the distancing effect of the silver screen. The rub here is that there’s no film in the cameras – it’s merely a way for Wasserman to avoid the cops (labeling the carnal acts an “art exhibit” should the Fuzz bust in unexpectedly). The equipment reignites the stars in Candy’s eyes, who sits down with the director to have lunch and discuss making a movie. Harvey isn’t interested in adding any overhead to his already profitable endeavor (stock costs money, after all, as does the labor of editing the loops), and the best he can offer her is a part in his sticky stageplay. “It’s good money for the life,” he says to Candy, breaking her heart and sending her back out onto the street to bat off Johns who want to shell a little extra to fuck her in the ass (and absolutely nobody wants to do that).
These capitalist power structures are putting the squeeze on good people, as Darlene (Dominique Fishback) ends up stealing money from one of her regulars, in order to make up for falling asleep with the guy who just wanted to watch a movie with her. On the other end of the Deuce, Lori (Emily Meade) gets an earful from one of her $30 suck jobs that she’s overcharging for the drive through the Jersey tunnel (citing the “principle of the matter” for the transportation cost, thus earning the Episode its title). Her pimp CC (Gary Carr) doesn’t even want Lori to be doing these ride-alongs, insisting she should be making better money by cultivating a cadre of return buyers. On the “straight” end of things (as “straight” as this world gets, anyway), Bobby (Chris Bauer) finds out he’s losing Union electrical work because of Rudy’s involvement in the construction jobs Vinny now collects for. The only way to get by in The Deuce is to make a deal with some sort of Devil, and some of these players are starting to regret these contracts inked in blood.
It took Simon and Pelecanos two seasons to get this far in The Wire (as the docks were the first time we felt the extent of the drug trade's reach), but they’ve kicked the sociopolitical pacing up a notch with The Deuce. Perhaps the most ironic moment in “The Principle of the Matter” comes when Bobby has a heart attack after reprimanding a young employee for trying to sway the crew’s hearts and minds regarding the conflict in Vietnam. He’s a man so worried about his microcosm, that it takes a reminder of the greater world to trigger a physical defect in his own biological makeup, sending him to the hospital and creating a new set of financial hardships for the ones he loves. Easy come, easy go, the globe continues to turn.