Officer Chris Alston (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) issues the titular ultimatum of “Show and Prove,” the second episode of The Deuce, to hookers during a farcical street raid: Show a property voucher proving your residence or spend the night in a holding tank. Alston is nonchalant as he demands paperwork allowing him to plausibly overlook the block’s rampant prostitution, and arrest only hookers who don’t pretend to be merely half-nude loiterers. Like paper bags concealing liquor bottles, the vouchers provide a shroud of willful ignorance for the cops who tolerate squalor but not brazenness.
When Alston and his fellow officers raid a seedy porn shop later in the episode, they object only to videos featuring full penetration. If they can’t protect the girls who they feel are being exploited in these videos, then they’re at least going to protect common decency. In this way, the show’s cops aren’t bettering the neighborhood; they’re merely preventing it from further decay. Their custodial approach is contrasted in “Show and Tell” by extralegal entities with less resignation to the status quo: the creeping influence of amateur pornographers and the mafia capo Rudy Pipilo (Michael Rispoli).
The debt collectors who hunt Vincent’s (James Franco) degenerate twin brother, Frankie, work for Pipilo, whom The Deuce presents with naturalistic restraint. The series doesn’t make room for the romanticism of The Godfather or the insularity of swaggering Sopranos-like mobsters, portraying Pipolo as an austere entrepreneur rather than a bruiser. When Vincent proposes a plan to absolve his brother’s debt, the mobster applies exacting parameters with a financial fluency that establishes his authority through expertise.
Vincent’s plan reflects David Simon’s journalistic sensibility.There will be no exciting heist here to absolve Frankie’s debt. Instead, the labor scheme that Vincent concocts feels culled from the type of newspaper reporting that could lull readers to sleep—or send them fleeing for the sports page—with byzantine details. Pipilo’s crew will assume the payroll of a construction job helmed by Vincent’s brother-in-law, Bobby (Chris Bauer), in exchange for five percent of each check and a handful of no-show jobs (a mob staple).
Pipilo’s broad role here as an agent changing the Times Square landscape is revealed later in the episode, when he shares his transformative vision with Vincent. The mobster points at vacant buildings for emphasis as he bemoans the profits fleeing the area in pockets of scared theatergoers and upstanding day traders. If he were to look upon C.C. (Gary Carr) and the show’s pimps, we can assume Pipilo would see a shortsighted set, wasting an opportunity for the legitimate money of real estate deals and the entertainment industry.
Alongside Pipilo, “Show and Prove” introduces the porn industry that threatens to render the consumption of sex acts private and prostitution irrelevant. Darlene (Dominique Fishback) understands this threat intuitively, and seethes when she discovers an uptown porn shop selling the sex tape that she filmed with a john, supposedly for his private viewing. For Darlene, porn assaults the idea of sex as a physical commodity. But Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal) reacts differently when she heads uptown to shoot a movie, embracing the opportunity as if she can somehow glimpse the industry’s ubiquitous future. As she shoots a depressingly low-budget Viking-themed porn, we watch her experience an epiphany. We view lighting rigs and the director’s camera through her eyes, and on her face we see intoxicated curiosity. At first, she appears taken with the possibility to escape the street and enter a world where threatening pimps and entitled johns are replaced by goofy props and detached co-stars. After she questions a producer about filmmaking technology, though, the wonder on her face reads as something else entirely: a director’s ambition, and a determination to outgrow her role as prostitute and become a new kind of pimp, selling the human body from beyond the spatial and temporal void provided by a camera lens.
Shifting to C.C., “Show and Prove” presents a pimp desperate to protect his investment, even if he can’t yet feel his world shifting. The episode revisits him and Lori (Emily Meade) in the midst of apparently genuine passion, after just last week he slashed slashed Ashley (Jamie Neumann) in a hotel stairwell. Lori’s affectionate post-sex pillow talk with C.C. elucidates just how deftly he manipulates the girls; depending on his mood, he pushes them just as easily toward despair as he does toward contentment. “Show and Prove” painstakingly illustrates this transformative trick: As they smoke, C.C. delivers a vulnerable lament of the lonely pimp’s existence, and later, he brings Lori to a decrepit porn theater filled with burned-out hookers—a glimpse at her future, should she ever cross him.
If Lori were in a horror film, and one could argue that she is, she’d be wading into a cellar as audiences, aware of her fate, avert their eyes. We feel that sensation watching scenes of C.C. worming his way into her psyche, though The Deuce has so far illustrated how his siren call could become plausibly irresistible to Lori even as her quality of life declines. He alternates between warm lover and cruel boss, and appears to complete his manipulation in the episode’s savage climax, by coldly killing a man who attempts to abduct Lori. If his threats weren’t enough to dissuade her from leaving, it’s hard to imagine Lori now operating in the streets without C.C.’s protection.
There’s no hesitation from C.C. as he commits murder, no suggestion that this level of violence is new for him; he’s not even shaken from considering profits, and quickly urges Lori to get back out on the street—before the would-be kidnapper’s handcuffs are off her wrists. In consecutive episodes, The Deuce concludes with a snapshot of C.C. barbarically protecting his business, but the threats introduced in “Show and Prove” will likely be unbowed by one pimp’s knife, whenever he finally spies them on the horizon.
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