The Baltimore Sun reporters from The Wire described their city as “Dickensian,” a comparison that stuck as a critical shorthand and pervasive cocktail-party quip about the HBO series itself. The Deuce seems intent on recycling the parallel: In “The Principle Is All,” Darlene (Dominique Fishback) reads A Tale of Two Cities, curious to acquaint herself with the source material of the 1935 Jack Conway film adaptation that moved her to tears in “Pilot.”
Her choice of reading material is a fitting nod to the novelistic ambition of both The Wire and The Deuce, though both series have as much in common with a nature series such as Planet Earth as they do with Victorian literature. The Deuce illuminates the intricate balance of its New York City ecosystem, characterizing the predators and prey that flood its streets without commenting on their inherent morality. Both predator and prey are simply surviving, and if either were to disappear, the other would follow suit.
Drama in the series is bolstered by our knowledge that this version of New York City has long since been paved over by flagship stores and chain restaurants, yet we’re always unsure of how exactly the process unfolded. “The Principle Is All” further broadens the show’s expansive view of the city, and suggests that the answers to those questions are likely as knotted as the confluence of factors that led New York City to the decay on display here.
When Pipilo (Michael Rispoli) and an attorney meet early in the episode to discuss changes in Times Square, their conversation is shrouded in euphemism and implication. They look over a map, eventually picking two city blocks near Times Square that “could work,” but we don’t understand what they’re proposing—which is the intent of the show’s writers. Times Square will be transformed, primarily, by opaque dealings in sterile offices far downtown.
We can intuit the meeting’s effect later in the episode, when a police commander, bafflingly, instructs night-watch officers to turn their backs to the prostitution going on near the strip of Times Square known as “The Deuce.” The directive resembles the selective reportage that allowed cops in The Wire to bolster their crime numbers, and clarifies the attorney’s comment about the city looking strong behind its mayor’s presidential bid: One way to bring down crime numbers is to ignore crimes altogether.
The latest episode of The Deuce illustrates that a glass ceiling exists even in society’s cellar.
Like the episode that precedes it, “The Principle Is All” punctures the garish glamour of Times Square with an act of violence, this time when Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is forced to step over a stabbing victim as she flees a pushy john. The incident is mere scenery in the episode, but it bolsters Candy’s quest to leave prostitution for pornography with a sense of urgency.
Gyllenhaal vibrantly imbues Candy with kind of placid resignation, though the character betrays her ambition when breathlessly espousing the potential of porn to other hookers. “The Principle Is All” quietly devastates in two of Candy’s scenes, when she hopefully tells her mother, Joan (Carolyn Mignini), that she might be moving into “filmmaking” soon, and, later, when her dream is dashed by a sleazy, sweaty exhibitionist named Harvey Wasserman (David Krumholtz) who rejects her offer of apprenticeship. Candy juggles naïve optimism and utter hopelessness, gamely mustering a euphemistic lie to her mother, and visibly shattering when the real aspiration behind her euphemism is exposed by Harvey as a fantasy.
When he sweetly rejects Candy, Harvey claims to be stretched too thin to assume more help (and, ostensibly, financial strain). Yet Candy’s brief expression of shocked despair reflects her understanding of the truth: With his counteroffers of lucrative acting work, Harvey is just one more pimp, seeking ownership of Candy’s sexuality because he’s incapable of imagining her doing the same work he does. Harvey’s rejection marks The Deuce’s first illustration of the feminine professional plight writ large—evidence that a glass ceiling exists even in society’s cellar.
While Harvey is introduced with an established backstory and ascertainable motivations, we are acquainted with Big Mike (Mustafa Shakir) through documentary objectivity: We’re left wondering what drives him while, throughout the episode, he leers into a porn shop, chokes out a drug dealer, or saves Vincent (James Franco) from being shot. In fact, we know precious little about the apparent drifter outside of his proficiency for violence, a skill he employs for both cruelty and heroism in the episode. His potential remains undefined: One can easily imagine him both a benevolent bouncer at Vincent’s new bar or a dangerous presence in the lawless streets.
Such is the duality of the world of The Deuce. Lawlessness is itself a kind of glamour within Vincent’s bar, where the night is pregnant with the possibility of becoming unforgettable if the revelers drink enough and choose the right song on the jukebox. The last two episodes of the series featured violent reminders of the danger lurking beyond the bar, where, after “The Principle Is All,” the police are even less present. As The Deuce prompts us to imagine the process of Times Square’s transformation, violence looms outside Vincent’s bar and the other trendy enclaves dotting the squalid landscape. We watch scenes of merriment unfold while anticipating the cataclysm that will alter the lives of Vincent and his patrons forever.
Vincent’s bar narrowly avoids such an event in “The Principle Is All,” when a busy night is interrupted by the disgruntled vending-machine owner who draws a gun on Vincent. It was Vincent’s mob backers who commandeered the man’s business, but it’s Vincent who faces the barrel of the vendor’s gun. “The Principle Is All” reminds us that the men deciding the destiny of this neighborhood do so from offices that tower over the city, and are likely unconcerned with the people who work and live at the street level. They can burn whoever they like, as long as someone else is left holding the bag.
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