Symbolism in The Deuce isn’t always subtle. Sometimes it’s as obvious as a rat crawling onto a prostitute while she gives a blowjob in a porn theater. When that happens to Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal) in the opening sequence of “I See Money,” the husky rodent does more than portend the indignities awaiting her. An inevitable symptom of Times Square squalor, the rat is an emblem of the collateral damage we see everywhere in the episode.
“I See Money” seems to find Candy at rock bottom, when an obese john dies while she performs oral sex on him. The moment shocks only in its morbid absurdity; as the show’s various pimps have warned in the past, hooking has a tendency to turn ugly. Choices that Vincent (James Franco) made in earlier episodes beget similarly grave consequences here when Rudy (Michael Rispoli) and his henchmen batter one of the construction workers who begs out of the payroll scheme that Vincent orchestrated. When Vincent learns about the incident, his shock lasts only as long it takes for his brother-in-law, Bobby (Chris Bauer), to deliver the cold truth about the mob guys: “You sure as fuck knew their kind when you got into bed with them.”
In scenes that shift focus away from the goings-on in and around Times Square, we glimpse the damaged interior lives of Vincent and Candy. While visiting Bobby’s house to drop off food, Vincent’s ex-wife, Andrea (Zoe Kazan), reminds him (and us) that while Vincent makes his name in the Manhattan bar scene, his kids are left fatherless in Brooklyn. As she pleads with him to return home, Vincent’s story regains a level of sadness that was easy to forget while watching him develop a restaurant after leaving home.
“I See Money” is notably the first episode of The Deuce to explore Candy’s actual romantic life, and her date in this episode is somehow more uncomfortable to watch than her prostitution (the dying man excluded). As Candy readies for dinner with Jack (Will Chase), whom she meets in a record store early in the episode, she downs liquor to calm her nerves and we’re reminded that this is the first time we’ve seen her go on a date—and if her preparation is any indication, it probably won’t go well. Unsurprisingly, she gets drunk at dinner, yet her apology as she awkwardly kisses Jack goodbye—“It’s been a while”—poignantly explains her tactlessness. This woman, whose job is sex with strangers, has forgotten what a real date feels like.
Between the wig she wears at dinner and the fake address she gives Jack, Candy has also forgotten her identity as someone other than a prostitute or mother. As she ostensibly checks her makeup in a mirror in another scene, her gaze lingers vacantly as though she’s stuck, simply wondering how she got there. The scene cuts to Abby (Margarita Levieva) staring at her reflection at Vincent’s bar, the Hi-Hat, suggesting a parallel between the two women. When Abby contemplates the infinite possibilities of her newfound independence, does she consider one day finding herself in Candy’s shoes?
“I See Money” repeatedly maps the life cycle of New York residents in the 1970s with scenes shared by similar characters who find themselves separated by time and experience. In a quiet moment outside the Hi-Hat, Paul (Chris Coy) confesses to Vincent that he feels pulled toward Greenwich Village, a staging ground for the gay liberation movement made urgent by the recent Stonewall Riots. Later in the episode, Paul mentions to his boyfriend that he aims to one day own a bar in the Village. His ambition sounds familiar, because it’s where we met Vincent in “Pilot”: discovering his talent for the bar business and imagining the possibility of leaving his Brooklyn neighborhood.
Without Vincent as a portrait of Paul’s potential future, and if Vincent weren’t repeatedly compromising to fulfill a dream not unlike Paul’s own, Paul’s scenes might feel detached from the show’s central plot. In “I See Money,” Vincent wades further into the extralegal world of his identical brother, Frankie (Franco), placating mob backers, appeasing the crooked cop who extorts him for “protection,” and contemplating the purchase of a gun. The twins were The Deuce’s first and most obvious parallel, and as Vincent’s success grows, his ethical compromises begin to mirror Frankie’s shaky morality. The world of the series imposes itself on the ambitious.
“I See Money” constructs such comparisons without ever feeling expository or educational, and in part because it maintains an emotional focus on the uncertainty of Vincent and Candy’s destinies and, by proxy, the potential fates of characters such as Paul and Abby. The episode concludes with Rudy showing Vincent a future that, for now, is little more than an abandoned building and some construction equipment that Vincent will be charged with transforming. Rudy’s vision of the place as a Times Square oasis hinges on Vincent becoming a bona fide restaurateur. After “I See Money,” we’re left imagining the damage he’ll unwittingly incur to do so.
The stories flowing through The Deuce paint a cyclical picture: Pasts, presents, and futures are illustrated simultaneously, all balanced on the razor’s edge of Times Square, a neighborhood that is itself a vestige of history and a staging ground for the future. Earlier in the season, C.C. (Gary Carr) mentioned the Ghost of Christmas Future. The characters in The Deuce wield ambition like a shield against grim fate, but the ramifications of life in their world would appear inescapable if they, like us, could see the bigger picture.
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