The first five episodes of The Deuce foresaw the drastic transformation of New York City’s sex trade, and in “Why Me?” a new framework finally materializes. The brothels are open. Porn is here. And keeping with the show’s devotion to historical accuracy, the revolution is far from explosive.
The episode’s most pivotal scene is a court ruling to drop charges against a group of pornographers—one of many such cases being decided across the city, with judges seeking to relax obscenity laws. Meanwhile, unseen powers at City Hall arrange the unhindered operation of brothels, such as the one operated by Vincent (James Franco). These developments, spawned in dry courtroom proceedings and nebulous government agreements, push the show’s characters over the precipice and into uncharted territory.
“Why Me?” is focused on the effect of reform. The fraudulent methods used by politicians to polish crime numbers in creator David Simon’s The Wire are mirrored in this episode by New York’s tacit acceptance of brothels and loosened legal standards. “Where do they think all the dirt is going to go?” Alston (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) asks Sandra (Natalie Paul), in reference to a full police crackdown on prostitution. It’s a question that recalls a pointed metaphor of reform in The Wire: the cloud of harmful dust cast into a neighborhood after a drug-ridden housing project is demolished. Alston understands the obvious, that simply banning hookers from the street won’t eradicate their trade. As one door is closed to prostitutes, the two that open answer his question: that the “dirt” will move indoors, or into porn.
Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal) chooses porn and begins acting for Harvey (David Krumholtz), who once again rejects her efforts to move behind the camera. The specific reasons for Harvey’s resistance aren’t as important as the fact of his resistance itself, which ensures that despite graduating from the street corner, Candy will be selling sex for the foreseeable future. The director is likely not sexist, as women work the camera for him already, and he seemingly respects Candy. He’s simply an arm of the new establishment, comfortable and lacking an obvious incentive to invest in Candy. She’s labor, and he’s management; while changes represent a boon for him, they alter only the circumstances of her work, not of the nature of the work itself.
Harvey is like any of the management figures in The Deuce, poised to profit from the new normal in ways that evade laborers. For Vincent, the city’s effort to move girls off the street offers a healthy new income stream, as the prostitutes forced to ply their trade in brothels like his pay him a fee to do so. The new business solidifies his transformation into an actual pimp despite his moral objections, and his conflicted pouting throughout “Why Me?” further highlights the futility of Candy’s struggle: Vincent can’t help but increase profit in the new framework, despite his reluctance, and she can’t escape her hooker identity, no matter how desperately she tries.
Throughout, the episode shifts focus between The Deuce’s other pimps, who for the first time in the show are faced with the prospect of total irrelevance should they fail to adapt. Their options are illustrated in scenes that focus on each of these men: Rodney (Method Man) recognizes the brothels as a new venue that won’t drastically alter his business model, while Larry (Gbenga Akinnagbe) urges Darlene (Dominique Fishback) toward film, looking in the moment like a talent agent instead of a pimp. They both seem to understand intuitively that the profit will continue for as long as they can maintain a management role, which means accepting new arenas.
In the tensest scene of an otherwise calm episode, C.C. (Gary Carr) bursts into Harvey’s studio to demand payment for the use of Lori (Emily Meade), who’s been enlisted by Candy to act. It’s a desperate play to maintain his current business model, and his tantrum is the behavior of someone less equipped than his colleagues for the future. As he flails about, lashing out at Harvey, Candy, and Lori, his bluster seems like the symptom of confusion. Unsure in this new situation, C.C. reverts to intimidation, his favorite tool. It works, but he looks out of his element in the midst of a professional shoot, as if even he knows intimidation won’t be enough to help him survive.
The Deuce’s pimps and prostitutes grasp at footholds in the wake of the city’s new reforms, and the show’s power players swiftly position themselves for a windfall. We don’t know yet who exactly issued the police crackdown order or who’s informally authorizing the brothels; we only know that Rudy (Michael Rispoli), having anticipated all the emerging revenue streams, is helping enact unofficial government policies. There’s a causal relationship between the needs of a select few and the reality of many in The Deuce; as the pimps and prostitutes stumble into the future, unseen power brokers bend the city’s landscape to their will, using whatever methods are available.
As for Alston’s question, we’ll likely never know where all the dirt ends up in The Deuce. Today, internet pornography is so ubiquitous that the events in the episode feel like fable, rather than history; it’s difficult to imagine such a gigantic regulated industry having been shaped by reactionary decisions of self-interest, instead of a thoughtful commitment to a common good. And yet, alongside the pimps and prostitutes blowing in the wind in this episode, The Deuce suggests that there are only self-preservationist politicians and savvy criminals cleaning the streets, and powering a revolution.
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