David Simon’s The Wire helped to make the Momentous Penultimate Episode a hallmark of prestige television, so it’s fitting that tonight’s “Au Reservoir” ends with The Deuce’s first shocking twist of the season. When the usually docile Leon (Anwan Glover) snaps, killing Reggie Love (Tariq Trotter), the act dutifully provides gravity to an episode that fixates on the show’s peripheral characters. The Deuce has consistently balanced cynical appraisal of urban development with a humanist attention to individuals, and after last week’s focus on the broad influences affecting Times Square, the season’s second-to-last episode looks to the background, prominently featuring Ashley (Jamie Neumann), Paul (Chris Coy), and the now-listless crew of pimps.
The pimps are the first to face eradication by the proliferation of porn and brothels, and they spend most of “Au Reservoir” searching aimlessly for a way to kill time. It’s a new problem for the group, who began the season atop the Times Square food chain, bantering with patrolmen and effectively marshaling their hookers. Once masters of their domain, they’re left to gossip at Leon’s diner, where, in an odd, endearing exchange, Rodney (Method Man) reveals that he’s been repeatedly watching Fantasia at a nearby theater.
C.C. (Gary Carr) is less prone to diversion and spends most of “Au Reservoir” searching for Ashley after she abandons her post in the episode’s opening sequence. Again, the episode recalls the start of The Deuce, as it was Ashley who was tortured by C.C. in the show’s pilot, when the pimps still enjoyed unthreatened control. While Rodney’s affinity for Disney hippopotami is a hilariously specific character wrinkle, it’s Larry (Gbenga Akinnagbe) who offers the most insightful assessment of their new reality, wistfully reminding his colleagues that “there’s more than money to this.”
To be sure, the pimps have lost something besides money (the new arrangement is, ironically, a financial windfall for them). They’ve lost their routine and their sense of purpose, and it’s difficult to empathize with their ennui. When Ashley is asked out by Frankie (James Franco), her normally downtrodden expression transforms into sheepish excitement, and for the first time we see the potential normality she sacrificed in her time with C.C.
Ashley faces a similar realization upon witnessing Frankie’s untethered lifestyle, and her subsequent decision to leave New York for good is enabled by the weakened position of her pimp. The Deuce has spent enough time illustrating the cyclical abuse of prostitutes for us to believe C.C. when he brashly predicts Ashley’s return, but it never comes. And as she leaves New York in the episode’s last scene, there’s an undercurrent of optimism that’s been rare in the series thus far. The Deuce has hinted at an impending boom for New York City’s sex trade but has been less rosy about the prospects of sex professionals, at least until Ashley’s liberation.
Frankie’s date with Ashley isn’t classically romantic: The two attend a screening of Boys in the Sand, a landmark gay erotic film that Paul sells to Frankie as a swords-and-sandals epic. “Au Reservoir” continues Paul’s role in The Deuce as a window into New York’s burgeoning gay awakening, using Paul’s date with an actor from Boys in the Sand to illustrate the film’s place at the vanguard of artful pornography rather than a next step in Paul’s personal development. In a similar sense, the focus on Boys in the Sand seems to foreshadow the porn explosion primarily as a way to provide context for Candy’s (Maggie Gyllenhaal) scenes filming with Harvey (David Krumholz).
On set, Candy moves into a de facto directorial role, offering encouragement to Lori (Emily Meade) and the other actors from over Harvey’s shoulder. She appears to be working her way behind the camera by simply outshining Harvey in the role: She coaxes emotion out of Lori with sensual urging that starkly contrasts Harvey’s flat exasperation, and she alone decides that the colors of the set’s bed sheets need to be changed. Harvey sarcastically dubs her “Marshall McLuhan, all of the sudden,” but the financial success of Boys in the Sand signals a new emphasis on quality and an incoming meritocracy in porn production. With substantial money behind his film, Harvey’s disinterested direction would be unacceptable.
When Candy returns to prostitution between shoots, she’s less composed and energetic than on set, and visibly uncomfortable. She visits a wealthy client in an opulent hotel penthouse and is jarred by the ritual of dinner and drinks before sex, later describing her new gig to Harvey as “still fucking, just with more of the bullshit that comes before.” Her discomfort mirrors Lori’s initial discomfort filming and subverts our conception of progress. Luxurious hotel rooms and controlled porn studios seem like upgrades from the street, but for the women, they’re simply a new kind of fucking.
Adjustment is an overarching theme in “Au Reservoir,” and the episode frames adaptation as the only path survival in The Deuce. After Bernice (Andrea-Rachel Parker) falls apart at the parlor, Darlene (Dominique Fishback) makes exactly that argument to the novice hooker, telling Bernice that if she doesn’t go home, she’ll die. As Thunder Thighs (Pernell Walker) says to Darlene during Bernice’s episode, “Some just aren’t built for it.”
The pimps in The Deuce aren’t built for adaptation; C.C. admits as much during the Fantasia conversation, when he initially confronts the fact of their irrelevance. They’re dinosaurs awaiting extinction, which in Reggie Love’s case arrives literally. Leon has, in his minimal screen time throughout the season, sympathized with the prostitutes that frequent his diner, but his niceties have been spurned by the pimps, then Times Square’s apex predators. That such a peripheral character should strike the first and only substantial blow against a pimp is no coincidence. The winds of change have reached the margins.
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