If The Deuce is a pessimistic show with optimistic characters, then “All You’ll Be Eating Is Cannibals” is an episode so damn despondent that it makes us doubt the dreams of characters we’ve been rooting for all along. There’s so much going on it’s hard to take it all in—especially when you’ve been taught that the consequences aren’t going to come for another episode at least. It’s all action and implication, thematic build-up without any dramatic progress. And that fills you up like a big bag of Chex Mix: overpowering and underwhelming, but too damn tasty to stop eating.
Like every episode of The Deuce, there are moments of sublime storytelling that aren’t allowed to linger, simply to accommodate the rest of series’ hundred plot lines. Director Zetna Fuentes, alongside writers Richard Price and Carl Capotorto, attempt to jangle all their keys onto the same thematic keyring, but inevitably miss the hole on a few. That said, for every disruptive piece of optimism, like the tragicomic free clinic at the Hi-Hat—where Abby (Margarita Levieva) feels some actual fulfillment, while Vincent (James Franco) barely tolerates progress— there are subtle links stringing together the other scenes. Scenes where people go out of their way to help others in small ways… when, in reality, they’re owning them.
Good intentions are tainted by the very system empowering the bad ones. Irene (Roberta Colindrez) checks Shay (Kim Director) out of rehab and into her place, attempting a cliched but earnest move (get this poor addicted girl out of the sex business and into a relationship with me) that still highlights the power imbalance in their relationship. Shay seems relatively indifferent to the whole thing. Man, woman, who gives a damn? They’ll all use you in the end. She builds up rocky walls in reaction to how destructive the industry has been to her ideas of love, sex, and self-worth—as if her OD wasn’t sign enough.
But this systemic poison is often more subtle than a narcotic. Genevieve Hudson-Price’s scoffing “You were gonna pay me?” when Eileen (Maggie Gyllenhaal) hands over scripting duties gets to the heart of undervalued creators in general and undervalued women in particular. It’s why Big Mike’s bedmate gives him the inside play on a robbery. It’s why fresh-off-the-bus girls are swept up with pimps showing them basic affection, promising more, when all that comes is the episode’s painful relationship highlight between Lori (Emily Meade) and C.C. (Garry Carr).
The love-punch-apology-love abusive relationship cycle that pimps make into a waning business model is on full display here (not just with Lori and C.C., but also Rodney, Shay, and Ashley), only for it to be dissected and its components reassigned to respectable fare. Exploitation is around in broad daylight, in the executive offices and auditions, but it’s a bit more elegant in its profanity there, like the difference between a bar brawl and a duel.
A little elegance is all many of these characters can ask for, or all they think they can ask for. When Eileen matter-of-factly reads Lori’s situation and tells her to get out of it, it’s not meant to be cruel, but it’s so penetrating as to feel invasive. It’s even worse knowing that Eileen made it a point to work alone. It’s hard to avoid a little projected smugness when all you want is an easily hateable “I told you so.” But it never comes, and Eileen’s understanding—even if it’s a little removed—offers maternal comfort. The cathartic hug between the two packs a wallop, partially because Eileen seems to care more about the method than the actor as her heady ambitions get closer to reality.
When Eileen’s hurting for cash, that big idiot Frankie (Franco) actually has some that wasn’t pilfered from the mob. For once. What follows is a lovely little scene that’s almost the opposite of last week’s conversational highlight between Eileen and Harvey. Here, friendship isn’t complicated by business; business is lubricated by friendship.
Where the previous scene was set in an open room, using distance as its visual language, here there’s a physical impediment that requires the camera to be placed on one side or another. The degree of separation between smooth-talking Eileen—working Frankie’s gambling vice into the pitch—and Frankie manifests as a chain-link fence. As soon as their fingers pierce that barrier, shaking on the investment, the safety net of uncomplicated friendship is dismantled. They’re both on the same side of the fence now. Eileen crosses over to get the cash and it feels like she pushes through the glass at the zoo’s monkey exhibit. When Frankie promises a role to his wife, it’s the most benign bother that could’ve followed.
More dangerous is the course Bobby’s (Chris Bauer) on after he gets arrested in a bust by Chris (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.), who found a way around the dirty cops and got his success/Bobby’s shame covered by the press. Bobby and Vincent, blinded by easy money, are on a path to self-destruction as they nestle into bed with the mob. They’re being used as fall guys, the face of the operation, but they don’t realize it yet.
From the sex workers at the bottom to the middle management, the mob keeps people in line with ways that use them, as Yaphet Kotto says in Blue Collar. Larry (Gbenga Akinnagbe) watches, then rehearses, that scene—as he transitions from being a pimp to a man who plays one (well!) in the movies—which is quickly followed by Paul (Chris Coy) watching some Mamet jabber in Sexual Perversity in Chicago. It’s art appreciation next to art infatuation, which correlates to their real lives. They’re both aspiring, but one’s far more successful than the other, who’s letting his difficulties faze him.
Paul’s ambitions, like Eileen’s, are taxing those around him. He’s trying to make his place capital-F Fancy to rub in the faces of the clout-holding heteros on the zoning board that characterize his “clientele” as shirtless, promiscuous, public hedonists. That abuse, that implied inferiority, is giving him a complex that he’s trying to solve by throwing money at it, which, at its practical core, makes it one of the show’s universal problems and attempted solutions. It only gets a bit more unique when he gives up and runs to a gorgeously grimy, literally rose-tinted hookup warehouse that makes Cruising look like a Liberace concert. Fulfilling the stereotype is nothing to be ashamed of, but for Paul it’s not particularly constructive. Getting head is great, but managing your own is better. As the final sequence takes us through Eileen’s first film take, we’re not left asking if people can change. Of course they can. But can they change without hurting those around them?
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.