If you thought Vincent (James Franco) was in the shit last week, “Nobody Has to Get Hurt” opens up with The Deuce’s easygoing barman in a full-on mob interrogation/execution. He’s still got his scruples about killing, but that’s clearly a liability to his body, if not his soul. When Rudy (Michael Rispoli) and Matty the Horse (Garry Pastore) meet with Kiki (Alysia Reiner) to discuss signing the increasingly coked-up Lori (Emily Meade) to a movie deal—away from her pimp, C.C. (Gary Carr)—it’s a refreshing change of pace: “This is fun. Nobody has to get hurt,” Rispoli chortles, 15 minutes after we saw him use a similar tone to call off a kill. “Just people fucking on film and we take it all the way to the bank.” The mob’s all-in on the porn business, and people are definitely going to get hurt.
Especially, say, ambitious creatives like Eileen (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who will fight for their vision. Seeing Eileen in the editing suite, handing out notes to her editor/lover with the same kind of authority she wants to see in her porn, is one of the highlights of an episode filled with ass-covering, spite, and selfishness. Eileen tries her hand at the former when explaining her work to her son, dancing around the nature of the film to try to earn points with the kid without saying, “You can’t see this movie unless you wanna see your mom having sex.”
Thanks to co-creator George Pelecanos’ script, it’s amiable and funny enough that the hedging is tense without feeling crushing—as is a scene where Larry (Gbenga Akinnagbe), a publicly terrible pimp and full-blown pioneer in the world of interracial porn, fights “coon-ass shit” in his dialogue. But the way director Tanya Hamilton puts these scenes together, with dread mounting again and again after the cold open pistol-whips us with that mobster mentality, means we’re always a little on edge.
We’re tense when Frankie (Franco) meets a woman of luxury in a bar, going up to her fancy apartment to have sex that mostly involves looking at himself in the mirror. The number of ways The Deuce can make sex selfish is seemingly infinite: The seductive shackles of drug use lock Shay (Kim Director) down to her pimp, while a startlingly good turn by Armand Assante as father of the Franco twins lambasts Vincent’s commitment to his wandering eye as far less masculine than the eye itself.
Paul (Chris Coy), with 20/20 wandering eyesight, is still neck-deep in sex to blow off steam from overwork, the bags under his sleepless eyes getting skin rather than skin cream as their ointment. So, too, is Gene (Luke Kirby), whose cruising becomes more brazen as his efforts to de-sex The Deuce gain traction. The hypocrisy of a cruising, straight-presenting man is a fun mirror to Paul’s wholehearted dedication to gayness at every turn, and an effective examination of the social factors squeezing people into the former situation (seen recently in the stellar Beach Rats). We also get another facet of the title: It’s just sex, nobody has to get hurt.
But with so little given to the character, Gene’s escapades feel light, pornographic, and preachy, which the rest of the series never does—and, in fact, which it tries stringently to avoid. That said, Kirby is such an engagingly inscrutable presence (glower at me!) that watching him navigate through labels is good enough to warrant much, much more. That way we can avoid that cheap shoehorned feeling in the future.
Dorothy (Jamie Neumann)—not the Dorothy who Gene’s friends with—continues evolving and gaining confidence, which isn’t helping the activism effort. She gets flak for distributing pamphlets and usurping the pros trying to navigate the dangers of the industry. Neumann’s acting, as her character reaches beyond her stoic jaw-clenching to happy-go-lucky advocate, has gotten as broad as the writing has called for, but the escalation from episode to episode seems a bit rushed. It generates uneasiness, like we’re watching someone lose their grip on reality. And maybe we are. As Dorothy gets further and further away from her time as a sex worker, she’s forgetting the constant threat they’re under, whether it’s being beaten, sold, or worse.
When C.C. sells Lori, it reinforces the power differential between an established group like the mob buying up any resources that less well-off people have with meager lump sums. That the lump sums don’t seem meager to the sellers is the ruse, the ploy keeping them from creating their own empires. It’s a level of exploitation one higher than a pimp selling a sex worker. So when C.C. rapes Lori, it’s of course about his power over her, but it’s also akin to razing land as invaders move in: He’s devaluing someone he sees as property to spite his enemies. It’s a heartbreaking display of dehumanization, contextualized as a businessman’s ire. He’s not just a sexist, he’s a capitalist. And wouldn’t you know it, to Lori it all feels the same.
It doesn’t matter that he advocates for a nonviolent resolution to the pimps’ Dorothy problem, just as it doesn’t matter that he loses Lori on his own terms. He’s not a sociopath, but an Ayn Randian whose prime capital has left him. And he knows he’s useless now. Larry made it clear that pimping is acting; C.C. just has boundless potential for self-deception. And self-destruction.
The pimp goes on a Taxi Driver-esque run where social barbs and empty threats replace bullets, but the end result is the same: suicide by violence. Bobby (Chris Bauer), with his fragile ego and working man’s shame, happens to be the closest weapon. A screwdriver through the heart ends the outdated C.C., who The Deuce and Lori both outgrew. When Black Frankie (Thaddeus Street) stumbles in with a “Damn. Y’all murdered the shit out that motherfucker,” we have permission to exhale, synced with Bobby’s heavy breathing. It’s only then that the ploy becomes apparent, the desperation reeking from the corpse on the floor. War is coming, and changing economics forced the first shot.
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.