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'The Deuce' recap: A hard look in the mirror

For The Baltimore Sun

Vinny, Candy and Doreen peer through the looking glass, and we discover how others see them and they see themselves — and it’s not always pretty.

“I See Money” is the most honest and poignant episode of “The Deuce” yet. Directed by Alex Hall, the episode shows deep and key conversations where characters only speak to each other through mirror reflections rather than face to face. This visual divide magnifies how the person looking at them through the mirror sees them for their financial worth, rather than who they are as a person. It’s capitalism at its finest.

As Vinny sits in the backseat of Rudy’s car, he watches Vinny through his rearview mirror, saying he has something big planned for him. “You’re going to make real money,” Rudy assures him, even though he won’t say what it is. Later he takes Vinny to a bleak, abandoned office, promising him “This is your future.” Vinny doesn’t get it, but the writing’s on the wall: This will likely be a porn studio that he will run.

Nominating Vinny to be the pioneer of the porn industry is a natural pick. As Rudy notes, he’s an organized, reliable businessman who surrounds himself with the right people. In this case, the right people are sex workers. Who fits the bill better?

The other characters don’t see as bright of a reflection when they look at themselves in the mirror. After finishing with a john, Candy goes to the hotel room’s mirror to fix her makeup, and he asks her for her name. “Candy,” she replies, looking back at her listless face.

Candy is having the worst week, ever. In the cold open, she’s performing a sexual act on a john, then notices a rat mere inches from them. Startled, she screams and nearly gives him a black eye as she pushes him off to run away. Barf.

When she later performs the same act on another john, he dies of a heart attack. Oh dear lord, that’s traumatizing. To make matters worse, the pimps taunt her by giving her a standing ovation at the breakfast place.

But there’s a faint glimmer of joy in her eyes when she’s getting ready for her date — yes, an actual date where the guy knows her real name. While she applies fresh makeup, she plays his voicemail on repeat like a love song, reminding herself that she is worthy of a man who is interested in her for who she is.

Her face in the mirror buoys from hopeful to disappointed when she wipes off her harsh lipstick she wears on the streets. Will the right makeup and outfit hide Candy, and convince him she’s Elaine?

Her date, Jack, on the other hand, is unvarnished at dinner. He admits to cheating on his ex-wife with a co-worker, whom he said he “wasn’t in love with.” Elaine laughs, saying that doesn’t matter — cheating is cheating. She might sell her body for money, but she still has morals.

In spite of his honesty, Elaine lies and says has no man or kids. Technically the first is true, but the second definitely isn’t. She also changes the topic when he asks her what she does for a living.

Then just a few hours later, where he kissed her goodbye in front of her apartment, she walked out in her work uniform — short shorts, high heels and bleach blonde wig in hand — ready to service a few men.

So much for honesty. We still don’t know what led her to prostitution or who is her child’s father is. But this mysterious background is what makes her such a fascinating character. That, and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s performance is spectacular, even if Candy’s life isn’t.

Back at the Hi Hat, Abby finds Doreen reading a book while sitting in a bathroom stall. When Doreen joins her at the sink, Abby asks her why she prostitutes, assuring her she just wants to understand.

Doreen stares blankly at herself in the dimly lit bathroom mirror as she tells Abby there’s no reason to understand. It’s what she does to get by, since she can no longer rely on her aunt. “There are other ways to make money,” Abby assures her. Doreen scoffs, saying Abby just has to “shake her ass to get tips.”

Abby sees more in Doreen than Doreen does in herself, and that’s why she wants to help her leave prostitution. As a fellow bookworm, she gives her “Travels with My Aunt” (funny joke, terrible book) with a plane ticket hidden inside. If she won’t save herself, Abby will.

“The Deuce” has referenced “A Tale of Two Cities” in virtually every episode. I’ve been suspicious that Abby would selflessly trade places with Doreen, and I’m even more convinced now that she gave her a way to get out of Dodge.

Whether that means Abby will be forced join Larry’s stable or that he’ll kill her out of anger is hazy. But based on the daggers he shot her when she gave Doreen a book, I doubt this season will end well for Abby.

More Highlights from “I See Money”

Best line: “It’s New York — people want to be surprised,” Vinny says to Paul, the gay bartender, about welcoming a drag queen to Hi Hat. Then a young hooker and an old man walk up the stairs where Vinny and Paul are sitting.

Cruelest line: “Did I say you could sit?” a pimp snaps at his hooker for taking a stool next to him. I can’t wait to see one of these pimps get what he deserves.

Thunder Thighs to the rescue: When Larry is reaming out a prostitute for not making enough money because she’s on her period, Thunder Thighs (real name Ruby) gets graphic about her flow to shut him up. He then gets grossed out and walks away. You’d think a man whose job it is to peddle women’s privates would be well versed in all aspects about said body parts, but in typical misogynistic fashion, he can’t be bothered by the basic biological functions that women have to endure monthly. Unless he gets pleasure or profit from it, he wants nothing to do with it.

On the job: Sandra, the journalist from Amsterdam who’s writing a story on prostitutes, gets arrested for loitering with them. Down at the station, Chris notices that her shoes are too nice to be a streetwalker, so he lets her go. Later she calls him, for what he thinks is a date, but is really just an opportunity for her to take notes on the prostitutes. Poor guy looks so defeated. In exchange for his services, she gives him a burger and fries for dinner — proof that capitalism takes all forms.

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