“What Kind of Bad” is a shocking and well-crafted episode that reveals the very real risks and downsides of the life of a sex worker. Too often the entertainment industry shows sex workers as subhuman, disposable characters — usually as the brunt of a tasteless dead hooker or stripper joke. “The Deuce” portrays the prostitutes with dignity and humanity, so that even the thought of one being killed by a john leaves the audience grief-stricken.
Candy/Eileen had a happy start to the episode. After having sex with her boyfriend, Jack, he asks her if she climaxed — something that no john has ever cared about. She didn’t, so she takes matters into her own hands. For someone who has sex as often as she does, it’s empowering to see her enjoy it for once.
That feeling of empowerment came crashing down when a john robs Candy and beats her into a bloody pulp. Luckily, the ER doctor tells her, she only has a bruised eye and won’t need any stitches. “Lucky me,” Candy scoffs.
After that brush with death, she meets with the porn director and takes him up on his offer to have sex in front of the cameras. She might not be working behind the scenes as she had hoped, but at least there’s less risk with this job.
Last week, Abby started an Underground Railroad of sorts to help Darlene flee from Larry’s clutches. And although Darlene took Abby’s ticket to go home, she didn’t use it to escape her abusive work environment.
Instead, she went home to bring back Bernice, a young and painfully naive country girl, to add to Larry’s harem under the guise of launching her modeling career. That deception and exploitation is what makes this transaction unethical, abhorrent and — most tragically — human trafficking. It’s even more disappointing to see it come from a sex worker and not a pimp.
Bernice didn’t travel to New York to become a prostitute. And even though she stays, that doesn’t mean she wants to be a sex worker; she just doesn’t want to go home. That raises an unsettling question: What is she fleeing from back home where she sees working the streets as a better alternative?
What’s worse, Bernice is sold between the pimps without her consent like a slave. “Think of yourself as a ballplayer. They get traded all the time,” Larry tells Bernice, after he sells her to Rodney for $2,500. Whatever helps you sleep at night, Larry.
This revelation forces the audience to realize that the sex industry is a seedy business, even if there are prostitutes who chose that job. Sure, there is the exchange of goods and services, but the trafficking is an ugly and unavoidable aspect that cannot be ignored. If the industry were regulated by individuals who care about the well-being of its workers, then there wouldn’t be as much risk if they were managed by the volatile pimps.
The closest thing that the women of “The Deuce” have to a semblance of normalcy is Vinny’s new opportunity from Rudy. It’s not a porn studio as I suspected last week, but I wasn’t far off: It’s a brothel. Rudy assures him that the city wants these businesses, and that the police won’t make any arrests.
Whether or not that’s true, the fact of the matter is that the demand is there, and they’re simply providing the supply.
But at first, Vinny doesn’t want to run the sex parlor because he “has a lot of respect for those girls.” But that’s actually the kind of person who the women need to run a brother. Otherwise, they’re at the whims of abusive pimps.
“Daddies, husband and pimps — they’re all the same,” Ashley tells Abby, explaining why Darlene stays in the turbulent business. “They love you for who you are until you try to be someone else. These pimps are upfront about it.”
The obvious, glaring difference, however, is that even if Abby’s dad stopped supporting her after she dropped out of NYU, as Ashley points out, not all fathers and husbands are guaranteed dirtbags. Pimps, on the other hand, are expected, almost entitled, to treat their women like garbage.
But as much as Vinny respects the sex workers, can he ensure that his whorehouse will spare them from the toxic pimps and johns? And will he meet any resistance from Abby?
More highlights from “What Kind of Bad?”
Cruelest line: “You in pain? Then you should learn to walk on your hands, bitch,” one of the pimps snaps at his hooker, who was complaining that her feet hurt.
Isn’t it ironic?: Abby goes to a house party where her college friends are blasting Nixon and the Vietnam War. When she notices one of them is wearing an army jacket, he replies he’s doing it out of irony. “Everybody’s ironic, huh?” she says shortly before she leaves.
As tragic as the war overseas is, Abby is more concerned about the horror she has seen on the New York City streets. She has been sitting idly by as women “do all the work and [the pimps] treat them like [expletive].” But now she’s starting a revolution, and it all begins by no longer wearing the Hi Hat leotard out of protest. It’s more effective than wearing it ironically.
Male fragility: Candy rejects two men who both lash out by belittling her. First, Rodney flatters her and tries to recruit her to his stable, then a potential customer attempts to solicit her from his car. Their words turn from compliments into caustic insults, proving that if she doesn’t acquiesce to their requests, then she must be punished by destroying her self-worth. It’s a classic form of abuse and misogyny that runs rampant in the sex industry and mainstream society.
Casual sexism: After having sex, Jack insists on giving Eileen money for her cab ride. “You’re such a gentleman,” she sarcastically says, taking his cash, while he’s still naked in bed. It’s a scene she’s all too familiar with. Their relationship is a welcomed respite from her steady stream of johns, but sadly, his underlying sexism reminds her that misogyny is so ingrained in our culture that it’s protocol for her boyfriend to pay her for her time.