Vinnie and Bobby are two of the good guys on “The Deuce,” right? They’re not gangsters, torching parlors and popping guys on the street. They’re in the skin trade, but they’re not like the pimps who control their women through mind games and physical threats. There have been troubling signs of Bobby’s dark side — his lying and belligerence at home, his unseemly attachments to parlor women, his heavy drinking — but squint a little bit and it’s not hard to see Frank Sobotka, the character Chris Bauer played on the “The Wire,” a union man whose humanity pushed through his corruption like a flower through cracked concrete.
And yet this week’s episode, “What Big Ideas,” revealed them as woefully inadequate, men who believe themselves to be fair and generous to the women around them, but who are careless when it matters most. The crucial scene in the episode has them at The Hi-Hat off hours, doing a post-mortem with Abby and Dorothy over a mystery girl who died in a fire that consumed one of Rudy Pipilo’s parlors — a retaliatory gesture from a rival family. There’s talk of the girl’s having been underage, but Bobby brushes it off disingenuously, claiming that he saw her ID and that it said she was 19, likely ignoring what his eyes were telling him. And he doesn’t know her name.
Abby and Dorothy are incensed. “You use her,” says Dorothy. “You make money from her. And you can’t even tell anybody who she is.” Bobby shrugs it off. She worked. She got paid. She wasn’t ripped off.
There’s guilt evident in Bobby’s defensiveness, which he tries to suppress by working through a bottle. But Vinnie’s culpability in all this is subtler. Throughout the series, Vinnie has shown a talent for satisfying all parties: He’s an earner for Rudy and his people. He’s not a judgmental or discriminatory type, so he can support Paul’s expansion of the gay nightspots and relate to sex workers of all kinds without condescension. He’s an incorrigible ladies man, but capable of supporting his independent-minded girlfriend when she asks for something, like paying for the dead girl’s burial.
And yet his instinct to defuse conflict when conflict is necessary betrays him in this case. He wants to send Bobby home, tells him that “no one’s blaming you.” He can’t make the hard, necessary decision to hold his friend accountable.
The seeds for Vinnie’s behavior were planted in the very first episode of the series, when he saw C.C. viciously slash “Ashley” — now Dorothy — for refusing to work in the rain. He was properly repulsed by it, but C.C. strode confidently past him in the hallway, knowing he wouldn’t take action. “Why don’t we just give it a rest?” is Vinnie’s attitude in The Hi-Hat here, and it could be his personal mantra, as he works endlessly to forge relationships and make peace when he ought to be drawing a line in the sand. His passiveness is leading him into serious trouble: Every time he bails out his brother Frankie, he sticks his own neck out further. And now that he’s merely tolerating Abby’s initiatives in remaking The Hi-Hat and fighting for streetwalkers, rather than advocating for them, he is losing her respect.
It would be a stretch to hold Vinnie responsible for what happened to Jane Doe — who we later learn was a high-school girl named Stephanie — but his habit of looking the other way is an epidemic in this world. Stephanie was the victim of a mob war, but she was also the victim of benign neglect from Bobby, who knew she was underage, and from the manager of the torched parlor, who left her sleeping through the blaze. Unlike the girl’s own father, who is content to leave her body unclaimed at the morgue, Vinnie, Bobby and her parlor manager are capable of feeling sadness and remorse over what happened to her. They just can’t be counted on to keep it from happening again.
In sharp contrast to Vinnie, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Candy is an active player who keeps pressing forward on her “Little Red Riding Hood” idea, no matter how much resistance she gets from Harvey about the budget or from her own limitations as a writer. Candy has progressed from streetwalker to porn star to creative partner and director, but “What Big Ideas” has a gratifyingly nuanced view of her auteur ambitions. She wants to control every aspect of the production, which initially leads her to reject the idea of an outside writer, but the movie that has taken shape in her head isn’t translating to the page.
She is quickly learning how to be a better filmmaker, not just in moments when she acquires a new skill, like incorporating improvisation, but in recognizing that other collaborators can bring her vision to life. That’s real leadership, a gathering of forces toward a common cause. For all his evident charm, Vinnie is incapable of it.
• Larry Brown’s porn odyssey was an oasis of fun in an otherwise bleak episode. The cold open is likely the most prominent — and certainly, um, the biggest — example of equal-opportunity nudity on television. (“I’d hate to see that thing angry.”) Better still is Larry’s ability to create a story for his character off-script and improvise it so persuasively.
• Congratulations to C.C. for inventing the P.O.V. shot in porn. His great contribution to the arts will outlive him.
• Harvey is the Roger Corman of porn. Corman required his directors to include certain elements so he could sell his low-budget exploitation movies, but he would give them plenty of latitude beyond that. Harvey insists that Candy’s opus include the scenes he needs, but as long as she keeps the budget low, he’s willing to see where she can take her movie.
• Candy’s scene with her mother and son strongly evoke Gyllenhaal’s role in “Sherrybaby” as an addict who leaves her 8-year-old daughter with her family and tries desperately to work her way back to a place where she can be a more active mother again. The trouble here is that Candy’s time in front of the camera will be hard to hide from her son, who is interested enough in girls to tuck a Penthouse under his mattress. Overcoming that is a different kind of challenge.
• I didn’t mention this at the time, but the duet version of Elvis Costello’s “This Year’s Girl” is an original, combining Costello’s vocals from the classic record “This Year’s Model” with new vocals by Natalie Bergman, from the band Wild Belle. It’s a great version, and a proper acknowledgment of the importance of women on the show.