“This is America or Fifty Bucks”
August 30th, 2009
More than any episode before it, “This is America or Fifty Bucks” lives and dies by the show’s timeliness in the midst of an economic crisis. With Jessica struggling to adapt to Ron’s newfound money problems, and Ray struggling to make money in order to rebuild his house, the show has always been dealing with the reality of the current economic situation.
But there has always been a problem central to Ray’s struggle: in dealing with such a high end prostitution ring, he’s trapped at a point where their clientele is shrinking. Lenore’s clients are rich women with no real sense of the value of money, but once you move beyond them we’re beginning to see the business of Happiness Consulting falling apart in the midst of these circumstances. In this week’s episode, we find both Ray and Jessica at a crossroads, and they find the exact same temptress waiting for them at the roadsign, beckoning towards a sense of luxury and self-worth while Tonya struggles to maintain a sense of normalcy in the midst of an almost absurd (when you step back) business relationship as best she can.
But America is changing, and normalcy is changing, and the status quo of the series is starting to fall out from underneath our characters as they start to fall in on one another – the result is a really intriguing leadup to the end of the show’s first season.
There’s a scene at the very end of the episode where Ray’s assistant coach sits down at the piano and sings a soulful song in mourning of the school’s music program. It’s a small little scene, but it really echoes the theme of the entire episode: he notes that the heart of America, its arts, are being removed without care for their value. There’s a point where cutbacks, the harsh reality of economic downturns, are done without paying attention to what really matters. The people are left behind in favour of the bottom line, and the story of this episode is Lenore trying to convince both Ray and Jessica that they are too valuable to be affected by this downturn; they they are too good to be downsized.
Lenore is a cockroach. She’s going to survive this downturn because she’s the kind of person who can sell people on just about anything. She’s such a powerful saleswoman that Tonya even uses her name to try to sell clients on her own service. It’s a bit odd to see a character who seems to have so much influence in every part of this influence, but Lenore has always been well placed as the kind of larger than life character who stands less as an individual and more as an almost supernatural force. I think Rebecca Creskoff is delivering a really intriguing performance in the role, and more importantly the show is really making her impact felt across the board.
For Ray, Lenore is the devil on his shoulder trying to convince him that he’s worth more in this time of struggle. The economic crisis has always been hitting Ray, but his problem now is that he got too used to big pay days (especially from the Jemma engagement) and finds himself in the same economic predicament he was in before. There was a point a few weeks back when he was spending time with his neighbour’s wife when you realize where Ray’s mind is: even though he finds the citations to be a hassle, he still would have rather been paid as a prostitute than avoid a potentially long string of fines. It makes no economic sense, but Ray’s gotten to the point of making money doing something he’s good at, and to complicate that with thoughts of sliding pay scales and favours isn’t exactly what he had in mind. When Lenore tries to make him her client, cleverly using a sports metaphor (“You’re a major league guy in the minor leagues”) as she’s overcome by pleasure, Ray can’t help but see the plus side of it all: here is someone who knows what he is worth, and who makes her living milking money out of people in order to better her own life.
For Tonya, meanwhile, Lenore is the role model, which is perhaps even more problematic. Tonya doesn’t actually like Lenore, nor is she anything like her: while Ray knows how to please Lenore and can thus operate in her universe, Tonya is helplessly flailing in a way that is doing nothing but hurting their business. While she was highly defensive about her pimping abilities early on, at the end of the day she’s relied on Lenore’s initial referrals, and now her name, in order to sell the company. For all of her guerilla marketing and subliminal messaging, it seems as if all that has really worked is her connection with Lenore, which puts her at a tough crossroads. She knows she needs to make a change, but she’s not able to abandon what’s worked: she doesn’t have any other johns, and her attempts to expand her client base into the workforce are as much of a failure as they should be.
The show is doing very well at this point not rushing storylines, but not dragging them out too far either. Last week, we saw Ray’s session with Patty, and it had every chance of just being a subtle and quirky little engagement of many. However, here we saw the consequences: Patty felt that the service was just an expensive high (Crack’s cheaper, it seems) that leaves you more alone than you were before, and more importantly complicates things by nearly killing Tonya for attempting to use her experience to sell the business with fellow employees (after Tonya decides to avoid using Lenore’s name, having been threatened by Lenore earlier). It’s a good way to ensure some continuity, as well as twisting our expectations of what scenes/events mean in the context of the show as a whole. When Tonya is offered only $50 for their service, giving the episode its second title, you see that her techniques haven’t changed at all: she still can’t sell the product to normal women as Lenore can sell it to rich ones, and more importantly she’s reverted back to using Lenore’s name as if she has no other sales pitch on hand. She’s in over her head, and she has a “partner” who’s getting frustrated and who sees an option which could prove more profitable in the short term.
It’s a conflict that has a lot of potential as we head towards the end of the season, as it places Ray’s desire to escape his economic struggles trapped between Lenore’s opulence and Tonya’s friendship. If this is just a business, Lenore is clearly the better option, but I think the whole point of the episode is that nothing is ever just a business, and the personal sense of self-worth that Lenore tries to instill in Ray (when taken honestly and not in a sexual contest) should drive him to remain with Tonya and see things through. And even if the conflict isn’t particularly revelatory, it’s been really well drawn and I think has a lot of interesting dramatic (and comic, with Tonya self-destructing and Ray caught in between the catfight) potential. Tonya is clearly already near the end of her rope: she gets to the point at episode’s end where she’s literally willing to turn Ray into a drug, suggesting they adopt the popular practice of giving a free sample before getting them addicted. She’s struggling, and I think the show is going to work well with this particular conflict.
And, helpfully, the show is starting to work Anne Heche’s Jessica back into the main storyline, as Lenore for her is the facilitator for her newfound sense of post-rich self esteem. They’re really not pulling any punches when it comes to portraying her character as self-indulgent here: having just recently resigned herself to her new less than rich lifestyle, all it takes is a few whispers from Lenore and a 15% discount and she’s back to her old self despite Ron’s struggles. Lenore, of course, is made for this: she very quickly empowers Jessica, putting her in designer outfits and picking through her closet. When she gets to tell Ron all sales are final, she revels in it, and as she tries to awaken the “I am Woman!” in Jessica you know she’s less interested in feminist statements and more in milking this woman for all she’s worth.
Ever since their first meeting at the salon, we’ve known where this was going: they strike up a friendship, here facilitated by the economic condition of one and the opportunism of the other, and then eventually Lenore refers Jessica to another kind of service that could offer her a sense of fulfillment. The fact that Jessica had met Tonya used to be a roadblock, but with the potential for Lenore to book clients (perhaps with Ray going freeland) in place it seems as if we’re clearing the table for a season-ending confrontation between former husband and wife in the context of a paid sexual encounter. I think this is probably for the best, and shows that the writers know what they’re dealing with: there is too much of a sense that Heche is off on the periphery of the show, and the sooner they really integrate her into the heart of the storylines the more effective the show can be. The question that Ron and Jessica discuss, asking “How can we be normal?”, is a really important one for the series, and I’m glad to see them really facilitating that through Jessica before in time applying it more directly to the other characters.
All in all, I’d say this is another impressive episode. While Hung might not have the big performance of Edie Falco or any breakout star like Merritt Wever, this show has what Nurse Jackie lacks: a clear sense of their direction, and an ability to draw growth and broader social meaning from their characters. The show isn’t perfect, but it’s certainly more subtle and complex than Jackie could dream of being, and certainly makes for more stimulating viewing from a critical perspective.
- The one thing the show is struggling with is the kids, which has nothing to do with their weight or their appearance but rather the fact that they really don’t have a connection to the key themes in this episode or any other. Damon’s homosexuality is intriguing, but it never really got to be anything in the episode (except a way to reveal that Ray, apparently, is not particularly open-minded when it comes to anything beyond admittedly George Clooney is sexy). The kids don’t need to be part of the main storylines, per se, but they do need to feel a bit less tangential.
- On that note, both Ray and Jessica got to be terrible parents this week: Ray with his “Damon is a gay” line, and Jessica with her weight loss incentive of $10 if they complete the rock climbing wall (which I’m sure the kids love considering it’s free money, but which just seems wrong to me for kids that old).
- You know, I’ve always said that the first things to fall by the wayside in an economic crisis are the arts and the sex trade.
- One last thing to ponder: the command on the blackboard in detention when the episode opened was “Think about what you did wrong.” I’d say that’s going to be an important question as things begin to fall apart in the weeks to come.