There are the pimps who love their women but rule with an iron fist; who brag about them, coddle them, but then push them back out on the streets for “one more” before the sun comes up; who will promise a bubble bath when the day is done and then cut them where it won’t show to keep them in line.
There’s Eileen Merrell (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who goes by Candy when she’s working for herself, but shields her son from the life she leads by leaving him at home with grandma. Eileen is the most conscious of her separate lives: one is a persona she adopts for the job and the other is who that persona protects. You see it in the weary way she takes off her wig and makeup as the messages play out on her answering machine. She’s not just tired from a long day at work. She’s exhausted from living as two different people.
But the most obvious example of duality comes with Vincent (James Franco). Hounded throughout the episode by people who mistake him for his twin brother Frankie, Vincent appears to be his opposite. He calls his brother a fool, repeatedly, and Frankie’s indebted status further illustrates the bartender’s superiority over the gambling junkie.
Vincent, though, clearly loves him. He’s willing to pay off Frankie’s $20,000 debt, and their honest talk about Vincent’s ex-wife subtly shows how much one brother’s opinion means to the other.
“I know I could. But would I?”
Plus, Vincent isn’t that good of a guy. He’s a hard worker, sure, but he cheats on his wife, leaves his kids (in the care of two people who don’t seem to be great guardians), and objectifies women. More than the tight jump suits he makes the waitresses wear, Vincent’s a bit of a Lothario; he was sleeping with one of the waitresses and flirting with her openly in front of Frankie, but the second Abby walks in, she’s the new object of his affection.
“Ever wonder what it’s like for them to be objectified?” Abby asks.
“I don’t know what they think. All I know is they made more money tonight than any night in here in months,” Vincent says.
It’s a telling, direct statement and one that speaks to the pilot’s depiction of the sex trade. It’s about dollars and cents, but it’s also about controlling your own life. Eileen makes that as clear as day by being an independent, pimp-less prostitute. But Abby reinforces the idea.
“If you want to do what they do, I’d put you behind the stick in a second,” Vincent tells her.
“I know I could. But would I?” she says.
Will she? And if she does, what does it mean? Where will it go? We know what’s coming — exploitation remains a booming American industry — but we don’t know what happens to Abby, Eileen, and Darlene. “The Deuce” blends history with humanity in a powerful way. It’s what was missing in “Vinyl,” and what makes well-crafted television become an affecting, pertinent experience.
“The Deuce” airs new episodes every Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO.