After the latest episode of “The Deuce,” it’s hard to argue against Maggie Gyllenhaal as the cast MVP.
Playing Eileen “Candy” Merrell, a prostitute working without a pimp on the dark streets of ’70s Manhattan, Gyllenhaal is going through the ringer. Her character’s emotional spectrum is so wide, it would be miraculous if Gyllenhaal could convey half of what Eileen goes through, let alone the full wavelength seen in Episode 5.
In “What Kind of Bad?”, Eileen transitions from laughing at her date’s post-coital questions to pressing her battered face into a wall and weeping as a pimp reminds her of how often she’s been abused. Later, as Eileen puts on makeup to try to hide the bruises, she listens to a voicemail from her date, asking if she’ll be able to make a party that weekend. Gyllenhaal only flinches from the physical pain of her fingers glazing over the bruises on her face. She doesn’t pause to mourn the party she obviously cannot attend. She stares straight ahead, focused on the task at hand: Tonight’s a work night.
This is the dark side of “The Deuce.” Or, more accurately, this is the darkest side. For a series as addictive and absorbing as David Simon and George Pellecanos’ HBO drama, there’s really nothing easy about what viewers are seeing. Much discussion has swarmed about the abuse and manipulation of women in the series, with the creators and cast arguing that’s very much the point. Even when it feels like events have taken a softer turn — like James Franco’s good time twins — there’s a hard lesson to be learned.
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If Eileen’s struggles can be hard to watch, the Martino brothers’ hustles are downright fun; so fun, in fact, you could be forgiven for not thinking twice about what’s so funny. Frankie’s time on screen can feel like a time to deflate from the serious, despondent stories of the street life. The other characters offer moments of humor — Emily might have the laugh-out-loud line of Season 1 — but few plots regularly seem as friendly as Vincent and Frankie’s.
This perception, however, is a lie.
For as easy as David Simon and George Pellecanos make it to empathize with Vincent, he’s leading a privileged life. His arc isn’t meant to give anyone a break. Instead, it reframes the plight of a working-class white man against that of women and minorities in similar positions. It builds a connection between who’s preying on who, as Vincent moves from the man handing out drinks on the house to the one profiting from prostitution.
And he doesn’t like it. No one is asking him to wear the leotards worn by his waitresses — he’s asking them. Never does he consider selling himself on the street, like Eileen, or seeking illicit sex in a XXX theatre, like Paul. He’s so disgusted at resembling a pimp — which is a position of power itself — he hates being asked to manage Rudy’s (Michael Rispoli) new brothel.
But he gets sucked in anyway. As his brother-in-law pesters him for construction details about their new business, he says over and over again, “Fuck do I know, Bobby?” His agitation makes it clear how he feels: He wants it known he has no idea how something like this should work, but moreover, that he hates this kind of thing.
That Vincent is torn over his new opportunity is indicative of how the audience should be reacting: Things may seem simple, but they’re not. His latest lady love — “latest,” lest we forget Vincent’s wandering eye — is pushing Vincent in the right direction. Before he got sucked into the business, he negotiated a temporary truce between Abby (Margarita Levieva) and a pimp, Reggie Love (Tariq Trotter) she was antagonizing. Though too friendly to take a side, Vincent seemed to instinctively know who was right and who was wrong. Then he found himself managing a brothel bound to make good money, but at an R.O.I. he finds morally negligible compared to the dollars and sense it makes otherwise.
“Penny for your fucking thoughts,” Vincent says to his second-in-command.
“Someone’s gonna sell the pussy and someone’s gonna buy the pussy. We’re just landing the cut, man,” he says.
This reframing seems to convince Vincent that his hesitations are unfounded. He needs money. Money runs the world. We knew it from the beginning. Vincent saw Ashley (Jamie Neumann) getting sliced up in the stairway of his hotel, and instead of saying something, he watched her pimp walk away. He stayed behind the door, ignoring the travesty going on behind it.
“The game is the game,” he may have thought. So later, when Abby shows up to work wearing jeans and a shirt instead of her uniform (a.k.a. her skin-tight, sex-selling leotard), Vincent doesn’t hesitate to tell her she’s got to go change. “Hey, that’s the uniform. Wear it or walk,” he says to another employee. “You, too,” he says to Abby. “It’s our trademark.”
Throughout “The Deuce,” Vincent struggles to see how the system is set up to take advantage of women and minorities; that they’re at a greater detriment than the rest of the working class. He’s able to justify telling Abby to put on her leotard by the oldest rule of law: If it pays, it stays. He looks past the pimps abusing their prostitutes because it’s a bigger problem than he can address. He knows it’s wrong, but he also knows that’s just how it is.
Sound familiar? During a year filled with sexual assault scandals where men in power take advantage of women without it, “The Deuce” takes on more resonance with each additional, infuriating revelation. Just yesterday, Variety’s Mo Ryan wrote a scathing opinion piece calling for men to speak up when they witness sexual harassment; that their voice was essential in ending a long-standing patriarchal regime. Vincent may be living in 1971, but that only goes to show how long this system has survived without reproach.
Vincent has come to represent men who mean well, but overlook or “can’t see” the travesties right in front of them. Eileen’s story is too vivid for viewers to forget, but Vincent and Frankie don’t have to see past the closed door. But viewers can learn so much from these stories by acknowledging what Vincent refuses to: His life isn’t that hard, and things need to change.
For more, listen to the new episode of Very Good Television Podcast below, in which IndieWire TV Editor Liz Shannon Miller and TV Critic Ben Travers discuss the performances on “The Deuce,” including Gyllenhaal, Franco, Dominique Fishback, and Margarita Levieva.