The first episode of “The Deuce” Season 2 revolves around a chase, but given this is still a David Simon show, said chase is more of a casual stroll: Frankie, one of the Martino twins played by James Franco, has made away with a week’s worth of earnings from the peep show he kinda, sorta manages, and it’s up to his more responsible brother, Vinnie, to find him and get the money back. His search leads him through the relaxed dive bars, pulsing disco clubs, and seedy underworld of the Manhattan district known as The Deuce, and oh what a captivating adventure it remains.
Written by co-creators Simon and George Pelecanos, the construct is a savvy way to reintroduce characters after a six-year time jump to 1977. There’s Abby Parker (Margarita Levieva), who’s still bartending at Vinnie’s main gin joint while pursuing more active ways to support the night shift who stop by for a drink. There’s Chris Alston (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.), or should I say Detective Alston, who’s caught a homicide case after being promoted from patrolman. Darlene is still obsessed with learning and looking to put her education to good use, while pimps like C.C. (Gary Carr) and Larry (Gbenga Akinnagbe) search for new ways to make money as their profession is threatened by progress.
Progress, though, is a relative term. Season 2 looks at exploitation through advancement, questioning how far society has come while acknowledging the valuable struggle. “The Deuce’s” hypnotic nature allows time for the mind to see comparisons between then and now, while still engaging in the personal plights of each character. Each narrative strand works to prove a point and tell an intriguing story, and yet for as compelling — and complicated — as the Martino brothers’ lives remain, all of their hustle and bustle pales in comparison to the work done by Maggie Gyllenhaal.
Much was rightly made about Eileen “Candy” Merrell’s quest to leave tricking behind for a life behind the camera, and her journey has advanced enough to allow for just that. Alongside Harvey (David Krumholtz), her now-skinny director colleague, Eileen is helming scenes herself and producing projects for the betterment of all involved. Still, she wants more. She doesn’t want to just make movies for men to get off on; she wants to make films people want to watch through to the end.
Imagine the well-documented struggles faced by female filmmakers today, then imagine what one might go through 40 years ago when their only background is in porn. That’s the uphill battle Eileen is facing, and “The Deuce” captures its highs, lows, and everything she accepts in between. What’s invigorating about Eileen’s story isn’t whether or not she’ll “make it.” It’s that she’s at the cusp of a dream and more appreciative than anyone of seeing parts of it come true. Seeing her stand behind a camera and direct her crew is rewarding by itself, yet knowing the very same actions could be applied to a higher art form — if only someone, some man, would say yes to her ideas — well, therein lies the heartbreak.
Gyllenhaal handles every aspect of Eileen with an earned authenticity. She’s so far into her skin, the character’s choices and the actor’s blend together. When Eileen is dealt an unexpected (metaphorical) slap in the face, it’s as if Gyllenhaal’s slight head tilt and faraway stare is the only believable reaction, even when viewers at home would be justified in furiously screaming at the TV. Gyllenhaal, who also produces the series, has adopted the David Simon ethos of less-is-more better than many stars ever could. She’s restrained without needing to show off her restraint. (Think of Keri Russell in “The Americans,” sans the stress of her job.) Watching Gyllenhaal’s performance, it doesn’t feel like she’s being told to dial it back; her command of each moment evokes so much emotion the dial is already cranked up to 11. It’s just her expressions that are simmering at two.
From the very first scene, it’s clear this is Gyllenhaal’s season. Even if all you watch of “The Deuce” is its opening sequence, well, a) good luck stopping, and b) you’ve seen one of the year’s most well-orchestrated blends of performance, direction, writing, and sound. Set to Barry White’s “Let the Music Play,” the legendary soul singer’s casual commentary blends with the conversations happening all around Eileen, as she walks down the block, into the club, and orders a drink — that’s all there is to the Season 2 welcome, and yet it’s such an impressive sequence, these super fly first five minutes set the tone. Not only do they start the chase driving the episode, but they highlight the season’s star. While Vinnie, Frankie, and the rest of The Deuce’s denizens are running around, Eileen is preparing to own it — all of it.
She should, anyway. After Eileen finally reaches Vinnie’s bar, it’s there we first see Frankie, and it’s the last we’ll see of him until the premiere’s conclusion. That’s OK. For one, following last year’s allegations, Franco’s presence in “The Deuce” could be a distraction for some. No matter your perception of the actor, it arguably fits with either of his slightly sleazy, somewhat well-intentioned twins — as they mirror each other, so, too, do they reflect the viewer’s interpretation of the actor. He’s all over Season 2 and still a great performer, but if you need to ignore him, the rest of the cast can hold down the story. Plus, if anyone starts to drift, Gyllenhaal will snap them back to attention.
“The Deuce” Season 2 premieres Sunday, September 9 at 9 p.m. on HBO.