Though a simple plot, the season premiere of The Deuce, “Our Raison d’Etre”, immerses the viewer in the shifting world of 1970s New York where familiar characters still scratch to survive.
When I was 17, I moved to New York City. It was in a transition phase when then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani was just starting to sell off Times Square to corporations. One street over, just past the future home of the Lion King, you could still see peep shows and working girls. Long-time residents would bemoan the loss of the city’s gritty past as it was cleaned up and packaged, block by block. Of course, this is human nature, romanticizing a past that we view through the haze of fable. Perhaps the appeal then of The Deuce, HBO’s semi-fictional drama about the days when sex was sold on every street corner like hot dogs and “I HEART NY” shirts, is that it has stayed away from such fairy tales. Instead, the show’s first season looked beyond good and bad into a world where everything is varied shades of awful. A world where you root for Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the golden soul at the story’s centre, to start working in porn because it seems so much better than her life on the street. A world where survival dresses up in various forms of suffering, and happiness often just means less pain.
Season 2 opens with “Our Raison d’Etre” five years later in 1977, on Candy walking the street in fur and a blonde dye job (bye bye terrible wigs) on her way not to a job, but an underground disco, Club 366 (a real underground club from the 70s). The room is peopled with familiar faces, including fellow brunette prostitute turned blonde porn star Lori (Emily Meade), her pimp C.C. (Gary Carr), and twins Frankie and Vincent Martino (James Franco). Everything seems a bit peppier, even the title sequence courtesy of Elvis Costello. They’ve come so far, Vincent and Candy assure each other. Yet their world is still a dangerous one, no matter how bright the lights.
Frankie’s bathroom stall peep reels have upgraded to real girls behind fancier doors. Vincent is still keeping time with ivy league student turned barmaid Abby (Margarita Levieva), who also manages his bar as a burgeoning punk scene with questionably hung vagina art. Unfortunately, the brothers’ relationship in The Deuce hasn’t improved, with Frankie skimming money from their shared venture. Thus begins Vincent’s episode-long search for Frankie, a thinly veiled plot device installed to help us navigate the sprawling character and location landscape. Most are close to where we left them in 1972. Lori, despite having become a star, remains under the control of pimp C.C. Candy is still playing the second reel to porn director Harvey Wasserman (a trimmer David Krumholtz). She wants to push the films into an artistic realm; he wants to make money. Larry (Gbenga Akinnagbe) and Rodney (Method Man) continue running women, although more of them are hitting the porn set than the street. The brothel is even still run by Martino brother-in-law Bobby (Chris Bauer).
Not all the characters in “Our Raison d’Etre” are exactly where we left them, such as former patrolman Chris Alston (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) upgraded to a detective. While investigating a tourist killing, he’s approached by a representative for Mayor Ed Koch working on a task force to clean up Times Square. Alston notes that this has been the goal of many politicians who have come before. Goldman (Luke Kirby) promises this time will be different. Likewise, Darlene (Dominique Fishback), though still with Larry, has earned her GED and is looking to take night classes while reading Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. Former Hi-Hat bartender Paul (Chris Coy) has also made good, opening his own gay clientele bar.
It turns out that Frankie may have changed a bit too. He took the money to buy a wedding ring for his dancer-porn actress girlfriend, Christina. Vincent forgives the debt, eventually going home with Abby. This final section is a juxtaposition of Candy editing porn while Vincent makes love with his now long-term girlfriend. There is something sly about this, a wink at HBO’s notoriously graphic sex scenes. In the end, it is all a show.
Early in “Our Raison d’Etre”, Harvey and Candy debate a piece of footage where he notes that men are not interested in getting inside a woman’s head. This speaks beyond just the porn world but to the entertainment industry in general. Perhaps that is why the most captivating characters on the show are the women. They exist in a deeply exploitative world, yet we still try to get inside their heads.