‘The Deuce’ Is Set in the Past, but Its Commentary Is Very Present

Director Michelle MacLaren, open and closed season one of HBO’s latest successful endeavor, “The Deuce” with a simple, yet quietly effective tone. MacLaren presents peep show booths. At first, they are simply shiny, newly installed privacy stalls, created for coin-operated peep shows. But upon further inspection, the liberating showrooms appear more prison-like in their nature. The promise of a peep show has become monetized by the patriarchy, and the women are merely its workers. This is the reality in the grimy 1970s set “The Deuce.”

As predicted in the season opener, Eileen a.k.a. Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal) has really become the forefront of the show. Presenting the fullest character arc among the ensemble, Eileen has evolved into a leader. She is engulfed in the pornography production business with her partner Harvey (David Krumholtz). But when he is unable to attend one of the shoots, she takes over as the director. Upon his delayed arrival, he doesn’t attempt to derail her. She is in the helm just as much as he is – and both of the characters know it. They are on the forefront of a booming business, that unbeknownst to them, is about to skyrocket following their attendance at the mainstream premiere of “Deep Throat.”

Gyllenhaal’s performance amplifies when she visits her brother, who is going through rounds of electroshock therapy ever since their father found him trying on one of Eileen’s dresses. In denial and confused about his own identity, Eileen assures him that times are changing.

The episode also features a number of other powerful moments. Ruby (Pernell Walker) fights a customer who refuses to pay after he deems the sex unsatisfactory. Following an abusive encounter, he abruptly calls her “Thunder Thighs,” to which she replies, “My name is Rudy.” But these are her last spoken words as she then gets pushed out of a window and into her death. It’s a heartbreaking moment, and the impact of it is stung by Vincent’s (James Franco) reaction when he places more value on the window over Ruby. Loose ends, including Barbara’s (Kayla Foster) incarceration following her involvement in a federal sting operation as the result of Larry’s (Gbenga Akkinagbe) drug trade, among the others, leave for much intrigue. The show is a complex pool of interesting and full characters. A rarity for such a large ensemble.

In one sense, the show captures the essence and quasi-empowerment brought upon by the sexual liberation. But with that comes the very harsh and dark reality that occurs when greed, exploitation, and power all intersect. The relationships are complex and unfair. As Eileen comforts her brother that times are changing, perhaps the train isn’t moving quite fast enough.

With the light that is being shed on the darker corners of the entertainment industry, the show could not have arrived at a more relevant time. The sexual harassment allegations set against Harvey Weinstein, one of the most influential men in the entertainment, and his abuse of power, have opened up an outlet for many women to stand against sexual predators within the industry. Concerning the themes of the show, it will be interesting to see where season two of “The Deuce” will lead when it returns in 2018.

The Deuce” season 1 finale aired Oct. 29 on HBO.