“Money. Money. Money,” says Candy aka Eileen Merrill (Maggie Gyllenhaal), as she fends off a proposition from Rodney (Clifford Smith, also known as Method Man), a street pimp who wants to take her under his wing. “Nobody makes money off of my p**** but me,” she says, and walks away. And in another scene she says, “It’s America, right? When did we ever leave a dollar for the other guy to pick up?” These statements underline The Deuce’s — HBO’s latest offering that delves into the world of prostitution, police corruption and New York city street’s realities from the 1970s — core theme: Money and everything that everyone does to get some.
Of course, the universal truth in the world of The Deuce is that the body is a commodity, carrying within itself a beautiful (even if an obvious) Marxian critique of new emerging capitalism — i.e. pornography, peep shows and the general sex trade.
The show doesn’t assume the viewer is new to the story. In one of the opening scenes, when a man dressed in a suit and tie with a shiny walking stick walks up to a young woman at a bus station, you already know what future awaits her. That this man, CC (Gary Carr) is a pimp and that he has found his new ‘product’ is a feeling you already have, before it happens. The show’s creators David Simon and George Pelecanos (of The Wire fame) move beyond introductions of this supposedly nasty world and present the complexities of the social world of Times Square in the 1970s that we all ‘sort of know of, but not really’.
With The Deuce, you get a peek into the dimly lit bars, diners, sex parlours, and the streets of New York city, to see what becomes of bodies and what becomes of sex. And this curious gaze that we’re encouraged to adopt is rarely ever allowed to turn into a voyeuristic/exploitative/male gaze by the showrunners. However, it is apparent that the showrunners themselves are critical of the burgeoning porn industry, if not the people who make up the industry.
Some of the episodes are longer than an hour, though most episodes are just a few minutes short. And it is this length that helps in creating moments that push you into introspection, to really see the bodies and all the meanings, contradictions behind the purchase and sale. To really see the value attached to a body that’s on sale — $40 for half and half and a nondescript sidewalk for a body that resists, left to bleed, wither, be forgotten and be erased. To really see the misogyny and systemic violence that is so intrinsic (and enabling) to the trade.
In one of the scenes in the season finale, CC who is about town with ‘his two girls’ runs into his mentor Ace. After telling Ace how well he’s doing and about all the money that CC’s making via pimping, he tells Ace that he has booked a great hotel room for himself and his girls to show them both some love. And Ace tells him:
“If you want to control the bodies, you have to control the minds.”
A few scenes later, the very same CC says: “Yo! B****! You coming or what?”
Some of The Deuce’s core strengths lie in telling stories about the relationships between the pimps and the prostitutes. The showrunners goad you into asking: “Why are these women staying on with their pimps? They are abusive, manipulative.” And as soon as you ask that question, you realise that you know why.
The show’s characters (almost all of them) are making and unmaking identities for themselves to move up the ladder, in most cases to just survive.
There is Vincent (James Franco), the proverbial ‘nice-guy’ just out of a bad marriage wants to try out his luck in the bar business. There is Frankie, Vincent’s twin (James Franco) who shows a desire to move beyond the tag of a serial gambler, to be taken seriously.
There is Abby (Margarita Levieva), a brilliant NYU student who quits university and takes up a job at Vincent’s bar. Abby (also meant to be a proxy for the audience) knows the meanings of objectification, feminism, female empowerment and finds herself in a social world that is oblivious and in fact makes money out of objectification. What are the meanings she makes out of her own lived experience in this new social world and what identity will she end up making for herself?
There is Darlene who does not know what she has become — when she goes back home, she doesn’t fit in and in New York city, she is rarely ever sure of wanting to fit in.
Then there is Candy, who prefers to be out on her own than with a pimp. Who is she? At every point, she is negotiating her identity. Is she a meek prostitute at the hands of an abusive customer? Does she resist? What does it mean to have your face beaten in and yet not want to seek the protection that having a pimp affords? Is she an adult film actress? At which point does she start seeing herself as an adult filmmaker?
Then there are the pimps themselves, suddenly in a position of vulnerability when the sex parlours take over and the prostitutes don’t need their protection. In one of the scenes, three pimps, CC, Rodney and Reggie are sitting in their usual diner talking about how they have nothing to do anymore and one of them asks, “Who are we now?” The very same pimps who at an earlier point in show discuss how they would make someone unattractive saleable by dressing her in “calico dresses, like she just rolled through the Lincoln Tunnel on a covered wagon and s***!” The Deuce wonderfully captures the process of producing identities and the showrunners excel at representing the human emotion of conflict.
Meandering along the black, white and grey lines of sex, money and corruption, The Deuce triumphs through Gyllenhaal’s exquisite performance and the beautifully executed stories of the more peripheral characters. There are some stories about love, some stories about violence and some stories about friendship.
The Deuce deliberately and deftly moves away from becoming a statement on morality or an indictment of that social world. Yet it is not a Hugh Heffner-esque version of the beginnings of the adult entertainment in America.
In The Deuce, there is no villain too easy to hate, no hero to deify. Just people trying to make a buck and hoping to take the next step on the ladder while another one takes his/her place.