The first half of The Deuce’s debut season has been one of the most impressive starts in television history. Blending exceptional storytelling with gripping characters, HBO’s newest show has immediately become a highlight of Sunday night television. The show started off strong and ended the first half of the season with its best episode to date. With only four episodes left can David Simon’s newest offering keep going or will it limp to the end?
The Story so Far: Vincent has a run in with the police leading to his hiring of Vietnam veteran Black Frankie. With the help of an ambitious mayor, Ruby Pipilo is able to make Vincent an enticing offer. While her professional life seems to be getting worse, Candy manages to meet someone who seems to be legitimately interested in her career. Abby has been trying to exercise more control. She’s taken a special interest in Darlene, talking about books and giving her a gift. The burgeoning pornography business is an ever-looming specter. Officer Alston decides to help out Sandra Washington, a local newspaper reporter who has been talking to the prostitutes on the Deuce.
Episode 5 “What Kind of Bad?”: The previous episode of The Deuce was the first to deal almost exclusively with one character. While other storylines were touched on, including some major changes to Vincent’s life, Episode 4 was mainly about Candy and the difficulties she was going through. Maggie Gyllenhaal has been great the entire series and put on her best performance. Glimpses of Candy’s personal life have been shown throughout the season, but the last episode was particularly personal and effective.
This week, the show does bring back more multi-faceted storytelling, but it also continues to give further insight into the Candy’s life. All the focus on her has made her become the show’s most interesting character. That’s no small feat considering the size of the cast. Gyllenhaal brings a high level of emotion and pathos to the part. In a show that it is filled with sad characters living depressing lives, Gyllenhaal’s Candy stands out. Her hard luck continues as she tries to live a normal life with dishearteningly ironic results. And when she tries to go back to her “normal” life, she is forced to decide if a life change is needed.
Earlier in the season various pimps try to convince Candy to come work for them. Rodney (Method Man) tries the hardest, and though she rebukes his offer, they seem to have a friendly relationship. This is definitely not the case in the fifth episode. Rodney once again tries to convince her to come work for him after she has a brutal confrontation with a customer. Unsurprisingly, she turns down Rodney’s offer. What’s surprising is Rodney’s venomous tirade. Rodney is relentless in his assault on her, in what is Method Man’s best performance of the season. It’s brutal and by the end the viewer is as shocked as Candy.
Abby moves closer to the foreground in this episode, where we see her most well-intentioned plans fall apart. Her attempt to help Darlene leave the Deuce failed miserably. Not only does Darlene ignore Abby’s advice, she brings a new girl into the fold. Whether it’s trying to teach a pimp about women’s rights, sent some rules at work, or go on a date, she consistently finds herself disappointed. She’s fascinating to watch in that she believes she is in control, but clearly has no clue how to handle the people she now interacts with. Her privileged upbringing gives her no advantages in her new surroundings and is even seen as a knock against her. She has valid viewpoints but is also young and obnoxious. Margarita Levieva does a great job of turning what can be an unlikable character into one that is very compelling. She doesn’t play Abby as some know-it-all who is constantly trying to correct everyone; instead she’s a strong-willed woman who knows what she believes in but is too young and stubborn to accept that she doesn’t always know best.
David Simon recently told The New Yorker about the importance of having writers on his staff who know how to tell a complete story, and each episode of The Deuce has masterfully progressed its multiple storylines. More than halfway into the season, the viewers are starting to see all these plots come to fruition. Seemingly inconsequential seeds that were planted early on are beginning to bear fruit. Rudy’s mysterious offer to Vincent looks like it’s going to be another piece of the pornography puzzle. Candy’s story continues to fascinate as she continues to try to get into the film business. This episode delivers a double gut punch to Candy, who ends the chapter closer to the business than she has ever been. As the show continues, we are watching Abby’s character learn about life. In a lesser show, Vincent and Frank’s brother-in-law joining the two in their new endeavor could easily come off as a deus ex machina. The competent writing here not only makes his new career choice believable, but it’s written as the only viable option. The scene also does a good job of explaining why Bobby would work with men he doesn’t like, and why Vincent would let him. Fantastic writing creating dynamic characters is this show’s hallmark.
It’s beginning to seem like The Deuce is incapable of putting on a bad episode. The characters and writing continue to enthrall. The early season excitement of watching storylines unfold has become even more palatable now that the destination has become clearer. Sunday nights on HBO has been must watch television for years. The Deuce is continuing that streak.