The Deuce, season 2, episode 1: “Our Raison d’Etre”
Directed by Alex Hall. Written by David Simon & George Pelecanos.
If you could boil down the 1970s, as a pop cultural memory, into its essence, it would like something like New York City in 1977. So it’s fitting that the second season of The Deuce, in all its faux-Seventies, um, glory(?) has planted its feet firmly on the dance floors of Seventy-Seven, with Ed Koch’s ghost hovering over everything. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
There’s a five year time jump between the final episode of The Deuce‘s first season, which ended with Ruby on her way to the morgue and C.C. being turned away from the Deep Throat premiere, and this premiere for season 2. The shock is not as great as the second season of The Wire, which introduced a wholly new set of characters and locales that seemed to have no connection initially to the rest of the show, but of course there is still quite a bit of catching up to do. Indeed, a lot of “Our Raison d’Etre” is taken up by inching the viewer into the new status quo more than anything else. Which is perfectly fine, if not what I most wanted to see, being that the show has atmosphere and setting for days, populated by a fine cast of characters.
Speaking of those characters, how great was it to see Candy as a VIP at Vincent’s new disco? I’ll answer for you, because I’m sure your mouth is still agape, it was quite awesome — Gyllenhaal radiating confidence and cool in her fur coat as she strolls into the 366 to the silky baritone of Mr. Barry White playing from the DJ’s booth. Director Alex Hall stages this opening scene of the episode as a Scorsese/Goodfellas-esque tracking shot with lots of business and action going out along the margins to suggest the hustle and bustle (emphasis on hustle) of the coke and speed-fueled world depicted.
Disco has arrived, and so has punk — highlighted by switching out Curtis Mayfield in the opening credits for Elvis Costello — and while Vincent serves up cocktails to porn stars and pimps in his new disco, Abby is pondering the pros and cons of feminist stripping with a friend in the Hi-Hat, now a punk bar that she runs full-time for Vincent. Her relationship with Vincent continues, and it seems to be going well; they’re happy with each other, allow it to be an open relationship based on a level of mutual respect and distance (something Vincent could never have had with his ex-wife Andrea, their marriage based too much on old school neighborhood values), and playful banter about Vincent playing the “Bay Ridge Neanderthal” despite his increasing cosmopolitanism.
There’s a newer level of freedom found in sex in this episode, compared to last season. Porn stars like Lori now have celebrity status, not just notoriety. Paul openly runs a gay bar in the Village and muses expanding without the aid of the Mafia — as he points out, in the past they need the Mob for protection, but who the fuck are they protecting them from now that the post-Stonewall, pre-AIDS, Harvey Milk-era revolution is in full swing. Shots of pride parades in the opening credits make me think this season will deal more with the LGBTQ liberation movement than the first season, and that should be a good thing.
Speaking of LGBTQ issues, Ed Koch is in the picture now. For the unfamiliar, Ed Koch was elected Mayor of New York City in 1977 on a “law and order” reform platform of cracking down on crime and degeneracy and revitalizing the city, then in probably the lowest point in its history: garbage on the streets, strikes paralyzing the city’s daily operations, blackouts, looting, the Son of Sam stalking lovers’ lanes and scaring the shit out of everyone, and the city’s finances in peril as Gerald Ford tells them — as per the Daily News — to “drop dead.” Koch proved to be a transformative figure in the history of NYC, not just a Mayor but an icon, and his reform proposals will likely loom over the rest of the season. Without making an appearance as a character (and I doubt he ever will) he already has made a mark here as Detective — formerly Patrolman — Chris Alston’s cop buddies gossip about whether the 50-year-old lifelong bachelor is gay, and his “Midtown Redevelopment” representative Goldman (new series regular Luke Kirby) tries to convince Alston to keep the murder of a tourist on the downlow before the Mayor’s big inauguration.
But the more things change, as the cliché goes, the more things stay the same. Darlene is still under the thumb of her pimp Larry, though she’s managed to get her GED behind his back. The Mob still have ultimate control over all of Vincent’s entrepreneurial ventures. And Frankie is still a complete and total fuckup with pockets that burn money. Hopefully Frankie — now married practically overnight to a burlesque dancer — and his shenanigans don’t take up too much of the show’s runtime, because there’s definitely a feeling of “this asshole again” with him; there’s value in his storylines but when the show is weighted too much towards them, it feels like a repeat of HBO’s late, unlamented Vinyl, and the less said about that, the better.
The question I have right now as I watch The Deuce is this: what is going to be David Simon and George Pelecanos’s ultimate takeaway from all this? As Simon’s magnum opus, The Wire was in many ways about the repetitive nature of failed systems, about how things generally don’t change beyond the superficial, about how reform seemed to be an impossibility, and about how the institutions that surround us and constructed primarily to withstand all attempts at change. Hints of this appear in “Our Raison d’Etre,” as the sex workers like Lori and Darlene still remain under the control of their pimps despite five years of social change. When Eileen, now not just an adult film star but also a director, tries to introduce more of a woman’s perspective in one of her films by creating a highly-edited expressionistic sequence depicting a woman’s orgasm through shots of her face in ecstasy intercut with spinning ceiling fans and wild animals on the hunt, she is rebuffed by Harvey (a now so-skinny-I-don’t-want-to-know-how David Krumholtz) who impresses on her that they make porn and that their largely male audiences just wants to see enough flesh and thrusting to jerk off to. The patriarchal systems and standards that created pimping and a porn industry that uses women’s bodies as props while enriching male mobsters remain in place in season 2. But my question for Simon and Pelecanos and company is if they see any hope in this, any sense of liberation, any future worth finding.
Whatever answer they come up with to this, I’ll be there every step of the grimy way.