At a time when the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements are raising global awareness about women’s issues including sexual harassment, violence and female equality, HBO’s porn-industry drama series The Deuce walks a tightrope.
To call the series audacious in regards to its presence on TV amid today’s zeitgeist would be an understatement, both in the show’s drama and behind-the-scenes dilemma.
Well before The New York Times‘ Oct. 5, 2017 sexual allegation
exposé on studio mogul Harvey Weinstein reignited #MeToo, The Deuce was on the air, halfway through its eight episode first season order. But then following January’s Golden Globes, sexual misconduct accusations were made against The Deuce star and EP James Franco (not connected with his work on the series). Nonetheless, The Deuce proceeded with a second season, with its leading man (in two roles, no less) intact.
That’s inherently tricky.
Season 2 involved a nine-episode arc that culminated tonight with a number of the show’s prostitutes and porn stars elevating their statuses, getting respect within the lanes they work, or going so far to abandon their trade and go legit. While Franco’s twin brother characters, the earnest Vincent and the mischievous Frank, have continued to be ever-present in the show following the allegations made against the actor, season 2 of The Deuce has mostly been about the women.
But shining a light on female empowerment in a show about porn is a double-edge sword, and that’s where The Deuce raises an eyebrow. Porn is divisive no matter how you look at it: It’s either misogyny, or for some it’s feminist expression, the latter being why Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Candy yearns to be an established filmmaker. For her, porn is art.
Tonight’s show begins with prostitute-turned-porn mega star Lori (Emily Meade) vomiting in a toilet before the premiere of her new little Red Riding Hood porn cross-over attempt Red Hot and ending with tears of joy upon hearing that her former, abusive pimp and manager C.C. (who raped her in the previous episode) is murdered, out of her life. She is liberated, without an oppressor, and can now ascend in the film industry without any hitches.
Darlene is also free of her pimp, through mutual accord. She’s retired from both hooking and porn acting, and is now taking night school courses and working in a boutique. She officially says goodbye to her pimp-turned-porn star Larry (Gbenga Akinnagbe), and gives him a speech on how they were both pretending before in their previous roles as pimp and whore (hence the episode’s title): “Once you let the girl inside the pretend, it’s over,” Darlene tells him. Street worker Loretta (Sepideh Moafi) has also seen the positive examples around her and is leaving hooking behind for a bar-tending gig.
With Red Hot, Candy’s filmmaking career is taking off. While her fellow producer Harvey (David Krumholtz) is depressed that he won’t profit from Red Hot due to the mob’s financial involvement in the movie, she’s the pragmatist: Who cares if they lost money on Red Hot? The film will only create an avalanche of porn film financing for them down the road.
But the sacrificial lamb around which all these positive movements occur is Dorothy Spina aka Ashley (Jamie Neumann). She was the first to leave Times Square and all its hooking behind, and fiercely returned in season 2 to face CC and others in the street as a feminist crusader, looking to create rights and a better life for the prostitutes she once worked alongside. She was advised by her friends to calm down, that she was becoming public enemy No. 1 with the pimps. Unlike CC, who we see killed in the previous episode, Dorothy’s rotting corpse is found during the onset of tonight’s episode behind a dumpster. In Greek tragedy style she is apparently killed off camera, and the only remains we see are her feet, her driver’s license, but not her face. Everyone in her circle, i.e. Loretta, Abby (Margarita Levieva) and Vincent (Franco) mourn her death. Some think CC even killed her, but we know he’s dead. Thematically speaking, she’s been crucified, and it would be reasonable to say her story is over. However, it will be interesting to see if we learn more about her killer in season 3 or whether she’s even alive. She did join a group of feminists, and could have conceivably disappeared with an underground.
Yet such whodunit details may not even matter in season 3. Deuce creators David Simon and George Pelecanos jumped the series’ action from 1971 in season one to 1977 in season two. It would make sense if we’re thrusted forward another decade or more: Harvey is the one dangling some foreshadowing here when he shows off the VHS porn tape to Candy, telling her how it’s going to revolutionize the industry. The porn business has always been a victim of its own success as it has built itself toward a reported $10 billion industry. Video killed the theatrical star, and even though riches rained down on the adult entertainment industry during the VHS and DVD era, it’s remained in increasing collapse as the internet gives it away for free, with porn stars reportedly making less money then they did a decade ago and retiring early. As The Deuce heads into its third and final season, it will be interesting to see if the series ends in the ’90s Mayor Rudy Giuliani NYC era when Times Square was completely made-over, porn theaters put into extinction and a Broken Windows policy enforced. Where would Candy, Lori, and Harvey be in 1996? Dead and broke? You can see this slow-moving glacier as Detective Chris Alston (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) becomes involved with the Mayor’s Office Midtown Enforcement Project.
It would come as nor surprise to see Franco’s Vincent thrive in a ’90s NYC (owner of a Score’s strip club?), he’s always been a level-headed guy while working in the fast lane. His season 2 tale ends tonight reconciling with his ex-wife and kids at home, yet still in a vague romance with Abby.
While the female characters on The Deuce have made differences in their own lives this season for the better, there’s been ongoing strides by those women working on the series off camera as they seek to create a progressive show business working environment. Seven of the nine episodes in season 2 of The Deuce were directed by women. Meade and Gyllenhaal (one of the series’ producers) have introduced new on-set safeguards for actresses on the series, specifically having an intimacy coordinator for sex scenes who reviews scripts, discusses sex scenes with actors, and ensures personal boundaries.
Gyllenhaal has guaranteed that a woman’s voice is heard on the show, both on camera and off, and was involved in assessing the Franco allegations, and whether women on set “felt respected and what their experience of working with James was” said the Oscar and Emmy nominated actress to SiriusXM radio host Sway Calloway. Shutting down the show in response to misconduct allegations against co-star James Franco would be “the opposite of the right thing to do” Gyllenhaal asserted.
Sticking by Franco is by far Deuce‘s boldest and most controversial move of all. At a time when some may argue that a judge, jury and executioner attitude prevails in #MeToo times, where those accused in the media are promptly cast out of the industry, The Deuce stands behind Franco. In the wake of #MeToo many studios and networks aren’t so forgiving to those who’ve been accused of sexual misconduct. Louis C.K. was fired from FX following news of his sexual allegations, which occurred well before his working relationship with the network, not to mention an internal investigation by FX found that C.K. never created a hostile environment while working for them.
Meade expressed her concerns about the #MeToo movement in a recent Bustle interview; that the public doesn’t address sexual misconduct allegations with enough nuance and there’s too much of tendency “to just get rid” of the people who are accused of sexual harassment or assault.
“It’s hard to have global, large conversations on a nuanced level, but we have to be aware that the more reactionary we are, the more ultimately people are going to be afraid to speak [up] all over again,” she told Bustle.
“Do we shut down a show because someone’s been accused to make a statement? Or do we make a statement on a show, even inclusive of someone who has been accused?” Meade said in her interview, in which she also emphasized a professional working environment with Franco. “I’m hoping we’re striking an important balance of both telling a story narratively, but then also actually enacting change within the system behind the scenes.”
That said, the actress also said the Franco controversy is frustrating, “As a woman in less power [and celebrity] than James … my word count is being used on him. Whether it’s positive or negative attention to the men in power, it’s still taking the voice away from the women.”
During tonight’s finale, when Loretta tells Abby she’s quitting hooking following Dorothy’s death, the latter sighs “There’s no fixing this world, is there?”
Loretta answers, “I don’t know, but whatever it is, it’s bigger than some pimps, it’s bigger than all the whores and all the johns. It has something to do with how our brains work — or don’t. But, shit, maybe you’ll figure it out.”
For The Deuce fixing the world can be complicated task.