Maggie Gyllenhaal needs some room to breathe. That's as true within The Deuce as it is about it. In this week's episode – "I See Money" – the series star's sex-worker Candy feels increasingly trapped by the emotional restraints and physical discomforts of her job. But as a character within the larger narrative, she's so hemmed in by the show's countless other characters, who are crowded out by each other in turn, that she's left with little to do but plod from one scene to the next until the closing credits roll.
Until this week, the headfirst working-girl heroine added much-needed spark and surprise to the show. Here, she's saddled with an it's-hard-out-here-for-a-prostitute storyline so heavy handed that it could come with the Hayes Code "Crime Does Not Pay" seal of approval – assuming you edited out the visible erections, of course. On a night too rainy for street trade, she heads to a porno theater to earn a few bucks instead. ("On my back, on my knees, it's all the same to me.") She's actually in the act when a rat climbs up her arm and onto her wig, sending her fleeing. Lo and behold, some other guy approaches her when she's trying to recuperate in the lobby. Why, it's almost as if this business doesn't respect her emotional needs!
Later, another john literally drops dead in her … uh, let's say her arms, leaving her nearly traumatized. Her resulting reputation as "The Mouth of Death" among the pimps of the Deuce leads to a lot of joking around and a standing ovation at the diner they all frequent. You don't need to be Amsterdam News reporter Sandra Washington to figure out how Candy feels about it.
Running parallel to all this, Our Lady of the Streets gets asked out while in her civilian Eileen guise by a divorced father with a thoroughly awkward flirting game. Candy needs to get rip-roarin' drunk even to meet the guy for a dinner date; when the time comes to kiss him goodnight, she winds up practically devouring his face, like a middle-schooler's first trip to first base. That moment is more endearing, enlightening and unexpected than the rest of the episode's Candy-centric dreariness combined.
But it's not the story's bleakness that's the problem. A show about the desperately impoverished and routinely victimized has every right to be dour. It's the drab story-telling that rankles here. Every scene lands with a thud, a stepping stone toward the next plot or character beat. You can rattle off descriptions without once needing to dig for layers of meaning: "Paul has dinner with his wealthy lawyer boyfriend, who's nervous about being outed." "Darlene shows Abby how to mend a broken shoe, a practical skill the slumming rich girl has never needed to learn." "The mob beats a construction worker who wasn't playing ball to keep his coworkers in line." Quick: Can you think of a single scene in this show that would require more than one sentence to sum up?
Which is not to say that simplicity is without virtues of its own. In one warm, sad scene, Candy and Ruby remember a colleague after they come across her trademark suede jacket, still smelling strongly of the Jean Naté perfume she used to shoplift (in a memorably crass manner). We've never heard of this woman before – to his credit, co-creator David Simon has never felt the need to hold his audience's hand when introducing or referring to new characters. But from the way the two pros talk about her, it's clear she's dead … and that their work is so strenuous that this unfortunate event feels like half a lifetime ago when, in fact, it only happened last summer.
On a lighter note, there's the introduction of the bar's new muscle – a gun-dealing, no-fucks-giving Vietnam vet whom Vincent christens Black Frankie, just to avoid confusion with the preexisting white one, a.k.a. his brother. That's all there is to the gag, really, but it dances right on the Spinal Tap line between stupid and clever – and it works. To wit: "Who the fuck are you?" asks Vinnie's angry brother-in-law Bobby when the new hire confronts him for getting out of hand. After a beat, the barman simply says, "That's Black Frankie" – as if that explains anything. But it's so goofy it actually succeeds in calming the situation down.
All told, though, Candy's kiss, the Jean Naté jacket story, and the Black Frankie scenes occupy maybe five minutes of screentime. The rest is occupied by those bite-sized, one-sentence-summary sequences, and the messages they're sending are as creaky as they come. Pimps are dangerous. Don't go into business with the Mafia. You can't fight city hall. College girls are wild, man. None of it rises to the level of insight you expect from Simon at his best.
It's not impossible to craft gripping and surprising narratives with a sprawling cast – just ask Game of Thrones or more to the point, The Wire. But The Deuce has yet demonstrate why it felt the need for not one but two James Francos, a problem emblematic of the show as a whole. (Sure, maybe it was what enticed the famous actor to take the role(s) in the first place, and maybe the plan is to kill one of them off before season's end, but that's beside the point.) As a not-so-wise newspaper man once put it: "If you leave everything in, soon you've got nothing." Maybe he was on to something.
Previously: Movin' On Up