'The Deuce' Recap: The Battle of 42nd Street

Candy and Rodney face off in the HBO porn-industry origin story's best scene yet

'The Deuce' pits its ambitious working girl against its slickest pimp in a best-of-show verbal brawl – and still the series stalls. Our recap. Credit: Paul Schiraldi/HBO

You don't need to be a perfect show to produce a perfect scene – and tonight episode of The Deuce (titled "What Kind of Bad?") proved it. The problems that keep David Simon and George Pelecanos's behemoth of a period piece from reaching escape velocity are all still there, to be sure. But in one confrontation between two streetwise characters, damn if the thing didn't finally take off.

The set-up for the sequence is doled out through bite-sized, simplistic scenes across the rest of the episode, in typical Deuce fashion. The supporting player, Method Man's long-haired pimp Rodney, is looking to expand his roster of prostitutes. Like ballclub owners haggling over a trade, he snags a wet-behind-the-ears newcomer named Bernice – rechristened "Ginger," whether she likes it or not – from his colleague Larry. He'd been spooked by the girl's extremely young age when Darlene brought her back as a fresh recruit from a trip down south, and eagerly accepts $2,500 to take her off his hands. (He declines a previous offer: "Two grand, and a player to be named later.")

His sparring partner in the verbal duel to come, Maggie Gyllenhaal's Candy, treads a rockier road. Inspired in part by a handsome soldier client, she finally has sex with her civilian suitor Jack. It's even a satisfying experience, at least once she takes matters into her own hands for a self-administered happy ending. The couple crack jokes and lounge around; eventually, the unsuspecting dude invites "Eileen," as he knows her, to a cocktail party at his boss's house the following weekend. Things are getting serious, in other words.

Then she has a very different date, one with a glowering goon who tries to mug her for her money. He gets maced for his troubles ... then beats her to a bloody pulp behind the closed door of her no-tell hotel room. Fortunately, nothing's broken, aside from her spirit, and after applying enough makeup to spackle the walls of a massage parlor, she heads back out on to the street.

That's where Rodney finds her. And that's when things get good.

The exchange that ensues is less a conversation than a delicately choreographed dance routine – or more accurately, a fight scene. Rodney starts up with his usual banter, feigning concern and offering pimp protection. An edge creeps into his voice as he compares her current injuries to one past incident after another; he pretends to get confused about what wounds she sustained in each one. "You keep expecting better, but you keep getting worse," he tells her, starting to speak in Wire-esque aphorisms. "You go it alone? Come a dark hour, you are alone." Is he trying to scare her into submission or spurring her to seek safety?

Candy maintains a wall of reserve, alternately blowing him off or giving him the silent treatment. But he keeps it up, going so far as to blot her smudged makeup with a handkerchief like he's the portrait of chivalry. Then she cries. She laughs. She laugh-cries. She walks away, croaking out the joking suggestion that he leave his number with her secretary through a gritted-teeth smile.

Now the pimp really turns on her. He offers what seems like a compliment, wondering aloud what a woman with her sense of class, style and movie-star looks is doing on the Deuce in the first place. But he soon twists it into an insult, calling her the craziest person on the block for having all those advantages and risking her life the way she does.

The conversation deteriorates into a shouting match, drawing the attention of other sex workers as the camera strolls and slithers alongside the combatants. Candy starts repeating his name – "Rodney, Rodney!" – in a tone of voice halfway between scolding him and begging him to stop. He cruelly suggests she had a traumatic past: "Did Daddy have his way with you back in the day? Pass you around to his drinking buddies?" "You don't fuckin' know shit," she retorts. But the exhaustion radiating from her body language underlines the truth of his parting shot: "You the one need to do the knowing."

It's the kind of scene where you can feel the filmmakers realizing exactly what they can do with the ingredients at their disposal, liked winning Chopped contestants. Take one tablespoon of Maggie Gyllenhaal's sad-eyed glamour, with a pinch of the unpredictability inherent in her low-key acting style. Add in Method Man's mellifluous voice, and the way he always looks and sounds like he's sizing up everyone in the room for strengths and weaknesses. Sprinkle in the unending ebb and flow of people and cars on the street, providing as dynamic a background perfect for a clash between two titans. 

But by showing how strong this show could be, it serves to highlight how weak it currently is otherwise. Yes, a handful of beats, out of what feels like three dozen two-minute mini-scenes, have some spark to them as well. Some of that spark is sexual, notably Paul's proto-disco threesome, and the graphic masturbation scenes both he and Candy are involved in – no small feat for a series dedicated to depicting desire's seedy side.

But far more of the characters and their adventures seem pro forma, existing to get you from point A to point B and no further. Vinnie's lovable everyman, Bobby's surly working stiff, Abby's slumming college girl, the crusading reporter, the cynical cops – so much is crammed in, with so little time for it to surprise or enlighten. Scenes like Candy and Rodney's big argument feel miraculous simply for emerging from the pack. The challenge facing The Deuce is like the one facing its leading lady when she leaves the street to take another shot at skin cinema. What it's currently doing just isn't working. Is it capable of changing tracks?

Previously: I Want Candy