Margarita Levieva as Abby
Screenshot: The Deuce (HBO)

A truly artful scene in “Our Raison d’Etre,” the premiere episode of the second season of The Deuce, shows Maggie Gyllenhaal, shot from above, lying prostrate in a teddy, looking blankly at the ceiling. Her character Candy, an ingenious full-service sex worker-turned-porn director and star, has spent a day cutting a porno into an art film, complete with an abstract interpretation of the woman star’s orgasm as interpreted via a running cougar and the squeeze of an orange. But now, she’s about to do the grunt work. Laconically preparing to star in a sex scene, she says to no one in particular, “Who woulda thought the most boring part of this whole thing is the fucking?”

Maggie Gyllenhaal as Candy.
Screenshot: The Deuce (HBO)

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As the camera pans around her, workaday-like, the point is taken: The women of The Deuce, by far the most interesting characters, are ready to be heard, hear them roar. In its first season, the show—created by historical crime novelist George Pelecanos and The Wire’s David Simon—focused on the transition of Times Square in the early 1970s from a strip for street-based, full-service sex work through to the years of pornography developing into an organized business. (The Season 1 finale featured the premiere of Deep Throat on Broadway, if you will.) Rather than portraying this transition in all its minutiae, Season 2 fast-forwards to the culturally explosive year 1977, when New York City was petri dish to a burgeoning new wave of punk rock, increasingly violent crime, hip-hop, queer visibility, underground discotheques, cocaine, salsa, Ed Koch and, as “Our Raison d’Etre” drives home several times, the urgency of on-the-ground second-wave feminism.

Gyllenhaal’s Candy has embodied this ideal from the beginning: Once a sex worker on the street who refused to allow her business to be controlled by a pimp, she used her intellect and gumption to propel herself to the top of the “hoochie film” business. But there’s also Abby, played by Margarita Levieva, an NYU dropout who’s still dating Vincent (one of two slimy dirtbag characters in which James Franco is typecast), but is now running his bar, booking punk shows, reading feminist literature, and hanging inscrutable paintings of vaginas. It’s a logical turn for her character, but also can be read as a sort of mea culpa, the throwing of a bone for The Deuce’s top-billed male character’s real-life accusations.

Dominique Fishback as Darlene.
Screenshot: The Deuce (HBO)

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It’s unfortunate that his presence makes it so complicated to enjoy, because it’s truly good, particularly the performance of Gyllenhaal, who deserves every award. Amid all the hardscrabble shit that Pelecanos and Simon are known for (i.e. Lawrence Gilliard Jr.’s police detective investigating the stabbing of a tourist), the woman-empowerment angle seems to be on full-throttle this season, if a little obvious. (One of The Deuce’s most interesting points, and one that makes it harder to quit despite the unfortunate and jarring presence of James Franco, is that in addition to its extremely talented cast of women, it’s also just about 50 percent written and directed by women, too.)

The super-smart sex worker Darlene, portrayed by Dominique Fishback, secretly got her GED to try and get out from under the thumb of her pimp; she’s reading Song of Solomon and thinking about taking night classes. Abby is reading feminist literature in bed (while wearing a terrible Patti Smith wig, yowch) before heading off to the bar to help a woman with some “labor issues” she’s been having. We later discover that the woman is a stripper and she’s organized a strike for unfair labor practices, a plot point that echoes the current #NYCStripperStrike but may not have any historical precedent in the 1970s. Similarly, she describes herself as a “feminist dancer. I know that sounds like a ‘pacifist executioner’ or something, but I see it as an avenue to explore sexual dynamics.”

This concept and the introduction to this character is promising, but also it’s unclear whether sex positivity to the level of defining oneself as a “feminist dancer” would have been so common in 1977. It would still be four years before Andrea Dworkin published anti-porn tome Pornography, in 1981, and while Betty Dodson was encouraging sex positivity all over the Village, the mainstream feminist thought towards porn at that time was largely that it exploited women and was counter to the movement. It will be interesting to see how Abby’s character evolves within this, or if The Deuce will address it at all, even with its previous fixation on historical accuracy. But at the very least, it’s still set-design catnip for those enamored of vanishing New York and its history, and worth exploring its generally nuanced looks into gender dynamics at a time when everything was changing. Maggie Gyllenhaal quick-cutting an orgasm as the Modern Lovers’s “Roadrunner” blasts in the background is worth it.