As a sweeping look at the way sex work in Times Square changed over a decade-and-a-half, HBO’s The Deuce has always had an eye towards feminism. Its first season, set in 1971, introduced Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Candy, a savvy sex worker on 42nd Street who deliberately worked alone, which is to say, without the protection or subjugation of a pimp; by Season 2, set in 1977, Candy had parlayed her ambition into a career as a proto-feminist pornographic film director, big on arthouse ideas and intent on centering the women performers. Concurrently, Season 2 wove in Second Wave thought with Abby (Margarita Levieva) and Dorothy (Jamie Neumann, who has said she read Andrea Dworkin for the role) organizing to help sex workers on the street with mobile clinics and empowerment—an idealism that would prove occasionally dangerous. As with most of the themes in The Deuce, though, in its first two seasons, feminism has been more about the cultural fabric of the plot than a central concern—a tenor that infuses the characters’ lives rather than a text from which to preach.
Monday night’s premiere, for its third and final season, deviated from that somewhat, in a fashion that is hopefully for first-episode plotting purposes, and not an indication it’s approaching its scripts with a heavier hand. The year is 1984, and Times Square is already on the path to the flashy shopping mall it’s become: Mayor Koch’s plan to “clean up” the notoriously seedy district—publicly to make the streets safer, privately to make way for developers in the interest of tax riches—is underway; the peepshow booths have given way to XXX video stores (and Candy is trying to resist the wave of the home video cam); yuppies and Wall Street bros are creeping on the scene; the increase of “sickness,” which is to say HIV, is a nervous whisper, unspoken through one ghostly, emaciated character alone in a gay bar on New Year’s Eve, no one deigning to hug or kiss him at midnight from fear. A rather pointed scene at the beginning featured James Franco’s Vinnie (typecast as not one but two scumbags) and Abby strolling through Times Square and talking wistfully about the changing landscape. “The Deuce is like a cockroach,” grunts Vinnie. “It was here before us, it’s gonna be here long after we’re gone.” (Viewer: It was not a cockroach.)
It’s most pointed, though, in the way it portrays the tensions between strains of feminism as the Second Wave matures. Loretta (Sepideh Moafi) left street work at the end of Season 2 to bartend in Vinnie’s joint; she’s also joined Women Against Pornography (WAP), picketing outside the old peep show and wondering if she and her feminist cohorts are making even the slightest dent of impact. (Looking forward to the inevitable Dworkin-inspired character in a future episode.) The discourse is summed up quickly in a scene where Loretta and former street worker Melissa (Olivia Luccardi) debate the merits of Melissa’s career in low-budget porn. “Don’t act like you don’t know,” says Loretta, conspiratorially. “Porn does shit to men.”
“It makes them happy?” Melissa retorts. “Look, guys, they’re gonna jack off to the movies whether I’m in them or not. For me, it’s safer than turning tricks.”
Loretta invites Melissa to a WAP meeting, which she declines. (“I’d rather pay the rent.”) It’s a neat distillation of the sex wars conversation between the anti-porn feminists, whose tactics were often exclusionary, and what would evolve into the Third Wave, emphasizing individual choice and agency and recognizing the capitalist construct in which sex work is situated. But framed in this way it feels unsatisfying, perhaps in the way that the current conversation is unsatisfying—that the decriminalization and destigmatization of sex work, while becoming more mainstream, is still an ongoing struggle among feminist factions. But then, this is The Deuce’s cross to bear, especially as its depiction of New York City becomes slightly more recognizable to that of the current day: how to encapsulate the historical roots of our current moment on episodic television without becoming either preachy or reductive.