For three seasons, Maggie Gyllenhaal has been one of the primary reasons to keep watching The Deuce, despite compelling reasons (James Franco in two roles) to stop watching The Deuce. As Eileen, a Queens girl from a good Catholic family who’s exiled from her home for unknown reasons and winds up doing sex work in 1971 Times Square, Gyllenhaal has brought a crackling energy to her role, particularly as Candy parlays her street work into a successful career as an artistic, proto-feminist porn director. She should have won 15 or 20 awards for a single Season 2 scene alone, during which she tries to convince a producer to fund the film she knows will be a big hit; he tells her he’ll write her a check for $10,000 on the spot if she gives him a blow job. The steely look she gives him, the way she visibly swallows her pride and acquiesces, communicates as much in a single look about the way power and money are wielded over women as any dialogue in the entire show. Gyllenhaal was nominated and lost the 2017 Golden Globe for Best Actress to Elisabeth Moss, but deserved it just as much.
The Deuce, in its final season, has been making clear—to the point of spelling it out—that its point about money and power and women’s bodies have always been the show’s purpose; that women’s bodies were at the heart of making Times Square tick during lawless and ruthless 1970s New York, and that regulating them were what began its “cleanup” in the 1980s. In Monday night’s episode, “This Trust Thing,” the tangible effects of all this begin to show through the cracks. Eileen, her “Candy” street moniker now mostly shed, is embarking on a full feminist awakening after, in a prior episode, being completely roasted by Andrea Dworkin (played incredibly by Marcia DeBonis) at a Women Against Porn meeting. (It’s still slightly unclear, though, after two seasons of defending its characters’ choices and showing Candy gaining a modicum of power through pornography, if The Deuce has a stance either way; I rather hope it doesn’t.)
“This Trust Thing” opens with Eileen in a diner, meeting with someone she hopes to work with on what seems will be her first feminist art film. She sees her server, a blithe looking brunette, sexually harassed by a table of brutish men, and when the server comes back, Eileen asks her why she would put up with that shit. “I work for tips,” she barks back. “What world do you live in?”
It’s like the skies part, and Eileen realizes that her art film is not, as she intended, about women working sex on the streets, but about how that transaction can and does translate to everyday life in its various incarnations. “Every fucking woman,” Eileen says during her revelation, “has a price tag on her… She could be a waitress, she could be a secretary, but everything she does, everywhere she goes, she’s got a price tag hanging on her ass.”
This is not the monologue that should earn Gyllenhaal the Emmy or Golden Globe, however, not quite—I found the writing a little on the nose and explanatory, but haven’t yet decided if it’s because it’s old-hat thinking to me, or because it was accurately portraying the way Second Wave-values had first trickled into the consciousnesses of women in 1984. But it opens the door for an incredible scene in which Gyllenhaal finally gets the chance to tell us Eileen’s backstory, as she rehearses for her film with two actors, directing a woman to put more of her soul into it. As she does so, it becomes clear that the main character—the waitress, the secretary, whomever—is a stand-in for her own experiences, and she begins speaking about her own life in the second person, describing becoming pregnant at 15 and being driven somewhere mysterious by her “Catholic, drag-your-ass to mass” father. “Is he gonna take you to one of those place where you go to have a baby when you’re not married? Is he gonna hide you, and your baby curves away from the world?” Her voice is gritty; she gets close to the woman’s face.
“No. It’s an old lady. In a basement apartment, who gives hack abortions. And you’re lying on a towel, and you’re looking sideways, across the ceiling, and you’re looking at these Flintstone jelly glasses. And you’re thinking, oh, I remember when they used to give those out at the gas stations. You think of anything not to think about what’s happening. And for one second, you think, ‘Maybe he really cares about me.’…. maybe he’s thinking about you, and how fucked up your life will be if you’re a 15-year-old mama.”
At this point, Gyllenhaal, as Eileen, breaks down, describing how she felt when the procedure was over, she went back upstairs, and her father was gone. She is resonant with vulnerability; what could have been a cliché monologue about how a woman was driven into sex work because of her “daddy issues” is made stark and full by Gyllenhaal’s performance. Her range—from angry, to helpless, to shattered, to furious, to back-to-work—is phenomenal, and encompasses all that she’s done, impeccably, on this show. And that is why Maggie Gyllenhaal deserves a goddamn award!
The Deuce has just two episodes left; it seems all but certain that more characters will die (many, both beloved and hated, already have; this is a David Simon/George Pelacanos joint, after all). But I feel pretty certain that Eileen is going to pull through just fine, her resolve and ingenuity the fulcrum of a show about spiraling out of control, and a good enough reason to go back and watch it all the way through.