I was a late comer to The Wire, but when it got me it got me good. During the first several weeks of my newborn daughter’s life, I rewatched the entire series, my little treat during those late-night feedings. It was even better the second time around, so much so that I almost looked forward to the long nights. David Simon and George Pelecanos bought my goodwill with that series and with everything they did after it - even though it seems we’re a bit past the age of mega-consensus television (the Breaking Bads that everyone everywhere is tuning into and good luck staying spoiler-free on the internet the next day), there isn’t anything they’ve made that I won’t watch.
Equally strong is my distaste for excusing and explaining away bad behavior in the #metoo era. I’m tired of hearing about why Louis C.K. was misunderstood. The question we are still trying to answer is that of whether and how we should consume any of the art created by people (actors, writers, comedians, producers, studio execs) who have in some way created a shitty work environment for those less powerful than them, women in particular. Obviously, I’m putting it as mildly and broadly as possible. It’s a personal dilemma, and everyone will no doubt have a different framework for their decision-making. Breaking with Louis C.K., despite his having been at one time my very favorite comedian, was a no-brainer for me, and my feelings have not changed since he began attempting a comeback in New York City. He is the sole creator of his material, and any money I pay for any content of his goes largely to him - this was one of the things I used to like about him, in fact. He’s not getting any more of my money. Being done with him has been painful, because of how meaningful his material was to me at one time (and some of it still is, despite everything), but it was not a hard decision to make.
How about, though, a series depicting the sex industry in 1970s New York City, created by David Simon and George Pelecanos and starring James Franco, who has been accused of “inappropriate or sexually exploitative behavior” by five women? I absolutely believe that Franco did what people say he did; none of his accusers had anything to gain by coming forward and naming him. Watching The Deuce means watching James Franco - actually, it means watching two of him, since he plays twin brothers on the show. I did not watch a single episode of The Deuce, Season 2, without thinking of the fact that James Franco is a dirtbag. I talked to more than one person who, like me, loved David Simon and yet could not bring themselves to watch this show because of James Franco. I felt very ambivalent starting the season, but I started it because I did not want to ignore or negate the work of countless talented people to avoid looking at one asshole. The acting, the writing, and the production of this show are transcendent. It looks beautiful, and when its squalor forces it away from beauty, it is still vivid and thoughtful. Even in moments when it is slightly less compelling or convincing, it always works. As in every world that Simon and Pelecanos have created, The Deuce’s rich, vibrant physical environment keeps the show focused. I never look at my watch or check my phone during an episode. I came to Season 1 for David Simon and I stayed for everyone else. I came to Season 2 for everyone else, and because of Franco, I wasn’t sure I’d stay, but then I did.
Here’s why James Franco on screen actually worked for me in the end: he plays two guys, and those two guys matter less and less with every episode. The material fact of how little they matter is only now, at the end of Season 2, beginning to dawn on them. I’m mostly focusing on Vincent, who is arguably the protagonist of the show; he’s the “good” guy, the morally conscious one, the one who at least plays the part of the honest fella trying to make it in the world. As he says to his ex-wife Andrea (Zoe Kazan) in the season finale, he just wants “a house and a wife and a bunch of rug rats runnin' around, and a dog and a cat and a goldfish, and a lawn and a driveway with a Lincoln rustin' in it.” Aww. Even though he’s now taken stock of how fully under the thumb of the mob he is, he has still continually entertained the notion that he’s one of the “good people,” as he says to Black Frankie (Thaddeus Street). Here, now, at season’s end, he’s starting to see that he’s not really all that good, and he’s also not really all that safe or powerful. Sure, mob boss Rudy Pipilo (Michael Rispoli) likes him right now, but Vince has seen firsthand on more than one occasion how that can change on a dime. He’s dispensable, and he is finally starting to get it. The show has been telling us so for a while.
Meanwhile, Season 2 has handed over the power of creative, forward thinking and the power of perseverance to its women. The mob holds the power of brute force and the power of money, and sure, those things are thrown around a lot on this show. The pimps think they hold the power of their women’s bodies, but as Darlene (Dominique Fishback) puts it, on the cusp of her exit forever from prostitution, it’s all pretend. “Pimp is a role,” she says to Larry, her about-to-be-former pimp (Gbenga Akinnagbe, or for The Wire fans, the unforgettable Chris Partlow). “So is whore. You pretended to be one, I pretended to be the other, and we went on like that for years.” But once they both - Darlene and Larry - started acting in porn films, which in Darlene’s case paid better money and put her at far less risk than selling herself on the street, the facade at the core of her pimp-whore relationship with Larry became glaringly obvious to her. Why was she doing work she didn’t like and giving him the money she earned? What would happen if she stopped? “Shit,” she says to Larry, “once you start lettin' a girl inside the pretend, it's over, ain't it?”
This whole scene (which gives the finale its title, “Inside the Pretend”) is pretty on-the-nose, and it would probably land too heavily in most shows. But neither actor overplays it, and it works perfectly. Darlene sees the matrix now, and she’s taking back her autonomy and her power. She’s been moving in this direction all season, attending college classes, getting a straight job, and reading Toni Morrison, but now she is ready to tell Larry to his face that she no longer recognizes his authority. If anything, he’s moved.
Eileen (Maggie Gyllenhaal) has had the same realization. She was the first to understand that she was better off working without a pimp - that was what set her apart in the show’s earliest episodes - and she has moved from self-employed sex worker to pornography auteur. She has talent, and she has vision, and she has downplayed both at strategic moments to get what she needs to make her artsy, feminist porn film Red Hot. In the season finale, Eileen and her colleagues learn that Frankie (the other James Franco) has given large cuts of the movie’s eventual profits to two competing mob bosses in exchange for just enough cash up front to get the thing made. That Frankie would do something so reckless is hardly surprising; where his twin brother Vince is troubled and conflicted, Frankie is an unambiguous criminal who is as swaggering and confident as he is shortsighted and incompetent - his attempt at running a dry-cleaning business as a mob front is one of the funniest subplots of the show. So Frankie’s involvement of both the Genovese family and the Gambino family means, among other things, that the creators themselves - Eileen herself - will see little to no money when Red Hot hits theaters. And? “Looks like we're gonna make them some money,” she says. “And they're gonna make me a name. I'm gonna take that name and I'm gonna use it to raise money for the next picture without them, and then the next one. So fuck it.”
That’s what we’re left with at the end of Season 2. The mob may have the money and the pimps may have the muscle. The women may be physically and materially vulnerable. But the women have to believe in the power of the pimps and the mob for that vulnerability to hold them back. In increasing numbers, they are refusing to live inside the pretend. James Franco plays two guys who have lived fully inside the pretend for the whole series. The show doesn’t tell us this, because it doesn’t need to; we see them becoming increasingly ineffectual over the course of this season, without even realizing it’s happening. The long, uncut shot that ends the season is of Vince, coming into his club through the back entrance, and stopping behind the bar as the camera pans out, revealing a gyrating crowd of mostly women. James Franco’s face is eventually completely lost behind them. Whether Simon, who specifically wrote and directed this final episode, intended it or not, this final shot feels like a harmonious culmination to a full season of women taking hold of their power and men straining to stay in the picture. Vince, Frankie, James Franco - they might have told themselves at one time that they were untouchable, but they never really were.