Cliff “Method Man” Smith (left), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Photo: Paul Schiraldi)

The “Emmy for Maggie Gyllenhaal” train was already speeding its way down the tracks, and “What Kind Of Bad?” heaps a whole mountain of coal into the engine. Gyllenhaal shines in an episode that’s both a restatement and a validation of her character’s m.o., giving us Candy’s side of the story from beneath the jabbering of the men she’s sharing the screen with, her strengths and vulnerabilities on display in the turn of her head or the quiver of her lip. Bringing herself to climax when Jack can’t could be putting too fine a point on Candy’s independence, but it fits with the broader picture of “What Kind Of Bad?”, one in which she speaks, even in her silence, in the languages The Deuce: Power, money, and sex.

The scene is smartly shot, too, blocked for Candy’s pleasure, not the viewer’s. Her back is turned to Jack, she’s shot from the waist up—she’s not even fully in focus for much of the sequence. Like the closed door behind which a john later beats and robs her, you could view this as The Deuce engaging in self-bowdlerization or intentionally toning down some of its more lurid content—or you can see it as an extension of all the private experiences Candy carries with her every day. The camera pays attention to her face, and it will again when she covers up the bruises, more lines in her biography that she’s keeping between herself and the mirror. Later, when Rodney is badgering her in the street, bringing up previous instances of violence and wildly speculating about her past, she divulges nothing. This is how she maintains control in a world that would take it—and everything else—from her.

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“What Kind Of Bad?” is what happens when the decadence of The Deuce begins to sour. It’s an hour in which Paul can find escape on the dance floor, but also one in which he’s hauled in for “soliciting” fellatio at the Park-Miller Theater. His jailhouse comedown arrives in a string of fraught moments, following Candy’s beating and Abby pushing one too many of Reggie Love’s buttons. “What Kind Of Bad?” is also the Deuce debut of country girl Bernice (Andrea-Rachel Parker), whose introduction to New York is neither the “modeling” fantasy that Darlene (née Donna, as we learn during this week’s Carolina cold open) promised, nor the holding-all-the-cards version we’ve seen with Lori (who looks to be in a bad way this week). The party’s dying down and reality’s sinking in; not for nothing is this the week Sandra makes genuine strides toward telling the stories of Reggie, Melissa, and company in the pages of The Amsterdam News.

Natalie Paul (left), Tariq Trotter (Photo: Paul Schiraldi)

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“Uplift only,” Sandra’s editor tells her of the News’ mission, the words of some short-sighted boss in David Simon’s journalistic past echoing through “What Kind Of Bad?” But Sandra keeps at it, laying out a big question for the episode: What hills are these characters willing to die on? In an environment seemingly engineered to strip you of every principle and grind your soul down to a nub, what do you hang on to? For Vince, that used to be a refusal to rub elbows with the mob; in the resolution of last week’s cliffhanger, we learn that pimping is his new last straw. But with Bobby unable to return to the construction site, family loyalty gets the best of the good Martino. By the end of the episode, he’s standing behind another bar of another mob-run joint, this one a massage parlor that’s part of Mayor Lindsay’s attempt to sweep the sins of the city under the rug. Abby’s resolve is tested this week, too, though she’s a little more successful: Feeling out of place among the NYU crowd, she brings a little bit of campus to the Hi-Hat. It keeps her out of the leotard, but it doesn’t prevent her from getting spun around by Ashley after she complains about how Darlene wound up using the bus ticket.

The hill Candy’s facing down is one where she could quite literally die. The risks of her one-woman operation have always been implied—or reinforced by some of the johns we’ve seen Darlene and Lori with—but “What Kind Of Bad” puts them in stark, ugly terms. I don’t want to single out this part of the episode for praise, exactly: A man battering a woman is an overly common sight on HBO, one whose narrative purpose is almost always superseded by its shock value. Any of the past incidents Rodney refers to could’ve been the one that convinced Candy to take the meeting with Harvey Wasserman—and the way it’s positioned, it’s Rodney’s harassment, as much as the assault, that puts her on that course. Which then raises the question of whether or not it’s strictly necessary to show Maggie Gyllenhaal getting head-butted, and the whole argument becomes much larger than anyone Sunday-night recap can contain. The beating is a morally repugnant scene that advances the themes of the episode and the series and leads to some strong, energetically filmed dramatic work between Gyllenhaal and Method Man.

Chris Coy (left), James Franco (Photo: Paul Schiraldi)

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Amid the ugliness of “What Kind Of Bad?”, there is the hopeful search for refuge. Paul finds it on that dancefloor, his mind taken off of profit (with the help of drugs and music) long enough to connect with another human and (maybe?) help coax Art a little further out of the closet. At the turning point of the first season, the characters could use more of the solace they find in the barber’s chair or on the Hi-Hat’s stool. Those who’ll profit off of Rudy’s massage parlor probably don’t deserve to be sheltered from consequence, but it’ll keep the people employed there out of the hospital and/or jail.

And so we find Candy sitting down once more with Harvey Wasserman, who’s no prize—but he’s no pimp, either. And the meeting is another showcase for Gyllenhaal, who takes the most incredible pause after Harvey asks why Candy changed her mind. (The lighting in that scene is incredible, too, and it’s incredible all over “What Kind Of Bad.” If I had to guess, director Uta Briesewitz’s experience as a cinematographer has something to do with it. This is the most handsomely photographed episode of The Deuce since the pilot.) Things had to go way wrong to get her here, and she’s had to sacrifice some of her independence in the interest of personal safety, but compromise is the only way to keep moving on The Deuce—the decency laws might not have changed, but the interpretation of them has. Behind those sunglasses, she’s in a state of not-quite content, not-quite anticipation—more complexities to Gyllenhaal to tackle. Her final line of the episode: “Great.” I couldn’t agree more.

Stray observations

  • I don’t actually think The Deuce is this type of show, but it can’t just leave the potential for mistaken identity in the pilot: What if Frankie went behind Vince’s back, and he’s the one we see visiting the massage parlor with Bobby? Of course, that runs the risk of Bobby going to the actual Vince with concerns about the massage parlor and Vince coming back like “What the fuck are you talking about?”—so what if the Martinos went in on it together, and Frankie is posing as his brother so Vince can keep his nose and his conscience (relatively) clean?
  • Just when I think I couldn’t like Big Mike more, he turns out to be a crossword guy.
  • Perhaps not so coincidentally, the no-go zones and Rudy’s new business venture are cropping up while the city turns its attention to police corruption, the activities of the Knapp commission dominating Alston’s thoughts while he dines with Sandra and has envelopes of cash tossed through his squad-car window.
  • Barbara and Melissa have a good scam going on, engaging johns in a threesome and lifting extra cash from their wallets. I do not foresee this working out in the end, however.

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Screenshot: The Deuce
Screenshot: The Deuce
Screenshot: The Deuce

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  • The look of this episode really is something else. In partial light and silhouette, Briesewitz makes some indelible images from the cast’s profiles. The blue-and-pink signage dancing on Larry and Loretta’s faces is extremely on trend for 2017, but damn if it that isn’t an artful, evocative use of color in a scene where she lobbies him for just a little bit of tenderness—and he coldly denies it.