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On ‘The Deuce,’ Maggie Gyllenhaal Is Among TV’s Very Best (Column)

If Maggie Gyllenhaal wasn’t, somehow, on the list of the very best actresses on television at a time of near-unprecedented openness to half the population’s stories, the second season of “The Deuce,” premiering Sept. 9, ought to put her there. Gyllenhaal does something miraculous, mashing together a familiar character type with a pulsating, ever-present intelligence; it’s a star turn that places a familiar performer in a new light, and one of several reasons to give thanks for one of HBO’s less-heralded current dramas.

Gyllenhaal plays Candy, a onetime sex worker whose ambitions stretch far beyond the corner she worked. In Season 1, she slowly came into her power as an artist, but as Season 2 begins, her dream of becoming a pornography director has run into market realities. She’s not experienced enough to have the trust of producers, but experienced enough to have realized how things could be done better, if only she were given a chance. Rather than succumb to frustration, though, she thinks her way out of her problem, a process that necessarily must be done collaboratively. Part of “The Deuce’s” brilliance is that it resists making Candy a unique genius. She simply understands group dynamics well enough to know that while she may not be good enough to write a script, she can rely on a writer, and while she may not have the patience to force recalcitrant actors to read the lines as written, she can trust them to improvise.

As an actress, Gyllenhaal has always been a warm presence, and on “The Deuce,” she amps up her natural charisma, while holding something crucial back. This is not a performance of massive moments; Candy knows better than to jeopardize what little progress she’s made by alienating her conditional allies. But, at least over the first four episodes of Season 2, it’ll be the one among a sprawling ensemble that most necessitates use of the rewind button, to catch a flicker between emotions, the moment Candy decides to speak her mind, or not to.

To wit: In one bruising scene, she asks a former porn director who’s moved onto “legitimate” horror flicks (Dagmara Dominczyk) for advice. Candy excitedly nods as the woman who could be her role model tells her things she already knew but couldn’t quite articulate. Then, as the director tells her to stop using prostitutes as actresses, as “they’re dead around the eyes,” Candy wordlessly proves her wrong. She’s wincingly alive, resisting saying something that might be misinterpreted, or interpreted correctly. This is an insult she’ll have to swallow in a livelihood that’s been full of them. Later in the season, after a worse indignity suffered to earn a bit of funding, Candy pours herself a drink while playing her answering machine, half-listening to an escalatingly grim series of messages; her always-loose posture unwinds as she holds the check in her hand, then props it up so that she can look at it.

Candy is given wins on “The Deuce,” but each of them is brutally conditional, coming only as she subsumes her ego; that she keeps her optimism is the sort of small miracle in which a star like Gyllenhaal can make us believe. When she pitches her film, an adult adaptation of the “Red Riding Hood” story, for the umpteenth time, she frames it around “the hunger, the terror, and the risk we all f–kin’ risk to connect to each other.” It’s without question that the blows she’s suffered in order to connect have been worth it to her, but it’s also a very near thing.

And this makes Candy an especially compelling character on a series that’s centered around the industrialization of the sex trade in New York. This show is far from naive: The process of satiating American appetites, here, is one that comes with ill treatment and trauma. Candy, unlike the past “hookers with a heart of gold” she superficially resembles, affirmatively chooses her path. Doing so allows risk and pain into her life, as well as smaller annoyances, like colleagues who don’t understand. But these things can be borne. (When Candy finally curses out David Krumholtz’s director character, she’s, somehow, laughing, as though in disbelief at herself that her good humor has finally run out.)

While discussing this show’s deft hand with the depiction of a woman marginalized by more powerful men, it is worth noting that James Franco, who plays a double role on “The Deuce,” has been faced his own allegations of sexually exploitative behavior. To some, that will be enough to keep from watching the show entirely. To this critic, though, the ways in which Candy’s story depict the cumulative and grinding effects of living in a misogynistic environment make the show as urgent, in its way, as “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and shot through with enough hope to make it far more bearable.

This show, obsessed with the mechanics of monetizing sex and the power imbalances that business necessarily creates, is set long before the #MeToo movement or, for that matter, many cultural advances that presaged it. Candy’s own frustrations — which to some viewers may indeed read as trauma — are legible to her only as walls to push through. It is endlessly unkind that she is made to do so, that she finds so few collaborators willing to actually hear what she has to say. But she strides on, seeking people willing to create something with her, people with whom she can connect. It’s a risk Gyllenhaal convinces us is worth taking for a character who’s come to be one of TV’s pre-eminent survivors. And it’s a performance that deserves to be mentioned among television’s very best.

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