The First Hour of ‘The Deuce’ Had More Male Nudity Than Every ‘Game of Thrones’ Season Combined
The Deuce landed on HBO last night with a special 90-minute premiere of the seedy new drama from the great David Simon (The Wire) and frequent collaborator George Pelecanos. Featuring a beautifully reimagined ’70s New York, the first episode immerses us in the state of the sex industry on the verge of a major turning point in history by introducing an ensemble of prostitutes, pimps, and a handful of johns. (Oh, and the twin brothers played by James Franco.) As you might expect, there was quite a bit of nudity in that first 90 minutes; actually, the first hour alone had more full frontal male nudity than all seven seasons of Game of Thrones combined.
In fact, the first bit of nudity we see in The Deuce is a man’s penis. That’s impressive for any show, let alone one that centers on a cast of female sex workers portrayed by Maggie Gyllenhaal, Emily Meade, Kayla Foster, and Dominique Fishback — the latter of whom impressively stands out in an episode of standout performances. By contrast, it took five episodes for Game of Thrones, a series saturated with (often incidental) naked female bodies, to feature full frontal male nudity. How is it that a show about the sex industry has more balls (literally) than a fantasy melodrama about dragons and ice zombies and powerful houses vying for a big, pointy throne?
More to the point: This decision, though weirdly bold for the House of Thrones, reads like a confident mission statement that immediately sets The Deuce apart from its network peers.
The pilot episode of The Deuce was directed by series executive producer Michelle MacLaren, which may account for the emphasis on male nudity. (Not for nothing, MacLaren has also directed four episodes of Game of Thrones.) Like Wonder Woman, the first episode of The Deuce feels instructive in the value of the female gaze in an industry dominated by male perspectives. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that this concept is reflected in the plot of the HBO series, which explores how men seek to dominate and profit from the one industry where women outnumber — and out-earn — their male counterparts.
It begins with the pimps. There’s something inherently unsavory about these men, each introduced as charismatic, bespoke businessmen who hold office in Cadillacs and greasy diners. No matter how much agency their “employees” appear to have at first glance, we know the misogynistic and (often) violent truth of these relationships. MacLaren and pilot writers Simon and Pelecanos smartly withhold this brutal reality (for a time) in favor of focusing on the women and their relentless work. When we first meet Candy (Gyllenhaal, who also serves as executive producer), she’s rebuking a pimp named Rodney (Method Man) with all the casual confidence of a seasoned independent contractor. What Rodney — and his pimp ilk — claim to offer is protection from the unpredictable evil that men do, but Candy knows what they’re really pushing: A buyout that slowly escalates into a hostile takeover.
Look no further than Larry (Gbenga Akinnagbe), a pimp who sets his sights on the doe-eyed Lori the moment she gets off a bus from Minnesota, hoping to put her on the street. Larry’s attempt to prey on Lori may have backfired (she’s already looking to hustle and prefers working for a pimp), but C.C.’s relationship with Barbara (Foster) illustrates the duplicitous misogyny of pimping. Barbara has been manipulated into believing that this abusive business relationship is actually meaningful, expressing jealousy toward Lori as C.C. soothes her with promises of an intimate evening alone. In contrast to this overt display of toxic masculinity, the episode builds to its final disturbing moments with subtle brilliance — a series of escalating transactions that begins with a rape fetish and ends with the consequences of disobeying a pimp.
Late in the episode, Barbara, soaked from running through the pouring rain, tells C.C. that she doesn’t want to work that evening. And why not? The weather isn’t exactly conducive to profits, and she’s been led to believe C.C. is more than just her pimp; he’s her boyfriend and the one man with whom sex isn’t transactional (to the contrary, it’s the one transaction that dictates all others). At this point, we’ve spent over an hour in the world of The Deuce, and despite the inherent sexism of its subject matter and a showrunner whose most famous series didn’t shy away from violent acts, it’s been a fairly tame hour. Candy’s attitude and work ethic make her life as a prostitute seem somewhat enjoyable, and Darlene (Fishback) ends her night eating pizza and watching A Tale of Two Cities with an older client who doesn’t want to have sex.
The misogynistic nature of the trade is evident throughout, from the faked sexual assault (and resulting bruises, excused with an extra 20 bucks and implied consent) to Candy’s negotiation with a teenaged virgin, which — despite his sheepishness — feels like it’s constantly on the verge of taking a violent turn. That the first nudity we see is male and that the most compelling narratives belong to women is a strong opening statement for The Deuce, particularly (and especially) because its creator and showrunner is a man. That he chose MacLaren to helm the pilot episode is exceedingly wise.
The male gaze is often sneakily insidious. It takes a Patty Jenkins or a Michelle MacLaren to open our eyes to the vast differences between how a man perceives women and how women can (and should) be perceived. In a series about the sex industry, the objectification of female bodies is the story, but MacLaren treats male and female bodies equally and with an almost clinical sense of remove, undercutting any potential notions of glamor. White cotton underwear sticks out of a woman’s hot pants like a suggestion of banality, while penises are often shown from what most men would consider their least flattering angles. Bodies vary in shape and size. Sex is not confined to the young and conventionally beautiful.
It’s also through MacLaren’s unflinching eye that the episode’s final moment plays out to deeply unsettling effect. C.C. smooth-talks Barbara away from prying eyes to discuss her desire to take the night off. Vinnie (Franco), the more responsible of the twins, goes to investigate the screams coming from down the hall in the seedy motel. Through the small window of a door, he sees C.C. holding a razor to Barbara’s pained face as she cries and moans. C.C.’s threats aren’t entirely intelligible, distorted perhaps by our slow recognition of the violence that has already taken place: A bloody slash across Barbara’s armpit, a spot deliberately chosen to avoid notice. When a woman’s livelihood depends entirely on her physical appearance, a pimp can ill afford to visibly damage the goods.
Meanwhile, Vinnie walks back down the hall to his room, where the woman he paid for sex lays in nervous wait. He starts to open the door but pulls it shut as C.C. passes behind him, as if he’s protecting another sex worker from a violent pimp. It’s such a literal White Knight moment, this man presumptuously holding a door for a woman’s sake, but it’s no less an act of exerting commercial ownership over a woman’s body.
If the decision to show a penis before ever showing female nudity was a mission statement, those final moments of The Deuce read like an assertive notice of intent — and one that may only become more compelling over the next seven episodes.