If you thought “All You’ll Be Eating Is Cannibals” was a savage title for an episode of The Deuce, “We’re All Beasts” clears up any doubts you may still have. It’s the season’s funniest, sexiest, and most engaging episode yet—one spent damning characters from all walks of life for the same sins. The chase of something bigger, better, more fulfilling, more truthful. It may be built up big in our heads, but it’s still the law of the jungle for everyone on The Deuce.
For all the inventive DIY ethic that Eileen (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is putting into her film, the collision of worlds doesn’t exactly start off as the PB&J that is the modern porn parody. (I’ll let you fill that acronym in on your own.) The good news is that Gbenga Akinnagbe is stealing every scene now that they’ve maneuvered Larry into the spotlight. The other pimps, like Gary Carr’s C.C., may have fallen by the wayside as they marinate in a lifestyle evaporating before their eyes, but Larry’s where it’s all happening. Which doesn’t bode well for that poor, soft boy. He just loves acting. And it’s dangerous to love anything if you run in Larry’s circle.
“We’re All Beasts” layers the time spent this season on the power imbalance of a pimp and a newcomer sex worker atop of the porn industry’s limitations for Larry—he’s black—and Lori (Emily Meade)—her pimp is always in the way—to create complex acting moments inside of scenes that, on their face, just seem fun. And they are fun. Almost too fun. The porn shoot is so clever—and involves the best characters, including the always incredible David Krumholtz ripping off another blistering sermon to these sinners in the hands of a horny God—that it hurts the other parts of the episode. It’s too fun to leave, even if it’s for Anwan Glover’s immaculate deadpan.
This has always been a problem for The Deuce. As clever as its match cuts and thematic through lines may be in any given episode, time spent away from Gyllenhaal and those elevated by her very presence inevitably feels like a commercial interrupting the main proceedings with a McLachlan-scored PSA. Not that they’re not competent, but a scene with sex workers suffering from the changing role of pimps—all while every else is having seat-flying fun shooting porn—simply doesn’t have the same oomph as the A-plot. That could be because the latter’s way more fun to put together for writers Megan Abbott and Stephani DeLuca; it’s hard to beat Eileen, Harvey, Jocelyn (Genevieve Hudson-Price), and Frankie (James Franco) solving small practical problems on a porn set. There are punchlines on top of punchlines as the characters stumble endearingly over obstacles. It’s The Disaster Artist with dicks. Then Bobby’s (Chris Bauer) misbehaving kid gets shoehorned in and everyone can get up to go use the bathroom.
The collapse of Bobby’s veneer of blue collar, dad-and-his-belt masculinity is a great angle performed well—don’t get me wrong—but I wish there was more to him than the “family man” designation. That particular dynamic is complicated by Bobby putting his son to work in the parlor, eradicating the hypocritical line between respectable home life and amoral career. Just as the pimps and their sex workers found themselves tumbling into the seedy sex industry, those from further outside following suit. Even government reformer Gene (Luke Kirby), with his perfect family, needs a steamy sauna encounter once in a while. How they claw their way out? They’ll need more help than a couple grand and a bus ticket.
Director Susanna White makes everything move right, staging sex scenes full of hilarious clutter, refusing to cut away or adjust focus on some powerful speeches, and capturing (or helping create) the magical myth of slimy, sexy, ragtag New York. You haven’t been watching TV this year until you watch two cops watch an MFF scene shoot on a car hood in a parking lot in front of the skyline in the middle of the night. New York, baby! Marrying that with the velvety grand opening of Paul’s (Chris Coy) swanky eatery and the growing dread of finding the mob’s roots under every overturned stone—they’re knocking over trucks, they’re funding porn, they’re tearing apart relationships—is an act of aesthetic juggling that’d stun Cirque du Soleil. The earthy jazz of “More Than You Know” leading to a staircase scene straight from M is the capturing of prey the whole episode’s been after. Highbrow, lowbrow: We’re all here for the same reasons, and The Deuce is giving us the rush before the kill.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.