The cold opens on The Deuce are perhaps the only good thing left in the world. Larry’s (Gbenga Akinnagbe) ever-entertaining escapades trying to get into porn continue to be incredible: “What Big Ideas” begins with the pimp facing objectification for the first time and rising to the occasion with plenty of endearing flash. And, of course, flashing some endearing flesh. With his role reversed (now and later in the episode), The Deuce lets deadpan reign for big laughs and bigger ideas. Directed by the always stellar Uta Briesewitz (she did Westworld’s “Kiksuya”), the episode’s title becomes more than a fairytale riff.
That’s not to say that the episode’s meanings aren’t masked with benign decoration. Like marble, which Paul (Chris Coy) and Vincent (James Franco) chat about in lieu of real things like the imposing mob threat to Paul’s solo expedition as an entrepreneur. Either way, according to Vincent, always stick with Italian. Of course Vincent would say that.
Vincent’s weakness is a crux of the episode. Vincent—he of the small ideas, the metered ambitions, and the tenuous grasp on monogamy—is moments away from cheating on Abby (Margarita Levieva) until she stops him, moments away from pushing real confrontation on Bobby (Chris Bauer, undisputed king of hypermasculine pride) for his treatment of Vincent’s sister and the parlor girls. Vincent, who, up until this point, obeyed the mob out of a nebulous fear, witnesses just how scary and violent they are firsthand. And yet the scenes all end the same way—a faux tranquility, with Abby nearby, staring into his soul, and reevaluating every decision. He can’t even bury his problems properly. In the end, the pseudo-progressive weakness of men (embodied by Vincent), more than anything positive this series is heading towards, will define this era and what comes next.
Meanwhile, people are still fighting the fight for a future we know won’t come. Eileen (Maggie Gyllenhaal) tries to sell her new Little Red Riding Hood movie to Harvey (David Krumholtz, giving some of the best speeches of the series) with an ambitious, artsy, and—gasp—outdoors plan. The scene is mostly talking, but it’s constructed with great care by writer Anya Epstein, who makes sure that while the plot is advanced (oh, Eileen is planning such and such for the film?), much of the conversation is dominated by the characters’ friendship twisting around the business deal in that uncomfortable and touchy way that happens when pals’ creative visions clash. Krumholtz, stammering and protesting, beautifully juggles the triple needs of companionship, porn practicalities, and his own intellectual ego. It’s hilarious, it’s sweet, it’s dramatic, and it gets us where we need to go.
Eileen finds a writer who’s as desperate and depraved as she is (and among writers, who isn’t?) after another unsuccessful entry in the “writing is hard” category of scenes. It’s a hard process to make visually interesting, but I need more than some pencil scratches (and the reveal that she’s been sleeping with her video editor) to show me that she’s having a hard time squeezing her themes into a kid’s story. There’s solid conflict here, where Eileen’s big ideas—even when they aren’t wrapped up in Bruno Bettelheim’s plagiarized but popular assessment of fairy tales—clash with the small ones they enhance, but not quite enough done at the scene-to-scene level to make the former clear. Ideas of physiological fitness and the roots of our drives are engulfed by the very vices they spark. When one of Bobby’s parlors is razed by mob rivals, and a girl is killed, nobody’s arguing about heightening the discourse.
It’s the same when Chekhov’s Heroin Addict (a sex worker named Shay, played by Kim Director) fulfills her destiny, needing to be checked into rehab after a collapse that exemplifies the horrifying, zoo-like conditions of the peep show. Irene (Roberta Colindrez), with some mix of professional responsibility and overbearing-yet-barely-introduced affection, swears she’ll visit every day. This emotional hokeyness goes hand-in-hand with some of the series’ other weaknesses, like when it tries to put too much historical responsibility onto the shoulders of its central screw-ups. Not only do I not give a damn if C.C. (Gary Carr) had the idea for POV porn before anyone wised up, it’s out of character for him to be that inventive. It’s only one step better than shoehorning in a “today we call them computers” title card.
Although “What Big Ideas” isn’t perfect and has many of the same weak points that The Deuce has displayed throughout its run, it still hits more often than it misses. Some of the small seeds that the show haphazardly planted earlier in the season: Eileen’s son is becoming a horny teen finding porn on his own, and Lori (Emily Meade) is attempting to get new management while still shackled to the abusive pimp-ho dynamic. The higher-ups keep pushing Chris Alston (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) towards the plotline with the mayor and his clean-up commission despite his reluctance—in a metaphor, perhaps unwittingly, of the writers forcing the lifeless storyline on us. I suspect The Deuce is trying to show off the commission’s underfunded futility, having its meager coffers looted by undesirable cops, but with so little screen time, it’s hard to connect those dots. Change isn’t coming: The good are too cynical and the bad too eager to undermine.
You can see this stance more clearly and more personally when Frankie (Franco) dicks around with the dry cleaners he won last week, including an enjoyable scene involving the swaggering meathead’s struggle with the word “tzitzit.” He’s terrible at running a real business, feeling much less harried and even, somehow, happier, watching his exotic dancer wife fight a customer that wants to finger her. It’s his element; it’s no wonder he refuses to leave. His personality is seemingly essential and unchangeable, like the plight of sex workers and like the plight of The Deuce. It’s several entwined institutions, built with cash and cemented with tradition, that can’t be chiseled apart so easily or abruptly. Change could come and big ideas could break through, but it’ll be a long process, like chipping Mt. Rushmore out of unassuming granite.
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.