Photo: Paul Schiraldi (HBO)

It’s the end of 1977, and New York City is on top of the world. Subway-riding mayor elect Ed Koch is sweeping into Gracie Mansion. The Yankees are champs again, thanks to “Mr. October,” Reggie Jackson, and his three-pitch, three-homer performance in game six against those carpet-bagging bums that used to play in Brooklyn. Exciting new sounds pumping out of Lower East Side dives and Midtown discotheques are poised to reshape popular music in the city’s image.

It’s the end of 1977, and New York City is still fucking ’70s New York. In August, David Berkowitz confessed to the Son of Sam killings, stating that he acted under instructions from a demon impersonating his neighbor’s dog. A month prior, the entire Consolidated Edison power system went down, plunging most of the five boroughs into bedlam for 25 hours. Certain arrangements made by legitimate businessmen have moved the sex trade off the street, but the Deuce is still a pretty good place to get stabbed in the chest by a hustler while your wife comes down from Beatlemania back at the Sheraton.

Advertisement

This is where “Our Raison d’Être” drops the needle, a vision of The Deuce in which five years can make a lot of difference, but that doesn’t mean that circumstances have improved. Kicking off with a positively electric Goodfellas/Boogie Nights spin through Vincent Martino’s latest mob-backed nightlife venture, Club 366, the episode puts on a face of glitz and glamor: A skin-flick empress in Halston, a pimp in a yacht captain’s cap. It’s a best of times that shimmies to a silky Barry White groove, and it’s intoxicating. Director Alex Hall sustains the buzz for the entirety of George Pelecanos and David Simon’s premiere script—a sensation boosted by a record collector’s fantasy of what ’77 sounded like, from the Elvis Costello over the opening credits to the shimmering Italo disco playing at Paul’s new bar.

But the camera doesn’t shy from the worst of times. Lori’s face is on movie posters, but she’s still under CC’s thumb. Leon’s still serving his sentence for killing Reggie Love. And Frankie Martino’s still a lying, low-life, motherfucking, gambling, degenerate prick, who isn’t just skimming quarters off the top over at Show World—he’s lifting the entire till, then vanishing for hours on end.

Advertisement

Frankie’s disappearance is “Our Raison d’Être”’s raison d’être, the writerly spine running through the pilot to Deuce ’77 that gives his twin brother cause to check in with practically every remaining major player and every remaining major setting from the first season. It’s Eileen’s stroll through the 366 writ large, and it’s not only an effective introduction to the show’s new status quo, it’s an efficient re-introduction to a sprawling cast who aren’t all where we last left them. It’s smart television, and thoughtful, too: There were a number of times during “Our Raison d’Être” when I tabbed over to The Deuce’s IMDB page to remind myself of a character’s name, only to have that name helpfully and organically pop up in the dialogue.

(It’s here where we should note the Los Angeles Times’ report of “inappropriate and sexually exploitative” behavior on the part of Franco, committed in his capacity as an acting teacher and mentor. “If I have done something wrong, I will fix it—I have to,” he later told Stephen Colbert on The Late Show. In the wake of the accusations, David Simon said in a statement to Variety, “We have no complainant or any awareness of any incident of concern involving Mr. Franco. Nor has HBO been approached with any complaint.” To state the obvious: This significantly complicates any discussion of The Deuce, a series that is in no small part about power dynamics and sexual exploitation. Given the themes and subject matter of the show, I would be remiss in not mentioning the fact that Franco—among other offenses—stands accused of removing the plastic guards covering actresses’ vaginas while filming an orgy scene. But I also can’t just overlook his presence in “Our Raison d’Être”: Vincent remains the fulcrum of the show, with Frankie his shadow and foil—and in the season premiere, his quarry. Franco was always going to deter people from watching The Deuce—let’s not forget his 2014 Instagram flirtation with a 17-year-old Scottish tourist—and I get it if the most recent accusations have prompted anyone to tune out.)

“Our Raison d’Être” doesn’t do catch-up; everyone Vinnie runs into during his wild goose chase has been living a life in the five years that passed between seasons, and the season premiere puts evidence of those lives on display: Darlene earned her GED, Harvey got married and adopted a bummer of a healthy diet, Alston got promoted to plainclothes, Bobby tried to cover up his male pattern baldness. I think it’s for this reason that the episode feels more like an organic continuation of the first season and less like a hard reset. The main characters are still the main characters, and the sense of a fresh start doesn’t stem from a show trying to desperately reinvent itself. When there’s reinvention in “Our Raison d’Être,” it’s from a place of wanting to keep the good times rolling: Paul, riding high from the success of his Greenwich Village spot, has blueprints and designs on opening up a business without mafia money; Eileen uses her standing in the industry to bring a little artfulness to porn. It’s a smart way of harnessing the energy of the episode, and a good use of the Christmastime setting: Doesn’t everybody always feel like things are going to start getting better in the new year?

Advertisement

Photo: Paul Schiraldi (HBO)

There isn’t a whole lot of story to “Our Raison d’Être,” but it’s propelled forward by the search for Frankie and the overriding sensation that change is the only thing any of these people can count on. There’s a good illustration of that in Vinnie and Abby—not just in their cohabitation and Abby’s management of the Hi-Hat, but also their opposing perspectives on change. Abby, the revolutionary, is running a leotard-free establishment and consulting on labor issues during off-hours. Vinnie, the traditionalist, sneers at The Damned (or the band covering The Damned’s “New Rose”—the genuine article would’ve been busy imploding around Christmas of ’77) on his way out the door, “What do you call this shit anyway? It ain’t music. I know I sound old.” They stand where they stand because Abby’s actually got something to gain from this progress, whereas Vinnie, for all his open-mindedness, can only see what he might be losing.

The irony of it is that the ties may be wider and the movie sets may be more professional, but the same guys are still pulling the strings. There’s a woman, Irene, in charge of Show World, but the coins in her machines still wind up in Rudy Pipilo’s pocket. (When they don’t wind up on the finger of Frankie’s new wife, that is.) The evolution on the Deuce is Darwinian, and those who are surviving aren’t so much evolving as they are adapting, in ruthless, abusive fashion. Marty Hodas isn’t making more money than Rudy because Frankie keeps making off with Rudy’s coins—Marty Hodas is making more money than Rudy because his peep-show booths no longer have plexiglass. Meanwhile, CC’s blunt force negotiating style is applied equally to Lori’s directors and her prospective johns, the switchblade edge of Gary Carr’s charm coming out much earlier than it did in the first-season premiere.

Advertisement

Screenshot: HBO

He’s maintained a foothold where his colleagues have not—the tables are turned at Leon’s, where a strung-out Shay has the upper hand in a conversation with Rodney—which makes Eileen’s efforts to work for herself look all the more savvy now that she and Lori have made the leap to the big screen. But even her ambitions are being kept in check by Harvey, and she finds herself daydreaming between takes, Maggie Gyllenhaal spitballing her way through the episode’s most hilariously banal cheesecake setup. She wears the pants in the operation, except when she doesn’t.

Eileen’s big idea is the chase that runs parallel to Vinnie’s game of Where’s Frankie?: An onscreen orgasm that’s edited to mimic the real thing. The original cut is inspired by the Easy Rider acid trip, and it’s too radical for an old hand like Harvey, who’s far more mercenary and pragmatic about his smut. But he concedes that his protégé might be on to something, and that maybe there’s room for some brains among all the other organs in that sequence with Lori.

Advertisement

And so for the remainder of “Our Raison d’Être”—a title that comes from Harvey’s wise-ass, euphemistic rejoinder to Eileen’s dejected “porn”—we see Maggie Gyllenhaal in the act of searching. In a montage that concerns the construction of a montage, Eileen listens to “Roadrunner,” Jonathan Richman’s ageless tune about thumping down the highway toward no destination in particular. The wheels are turning, ever turning, whether she’s lying on her back wondering about musical sequences or busting Vinnie’s chops about joining in on the locker-room action.

“Our Raison d’Être” begins with a reminder of where Eileen came from, and it ends with a preview of where she’s going. With a little compromise, she’s made the movie the way she wanted to make it, and The Deuce follows her lead: There’s a flurry of cuts between Eileen’s private screening and Vinnie and Abby’s bedroom, the audio from one sex scene bleeding into the other. The editing’s on the nose, but it gets the point across: Whatever authenticity the director was seeking, she found it, in a way that will appeal to women as well as men. Lori’s satisfaction is Abby’s satisfaction is Eileen’s satisfaction is Vinnie’s satisfaction, right down to the post-coital cigarette those last two share across time and space. This is a David Simon show, so we know the good times can’t last forever. But for right now, “Our Raison d’Être” leaves a mighty warm afterglow.

Stray observations

  • Welcome to The A.V. Club’s coverage of The Deuce’s second season. I’m looking forward to watching along with y’all again this fall.
  • Alston’s storyline in “Our Raison d’Être” leaves a few dangling threads, the most significant being his brush with Gene Goldman (Luke Kirby), who represents the mayor-elect’s office and the Midtown Enforcement Project, the task force charged by the previous administration with cleaning up Times Square. You may recognize Kirby from his turn as crusading defense attorney Jon Stern on Rectify; you may recognize his Noo Yawk accent from his recurring appearances as Lenny Bruce on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
  • Caught fiddling around on the job after Vinnie pays a visit to The French Parlor, Bobby channels Jimmy McNulty: “The fuck did I do?

Advertisement