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The Honourable Woman: Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Empowering Work on Television

An appreciation of the show's prescient politics and its star's most recent role on The Deuce.
  • Maggie Gyllenhaal as Nessa Stein in The Honourable Woman (Sundance)
    Maggie Gyllenhaal as Nessa Stein in The Honourable Woman (Sundance)

    Maggie Gyllenhaal broke out playing a submissive assistant in 2002's Secretary, a part that propelled her to Hollywood's A-List. Since 2014, while continuing to work in films, Gyllenhaal has quietly amassed a body of television work that, like her breakout film role, has proven to be unconventional, unpredictable, and empowering.  

    On the fifth anniversary of its American premiere, The Honourable Woman stands out as one of the best television miniseries in recent years, as well as one of the most-underrated. Co-produced by the BBC and SundanceTV, the series followed the personal and political undoing of Nessa Stein (Gyllenhaal), the newly appointed Baroness of Tilbury. Over the course of the show's eight episode run, a suicide, a kidnapping, and an unspoken secret brought major upheaval to Nessa’s life, forcing her to confront both her past and her future. The Honourable Woman had all the makings of great television: nuanced, compassionate writing (the scripts were all penned by Hugo Blick, who also directed them), smart commentary on social and political issues (many of which have only grown more pertinent in the ensuing years), and a phenomenal cast, led by Maggie Gyllenhaal, who won a Golden Globe for her performance.

    In many ways, The Honourable Woman was eerily prescient, tackling political corruption, as well as racial and class divisions years before they became national, almost-daily talking points. The series got right to the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, exploring what happens when trusted officials betray and mislead their people. As with series like Top of the Lake, Big Little Lies, and Sharp Objects, it offered a complicated and bold portrayal of women’s autonomy in their professional and personal lives. Nessa was a fiercely intelligent woman who dedicated her life to philanthropy while continuing to face undermining moments when dealing with her male contemporaries.

    Largely at the insistence of Gyllenhaal, The Honourable Woman also strove to push boundaries. While Nessa played it safe in many aspects of her life (going so far as to sleep in a panic room), in her personal life she was uninhibited in ways she could never be on the political stage. At times, this aspect of her personality put her at risk. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Gyllenhaal opened up about her desire to juxtapose Nessa's rigidness and poise as the leader of her family, with a more animalistic sex life. Gyllenhaal discussed a specific idea she had for one of the show's more traumatic moments, her character's sexual assault. Instead of playing the scene as an immediate struggle between Nessa and her attacker, Gyllenhaal wanted the scene to begin consensually, further complicating her (and the audience’s) reaction when the act shifts to rape. This willingness to push the envelope will come as no surprise to viewers of Gyllenhaal's most recent television project.

    Maggie Gyllenhaal as Eileen "Candy" Merrill in The Deuce (Paul Schiraldi/HBO)

    On HBO's 70s period drama The Deuce (entering its third and final season this September), Gyllenhaal plays Eileen "Candy" Merrill, a Times Square prostitute turned film director. Over the course of the show's first two seasons, we watch Candy transform. Both an inverse and kindred spirit to The Honourable Woman's Nessa, at first Candy’s job necessitates putting her sexuality at the forefront of her work, whereas Nessa shielded this side of herself professionally. This past season on The Deuce, a sleazy producer offered Candy a major business proposal in exchange for oral sex. Candy obliged, tossing off a simple “Sure,” but no words were needed. Gyllenhaal's expression -- moving from shocked to frustrated to resigned -- told us everything we needed to know. Her performance conveyed so much to viewers with just the slightest of gestures. We see the disappointment on Candy’s face as she realizes that both of her professions - sex worker and film director - carry the same indignities. It’s a stunning piece of acting, followed by an equally devastating moment when Candy returns home, check in hand, admiring it as she contemplates the weight of her decision to obtain it. Gyllenhaal says she fought for this moment of contemplation as well. Hearing her discuss her roles on both The Honourable Woman and The Deuce, it's clear just how much work the actress puts into her characters and the greater picture of what they represent socially and politically.

    To watch Gyllenhall’s performance as Nessa and Candy is to see two women from completely different time periods, lifestyles, and desires, brought to life by a fearless actress working at the peak of her powers.

    Stephen Hladik is a freelance culture writer and actor. You can follow him on Twitter @stephen_hladik 

    TOPICS: Maggie Gyllenhaal, SundanceTV, The Deuce, The Honorable Woman