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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pernell Walker (Photo: Paul Schiraldi)

The Deuce’s season finale makes the length count

Pernell Walker (Photo: Paul Schiraldi)
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Clocking in at 70 minutes and change, the final episode of The Deuce’s first season stretches into its extra frames to bring some stories to a close, put ellipses on others, and indulge in a classic, The Wire-style bummer-parade montage. Maintaining the feeling of last week’s episode, it’s not all bad news set to Ray Charles’ rendition of “Careless Love”: Sure, Ruby’s dead, Barbara’s in the slammer, Alston’s frozen out, Melissa isn’t a part of Lori and C.C.’s domestic burlesque, things are going cold between Vince and Abby, Sandra’s story got buried, Bernice didn’t get out of town, Frankie’s envelope of cash is going right back into the craps game, Bobby’s stepping out on Fran, and Larry has no one to share his pie with. But Eileen’s directing! And she’s carrying a reminder of Ruby with her, just as Ruby kept the suede jacket that belonged to another fallen friend of theirs.

Another reason to feel good about the nearly perfect closer to The Deuce’s time in the early 1970s: It doesn’t end on that fucking marquee. My eyes rolled so hard when the camera panned up to show Lori standing beneath outdoor advertising for Deep Throat that all I could see for a few seconds was the blackness at the back of my skull, leading me to believe that The Deuce had gone from pulling a Vinyl to pulling a Sopranos in a split second. David Simon and George Pelecanos gave you all the clues, and if you weren’t aware that the characters were attending a gala for the movie that more or less birthed the American porn industry, then you should’ve at least seen it coming after Paul and Todd’s Linda Lovelace-based pillow talk in “Au Reservoir.” It’s so unlike this show to be so thuddingly obvious that it threatened to sour the whole finale for me.

Maggie Gyllenhaal (Photo: Paul Schiraldi)
Maggie Gyllenhaal (Photo: Paul Schiraldi)

That, and the gratuitous shot of Ruby’s corpse, a lingering image that feels more voyeuristic than it feels respectful. Like the marquee, we don’t really need to see Ruby’s body. “My Name Is Ruby” is a fantastic season finale with a couple of strange, out-of-character moments, the type that initially made me question the necessity of stretching past the hour-long mark. Are gears of The Deuce shifting so rapidly that Simon, Pelecanos, and Michelle MacLaren’s intended to make The Deuce look unrecognizable for a little bit? The same could be said about Eileen’s visit with her heretofore unseen brother. As season one winds to a close, The Deuce clearly wants us to care about its main characters’ backgrounds, but the history of these people has never been a part of what drew me to their stories, or the performances bringing those stories to life. It’s where they’re at now, and where they’re going—which, yes, is informed by the past, but not to the extent that a hackneyed, third-act-of-an-indie-dramedy-type of reveal is going to have any impact. The movie premiere and the death are more symbolic than anything else—of a changing world, or the beginning of the end for old Times Square—and so is Patrick Merrell, less a character than a narrative device, a motivation for another character and an emblem of the old world she’s trying to bury.

A feeling of unease pervades “My Name Is Ruby,” from scenery that’s received a drastic upgrade since last we saw it—private booths in the bookstores, Shakespearean set dressing in the parlor, the bustling atmosphere in Harvey’s makeshift studio—to the look of dismay that James Franco carries in most of Vince’s scenes. Even before Ruby is pushed through her window—the one that once functioned as a beacon to a distressed Candy—by a guy styled to look impossibly demonic—we can feel the shifting winds. The Deep Throat premiere and Vince’s introduction to glam rock are weather vanes that hog the whole screen and have “Look! Change!” scrawled all over them; implied alterations like Larry dipping into the drug trade illustrate the new normal just fine.

Lawrence Gilliard (left), Jr., Natalie Paul (Photo: Paul Schiraldi)
Lawrence Gilliard (left), Jr., Natalie Paul (Photo: Paul Schiraldi)

Fortunately, the latter is more widespread than the former in “My Name Is Ruby.” You can see it in the way Sandra and Alston’s breakup occurs in a squad car with its windows rolled up, Lawrence Gilliard Jr. and Natalie Paul depicting the dissolution of a relationship in gesture alone. (If this was some sort of error with the sound mix in the screener, my apologies. I really hope it wasn’t, because seeing and hearing the whole thing from Flanagan’s perspective adds some punch to the knowledge that Flanagan fucked it all up.) It’s also in the end of C.C.’s reunion with Ace (Clarke Peters), who refuses to hear the pleading of a pimp whose relevance and power is slipping through his hands, then heads out the door with a woman who calls him Melvin, carrying her groceries all the while.

Melvin still wears the costume and knows the secret handshake, but the promise of the change in “My Name Is Ruby” is that these people no longer have to pretend to be something they aren’t. “Every day, this thing takes another step out of the forest,” Harvey says: A former dental hygienist who co-owns an adult bookstore in West Virginia can come to New York to become a porn star; Deep Throat and its star can debut like debutantes, out in the open. When Darlene comes to Harvey’s set in a wig, Eileen coaxes her out from under it. Vince might not be ready to live in this world—and he regresses to old neighborhood ways, in old neighborhood haunts, because of it—but other people are. That’s how The Deuce can make Ruby’s death matter: The world turns, and knocks so many people over in the process, but those remain standing live in a world where Ruby doesn’t have to be “Thunder Thighs.”

Change is guarantee. Parity isn’t, and therein lies the sting of The Deuce. Up in the VIP lounge, Rudy has built a hierarchy with insulated walls. Every client and every employee is equally protected from the law in the parlors, but some are more equal than others. Porn’s entrée into the mainstream wasn’t a sign of Americans shedding their puritanical ways—it was the discovery of a newly legal way to make a buck. Those who really got free were playing the system, either because their cash was funding it, or because they knew what coins were being spent on which content (Marty Hodas, following the money), or because of the color of their skin or what’s hanging between their legs.

The end of “My Name Is Ruby” depicts the results of a tumultuous evolution, one that creates opportunities for the Eileen “Candy” Merrells of the world and squeezes out, steps on, or subsumes the Rubys. It all ends in a line of closed doors, and there’s a lot to unpack within that image. Are the doors poised to open, forcing what was once secret and private out into the world? Are they permanently shut, indications that whatever is changing in New York, certain deals will always be made in back rooms? Are these gilded cages that the characters built for themselves, out of a desire to escape normalcy, defy expectations, live by the terms they and they alone dictate?

The untamed territory of The Deuce has drawn inward: To the parlors, to the theaters, to peep-show booths. For now, these are spaces that you must step outside to access. But it in the span of a few decades, that will no longer be the case. In a shorter amount of time than any of these characters will be comfortable with (unless they’re the ones raking in the dough), the entire world will be one long corridor of locked doors. Better make that extra amount of time in 1972 count while you can.

Stray observations

  • At that’s a wrap on the first season of The Deuce. If all goes according to the plan that David Simon and George Pelecanos have discussed in interviews, when next we meet, we won’t be in this era anymore. Thanks for reading and commenting this season!
  • Speaking of a different era: I’m going to give myself a little bit of a recap reprieve in the next couple of weeks, but when that’s over, I’ll reach back, way down in a hole, to 2002 and the first season of The Wire. So be on the lookout for those reviews.
  • Clarke Peters is resplendent in the role of Ace, the former pimp and mentor to C.C. Their reunion puts a bookend on the crackling conversation between C.C. and Reggie Love that kicks the series off, and it reflects the increasingly idle lifestyle of his contemporaries, who now spend their days jawing in the corner of Leon’s. Maybe it’s just the joy of seeing the former Lester Freamon turn up on The Deuce, but of all the one-off appearances in “My Name Is Ruby,” Ace feels the most whole. Or, rather, as whole as the character he interacts with: Taking in the first season as a whole, it’s apparent that C.C., Larry, and Rodney are major players in the Times Square ecosystem, but secondary players on The Deuce. I have to think this was done in part to suit the contemporary perspectives shaping this period series: Even a show as morally gray as The Deuce doesn’t want to dip too far into humanizing a group of manipulative, abusive predators. The pimps instead are commentators and gadflies, buzzing around stories that belong to the women in their stables. Watching Gary Carr in conversation with Peters, you get to see C.C. wake up to the fact that he’s little more than the trappings of his trade—and the guy he looks up to is looking down on his boxy car.
  • The finale doesn’t have as much splash as the premiere did, but the way the camera follows Franco into the pool hall—catching Vince testing out pool cues and winding up to attack the guy who assaulted Andrea—sent shivers down my spine.
  • I’d drop a quarter in the jukebox for that glammed-up, “Sister Ray”-style cover of “96 Tears.”
  • Shop talk: “You want to pick the fuck threads for thursday, or do you want me to just do it?”
  • “You’re ain’t going to count to 3 or nothing like that?” “What, like in the movies? Fuck no.” It’s not the movies. It’s HBO.
  • Disappointed as I am about Ruby’s death, the exchange between her and Alston is a might nice, mighty humane moment. “How’d a dude like you get to be a cop?” sums up his story pretty well, though the words of a man who played precinct pariah before him would do just as well: “The fuck did I do?”
  • A man has to know when to get off the stage, and that’s my cue. Thanks, y’all—hope to see you in Baltimore.

Managing editor, The A.V. Club