'The Deuce' Season Finale Recap: Just When I Thought I Was Out - Rolling Stone
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‘The Deuce’ Season Finale Recap: Just When I Thought I Was Out

Change has come for many in the Deuce — but even as they look ahead to the Eighties, optimism is hard to find

Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal) hits the talk show circuit in the Season Two finale of 'The Deuce.'Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal) hits the talk show circuit in the Season Two finale of 'The Deuce.'

Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal) hits the talk show circuit in the Season Two finale of 'The Deuce.'

Paul Schiraldi/HBO

The Deuce Season Two has come to an end. A review of the finale, “Inside the Pretend,” coming up just as soon as I want to see a gay hunchback…

“Feels like something’s turned.” -Vince

Midway through the finale, Abby and Loretta try to comfort each other about the murder of Dorothy. Abby blames herself for not doing more to protect Dorothy as she antagonized all the pimps, but Loretta insists that no one and nothing could have shaken their friend off this path, because “that damage don’t lie.” A season ago, Ashley hopped on a bus, turned back into Dorothy, and seemingly freed herself of CC and the rest of street life. But she came back — not, like Darlene last year, or Shay this year, because she was still addicted to the life, but because she wanted to help others break their addictions. And because she wanted payback against CC and all the other pimps who made her feel sub-human. She took a piece of the life with her, it pulled her back, and then it got her killed.

Much of “Inside the Pretend” (inspired by Darlene’s speech to Larry about how his acting career broke the spell he’d cast over her as a pimp) is about the way that once you’re part of this world, you can never entirely get out of it. Vince has already made his reluctant peace with being Mob-adjacent, but he and Bobby are rightly troubled to realize that Black Frankie murdered Carlos on behalf of Tommy, and that they’re all essentially one more Gambino crew. Candy views Red Hot as her ticket to legitimacy and thus doesn’t mind that the wiseguys are the only ones making money off of her smash hit. But a talk show appearance not only reminds her that she’ll always be viewed as a whore and/or a laughingstock by people outside the sex trade(*), it cuts off her access to Adam, who has gotten into fights at school with boys who now know what his mom does for a living.

(*) Inside the sex trade isn’t much better, as her boyfriend Russell proves by bragging to his old friends at the premiere about what it’s like to date a porn star. He apologizes, but the incident only confirms her fears that every man she meets will claim to want Eileen when they only ever wanted to sleep with Candy. 

Paul, having successfully established a business unconnected to the Mob, can’t resist letting Tommy and his friends buy into his new club so that he in turn can help Todd start up a gay theater group. Rodney‘s pharmacy heist goes as awry as it was destined to, with the pharmacist getting shot and Rodney himself being killed by a half-drunk Officer Haddix. And Haddix’s accidental heroism(*) in turn prevents Chris from banishing him to an outer borough as part of the effort to clean up Midtown. Melissa (as I predicted last week) is now shunned by all the other pimps in the wake of her two previous ones being killed, but rather than skip town, she moves into the French Parlor with Joey as her sugar daddy.

(*) Most impressive Ralph Macchio derring-do: Winning back-to-back All-Valley Under 18 Karate Championships, defeating the much more skilled Chozen in mortal combat, or shooting Rodney and then complaining to the other cops that he spilled his beer?

Between Gene Goldman publicly launching the Midtown project and Harvey showing off a state-of-the-art VCR(*), there’s a lot of talk about the future and how hopeful it looks. This seems appropriate given that the third and final season will jump ahead in time again, landing somewhere in the Eighties. But we know more than the characters do about what the future will bring. It’ll be Rudy Giuliani and not Ed Koch who gets credit for cleaning up Times Square and making it an antiseptic, overpriced, corporate haven for tourists. And while Harvey and Candy are right that the advent of home video porn will be a gold mine, they don’t know that the Internet will swoop in and take all that money away. “What we do is not going away — not ever,” says Candy, who hopefully will have a nice nest egg built up before PornHub comes to town.

(*) It is, like most early models (including the one my father bought us a couple of years after this episode takes place), not only a top-loader, but has a corded remote control so short, most early users had to practically be right next to the TV in order to use it. These machines were not user-friendly, and that’s before getting into what a damn nightmare it was to program a recording with them.

A few characters manage to escape, but not unscathed. Loretta takes Dorothy’s murder as inspiration to walk out on Larry, though she only makes it as far as working for Abby at the Hi-Hat. Darlene soon follows her out the door — and Larry, unlike CC with Lori, is mature and self-aware enough to let her go without a fight. But we know that her past will continue to haunt her, as she gets recognized at her new job for work she filmed at her old one.

Lori at first seems as if she’s trapped like everyone else. Despite knowing that Rudy bought out CC, she remains completely under her late pimp’s spell, snorting coke and growing increasingly afraid of doing things without his approval, even though everyone says he’s skipped town. Their final “date” did such a massive number on her — in the way that a manipulative monster like CC would have wanted it to. It’s only when Frankie reveals CC’s death to her that Lori can finally let out tears about everything he took from her, and then laughter in the realization that she’s finally rid of him. She flies out to L.A. for sunshine and late breakfasts, looking happy and carefree in a way she hasn’t since early in the first season. But maybe one day she’ll be looking to do something else with her life and have a moment like Darlene has at the clothing store, or like Candy does when her father won’t let her in to see Adam. When Darlene walks away from Larry, she says that if she does it right, she’ll never see him again. It’s a thing to root for, no matter how great Dominique Fishback has been in this role. But it’s also not hard to imagine her or Lori or Loretta’s circumstances falling apart so abruptly that any or all of them wind up back on the Deuce.

The finale is packed with riveting moments: Lori absorbing the news about CC, Larry recognizing the truth in Darlene’s words about his acting versus his pimping. This season as a whole, too, had a lot of great scenes and stories throughout, but it also seemed to push up against the limits of the sprawling narrative approach Simon, Pelecanos and company have been employing for years. Structurally, The Deuce is much closer to Tremé than it is to The Wire, which had a criminal investigation each year as a hook to pull along all the other story threads. This show feels more like a collection of anecdotes about people in the same neighborhood and professional field — all connected, but very loosely. All the pieces matter, but some matter a lot more than others. There were stories across these nine episodes — Red Hot, the toxic swirl of CC and Lori’s relationship, Dorothy slowly talking herself into death — that got enough screen time to feel fully formed and effective. But there were others (Paul’s adventures downtown, Chris being very slowly convinced to join Goldman’s big project) that felt narratively underfed. And there were a handful (almost anything to do with Vince) that only sometimes felt worthy of taking us away from one of a dozen other plots. Though this season had nine episodes versus last year’s eight, it felt even more crowded. There’s value in seeing this world on so many levels, from so many perspectives, but not when it starts to feel like the stories are competing for oxygen and not all of them will fully be able to breathe.

The performances that Maggie Gyllenhaal, Emily Meade, Gary Carr, Gbenga Akinnagbe and so many of the other actors offer each week are extraordinary. I’d comfortably stack their work — and individual scenes like CC and Dorothy’s reunion at the Hi-Hat, or Candy walking away from her parents’ house as a storm brews overhead and Adam watches from his bedroom — against the best of what TV can do 40 years after the events of this season. Yet the whole of this year ultimately felt a bit less than the sum of its many impressive parts.

This season, like last one, is bookended with scenes meant to comment on one another. Last year, it was a pair of shots moving down the hallway of a building where sex workers plied their trade, illustrating how quickly the industry was changing — and not necessarily for the better — in a short period of time. This year, meanwhile, ends as it began, with someone (Vincent this time) entering the 366, albeit not in a continuous take like when Candy did it in the premiere. She was having an incredible time, a world of possibility ahead of her. He looks anxious and unhappy about the state of things, with the deaths of Carlos and Dorothy, and what each of them says about how he’s chosen to make a living, weighing heavily on him. Over the course of the period covered by these two seasons, sex work has become much more mainstream, a transition that will only accelerate. But when an industry is steeped in exploiting the bodies of people who get a relative pittance of the money being made, it’s going to get ugly, and it’s going to do damage that can’t easily be undone, even if you get a pair of cute sunglasses and move 3,000 miles away.

Some other thoughts:

* When Vince’s dad mentioned Andrea last week, my first thought was, “That’s interesting, but I assume Zoe Kazan is too busy doing other things to come back.” Shows what I know, as the first scene after the credits has Vince, Andrea and their kids watching the end of Bridge on the River Kwai. Neither is looking to reconcile, though; it’s just Vince being a slightly better father for an evening than he’s been for most of the past five years.

* Every Blown Deadline season must conclude with a montage, and this year’s crucial song choice was “Mystery Achievement” by The Pretenders. Other songs from the finale: Ornette Coleman’s “Tears Inside” (Black Frankie prepares to leave the French Parlor to go kill Carlos), “Miss You” by the Rolling Stones (Black Frankie kills Carlos), Ronnie Matthews’ “Lil’s Blues” (Black Frankie returns to the French Parlor), Irma Thomas’ “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is” (the pimps shun Melissa), Fela’s “Water No Get Enemy” (Darlene gets recognized at work), “Hong Kong Garden” by Siouxsie & the Banshees (Abby lectures about punk at the Hi-Hat), Pat Martino’s “A Blues For Mickey-O” (Big Mike and Vince set up at 366), Wyldlife’s “The Right” (Abby and Loretta talk about Dorothy’s murder) and O.V. Wright’s “Don’t Take It Away” (Frankie tells Lori about CC).

* A few notable details from the montage: 1) The audition Larry goes on looks like it could be for non-porn work, though it may just be a reflection of how much more mainstream the business is becoming. 2) Harvey, rightfully upset about all the Red Hot money he isn’t making, is snacking again when Jocelyn isn’t looking. (If Harvey is a character in Season Three, they can’t go very far with that, assuming David Krumholtz’s health stays as strong as it’s been lately.) 3) With Dorothy no longer around to buy prostitutes passage out of town with Vince’s massage parlor money, Abby now has a pretty big pile of cash. I imagine we’ll return next year finding out she tried to do something noble with it, whether or not she succeeded.

What did everybody else think?

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