‘The Deuce’ Recap: A Bitter End – Rolling Stone
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‘The Deuce’ Recap: A Bitter End

After a lifetime of tragedy, one character takes control

Margarita Levieva in The Deuce.

Margarita Levieva as Abby in this week's episode of 'The Deuce.'

Paul Schiraldi/HBO

A review of this week’s The Deuce, “That’s a Wrap,” coming up just as soon as I take a women’s study class…

I didn’t see it coming.

I absolutely should have.

It’s not just that “That’s a Wrap” is the penultimate episode of both Season Three and The Deuce as a whole, and that David Simon and George Pelecanos have long treated this slot as the one where the worst tragedies happen. It’s that The Deuce is a series built for tragedies, and Lori Madison has long been one of its most tragic characters. The problem is that, as played so spectacularly by Emily Meade, it’s often hard to think of her that way. When she got off the bus from Minnesota and got into CC’s car, it seemed that Lori was already smarter and tougher than he or we had assumed. He hurt her deeply, physically and emotionally, but she appeared stronger than him despite that. She went to L.A., became a star, got addicted to cocaine, but even as her personal life and career seemed to be spiraling — even when she was cowering in that motel room a few episodes back — there was a part of me that wanted to believe she could overcome this.

Maybe it’s the same part of me that wanted better for Wallace, for Randy Wagstaff, for Creighton Burnette and everyone else who has suffered a terrible (and often permanent) fate when this point in a Blown Deadline production’s season rolls around. (OK, maybe not for Stringer Bell.) But even after the gauntlet Season Three had put Lori through, I still couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that she’d be gone by the end of “That’s a Wrap” — and that it would be by her own hand.

Even more than last week’s episode, this one had an eye on the end of things — an episode that, when it was done, felt like it could have very easily been the series finale. Abby’s verbal dismantling of Gene Goldman at the community meeting allowed the creators to sum up their arguments against gentrification. Rudy’s dead, Club 366 is already closed, and it looks like the French Parlor may not be far behind. Candy is still struggling to get her movie made, but almost everything else is wrapped up in a fashion as neat and tidy as Abby leaves the apartment once she decides she’s had enough of Vincent’s reckless behavior.

Vince visits Mike at the cabin in the woods where the ailing big man is living out his final days, and Mike insists, “I ain’t got no regrets. I drank from the cup.” Later, Gene expresses a similar lack of regret with his wife as they prepare to separate once their kids are out of the house. Lori Madison, though? Regrets, she has a few — not that she’d ever mention them to anyone.

Lori makes her way back across the country by any means necessary, acknowledging to some old friends that her finances are tight, but still trying to put on a brave face about things. The journey takes her to her hometown of Minneapolis, where she’s inspired to go past her childhood house. It’s boarded up, her family long gone — whatever closure she’s seeking, for whatever happened in there to inspire her to become a prostitute, well beyond her reach. In New York, Candy offers her some money and a job, but also the advice that Lori has to find something in her life beyond the work. Candy can still be Eileen Merrell when she needs to, but her old friend has thrown herself so completely into the life of “Lori Madison” that there’s nothing left. “This is all I am,” she tells Candy, declining to even confess her real name.

When Lori uses that name — Sarah — with the final trick she turns on the Deuce, it should have been enough of a warning. So, for that matter, should have been my memory of the gun she bought a few episodes back. But the Chekhov’s Gun of the episode seemed to be the one Vince hid in the apartment closet after learning that Rudy’s death had saved his own life. That gun doesn’t literally go off, though it does wind up being the final straw in Abby and Vince’s relationship. (In a very Deuce quirk of rotten timing, this happens shortly after the ongoing existence of that relationship wrecks things for Abby with Pilar, and for Vince with Andrea.) Instead, it’s Lori’s pistol that’s used, after the return to Manhattan, the talk with Candy, and the trick with the john all fail to restore whatever love for this life she once had. She considerately places Candy’s credit card atop a pile of her things, briefly ponders one last cocaine high, then abruptly draws the gun and blows her brains out.

Lori’s suicide is swift and shocking in the moment, but it’s another of those tragedies that had been very long in coming. No man was ever good to her, from her father through CC and Greg, all the way to Vince at the club earlier this season. She sold her body night after night, for a decade and a half, yet at the end of it, all the money she earned from it went to men who put in none of the work. She was threatened at knifepoint, terrorized, raped. Where Candy and a few other characters have gotten more out of the business than they put into it, Lori was chewed up by it until there was nothing left of her but her life itself. And that no longer felt like enough for her to continue with. Lori’s cocky demeanor hid at least some of the pain that led up to her decision. But in hindsight, we should have all seen it coming.

The episode continues on for a few more scenes, as Vince returns to a half-empty apartment, while Candy waits for an actress we know will never arrive. As an unsettled Candy speaks the episode’s title, and her crew begins dismantling their equipment for the day, it’s as perfect a concluding shot as the series could have come up with. Earlier in this season, Candy asked Harvey what happened to all the women who used to be in porn and then stopped. With this one, she has a bad feeling, but we know. The work goes on. Lori Madison doesn’t. Another woman will get off another bus from another small town, looking to find a career in the sex business. Maybe she’ll get relatively lucky like Candy, or like Shauna (forced into a stifling but affluent retirement by her wealthy husband). Maybe she’ll be like Darlene, and struggle to put her porn past behind her when it’s time to move on. Or maybe she’ll unfortunately be like Lori, where the bad of it will so far outweigh the good that she’ll seek this most permanent escape.

Lori is not the first casualty of this series or even this season. But that scene in the hotel room felt like the culmination of everything The Deuce has been trying to say for the past three years. It’s sad, and it’s rage-inducing. But we can’t say we weren’t warned. Even if we didn’t want to see the signs.

Some other thoughts:

* I spoke at length with Emily Meade and David Simon about this episode and the importance of Lori’s arc to the entire series. A great conversation.

* The episode features two very different, equally amusing Western references. In the first, Reg is excited to watch an old one with Forrest Tucker, because “the man was legendary” — as in, Tucker allegedly was better-endowed than even the most gifted porn actors. In the second, Black Frankie quotes The Good, the Bad and the Ugly to Bobby: “Like my man Tuco says, you have to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk.” Bobby, of course, has no idea who Tuco is, which means that if he’s still alive in 2008, he wouldn’t appreciate the homage Breaking Bad was doing with the name of its first big bad.

* Party like it’s 1986: Reg puts Melissa up for a job he’s too sick to do, working in costumes on a fish-out-of-water story about an Australian man who comes to New York. As first credits in the mainstream film business goes, this will turn out to be an impressive one: Crocodile Dundee, a comedy that improbably became the second highest-grossing movie of the year, only barely edged out by Top Gun, and way ahead of eventual Oscar winner Platoon. Here’s the trailer. Meanwhile, the movie marquees on the Deuce include Mickey Rourke in Year of the Dragon and Brigitte Nielsen as Red Sonja.

* Also a sign of the times: Lori has to borrow Candy’s credit card to be able to book a room at a respectable hotel, rather than the kind of SROs where she spends her final minutes on this earth. The days of being able to get by with only cash are fast fading for these people.

* Candy suggests that no one is really an ex-porn star anymore now that everything is on videotape. It’s even worse in the PornHub age, where there have been stories of former actors and actresses losing their jobs because a coworker saw one of their old videos online and told HR about it.

* Finally, this week’s music: “Have You Heard” by King Curtis (Tommy’s not happy with the size of Bobby’s envelopes); “Gotta Tell Me Why” by The Slickee Boys (a busy night at the Hi-Hat); “St. Thomas” by Sonny Rollins (Bobby and Black Frankie discuss how to save the French Parlor); “Green Haze” by Miles Davis (Tommy comes back to French Parlor); “What About Love” by Heart (Lori picks up one last trick on the Deuce); and “Launderette” by Vivien Goldman (Abby works in the apartment).

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