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After a death on The Deuce, everyone faces a choice: Radiate or fade away

Photo: Paul Schiraldi (HBO)
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In the movie Pulp Fiction, crime boss Marsellus Wallace tries to persuade fading pugilist Butch Coolidge to take a dive in his next match. Marsellus has an envelope of cash in his hand, and a decent argument. Asking Butch how many years he has left in the ring, he notes, “Boxers don’t have an Old-Timers Day.”

The Deuce this week makes a similar point. How many porn stars age gracefully? If we know anything about what happens to XXX actors and actresses after their heyday, it’s usually because they come to a tragic end. Sure, sometimes erotica legends like Seka become relatively well-known for their reclusiveness, allowing us to assume they’ve lived happily ever after. And sometimes the industry itself promotes “feel-good” stories, like the case of Nina Hartley, who—similar to The Deuce’s “Candy”—moved behind the camera and became an entrepreneur. But those examples are rare, and are often less reassuring in their fine details than porn consumers want to believe.

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Even Eileen’s situation on The Deuce isn’t as rosy as she pretends. In this latest episode, “You Only Get One,” she’s faced again with her greatest regret: Adam, her now-grown son, who holds the ultimate guilt-trip trump card in any argument, given that his mother let his grandparents raise him while she was off having sex for money. Eileen tries her best to pass along some hard-won wisdom to Adam, giving valuable business tips. But he just wants a thousand dollars for his burgeoning T-shirt company. No maternal advice required.

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To make matters worse, Eileen’s having trouble getting her dream project made. Not wanting to take Hank’s money, she gives her script to Harvey, who complains that her attempt to sum up the lives of sex-workers in a single film amounts to page after page of people talking about their feelings. “I think it’s like a short story,” Harvey gripes. “I don’t know anybody at The New Yorker, so it’s a pass.”

But later, when he drops by the office, Harvey sees her in the editing bay, looking at her old movies and isolating different moments: of pleasure, of passion, of dismay. She has a raw, honest moment with him, saying she just wants to show “what really happens to women” in their business—who, Harvey admits, tend to “disappear” after they get too old. Duly chastened, he offers to do penance for his part in an unfair system, and find funding for her picture.

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All of this drama though is relatively sedate compared to what Lori goes through in this episode. Left to fend for herself on her first-ever national tour as a featured strip club dancer—after her boyfriend declines to be her “suitcase pimp,” concerned she’ll make less money if patrons realizes she’s not “available”—she endures local strippers who complain she’s hogging their potential tips and creepy fans who say things like, “You should know you’re still a total fox,” and “You could be so much more than this.”

By the end of “You Only Get One,” Lori’s decided to protect herself with a gun, after being followed (or at least becoming being paranoid she’s being followed) at a gig. With only three episodes left in the series, we’re meant to believe the coke-addicted Lori’s headed toward a grim fate.

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Photo: Paul Schiraldi (HBO)

On a more positive note, Darlene returns this week, asking for Abby’s help after her attempt to convert her college education into a full time nursing position gets stymied by her criminal record. Abby testifies on Darlene’s behalf, telling the review board that her friend has always been level-headed and bookish, and insisting that, “What you do isn’t necessarily who you are.”

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But when asked what she’s been up in the years since Darlene left the sex-trade to get an education, Abby has to admit she’s still managing the same Times Square bar that she’s been haunting since the early ‘70s. The title of this episode refers to the life we’re all given. And at times director Roxann Dawson and credited writer Chris Yakaitis seem to be suggesting that it’s all too easy for even smart folks like Abby to squander that gift.

Consider though the tale of Todd, who dies this week of AIDS-related complications. Because the hospital hesitates to release Todd to die at home with Paul, he’s forced to contact the parents his boyfriend hasn’t seen since 1969. The estranged mom and dad do let Paul take his partner back to his apartment; and the trio has an initially pleasant dinner, where Paul gets to talk about the amazing work their son has done in plays by Mamet, Durant and Sherman—not to mention his stint on a popular soap opera. Todd’s father though can’t stop dwelling on the sexually explicit movies his boy made long ago, which he sees as a permanent blight on their family’s name.

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Photo: Paul Schiraldi (HBO)

On the other hand, once the dad leaves, Todd’s mother bonds with Paul, telling him about her son’s dog and his Howdy Doody doll, and asking, “Why don’t you tell me what you and Todd do for fun?” If there’s a hope for The Deuce’s characters, maybe it’s that someone out there will still remember them for who they were—and are—rather than just for what they did to make a living. Maybe these women and men aren’t going to be able to ease into a pleasant retirement, lauded and well-compensated by their peers and fans. But they can at least still have people who love them for who they really are.

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Stray observations

  • I have to be honest: The latest James Franco sexual exploitation reports have made it harder to watch his characters’ storylines play out on The Deuce (no matter how much I try to convince myself that the “problematic” James Franco is the one who played the now-dead Frankie, and that the Franco who makes interesting acting and directing choices is playing Vincent). Still, the Martino brothers remain a major part of this series, and with three episodes to go, it looks like Vince’s obsession with avenging Frank’s murder will drive the way this series ends.
  • Detective Alston finally shuts down the makeshift bordello he’s been targeting since this season began, only to find out the property’s already well-to-do owner is going to be compensated for his loss to the tune of $1.2 million. Meanwhile, his peers remind him that teenage gangs are still chasing potential tourist dollars away, while Alston’s busy making the rich richer. This may end up being The Deuce’s most fascinating and complicated storyline over the course of the next three weeks.
  • Gene Goldman, on the other hand, rests easy at home, knowing he made his Koch administration bosses happy. He’s calmly reading Lea Iacocca’s autobiography when his wife confronts him about his lack of sexual interest in her, and he casually confides that he’s not going to stop pursuing his sexual gratification in the gay underground because, “It’s who I am.” It’s like that old saying: How nice to be a man, and to have choices.
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About the author

Noel Murray

Lives in Arkansas, writes about movies, TV, music, comics, and more. Bylines in The A.V. Club, The Week, The Verge, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone.