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In a sedate final episode, everything—and nothing—changes on The Deuce

Photo: Paul Schiraldi (HBO)
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Let’s begin with the ending.

For a show—and for a final season—so haunted by decline, decay and death, The Deuce finale is surprisingly sedate. Most of the major character deaths happen off-screen, prior to the lyrical closing sequence, which sees a retired Vincent Martino, circa May 2019, revisiting his old stomping grounds in Manhattan. Everywhere he turns in Times Square, he’s haunted by ghosts of the departed—many of whom we didn’t actually see die during the series.

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This is a striking coda. It’s also somewhat unsatisfying… but only because David Simon, George Pelecanos, and their remarkable team of writers, directors and actors have done such a fine job of bringing this world to life. It stings a bit, not to know what all of these characters did between 1985 and 2019.

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There are hints, of course. This episode (titled “Finish It”) effectively brings multiple storylines to a close. Big Mike dies, in his remote cabin. Melissa and Reg get married, so that when he inevitably succumbs to AIDS-related complications, she can legally manage his dying wishes and carry on living in his apartment with minimal hassle. Bobby’s son Joey gets busted for insider trading, just as the stock he and his father are shorting rises rather than falls.

Bobby has perhaps the most pathetic closing arc—but not exactly tragic, because Bobby’s no hero. The episode begins with him partnering with Russian monsters to repopulate his massage parlor with surly Eastern European immigrant prostitutes, who won’t even have sex with him. In the coda, Bobby’s dead… but not before we see him get run out of business by the Koch administration, which uses the AIDS crisis as an excuse to close not just the bathhouses but the parlors, so the mayor won’t be accused of being a self-hating closeted homosexual. (“I thought it was gonna last,” the ever-shortsighted Bobby sighs to Black Frankie, just before the latter leaves town to move to David Simon’s beloved Baltimore… while in the background, the sound of new construction haunts them both.)

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Photo: Paul Schiraldi (HBO)

The big shutdown affects Paul, too—but not too much, because he’s been trying to ease his way to respectability since the ‘70s, and has been mostly successful. Paul still has his Village bar (despite the health department padlocking the back rooms); and in a moving final speech, right before the coda, he talks about how the changing seasons used to remind of all the trouble he had in school as a boy—but how now he kind of looks forward to change.

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It helps too that Vincent finally (or, I should say, “again”) gets Paul out from under the mob’s thumb. As the episode begins, Tommy Longo is talking about big plans to build off the mini-empire he inherited from mafia smutlord Rudy Pipilo. Tommy boasts about bringing Vincent along with him. But then, mere days later, the peeps and the parlors are closed; and Vince is asking to buy out the mob’s stake in both the Hi-Hat and Paul’s, so his friends can be free. (Tommy, it should be noted, appears in the coda alongside the ghost of Rudy, which suggests what happened to him. Paul too walks by, in full ‘70s regalia.)

We also find out about all we need to know about Chris Alston, who tells Gene Goldman that he plans to retire early, now that he’s killed the white whale that was the Deuce. But while Gene’s making big promises to get Alston promoted to Captain before he hands in his badge, the detective first wants to show him something important: It’s a block in the Bronx, just as crime-ridden as Times Square used to be. They accomplished a goal, but not the goal. Mostly they just made rich folks richer, made some poor folks’ lives harder, and (in perhaps the one net good) made it harder for crooked cops to get their pad.

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Photo: Paul Schiraldi (HBO)

Given how much attention The Deuce has lavished on its women across these three seasons, it’s disappointing that Abby’s story gets a little shortchanged in the finale. Vincent gives her the Hi-Hat, free and clear, and she immediately passes it along to Loretta. And then Abby walks by in the last shot in Times Square in 2019, now a successful businesswoman… and not dead, since Vincent doesn’t see her.

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It’s also somewhat disappointing that Vincent is the focus of coda, while Eileen’s fate is consigned to a newspaper obituary Vince reads (plus one final appearance as part of the parade of ghosts in Times Square). There is a possible thematic purpose to this though, which I’ll get to momentarily.

Plus, to be fair, a lot of “Finish It” is about Eileen—including the episode’s title, which refers to what Harvey says to her after he views the footage for her magnum opus, A Pawn In Their Game. At the time, she’s getting ready to abandon the project, which isn’t coming together the way she imagined. As much as she enjoyed the process of working with real actors, watching them bring colors to scenes that she couldn’t have imagined, the truthfulness and tragedy she’s aiming for doesn’t fit with explicit sex she feels compelled to insert (so to speak). Running out of money and patience, she’s ready to scrap the whole deal and get back to work on regular porn. But then Harvey tells her to cut out the sex scenes and finish A Pawn In Their Game as a straight drama. This suggestion infuriates Eileen, who’d rather embrace her identity as a pornographer.

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Her defensive posture has multiple explanations. For one thing, she feels a little icky after talking her non-porn actors into screwing on-camera, in scenes that are, by design, sad and rough. Perhaps as penance—and to pay for her movie—“Candy” flies out to Los Angeles to honor her commitment to appear on camera in a purportedly “classy” porno. When she arrives, she discovers the producers have misled her, and that she’s expected to do the same gauntlet of unsexy, dehumanizing sex scenes that drove Lori Madison to suicide. Unlike Lori, when faced with some fairly unreasonable demands, Candy negotiates a few concessions and then gets on with the action, doing her best as always to compartmentalize—to treat “the work” as just work. (Later, when Harvey asks her how L.A. was, she aptly answers, “Buncha dicks.”)

Photo: Paul Schiraldi (HBO)
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So that’s all running through Eileen’s head as she snaps at Harvey about scrapping her movie’s sex scenes. She’s also thinking about the sacrifices she’s made in her relationship with Hank, who as the 1985 scenes come to an end has become an aspiring Lehman Brothers vice president, and has more or less given her an ultimatum: If she acts in another X-rated picture, they’re through. Not wanting anyone to tell her what she can and can’t do, she chooses porn. And now Harvey is also telling her to ditch all that?

The irony—such as it is—is that by May 2019, Lehman Brothers will no longer exist, while Eileen Merrell will be getting a lengthy Daily News obit, which mentions her work in the adult film industry as well as her Criterion Collection-approved indie classic A Pawn In Their Game. That’s about as much of a twist ending as we should expect from Simon and Pelecanos, who prefer more of a realistic “life goes on” approach. They’re more about examining underlying social structures than about making sure every character gets a proper sendoff.

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That said, there’s something telling in the way Vincent sees his world in the 2019 sequence. Vince never knew anything about A Pawn In Their Game; and when he sees Eileen’s ghost later on the street, she’s back in her “Candy” clothes, working the corner. He also sees Dorothy as “Ashley.Over three seasons, we watched these women enjoy triumphs, suffer tragedies, and dare great things. But while Vincent’s remembering the good ol’ days on the Deuce—when a bartender was free to give “an honest pour”—he’s also, in a way, romanticizing their exploitation.

It’d be easy to read the shots of the flashy, sanitized Times Square at the end of “Finish It” as a critique, bordering on a lament. It’s like a visualization of what Paul says in response to Gene’s vision of “a new New York”—“Who lives in that one?” But note the song this series ends on: a Blondie cover of “The Sidewalks Of New York,” originally written in 1894 by Charles B. Lawlor and James W. Blake, while in a nostalgic mood for the vanished city of their youth. Talk to any New Yorker at any time, and things are never quite as great as they once were.

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And that’s because change is constant in New York. It’s the only thing that never changes.


Stray observations

  • So I guess my prediction/assumption that Bobby and Joey were stupidly betting against the drug that would become Viagra wasn’t really what Simon and Pelecanos had in mind. That subplot was just about insider trading, not anything necessarily ironic. Ah well.
  • I know David Simon doesn’t do rounded-off kinds of TV endings, where everybody hugs and cries. Still, it would’ve been nice if the characters had taken a moment to mourn Lori’s death—or at least do so more than Vincent does, when he sees her ghost alongside C.C.’s, and immediately looks back down at the sidewalk.
  • A literal sign of the times. The movies playing in Times Square in 1985 aren’t X-rated or grindhouse fare, but rather Hollywood-style pulp like Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome and Silver Bullet. Meanwhile, in 2019, Vincent can choose between watching the nudity and violence-filled Game Of Thrones on HBO, or actual porn on his hotel’s Pay-Per-View. And so the spirit of the Deuce lives on.
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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.