The other day, while channel-surfing, I stumbled across Martin Scorsese’s 1973 breakthrough film Mean Streets, a movie I’ve seen about a half-dozen times—and have loved since I first watched it on a VHS tape about 30 years ago. Thanks to TV shows like The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire, Sons of Anarchy, Breaking Bad, and, yes, The Deuce, it’s easier now to see how ahead of his time Scorsese was back then, in the way he demystified a life of crime. The Mean Streets crooks think of themselves as men of honor, working hard at “business,” when they’re really just self-deluded leeches, making money off of other people’s misery.
There’s a moment about halfway through The Deuce’s season two finale, “Inside The Pretend,” when Vincent has a moment of clarity. Black Frankie has just executed Carlos (with The Rolling Stones’ “Miss You” playing on his car stereo at the time, all cool and menacing), based on an evidence-free assurance from Tommy Longo that Carlos has been a double-crosser. The killing shakes up Bobby, who wonders what’ll happens if one day Tommy or Rudy Pipilo or someone else who’s supposed to be “one of ours” decides that he’s a problem. Vincent tries to calm his cousin down, but later he admits, “It feels like something’s turned.” He adds, “I’ve always thought of us as being good people.”
Good people? The Martino brothers? Bobby? Fuckin’ Rudy Pipilo?
David Simon himself is credited for the “Inside The Pretend” script, which—as is Simon’s way—is a bit more blunt than usual about what everything that’s happening means. Simon is one of the best TV writers in the history of the medium, but he has his roots in journalism, and isn’t inclined toward the vague or allusive. That said, this episode was also directed by Minkie Spiro, a TV veteran who here shows a knack for zeroing in on characters’ subtle gestures, and spotting the ways that what they say out loud and how they feel inside can sometimes be in conflict with what they do and how they live.
For example, one of the best moments in the entire episode is a bit of body-language. It comes when Black Frankie sets up the hit on Carlos, while talking on the phone about going to pick up Chinese food, and waving off Bernice’s order of egg foo young and shrimp toast. At no point does Frankie look or act like someone who’s about to blow a friend’s brains out. Playing it cool is how unrepentant criminal on this show can keep thinking of themselves as the heroes of their own story.
Over time though, all of this posturing can mess with people’s heads. Eileen is one of the most “together” characters on this show, and in the finale, even she begins to question some of her choices.
Publicly, she’s pretty much on top of the world, as her movie Red Hot premieres. Variety is calling the movie “an instant art-house tour-de-force” (even if the critic thinks the sex scenes are “gratuitous”), and it’s set to open in ten theaters, which is huge for porn. “Candy” makes an appearance on a late-night talk-show, and though the host spends the whole time making jokes at her expense, she doesn’t care, because the more people know her name, the more likely she’ll stick around in the business.
Even when Harvey finds out that—thanks to Frankie Martino’s crappy business-sense—the Genovese and Gambino crime families collectively own 115% of Red Hot, Eileen shrugs that crisis off as just being about money, and for only one movie, no less. All she cared about was getting Red Hot out into the world, and that’s going to happen, regardless of who’s getting paid and who’s not. “We’re not goin’ away,” she reassures Harvey. (Nevertheless, by the end of the episode, he’s stress-eating again.)
But at the same time, Eileen is disappointed when the editor she’s been sleeping with makes a joke at her premiere about what it’s like “boning a porn star.” (“It’s like boning a porn star,” he boasts.) “I settled for you,” she sighs, before breaking up with him. Even worse, after she does the talk show, her parents tell her she can’t see her son anymore. As she walks away from their house—with the threat of a thunderstorm rumbling behind her—we see Adam standing at the window of his room, with a black eye he picked up from his classmates at school. Candy may be able pretend to be cocky and carefree, but Eileen, it turns out, can’t.
The title of this episode comes not from Eileen’s pretense, or Black Frankie’s, or even Vincent’s for that matter. It’s from something Darlene says to Larry, when—in some of that unapologetically direct David Simon dialogue I was talking about before—she admits that as soon as Larry started acting in movies, he lost his mystique. Now that Darlene can see “inside the pretend” of pimping, he doesn’t have any power over her. By the end of this finale, that new understanding will be working out pretty well for both of them: Larry’s auditioning for non-porn roles; and Darlene’s working in a clothing store, and coming clean to her college classmate about what she used to do for a living.
Also by the end of this episode, Lori’s happily journeying to L.A., having finally been convinced (thanks to some candor from Frankie) that C.C. won’t be bothering her anymore. Meanwhile, one of the other mean pimps on the Deuce, the opioid-addicted Rodney, is lying dead on the street after a botched drugstore robbery. The old pimp power-structure may finally be dying off for good, at least in this particular neighborhood.
That’s what makes the other big death in “Inside the Pretend” all the more tragic. Apparently, somebody made good on the past few weeks’ worth of threats toward Dorothy—likely in a futile assertion of power by the pimps. When her corpse is found, the NYPD looks at her arrest record and dismisses her as another dead prostitute, unaware of what she’d been up to since returning from California. When they hear the news, Loretta and Abby weep and commiserate, agreeing that, “There’s no fixin’ this world, is there?”
Well, maybe there is, and maybe there isn’t. As this season and this finale make abundantly clear, what would constitute a “fix” of the Deuce varies from person to person, depending on how much skin they have in the game (so to speak).
The ever-cynical Detective Alston, for one, is coming to realize that his dream of arresting the whole damn block is going to die yet again, as Gene Goldman and the Midtown Enforcement Project asks him to keep crime just loosely contained, and to keep the property-owners protected until the coming influx of money can do its work.
Vincent, on the other hand, ends this season having made a wary peace with his position in this corrupt economy. His problem is that he wants to be a part of the action in Manhattan, and he wants the old-fashioned family life in the suburbs. He wants to be a hero, but he wants to be a hero like William Holden in The Bridge On the River Kwai (who’s “a hero without all the hero bullshit”). He can’t extricate himself from the Deuce, but he apparently can’t use his insider status for good, either. So he stays the course, because it’s easier.
Hence the magnificent closing montage in this finale, set to The Pretenders’ “Mystery Achievement,” showing life going on, and envelopes of money being passed perfunctorily back and forth, to people who no longer even really want them. This season began with a dizzying spin through Vincent’s disco, where all the pimps and pornographers and prostitutes and mafia goons were dancing deliriously, like the kings of New York. The season ends with everyone still ruling, and still dancing, but now with tarnished crowns, and tired legs.
- I’m grateful that Paul had such an eventful storyline this season; but his scenes still often felt tacked-on, especially after his move to the Village. In the finale, he was mostly off in his own subplot, looking into renovating a theater space, for Todd to put on his own plays (rather than waiting for casting agents to ignore his sexuality). This new development might have some narrative potential once The Deuce jumps to the ‘80s, and Times Square and Broadway are booming again. For now, it’s relevant to the main theme of this episode only in that Paul has to borrow $75,000 from Rudy to get the project started, and he’s told right up front that this time it won’t be a loan. “If we’re in, we’re in for the run,” Tommy says—effectively ending any hope from Paul of getting out from under the mob’s thumb.
- There’s is a sly pop culture reference (maybe) in the scenes between Paul and Todd, when he tells the actor that he shouldn’t play Shakespeare’s Richard II because, “No one wants to see a gay hunchback.” Todd reminds him that it’s Richard III who has the hump; but either way, I’m pretty sure Paul’s nodding to the movie The Goodbye Girl, wherein Richard Dreyfuss plays an aspiring actor who has a disastrous off-off-Broadway run as Richard III, when the director insists he play the part as an outrageously mincing homosexual.
- Harvey shows off his new toy to Eileen: a VCR! He wants to put trailers for some of the company’s other films on VHS tapes for Red Hot, which he insists—rightly—he can sell in adult bookstores for $100 a pop. (“For porn in their own home?” They’ll sell their children.”) Those of us watching The Deuce know that home video is about to supercharge the pornography industry: first in a good way, by making innovators like Harvey and Eileen rich; and then in a bad way, by replacing Eileen’s dream of making great cinema for adults with videos that are all sex, no story. Stay tuned for that revolution, next season.