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On The Deuce’s penultimate episode, “the life” claims another life

Photo: Paul Schiraldi (HBO)
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Last week, I wrote about the phenomenal work Maggie Gyllenhaal has been doing on The Deuce, even as her performance as Eileen Merrell/Candy Renee has been more or less flying under the radar, in terms of industry recognition. This week, I have to write about Emily Meade, because after this week, Meade’s Lori Madison won’t be on the show any more.

There have been more surprising and dramatic deaths in television history than Lori’s tragic, miserable suicide. But I can’t recall a TV death much sadder. The way this episode played out, I have to admit, rattled around in my head for hours afterward. It was mood-altering. Lori’s story is marked by a sense of despair and righteous rage that’s tough to shake off.

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Give a lot of the credit to Meade, who since episode one of The Deuce has fully inhabited a character who doesn’t deliver long, revealing monologues (at least not like Gyllenhaal’s Eileen), but instead carries a lot of what she’s feeling internally, expressing it through physical acting, subtle reaction shots, and brief angry outbursts. Meade’s performance demands the audience pay close attention. And in this episode—titled “That’s A Wrap”—while we’re leaning in, The Deuce smacks us hard.

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We first see Lori in “That’s A Wrap” back in her old stomping grounds of Minneapolis-St. Paul, showing up unannounced at a local strip club, trying to earn enough money to make it back to New York. Rebuffed by the manager, she asks a cab driver to detour past her childhood home, which she finds has been boarded-up and abandoned. With nowhere else to turn, she calls her old friend Candy, asking for an advance on some potential work in whatever porn project might be shooting when she arrives in NYC.

Lori catches Eileen at exactly the right time. She’s burned through the budget for her potentially career-defining art film, and still has several key scenes she needs to shoot before her cast and crew scatters. Harvey suggests she raise some money by adding more explicit sex scenes and casting a marquee porn star. (“It can’t all be art,” he grumbles.) But the first person Eileen thinks of turns out to be retired, having married one of the biggest real estate developers in New York City.

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This could be a vision of Eileen’s own future: rich but bored, missing the attention of fans and fellow filmmakers. It’s definitely a metaphor for what’s happening to the smut trade in New York in the mid-‘80s. Unable to use the law to chase the porn stars away, the realtors pumped in enough money to take the sex-workers off the market.

So Eileen’s film still needs a star, and Lori needs work. Two problems solved, right? Actually, the situation actually creates two new problems. First off, Lori’s still under contract to Vibrance, beholden to a production company partly run by an ex-boyfriend not so inclined to give her a break. And then, during the negotiation process, one of the company’s other partners, Larry, makes Eileen—or Candy, really—a lucrative offer. For $15,000 and the free use of Lori Madison, would Candy be willing to have sex on camera?

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This is an interesting test of Eileen’s convictions. She was just on the other side of this same kind of offer, trying to coax one of her retired former stars back into the business. Later, during a conversation with Lori, Eileen goes through her usual spiel about how Lori should embrace who she is and revel in flouting society’s rules. But is Eileen willing to do the same? Can she be Candy on-screen again? She haggles and raises Larry’s price, but we never hear her give a firm yes. Will she actually go through with this?

Photo: Paul Schiraldi (HBO)
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We’ve been conditioned by The Deuce to think of Eileen as one of “the good ones,” but a big part of her job still involves talking women into taking off their clothes and revealing the most intimate sides of themselves, in movies that she herself admits are likely to be around forever. “Now that the movies are on tape, there’s no such thing as an ex-porn star,” she says to Lori, in what’s supposed to be a pep talk. Instead, Lori hears this as, “You’re telling me I can never really escape the life.”

That’s what sets up the shattering final sequences for Lori Madison on The Deuce. First, Eileen tries to tell Lori that there’s more to her than just a porn actress, but Lori shuts her down, saying, “How do you know? You’ve only ever known me like this.” She has no family to ground her, no boyfriend to support her emotionally, and no hobbies (aside from cocaine and an aborted attempt at a music career) to distract her. She won’t even tell Eileen her real name, instead calling back to when they first met and saying she’s “Land o’ Lakes Girl.”

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Lori does though seem to give her real name to a man she spontaneously hooks on the Deuce, after she spends the last of Eileen’s money on more coke. She hesitates for a second, then tells this dude her name is “Sarah.” Then she lets him do whatever he wants to her for the pathetically low price of $50. Then he leaves, and she puts his money and Eileen’s credit card neatly on the dresser. And then she shoots herself in the head.

Lori’s devastating death isn’t all that happens in “That’s A Wrap,” but it does put a painful button on an episode that’s largely about the characters feeling trapped. Abby is trying to embrace the life she’s chosen, as a friend and a comfort to the “undesirable elements” that Gene Goldman intends to shoo out of Times Square. But for her troubles she gets dumped by her girlfriend; and after she briefly wonders whether she gave up to soon on her relationship with Vincent, she ultimately clears all her stuff out of their apartment when she finds a gun hidden in their closet.

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Photo: Paul Schiraldi (HBO)

As for Vincent, he’s having trouble seeing any positive way forward with his life. His brother Frankie is dead. His closest friend and confidant Mike is dying. His girlfriend hasn’t really been his girlfriend for years. He sleeps with his ex-wife every now and then, but she lets him know that’s while their time together is very nice, their relationship is still permanently broken.

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Then there’s Vincent’s new boss, Tommy Longo, who expects everyone to pay him the same respect—and the same money—they gave Rudy Pipilo, even though it’s fairly obvious to everyone that he was involved with Rudy’s and Frankie’s murders. Tommy is an unsentimental sort, whose big idea when Bobby tells him that the parlor’s old staff is working freelance now is that Black Frankie should rough one of the women up a bit.

Similarly, Tommy all but warns Vincent that he’s going to be back to managing a club for the mob soon, ignoring what should be clear to anyone with eyes and a hear: that Vincent is burned out, and ready to move on. “We’ll find you a new spot and it’ll be like it was,” Tommy says. But for everything to be “like it was,” something miraculous would have to happen. Someone would have to resurrect Rudy, and Ruby, and Frankie, and Dorothy… and now Lori. What made this life tolerable was the people. And one by one, they’re all disappearing.

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Stray observations

  • There are multiple era-specific signifiers in this episode, from a can of New Coke to Reg hooking Melissa up with a crew gig on a movie that sounds very much like Crocodile Dundee. But perhaps the most significant “sign o’ the times” here is Joey trying to convince his father Bobby to take advantage of an insider trading tip, and to invest in a short-selling scheme involving a heart medication that’s likely to be rejected by the FDA due to its strange side-effects. The timing isn’t exactly right—1985 is, I think, a few years too early—but the joke here may be that the Dwyers are about to bet big against Viagra.
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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.