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The Deuce’s final season kicks off with a trip to Vegas, deep into the ’80s

Photo: Paul Schiraldi (HBO)
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The theme song for The Deuce’s third and final season is Blondie’s “Dreaming,” a transcendent New Wave classic from one of New York’s greatest bands. Blondie started their career during the early days of punk, in the city’s grimiest bars. By December of 1984—which is when the season three premiere, “The Camera Loves You,” is set—they’d become chart-toppers, with songs like “Heart of Glass,” “Call Me,” “One Way Or Another,” “Rapture” and “The Tide Is High.”

And their time at the top was already over.

Maybe it’s a mistake to read too much into a single song choice, even if it is a series’ new opening theme. More than anything, “Dreaming” is meant to evoke this Deuce season’s shiny, booming mid-’80s setting (even though the song was originally released in 1979). Still, “The Camera Loves You” is also an episode where one of the big subplots involves a sneak preview of Gregory Dark’s landmark 1985 hardcore film New Wave Hookers, which was hailed at the time as something new: porn mixed with MTV. The “New Wave” connection between that movie and “Dreaming” isn’t entirely insignificant.

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As Ronald Reagan’s second term began, the idea of “the ’80s” as a decade with its own style and its own preoccupations was taking hold. But who would be the stewards of this cultural moment? Would it be pop vets like Blondie, who’d paid their dues in the ’70s? Or someone more Dark?

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That, in essence, is the debate between Eileen and Harvey that’s at the heart of this episode. The two are reintroduced at the start of “The Camera Loves You” on their way back from a Kurosawa movie at Film Forum, talking about how, early in his career, the legendary Japanese director worked around his paltry budgets, making masterpieces by coming up with clever ways to deploy limited resources. This has been Eileen’s vision for the better part of a decade: to seize the opportunity that the pornography business has provided her, and to make movies that express something personal and artistic, amid all the screwing.

But while Harvey has highbrow tastes—or perhaps even because he does—he prefers to see porn as a business. As he warns Eileen, with the rise of home video, her preferred kind of arty, feminist, sensual erotica doesn’t sell as much. And with margins as low as theirs, every unit counts.

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The title of this episode comes from something a camcorder pitchman says to Eileen at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, as he tries to convince her and Harvey to—as we say today—pivot to video. At the end of season two, the arrival of the VCR looked like a godsend to Harvey: a new revenue stream, arriving just when the mob was about to bleed his theatrical income dry. But now there’s more and more porn available on the retail market, so Harvey’s company can’t charge as much for tapes. Meanwhile, the public seems more interested in amateurs and “best of” compilations than in stars and stories—and they don’t seem to care if it looks cheap.

This is all bad news for Eileen, who’s unimpressed with this movement toward “a bunch of fuck scenes set to music” that Gregory Dark and his producer brother Walter are popularizing. As far as she’s concerned, the industry is going backwards to the days of the loops. She also rolls her eyes at the way the Dark brothers dress like pimps, which—for a woman who’s known a pimp or two, and has never been intimidated by any of them—makes the Darks even more of a joke. To her, they’re dredging up a past best left buried.

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Photo: Paul Schiraldi (HBO)

This theme of regression is all over “The Camera Loves You.” While in Las Vegas, Eileen runs into Lori, who’s just gotten out of rehab for the fifth time, and is clean for about a day before she runs into some admirers who ask her if she wants to “do a bump.” (Spoiler alert: She does!) Bobby, meanwhile, has been feeling miserable because of an ingrown hair on his rear end, which he thinks might be AIDS-related. So he swears off fornication… for roughly a couple of hours.

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It’s not that nothing has changed with these characters or with Times Square since last we saw them at the end of season two. The mafia may have been in the local papers all the time circa 1984 and ’85, but Rudy Pipilo’s end of the business—the sex trade—is faltering as the AIDS crisis intensifies. As a leader in the gay community, Paul has been active in trying to distribute condoms and urge safe sex, even as some of his cohorts warn him that men don’t come out to the bars “to get lectured.”

There’s a spirit of protest in the air in New York too, as 1984 ends. Outside the gay bars, a man asks passersby to sign a petition to condemn The New York Post, for its hysterical AIDS-panic headlines. Outside the adult bookstores, a group of women are pacing back and forth with placards, shouting, “Porn is violence! Violence is porn!”

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Photo: Paul Schiraldi (HBO)

As this episode makes clear though, perhaps the reason all this frustration is starting to bubble over is that nobody with the power to do anything appears to be heeding anyone’s cries for help. When Detective Chris Alston complains to Ed Koch lackey Gene Goldman that he’s tired of waiting for real estate developers to clean up Times Square, Gene pushes back, saying that realtors are tired of waiting for the NYPD to reduce crime in the neighborhood. Every few years it seems, a new dangerous threat emerges to make parts of Manhattan undesirable. In the mid-’80s, it’s the roving bands of disruptive teens the media dubs “wolf packs.” So stasis prevails.

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As for the Martino twins, they seem to have switched places since the ‘70s. Frankie’s a family man now; while Vincent’s more of a rogue. But both are still floating between the more legitimate end of the vice business and the parts that the Rudy Pipilos of the city oversee. They’s skeptical that anything’s ever going to change. Vincent grumbles that the sex shops are looking sleazier year-by-year. Like Detective Alston, he notices that the long-promised civic improvements to the Deuce never fully materialize.

Nevertheless, while gesturing at a perpetually under construction luxury high rise that’s been in the works since Mayor John Lindsay administration, Vincent shrugs, “They wouldn’t put it up if they didn’t know something” Tom Wolfe’s “masters of the universe” types haven’t started overrunning Manhattan yet on The Deuce. But when Eileen returns to New York for New Year’s Eve, she does run into a man named Hank Jaffe (played by the great Corey Stoll in only one short scene… which means he’s bound to return in future weeks). Like a lot of guys who have a lot of money, Hank insists that being rich is “no accomplishment.”

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On any other night, Eileen might agree. Certainly she’s become less and less interested in sex-work as a way to make bank, and more interested in using it to leave a real legacy. It’s just that she may have missed her chance; and her moment may have passed. Dreaming is free. Shooting on film is expensive.


Stray observations

  • I noticed last season that The Deuce opening credits sequences function similarly to 1980s and ’90s TV opening credits, featuring (albeit in an indirect way) ideas and images we can expect to see in the episodes ahead. Let the scrutinizing begin!
  • As is the wont of David Simon (credited with co-writing this premiere with his Deuce producing partner George Pelocanos), this episode is kind of a slow roll, and excludes some significant characters and storylines. For example, we only briefly hear about Eileen’s son Adam, who’s apparently left home, and doesn’t check in with his mom or grandparents very often.
  • A lot of cool mid-’80s pop culture references in this episode, including the movie Repo Man, the TV show Miami Vice, and songs by Echo & The Bunnymen and Modern English (among others). But I was especially excited to see Paul attend what looked to be an off-Broadway production of Bent, Martin Sherman’s 1979 play about the Nazi persecution of homosexuals (which featured Ian McKellen in the lead role in its original London run, and Richard Gere when it debuted on Broadway in 1980). This particular era happens to coincide with my high school years in suburban Nashville, when I would spend my free period in the library, reading in The New York Times about all the daring art, music and theater happening in New York. I experienced a lot of what was going on in the city secondhand, as an envious Tennessee teen. Looking forward to experiencing it again, via The Deuce.
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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.