‘The Deuce’ Finale Recap: Giving Up the Ghosts

The Deuce has come to an end with its series finale, the aptly-titled “Finish It.” A review of the episode, and overall thoughts on the series, coming up just as soon as I study taxidermy…

When the end credits rolled on last week’s “That’s a Wrap,” it seemed like a perfect end point for The Deuce. Lori was dead, Mike was dying, Abby had left Vince, and the parlors were in trouble. And the actual scene of Candy having to shut down production because the sex industry had claimed another life seemed as perfect a summation of the series themes as Simon and Pelecanos could conceive. So “Finish It” feels more like an epilogue than a conclusion — even before we jump ahead to the Times Square of 2019, where a much older Vincent is greeted by the ghosts of all his old friends.

“Finish It” does offer more closure to certain stories. Vince buys himself and Paul out of their Mob-ligations for $200,000, then gifts the bar to Abby (who in turn gifts it to Loretta, preferring instead to go back to school after all these years). Gene Goldman figures out a way to exploit the AIDS crisis to finally rid Midtown of all the undesirable businesses standing in the way of the big corporate money. Mike dies from AIDS, and both Paul and Reg seem not far behind him. Melissa and Reg get married to affirm their platonic love for one another, and to make it simpler for her to care for him in the time he has left, while Loretta declines Juan’s attempted marriage proposal in hopes of keeping things less formal and restricted.

Some of this is as emotionally potent as you’d expect from a Simon/Pelecanos finale, some less so. Melissa and Loretta, for instance, both got promoted from minor roles much earlier in the series. But where Melissa and Reg’s relationship felt real and vital from the first time we saw them together this season, Loretta’s subplots throughout this season were underfed. So the wedding sequence is lovely — and the last time we see a preponderance of the show’s characters alive in the same place — while the business about the Hi-Hat or Juan play more as footnotes. That’s the pitfall of doing a show with this many characters for eight hours a year, particularly when some characters, like Vince and Candy and Lori, will be getting a lot more screen time than a Loretta. At the same time, though I once wouldn’t have guessed Paul as the final character we would see in the series’ present, the way that the AIDS crisis wound up touching nearly every character made him a fitting, poignant choice to walk us out of that more innocent New York and into the more garish future of the 2019 sequence.

The only story in the finale that felt essential to get closure on, though, was the fate of Candy’s movie, which will eventually be called A Pawn in Their Game. Some of this is left to the epilogue, where the older Vince finds out that she did, as Harvey suggested, take out the fucking to make it into a (slightly) more mainstream movie. It received critical acclaim, and canonization by the Criterion Collection, but not until much later. As Candy’s ghost ruefully tells Vince, “Nobody saw it. Go figure!”

Getting the movie made costs Candy — a lot. Her willingness to come out of acting retirement to help finance the film ends her relationship with Hank, though that was clearly doomed from the start(*). As he prepares to take a job at Lehman Brothers — because of course he does — he patronizingly says he can get away with the eccentricity of having a girlfriend who makes specialty erotica, but not someone who continues to have sex on camera. He doesn’t understand why she won’t just take his own money to pay off Greg and Larry and finance the movie. Surely there would have been a conversation within six months to a year of him taking that job where he said her directing was no longer socially acceptable, either.

Chris Coy as Paul in the finale. Paul Schiraldi/HBO

(*) It’s not that Corey Stoll can’t play nice guys. It’s that why would you want him to, when he’s so good at playing creeps? And particularly guys like Hank, who so effectively hide their creepiness at first glance.

No, the harder part about Candy going to L.A. for one last porn hurrah isn’t that it ends things with Hank. It’s that being in front of the camera again reminds her of how horribly this business treats women — even someone like her who was once a star, and who knows more about the filmmaking process than the people directing and producing her do. Arriving on set, she’s presented with a list of sex acts more extensive and rough than she agreed to, and is applauded for being a good sport when she agrees to all of them. (Though she’ll cheat a condom on the anal.) The cameraman has no interest in engaging with her on the best lens to use for a money shot. She is not treated as the talent, but as the product, left to feel something less than human — and at a time when she’s been having to coax her own performers to do things on camera that they’re not entirely comfortable with. She takes a much gentler, more empathetic touch with her actors, even offering to excuse them from the porn part if they really don’t want to do it. (Which will ultimately turn out to be moot once it ceases to be a porn film, but nobody knows as much on that night.) But she’s in the same business as these clowns who have no interest in anything but what can be done to her body. And she understands it maybe more deeply than she ever has before.

What’s fascinating and marvelously bittersweet is how even this experience in L.A., and with Hank, isn’t enough to turn Candy off from her chosen profession. She’s offended at first when Harvey suggests she take the fucking out of the movie. He proudly says he’s a pornographer, and it’s clear that she feels the same way. Maybe if A Pawn in Their Game became a hit in its own time, she’d have gone mainstream for good. But it also doesn’t seem a terrible fate for her to stay in the adult film business. She’s found a home there, and a friend and mentor in Harvey. She treats her actors well, she’s artistic when she can be (and just gets the job done when she can’t). And despite ample reason presented throughout the season for her to quit, she never does. It’s not the ideal outcome, but Candy is the one character on The Deuce who comes out significantly better from her association with porn. It destroyed Lori, will probably haunt Darlene and Melissa and some of the others forever, but it made Eileen Merrell into an artist — even if opportunities for her art will be less plentiful with where we know pornography is going(*). Like Melissa and Reg’s wedding, it’s an ending that’s far from perfect but just good enough, especially given the terrible circumstances that led to it.

(*) The big missed opportunity of the 2019 epilogue is that it doesn’t touch on the devastating effect the Internet has had on the business, and the many ways performers and filmmakers have had to adjust to make a living. One of those adjustments has been the rise of “bespoke porn,” custom videos subsidized by a single client to satisfy a specific fetish. (As depicted in Jon Ronson’s great podcast The Butterfly Effect, one man from Norway pays to have porn actresses destroy and mock his stamp collection.) I can imagine a younger Candy finding a weird new artistic outlet making that stuff.   

In addition to wrapping up most of the character arcs, “Finish It” also has to function as a concluding statement for the political arguments Simon, Pelecanos, and their collaborators have been making across these three seasons. It isn’t quite as effective there, in part because the argument has already been presented so often throughout this series, and across the entire output of Blown Deadline. When, for instance, Alston takes Gene Goldman to the Bronx to see where the vice industry has relocated, it is perhaps only surprising to Gene Goldman himself(*). We already know from this show, from The Wire, Tremé, etc., that there will always be a market for certain activities, and that trying to throw money at the problem usually just ends up helping the people who already have money.

(*) It doesn’t help that, as I’ve written about before, Goldman and Alston never got as rich an interior life as many of the other major characters. Goldman’s closeted nights out lent him more complexity than Alston got, but the show tended to be vague about what, if anything, Gene actually believed of the arguments he made over these past two seasons. So subplots featuring the two of them not only felt like they were rehashing debates we’d witnessed before, but didn’t have the emotional peg of, say, Candy having to listen to Andrea Dworkin tear apart her entire career arc. Gene and his colleagues turn the phrase “do the right thing” into a running gag, yet he acts in more private moments as if he believes he’s really doing that. It’s a muddle.   

Still, the contrast was striking between the grubby, scary, but very much character-laden Deuce of the Seventies and Eighties versus the shiny, overpriced, overcrowded, colorlessly corporate Times Square that an aging Vince wanders through at the end. This is the vision of Midtown that Ed Koch, Rudy Giuliani, and more dreamed about: a lucrative tourist trap that won’t scare away families. (So long as those families don’t look at their credit card statements until much much later.) That women — be they Midwestern girls off the bus, or victims of sex trafficking like the Eastern Europeans who briefly work at the French Parlor before it gets padlocked — aren’t being used and abused there is nice, in theory, except that we know it’s happening elsewhere. Instead, what’s been created at the center of New York is a place very much not of or for New Yorkers. The people who go there are from out of town. So is the money. The show spent three years depicting women selling their bodies, even as the bulk of the money flowed elsewhere. If that’s not exactly what the Gene Goldmans of the world did with the heart of the city, it’s close enough.

The last Deuce character we see is not Vincent Martino, who disappears into the subway imagining that he’s walking arm-in-arm with his long-dead twin brother. Instead, it’s Abby Parker, who materializes in the crowd of real-life tourists walking through the series’ concluding shot. Like Vince, she’s older. But where he’s still wearing a leather jacket and carrying on about the old days, she’s in a nice suit and is in the middle of a call suggesting she’s now an attorney. Is she now crusading about the same causes for which she felt so much passion while working at the bar? Has she sold out and begun protecting the moneyed interests she rebelled against (her own parents included) for so long? It’s hard to tell from the brief snippet of dialogue (she talks about clients and paper trails), but at minimum, she’s changed a lot more than her ex-boyfriend has. In his mind, it’s still the Seventies, and it will be for however long he can stay upright. But Abby is living in the present, for good or for ill. The Deuce cleaned itself up, and so did she. Things change, and not everyone survives those changes.

The first time I watched the epilogue, it unnerved me. I assumed it was because it was so different from how Simon’s shows have generally ended, or maybe because it was so focused on Vince, who was never one of the characters I cared about most here. (He was the connective tissue for the other characters, but their conflicts were always more compelling than his.) Ultimately, though, I think I was feeling the exact sense of loss that Simon, Pelecanos, Roxann Dawson, and everyone else involved wanted me to.

Like I wrote back when the series began, I grew up spending my Saturdays walking down the same blocks that this show depicted, in all their grimy, pornographic glory. Like my parents before me, I try to take my kids into the city as often as we can to see shows and explore. Since they were little, they have loved what Times Square has become, because why wouldn’t they? There’s a Hershey store and an M&M store within 300 feet of one another. There are bright lights and colorful characters, even if Elmo and Queen Elsa are a far cry from Shay and Thunder Thighs.

Stoll and Gyllenhaal. Paul Schiraldi/HBO

But if I’m not as old as Vince or Abby are in 2019, I’m old enough to remember what that place was, and to feel some affinity for it, in the same way that Candy can still like making porn despite all she’s witnessed over the years. There was character to the place back then. There was also abuse and neglect and despair, but that just relocated a bit. Many people on The Deuce paid the heftiest possible price for their time in this place. Yet among the series’ most impressive achievements was how it conveyed such affection for this world, even as the cast and crew were depicting all the ways in which it could be terrible.

I miss what the Deuce used to be. And as the series walks into the arms of time, to paraphrase Leon’s mother, I will miss The Deuce.

Some other thoughts:

* Having covered a lot of the big thematic issues with my David Simon/Emily Meade interview, my series-ending interview with Simon focused mainly on the epilogue. Though he did explain why Larry Brown never came back this season, and what he thinks happened to him after he quit pimping.

* Also, that conversation about the epilogue clarified something: When Bobby’s apparition talks about Joey having both a third wedding and another sentencing hearing, that’s not any kind of temporal or ghostly confusion. Vince is really in town to witness both of those things. Not hard to imagine a middle-aged Joey being the kind of guy who’d make sure he got hitched before going away again for insider trading.

* Mike is long dead when Vince finds him in the cabin. But his old friend Frank — no longer needing to go by Black Frankie, with the elder Martino brother’s passing — survives and heads to the west side of Baltimore to see his cousin Nathan. Could this be a hat tip to Nathan “Bodie” Barksdale, a real-life dealer who helped provide the names of two different Wire characters?

* Haddix getting assigned to teach ethics to police academy cadets isn’t quite Stan Valchek being made commissioner of the Baltimore PD, but it’s close. Nice to see Ralph Macchio get off one last joke before he heads back to Cobra Kai.

* One last time, a list of this week’s music: “When Will the Blues Leave?” by Ornette Coleman (Bobby giving stock tips at French Parlor); “Songs Without Words” by Felix Mendelssohn (Candy and Hank eat at his house); “I Have Learned to Do Without You” (Vince and Bobby at the diner); “Ain’t Nobody” by Chaka Khan (Melissa and Reg’s wedding reception); “Material Man” by Gregory Isaacs (Abby and Loretta talk about the Hi-Hat); “Thinking of You” by Sister Sledge (Abby at Paul’s bar); “Fresh Is the Word” by Matronix (Vince walks through Times Square in 1986); “A Hundred Years From Today” (Paul alone in his bar); and “Sidewalks of New York” by Blondie (Vince walks through Times Square in 2019).

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