"Take What Comes, But Show No Ambition"

The Deuce Conversations, Episode 8

Paul Schiraldi/HBO

Because you can find recaps elsewhere, and because we long for the watercooler talks of '90s yore, two editors, Sam Eichner and Geoff Rynex, will be using this space to have a weekly conversation about HBO's The Deuce, David Simon and George Pelecanos's unflinching portrait of the sex industry in 1970s New York. Obviously, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. This week's topic is S01E08, My Name is Ruby, the season finale...

Sam Eichner: It struck me near the end of the finale that it was not unlike every other episode in the series--in pacing and tone, in plotting and attention to detail--and yet simultaneously felt far and away better than the rest. I think that's less because of this one episode and more because the totality of the episodes that came before it have done their work on me. It seems redundant to say that I cared more about the characters than I ever did before, but I did. I feel like I really got to know them, in a human way. Therefore scenes that otherwise wouldn't have registered with me a few episodes prior packed a serious punch in the finale. It's a testament to the show that I felt like I was just really getting to know these people, and felt a little sad to see them go (into whatever ethereal limbo characters go to between seasons). 

I wanted to start by asking you what your favorite moment was from this episode, mostly as an excuse for sharing mine. The scene with Vince and Abby in the hotel room, when he asks her to live with her, is an absolutely perfect piece of television, from the writing, to the directing, to the acting. His nonchalant, unromantic explanation for why he wants to live with her--which starts, fittingly, with a shot of his face in the mirror, as if it's too much to look at him directly--would've been played for cheeseball, sentimental laughs in a different genre or show. But his speech was so rooted in his character. It was love laid out on its simplest, most brutal terms--and he never even has to say the words. Franco's little smile to the camera at the end was a moment of pure happiness. I had a smile--nay, a fucking grin--on my face the entire scene. 

What was your favorite moment? 

Geoff Rynex: I couldn't agree more about the sum of the previous episodes making this finale so good. Watching "My Name is Ruby," you realize that every throwaway line and quiet moment built a foundation for you to feel emotionally invested. And unlike many other works that try to do this, it feels earned on The Deuce. That said, I'll take the time here to pat myself on the back for my (admittedly not-that-out-there) prediction that no one was getting a clean resolution. For all the quiet comfort of the Vinnie/Abby scene you reference, they end on a note of distance. C.C. is losing his grip and has taken on a new girl. Larry's restless and his first foray into the drug trade ended in disaster, mostly for Barbara, who, in a true testament to how mindfucked these guys have their girls, stands tall for him and at least begins doing hard time in federal prison. Alston is single and one slip-up away from being labeled a department rat. Sandra's expose has been watered down into a human interest story. The parlor inhabitants are looking like strung-out zombies. And Ruby's brutal death is a reminder of just how grisly this whole time and this place were, even while we were getting to know the players intimately enough to find it kind of homey. 

The only people who seem to come out on top are the ones who embrace the filth. Eileen's looking like a bona fide porn whisperer and sashaying into VIP film premiers. While Vinnie is not here for the parlors or the peeps anymore, Frankie and Bobby are making money hand over fist, and Pipolo is making even more. That said, my favorite scene is the very first one—a nice bit of satisfaction and camaraderie between Frankie and Big Mike at seeing their dirty infrastructural dreams become reality when their innovative peep booths go into service. I also loved the scene between Harvey, Eileen and the peep manager breaking down the most popular types of porn. It was like a look into the first analytics meeting ever. 

I can't believe we haven't talked about this yet, but I've been thinking this week about how the Harvey Weinstein/Toback/#metoo situation has impacted people's perspectives on the show, which is, at bottom, about the exploitation and abuse of women sexually, in business and in general. I'm still working it out in my head, but I've been trying to watch the show in a vacuum. Some of the things I've been thinking about though are, is the porn industry and even pimping somehow more virtuous than these hidden abuses because the exploitation is right there on the surface? Does the show's casual graphicness become problematic for next season? I'm of a mind that art has no social responsibility, so I don't want to see The Deuce turn into a social commentary on Harvey Weinstein next season, but, to an extent, it already is. What kind of impact, if any, did this have on how you viewed the series? 

SE: That's an interesting question. The honest answer is none. It really hadn't crossed my mind, although maybe it should've. But it feels a world away--literally. And as much as the deuce is about the exploitation of women, I've still always been of the mind that it's primary concern is capitalism. At the end of the day, the rich are getting richer and the little guys--the pimps and especially the girls--are getting screwed. That seemed to be the message at the end, with bearnice talking the same old sad dead-eyed talk at the parlor. It was brashly cynical--a sad way to end the show after a montage of other character's successes. Candy, I think, offers the only glimmer of hope--she's ironically become sort of a beacon of female empowerment, in her own way.

Speaking of candy, what did you think of the scene with her brother? It seemed to suggest her father was in some position of power. Either way I found it extremely touching. Whoever played her brother did not phone that performance in. 

GR: Did that scene go far enough for you in explaining Eileen's past (the one I didn't care about last week)? It seems to me that if next season takes place ten or so years from this episode, this is as good as it's going to get for us in terms of exposition about her family and background. Whatever the case, yes, this was an affecting scene. I'm always creeped out to be reminded that electroshock was still a thing up until way too recently and that there are people out there still (some in positions of power) who support gay conversion therapy. I can't argue with you about the show being pretty nakedly (pun intended) about capitalism, with all its requisite inequalities and shortcut-taking. 

I've wrestled with the idea of porn stars exercising a type of feminism and female empowerment by virtue of their performing, but I've never really come to a conclusion for myself about whether I believe it—though I understand that my opinion on the matter means little. It's definitely what the show is going for in Candy's case, but my guess is that the female empowerment vibes will have worn down considerably by the end of all this. 

But let's talk about Alston real quick. The season ends before the conclusion of the 1972 Knapp Commission that uncovered for the public the widespread police corruption Alston had been witnessing and reporting back to Sandra on. Alston ended the season on a couple of down notes, but if he managed to stay clean and on his captain's good side through the end of the year, he might have been promoted a few times by the start of next season. What are your hopes and predictions for him? And one more question: C.C.'s looking desperate and obsolete by episode's end. We loved Gary Carr this season, but is there any hope of him being alive by next season? If so, did he maybe make the transition to drugs more competently than Larry? What's the best we can hope for? 

SE: It seems that Alston is in line for a promotion, even if he mishandled the whole Sandra situation (and lost her as a lover in the process). It seems pretty clear that he'll be a big foe to our band of mobsters and pimps and porn stars when the show picks up again a decade later. His gut punch to CC felt like a turning point, too--that, like Leon, he wasn't going to take these guys' shit anymore.

To answer your question re: Eileen's backstory, yes I think it went far enough--there's still more to be discovered, though. I have a feeling her father will come into play in a real way at some point. And with regards to her being a beacon of female empowerment...I think we'll have to wait and see, but at the moment her newfound position has given her some real power. She is treated as an equal by Harvey. I don't think every girl in porn has that power, naturally, but as an individual female candy seems to be not only using the male gaze and her own body to achieve autonomy but also as a means to champion the rights (and value) of her fellow lady porn stars. 

C.c's fate appears to be the most in flux by the end of this. He's really facing an existential pimping crisis. But I think he's a survivor, and he's ruthless, and he's far more cunning than his compatriots. I think he'll either wise up and get into the porn business or make the transition to drugs more smoothly than Larry did. Also I can't imagine him not being around next season, if only because they've got to know they've got a star on their hands with Gary Carr. 

Now that the seasons over, who was your favorite character? Anybody you want to see more or less of?

GR: I originally thought C.C. would be my favorite without a doubt, but Carr didn't see nearly as much screentime after the first couple episodes. That said, seeing Lester Freamon himself (Clarke Peters) come back to the Simon universe as wise-elder pimp Ace was such a delight that I'm tempted to pick him in the immediate aftermath. Really though—and this may come as a surprise—I'm going with Frankie. He's a dirtbag, no doubt. But he's the Franco that's really come the furthest over the course of the season, having transformed from a degenerate gambler and man on the run to leading sex entrepreneur for the mob. He may well be dead by the time next season rolls around, but he was fun to watch the entire time, and he seems to have found his niche. Let Frankie live!

SE: I think I would've been inclined to agree with you on Frankie had it not been for last nights episode. Vince becomes just so damn likeable. 

GR: Well there you go. After a full season, you've become the Vinnie guy, and me the Frankie guy. It's been a pleasure digging into this show with you this season, Sam, and with you, readers. I think The Deuce proved worth of the hype leading up to its premier, and so we've been luck enough to analyze what is, 1/3rd of its way through, one of the best shows on television. We'll see you sometime in the early '80s!

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