This The Deuce review contains spoilers.
The Deuce Season 2 Episode 9
The Deuce Season 2 ends as it began. The camera follows Vincent Martino through a packed, colorful midtown Manhattan club. Bodies gyrate and move all around him as the disco balls above scatter light across the room. The energy is vibrant; the mood, joyous. This time around, however, Vince isn’t smiling.
Adopting a circular structure for a beginning and an ending is about as fundamentally sound move that a TV show or movie can make. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel. Hell, it is the wheel…Dan Harmon’s wheel of storytelling at least. Rarely is it executed as beautifully as it is in The Deuce Season 2.
That’s because I bought it. I bought into the glitz, the glamor, the joy. The season premiere, “Our Raison d’Etre” created such a believable world of sublime inherent vice that for a moment I envisioned The Deuceas David Simon’s “happy place” show. For several weeks there was no happier place on television than 42nd street in 1978. Knowing what I know about Simon, television, and the world in general should have convinced me that darkness was on the way. And lo’ and behold it was. Lo’ and behold here it is.
In the season 2 finale, change has finally come to The Deuce…and it has the body count to prove it.
The first body is the cruelest. When Alston reports to a crime scene in a back alley, it’s natural to assume that the NYPD is going to come across CC’s body. It is a little disconcerting that the little portion of the body we see is so degraded and maggot-covered that it’s impossible to discern sex or race. Then Alston opens up a wallet and identifies the victim as “Dorothy.” Wait…what? Did CC still have her ID in his wallet for some reason? Nope. Alston later confirms at the department that he knew this person as Ashley.
This is a brutal, ignominious end for a brilliant character. Dorothy is murdered offscreen. We never see her body and her killer is never identified. Her killer doesn’t matter because it may as well be The Deuce itself. Dorothy came back to town with reform in mind, and the crumbling infrastructure and cracked streets of Midtown are not too kind to reformers.
The Deuce smartly decides to focus on the reaction of the living when it comes to Dorothy’s death. Dorothy was a person with dreams, interests, beliefs, and hopes. But now she’s dead…and this isn’t a show that cares much about the lives of the dead. It’s sadder that way, and more realistic. Abby is devastated naturally. As is Loretta. The end of Dorothy represents the end of a grand vision. Pointedly, however, Loretta isn’t ready to stop believing.
“There’s no fixing this world is there?” Abby says
“I don’t know, “ Loretta responds. “Whatever it is. It’s bigger than the pimps and the whores an the johns. It’s something to do with how our brains work or don’t. But shit. Maybe you’ll figure it out. I’ll help if I can.”
This is such a brilliant Simonian trope. In the works of Simon and Pelecanos, the world is unfailingly ugly, but the people inside it are helpers. To a major extent, this season has been about the helpers realizing just how hard it is to make things better.
Vincent comes to a similar realization and it comes from yet another body. The mob has Black Frankie kill French Parlor employee Carlos when he gets a little too sloppy. Bobby is shocked. It’s one thing for Tommy to kill other gangsters but Carlos? Carlos was one of us. If Carlos is expendable, anyone is. Vincent is less than surprised, as this is something he’s worked out on his own and much earlier. Still, between CC, Carlos, and now Dorothy, Vince has seen more death in a span of a few weeks than he ever imagined he would. As the body count rises, the mirage that Vincent is one of the good guys becomes harder to maintain.
Vince takes his father’s advice from last week and actually goes to see his ex-wife and kids. In addition to getting Zoe Kazan back on television, this is a wonderful, quiet scene that helps illustrate just what Vincent wants. And he wants what we all want: comfort, quiet, white picket fences, the whole nine yards.
“What does Abby want?” Andrea asks Vince.
TL;DR: Not that.
Later Vince insists upon preparing Dorothy’s funeral arrangements because he’s that good a guy. While he’s at the cemetery he sees the fresh plot of dirt where Bobby buried his old French Parlor employee who died in a fire. There’s no headstone. Bobby forgot.
“We’re better than this, Bobby. We can be better,” Vince says.
They can be better, sure. But it’s going to take a lot of help.
Rodney is “Inside the Pretend’s” third body, shot dead by Officer Haddix as he attempts to steal opioids from a pharmacist. Alston is devastated that Haddix, one of the cops on the decency task force is now a de facto hero for being shot in the line of duty. His new superiors let him know that his new job as Sergeant isn’t to weed out corruption at the department, it’s just to hold the line as the mayor beautifies New York City. The money will take care of the rest. It always does.
The death of Rodney means the end of Method Man on The Deuce, which is a bummer because he’s become quite the actor since his days on The Wire. Thankfully it frees up Shay who finds her way back to Irene’s couch.
“You love something set it free. It comes back…it’s fucked up,” Irene tells Frank. It’s a happy ending of a sort.
For as brutal as “Inside the Pretend” can be, it’s not without its bright spots. That’s how things work in The Deuce. Of course, you have to wade through a lot of pain to get there. Lori is displaying the textbook signs of PTSD following her emancipation from CC. During the world premiere of Red Hot, which should be the best night of Lori’s life, she’s in the bathroom puking and doing way too much coke. Later when it’s time to start her new life in L.A., she has a panic attack. Weeping in Kiki Rains office, Lori says that she can’t go to Los Angeles without CC’s permission. Kiki can’t convince her that everything is ok so Frankie finally decides to be useful for once in his life.
Frankie tells Lori that CC is dead. First she cries. Then she smiles a bit as she cries. Finally she laughs through her tears. It’s remarkable acting from Emily Meade, who along with Maggie Gyllenhaal as Candy is portraying one of the series most important, most sympathetic characters. Lori steps off the plane in L.A. as a conquering hero and god damned movie star.
There are wins to be found in The Deuce if you know where to look. Like the story of Lori, however, they tend to happen mid-sob. Candy did it. She really did it. Red Hot is a hit! It’s opening on ten screens and counting (which is apparently huge for a porn film). It’s going to make its money back and then some. Candy is even invited to speak to Jack Valance on Late Night. Still, because this is 1978, a former prostitute just isn’t allowed to grab an unambiguous “W.”
First Candy overhears her editor boyfriend talking about her like a piece of meat at the premiere. Then Jack Valance is a real asshole on Late Night.* Then Harvey finds out that two different mob families own 115% of the movie somehow (thanks Frankie). Finally, most heartbreakingly, Candy’s son is removed from her life.
*Young whippersnapper that I am, I just assumed that “Jack Valance” was a real host of NBC’s Late Night pre-Seth Meyers/Jimmy Fallon/Conan O’Brien/David Letterman. Guess not!
Candy arrives at her mother’s home to pick up her son to go on a vacation. The street is quiet and still as thunder starts to roll in. Her father answers the door and tells her in no uncertain terms that Candy’s son isn’t going anywhere with her. Candy cries on the street, gathers herself, yells some more at the house, then walks away as the rain starts.
Still as the episode ends Candy is getting started on her next project, photo of her son on her desk. Similarly when she finds out that she wouldn’t be making any money from Red Hot, she’s completely unaffected.
“Looks like we’re gonna make them some money and they’re gonna make me a name,” she says..and then gets back to work.
On The Wire, Lester Freamon once told Jimmy McNulty “the job will not save you.” Every case ends. At some point you’ve got to clock out and get back to work on your own shitty life. For Candy, however, the job quite literally did save her. The combined forces of art and hard work got Candy off the streets. They gave her a name. The world took everything else away but she still has the work.
The Deuce isn’t necessarily a celebration of work. Everybody works hard on this show – they have no other option. Instead The Deuce is more of a celebration of luck. Some just happen to get luckier than others. Still, as season 2 ends, The Deuce decides to close with some of its hardest workers.
Larry has always been an actor. Darlene tells him as much when she decides to leave to begin her new life once and for all.
“You never should have let me seen you act, Larry,” she says. Once you showed me that you showed me everything. Pimp is a role. Once you start letting a girl see inside the pretend, it’s over isn’t it? Besides your heart aint been in pimping for awhile now.”
Larry is ready to stop pretending and to start making an honest living…pretending. Darlene has a new life doing new work. Lori is in L.A. For a lucky few, work has paid off. For the rest, the bars still stay open until 4 a.m. ET.
The Deuce Season 2’s circular structure with its matching beginning and ending works as much more than a storytelling parlor game. It’s true that Vincent isn’t smiling in those final moments…but everyone else at the club still is. Outside the confines of the club, Larry has changed for the better. Darlene has escaped. Candy carries on. Abby grows. Frankie…is Frankie.
Sure, the ranks of the dead have swelled but the dead are the dead. What are you gonna do about them? The disco ball is still lit up, the music continues to play, and the flesh still calls. The Deuce is a great show because it knows how to communicate, in excruciating, vibrant detail that when you pan the camera out on humanity as wide as it will go, you’ll see everything change and nothing change all at once.