The Last Season of The Deuce
I have constantly raved about David Simon’s The Deuce, the latest brilliant collaboration between Simon and HBO, but while my reviews have always been superlative, I’ve admitted that I’ve had trouble trying to figure out what the ultimate message might be. Halfway through the premiere of the final season, I found it.
It’s 1985 now, and Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal, still doing her best work) is now a major director in the pornography industry, known as something of an artiste in the genre. She and her fellow producer (David Krumholz) are attending a ‘convention’. The videocassette has started to infiltrate the world, and it has now interfered with the world of pornography. Candy (who has changed her name back to Irene) clearly has a better idea of what makes erotica work, but Charlie, who believed intensely in the idea of art and porn working together, now tells her: “That’s not what makes money anymore.” And therein lies the theme, not only of The Deuce, but of almost all of Simon’s work: capitalism destroys everything, even such vital institutions as art and sex.
A lot has changed on 42nd Street. The pimps that made up most of the first two seasons have disappeared. Most of the prostitutes are no longer as visible. Much of this is because of something far more deadly: the arrival of AIDS. We see this in much of the gay subculture that has been in the background of the series: a gay themed playhouse has been established, where actors use stage make up to cover their sarcomas. Bathhouse which did big business before are losing money. And there are outside factors still playing on everything. Detective Alston (Larry Gilliard) is trying to make moves to get rid of porn hubs that make up the Deuce, looking for shell corporations. Rudy (Michael Rispoli) the mobster who has been the front of so much crime is now concerned that a power struggle is coming that will lead to the rise of a new boss — John Gotti. He’s also concerned about the Ocean Park gangsters, and the drugs that they are bringing into everything.
There is little hope for those who have made any forward movement. Laurie Madison seemed to be making forward motion, going to LA at the end of Season 2. But all that means is that she’s changed one master for another, only this one is cocaine. (We see her getting out of rehab for the fifth time in the season premiere, and by the end of the episode, she’s doing lines in the ladies room.). Bobby (Chris Bauer, now wearing a hideous toupee) is concerned about catching AIDS in the premiere, but is screwing a stranger before the diagnosis comes in. And the Martino brothers (still exceptionally portrayed by James Franco) are each dealing with new struggles. Paradoxically, their roles have changed. Vincent is now closer to being a family being, and has been doing fairly well with amateur porn. Frankie is falling apart. The new reform is starting to make his job as a club owner harder, and his promising relationship with Abby has fallen into an ‘open relationship’., as she has become an activist. Yet even Abby doesn’t see the logic in how things have changed — she now rails against those who bring about censorship as violating the first amendment. She no longer fits in with the activists she once worked with.
Like all of David Simon’s series, The Deuce takes a cold and brutal look at how flawed all of our institutions are, and that so much of what we think has disappeared is wrapping its roots beneath the surface. But it’s also by far the most optimistic. Because I go to work in Times Square every day, and I can see that it’s no longer dark and seedy, and I only get accosted by Muppets. The changes did come. And it offers whatever hope in the personal relationships, something Simon tries his best not to emphasize. Frankie is reconnecting with his ex-wife. Alston is dating a female cop. And Irene has just begun seeing a venture capitalist who in the second episode of the series, she lays everything out on the table. Institutions may be hard to change, but people are not. Whatever hope there is for Simon’s America must rest in them.
My score: 4.5 stars.