Everybody loves a good bookend, and with its season finale “My Name is Ruby,” The Deuce delivers us right back to where we started: a slightly longer episode, written by David Simon and George Pelecanos, directed by Michelle McLaren. But it’s not just a nifty bit of circularity; by explicitly recalling where we began, the accomplishments of The Deuce’s first season – which could occasionally seem (in the best way, mind you) meandering and vignette-based – become crystal clear. Look how far we’ve come with these people. Look where they’re headed. Those of them who are still alive, that is.
The idea of the business of porn, and its lucrativeness now that it’s semi-legal, moves further to the fore here. Intriguingly, Simon and Pelecanos have done a roughly six-month jump between the penultimate episode and the finale – that’s the kind of time-hopping that usually comes between seasons, not at the end of one – but yep, we’re told that Boys in the Sand has been playing for six months, and here’s Frankie and Big Mike overseeing the installation of the first of the movie viewing booths (something tells me this is gonna be another situation where the black man doesn’t get properly compensated for his ingenuity), and there’s Eileen and Harvey doing the closest thing they’ve got to “market research”: visiting the count room, and finding out what’s bringing in quarters (straight-up, lesbian, black-on-white, and, yikes, “Danish loops” with dogs and horses).
In that scene, it becomes clear that Eileen has a better understanding than anyone of what this loose “data” means: “That’s the fantasy, right? That’s the shit we’re sellin’ here?” And her artistic advancement finally matches with her business interest: thanks to a perhaps-too-convenient bout of car trouble for Harvey, she saves the day, a day in which the actors have been hired and the sets have been built and, as she puts it, “We rented the fucking camera! Can we get the prairie set lit?” Once it is, she issues the decree we’ve been waiting for: “Let’s make a movie!”
That’s not her only payoff. We finally find out what’s caused this resentment between her and her father, a revelation prompted by Harvey’s casual use of the word “fag” which she pushes back on: “I have a brother.” And then, she visits him in the institution – a scene, like Paul’s arrest in episode five, that reminds us of how gay people were treated in society, not that long ago (“Mostly meds for me now,” he tells his sister, “I don’t think the shock treatment is something they want to do anymore”). “The world is changing,” she tells him, as he tries to insist, for his own protection, that he’s not really not gay after all.
Meanwhile, who pissed in Vincent’s Cheerios? He’s suddenly – kinda out of nowhere, honestly – grumpy as hell, acting weirdly better than the businesses that are making him comfortable, up to issuing a “respectful” fuck you to a gangster, which is still a fuck you. (Rudy takes it in stride: “He’ll come around.”) Then comes the bad news about his ex-wife from his sister, giving us (aha, look) a return to the pool hall, for a scene with a very different outcome. If the first one was emasculating, the second one revels in tough-guy masculinity; he goes to work on the guy who hit his ex. But if it gives us a momentary thrill, it passes quickly; it’s an empty victory, and one only accomplished with a mob guy on his elbow. And Abby, of course, sees right through it (“Who’d you do that for?” “For my wife. Who else?”). This is not exactly my boldest prediction, but: if he does move in with Abby (and that’s a big goddamn if), it will not work out.
And anyway, all of this is just a lead up to the sudden, scary, and troubling death of Ruby, jeeringly dismissed as “Thunder Thighs” all season, but one of the show’s most nuanced, heartfelt, and sympathetic characters, so of course she has to go right out the fucking window. If it feels, in retrospect, like an obvious move schematically – killing Reggie Love is one thing, he was a motherfucker, but Ruby was someone everybody dug, so her death can feel like an “end of innocence” – there’s no denying its visceral effect. All season long, we’ve seen the danger of this work, resulting in physical and emotional violence. Now, someone’s dead. People gawk at the body on the sidewalk, and then go back about their business.
Meanwhile, across town, the “stars” come out for the premiere of Deep Throat, which functions rather like the Hi-Hat opening in episode three – as an event that brings much of the cast together. And then, as on The Wire, we have a lovely end-of-the-season musical montage (this one to Ray Charles’ “Careless Love”), to situate and reposition these characters as they head into a brave new world, one where a pornographic feature film will become the talk of the country, a social event, and fodder for Johnny Carson jokes. That is where they’ll be when we meet them again. Can’t wait.
One last batch of leftovers:
- Good god, Show Co-Created by David Simon, took you long enough to bring in Clarke Peters. Great, tiny, juicy role though, as some kind of aging and domesticated mentor to C.C. – who gets a look at his future, and doesn’t like what he sees.
- The business with Larry sending his girl on a drug run (and her getting busted) either needed more time, or to disappear altogether. As it is, it seems like a hasty afterthought in a show not exactly known for them.
- Great touch: the VIP area of the massage parlor being decorated by the abandoned costumes and set dressings from a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Waste not, want not!
- The lovely little scene between Alston and Ruby is a classic Simon switcheroo – it seems like a small human touch, a bit of color between plot, and ends up being a vital opportunity to say goodbye to a character. For a show to do that kind of dual-level work, as easily as this one does, is genuinely impressive.
Listen to film editor Jason Bailey discuss “The Deuce” every week on “The Deuce Rethread” podcast, via the DVR Podcast Network. Subscribe here or listen here: