The powerful first season comes to a harrowing end

By David Canfield
October 29, 2017 at 10:20 PM EDT
Paul Schiraldi/HBO
S1 E8
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“My Name Is Ruby” is about dignity. It’s about people in various professions and roles — sex work, pornography, journalism, policing, bartending, pimping — being made to feel that they matter, that they can take pride in their work, and that they are worthy of love and respect. And yet it’s also about money: the way new opportunities and resources can intervene on a common sense of humanity and community. “My Name Is Ruby” is, in other words, a fitting season finale for The Deuce.

The episode begins with Frankie and Big Mike supervising the construction of peep shows and testing out the new machines. It’s an initially surprising but clever opening: Here are two guys who were gradually brought into this arena and are relatively carefree about its implications or consequences, standing in contrast to the internal conflict every other character faces in the finale. In many ways, they’re the consumer from The Deuce’s margins: the people happily, ignorantly partaking in the brave new world being opened up by loosening laws and shifting market structures.

Frankie’s brother, Vincent, is not so ignorant. He’s a barkeep who got into business with Rudy Pipilo to pay off his brother’s gambling debt, and — after buying into promises of economic comfort and entrepreneurship — was gradually lured into seedier areas of commerce. After denying his “cut” of the quarter money that Frankie had worked out with Pipilo some weeks ago, Vince is appalled to learn that Pipilo is drawing him, his brother, and his brother-in-law into yet another venture: a three-story enterprise with peep shows, parlor activity, and VIP rooms stacked atop each other — all with city approval. Vince realizes he’s in too deep. “One day I’m paying off my brother’s gambling debts, the next day my whole f—ing family’s neck deep in running whores and dirty f— films,” he yells, before declaring himself “out.” He storms out of the newly leased building.

When he returns to the Hi-Hat, however, he appears similarly lost at sea. Abby and Paul have packed the bar with a younger, hipper crowd, hiring a rock band and opening up the dance floor, where the pot and cigarette smoke forms a heavy cloud. Vince suddenly appears 10 years older, his hands seemingly on the verge of covering his ears. You can feel him thinking, “What happened?” Mike says he likes it, Abby’s out on the dance floor swaying, and the crowd itself — in the dim, red-tinted lighting — looks like a new community that’s come together. For Vincent, it’s another extreme that makes him feel out of place.

It becomes clear that Vincent’s self-worth is tied in with a traditional masculine image. When he and Abby go back to his place after the bar concert, he asks her to move in with him along practical lines: They both hate their living situations, and they like each other’s company. Abby doesn’t bite, initially. “We’d get real possessive and start living like a sad, s— married couple arguing over who takes out the garbage,” she forecasts. He agrees to her request to be non-exclusive, saying, “Nobody owns anybody — we just lay our heads down in the same space and enjoy each other when we do.” As long as he’s the one taking out the garbage.

Yet Vincent, while mostly well intentioned, is not quite this enlightened, fun-loving guy. He believes he has a certain role that commands respect and action. When Bobby informs him that skeezy Eddie Bucco beat on his semi-ex-wife Andrea, Vincent returns to Pipilo’s crew looking for muscle. He wants to hit back, because that’s what you’re supposed to do. And hit back he does, whacking Eddie across the knees with a pool cue. It’s fleeting, of course, and enough to turn Abby off of him. But he’s quickly losing his sense of right and wrong, and this violent response is firmly in line with what he knows — and what he can feel slipping away.

There’s a fascinating parallel between Vincent and the pimps: old-guard types not yet ready to adapt to changes. In Leon’s diner, Rodney, C.C., and Larry are sitting at their usual table, minus one person — Reggie, who had just been killed next to the very spot where they sit daily, like ritual. “Reggie Love had a few things wrong, come to think of it,” C.C. says, as they semi-mourn him.

Each is trying to get on like nothing happened, boasting about their fatter-than-ever wallets under the parlor system, but their banter feels different. C.C., who’s taken Melissa under his wing, tries desperately to affirm his continued significance as a Deuce pimp. (He later runs into an old mentor, Ace, played by David Simon regular Clarke Peters, who says he got out of the game when he saw “the writing on the wall.” C.C. foolishly tries to convince him to get back into pimping, unable to see that he’s moved on to a happier life.) Larry, meanwhile, somewhat solemnly admits to hoping that there’s more to his life than where he is presently. The feeling only worsens when Barbara, after being caught scamming in the parlors last episode, is caught trying to buy drugs on Larry’s behalf by an undercover cop, and is sent to prison. The three pimps stare at the spot on the floor where Reggie was shot, in front of the counter — silent and haunted. (Recap continues on page 2)

With Vincent and the pimps, there’s a sense of something lost — a wistfulness for the way the Deuce used to be. The same goes for Officer Alston, who appears mystified by the new normal in policing, as cops led by Sweeney go from spot to spot picking up checks in exchange for silence, rushing prostitutes and johns indoors and out of sight. It’s no coincidence that these backward-looking characters are all men, pining for days when their roles in the world were clearer. But we see a similar yearning coming from Ruby “Thunder Thighs” in this finale. She’s still on the Deuce, unlike the rest of the women in the game, trying but struggling to attract clients. As with Barbara, who’d similarly been left out in the cold by Larry, the new system has not been to her benefit.

Alston, strolling down Times Square as he’s done thousands of times, beams with happiness at the sight of her — the sight of something familiar. He asks why she’s still outside and not in the parlors. “I wasn’t getting chosen all that much on the inside,” she confides. “I’m a big girl, in case you didn’t notice.” Alston compliments her “beautiful eyes,” and they share a moment of intimacy. “Tell me something,” she says before she walks off, back to work. “How a dude like you get to be a cop?” Alston’s care for the community, aversion to corruption, and weary understanding of how people function should make him an ideal candidate for the job. Yet as Ruby points out, the way things are going, he’s a man at odds with his uniform.

Alston has gotten closer with Sandra, spending the night with her and freely feeding her information. But the two reach an impasse when Sandra is informed by her editor that any reporting of police or city corruption will go unprinted without a source — i.e. Alston — going on the record with hard documentation. Alston wants to “clean house” and expose the citywide deceit, but he seems weirdly confident that Captain McDonagh will make it happen. In any case, he steals a “book” from Sweeney that essentially proves corruption and gives it to Sandra. He still needs to go on the record explaining as much to satisfy the Amsterdam News editors, and he considers doing so until McDonagh implicitly offers him a detective position in exchange for his silence.

McDonagh is still promising to “clean house,” but it’s really an effort to keep his cops in line. He succeeds: We watch Alston break Sandra’s heart from a distance, her expression turning to that of angry humiliation. While at one point in The Deuce it seemed that she was taking advantage of Alston for information, he ultimately capitulated to pressure, not giving Sandra the chance to report out the story she’d diligently, passionately worked with him on. Instead, she’s left with the dreaded “human interest story.”

The Deuce’s heart is with those consistently sidelined by society, the subjects who end up making the entirety of Sandra’s article. It treats prostitutes, pornography actors, the LGBTQ community, and other stereotyped and dismissed groups with respect, and it finds hope in new avenues of opportunity for them. While capitalist-driven changes have many feeling left out or behind, like Vincent and the pimps, there’s something to be said for the kind of agency porn provides women like Eileen. Meeting with Marty Hotus, she’s asked why people are so attracted to “rough” porn. Her answer, relayed with the energy she’s displayed on porn sets, is illuminating:

All these guys have been taught that women can take it or leave it when it comes to sex, that we make choices, that we’re particular. Then they see some pretty little white girl f—ing some big, rough black guy, and it says, no, women are just as sex-crazed as they are — that we have no inhibitions like they wish we had no inhibitions. S—, fellas, we’ll even f— the dog when you’re not looking. I mean, that’s the fantasy, right? That’s the s— we’re selling here.

Early this season, we saw Eileen struggle to negotiate the terms of a romantic relationship with a man while she was still having sex transactionally as a profession. Maggie Gyllenhaal radiates intelligence that brings her character to life in such a way that we feel those experiences spill into this new world she’s breaking into. She considers porn the way she considered the struggles of her former life, the way she thought of her own sexuality versus the way it was thought of by other men. It’s why her ethos as a filmmaker — when Harvey runs late, she gets to take over the set one day — is so naturally feminist: lifting women up, allowing them to explore what turns them on in a context that realistically translates for the camera. She tells actresses to be themselves, to let go of their actual inhibitions so as to communicate, through film, what women are actually capable of. Where last week we saw her connect with Lori, this week she tries talking down a skittish Darlene, who’s reluctantly entered the porn world after trying out the parlor life.

There’s a tracking shot, early in the episode, of Darlene roaming the brothel like a zombie, and it’s so vivid you can see the life that’s been sucked out of her. And when Darlene’s on set, Eileen takes it upon herself to bring her back to herself. She notices Darlene’s put on a big, outrageous wig. “That’s some wig you got there — kinda screams it’s not really you,” Eileen offers. “You worried you’re going to make a movie and you’re going to get recognized? So what.” Darlene takes off her wig, revealing her natural hair, and looks into the mirror with Eileen by her side. There’s a power in the way they’re viewing themselves. At the beginning of The Deuce, Darlene felt humiliated by the way a movie of her was being passed around without her consent. But Eileen’s teaching her the way she’s learned herself: There’s dignity in the work like there can be in any work. You just have to take charge. (Recap continued on page 3)

There are, certainly, limitations, and The Deuce is far too clear-eyed to even approach the notion of a happily ever after. We learn in this episode that Eileen has a gay brother, Patrick, who’s been hospitalized — she gets upset when Harvey refers to gay people as “fags” — and she finally visits him. Here we get a long, devastating, gorgeous scene between an older woman asserting her independence and a queer man left literally shaking by a system that beat him down. We learn their father was quick to sign him up for electroshock therapy, and that his experiences have been so traumatic he can’t even tell Eileen, in confidence, who he really is. “I like girls,” he tries convincing her. She cries for him and tries inspiring him with her own experience of empowerment. “Patrick, the world is changing,” she says. “Most people won’t f— with you, not like they used to.” She grabs his hand and sees a glimmer of hope in his smile. But it quickly fades away.

Later, she’s off to the special red carpet premiere of Deep Throat with Harvey as her date. Sitting in the back seat as they drive through the Deuce in the night, she looks out at her former place of work. She sees men in suits and even a few kids instead of the usual crowd. Now she’s getting a little wistful. She sees Ruby — and like Alston, glows at the sight of her. “Ruby! Ruby!” she screams out the window, showing off a toothy smile. But Ruby doesn’t hear: She’s too busy working out terms with a john in another car. Eileen throws her head out the window one last time, before giving up.

The despair that Eileen left behind is sharply juxtaposed with the party, which introduces her to a whole new world. Suddenly, she’s not the woman on her own, consistently facing threats of violence, totally exhausted. She’s a VIP, escorted to a special area, looking wide-eyed at porn stars like it’s her glamorous, exhilarating future. C.C. and Lori are trailing her, but they aren’t let into the VIP area — more people Eileen’s leaving in the dust. C.C. forces Lori to walk out of the theater, and she doesn’t see what Eileen sees. She sees a place that will never be hers.

As for where the finale gets its title, it makes for the most tragic — and perhaps important — moment of this first season of The Deuce. We see Ruby, back upstairs with a john, routinely wiping semen off of her stomach. The john tries taking her money back, then threatens her when she fights back. She lets him go, but corrects him when he calls her “Thunder Thighs” on his way out. “My name is Ruby!” she shouts at him — a final plea for dignity. With a disarming lack of emotion, the john then pushes her out the window and kills her. The price for demanding dignity. Her body’s spread out in front of the Hi-Hat, where onlookers — tourists, Vincent and Abby, and pimps, including her own in Rodney — stare in shock.

A few episodes earlier, Ruby and Eileen had discussed the ambiguous death of an old Deuce sex worker, another friend. Her death was talked about like it was part of the life: a thing that happens, that you get used to seeing. It’s even the way the pimps chatted about their old diner buddy Reggie. Ruby’s death, however, comes in a different context, as a woman left behind, stuck in the middle of two diverging industries in prostitution work and pornography. She brought smiles to people’s faces, people who used to see her every day but have since moved on.

Alston was one of them. Surrounding her dead body, C.C. cracks, inhumanely, “Girl was in a hurry, I guess.” Alston sucker-punches him, disgusted. The moment distills the overwhelming emotional idea of this finale: that through all of the machinations of this first season, as money shifted this industry indoors and onto film, a sense of community — however dysfunctional, perilous, and exploitative in its own way — was lost. The camera holds on Ruby long before the scene cuts, forcing us to see her and grapple with her humanity.

Vincent and Abby, also on the scene, go back into the bar. He’s calm, asking whether she thinks he should close the Hi-Hat under the circumstances, and she’s horrified by his focus on process. “I liked Thunder, I really did — you think I like seeing that?” he asks. She brings it back to his beating up Eddie Bucco, and demands to know why. He says he did it for Andrea, and she scoffs. “You got me wrong, Abby. Way wrong,” he tries assuring her. “I love women — but it’s the Deuce.”

What David Simon and George Pelecanos showed us over these eight stunning episodes is that The Deuce of the early ‘70s is hardly so easy to pin down. It’s often exploitative, communal but dangerous, and deeply corrupt: a place of increasing inequality, sharply contrasting high-end movie premieres with despairingly routine murders. Most importantly, it’s a nexus point for change, powered by sex and navigated by money. As it transforms, the Deuce is where some, like Eileen, have a chance to go after that American Dream, but where most are left behind — left to wonder who they are and whether they matter.

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