Critic's Notebook: 'The Deuce' Finale Undermines Series' Own Brutal Brilliance

Courtesy of HBO
'The Deuce'

The HBO show starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Franco has been one of the best TV dramas of the last five years, but its cheesy epilogue missed the mark.

"Someone should definitely walk into the M&M store," my husband joked last week as we brainstormed possible endings for HBO's The Deuce. I agreed, briefly giddy at the idea of the series contrasting its signature '70s/'80s grunge against a glimpse of Times Square's apocalyptically neon present.

But in the final moments of Monday night's series finale, as elderly Vincent (James Franco) strolls through the bougie and bright hellscape of 2019 Times Square and hazily greets the (extremely literal) ghosts from his past, I felt a pang of betrayal from a series that forged itself through violence and never looked backward. The Deuce thrived because it refused to romanticize the pre-Giuliani era, denying its viewers any erotic pleasure from its onscreen indulgences. The show was rooted in grim, Spartan realism — a far cry from the uncharacteristic cheese and unearned nostalgia of its dreamlike epilogue.

The Deuce, one of the most ambitious TV series ever produced, was a study in rapidly changing times. No power dynamic, money-making scheme or NYC street corner ever remained static on David Simon and George Pelecanos' gritty, sprawling three-season epic, which depicted the growth of cinematic pornography in the '70s and '80s. Extraordinary in scope, the show chronicled the evolving sex economy through the eyes of the sex workers, pimps, mobsters, politicians, bar managers, cops, filmmakers and activists who buzzed around seedy mid-town. Its grimy textures, entrenched in meticulous period art direction and sound design, were just as important to the ethos of the series as its no-regrets brutality.

A journalist by trade, Simon (The WireTreme) has always been invested in highlighting the corrupt systems and dangerous feedback loops that scaffold the urban experience, but his work on The Deuce went beyond exploring the spectacle of the poverty-abuse cycle or how class stratification rots a city from inside out. Here, his team placed sex workers and the nuances of their experiences at the forefront of the narrative, effectively destroying the seductive fantasies of films like Pretty Woman and Klute to emphasize the physical labor of the work: battered bodies subject to dismissive johns, cruel pimps or manipulative porn directors.  

Still, the show was best when it highlighted women's power, not their degradation. There's a reason it reached its artistic zenith in season two, which saw these women grow in stature, rising like Icarus during the "Golden Age" of porn and the last phases of second-wave feminism. Former streetwalker Eileen (Maggie Gyllenhaal) became a respected feminist erotica director, pimp-controlled Lori (Emile Meade) found confidence as a popular and emerging porn star and abuse survivor Dorothy (Jamie Neumann) returned to New York to save midtown's sex workers from the life she used to lead. For many fans, The Deuce's emotional climax will always be Lori's swift suicide by gun in the series' penultimate episode, inspired by the death of real-life porn actress Shauna Grant. For me, though, Dorothy's agonizing murder in season two at the hands of the vicious pimps she dared to confront will remain my original sorrow.

The Deuce's superlative female ensemble, led by effervescent Gyllenhaal, was the series' beating heart, which made it all that much more baffling that Simon ends his story still convinced mustachioed sad sack Vincent is its protagonist. Vincent, a piece of lint dressed up in a "Good Guy" meat suit, should have remained a Trojan horse meant to lure craggy and skeptical viewers into a matrix of women-led stories.

In the final moments of "Finish It," nearly 40 years following the dissolution of the bathhouses and massage parlors that merely swept NYC's vices to other neighborhoods, we watch 70-something Vincent flip through the endless channels of his high-rise hotel screen, nearly stopping to watch a pay-per-view adult film. He slumps downstairs to the bar, where he coincidentally encounters a newspaper obituary of Candy Renee (Eileen's alter ego), who has recently died of cancer. In a tacky stretch of writing, the boyish bartender somehow cares enough to read nearly the entire obit aloud to Vincent, who's astounded to learn that Eileen eventually directed an art house masterpiece that had its own Criterion release. "Atta girl," he mutters creepily. "Atta girl."  

Vincent now lives in Florida and is in town for his loser nephew's third wedding. He wanders Times Square in a psychedelic daze against a melancholic, rock-infused cover of "The Sidewalks of New York," taking in the dystopian future promised by the private development policies that flourished in season three. The screen gives way to wistful, ghostly fantasy as he traipses through the cheery dead, all bedecked in costumes from the Land of Forgotten Wigs: Dorothy, glammed up in a blue baby doll teddy, getting thrown into the police wagon like old times; Ruby, a.k.a. "Thunder Thighs" (Pernell Walker), smiling at him as though she had never been sadistically defenestrated by a crazed client; Big Mike (Mustafa Shakir), far from the bloated, fly-covered corpse he was at the beginning of the episode following his death from AIDS; Stony-faced Lori and her former pimp C.C. (Gary Carr), bound together even in death; and Eileen in that blonde curly wig from her days on the streets, chatting Vincent up about her critically acclaimed flop.  

Are we supposed to feel pensive joy at Vincent getting to relive a heyday that also coincided with some of the worst years of these women's lives? It's all too easy for someone like him to regret a bygone era of exploitation. I hate Times Square as much as any snob, but is Disney-fied puritanism soaked in tourists somehow more morally bankrupt than a cityscape in which people were openly and frequently robbed, raped, beaten and murdered? The scene only lasts about 10 minutes, yet undermines almost everything the series argued about complicity in an abusive industry.

The kicker comes when Vincent descends into the subway with his murdered brother Frankie, a metaphor for death, and we watch a corporatized Abby (Margarita Levieva) jaywalk across the screen in her power suit. For a show that hellbent on shoving your snout into the muck, The Deuce suddenly came across as a goopy rom-com about the caprices of fate.