No sugarcoating the porn industry in The Deuce
Usually, when reviewing an entire season of a series – and its last one at that – I’d keep well away from the ending because, well, you know, spoilers.
But in the case of HBO’s The Deuce’s third and final outing (now streaming on Showmax), the end is where I’ll begin, carefully, because it is perhaps the most poignant segment of the series and brings fitting closure that may jerk a tear or two. Plus, co-creator David Simon (The Wire) says they wrote it first.
The last 15 minutes of the eighth episode are an epilogue, which opens with Vincent Martino (James Franco) in 2019 New York, in a fancy hotel, surfing the pay channels (the theme music from Game of Thrones teases briefly in the background).
He then goes down to the bar, where he chats to the bartender about his days slinging drinks at The Hi-Hat and Club 366, which he ran with his twin brother Frankie – who, along with Vincent, is a character with real-life roots.
While he’s there, he happens upon a newspaper article about Candy/Eileen (Maggie Gyllenhaal), which takes him further down memory lane. Later, he walks the now bright and shiny streets, mostly cleaned up, apart from the ghosts of his past.
The feels brought on here were totally unexpected, given the gritty and unflinching nature of the show, and the often emotionless attitude towards anything of a vaguely personal nature. The haunting song The Sidewalks of New York, covered by Blondie, plays over the scene. This too is fitting; Blondie – one of NYC’s greatest post-punk new wave bands – contributes their song Dreaming to the opening credits. (Fun fact: Debbie Harry has just published her autobiography, Face It.)
The following videos and text contain crucial plot developments in Season 3 of The Deuce.
Season 3 is set mostly in 1985, a fast-forward of several years from Season 2. Candy has moved from in front of the camera to behind it, directing and owning her story as a pornographer, former actress, and one-time sex worker.
She meets nice (and rich, to boot) guy Hank (Corey Stoll, who got a Golden Globe nomination for his role as Congressman Peter Russo in House of Cards) but can’t get out of her own way with him. Candy shares some of her harrowing background stories in conversation, giving insight on how she got where she is.
VHS is changing the face of the porn industry, as are amateur actors making their own videos with handheld camcorders.
There is corruption, mob control, exploitation and drug abuse (mainly cocaine, the high of choice in the mid-1980s, oftentimes blatantly snorted in public). As is the case with many series in their last moments, the easiest way to tie up loose ends is to kill characters. The Deuce is no different, although the deaths are as fitting as they are shocking and tragic.
“She’s going home,” someone comments. “Nah, she’s not. They can never go home,” is the response.
It’s sad in a way that the pimps, hookers and brothel keepers, the broken and the dysfunctional, some of whom have been around since Season 1 and who have developed such depth and interest, are now being snatched away. A prime example is Lori Madison (Emily Meade), who desperately wants to get out of the game and go straight, but can’t find her place in that world, no matter how hard she tries.
Melissa’s (Olivia Luccardi) past literally arrives on her doorstep in the form of her father, Matthew Ross (David Morse, Escape at Dannemora). His pain is palpable, as is her reluctance to face him; this is what the work has done to this family. “She’s going home,” someone comments. “Nah, she’s not. They can never go home,” is the response.
The mid-80s was also the time of HIV/Aids, when the disease got its name, and fear and paranoia, along with resignation and recklessness, shaped sexual encounters – as well as the porn industry. Here too, the tragedy is exposed – dying men who have been estranged from their parents for decades, and their boyfriends who are left behind.
All this plays out against the sleazy, seedy backdrop of The Deuce (the nickname for 42nd Street between Seventh Avenue and Eighth Avenue), which somehow manages at the same time to be slightly sexy in its griminess. The contrast between then and now is brought into sharp focus in the epilogue.
The Deuce is not just compelling viewing – it also started the necessary trend of bringing experts onto set to make sure actors felt comfortable with the sex scenes they’d need to shoot. After suggestions from cast member Meade, who plays sex-worker-turned-porn-star Lori Madison, the series brought on former actress and stuntwoman Alicia Rodis as an intimacy coordinator to help the actors during sex scenes, making sure they all felt safe and nobody was distressed. (Find out what she brings to work here.)
Meade explained: “It’s just mind boggling to me I’ve never been on set with an intimacy coordinator before; it felt so natural and so necessary. It’s crazy it took to 2018 for sexuality to be treated with the same sensitivity and vulnerability as violence, or animals or children. I hope it gets to a point where it’s not a choice, it’s a necessity, just like stunt coordinators, or a chaperone for children and animals.”
It’s now standard for all HBO series that feature sexually intimate scenes to have an intimacy coordinator on set. And it’s all thanks to The Deuce.