“Every day this thing takes another step out of the forest,” Harvey gleefully tells Eileen after they meet with an eager Virginia Beach housewife interested in shooting porn. They can’t believe that someone like her would walk into their offices, ready and willing to be involved in the pictures. When Harvey hands Eileen a mailed invitation to an X-rated movie premiere at a general-admission theater — later revealed to be Deep Throat — both are awe that it even exists. By summer of 1972, the dream has been achieved. The sex trade has entered the mainstream, regulated and controlled, out of the public eye but very much within reach. Everyone is happy, well fed, and getting paid.
Of course, that’s not the whole truth. With any sea change, there are inevitably winners and losers, those who are in a position to adapt and profit, and others left struggling to catch up. The first season of The Deuce covered the slow, steady opening of the cultural floodgates at the height of the sexual revolution in American culture. David Simon and George Pelecanos limit their scope of inquiry to New York City, and specifically a two-mile stretch of downtown Manhattan, and yet it functions as an accelerated microcosm of a national movement. Things might happen more quickly in New York because of diverse demographics, urban planning, and a power-hungry mayor desperate to step on the national stage, but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening everywhere.
Yet the question remains: Cui bono? Who benefits from this upheaval and who suffers? “My Name Is Ruby” is a bookend to the season’s main action, tying up some stories and pushing others forward, but writers Pelecanos and Simon mostly capture their ensemble in snapshots, all of whom are blissfully ignorant of the shoe that will eventually drop. The episode’s organizing principle is to depict the spectrum of success: There are people on steady ground and there are people who feel unmoored in their own environment, and most of the time they’re walking next to each other.
Rudy Pipilo and his crew couldn’t be more thrilled. The advent of the privacy booths and the open real-estate market points to proliferation and expansion. The mob has even disseminated rough consumer data on peep-show loops. Bobby and Frankie, the two members of the Martino family who happily jumped into bed with Rudy’s crew, are making money hand over fist (or “fist over fist”) in their minor roles. Bobby opened a nicer VIP room that essentially operates as a mob hangout, and he plans to go in with Rudy on a new location. Frankie, profiting off his and Mike’s booth invention, is along for the ride.
Vincent, on the other hand, couldn’t be less enthused about his family’s further involvement in mob business. James Franco might be coasting a bit when he dons the Frankie cap, but his performance as Vincent is some of the very best work of his career, and he’s the true standout in “My Name Is Ruby.” A bar man through and through, Vincent just wants to run the Hi-Hat. He doesn’t want to manage women or distribute porn, he just wants to run his bar and find a nice apartment for himself and Abby. So, naturally, he chafes at the image of the A Midsummer Night’s Dream–themed VIP room. He’s further outraged when they want him involved in another building, so he declines and returns to a semi-honest living.
But Vincent, despite his best efforts, is tainted. Tommy Longo uses the basement of the Hi-Hat to almost kill a man who’s been skimming the take. Vincent became complicit the moment that he took their money, and he became even more tangled in their web when he used Tommy as protection so he could have his vengeance on a guy who beat up his ex-wife Andrea. He may look down his nose on Bobby’s hypocrisy, but he’s neck deep in the Deuce as well. Director Michelle MacLaren’s best shot of the night is the head-on shot of Vincent walking into the Hi-Hat, which is filled to the brim with college kids listening to a band play a cover of “96 Tears.” Vincent eventually stops and the camera keeps pulling away, capturing how he’s lost in his own shop, in over his head without fully realizing it.
The pimps aren’t doing much better. Larry feels dissatisfied by the status quo so he tries to get into the drug game, but he’s so inexperienced that he sends Barbara, one of his own girls, into a federal sting. C.C. talks to an ex-pimp Ace (Clarke Peters) who saw the writing on the wall a long time ago, the moment that peep shows were first introduced. Ace tells him to know when it’s time to get off the stage. Alison Herman of the Ringer wrote about how The Deuce portrays the seeds of gentrification in New York, and she notes how the pimps’ unstable position in the new black-market economy exemplifies the “fundamental transformation.” They’re slowly being pushed out of their own game, and though the series doesn’t treat them with kid gloves, it does illustrate how white criminals with nice clothes can prosper at the expense of a black criminal’s livelihood.
Meanwhile, Sandra’s article lies in jeopardy when her editor tells her that the lawyers won’t allow the paper to print the police-corruption angle unless she gets more concrete evidence. Alston, now in a relationship with Sandra and fed up with the corruption himself, steals Sweeney’s collection book and gives it to her, but she still needs him on the record. Eventually, Alston’s partner Flanagan tips off Captain McDonagh, who gives him the good cop version of “be loyal and keep the dirt in house so we can scrub it together” speech and all but promises him a detective post. Alston tells Sandra he won’t go on the record and she angrily breaks up with him. Her piece falls to human interest buried inside the paper, and Alston now stands on the outside in his own unit. Simon and Pelecanos don’t dole out any blame or judgment here: Alston can’t afford to jeopardize his job and Sandra believed that idealism would triumph over self-interest.
On the other side of things, Eileen keeps moving up in the ranks in the porn industry. She now works as Harvey’s assistant and even directs a whole shoot when his car breaks down. In a delightful moment, she learns on the job how the action of any given scene dictates camera movement. She’s well aware of the casualties that surround her, like her brother Patrick (Dennis Flanagan), locked up in an institution, a victim of electroshock therapy because their father suspected he was gay. “The world is changing,” she promises Patrick, and she’s right even if Patrick doesn’t fully believe it. By the end of the episode, she’s on her way to the premiere of Deep Throat. She calls out to Ruby, pejoratively called Thunder Thighs, from a cab, but Ruby, who still works the street, can’t hear her.
Little did Eileen know it was her last chance to say hello to her old friend. Ruby picks up a violent john who takes his money back because he “didn’t like it.” On his way out, he calls her Thunder Thighs, to which Ruby proclaims her real name. The john unceremoniously pushes her out a window and she falls to her death. A crowd gathers around her body — cops, passerby, pimps, Hi-Hat regulars and employees all muttering among each other. Vincent and Mike murmur about the damage her fall did to their sign and wonder if they have insurance. C.C. passes by and cracks wise about how she “could’ve taken the stairs”; Alston punches him in the stomach for his trouble. Compassion might be in low supply on the street, but Ruby’s last words were a demand for respect. She went out with her head held high.
The season-ending montage set to Ray Charles’s cover of “Careless Love” follows the present ellipses in the ensemble’s lives. Barbara is in prison. Larry eats in Leon’s near-empty diner. Sandra walks away from her article, frustrated and disheartened. Alston walks nervously amongst his 14th Precinct cohorts. Bobby and Frankie enjoy the VIP room. C.C. and Lori cuddle on the couch with some blow, while Alice feels ignored. Eileen directs another scene starring Darlene. Vincent and Abby lie in bed together. The parlor keeps running, with Darlene’s country friend Bernice working overtime for her customers.
But the true last scene stars Vincent and Abby. Appalled and disappointed by Vincent’s blasé attitude toward Ruby’s death, Abby passively confronts him. Vincent ensures her that he liked “Thunder” and that he loves women, but the Deuce is the Deuce and these things will happen. Though closer than ever, Vincent and Abby still talk at cross-purposes. One sees the world as it is, while the other sees the world as it could be. There’s more change to come, of course. The revolution has only just begun.
Other Tricks and Pricks
• Two great film moments: Harvey cites the Hitchcock/Truffaut interviews when he compliments Eileen’s film knowledge, and a shot of the Times Square theaters playing The Omega Man and Duck, You Sucker side by side.
• Funniest moment of the night: Vincent, struggling to hear over the sound of the Hi-Hat band, thinks he hears one of Abby’s friends talking about a “gang bang” when she’s really saying “glam band.”
• Besides “Careless Love” and the cover of “96 Tears,” originally recorded by ? and the Mysterians, The Deuce also scores Vincent’s revenge scene to “Smiling Faces Sometimes” by the Undisputed Truth.
• Ruby’s generosity of spirit even extends to Alston, who politely lights her cigarette while she hustles. “Tell me something: How a dude like you get to be a cop?” she sweetly asks him.