“Maybe all the assholes in the world that go through life thinking that they’re not assholes, they think they’re right people, and they’re not.”
So says Vincent to Big Mike as the club waits to open one fateful afternoon in the aftermath of nefarious, tragic events. The vast majority of the characters on The Deuce, like in real life, never believe they’re doing the wrong thing, or at least they never believe they’re doing it for the wrong reasons. Everyone—the pimps, the sex workers, the porn stars, the bartenders, the cops, and the government officials—is the protagonist of their own story. They’re the heroes. They may be, in the words of Vincent describing William Holden’s character in Bridge on the River Kwai, heroes without all the hero bullshit, but they’re still heroes. Or at least they’re trying to be.
Yet, part of being a responsible adult involves accepting the fact that no one is at the center of the universe. There are no protagonists, let alone heroes. Everyone is connected by a large ecosystem driven by invisible external forces (primarily capitalism) and actions have consequences that go beyond one’s field of vision. Reflection and consideration are all but required to be a person who walks through the world without negatively impacting anyone else. Yet, the triple effects of money, power, and desire conspire to not only keep people divided, but also damage others along the way.
David Simon has staked his entire career on television shows that preach this wisdom, and the second season finale of The Deuce, “Inside the Pretend,” is one of the best illustrations of his humanist worldview. Written by Simon, the finale primarily follows the premiere of Eileen’s Red Hot (an “instant arthouse tour-de-force” reads the Variety review), whose enormous commercial success offers mixed-to-negative results for almost everyone who actually worked on it. The episode also features four murders, all of which have a tremendous effect on the human network surrounding The Deuce, forcing people to contemplate their place in such a vast, bone-deep corrupt system that trades human lives like cards.
First, the premiere, which goes off without a hitch, except that even a boffo box office return inevitably creates problems for Eileen, Harvey, Lori, and Frankie. For one thing, Lori, fueled by coke paranoia, won’t get on a plane to Los Angeles for her promotional tour and her three-picture deal because she keeps looking over her shoulder for C.C. But the bigger problem is that between Harvey and Frankie, they sold all the back-end profits to two rival mobsters, and now none of them will see a dime from what will certainly be an enormous commercial success. Harvey is furious and Frankie, who’s both responsible for the film’s completion and its lack of financial return, is profoundly dispirited.
It’s Eileen who keeps her spirits raised. Red Hot will make a lot of money for the mob and it will make her a name. She’ll use that cachet to raise money for her next film and the next one after that. She dumps Russell, her seemingly sweet co-editor boyfriend, after hearing him lewdly brag about fucking a porn star at the premiere without a second thought. She even gamely suffers the indignity of being a guest on the fictional Jack Valance’s late night talk show, an excuse for the host to crack jokes at Eileen’s expense.
It’s only when she returns to her mother’s house that Eileen’s sunny veneer finally collapses. Her father has returned and bars her from seeing Adam because of her name-brand recognition. She initially curses him out but then, through tears, tries to reason with him through a slammed door. Adam, sporting a black eye surely provided by playground assholes, silently watches the scene from his room. Eileen, devastated, walks away from her family life, knowing that it was her conscious choices that brought her to this unfortunate moment.
Meanwhile, Frankie takes the job of informing Lori that C.C. is dead and cannot bother her again even if he wanted to. It’s a brief, powerful scene, and neither Simon nor director Minkie Spiro lingers on it longer than necessary. Frankie delivers the news, Lori asks a couple obvious questions, Frankie answers them the best he can, and then he leaves the diner. After he leaves, Lori bursts into tears, crying for all the emotional energy and time she put into that one-sided relationship, but the tears eventually morph into laughter. One more abuser is dead and can’t hurt her anymore. It’s perfectly ironic that her sob-laughs are scored to O.V. Wright’s “Don’t Take It Away,” neatly capturing her divided response.
Outside of the film industry, bad news plagues the streets. Alston and homicide find Dorothy’s body behind a dumpster underneath a bridge where it had been lying long enough for maggots to be crawling on her skin. Simon times the moment for maximum shock value without sacrificing the sensitivity of the situation: the scene arrives 15 minutes into the finale, reported matter-of-factly by the cops, and yet Spiro never pans up to her obviously battered face. It’s a horror scene, an indication that a woman on the front lines of justice has a shelf life when it affects the livelihood of people with power.
Naturally, this news dominates and affects just about everyone. Alston eventually figures out that he knew Dorothy from her street-work days and it’s her death that finally pushes him to join the Midtown Enforcement Project. (Side note: Alston’s slow acceptance that Goldman’s ideals aren’t without merit has been a wonderful background arc this season.) Loretta quits Larry and street work altogether after accusing him of killing Dorothy, even though Larry genuinely had no idea that she was even dead. She ends up taking a job at the Hi-Hat, claiming that she can’t go back to tricking after Dorothy died for her sins.
Darlene, already on her way out with a straight job at a vintage clothing store and a commitment to higher education, quits as well, and offers Larry some parting words on her way out the door: “Pimp is a role. So is whore. You pretended to be one, I pretended to be the other, and we went on like that for years. You know, pretending. But shit, once you start letting a girl inside the pretend, it’s over, ain’t it?” Larry, having put all his chips into acting, accepts these words the best he can. He was only a good pimp insofar as how well he played the role. Now that the world has seen him act, all they see is the role, never the menace behind it.
Abby is, of course, completely shattered by the news of Dorothy’s death, especially since she was financially responsible for her escape and an integral part of her activist team. As she lies at home, despondent, she turns to Loretta and remarks that, “there’s no fixing this world, is there?” only for Loretta to respond perceptively that the world is bigger than anything they were trying to accomplish. “It’s something to do with how our brains work, or don’t,” she says, and assures her that if anyone was going to figure it out, it would be Abby, a person who cares more than she knows what to do with.
The other murders involve minor characters, but their deaths still resonate. Tommy orders Black Frankie to kill Carlos, the loose-lipped drunk who’s partially responsible for the death of Stephanie, the 16-year-old parlor girl. While Carlos wasn’t exactly the most reliable person in Rudy’s crew, Bobby completely panics and tells Vincent that Rudy killing one of his own sets a dangerous precedent. What happens if he stops liking Bobby, or Frankie, or Abby, or Vincent? What happens if he keeps using Black Frankie as hired muscle against his own team? Though Vincent gives Bobby shit for fretting about this and not the fact that he murdered C.C. no less than a week ago, he later concedes he’s right. It’s why he sits down with Big Mike to form something of an alliance: They won’t kill each other on Rudy’s orders because they’re not assholes.
Meanwhile, Rodney robs the pharmacy and, through his heroin-addled incompetence, accidentally kills the owner and doesn’t even get his drugs. No more than a block away sits Officer Haddix in a bar, who takes the call along with a couple beat cops. He stands outside the pharmacy, beer in hand, gun drawn in the other, and shoots Rodney four times in the chest. Rodney gets one in Haddix’s shoulder before he perishes, cementing him as a citywide hero and ensuring Alston will be unable to remove him from The Deuce so that he and Goldman can work effectively.
Yet, Goldman lets him in on a little secret: Alston doesn’t need to clean up The Deuce. Hell, he doesn’t even need to clean up his department. He just needs to toe the line and make sure it doesn’t get any worse. The money will soon come pouring in and he’ll kick every degenerate off the island soon enough. Sheet rock and cranes are the biggest catalysts for change, after all. The city will build out Times Square enough that there won’t be enough room for a pimp or a prostitute to make a dime.
The episode closes with one of Simon’s greatest montages to date, scored to The Pretenders’ “Mystery Achievement”: Eileen is back at work on a new film with a picture of her son prominently featured on her desk; Vincent continues to stash parlor money at the Hi-Hat even though it has no place to go; Paul, having accepted Rudy’s money for his playwright boyfriend’s new community theater, watches Todd stage his new work with pride; Frankie, having returned to run the peeps after Rudy takes pity on him for gouging every dime he’s owed from Red Hot, steals from the safe again but this time gives a cut to Irene; Goldman unveils the Midtown Enforcement Project as Alston looks on wearily; Haddix gets a commendation; Harvey reads about Red Hot’s box office returns in frustration, eventually dipping into his stash of desk drawer fries; Lori walks into Los Angeles a free woman; Larry impresses casting agents in a straight-world audition; Rudy and the Horse laugh and drink together now that their beef has been squashed; Loretta works behind the bar while Abby contemplates what to do with all the money; and Vincent returns to the club where he does and doesn’t belong.
“We’re better than this, Bobby,” Vincent sincerely tells his brother-in-law after discovering he didn’t buy a headstone for Stephanie after he promised he would. “We can be better, you know?”
But as the camera pulls back from Vincent’s face as he stands behind the bar, a part of the party but away from it as well, while Chrissie Hynde’s yelps and James Honeyman-Scott’s sharp guitar sounds fill the soundtrack, it’s unclear if they can be. Maybe they will be heroes. But it takes work and conviction. They might not be assholes, but they’re not good people either.
You can never be sure, right?