The Deuce, which aired its series finale this past Monday, concludes similarly to other David Simon projects. Some things change while some stay the same. New beginnings are forged as other stories end. Time keeps on slipping into an uncertain, unknowing future.
City official Gene Goldman (Luke Kirby), itching to redevelop Times Square with private money, convinces the Koch administration to shut down the bathhouses and massage parlors as a public-health measure due to the AIDS crisis. Meanwhile, the sex trade continues unabated in the outer boroughs.
Vincent (James Franco) finally buys out of his arrangement with the mob and sells his ownership stake in his bar, the Hi-Hat, to his ex-girlfriend Abby (Margarita Levieva). Abby subsequently turns it over to bartender and former sex worker Loretta (Sepideh Moafi) so that she can reenroll in school. Vince’s brother-in-law Bobby (Chris Bauer) returns to his union job after his parlor shuts down. Paul (Chris Coy) retains his Village bar and continues his AIDS activism. Harvey (David Krumholtz) convinces Eileen (Maggie Gyllenhaal) to finish her independent film, but sans the hard-core sex because it’s decidedly “not pornography.”
Alongside the individual changes, the larger culture has transformed as well. AIDS has ravaged the community surrounding the Deuce. Mob violence and sexual exploitation have taken their human toll. Some leave the city while others stay to embark on their second acts. The finale all but demands a classic Simon bird’s-eye montage to track each character’s progress, or lack thereof, and wrap up the story.
Except that doesn’t happen. Instead, Simon and co-writer George Pelecanos flash-forward to May 2019 where we find an elderly Vincent sitting in a corporatized Times Square hotel flipping through channels on his TV. After passing over some pay-per-view pornography, he heads down to the hotel bar where he converses with the bartender about his glory days in the city. He reads an obituary for Eileen, who recently died at age 73, where he learns that her film, A Pawn in Their Game, is considered an art-house classic and has been remastered by the Criterion Collection.
Then, Vincent leaves the bar and steps out into a modern-day Times Square, the grit and grime of his day replaced with high-tech screens, chain restaurants, and enormous advertising. To the tune of Blondie’s cover of “Sidewalks of New York,” he walks the streets and sees ghosts from his past — Eileen, Bobby, Paul, his old mob bosses Rudy (Michael Rispoli) and Tommy (Daniel Sauli), pimps of yesteryear, sex workers being carted into a police van, his murdered twin brother Frankie, and his murderer (Jake Ventimiglia), whom Vincent killed in retribution.
He remembers most of them in better health and dressed in ’70s garb. Many of them welcome his presence, while others he stares at with dismay or shame, like Lori Madison (Emily Meade), who unceremoniously died by suicide in a Times Square hotel, and her abusive pimp C.C. (Gary Carr), whom Bobby and Frankie killed after mouthing off too many times. He can’t look Frankie’s murderer in the eye, knowing that he will live with the guilt of his revenge murder until he dies.
The flash-forward sequence engages with nostalgia but mostly reads as a lament in the style of the ending of Casino. It’s the only time that The Deuce’s production team actually filmed Times Square, and the stark gap between their period set dressing and the real article communicates the series’s ideas about gentrification and urban development. Gone are the days when working-class people, in trades both legal and not, could thrive in Manhattan. Now, it’s just another Disneyland for wealthy tourists, an endless revenue stream for the city government and urban planners at the expense of anyone below a certain tax bracket. Manhattan might be safer to navigate, but it’s drained of all character.
The scene also interrogates a certain survivor’s guilt that pervades The Deuce. The series’s characters lived dangerously in service of vice and pleasure. There isn’t an old timers’ club for pornography and sex work, and while some transition to other trades, and even fewer stick it out, Simon and Pelecanos illustrate how the business can just as easily chew people up. Lori was the biggest name in porn and her life ended in addiction and debasement. Ashley (Jamie Neumann) escaped her abusive life as a prostitute to become an activist for sex-worker liberation and was murdered for her trouble. Eileen pours her heart and soul into a film about how women will be used and abused by the patriarchy, and it’s only recognized in the twilight of her life.
Throughout this period, Vincent was a bartender and club owner, an observer who poured drinks for everyone. People drank what he served and took pleasure in his company. At the same time, he was also complicit in the casual horrors that subsumed the Deuce. He willfully took mob money that engendered the rise of exploitation. His establishments were environments where abuse ran rampant. He provided space for toxic people to prosper and flourish under a misguided open-door policy. While other people might be more directly responsible for such wide-ranging malfeasance, there’s still blood on Vincent’s hands. He escaped and retired from the life. But he’ll always be haunted.
The Deuce chronicled the ebb and flow of post-’60s sexual liberation, using the machinations of Times Square as a microcosm for the nation. Police corruption allowed for city and government officials to turn a blind eye to an open sex trade just as pornography was moving from peep shows to full-fledged theaters and then to people’s homes. While no one could close the door on the proliferation of porn, political self-interest and social conservatism joined forces to ensure sex was never out in the open again. But nothing really changes, it just moves to places where the money men haven’t looked yet. As Detective Alston (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) tells Goldman as they witness sex workers ply their trade in the Bronx, “All we do is push the shit to another corner of the room so people have space enough to build fresh shit and make money. That’s the only thing that ever happens.”
It’s easy to see all of these ideas percolating as Vincent slowly walks through his old stomping ground. Some of the ghosts he witnesses are victims of their own hubris, but others are casualties of unfettered hierarchical control. Pimps and mob bosses preyed on unsuspecting innocents, mostly women, and capitalized on their labor until they were useless. Yet, the modern Times Square is the result of a similar ethic. The Deuce’s glossy sheen was achieved by powerful officials who marginalized the working class, priced out business and tenants, and provided a superficial coat of security to attract the wealthy. The city was fine with how the Deuce operated until certain powerful interests weren’t making enough profit. Progress only arrives when money pulls it forward.
A typical David Simon closing montage, one that puts a comma at the end of everyone’s story, couldn’t capture the temporal melancholy of the flash-forward. It’s important that we see Times Square’s radical change, how it would seem unrecognizable to a person who lived and breathed its ’70s and ’80s origins. It’s crucial that we only catch glimpses of characters instead of being told their endings. It’s a reflection of life: People move away, they lose touch, and not everyone knows the full story. Simon and Pelecanos attempted a bold gambit here, and it pays off because of what’s left unsaid. Every idea The Deuce explored brims under the surface of that final scene, in which an old man confronts his past while surrounded by the future.