In the end of the go-go 1970s-80s boogie of New York’s Times Square underbelly, and the whole rush of sex, cocaine and switchblades, George Pelecanos and David Simon’s HBO series about the rise and fall of the big screen X-rated film industry, The Deuce, didn’t end so much with a bang tonight, but rather, pillow talk.
The order from Mayor Koch’s office was bestowed: Lock up the bath houses and sex parlors, a move which ultimately paved the way for the Rudy Giuliani mid 1990s commercial high-end overhaul of Times Square and other Manhattan neighborhoods.
The jaw-dropping moments of the final season, set seven years after season 2 in 1985, had already occurred in previous episodes, specifically the murder of James Franco’s twin bad boy, Frankie, and the tragic suicide of Lori Madison (Emily Meade), as she was spit out of the west coast glamour porn biz and back into hooking in Manhattan.
Tonight in “Finish It”, directed by Roxann Dawson and written by Pelecanos and Simon, the three-year series wrapped up a lot of loose ends in regards to romances. And not in a smutty way, but as people looking eye-to-eye, saying ‘I love you’ and not paying for it. There’s former prostitute Melissa (Olivia Luccardi), who suggests she should marry Reg (Calvin Leon Smith), who is dying of AIDS, so that she can see through his request for a proper burial, plus he wants to leave her whatever remainder there is in his $15K life insurance policy. Former hooker Loretta (Sepideh Moafi) is at the start of a healthy relationship with Juan (James Martinez).
Abby (Margarita Levieva), after torturing Vinnie (Franco) with an open relationship, together left on a tender moment. He loves her so much, he left her their apartment, and wants to leave her the bar, the High Hat, after he cleans his affairs up with the mob. She doesn’t want it. One of Harvey’s final moments with Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is that he insists she cut the sex scenes from her arthouse film; he finally understands what she’s been shooting for.
Among hearts breaking, there was Corey Stoll’s white collar business guy, Hank, who had a problem with Candy acting in a porn film to raise money for her indie arthouse feature. “It’s just f***ing,” says Candy. “It’s just the work.” Hank doesn’t understand, well, because he’s normal and has principles. He wants to fund her movie so she doesn’t have to sell her body. Candy disagrees and it’s bye-bye Hank.
And one of the pre-final moments is we see Paul Hendrickson (Chris Coy) stepping outside his bar. We know he’s unfortunately bound to die of AIDS. But he emotes to the person outside about the significance of autumn in his life: “When I was a kid, I didn’t like the fall. The end of summer filled me with dread, because autumn meant going back to school. I had a thing where letters looked scrambled to me…it was hard for me to learn. I love the change of the seasons now. Take care, man.”
The eyebrow raiser for tonight was the final coda, in which we flash-forward to May 2019. We learn Vinnie, a Florida retiree and old man, is visiting New York. Earlier in the show we see that, in order for Vinnie to escape the bar/hooker house business, is to pay out $200K to mobster Tommy Longo (Daniel Sauli). Vinnie goes down to the hotel bar in his upscale hotel, picks up a newspaper and reads Candy’s obit. Not only did she do 89 porn flicks, but we learn that she made an arthouse feminist classic, “Pawn in Their Game.” He wanders on the street and sees all the souls from his life: Ruby, Tommy, Candy, Paul, Lori with her pimp C.C., even slain hooker-turned-feminist Dorothy (Jamie Neumann) and finally, his brother Frankie who tells him, “You look like shit.” Yet, before we go to dark, we catch a glimpse of Abby walking through Time Square toward us, having made good on her return to school by becoming a big shot lawyer.
Pelecanos and Simon always envisioned the series as three-seasons, an era per season. They based the series on actual pair of twins, one who died in a drug crossfire, who were at the center of the porn-and-hooker NYC industry with their Times Square bar, a crossroads for all types. In total Pelecanos and Simon sought to show how the 1971 porn industry evolved to the current neon-infused commercial district that Times Square is; the victims and the survivors of this bedlam. And what of the biz porn? We see in season 3 that, indeed, video does kill the porn star, with the industry continually a victim of its own success (with the internet now giving it away for free). “I was interested in how a product becomes a product and an industry becomes an industry, and how labor is treated” said Simon back at TCA summer 2017. Mission accomplished. Here’s our Deuce series finale exit interview with Pelecanos.
As this series was going on, the whole #MeToo movement swelled, yet what was interesting about Deuce, even though it was about porn stars and prostitutes, is it treated these women with a lot of respect and smarts.
I think you need to look at everything that David and I have done and everything that I’ve done in my novels, and it was always to present an inner-life to people who you would normally lock the doors and roll your windows up to if you drive past them. We always consider that when we’re creating characters and going with characters. Who is this person? Who is this human being? Not, ‘She’s a street prostitute so she must ‘be this”. Illuminating their lives was the purpose of this, to let people know that people are so much more complex than you give them credit for, no matter what they do for a living or what they’re forced to do. That’s our ethos in everything we do. As far as #MeToo, before that exploded we knew we were going to be writing about how women were at the bottom of the food chain in terms of labor; they always got the short-end of the stick. That includes prostitutes and porn stars. Prostitutes were giving up their money to the pimps, porn stars didn’t make a lot of money. It was shocking when we started doing the research. It was a story about labor. What the #MeToo movement did was, it invigorated everybody. When we were shooting the pilot, was when Trump was running for president and he bragged about assaulting women. Initially, everyone was happy about that because you couldn’t imagine that somebody like that would be elected president. Then as it went on, and we were right in the middle of shooting that time, and he did get elected. It put a chip on everyone’s shoulder and we were invigorated, because now it’s really important to tell the story. And that carried all the way through to the end.
Lori Madison’s suicide in the penultimate episode was heartbreaking. Was her fate based on any particular porn star?
Her character wasn’t based on anyone in particular. There were many on the show who were, but hers was not. We knew from the beginning Lori wouldn’t be the one who wouldn’t make it. She would be thrown upon the scrap heap of history because all these women got used up. If you remember earlier in the season, there’s a very good scene between Candy and Harvey, where she says to him ‘What do you think happens to these women?’ He says, ‘Well, they age out of the business.’ And she says, ‘Yeah, but what happens to them?’ He answers, ‘They disappear.’ They’re gone and nobody cares. In the first episode Lori meets Candy and all the prostitutes and can’t believe that Candy could survive without a man. Lori says, ‘Not me. I need a man, otherwise I get too lazy.’ And in fact, she kept getting passed around by men and when she finally got rid of Greg who was a suitcase pimp, she had nothing. She had no family, the only thing she could do was go back to the street and turn a trick and she found how empty that was and committed suicide. We had a tremendous actress on our hands (in Emily Meade), when we hired her, we didn’t know how good she was. We just wanted to write as much for her as we could and take her on our journey. She nailed it.
Was this the way you always intended to end the series or were there other alternatives?
When we wrote the pilot, which was four years ago, the whole show was a flashback and opened with Vincent as an old man in a Times Square bar in the present, talking to a bartender about the life he lived. The more we thought about it, and it actually survived two-or-three drafts, we felt we were giving away too much to the audience, first that Vincent lived. So, it takes away that element of the suspense. We decided to save it for the very end of the series and I’m really glad we did. As far as Candy went, it happened organically in the writers’ room. The movie that Candy makes is based on the Barbara Loden film Wanda. I had gone to the Metrograph to see it in New York when they re-released it. Barbara Loden was an actress who was in Splendor in the Grass, most famously, she was Warren Beatty’s (character) sister. She made a low-budget film about a woman’s life. It was probably one of the first pro-feminist films. When it came out, very few people saw it. She died in the early ’80s and it got re-discovered when Criterion Collection released it. It made me think of the journey that Candy is on. We really wanted it to be surprise that Candy had become this celebrated artist post-mortem. And that’s why she wound up in the coda when Vincent sees her as the prostitute leaning against the souvenir store. We give her that moment of redemption where she is now considered to be a full-blown artist, not a porn actress, not a porn director. Up to the minute, when we were writing the ending, we didn’t know who Vincent was going to see, with the exception Candy and a couple of others, we knew the last person he would meet on the street would be his brother and they would walk down to the subway together. And it’s all in his head, and he’s in a drunken state. He’s the last man standing, and the guy that we (originally) met was the last man standing. And the reason why he wanted to talk to us is because he wanted to tell someone his story. And he died before we shot the pilot.
The big shockers as the series wrapped were of course Lori’s suicide and Frankie’s death, but this finale has a lot of quiet moments — Candy deciding Hank isn’t for her, Melissa marrying Reg, Abby and Vinnie aren’t immortal enemies. It was an interesting intimate way to wrap up this gritty crime drama. There seemed to be more of a relationship-driven episode. Expound on this route.
The stuff your talking about is some of my favorite moments in the series. The wedding is something that came up in the writers’ room. A porn actress came in and she told us that she married this gay guy in her building. His family had abandoned him and needed someone, a companion and they got married in the courtyard in the back. We all looked at each other and said, ‘We’re putting that in the show’. Paul’s story — he knows he’s going to die, he goes out in a really beautiful moment talking to that guy outside of his bar and then he just walks off in the city. What he’s saying is ‘We’re all going to die, but let’s live for the moment and appreciate every moment.’ There’s a lot of great things there that give you hope for humanity, and it’s not a downer.