BOXSET REVIEW: THE DEUCE (S3)

The final series of David Simon and George Pelecanos’ love letter to New York before it became Brand New New York.

“They walked into the arms of time”

What’s the story?

David Simon and George Pelecanos’ sprawling, immersive and incredibly affecting chronology of how the porn industry took hold in 1970s – and now 1980s – New York has reached its final instalment.

In this final series, there are more remarkable vignettes, story arcs and everything else in between. For the most part, it’s incredible, emotional and gut-wrenchingly involving.

The huge ensemble cast has been pared down for this final chapter, and really focuses on its key characters – the Martino brothers, policeman Chris Alston, councillor Gene Goldman, Paul Hendrickson, Eileen ‘Candy’ Merrell and porn star Lori Madison.

We knew we were going to have to say goodbye to some of them.

Vince and Frankie always felt out of place and yet so very at home in The Deuce. They were old-fashioned, Italian-American men who were wiseguys without being wiseguys. Grifters, hustlers… always out for a buck, always wanting to prove themselves as kings of the castle. While Vince was steadfast and as righteous as he could be, Frankie was often pushing and pushing and pushing; for more money, more needle, more rule-breaking. By the time this final series he had gone practically full rogue. Sure enough, Frankie didn’t last long in this series, but it has always been Vince who has been the more interesting of the two characters – like his brother, he was flawed and was a Jersey boy made good, but he was also sympathetic to feminism and didn’t harbour a discriminatory bone in his body.

His on-off relationship with Abby – always an interesting and sometimes a mis-matched coupling – once again ebbed and flowed in this series and, finally, petered out.

Vince had threatened to seek vengeance for Frankie’s death and began to carry a gun as he grappled with the idea of walking down a very dark road. Abby did not like it, and this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. But their eventual break-up was written so well, in such an adult and non-sensational way, that it felt extraordinarily real (almost shockingly so) and even more heartbreaking because of it. There was an acknowledgement that there was still love between them, but not enough to keep them going.

Former sex worker, then porn star and now feminist porn director Eileen Merrell (the supreme Maggie Gyllenhaal) had also found love but then lost it. Throughout the course of this story she had always found it difficult to reconcile her sex worker past – at once fiercely proud of it, but aware of the discrimination it produced in wider society. Her break-up with Hank the Bank(er) was inevitable but no less tragic – you really wished she could open herself up to a relationship, but in the end couldn’t (or wouldn’t). Some people, I guess, are just destined to walk down her own path. Eileen’s real love story throughout this series, though, was with porn producer and business partner Harvey Wasserman – their interplay, arguing, making up and shared experiences were so great to watch.

Elsewhere, there was real heartbreak. I mean, we’re talking sobbing-at-the-TV kind of heartbreak.

At the end of series two, bar manager Paul – who had been highly promiscuous in gay clubs – experienced the decline and eventual death of his boyfriend, who, like so many, had succumbed to the terrifying AIDs virus. The scenes where he cared for him, tended to him and formed a bond with his boyfriend’s parents were so touching, so intimate and poignant, they were sometimes difficult to watch.

If Paul (who also, it seemed, had the virus) and his partner’s story was heartbreaking enough, Hi-Hat bouncer Big Mike also dropped a huge bombshell – he had also caught the virus. Nooo… Big Mike? His contraction of the disease showed that it was a virus that affected everyone.

Poor, brave Big Mike retreated – quietly, stoically – to a cabin in the woods to die.

More sobbing.

What else? Chris Alston and councillor Gene Goldman were advancing the clear-up of the neighbourhood, as property developers circled and sensed huge financial opportunity. The way they did this? They exploited the AIDs crisis.

Add there was gangster Rudi’s demise, Bobby’s wig… we could go on. And we will, especially Lori’s storyline.

(A quick chat about the Mafiaso in this series: they weren’t the usual Goodfellas we’ve seen over the years, especially Rudi, who was benevolent, rational and, whisper it, hugely likeable. Another reason why The Deuce wins.)

What’s good about it?

It had been an incredible ride so far, with memorable characters and storylines that really stuck with us and Simon and Pelecanos’s patented, almost documentary style of storytelling giving the whole piece a raw authenticity that many dramas strive but fail to achieve.

But of course, any huge ensemble piece – with multiple strands, multiple story arcs and themes – can be tricky to balance. With such short scenes and so many characters, it has often been accused of not really flowing narratively.

Many viewers also contend that The Deuce isn’t a crime drama at all, and have asked why a) we’ve even been reviewing it, and b) why it has resonated so strongly with us.

It’s absolutely not your usual cops-and-robbers procedural, that’s for sure. I’ve likened it in the past to a Dickensian tale of crime and consequence – where a group of disparate people from different backgrounds see opportunity in one district in New York and are willing to break the law to do it. In fact, we’ve seen the district create its own laws by which to govern itself.

It’s crime drama, but not as we know it.

During these three series, we’ve met pimps and sex workers, bar owners and gangsters, people out to make a buck illegally, cops on the take and make, and city councillors also seeing an opportunity to further themselves.

The Deuce is all about exploitation – of places, of rules, of laws, and of people.

Lori’s Madison’s story encapsulated what the series was all about.

Since arriving in The Deuce from her rural, small hometown her rise through the ranks of sex workers, pimps and bar had been meteoric. IN series two, we had seen her go out west and had become a huge adult film star. But her burgeoning coke addiction and that fact that she was asked to do more and more things that she wasn’t comfortable with – as well as fall in with an unscrupulous manager-cum-boyfriend – meant that she had become a paranoid wreck.

On her return to New York, Eileen had offered her work on her next picture – good work, interesting, different work – but walking up and down The Deuce, she realised she, unlike Eileen, could not escape what she was perceived to be or where she came from. For a fleeting moment, she felt the pang of nostalgia and belonging and became a sex worker again for the night, taking a trick up to a hotel room.

But it had gone. Whatever she had felt, or thought she had felt, had disappeared, only to be replaced by an empty resignation. Lori (a magnificent performance from Emily Meade) calmly, and unexpectedly, took a gun from her bag and shot herself in the head.

It was potent, difficult drama to watch – human after human being used and spat out with nowhere else to go but back to The Deuce, and then realising, with almost a casual resignation, that there was no way out.

At the end – right at the end – there was a remarkable sequence, perhaps the most poignant and affecting I had ever seen.

Now an old man, Vince returned to The Deuce from his Florida retirement home. Except this wasn’t The Deuce anymore, it was Time Square – shiny, overcrowded and a monument to capitalism. We only saw a hint of this in the real-time drama, and this gaudy development was so much more than Goldman and his associate Alston could have ever imagined in 1985.

As he wandered the streets he once lived in Vincent saw the ghosts of his friends from the past mingling with the crowds of the present-day – Eileen as Candy (who, we had learned, had died recently after living her life broke but creating fierce, feminist art) leant on a street corner, and tried to bum a cigarette from Vincent flashing her unmistakable smile, pimp CC and doomed Lori looked on, Thunder Thighs herself chuckled on the street… Paul, Rudi and Tommy Longo came and went, there was a conversation with Bobby, and, of course, his brother Frankie helped Vince on his way down onto the subway.

I had actual hot tears streaming down my face watching this incredibly poignant sequence. There’s just something about watching characters from your past come back to lost physical life that highlights life’s journey and the inexorable march of time. It really makes you think about how times and places and people change, but how the ghosts – the family, friends and lovers who have shaped a life – always remain with you. Right until the very end.

What’s bad about it?

Nothing especially bad about a series that has been so good and so consistently great, but you could tell that storylines and character arcs were perhaps rushed slightly in this final run. There were sometimes jarring jumps in time – some made sense, some did not.

As ever with a drama with a huge cast of characters, some worked and some didn’t. In The Deuce’s case the majority stuck, but in this final series – where there was much to tie up and resolve – there were some minor characters who were elevated slightly that you could argue didn’t need to be elevated.

Why it’s worth a binge…

It isn’t very often you encounter a series that has this much ambition or scope and pulls it off. Like David Simon’s other series, he had a lot to say – there was the drama of human interaction, but also socio-economic and political undercurrents aplenty.

But what an achievement, and what a series.

Characters that will stick with you for a long time, scenarios that made you laugh and cry and think… The Deuce isn’t far from being a masterpiece, full of coruscating dialogue, a fabulous soundtrack and a cast of characters that feels Dickensian – truly – in their rise and fall, and their battle for survival.

READ MORE: FOR ALL OUR NEWS AND REVIEWS OF THE DEUCE

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