[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “The Deuce” Season 1 finale, Episode 8, “My Name is Ruby.”]
A lot has changed for Vincent Martino since the start of Season 1.
The “better” of two twins played by James Franco, Vincent began his eight-episode journey by getting mugged. He was working two jobs on both sides of the river, seven nights a week, all to provide a lower-middle class lifestyle for his wife, Andrea (Zoe Kazan), and two kids. Things weren’t great, and it seemed like they were only about to get worse.
But after Vincent graciously agreed to pay off his his brother’s gambling bills, everything changed. Frankie’s debt turned into Vincent’s gain, as the mobsters he paid learned to appreciate his work ethic and ingenuity. He got his own bar in Manhattan, a cut of the profits from a local brothel that his brother-in-law is running, and he met his new girlfriend, Abby (Margarita Levieva), whom — after walking out on his cheating wife — he’s now living with in the city.
Vincent is even a member of a crew now. A powerful crew. One who can back him up when he wants to make up for his embarrassing emasculation suffered at the beginning of Season 1. If you remember, the final straw for Vincent was when his wife and a bar full of patrons watched him back down to Eddie Bucco (Michael Lombardi), who was sleeping with Andrea and wasn’t afraid to let people know it. When Eddie stepped to Vincent, Vincent backed down, packed up, and moved to the island for a new life.
In the finale, it’s clear how much hurt he held onto from that moment. After hearing Eddie had hit his wife (“ex-wife, whatever,” as he says later), he grabbed his new mob friend, Tommy (Daniel Sauli) and headed right back to the same bar. Walking in, Vincent makes a big show of it: He wants everyone to remember who he is and what had happened because he’s about to fix it. He picks up a pool cue and throws it wildly onto a table — because it didn’t hold enough weight for his purposes, but drawing attention to himself in the process. Vincent was letting everyone know he was in there so they could see what he was about to do. And he did it.
It’s an overtly masculine moment. The man whose pride was unjustly stolen from him got it back in a public way. Vincent walked into that bar and took care of business, quickly and cleanly knocking out another guy who came after him for taking out Eddie. He looked very much like the toughest guy in the city, and — as Tommy asked him before they left — Vincent got exactly what he wanted.
But when he came back to the city, the one thing Amber wishes would change about Vincent clearly had not. There was another scene in the premiere, one that was given more significant placement (at episode’s end) and is clearly meant as the primary takeaway from Vincent’s story, given how it ends. Vincent is still the guy who sees a prostitute being accosted by a pimp in the stairwell and leaves it alone. He stays on the outside, not daring to step into the stairway and help a woman in need; unwilling to speak out against another man who’s “just running his business.”
“You got me all wrong. Way wrong,” Vincent says. “I love women.”
And he does. Vincent loves women. He just doesn’t see prostitutes as women. He doesn’t see them as people. They’re part of the system. “It’s the deuce,” he says, as if Ruby’s death was as unavoidable as it is unimportant. He’s not angry that a woman he knew lost her life because a man’s pride was hurt. He is the man whose pride was hurt. He didn’t go to that bar for his wife. He went there for himself.
To be fair, Amber’s not just mad at Vincent. As evidenced by Vincent walking out on the new brothel, giving a hearty “fuck you” to his brother, brother-in-law, and boss in the process, he is becoming more and more upset over how connected his life is to one he doesn’t want to think about. But he doesn’t want to think about the prostitutes — either their business or their flesh-and-blood connection to everyone else — because he’s never had to before. The closer he gets to them, the more uncomfortable he becomes.
So Amber isn’t just frustrated with her boyfriend. It’s about the business. It’s about the country. They’re all changing, but they’re changing too slowly, and there’s no promise things will get better. This is an episode that opened with Eileen (Maggie Gyllenhaal) explaining that “rough” porn sells best because the male fantasy is of women so sex-crazed “they’ll fuck the dog when you’re not looking.” This doesn’t foreshadow a state of the union describing equality, respect, and justice.
And it doesn’t. Eileen (Maggie Gyllenhaal) may be living her dream as a director, off the same streets that ended up killing her friend Ruby, but her brother is still trapped in a prison built by the patriarchy. Barbara (Kayla Foster) is actually behind bars, as she was too afraid to rat out her pimp in exchange for her freedom. Sandra (Natalie Paul) can’t tell the full story because men are protecting each other.
And Ruby. Ruby is dead. But the fancy new rooms that pulled customers away from her streets — rooms built by men to make money off women and protected by a white, self-policing police force — those rooms are still open for business.
“The Deuce,” like much of David Simon’s work, is about making the audience look at people whom society refuses to acknowledge, and the Season 1 finale put its spotlight on Ruby. Yet even under that bright, beaming light, Vincent is still trying to see.
“The Deuce” has been renewed by HBO for a second season. Season 2 is expected in 2018.