[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “The Deuce” Season 3, Episode 8, “Finish It” — the series finale.]
As future feminist filmmaking icon Eileen Merrell (Maggie Gyllenhaal) preps her actors for their roles in “A Pawn in Their Game,” the director’s future arthouse classic (and Criterion Collection release, which means you know it’s a bona fide indie masterpiece), one of her cast members gives pause.
“When I signed up for this, I thought I would be OK with doing a fuck film,” she said. “I thought it would be fun sex. I didn’t think the script would get so dark.”
“It’s a tragedy,” Merrell responded, cooly. “There’s not a lot of tragedy in porn.”
Amid many all-encompassing lines over “The Deuce’s” telling look back to New York City of the ’70s and ’80s, this moment stands out. An unknowing actor, standing in for the unknowing audience at home, is complaining to the director, who’s so often been the filmmakers’ voice in the series, about how porn is supposed to be fun and sexy, when in reality it’s dark and tragic. It’s almost too easy to see HBO viewers making the same excuse when they tuned out of “The Deuce” during the last two years.
Blame what you will — the subject matter, the James Franco-of-it-all, or ever-increasing competition for viewers’ precious TV time — but David Simon and George Pellecanos’ period drama lost half its linear audience with each new season. That’s more than the average ratings dip as TV audiences transition from cable to streaming, and as the number dipped, Eileen’s voice only got louder; shouting warnings into the night, even though we all knew the inevitable ending was coming.
For Eileen, that end was posthumous recognition. Her 2019 obituary called her a “feminist porn director,” but the fact that she was in The New York Daily News at all is notable in itself. Within that same story, Eileen is labeled a “pioneering pornographer” in what is now “called by some the Golden Age of Porn” — pointed or not, the title evokes the Golden Age of Television for modern viewers, and “The Deuce” is bidding adieu to its role in that era, as well. After spending three seasons eulogizing and criticizing the rise of America’s porn culture on the country’s preeminent prestige TV network, the series ducks out of the Times Square spotlights to make way for the future; television is on the cusp of its own transition — out of the golden age and into the streaming wars.
Looking at the slate of launchpads for the next generation of TV, the titles are filled with franchise spin-offs, big-budget tentpoles, and copycat adaptations. HBO itself is transitioning under new ownership, leaning into its own brand of superhero fare and book franchises. The first streamers started smaller, as Netflix borrowed HBO’s antihero template for “House of Cards” and Hulu gambled on existential religious drama in “The Path.” Now, there’s no room for guesses. Much like the heated summer competition in theaters, the TV game has no room for error; not even error, really, but no space for small wonders.
That’s what “The Deuce” was at almost every turn. From the opening walk down director Michelle MacLaren’s majestic, recreated vision of The Deuce, to Vincent’s final, inebriated stroll through the ad-blasting billboards of Times Square, small wonders never ceased. Perhaps the most surprising element of the series finale was its jump forward in time, even more than what we learned from elderly Vincent’s last moments. Vincent paid off his mob debts and then some; Bobby (Chris Bauer) died, along with Eileen, Lori (Emily Meade), and Ruby (Pernell Walker) from back in the day. Joey (Michael Gandolfini) tried the Wall Street swindle and lost, again and again, while a last-second appearance by Abby (Margarita Levieva) hinted at a successful professional career for the longtime advocate.
Simon’s past series didn’t make such big moves in the final hours. Even with a feature-length runtime, “The Wire” is famous for the questions it didn’t answer (and better for it). These stories don’t usually have neat and tidy endings, and even with the extra resolution in “The Deuce,” it didn’t feel that way either. The ending serves as another reminder: This is a story unique to television, and now it’s harder and harder for shows like it to exist.
There will be more shows like “The Deuce.” David Simon and George Pellecanos will return to TV. (Simon already has his next miniseries set up at HBO.) But the question becomes who will watch them? In a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts, the harder it is to get these shows made, the less likely it is for viewers to find them. With blockbusters boxing out other options, what becomes of TV’s arthouse? What becomes of the Eileen’s complicated yet moving, challenging yet vital work?
“The Deuce” makes a case that the fight matters. That just getting it made is a success enough, so long as people like Harvey Wasserman (David Krumholz) are there to appreciate them. Just as her neighborhood was getting “cleaned up” while her fellow hard-working women continued to be dressed down, Eileen cried out for recognition; justice; a little bit of humanity. Out of that same shared compassion, Simon and Pellecanos gave it to her — but only what was believable, far from a happy ending.
But let’s go back to that moment with the director and her actors. Here’s Eileen, a sex worker and porn star known as Candy Renée, who for years toiled away as a successful yet unacknowledged porn director, finally working on her dream film — and it’s a film! A real, honest-to-goodness piece of cinema, like what Martin Scorsese was making and Marvel would someday capture, as well. She doesn’t know it at the time, and neither did anyone else, but everything Eileen’s gone through led up to that moment; that film; that consultation before shooting.
Her actors are thinking of backing out, which could pull her funding, clear out her own investment, or even cost her future jobs. And what does she say?
“I’m done trying to convince people to do things they don’t want to do on camera,” she says, and leaves it to the actors to choose what to do. She doesn’t scare them off, or plead with them to stay. She cuts the scene later, but not because pornography is wrong — it’s because she wasn’t making pornography.
Lesser shows wouldn’t make such a distinction. They wouldn’t even get to the point where they had to choose. “The Deuce” relishes the difficult choices. It lives in the shadowy corners of the streets it mourns and celebrates. It never lets anyone off easy, but in its final moments, it makes Eileen a hero we can all believe in.
“The Deuce” is available to stream in its entirety on HBO.