If Stranger Things is pure uncritical nostalgia that wants to transport audiences back to the ‘80s with its neon-tinted glasses, The Deuce’s ‘80s-set final season is brutal anthropology. Half-decade jumps have become the norm for HBO’s adult industry deep-dive drama, allowing its story to become a scarlet-collared examination of America at its most basic and honest intersection of sex, capitalism, and the art in between it all. A history of a country (through the evolution of its politics, technology, and culture) can also be found in how it deals with sex—and HBO’s The Deuce has been baring it all since Episode One. Three seasons in and creators David Simon and George Pelecanos continue to illuminate the big stuff by flicking the switches of a thousand small moments.
Since The Deuce is saying Big Things about a microcosm over time—a niche of the oldest industry—it can see how the cycle returns to stability. Season Two was righteous female rebellion, as entrepreneurship and autonomy set out with cash and artistry in their sights. Season Three is harsh patriarchal Reaganomics tightening its french-cuffed grip. I watched three packed episodes of an eight-episode season where porn is booming, the VCR is taking over, and AIDS is replacing rampant love with rampant fear. Amateur porn (or porn made to look amatuer) democratizes the medium in a post-pimp world. New York is grimier on the outside and L.A. is grimier on the inside.
The Deuce is winding down, as its characters have outlasted (survived) the competition and entered into the relatively comfortable middle of their careers. It’s in the midst of this American Dream—one that has seduced, ravished, and left money on the table for most naive or optimistic enough to buy in—that consequences and rewards catch up with the interwoven ensemble.
Eileen (Maggie Gyllenhaal)’s continued search for creative and romantic fulfillment—not to mention her endearing and enduring friendship with Harvey (David Krumholtz)—is still the show’s backbone. The ‘80s have brought Gyllenhaal’s performance, fashion game, and hair to unprecedented heights. It helps to have scene partners like Krumholtz and series newcomer Corey Stoll (who plays her sexy love interest), but most of all it helps to have writers crafting such compelling and consistent characters.
Clichés (zooming in on a distraught face while “Once in a Lifetime” plays; ridiculously pervy ‘80s hair metal) overachieve thanks to their purity and mastery, while novelty (a delicious psychiatry scene from writer Iturri Sosa) dazzles with some of the best drama on TV. After only two seasons of groundwork, The Deuce family feels the reverberations of its desperate urban camaraderie. Taking someone that you’ve known for a decade to the doctor without knowing her last name makes perfect sense in this tightknit community. Extrapolating from the beautiful depiction of the gay community, told in tangential glimpses and through the complexly-performed relationship between businessman Paul (Chris Coy) and AIDS-stricken actor Todd (Aaron Dean Eisenberg), 42nd Street’s interconnectedness is masterfully displayed. Cameras wind equally through diners, dance clubs, and dick-deep porn sets. Its egalitarian lens knows that the incredible tragic comedy of Bobby’s (Chris Bauer) toupee and the sunburned misery of Lori’s (Emily Meade) Hollywood porn shoots are linked by pure ambition. The Deuce, like in a gangster movie’s final act, attempts to respond to this somewhere between fable and documentary.
Relationships decompose, consequences (from disappointed dads to STDs) come back to bite, and terrible Wall Street guys rise. Even those who’ve become caught up in the organized crime side of it all (with the right genitalia and skin color to oppress rather than be oppressed by one of many lucrative New York systems), push their luck. James Franco’s excellent dual performances as mob-bound twins Vincent and Frankie both careen towards different desperations. The former has had his fun and come to regret leaving the nuclear family while the latter has somehow achieved a nuclear family while being a total fuck-up. Neither amount to much, but that’s partially the point. Their inconsequentiality and duality make for a scientific case study of life during the era, and the messy results are ours to unpack.
The Deuce can still get bogged down at the edges of its scope, like with the introduction of super-cop Jack Maple (Domenick Lombardozzi, great despite it all) and a long-winded urban development storyline. Cops and real estate: the paperwork doesn’t have the beef behind it like The Wire, and can often feel like having to eat your vegetables to enjoy the sex industry’s decadent dessert, but it’s a whole lot better about its jumble than the first two seasons. The relatively pared-down cast, better than other sprawling ensembles, mesh narratives without needing too much literal overlap. Rather than head towards a great war or flee the same horde of zombies, they all live under Reagan.
As The Deuce and its inhabitants see the chaotic ladder of the Golden Age of Porn end—as will any unregulated era, as supply and demand catches up to it (drug decriminalization, the actual Wild West)—its often grim struggles still boast the boons of industrial people. This final, lovely season won’t gloss over the nasty, cruel, and devastating parts of the sex industry, but it does let us soak in the finely-aged relationships between its note-perfect characters as they’re paved over for new hotels. These workers, forged in hardship like wartime comrades, gnawed termite art into the gentrified construction’s bones. History mostly leaves people behind in favor of progress and paperwork, but Simon and Pelecanos’ affecting work on The Deuce shows what we regain when we remember.
The final season of The Deuce premieres Monday, September 9th on HBO.
Jacob Oller is a film and TV critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Hollywood Reporter, Vanity Fair, Interview Magazine, Playboy, SYFY WIRE, Forbes, them, and other publications. He lives in Chicago with his two cats and a never-ending to-do list of things to watch. He likes them (the cats and the list) most of the time. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.