'The Deuce' Season Finale Review: 'My Name Is Ruby'

(We're going to kickstart our weekly discussion of HBO's The Deuce by answering one simple question: who or what is the "best bet" in this week's episode?)

As with any show in which there are so many moving pieces, it's impossible to say that The Deuce did right by every single one of them, but it did its damnedest. This is generally true of the show — not just when it comes to the characters but when it comes to how much attention is given to each story. Some float — Eileen's (Maggie Gyllenhaal) arc, for example — and others wobble — the "journalist sleeps with source" trope — but The Deuce is still an inimitably lovely piece of work.

The instances of casual cruelty are offset by how much George Pelecanos and David Simon (not to mention their writers) care about the characters we're seeing. The most horrifying scene of The Deuce happens in the season finale, and the almost thoughtless way in which it happens is particularly jarring. But, for all that initially seems cold and cruel of the show and not just the characters involved, the repercussions get teased out bit by bit. The Deuce may be a hotbed of sin, but The Deuce has too big a heart to be quashed so easily. When we come back for season two, we'll have jumped ahead in time; hopefully we'll see most of the cast return. We've lost some of the best characters already, it'd be a pity not to have the whole gang back.

This Week’s Best Bet: Eileen

Of all the characters on The Deuce, Eileen has had the most clearly defined (and most interesting) arc. She now seems to be fully in the pornography production business, presiding over the shoot sets just as much as Harvey (David Krumholtz). Their partnership is, similarly, one of the most rewarding relationships on the show, as he seems to be the only man in her life who sees her as an equal rather than a piece of tail. When they go in for a meeting to go over what kind of porn brings in more coin than others, she immediately gets what the fantasy is — men want to think that women are just as sex-crazed as they are — but she's dismissed on the grounds of being an attractive woman, herself.

Nevertheless, she's starting to gain more traction. When Harvey's car breaks down on the way to a shoot, she takes over as director. And when he finally arrives on the set, he doesn't try to take the reins from her. It's her shoot, now. Later, she and Harvey attend the premiere of Deep Throat, neither of them aware of how much of a hit it'll be, though they already know that the porn industry is changing. They have people coming to audition for them, now, and just a year ago, a real premiere for an explicit film would have been impossible.

Two of the biggest emotional beats of the finale rest with Eileen, too. First, after Harvey uses a slur to describe the success of Boys in the Sand, Eileen tells him not to use that word, revealing that she has a brother who is implied to be gay. Sparked by the conversation, she goes to visit him in a scene that would feel shoehorned were it not for how grounded Gyllenhaal's performance is. He's been going through hell — electroshock therapy — ever since their father found him trying on one of Eileen's dresses on a lark, to the point that he tries to deny to his sister that he's gay. But, as she tells him, times are changing.

My Name is Ruby

Unfortunately, they're not changing quickly enough. The second big beat occurs on the way to the Deep Throat premiere, Eileen spots Ruby (Pernell Walker) walking the streets. She calls out of the cab window to her friend, but Ruby doesn't hear her, disappearing into the car of a new john. What follows is easily the starkest, bleakest scene in a show that hasn't really pulled its punches in depicting just how harsh sex work was at the time. When the john takes his payment back from her, telling her that he wasn't satisfied, she begins to argue before letting the fight go. As he leaves, he calls her by the nickname she's borne for so many years, "Thunder Thighs." She snaps, then, telling him, "My name is Ruby." He turns on his heel, grabs her by the shoulders, and pushes her out the window.

It's such a short, abrupt moment that it's all the more difficult to stomach. She's there and then she's gone. It's underscored by how Vincent (James Franco, doing his best work in this episode) immediately only thinks of whether or not they have insurance on the window, and how C.C. (Gary Carr) cracks wise at the scene, but as proven when Alston (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) socks him in the stomach for his trouble, the streets aren't entirely devoid of empathy. Ruby demanded — and deserved — respect.

Divided Loyalties

Since speaking with the new sheriff in town, Alston's been having a rough go of it. He and Sandra (Natalie Paul) are going steady now, but it's complicated by the fact that she needs either concrete evidence or a named source if her piece is to be published without being censored. Alston does his best, even going so far as to steal a corrupt cop's take notebook for her, but it's not enough. It needs to be explicitly identified. Before he can really think about it, his partner tips off the new captain, who tells Alston in veiled terms that he'll get Alston where he wants to go in his career so long as he remains loyal to the precinct. So he tells Sandra that he can't act as her source — leading to a tearful break-up — but he's now on the outside of the precinct, too, now that everyone knows that he almost ratted them all out.

The pimps, meawhile, are having their own crises of faith. They've been going through a shake-up for a while given the changing of the Deuce, but it's particularly bad, now. Larry (Gbenga Akkinagbe) tries to get into the drug trade, but ends up getting Barbara (Kayla Foster) into a federal sting. He tells the other pimps that he's sure she won't turn on him, though it's a declaration that's somewhat undercut by how uncertain he seems about their profession on the whole. C.C., for his part, comes across his former mentor, Ace (Clarke Peters) at a bar. Ace is retired, and gently rebuffs C.C.'s encouragement for him to get back in the game, telling him that he retired for a reason. He's settled down with a loving woman, and the mere sight of how close they seem — not to mention the conversation preceding Ace's exit — is enough to make him dizzy, especially as he looks back at Lori (Emily Meade), who's been observing the entire exchange.

Hi-Hat High Times

Meanwhile, Vincent is struggling with his place in the system as he refuses Rudy's (Michael Rispoli) continued plans for expansion while still taking advantage of his muscle as he beats up the man who beat up his estranged wife in a scene that echoes their first confrontation, only he's not quite so hapless anymore. Bobby (Chris Bauer), by contrast, is prospering under Rudy's rule, going in with Frankie to open up a second whorehouse and finally making things official with Tiffany (Danielle Burgess).

The way that Vincent may be being left behind by the times is only amplified by his relationship with Abby (Margarita Levieva). When she brings a band to perform at the Hi-Hat, he's initially dubious, though he agrees to let her keep doing it when it turns a profit, in the same breath in which he says he thinks they ought to move in together. They agree to an open relationship as long as they come back to each other, though there's some tension straight off the bat when Abby hears what he did to his wife's boyfriend, and sees how he reacts to Ruby's death. When she confronts him about it, he acts nonchalant, telling that he "loves women." But she doesn't seem convinced. At any rate, if he's serious, he'll manage to float on the coming tide. If not — we'll have to wait and see.

The montage that ends the episode (set to Ray Charles' "Careless Love") is one of the most striking sequences I've seen lately. The melancholy, bittersweet tone is ultimately representative of The Deuce as well, as it captures the way this work is breaking so many hearts but ultimately all comes back to the relationships between them. Given the captains of the ship, it's hard to imagine that the second season of the show will be any less moving. Until then, though — god save and preserve all of those girls.