The Deuce just wrapped up a superb debut season on HBO. I have a few thoughts on the finale, followed by a very long conversation with creators George Pelecanos and David Simon, coming up just as soon as I explain to you about Hitchcock and Truffle…
“My Name Is Ruby” brings us to the end of an era for the sex industry, and for The Deuce. As the creators will discuss later, the show will return next season after a big time-jump, which will not only leave some characters behind, but bring us into a different set of circumstances for Times Square, prostitution, and pornography. Everything is changing, and we see that not only with Candy attending the premiere of Deep Throat — the movie that took porn mainstream — but with the earlier scene where her cab takes her past her old corner, where she tries calling out to Ruby to say hi. Ruby winds up being murdered by the john whose car she gets into, while Candy is a VIP guest at a premiere that seems indistinguishable from one for a “real” movie. The murder is shocking for its suddenness and seeming lack of motivation (Pelecanos explains more about that below), and it makes the finale’s point about the ongoing perils of this world that Candy has worked hard to escape.
But the finale also illustrates how some of the “progress” in the trade is anything but, as the prostitutes at the massage parlors are in many ways even more miserable than when they were out walking the Deuce at night. This great utopia of sex work that Rudy Pipilo promised is just a grimy, dehumanized warehouse that Darlene and Ginger hate, and that Vinnie decides he wants no part of, even as he can’t help falling in deeper with the Gambinos when he goes with Tommy Longo to beat up the guys who attacked his estranged wife.
Time and industry inevitably march forward, though, as is illustrated in a great sequence pairing C.C. with his pimping mentor Ace, played by Simon/Pelecanos favorite Clarke Peters, who is enjoying retirement and life as a kept man in a way that horrifies his protege. He wants no life but this one, but it will be taken from him sooner or later, whether through developments like the massage parlors or simply advancing age.
We conclude with a shot down a long hallway, Michelle MacLaren mirroring the one she did at the end of the premiere. Then, it was in the Times Square hotel where Vinnie saw C.C. cutting on Ashley to teach her a lesson. Now, it’s in the lifeless massage parlor. Both are central locations to prostitution. One is allegedly an improvement on the other, but everything we’ve watched this season suggests there’s no idyllic version of this business, and it will always be sordid and ugly no matter the environment.
Now here are Simon and Pelecanos. I interviewed them separately earlier this week (they’re working on opposite coasts at the moment) and have edited and combined the conversations.
When we spoke last time, you explained why you wanted to start the series at that particular moment in the life of New York and the porn industry. Why was this the place to end the season?
Pelecanos: This is when everything changed in terms of the American perception of pornography. It became mainstream. It was the beginning of porn chic and that sort of thing. People actually thought that this was going to be a big, long-lasting phenomenon that would be part of American culture. It really didn’t end up like that. There was this moment of time where people thought they could make feature pornography films that were artistic and on the same plane as commercial feature films. It was a very short-lasting notion. What would eventually happen was video came along, and people could take video into their homes, and then the cameras where you could make pornography in your home. People stopped going to the theaters to see porn. What was interesting about the season is how it changed the lives of all the people that we were presenting. if you notice, at the beginning of the season, there are many prostitutes and dancers and strippers getting into porn. And even a college student might go with their girlfriend or boyfriend and say, “Let’s go down to that place, they’re shooting a blue today, we’ll get high and fuck on camera.” It wasn’t professional at all. So if you notice in the finale, where the woman comes in from Virginia Beach, that’s an important scene where you see in this season that someone is looking at porn and says, “I can do that, too,” and she comes to New York just to do that. And she’s good at it. That’s how these stars started rising up. It was just a good ending point for us.
James Franco has talked publicly recently about the idea that you intend to do three seasons of the show, with a big-time jump between each. Is that, in fact, the plan?
Simon: Yes, that is the plan.
What are you comfortable saying about where the story will be when we return?
Simon: We’re still figuring out explicitly where we want to drop in and where we want to come out, but it will be in the late 70s. And the third season, should it be approved, and go forward, would be in the mid-1980s.
That’s a different thing for you. You’ve done major cast overhauls between seasons of The Wire, but both that show and Tremé tended to come back about a year after the events of the previous season. How will that change what characters you’re still dealing with and who you aren’t when you come back?
Simon: Not every character will continue through all three storylines, obviously. That’s a lot of years. it would be very unique for the entire world to journey through that stretch of time. But some characters clearly will. We’re responsible for credibly depicting the passage of time in these people’s lives. Where we left them and where we pick them up, and why that makes complete sense if you’re a viewer, in ways that have to be clever and direct and yet nuanced, and we have to justify those choices.
If we come back in the late ’70s and, to pull a name out of thin air, Larry is no longer a character on the show, do you feel like you have to have some kind of line of expository dialogue saying what happened to Larry?
Simon: No. By the way, not necessarily validating your choice of character, but if a character disappeared somewhere in the interim, maybe there’s a line of dialogue if a logical memory in the lives of our characters if the character would come up organically in conversation. But by and large, think about the world and how much it changes in five or six years, especially a world as transient as Times Square. The important thing for us it to tell the story of the story, and not merely service character. Characters are very valuable to us and we love them for who they are and we care about them, but they’re a tool in a toolbox, and what we’re actually building is a narrative about larger issues and larger themes. Job one is not to maximize the story of all our characters. Job one is to maximize the story which we tell.
By the time we get to the end of this season, a lot of the sex trade has moved indoors to the massage parlors, and other aspects like pornography have become more legitimized.
Simon: It’s not legitimized. It’s rationalized. It’s become much more coherent and profitable… In truth, it wasn’t the end of streetwalking. There was just this other added element. Once they got past the moment, in the history of New York, of Lindsay not having a viable path to the presidency in 1972, what happened was the massage parlors, which came into existence by backchannel fiat, continued to operate, continued to exist, and that was one aspect of the sex trade, but streetwalking returned as well. They weren’t protecting the Lindsay candidacy anymore. It wasn’t an either/or.
Let me add one thing about aging the characters over a 14-year span, George and I took a great delight in having people express an initial and naive wonder that we cast a 37-year-old actress (Margarita Levieva) as a college junior. But when you look at the idea of the character having to go 14 years from that point, and that the actor in question can actually play that span with a good deal of credibility, maybe we actually had a better plan than people gave us credit for. There was a lot of wonder about why we would cast in these terms, but we actually had to think about what the span of ages were. It highlights the real production trick of this, which is we have actors who we need to be able to go a span of 14 years, so who can play what age span in their life? Are we going to be able to age them properly? If you cast someone who’s older than their part in the first season, you have some benefit later on, and if you cast somebody younger, you’re going to have to make it up later. We’re going to be shooting people within 3 years for a 14-year span, so whether or not you cast younger or older, what you’re really doing is saying, “What’s the physicality of this actor, what’s their range, can they do this?” It becomes much more of an interesting dynamic of production.
The people who are setting up the massage parlors try to present it as this simpler, safer environment in which the prostitutes can conduct their business. Yet for the most part, we see that Darlene and Bernice and the others are in there are pretty miserable. What are you trying to say about the challenges of doing this work, no matter where it is?
Pelecanos: It’s always less, I don’t want to say enjoyable, because street walking is not enjoyable, but to be in a cage like that is much more troubling than to be out in the street. At least you’re out breathing fresh air and talking to your friends and trying to have fun, at least. And you don’t have any choice. If you get chosen in there, you get chosen. On the street, you can make that choice. It’s not really a good set-up for them. And in turn, the pimps are a little discombobulated, too. They don’t know what they’re doing anymore. They’re third wheels in that situation.
To really simplify it, it’s no fun anymore.
Ashely makes it out of town alive in the penultimate episode, while Ruby gets pushed out a window in the finale. How did you come to make big decisions like that about who would escape and who would not?
Simon: We sat in a writers room and we argued all the characters, and we played all the permutations, and said, “These are the things that have to happen in order to credibly present a narrative outcome in this world. Here are the given characters. What works the best?” You try it one way and you realize you’ve backed yourself into a corner, or you’re being redundant with a theme. It’s kind of like, you set up a world, you set up your characters, and before you even start writing the first script, you have to chart everything out and say how far does this story have to go, how much do we have to say about the world of prostitution or the rise of porn and these themes in terms of men and women, and then you say, what our resources are now that we’ve created a world? It’s basically a management question. It’s story work. It’s looking at the whole. Either you do it or you don’t. I knew somebody was getting out. Not everybody who was a prostitute on Eighth Avenue in 1971 stayed there. Some people walked away. The attrition among prostitutes was also meaningful.
Was there a real-life incident akin to what happened to Ruby?
Pelecanos: Ruby lived above the Hi-Hat, and she did have a traffic light in her window. Green meant she was open for business, yellow meant she was occupied, and red was, “I’m closed.” Some john threw her out of her own window, and nobody really knows what happened. Which is why the way we present it, we don’t have this big build-up with the john. It’s just a guy who picks her up, and we’ve seen it in little bits and pieces of the season, of johns getting rough with the prostitutes, and this was the ultimate example of somebody who was completely psychopathic and dangerous, and he killed her. We don’t really explain it, but that’s what happened to her, and she did go through the awning of the Hi-Hat, and some of the conversation that was related to us that a couple of guys that worked there were saying, “We’ve got to get a new awning now.” It was kind of cold. I love the fact, that we constructed, that Candy is driving to the premiere, and she tries to call out the window to her friend who’s getting into the car with that john, and Ruby doesn’t hear her. Candy is passing by, she’s never going to be on that corner again.
When Leon shoots Reggie in episode 7, he says the same line that you attributed to Cutty on The Wire. What’s the real-life story behind that line, and why did you want to have Leon say it here?
Simon: That was a little bit of homage on my part, a play to The Wire fans. But also I thought it was a great moment for Leon to have. The incident was Little Melvin Williams at the payphone booth, 1966, shot a guy named Danny Jacobs four or five times. Then he picked up the receiver of the phone, famously called the Pine Street Station and said that line into the phone, hung up the phone and walked away. He was charged in the shooting, but Jacobs survived, and famously wouldn’t testify against him, and it added to Melvin’s legend. So it’s a famous Baltimore story, and I wrote it into Cutty’s backstory. By the way, everyone always assumed he called them and then waited for the police. I don’t even know if I wrote that; that may have been an assumption. I thought it was just a story of how he shot a guy, called it in and walked away, and that would make you legend. It was just his bravado. I imagined the Melvin Williams version when I heard it, and I guess people took it that Cutty just waited for the police. Once I’d seen that interpretation of the line once we gave it to Cutty, I did think about (Leon) patiently waiting for the police in his diner. It felt great. And of course, Anwan plays it, all three of Anwan and Tarik and Olivia in that moment, it’s one of the best-structured scenes.
Leon’s not in the finale. Should we assume he’s not going to be one of the people we see again when we jump to the late ’70s?
Simon: I don’t know. I mean, we’re coming back seven years later. I figure the diner probably stayed in his family. Someone came up from Carolina to work that counter. If you’d seen the counter, there was a shot or two where you see a new guy running the thing.
Pelecanos: Don’t assume that Leon is not coming back. That’s six or seven years, he shot a pimp, which a lot of people consider to be a society cleanse, including judges and juries. So Leon may not be away for too long. Plus, it’s Anwan Glover. He comes with us.
You have a lot of characters who work directly in the sex industry, and some like the people at the bar who are largely adjacent to it. How did you figure out how to balance the amount of time you were spending with each group?
Simon: You’re asking big questions about hours and hours in the writers’ room. What is this universe, who do we need, what points of view do we need, what outcomes do we need for various characters, when will we feel like we have the proper rate of attrition that makes it feel like it’s a story where there’s cost to human beings? Where will we have continuity, and where will we feel the transitions into where this world is going. How many people should transition into the porn world? How many should stay on the street? What happens to the pimps, what happens to them over time? There are a lot of discussions about not only what happens this year, but where people land for season two. And then underneath all of this, we had all these stories from the real. Sometimes they dovetailed perfectly, and we think we’ve gotta use that story, and other times, we felt we were better off following our own thread.
What happens when these massage parlors are set up is what happens in a lot of capitalist America, then and now: you have someone inserting themselves into a position to make money without actually doing the job that people are paying for in the first place.
Simon: It’s called laying in the cut. It’s either that, or the managerial aspect of the industry changes. At a certain point, there were a lot of video store owners and managers out of work, once it became more about streaming and downloads. That’s fairly natural to almost any capitalistic enterprise. But the other thing is that there are a lot of people who make money by finding a place to stand and add almost nothing. It’s particularly ironic if your job title is pimp. On some level, in a healthier world where sex work could be rationalized and the risk reduced, your whole job title would be extraneous anyway. It’s not exactly a point of great grievance if you’re a pimp that suddenly your prostitutes don’t require the same level of reliance.
Given the huge changes to the industry once the internet came around, you could theoretically tell this story for much more than three seasons, and cover a much larger swath of time. Have you ever been tempted to continue the story past its planned endpoint?
Simon: Honestly, I don’t want to be doing a porn show forever. There are other stories to tell. There’s a lot to pull through the keyhole, and a lot about gender politics and misogyny to be said and accomplished, you don’t want to do a piece just to maintain a franchise. You want to move on to the next story. We conceived of it as three seasons. But in all honesty, there is a moment when we’re seeing how many years we have to jump, and how much has to be implied, there’s a part of us that thinks, “If we only had to jump three or four instead of four or five, certain things might be easier. If we had four (seasons), we could do x and y.” But the idea of taking it past the moment where Times Square as a universe ceased to matter to the extent that it did as a focal point for the sex industry, that doesn’t have much appeal.
The premiere ends with a long shot going down a hallway as Vinnie walks away from what he just witnessed C.C. doing to Ashley. The finale ends with a long shot going down a hallway at the massage parlor. What is the arc as you see it between those two hallway shots of where the trade had gone in between?
Simon: It had been rationalized. It had become much less individualized, one trick at a time, catch as catch can, the dirty pictures are in the paper bag type of industry to something that was becoming ripe for mass production. So it’s a very different hallway. The one is an SRO hallway, one trick at a time, and the other is a warehouse of prostitution. And we’ve seen porn transform itself in a different way as well, and ready itself for where it’s going to become ubiquitous in American life.
This is a minor point, but I’ve thought a lot in writing my recaps about what to call the sex workers whose real names we know. In the scripts, what did you use?
Simon: We kept with whatever we did first. So Candy stays Candy. But Thunder Thighs became Ruby, because (writer) Lisa Lutz came into our first meeting, and looked at Thunder Thighs on the page and said, “Could we give this woman a name?” And I thought this was one of the first moments of definitive feminist insertion in the writers’ room. The only practical response of any human being in that moment is, “Yes, we most certainly can.” So she became Ruby in the script. Ashley is always Ashley. Bernice is Bernice in the scripts, not Ginger. It’s usually what they are when we first meet them. We meet Candy on the street. If she’s no longer Candy in any comprehensive way in the future, I don’t know, but she may still be Candy onscreen. We just started our meetings. We may find that we want to change it.
What’s the significance of the band doing the “96 Tears” cover at the bar in the finale?
Pelecanos: It’s Garland Jeffreys. He was covering that song in the early 70s, and he’d sometimes performed it in blackface, though he’s half-black himself. When punk started in the ’70s, they were covering a lot of garage band songs in the ’60s that were punk before punk, and that was one of them. What we’re doing there is saying, “There’s something happening here, but it hasn’t been identified.”
Over the course of the season, we see that Vinnie doesn’t have a lot of hang-ups in terms of who he wants in his bar, and outside of his personal life is pretty non-judgmental. What advantages do you get from having a central character who’s open to so much?
Pelecanos: It lets you play out a lot of different kinds of scenes in the bar, because the door’s open to everybody. We can cross these people. We keep the POV very limited. The temptation sometimes when you have a character like Black Frankie or Big Mike, you want to do scenes with them, because they’re good actors and they’re cool characters, but you can’t give them their own scene. So you have to bring them into places where Vincent or Frankie or Bobby are. So it lets you do that. It lets you breathe a little bit.
Until the penultimate episode where he spends the day with Ashley, there’s not really a Frankie-centric story. He usually causes trouble for Vinnie and then leaves. Since James is playing both roles, it’s not a concern of not giving him enough to do, but is the ratio of time spent with each brother roughly what it’s going to be going forward?
Pelecanos: The ratio might work, but our goal is to make Frankie a little deeper. David and I read the comments, and we know that some people say that he’s just turning into comic relief. It’s easy to do that because it’s a fun character, but we want to give him more depth, too. Hopefully, in season two, you’re going to see more dimension to him. The real story of this guy is that he did go to some dark places. I think that’s where we’re going to take him.
James seems really relaxed when he’s playing scenes where the brothers interact. How much of that is direction that you or Michelle (MacLaren) gave to him at the start, and how much is just him being comfortable acting against thin air?
Pelecanos: I’ve gotta give him a lot of credit. He brought that, and as it happens, when you see an actor start to settle into a role, you begin to write for that actor and how he is interpreting the character. It’s a two-way street, but initially, he brought it. And Michelle, the way she staged that very first scene in the pilot, encouraged James to do what he did, which was to differentiate the characters not wildly, but through posture and manner of speech. Of course, we did a little with hair and makeup and costumes.
I wasn’t expecting the relationship between Candy and Harvey to become as sincere and supportive as it turned out to be. Was there a real version of Harvey, and did you intend for them to become so close?
Pelecanos: That was a creation. There was no real Harvey. The actors played well with each other, and as often happens, a small role got bigger than we intended. And he’ll be back, because he’s really good.
A lot of your actors are either people you’ve worked with before or known quantities like James and Maggie. Gary Carr was new to your world, though.
Pelecanos: We didn’t know him from Adam. He came in and auditioned. Michelle was with us, too, and everyone agreed that after his first audition, he was going to play one of the pimps. He auditioned for C.C., and he nailed it. He’s British, and we didn’t even know that. He’s very British when you talk to him, by the way.
C.C. is not a good guy, as we see in the very first episode with what he does to Ashley, and yet Gary plays him so charismatically that you can’t resist watching him go. What was it like watching this actor who was new to you master this character over the course of a season?
Pelecanos: He is in many ways not a good person, but we’ve given him some scenes like the one he plays with Ace, played by Clarke Peters, where you get on his side in a weird way. This guy is knocked off balance. He’s got a very high opinion of himself, and I would say of all the pimps, he idolizes the street bible, Iceberg Slim’s Pimp, more than anybody. When he hooks up with Clarke Peters in that scene, he sees the Ghost of Christmas Future, basically. The way it was shot, you see Lori across the room looking at him, and she knows, too. That’s a dagger to him.
The Wire usually had 12 or 13 episodes per season, Tremé had a variable length, and so have your HBO miniseries. How did doing eight feel for you, and what’s the plan for the episode count next season?
Simon: Right now we’re working with eight, and that is what HBO wants. If I had to say, could we have done more work and found meaningful with ten, I think ten would have been a better number. There were certain storylines where they should have expanded by two or three or more scenes if we had the room. I felt the same way on many shows, which is to say you write to the resources you have, and make sure the most important things are retained, and the things that you can bear to lose, you lose.
What’s an example of something where you wish you had those two or three more scenes?
Simon: We had one sequence where we see Paul explore some of the pitfalls of the gay bar scene in the Village, with the mob ownership, with the raids. We see a little more of his interest in a club of his own, explored through his own travels. That sequence could not be achieved in the time that we had. It was what it was. You want to do more tell, don’t show. We didn’t have the production ability to get that done. And then we wrote a scene where he talked a little about what was going on, but then we realized we wrote a scene where he talked about what he’d seen, and it’s just laying there, and we can’t make this work. For this kind of storytelling, where there’s so much set-up and not much payout, 10 is better than eight, 12 is better than 10. At 12, it imposes just enough discipline that you don’t start to go slack. But these are decisions made above my pay-grade, and you get what you get and you don’t get upset. It’s already an extraordinary amount of money to make a television show, and have faith in it and advance it. I’m not saying this with any bitterness at all. You ask for what resources are available, and you do the best you can.
Do you have more plans for Paul going forward?
Pelecanos: His storyline’s gonna get bigger now. We’re going to go downtown with it, where he’s got a point of view. It takes us to the Village and the downtown gay scene. and when we get to the third season, we will get to when AIDS came to New York. And hopefully, we’ll deal with it in a different way. I have some ideas about it. But we’ve also hired Carl Capotorto, who was a writer on Vinyl and an actor on The Sopranos. He came out in the ’70s in New York as a young gay man. He lived through it. We recognize in the same way that we wanted more women on the show, we recognized that we needed some more help in that department. We got a really good writer, and he’s been excellent in the writers’ room, so that’s going to help us go into Paul’s world deeper as well.
What did everybody else think?