Everyone Has a Price to Pay in ‘The Deuce’ Season 2 Finale

In HBO’s “The Deuce” no job is easy and there is always a price to pay. Season two closes with all of its characters reaching crossroads in their lives, while realizing that what they are will follow them everywhere. Just when someone thinks the film they produced will be a hit, the mob comes to collect, just when a prostitute tries to change her life, someone recognizes her at her new job, and a porn director aiming for artistic respect is suddenly reminded she is directing porn after all. Season three is slated to be the show’s final bow and this one ends by leading into it with a mix of hopes and tears.

The finale opens with the official premiere party of “Red Hot,” the adult film directed by Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who hopes this will finally bring her the success and artistic legitimacy she yearns for. It’s the late 70s and porn is still a theatrical business. Harvey (David Krumholtz) boasts that “Red Hot” will open in 10 theaters! Initial happiness is fleeting for the film’s star, Lori (Emily Meade), hopped up on cocaine and paranoid about the lingering memory of her former pimp CC. He’s long gone, but Lori was left so scarred by her experiences that she still feels she needs his approval for anything, like flying out of state to promote the film. Donna (Dominique Fishback) is having difficulties of another kind. She’s still trying to go straight, working at a clothing store during the day and attending college. But when a customer recognizes her from her roles in adult films she explodes. She gets closer to telling pimp Larry (Gbenga Akinnagbe) that she’s done for good. More horrible truths await Abby (Margarita Levieva) and Loretta (Sepideh Moafi) when news reaches them that Dorothy (Jamie Neumann) has been found murdered, possibly for angering quite a few pimps. Then there are the twin brothers, Vince and Frankie (James Franco). Vince is trying to live a more stable existence, but the death of Dorothy and the constant need to pay the mob subtly wears on him. Frankie is caught up with Harvey in another sort of crises: Turns out Frankie sold the rights to “Red Hot” to two competing mob families.

“The Deuce” has a lot of grit, but it’s always been about personalities. In this finale to the second season, the overall feeling is not that of a cliffhanger, but the melancholy realization that we can never be truly free. The central story bringing this point home is that of Candy, who finds success with “Red Hot” within her own world, but is continuously jarred by everyone else to remind her she’s not making family-friendly cinema. She goes on a late night talk show to promote the film but turns into the butt of the host’s jokes. At the premiere party she overhears editor and lover Russell (Jim Parrack) try to fit in with some dudes by boasting that he sleeps with a porn star (it’s the death knell of their relationship). One of the episode’s most heartbreaking moments happens when Candy goes home only to find her disappointed father at the door blocking her from seeing her son. Turns out the kids at school taunt him once they find out who his mother is. These are some of Gyllenhaal’s best scenes in the series so far, where the disciplined, ambitious persona she portrays becomes piercingly vulnerable. Donna has similar moments when a customer recognizes her at her side gig, but the best scene is when she decides to come clean to a classmate she’s been dating, very bluntly telling him about her past.

As always there are also flashes of dark humor attached to the overall tone of the story. Harvey has a moment performed with great, failing nerves when the mob visits to inform him that “Red Hot” is owned by two unfriendly factions. In “The Deuce” the porn world and the mafia are stand-ins for the hassles of trying to succeed in any industry. When Dorothy’s body is found, gruesomely behind a dumpster, a detective wipes away maggots casually from a briefcase to look at her identification. “The Deuce” knows the world can be unforgiving even when you’re dead.

Yet there are also some nice touches in the finale where characters simply cope and keep going. Candy tells Harvey she could care less who owns what in “Red Hot,” the point is to use her new fame to secure funding for more films. Vince confesses to his ex he really would just like a home with a family (Franco is again used slightly less in this episode than the rest of the cast). When Donna walks out on Larry their final goodbye is bittersweet, and the pimp decides he will pursue acting after all. Loretta’s departure is however more brutal and angry. Paul (Chris Coy) has finally opened a legitimate business but still gets the underworld to help Todd (Aaron Dean Eisenberg) open a gay theater group. Even in such ventures, the past follows.

Possibly the best scene showing us how the times will change occurs when Harvey shows Candy a new technology, the VHS tape, which will change the world of porn forever. They truly have no idea just how much. This season of “The Deuce” began five years after the first, so we shall see how far into the third and final season will go. Hopefully it will continue to fascinate us with these characters wandering around the underworld of their chosen paths, hoping to get some air with the sheer will to dream.

The Deuce” season two finale aired Nov. 4 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.