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'The Deuce' Season 1 finale recap: A tragic fall and a triumphant rise

'The Deuce' Season 1 finale recap: A tragic fall and a triumphant rise
Pernell Walker in "The Deuce." (Paul Schiraldi)

Never watch a David Simon show expecting a happy ending. But if you want compelling characters with an engrossing storyline, “The Deuce” is the show to watch. This season finale proves it.

“My Name Is Ruby” ends the celebrated first season of “The Deuce” with the rise of one beloved character and the death of another. Simon and his writers have been warning that a sex worker would be murdered, from Lori almost being killed by a sociopathic john posing as a police officer, to Elaine getting assaulted by a john who robs her. Both Elaine and Lori were lucky enough to get off the streets and work in the relatively safe porn industry. Ruby wasn’t so lucky.

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She tried working in the salon, but the johns passed her up for thinner sex workers. “Men with special taste find her on the outside,” she tells Chris. So to earn her keep, she went back to the street, unwittingly exposing herself to homicidal clients.

The last few moments of her life are painful, yet gripping to watch. After finishing with a client, she finds him digging through her purse for the money he gave her earlier. He wants a refund, saying he didn’t like it. When she says she’ll get her pimp to get her money back, he abases her with racist slurs and leaves her appalled.

“See you later, Thunder Thighs,” he spits, walking out of the room. “My name is Ruby!” she fires back. It’s a simple refrain she has said before, but it bears repeating. She’s a human, damn it, and deserves to be treated with respect.

Enraged that she spoke up for herself, he pushes her through the window, and she falls to her death.

The power of Simon’s work, from “The Wire” to “The Deuce,” is that he shows not only the humanity of the people working in these reviled industries, but also how cruelly people react to the news of their death. Some shrug it off as an expected industry risk. Others crack jokes. The most gut-wrenching part is that these calloused responses even come from within the victim’s community.

C.C. makes a jab at Ruby’s weight as the cops are investigating the scene of the crime. Chris, who was flirting with her recently, punches him in the stomach. Thankfully he wasn’t the only one who stood up for Ruby.

Vinny owns the property from where she was pushed, and shows more concern for whether his window is insured. Abby scoffs and walks away. “You think I like seeing that?” he asks Abby. “That?” she replies disgusted.

Words matter, folks, and so do the lives of sex workers. It’s an important message told through brilliant storytelling. It’s also a brutal reminder to stay cynical.

In a poignant scene, Eileen passes Ruby on the way to the porno premiere, mere hours before she dies. “Hey, Ruby, baby!” she shouts from her cab, smiling. The cab driver asks her if she wants to get out, but she declines and leaves Ruby and her streetwalking past in the rearview mirror. Even her best friend on the stroll is too good for her now.

While Ruby’s job led her to her demise, Eileen’s new role takes her new opportunities. “Every day, this thing takes another step out of the forest,” Harvey says about the growing porn industry and society’s acceptance of it. Pornos are now being shown in general admission theaters, and even have red carpet events for premieres like “Deep Throat,” one of the most famous “golden age of porn” movies.

Eileen steps up as director while Harvey is stuck with car problems. She even takes pointers from Hitchcock on how to drive the narrative. Yes, it’s smut film, but she takes her job seriously and understands what a porn needs to be successful, from the camera angles to the plotline.

“All these men are taught that women could take it or leave it when it comes to sex. [These movies show] that women are just as sex-crazed as they are,” Elaine explains to a porn producer. “That’s the fantasy we’re selling here.”

“I can see why you brought her here,” the porn producer says to Harvey. She suppresses her grimace. After directing a set for the full day, she doesn’t need Harvey’s help to ascend in her career, and they both know it. I wonder where her film talent will take her next season.

More Highlights from “My Name Is Ruby”

Best Frankie one-liner: “I figure you should be the one to christen it,” Frankie says as he hands Big Mike a quarter to use the porn privacy booths that he invented. The movie reel Frankie sets up for Big Mike’s booth is a cat-and-mouse cartoon. Classic Frankie.

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Most “The Wire”-esque moment: C.C. runs into his pimping mentor, Ace, who is none other than Clarke Peters (aka Lester Freamon). “A man has to know when to step off the stage,” Ace tells C.C., who asks him to join the game again. Will C.C. know when to retire from pimping?

Source of frustration: Sandra’s story about the cops shaking down the pimps and the salons is cut because Chris wouldn’t go on the record. He was going to, but was ratted out by his partner, who says it was “for your own good.” He was right — helping Sandra was bad for Chris’ professional and personal life life. Sandra was using him to get his story published, proving that you don’t have to walk the stroll to be a prostitute.

Family troubles: It took until the season finale, but we discover — more or less — why Elaine got into the sex industry. Her father was outraged at her for getting knocked up, then at her brother for wearing her dress. He sent her brother to the psych ward to make him straight. There, he undergoes electroconvulsive therapy (ETC) and receives meds, the former giving him a tremor. Elaine tells him that the world is changing and becoming more accepting of people. “Dad would [expletive] hate it,” she says with a laugh.

Most cringe-inducing scene: Abby and Paul hire live band whose lead singer is wearing blackface and minstrel white gloves. Oof, no.

Serving time: Larry never beat Barbara for her money-stealing scheme she pulled with Melissa. Instead, he set her up to get arrested by the cops for buying drugs. Not sure which is worse, but looks like we’ll see a new face in his stable in Season 2.

Mergers and acquisitions: I was wrong that Abby would be taking Ashley’s place in C.C.’s stable (thank goodness), but I was right that Melissa joined after Reggie’s murder. What I wasn’t expecting was that she would still be grieving her abuser’s death. Stockholm syndrome has that effect on people.

Shacked up: Vinny wants to get a place with Abby, who isn’t ready to settle down. No marriage, no monogamy, no boring couple life, he assures her. He’s even willing to take out the trash. How can she pass that up? Let’s see if it’s enough to keep her around next season.

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