**Spoiler Warning for those not caught up on HBO’s The Deuce**
Investing in characters within fiction can sometimes be a tricky proposition. Obviously, a story is nothing if we don’t care about the characters who inhabit it. What good is the story without that investment, having been pulled in by every aspect, flaw, and virtue. Arguably a series with a high concentration of the characters to become fully invested in, HBO’s The Deuce certainly understands this concept. A look back at New York City during the 70s and early 80s, audiences have gotten a glimpse of an era that evolved from pimps and prostitution being a fixture of the nightlife, to pornography becoming more mainstream, and with this most recent and final season, the emerging fear and panic surrounding the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Over the course of the series, The Deuce has tracked the progression of over a dozen lead and supporting characters, all of whom are working to find where they fit, as the New York City’s Times Square and surrounding neighborhoods continue to change around them. Most manage to adapt and grow, some flounder as they try to grab onto any lifeline that might be available, and others have met shocking and untimely ends. In most cases, a character dying, or more accurately, being killed on The Deuce isn’t terribly shocking. Anyone familiar with David Simon’s previous work should be intimately familiar with his penchant for dispatching characters we love, or love to hate, in dramatic fashion. And even in a season that’s seen a handful of ancillary characters shake loose the mortal coil, in addition to main character Frankie Martino, nothing hit harder than the sudden suicide of streetwalker-turned-porn starlet, Lori Madison, played by Emily Meade, in last week’s penultimate episode, “That’s A Wrap”.
From her introduction in the first season, it was abundantly clear that Lori was a character that we would be following through the entirety of the series. Arriving in New York in the early 70s, Lori stood out from the naive young girls who came to New York, and were unwittingly coerced into prostitution, actively searching for a pimp from jump. She immediately caught the attention of C.C., who was as charismatic as he was manipulative and sadistic. Fresh-faced and eager to please, Lori arrived at the perfect time for C.C., as he was looking to revitalize his stable. With the five-year time jump of season two, Lori was firmly established as C.C.’s “bottom bitch”, a term which rather ironically, placed her at the top of the hierarchy of his girls, yielding the most profits for him, not to mention a place in his bed. But the times, they were a-changin’ for many who strolled the Deuce.
The production of porn for peepshow booths and full-length adult films was surging, and it provided an opportunity for some who had grown tired of soliciting johns with fewer guarantees that they wouldn’t be stiffed on payment, roughed up, or in the unfortunate case of “Thunder Thighs” Ruby, thrown to their death out of a four-story window. With prostitute-turned- porn auteur Eileen “Candy” Merrell calling the shots on her own ambitious film, re-imagining the story of Little Red Riding Hood, Lori was given the chance to be praised for what she used to be arrested for on practically a nightly basis. The irony of which couldn’t have been lost on the members of the NYPD, who were tasked with doing everything in their power to clean up the Deuce so that it could be parceled out to real estate developers looking to attract more “respectable” businesses and residents.
Lori’s turn to porn was also awakening a spark of independence, which naturally stood in opposition of C.C.’s dominance, at a time when the pimps of the Deuce were proving to be a dying (sometimes LITERALLY) breed. The harder C.C. tried to maintain control of Lori’s new career, the weaker he proved himself, until his arrogance ultimately got him killed, leaving Lori free of his control, and free to take any path she chose . . . and the prospect terrified her.
One of the aspects of The Deuce that has stood out for me over three seasons is the evolution of the female characters that started the series as prostitutes, but have each taken paths that put them in vastly different positions from one another as the show has progressed. Eileen’s journey from being a hooker without a pimp to becoming an in-demand porn director has certainly had the lion’s share of exploration, as she struggled to balance her profession with her assorted family and relationship drama. From the very beginning, Candy was positioned as a veteran and wise elder to up-and-coming prostitutes, even as she struggled to keep her own world from falling apart. Some managed to leave sex work behind completely, while others burned themselves out on the streets, succumbing to either drug addiction or AIDS. Even C.C.’s previous bottom bitch Ashley returned to the Deuce under her real name Dorothy, as a women’s rights activist. She unfortunately ended up dead, presumably in response to a rather bold confrontation with C.C., letting him know that he no longer had any figurative power over her. Each of these women were faced with the reality of having to adapt as the world around them changed, and The Deuce has been rather blunt in examining what that entails for multiple characters.
For Lori, stardom in the world of pornography was decidedly different for her than Eileen, who strived to maintain the same independent spirit she had, working as a prostitute. Things didn’t always work in her favor, but she took the hits life threw at her (both literal and figurative), and she learned to keep moving. By comparison, Lori has always needed a pillar to lean on. Leaving rehab at the beginning of season three, Lori is taking a long, hard look at her career, and what she can do to pivot. Unfortunately a victim of her own success, she quickly discovers that there are very few who can look past what she’s done to earn a living. Non-porn casting directors are passing on her for mainstream acting roles, porn directors are demanding she perform more sexuality explicit acts on camera, and her agent and manager are only looking out for their bottom line. Even a reunion with Vincent Martino, earlier in the season, comes to an abrupt end, when the two decide to act on previously unspoken attraction to one another, and Lori takes offense to Vince wanting to use a condom. It may be understandable to the casual observer why he would want to practice safe sex, given the timing (lord knows I hate the trope in film and television of casual sexual encounters being initiated with nary a condom in sight), but for Lori, it’s hard not to see the action as an indictment of her life as a sex worker.
In bringing Lori’s arc to such a tragic end, we have to acknowledge the brilliance of the Deuce’s writing team, as they’ve done an exceptional job in crafting one of the most captivating characters of the entire series, infusing her with depth and nuance in a way that always felt remarkably understated in light of the star power the series, which includes Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Franco. We were hopeful for Lori, especially once C.C. was out of the picture. Unfortunately, being free of one abusive and domineering relationship only led to Lori becoming entangled in a string of comparable relationships. And as she struggled to gain some semblance of control, her situation only worsened, as she dealt with demanding fans, walking into scene shoots that she never would have agreed to if the parties involved were upfront in their intentions, and a cheating lover/manager who has left her all but penniless. Desperate and frustrated, Lori leaves L.A., booking dancing engagements at strip clubs across the country to pay for travel, and bringing her back to New York City.
Incidentally, Lori’s return home coincides with Eileen’s financial woes as she tries to get her latest film produced. Eileen’s spent a portion of season three confronted with the reality that her own success within the porn industry is somewhat rare, and that women, whether they work the streets or an “honest job”, are seen as product. And in working towards creating something that can truly stand out and confront that reality, she ironically becomes another person for Lori to be controlled by, and taken for granted. Obviously, she means well and wants to help Lori get back on her feet, performing in an erotic film that would be devoid of the aspects that Lori, and pockets of woman’s rights activists, found degrading to women. The reality is that Lori was just a means to an end for Eileen, a name that would have attracted the investors she needed to keep her production afloat.
As a viewer, I couldn’t come to this conclusion until days after watching “That’s A Wrap”. It was crafted in such a way as to facilitate one of the most successful misdirects I’ve ever witnessed in a television show or film. There is a spectre of hope laid overtop the rather apparent despair of Lori as a character. We’re steered so masterfully into believing that reuniting with Eileen will be just what Lori needs to find her way back to something that’s hers and she can be proud of. Even as she walks the streets of the Deuce, ultimately offering sex in exchange for cocaine, we’ve been conditioned to pay close attention to her subsequent refusal to indulge. We’ve watched her take bump after bump throughout the season, so to the point that her putting the cocaine back in her purse registers as an optimistic turning point. The writers of the show know that this small gesture will speak volumes to an audience that has watched Lori give into her addiction for the entirety of the season. And in this moment, we the audience are so invested in Lori, and her potential path to redemption, that her abruptly taking out a handgun before shooting herself in the head hits like a ton of bricks.
Using the potential of hope as a misdirection is certainly not uncommon in storytelling. But rarely is it crafted in such an instance in which the outcome of a given character was so painfully obvious, while still managing to take audiences completely by surprise. Usually, there is a level of grandiose pageantry that serves as greater impact for the other characters in the story than the audience. Lori’s suicide, by comparison, is a raw and unflinching, yet private moment. For a character who has had few choices that were truly her own, this was the only way out that she could see for herself. Unable to define herself beyond how other people could use her to their advantage, Lori stands as one of the most sobering cautionary tales The Deuce has offered over its three season run. Many of us still view sex work with an undercurrent of judgment and shame, even those of us that would patronize such services, without seeing what the individual goes through. It’s not hard to imagine how much worse it must have been in the 70s and 80s. The reality of stories like Lori make for powerful television, but it’s a reality that deserve to be seen and reflected upon, just the same.