Credit Paul Schiraldi/HBO
Season 1, Episode 8: “My Name Is Ruby”
The first season of “The Deuce” ends, fittingly, with a screening of “Deep Throat,” the 1972 box office phenomenon that ushered in the era of “porno chic,” when hard-core pornography infiltrated theaters and production values rose accordingly. There’s gold in them hills for the gangsters and pornographers that populate Times Square, and perhaps some measure of celebrity, too, given the star treatment Linda Lovelace receives as she ascends to the V.I.P. section. Yet creators David Simon and George Pelecanos, who wrote the episode, surely know the behind-the-scenes story of “Deep Throat” and how it epitomizes the exploitation and abuse at the heart of the industry. The particulars are not easily sorted out, but Lovelace, under her real name, Linda Boreman, later claimed her husband coerced her into sex work, telling the Meese Commission, “Virtually every time someone watches that movie, they’re watching me being raped.”
Therein lies the major theme of this week’s episode, which concerns itself with the price women pay for misogyny. The title, “My Name is Ruby,” underlines the mortal cost of a woman’s merely asserting her humanity in the face of a violent, thieving client — the same client that had robbed and beaten Eileen earlier in the season. Recall that Eileen, in the wake of that violence, was approached by Ruby’s pimp, Rodney, who used the opportunity to offer himself as her partner and protector. He warned her that if she continued freelancing, the day would come when someone had to “sweep up what’s left of you from under the bed and take it out to the cemetery in a cereal box.” But there was nothing Rodney could do for Ruby, whose life is considered so worthless that even Vinnie, a relatively sensitive guy, frets about the damage her falling body caused to his property.
“The Deuce” isn’t the type of show to make uncomplicated villains out of anyone, but this final episode quiets the violins over the marginalization of the Times Square pimps. As rise of the parlors and the peep shows has empowered gangsters and corrupt cops, the pimps have turned into ineffectual middle men, glorified chauffeurs who are still demanding their nightly cut. While the show registers their despair over a changing situation, like the longing C.C. feels when observing a retired pimp (played by the “Wire” alum Clarke Peters, in a wonderful turn) who’s settled down with a woman, it doesn’t indulge their self-pity or nostalgia for long. When one of Larry’s girls, Barbara, gets rung up on federal charges for a heroin deal done on his behalf, she’s expected to do the time for him. “She’s loyal like a three-legged dog,” he says. And he, like Vinnie, is one of the “good” ones.
As for Ruby, also known as Thunder Thighs, she was the most beloved of the streetwalkers — outspoken and effervescent, with a wicked sense of humor. A moment when Eileen calls out to her from the back seat of a cab takes on special significance: Eileen is speeding away from the life Ruby is still condemned to lead, all the way to the inevitable moment when she’s swept up in a cereal box and taken to the cemetery. “Girl was in a hurry, I guess,” says C.C. coldly, when accessing her body on the pavement, which earns him a well-deserved punch in the gut from Alston, who genuinely liked Ruby, same as everyone did. There’s a closeness to this community, even on opposites sides of the thin blue line, but what happens to Ruby is shrugged off by many who knew her well. She’s become another body to step over.
With Eileen a notable exception, “My Name Is Ruby” leaves many of its characters in a terrible spot heading into the second season. The closing montage shows Barbara getting bumped in prison; Larry guiltily shoving away a slice of pie; Sandra raging over her defanged exposé, tucked deep into the paper; Bobby sliding into an affair with a prostitute; C.C. and Lori snorting cocaine; and Vinnie in bed with Abby, looking regretful about his deepening commitment to mob business. There’s no turning back for him now, no reneging on the devil’s bargain that he wants desperately to transcend.