The days of disco are over in The Deuce‘s final season on HBO, but the record still has a few more spins before it’s done. Skipping ahead to the 1980s, the show aims to tackle a lot in its last season, including the AIDS crisis, Wall Street, the sanitation of 42nd Street, and the shifts in the porn industry thanks to new technology. While all of these issues intersect in the storylines of the show’s many characters, they often reside in different facets of society. The experiences of the different communities coincide with the music in their scenes, subtly encapsulating a changing decade.
The second season embraced some changes in the industry, like the shift from film to video and the rise in social justice causes to help sex workers on 42nd Street. Candy/Eileen (Maggie Gyllenhaal) pushed her way into a career as a successful feminist porn director, but the industry still complicates her artistic vision. The other sex workers were forced from the streets into parlors and clubs in an attempt to clean the streets. The Martino brothers (James Franco) gained more business through drugs and sex work. The prominent pimps in the show were killed off, and so was the show’s best character.
The third season opens with New York City in 1984 as “I’ll Melt with You” by Modern English plays. The show gives us the same seedy streets of the Big Apple but with a romantic pop song as the soundtrack. That gives a nostalgic feel to the crime, drugs, and sex that’s been handled with a matter-of-fact tone up until now. As the season unfolds, the characters begin to yearn for what used to be the underbelly they called home. Pimps no longer own the streets, and that leaves room for different kinds of crime. Expensive high-rise buildings are popping up, and it’s a change that none of them can control. Just as the characters’ view of the Deuce changes, the memorable pop song makes the audience look at Time Square differently, too.
The famous pop songs of the 1980s continue to play as the season follows Vincent Martino in his club. A different kind of crowd than we are used to seeing dances and snorts coke off the bar as Vincent watches idly on. This crowd is full of rich people who want to indulge in the vices of Midtown without dealing with any of the consequences. The 1980s seem to give them that at first, and they get the lighthearted soundtrack to match. There’s a serious class shift going on throughout the city during this season, and its no surprise that the place rich people gravitate toward is where the pop music plays. They’re out for a good time and a place where they can ignore the struggles evident on the streets, a place separate from reality. Nothing fits that better than the sounds of Hall & Oates.
On the other end of the spectrum is the part of New York City that still visits the Hi-Hat, managed by Abby (Margarita Levieva). Her passion for social justice and having a safe space for sex workers continues to reign there despite the changes going on outside. Last season, Abby had punk musicians play in the bar before punk became mainstream. The hits aren’t heard in the scenes in the bar. Instead, we hear famous alternative tracks of the era that fit better with the underground mentality that still remains there. Abby is determined to help the mistreated and maintain a certain brand in the bar, even if that means she begins distancing herself from Vincent.
Where we hear “The Killing Moon” by Echo & the Bunnymen and “This Is the Day” by The The is where the darkness and struggles that were out in the open in past seasons still reside. They have a melancholy soundtrack, and it is obvious things will not get better for the sex workers and members of the gay community that Abby serves at her bar. She keeps a space that encourages a questioning of what is going on in the city rather than a place to forget about it. Sex workers have a dialogue with women who protest against porn. People talk about movies, and Kieth Haring art can be seen on the walls. With alternative music as the soundtrack, the show is able to explore the strife of the coming decade in a different space and tone than the party scene that exists elsewhere in Midtown.
Music has always had a place in The Deuce. The show embraced disco and the scene that lived for that music. This season, music is where popular culture and the sex industry intersect for the first time in the series. When Candy and Harvey (David Krumholtz) attend the Adult Consumer Electronics Show, they witness the new sensation of porn: two men that set their films to popular music. Their porn films are very generic, but the introduction of songs that are hot at the time makes them successful.
There’s a sense that the porn industry needs to not only stay relevant within its own hemisphere but also keep up with what is popular in general culture. Candy tries to sit through a screening of the new popular film, which features a woman hearing New Wave music and suddenly having the urge to have sex. If it sounds ridiculous, Candy agrees with you. She walks out, but the film’s use of music is a connecting factor from porn to people’s everyday lives. People are beginning to look for amateurs and homemade porn rather than the professional films Candy makes. The New Wave porno is a professionally made film, but it benefits from that people’s desire for porn that feels more connected to their own lives.
Popular culture bleeds into the sex industry, and the opposite happens this season as well. Lori (Emily Meade) finds that after her last stint in rehab, the industry no longer values her as the star she once was. The work she gets is degrading and nowhere near the caliber of films that she was making with Candy in the last season. The gig she finds most interesting is a rock music video later in the season. She is sexualized and objectified but without any harm to her body, and she gets to have fun. Music has never been a part of the work she’s done until now, but her sex work has opened doors to other aspects of culture. In rock n’ roll videos, her sensuality is accepted into popular culture. The distinction between the ostracized idea of sex work and the rest of the entertainment industry is blurred through music.
The sounds of this season present a subtle way to differentiate the issues of the decade and portray the varying communities that are affected by social change. The Deuce has never been a perfect show. It’s killed off characters without any explanation. Its main characters are played by a man accused of sexual misconduct. What has done well and continues to do well in its final season is depict a begotten decade in all its glory.