[December 1 is World AIDS Day, an occasion to remember not just the global epidemic overall, but also and especially the individual and communal stories within it. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy the commemoration and a few of those stories, leading up to a weekend post on whether and how we can learn from those stories in our own ongoing pandemic moment.]
On an initially minor character who more fully emerges alongside a community and a crisis.
One of the most enjoyable things for those of us who have followed the David Simon Extended Universe (DSEU) for a couple decades now is seeing some of his favorite actors appear in multiple projects. The Deuce featured a number of those folks in both major roles and cameos (one of my favorite of the latter variety was Clarke Peters as a retired pimp), and among the former was the return of Chris Coy. Coy appeared in the third and fourth seasons of Treme as investigative journalist L.P. Everett, one of my favorite characters on that show (which is a very competitive list), and I was very excited to see him in the opening episodes of The Deuce as Paul Hendrickson, a bartender befriended and then hired by James Franco’s Vincent Martino. During the first season (as I remember it, anyway—I watched that season a couple years back), Paul seemed as if he would be a relatively minor character, helping flesh out the world of Vincent’s bar (a key season one setting that carries forward into the later seasons, although it changes ownership multiple times among the show’s characters) but not necessarily having too much to do outside of that space.
Paul gradually took on a far larger and more significant role in the show’s second and third seasons, however, and that emergence reflects two key aspects of both his character and New York City in the 70s and 80s. He’s the show’s most prominent gay character (although far from its only one), and because the show’s three seasons take place across a decade and a half of history (they are set in 1971-72, 1977, and 1984-85 respectively), through Paul’s eyes and experiences (as well as his professional and romantic relationships) we get to witness substantial changes in both the city’s gay culture and the very possibility of living as an out gay man in late 20th century America. Indeed, while both Vincent and the audience know that Paul is gay relatively early in his time at the bar and on the show, I believe it is only in the second season when we start to see Paul present his sexuality as part of his public identity. Of course the Deuce is a neighborhood and New York a city where it was more possible to be openly gay in the 1970s than in much of the rest of the United States, which makes Paul’s identity and journey an important part of how the show represents that world but which also illustrates that even in such a diverse and progressive community to be gay in the 70s was to live a frequently, frustratingly fraught existence.
Of course that existence became infinitely more fraught, and indeed constantly endangered, with the emergence of HIV/AIDS in the early 1980s. Until I began watching season three I didn’t realize it would be set in the mid-80s (although I should have suspected as much, given the time jump between seasons one and two), and so didn’t see coming just how fully that final season would focus on the presence and effects of the AIDS crisis. It does so for most of the show’s characters (since the worlds of porn, prostitution, and sex work were particularly threatened by that epidemic), but it is Paul who becomes a strikingly intimate lens on the crisis, both through his long-term partner (Aaron Dean Eisenberg’s Todd Lang, an actor who is already dying of AIDS when the season begins) and through his resigned acceptance that the disease will eventually claim his life as well. Moreover, while the show certainly does justice to the AIDS epidemic on its own specific terms, it also utilizes the epidemic symbolically, as a striking parallel to the themes of continuity and change, loss and persistence, that are at the heart of how The Deuce portrays its titular neighborhood, New York City, and late 20th century America. Season three’s final 1985 line (before the 2019-set coda) is given to Paul, and works on all those levels: “I love the change of seasons now,” he says wistfully, before walking slowly away (he now must use a cane) into the early fall evening.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Stories or histories you’d share?