Earlier this week, Luck shut down production for good, due to the fact that, for whatever reason, the show was unable to adequately care for the horses involved in the production. Three had died, and even if the last didn’t die while filming a racing sequence—according to reports, it died when it spooked, reared up, bashed its head, and had to be euthanized—nobody involved in the show wanted to work on a series that had garnered that sort of ghoulish reputation. The irony of this, I think, is that you can see just how much everyone on the show loved those animals, from the way they were shot, written about, and acted around. (Alan Sepinwall has more on creator David Milch’s longstanding love of the animals here.) To film with horses—particularly such heavily bred animals as racehorses—requires the kind of time and care that just isn’t available on a TV schedule, it would seem, even if it’s an HBO shooting schedule. If you’re making War Horse or Seabiscuit, you can give the animals the time they need to properly relax. That just might not be possible on TV.
Naturally enough, this is going to color perceptions of the show going forward. From now on, Luck won’t be known as the show that got mostly positive reviews or lured Dustin Hoffman to TV or functioned as Milch’s return from the wilderness he wandered off into after John From Cincinnati. It’ll be remembered as the show that killed all of the horses. And while, yes, it’s that, it’s too bad that that will obscure what has been (and will be, next week) a really terrific television program. It’s no secret that Milch is one of my favorite TV creators, but I really do think Luck did a good job of blending his more esoteric concerns—about the connections between human beings and the ways we can find something like divinity in each other and the other lifeforms with which we share this planet—with a much more accessible narrative about underdogs hitting streaks of good luck and mobsters maneuvering around each other for advantage. Don’t get me wrong: HBO was right to end this show. The safety issues just weren’t ever going away. But that doesn’t mean I’m not still sad to be losing the program.
At its best, as it was tonight, Luck was a show that suggested new ways for television to be. I’m not trying to claim that the show was so radical as to reinvent television or anything like that, but it was always more interested in connection than disconnects, and that made it somewhat different from most of the other great dramas of the past decade. Those are largely shows about the self, about how when we make selfish choices, they reverberate outward through our communities. That causes others to make their own selfish choices, and we keep perpetuating these circles of suffering upon each other. The characters on Luck were just as susceptible to their own petty needs as any other people ever, but the show’s all-seeing camera suggested there were better ways to exist than simply constant concern for self. The characters here would get an occasional glimpse of something grand and mysterious underlying all things, and they’d become speechless.
Anyway, episode eight was a lot of table-setting for the finale, but it was some grand table-setting, to be sure. After the first six episodes featured very deliberate plot momentum, episode eight continued with the sped up pace of episode seven, as Ace and Gus realized that Mike had killed Israel and set about unleashing what the audience assumed would be their revenge. Instead, Ace merely breaks things off with Mike, putting off the famous “Bernstein temper” and his revenge a little while longer. It’s a canny bit of anticlimax, particularly once the episode spends much of its time making us think something momentous is going to happen. (Ace’s irritation with the traffic, for instance, is made to seem more portentous than it actually is.) Instead, Gus just detains DiRossi in an old saddle room (which Escalante is good enough to lock the two men in), and Ace uses that leverage of knowing if he doesn’t come back, Gus will make sure DiRossi doesn’t either. If nothing else, I liked that this storyline reminded us that Gus is seen by many as a threatening figure.
Much of the rest of the episode centers on the characters preparing for the Western Derby, which will presumably make up the bulk of the action in the finale. (The gamblers’ horse, Mon Gateau, won’t be in the Derby itself, but it will be in a race on Derby Day, with Rosie as its jockey.) Walter’s trying to prepare Gettin’ Up Mornin’ for taking pole position in the race, but he’s bedeviled by the family that claims ownership of the horse. Walter’s been such a “wise old man” figure that it’s fascinating to watch him give into his anger and physically attack the young man, even after the meeting in which Walter’s ownership of the horse is reaffirmed. (Again, I’ll point you to comments a couple of weeks ago, in which you guys figured out the real-life parallels for this story.) Walter’s monologue about the horrific night when Delphi died was another highlight of the episode, and I liked that you could tell just how thoroughly that night had shattered the man and made him who he is today.
Meanwhile, the story of Jo and Escalante’s unborn child took a turn toward the tragic, as she was kicked in the abdomen by a horse, something I’d have thought was more damaging to a fetus than it actually was. (Maybe it was so small that the trauma didn’t have as much effect as it would have if the fetus were larger. I’ll admit to having basically no idea on these things.) This has her spending most of the episode in the hospital, and if I have one big critique of Luck, it’s crystallized here: The women on this show are kind of boring. I like Rosie, for sure, but the rest of the female characters tend to fall into the same predictable roles you might find women in on other shows. They’re girlfriends—like Naomi, who spends the race checking her phone—or they’re reduced to being wombs with legs. If Jo had been built up as a character at all, her pregnancy (and near miscarriage) might not have seemed like a desperate move to give her something to do. Instead, the most significant character moment in the story was given to Escalante.
Finally, we have Ronnie, who has a small moment of triumph, pulling off a trick he apparently used to win the Kentucky Derby back in 1992, by making it seem as if his horse was tiring after leading the pack, then surging back out front again. (I’m not entirely sure what this accomplishes, since I imagine it’s hard to psych out a horse, but, hey, everybody seems really impressed by it, so I’ll defer to them.) Ronnie’s been ready for this chance for a while now, and it’s nice to see some of the bitterness and anger slough off of him as he has this big moment. At the same time, I wonder what’s going to happen with the pills from last week. He seems resolute about not providing Leon with the “special-est stuff,” but he was also snorting them up at the end of the last episode. I’m just going to assume this will come up next week and be happy that, for now, Ronnie’s having a good day.
What’s amazing to me is that the show has so successfully made me care about every single one of these people—give or take a Jo—over the course of just eight episodes. It’s a massive cast, but we’ve gotten to know all of them so well (and in episodes that are shorter than the usual HBO episodes) that I can’t help but wonder where all of them would have went if the show actually had continued. These sorts of stories won’t be available to us after next week, but I do hope that years from now, when people stumble upon the DVD, they’ll pick it up, knowing nothing beyond the fact that horses died in the production of the series, and be quietly blown away by just how good the show was, in spite of all of that. It’s a sad story all around, but that doesn’t need to detract from the characters we’ve met and the story we’ve been told. It was a good show. It’ll be missed, if only by me.
- Usual boilerplate about having written these while watching the series for the first time on screeners, then having watched the rest of the series. That said, I (obviously) reworked this one to address the end of the show, because, well, I couldn’t not talk about it.
- If you’re wondering if next week’s finale makes a good ending for the show, it does, mostly. Not every storyline is wrapped up with a bow, but it provides a really good stopping point all the same. It feels like the end of a really strong novel, even as you knew more novels would have been coming.
- For what it’s worth, I’m with Matt Zoller Seitz in his belief that the show probably wasn’t canceled because HBO wanted to cut its losses. The time to do that would have been before production started and the network wouldn’t have to eat tens of millions of dollars in paying full season salaries to cast and crew. HBO really did believe in this show, I think, and it at least knew that having Dustin Hoffman on the network was a license to print Emmy nominations for the foreseeable future.
- The gamblers don’t really get much to do here, spending the episode watching other people do stuff, then eating Chinese food together at episode’s end.
- I loved this episode’s use of montages to tie everybody together, first as they awoke in the morning (and as Mike’s men gruesomely disposed of Israel’s body) and then as they watched the race and as the episode ended.