The characters in Luck are all chasing echoes. They’re all going after memories of who they were or of their last great high. Sometimes, this is obvious, as when we watch Walter pine for Delphi, a horse he once loved, as he watches over the great horse’s son. Sometimes, it’s something we have to fill in ourselves, as when we watch Jerry at the gambling table, waiting for another moment like in the last episode, when he won the big score on the Pick Six. Or maybe it’s just something as simple as Ace ruminating on the old days, on the idea that America has seen better days and we’ve entered some new, terrifying age when we’re not certain what’s coming next. There’s a heavy sense of the end coming just around the corner running throughout the series. There aren’t even 300 people at the racetrack, which was once such a draw. The structural damage is entire.
Luck in some ways seems to me like an interesting flip side of Deadwood. My theory of the HBO holy trinity has always been that the three programs represent three different stages of the American empire: Deadwood traces its birth; The Sopranos traces its decline; The Wire traces its death. Luck is pitched much more closely to one of the latter two in spirit, even if it’s resolutely nothing like either in practice, being much too sprawling for something like The Sopranos’ laser-like focus, and much too focused for The Wire’s attempts to create an entire fictionalized version of a real-life city. But that sense of decline and a nation coming to the end of its greatness resonates throughout the hour. In some cases, this is direct, as when Jerry tells the guy he’s playing with that this is a century for rising powers like China. But the feeling is less direct in most cases, instead staying on the edges of the story, focused as it is on characters who long for bygone days and a world that took them seriously.
Not a lot happens in this second episode of Luck. We’re still very much in the “building the story” phase of the show, and there are some expositional scenes that might have used another draft or two, particularly when Ace explains what a claiming race is to Gus, mostly because the audience needs to know it and less because Gus does. To be sure, it’s nice to find out that Ace was in jail because the police found a huge stash of cocaine in his place—cocaine placed there by his business partner Mike—but there’s a vague sense of info-dump at a lot of places in this episode, when David Milch has always been slightly at better weaving the exposition into the proceedings. Much of this information is necessary. Milch, obviously, can’t expect the audience to know what a claiming race is, so faded and obscure is the sport of horse racing, but because all of his characters hang out around the track, he doesn’t possess a better way to get that information across than Gus, who is in this world but not especially of it. (The script for this episode is credited to John R. Perrotta, but since Milch so heavily rewrites every word of his scripts, I’ll usually be giving him the lion’s share of the blame and credit going forward, particularly when it comes to dialogue. Writers on Milch shows are usually there to help structure the stories and the season and learn everything they can from the man.)
Never mind all that, though. Much of the rest of this episode is sublime, even if there’s a definite and HBO-y feeling of asking the audience to stick with this stuff until it really gets good. All the same, I’m impressed with how invested I was in what was this episode’s “standalone” story: Renzo’s attempts to buy the horse so instrumental in the gambling foursome’s rise from destitution to quick riches. I still think these four gamblers are the secret heart of the show, as Milch’s Greek chorus characters often are, and while I’m intellectually involved in, say, Ace’s attempts to take over the track and install more traditional gambling mechanisms there, I’m much more emotionally invested in whether these four sadsacks will get their shit together. In particular, Kevin Dunn’s Marcus is just terrific and is rapidly shaping up to be the bleeding heart of this series. All of these people are driven by a certain love and passion for a sport most other Americans couldn’t give a shit about, but you can really feel the bruises on Marcus and sense that he’s given more to the track than lots of folks.
Of course, this is also a show about luck, in all its forms and possibilities. I’m already in love with the idea of having Ace and Gus end each episode by talking about whatever happened in that episode, and I hope it continues throughout the season, as it offers some great possibilities for Milch-style philosophizing. Here, Ace expresses the idea that Escalante “took the bit between his teeth” when he was offered a chance at training horses (without knowing that it was Ace who gave him that chance). And that seems to be what the show is getting at. You—as an individual, as a group, as a nation—only get so many lucky breaks. They’re eventually going to run out. But when you get those lucky breaks, you have to do the best that you can with them, to maximize what they give back to you and what you give to the world. Someone like Jerry, who takes his earnings back to the casino, isn’t seen by the show as being as fully formed as, say, Renzo, who takes his earnings and tries to turn them into something else, even if he’s unsuccessful at it. When you are given the chance and called up from the vegetable cart, it’s up to you to take everything that next step.
Milch’s shows are always about community building, about the idea that the things we do reverberate outwards in ways we don’t entirely understand. Yes, when we hurt someone, we hurt them and those associated with them. But that hurt also resonates outward and hurts the whole human organism. It’s an idea that’s hard to wrap one’s head around, which is why Milch shows can seem a little strange and ill-motivated. (Have you seen John From Cincinnati lately?) But when it works, it works like gangbusters. I think what he’s getting at here—obviously after only two episodes—is the idea that luck is random and drops down from the sky on your head when you’re not exactly expecting it, yes, but also that luck isn’t just about maintaining, about keeping yourself at a certain level. You always have to be building toward something, trying to create something new, even if you’re mired and stuck in the past. The cold winds are seeping in through the cracks in the foundation. If it’s ever been now or never, it is right now.
- A reminder: I wrote the text of this review back after first watching the episode in December, but I’ve since seen the entire season. Thus, the above is spoiler free, but my comments will be informed by what I’ve seen, just by the nature of this TV watching thing I do.
- I’ve never been a huge Jason Gedrick fan, but I’m finding him quite a revelation here as Jerry. Milch himself has had his problems with addiction in the past, and you can see some of that reflected in the way Jerry seems almost hungry when he’s in the casino.
- It seems like Nick Nolte’s going to get a lot of the Milch monologues, and this episode is no exception, as he gets that wonderful monologue about the death of Delphi, which is graphic and horrifying and deeply sad, all without showing a damn thing but an old man talking about the past.
- I’m already a little in love with Kerry Condon’s Rosie. You should be forewarned.
- If I’m having trouble getting my beads on anyone, it’s Richard Kind’s Joey, who strikes me as a little superfluous to the action right now. We’ll see if that changes as the season goes on.
- Film director Terry George directed this episode, and he keeps the visuals nice and lush. In particular, I like the way that the visual look of the show set up by Michael Mann continues in this episode, and I love how the show is using light and dark, something I hope to talk a bit more about in future weeks.
- Nice visual touch: The horse Renzo wants to claim (and I swear I will make a point to learn these damn horses’ names before next week’s review) has those pink bandages, so you always know who it is.
- “My latent adroitness is dulled by this constant negativity.”
- “I hear a voice from inside my pants. ‘What about me?’ the Emperor is saying.”