“Of everything that can be.”—Ace and Claire
In its sixth episode, Luck is revealing that its grand theme is possibilities, the idea that if you open yourself up to the universe and other people, you just might be pleased to find how willing they are to open up right back to you. I’ve always preferred the work of David Milch to the work of other, similar TV auteurs because he seems to have a certain optimism about the human race in general and Americans in particular. He sees all the self-defeating ways we’re capable of hurting ourselves and those around us, yet he believes there’s nothing more powerful than when two or more of us gather together and work toward something greater. The people on Luck are all on little islands, but those islands are starting to collide, and if I’ve loved season one so far, I suspect I’m going to love season two—when those islands finally begin to form a continent—even more.
I don’t think of Milch as a particularly religious writer, even if ideas and ideals from Christianity inform so many of his works. I do think, however, that he has a certain, fundamental faith that informs his writing. People can hurt and destroy each other, yes, but they can also help each other and build each other up. In a Milch show, this can get shoved to the edges, yet it’s always there, whether it’s the centerpiece of a scene where two of the gamblers make sure to take care of each other or off at the edges, as when Jo rushes off to help the woman who’s collapsed in sorrow from the news she received on her phone call. The final conversation between Claire and Ace—the one I’ve excerpted above—strikes me as one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen on television, a simply stated belief that no matter how set in your ways you are, no matter how old, there will always be something new.
The episodic structure of the show continues to break down in intriguing ways. Here, it feels like we’re set up for an episode like normal: day during the first half, race at the midpoint, fallout from the race and night in the last half. Then, abruptly, we shift to the next day after a scene where the gamblers celebrate another win for Mon Gateau at the local bar (bringing them into contact with Joey and Ronnie). Earlier in the episode, someone wished Walter luck on his race tomorrow, and I assumed that event would get pushed to the seventh episode. Instead, it takes up much of the final 15 minutes of the show, with the latest victory for Gettin’ Up Mornin’ marred by the fact that Rosie takes the whip to him, inspiring the ire of Walter. (The two of them reconcile in a sweet, if too brief, scene, marred by the return of someone Walter is evidently not very happy to see.)
That first day, though, is an eventful one. For starters, Mon Gateau wins his next race, to the delight of the gamblers, who try to push stable T-shirts on Escalante and Jo. (I love how you can tell how irritated Escalante is by the very idea just by the look in John Ortiz’s eyes.) Yet it’s a race that very nearly has profound consequences for everyone. While passing another horse, Mon Gateau jostles said horse, something that jockey Leon (finally getting that start he’s been wishing for, only to have everything thrown under suspicion) should have been watching out for. There’s an inquiry, which does not overturn Mon Gateau’s win, but it’s a tense situation for all involved. I also liked that of everyone watching the race and cheering on Mon Gateau, only Jerry and Escalante noticed the bump and seemed to understand what it could mean. It underlines just how out of their depth some of the other guys are.
Another wonderful scene involves the aftermath of Joey’s suicide attempt. The agent, driven to despair by no one liking or trusting him and the complete lack of interest “Lynn” has in having him in his life, places a gun to his temple, only to be interrupted by an earthquake that’s presented almost as an ill omen, God shaking the Earth to spook horses and cause general fear and anguish. And yet the foremost effect of the quake is that it gets Joey to drop the gun, which he accidentally fires. The bullet bounces off the bathtub, then a pipe, then the wall, before grazing Joey across the cheek. Later, in the hospital, he’s being attended to by someone who tells him if he doesn’t prove that he’s okay to leave the hospital and not harm himself, he’ll be placed on a 72 hour hold. And then the damnedest thing happens: His stutter goes away.
Joey’s been seemingly the most tertiary character on the show (even if he’s fourth-billed in the main credits, ahead of any of the gamblers), often seeming to be the sort of weasel-like presence who hangs around places like the track, hoping to leech off of people who are actually out there, making things happen. Yet it’s hard not to thrill for him when his stammer disappears. He starts talking to no one in particular, saying his name and reading off the tag on the T-shirt he was wearing, his thrill growing and growing. The thing that marked and defined him, that turned him into the kind of person who would let Ronnie bedevil him at every turn and let the world walk over him, is simply gone. No explanation. He tried to kill himself, the earth shook, and he’s a different man.
The stammer comes back, of course. And here we get a key, I think, to what the episode’s getting at. On day one, all things are new and possible. On day two, people retreat back into their safe places, afraid of what might be coming. It’s almost as if the quake shakes loose bad habits and behaviors that have kept people trapped, allowing them to come together in new and intriguing ways. A new possibility for taking down Mike presents itself to Ace, and he gladly takes it. As mentioned, the bar brings a bunch of people who normally wouldn’t mix into each other’s orbits. Jo helps the woman sobbing by the telephone. The gamblers, Escalante, and Jo make a weird little family with Mon Gateau as their mutual child. Leon gets to ride, finally. Marcus lets the woman kiss him on the cheek.
Yet if day two is all about what happens when you walk back from those new things, those new possibilities—seen in the way Walter angrily turns on Rosie after she does specifically what he didn’t want and in the way Joey’s stammer returns—there’s still the fact that possibility follows you at every turn. Jo’s pregnant, as it turns out, and Walter and Rosie make up. Ace and Claire appear to finally be letting things take a turn toward the romantic, and the racing world (which will extend beyond Santa Anita, thanks to the Internet) buzzes about the second race of Gettin’ Up Mornin’. You can try to retreat, but the second you open yourself up, other people and the world have a way of getting inside and changing you anyway.
Look, every great TV show is just a little ridiculous on some level. And I can see where the sorts of florid touches like the way characters state things almost directly to the camera—think of Ace’s final line or Escalante talking about how Mon Gateau has a great “horse’s heart”—would make this one ripe for a Saturday Night Live parody (if I thought this were the sort of thing that show would parody). But I also think that ripe, beating heart, that heart that’s all right there on the surface, is what makes this show so great. The horse races are exciting, yes, but they’re only the thing that’s holding the many interesting human dramas that make up the rest of the show together. There are few things more visceral or exciting on TV than the races, yet the thing that I’m coming back to on this show, more and more, are the strange, wonderful ways these people make sure their fellow men and women are cared for. The horses are just transportation. What keeps these people walking is the soul.
- Yep! I wrote about these as I watched them, but I’ve since seen the whole thing, so my comments will be reflected by that fact.
- While we’re talking here, though, I’ll say I got an e-mail correcting me about something in last week’s article. Tony, the homeless dude in the bathroom, was most likely digging through the trash for tossed out race tickets, which might contain big payouts. Thanks for the correction!
- One minor quibble: Isn’t “Shipping Off To Boston” by the Dropkick Murphys a little over-done by now? I feel like that one was over in mid-2007, after everybody got done copying The Departed. Oh well.
- I will admit that I’m clueless as to who that young man who greeted Walter was, even if the show treats it like something I should know. I’m probably glossing over some important part of his back-story. Readers?
- I love the final conversation between Ace and Gus again, and this time, it seems like Ace is really trying to open himself up to the thought that his horse might win or his grandson might come home before Gus falling asleep reawakes his prickly temper. We’re starting to see a real battle for this man’s soul, and that, to me, is infinitely more interesting than whether he gets his revenge on Mike (though it could be fun to see both things happen as well).
- Michael Gambon continues to be a minor presence as Mike, but he’s still great fun nonetheless. I like the way he says that, yeah, he’ll be having a drink.
- “Pickled peppers, asshole.” Your mission is to work this into as many conversations as you can this week.