For as much as I love the sweep of Luck, the way it tries to capture the lives of seemingly every person with even a tangential connection to the Santa Anita racetrack, what I love even more is the way the series is so intimate. It’s easy for a series with this big of a scope to miss out on the smaller, human moments. That’s much of what made that first season of Boardwalk Empire, which was technically immaculate, so darn airless. It’s also why that show’s second season steadily improved as it allowed the people at its center to breathe a little, to become actual characters. Luck, in some ways, has had the opposite problem, where we grasp who most, if not all, of the characters are fairly readily, but we don’t quite understand what’s at stake. If Ace doesn’t get his hands on the racetrack, so what? And if Gettin’ Up Mornin’ doesn’t win at the track, what’s really at stake beyond Walter’s already frayed state of mind?
This is also why it can be easy to miss some of what Dustin Hoffman, in particular, is doing. We’ve been told that Ace has a fearsome temper and that he was a criminal mastermind. But every time we see him, he doesn’t seem particularly angry, and his ultimate plan to take over the racetrack and get his revenge on his enemies remains a little hazy at this point. His performance is now one almost entirely of moments, like when he somehow managed to restrain himself at last week’s business meeting or when he greets someone to his hotel room with a tiny shrug in this episode. You’ll start to get momentum in this plotline—or any plotline, really—and then the show will send us back into the intimate moments, often set at nighttime, when the characters are allowed to bare their souls and reveal a little bit about what makes them tick.
A slow burn is a great thing, but it needs to have something to back it up, something to make us say, “I get where we’re headed here.” With this fourth episode, Luck finally makes that leap up in the, frankly, amazing horse racing sequence that comes at the episode’s midpoint. All of the race sequences have been great this season, but this one is something else entirely, as we watch Gettin’ Up head into the stalls for the first time, with Rosie in a major race for the first time, with Walter and Joey and the gamblers watching, with the jockey who was supposed to ride him in one version of the plan trying desperately to make weight. The episode—wonderfully directed by Phillip Noyce—cuts meaningfully between all of these moments, but my favorite shot might be at the very end. Walter, who’s seemingly willed Gettin’ Up Mornin’ to an improbable come-from-behind win, basks in the cheers of the audience, and the camera pulls back from him. The victory belonged to him and him only at the start. But now, it’s everyone’s. They can all, finally, see the specialness of this horse he’s been championing. It has the effect of making him seem even older, even more frail, somehow, even at his greatest moment of triumph.
What’s also great about this sequence is how intimate it is throughout. Go through and count how many genuine wide shots there are, instead of close-ups or midshots. Everything that happens is designed to pull us into the headspace of these characters, of Rosie, trying to overcome that lousy start, or Walter, methodically clapping his hands as he tries to get his horse across the finish line. We even get a number of close-ups of Gettin’ Up Mornin’, making the great horse seem at once more alien and more familiar to us. We see Joey and the gamblers watch a legend being born. But we never pull back to the full shot. We’re trusted to understand that this is a huge moment, but only for these people. It unites them all in that moment, and it makes them part of a larger collective, of a body that is larger than any one of them (or even the racetrack itself), but it’s an isolated one, plopped in the middle of a world that, by and large, doesn’t give a shit. (Notice how the montage—set to a beautiful Max Richter piece by the end—transitions us out of the racetrack and back to what Jerry and Ace are up to.) Gettin’ Up Mornin’ is the amazing animal he seemed to be, but where that might have been big news a century ago—when America was growing and bursting at the seams—now, it’s just a thing that only a few people care about, and the country is slowly suffocating under its own weight.
There are a number of thematic touchstones scattered throughout this episode—at least I think there are, based on the past work of David Milch—the first being the scene where Joey tells the jockey that he needs to make weight because you’re either on the horse or you’re not. One of the major themes of Milch is the idea that life is for those living it, to be fairly reductive. Luck and class and good fortune play a major part in who you are and what you accomplish, but on some level, you are responsible for your own success and your own happiness. If you wallow in misery, even if you have miserable circumstances surrounding you, you bear some small amount of responsibility for your own emotions. Milch isn’t trying to say that, say, you need to force yourself to be happy or that people who aren’t successful are failures. He’s saying that we all get chances, no matter how small, and we can either seize them, or we can hold ourselves back from them for our own reasons. And when the time comes, if you didn’t take the chance, the only person you can blame, ultimately, is yourself. Make weight or don’t. Get on the horse or don’t. (The flipside of this is that sometimes, the things you want to do or the things society asks of you are repugnant—see the way jockeys may need to be severely malnourished to make weight. And then the question becomes if you need to shift your priorities.) We’ve already seen some of this in this show, with people like Rosie and Ace taking control of their destinies (as Escalante did in the past), while others allow the miseries of the past to hold them in place. Ace may spend too much time wallowing in those who wronged him, but at least he’s doing something about it, no matter how misguided.
The other notion here is the idea that Jerry isn’t “whole.” When the gamblers go to rescue him from blowing all of the money at the poker game, there’s a tangible sense that these men add up to more when they’re together than they can be alone. This isn’t passed as a judgment (Luck is nothing if not compassionate to all of these broken people). It’s merely meant as a fact: These are men who don’t really add up to a whole person without each other around. That idea of groups and communities that function as larger organisms beyond their own individual parts goes all the way back to the ’80s social issue dramas Milch cut his teeth on, and it’s heavily reflected in all of his work since. I’d bet anything we keep returning to this idea as the season goes on.
There are also a number of pretty important plot points in this episode. We meet “Mike,” finally, and he’s the very worst kind of asshole, played with great flair by Michael Gambon (who’s a treat to watch pinging off of Dustin Hoffman). We find out that Rosie and her main competition are sleeping together in a wonderful, exultant sex scene where she’s still coming down off the high of riding Gettin’ Up to the victory. We also get a little more information on what’s up with Joey and Ronnie, though, again, this is the plot thread of the show that seems the least relevant to me at present. (That said, Richard Kind is really turning Joey into a wonderful figure of sheer piteousness. I wouldn’t be surprised if he becomes this show’s version of E.B. Farnum, stewing away and delivering monologues mostly to himself.)
Like many HBO shows, it sure seems like Luck is taking a turn here in its fourth episode, as it starts to show us how all of these characters are connected more explicitly and introduces new characters and ideas. I don’t know, but I suspect when the time comes around that we’ll look back at this episode and see that it was a place where the whole show took a turn where it became a little easier to explain, where the various characters and their goals snapped into place that much better. And even if that doesn’t happen, we’ll have that horse race at the episode’s center, an admission that when the time comes, we can all still be united by our appreciation of something exciting and beautiful and new.
- A reminder that I’ve seen the whole season but wrote these articles as I went. My comments in comments will be informed by having seen all nine episodes, though I will do my best to avoid even the most minor of spoilers. That’s why I haven’t been answering “Is this character coming back?” questions.
- I will say that I’ve been watching the episodes again in HD, and I’m enjoying the rewatch quite a bit, if only because it’s a damn gorgeous show to look at. But I’d say that it’s much easier to understand what’s important and what you need to care about on a rewatch. A lot of the obfuscation around Luck from people is trying to make the show more complicated than it is. In general, the characters are fairly straightforward, and their motivations are out in the open. Don’t worry too much about catching every nuance. Catch the gist of things, and you’ll be fine.
- We get a little more definition for the vet this week, as she has to deal with Walter’s worries about the horse after the race. That was such a nice little scene.
- I have come to love Leo’s bedeviling of Jerry, particularly the way he says “Jerry.” I love how he knows just how to get under Jerry’s skin in a very particular way. (And here’s another instance where a character should make the choice to walk away, not to engage. Milch is big on the people who should be making the choice to engage not doing so and vice versa.)
- If there was one thing I didn’t like about this episode, it was all of the overt Catholicism in the buildup to the race. I don’t have a problem with characters being Catholic—far from it—but this was like a Cliff’s Notes version of how to present a fictional Catholic.
- “This is our regular hangout.”
- “You’re on the horse, or you’re not.”
- “That’s an asshole eighth-grade observation.”
- “Whoever made him didn’t make him whole; that’s how he is.”
- “Notice I didn’t wink.”