So where will you leave Luck?
It only seems appropriate to end our discussion of this show (as I’m just going to assume that second season premiere will never be shown, even on the DVD release) in the same way I ended discussion of Deadwood a couple of summers ago. It’s a device I stole from screenwriter William Goldman, who says he always remembers certain actors in certain places within their filmography, and I find that when I remember a TV show, it’s often boiled down to a single image: Mulder and Scully racing through the dark, flashlights held high; Tony Soprano sitting down with some onion rings; the town of Deadwood coming together to celebrate a most unusual wedding. For me, Luck will come down to an image of a horse, I imagine, not just because that was the ostensible subject of the show and the ultimate reason the show shut down production but also because some of the show’s finest moments were about what it’s like to see something so beautiful and so alien in motion.
There are two horse racing sequences in “Episode Nine,” and director Mimi Leder (working from a script credited to none other than big-time Hollywood screenwriter Eric Roth) shoots them to emphasize the odd grace of a horse in motion. It doesn’t look like it should move as quickly as it does, so large and cumbersome is it, but it does somehow, and when it does, we can only stop to marvel. We’ve spent a lot of time getting to know Rosie and Ronnie, who are the jockeys perched atop those horses in the two races, but they’re just along for the ride. Luck shares common cause with Deadwood in that, in some ways, the most important characters—the town there, the animals and racetrack here—couldn’t speak for themselves. We could only marvel as it all came together.
The second racing sequence in the episode is likely the best of the whole series’ run, and it’s—somewhat surprisingly—the first to end on a photo finish, with nobody in the stands quite sure what happened. (Indeed, it seems like both Team Pint Of Plain and Team Gettin’ Up Mornin’ assume they lost the race.) Pint Of Plain wins, but only by the proverbial nose, and both Walter and Escalante assume they will meet again—perhaps at a race with higher stakes?—even though we now know that race will never happen, so we’ll never get to see Gettin’ Up Mornin’ defeat his rival. It’s a bittersweet ending to the series, for sure, but since the whole season has built to a showdown between these two horses, it’s decidedly an ending, one that will hopefully put enough of a capper on the series for its small number of fans. (In this interview with Matt Zoller Seitz, David Milch and Michael Mann state that the series’ horrid ratings have been overstated, since HBO looks more closely at the total number of views across all showings and all platforms, not at ratings for episode debuts.) Plus, scored by Otis Taylor’s “Nasty Letter” and edited to incorporate every single major character—even Jo, in the hospital—the sequence attains liftoff, becoming something incredibly pure and cinematic. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever seen on TV, and I wish I could excerpt it in full and show it to people who continue to insist this show was “boring” or “bad.”
There’s even a bit of closure in the war between Mike and Ace, although it sure seems as if Mike’s about to escalate the battle between them by making his own play for the track and hoping to replace it with tract housing, just to dump salt in Ace’s wounds. The two hitmen sent after Ace—and his grandson, apparently—are ably dealt with by Gus and a small team Gus hires, in sequences that offer up the kinds of thrills the crime storyline has been a little lacking in. (That fight between Gus and the hitman in the bathroom is the kind of ultra-realistic, slowly paced fight scene that HBO dramas have become known for, and the show forcing us to watch as the hitman’s life slowly drains out of him is an odd parallel to the way it made us see that horse’s life end back in the pilot.) I’m sure season two would have escalated this battle, particularly with Michael Gambon as a series regular, but, again, it’s an ending, and it’s one I feel comfortable with, especially if we take into account that lovely scene between Ace and his grandson at the end. They’re each all the other has left, and they’re going to have to make the most out of that, as best they can.
Also attaining a bit of closure are the gamblers, who started the season as a squabbling band of losers and now find themselves rich men, thanks to yet another great day placing bets at the track (and thanks to Mon Gateau’s win in the earlier racing sequence). They’re still squabbling, but they’ve come to a place where their friendship is so deep that it could withstand just about anything, and the battles of the season have pulled them together into a whole far greater than the sum of its parts. Marcus is starting to open himself up to other people. Jerry is learning to battle back what seems like a gambling addiction, a little at a time. Renzo and Lonnie aren’t just the hangers-on they might have seemed at one time. When the little group gathers with Renzo’s mother (played by Mercedes Reuhl!) and Rosie to celebrate their victories, Marcus insists that they’ll all probably go broke, but for once, he seems to accept the possibility of something more. Maybe he’ll hang on to his winnings this time. Maybe he’ll ask that nice girl at the track out, as Renzo’s mom suggests. Maybe he can actually make friends.
Milch’s shows have always been about damaged people who find a kind of solace in each other, and if Luck didn’t offer a lot of that across the ensemble as a whole, it definitely did with these four. Ace and Gus have been a co-dependent little unit for so long that they operate almost like a bickering married couple in a sitcom—until they launch a devastating plan to take out the hitmen tracking Ace. Escalante and Jo are just feeling out the contours of their relationship and mourning the loss of their unborn child (who was lost during the final racing sequence, as if there weren’t enough tension already). Joey remains a man apart, sort of friends with some of the jockeys but also kept at arm’s length by everyone around him. But these gamblers, they might have been the show’s finest creations. They started out as four guys who seemed to speak an odd, different language and ended the series as the characters we might have known the best. If I have to pick characters I’ll miss the most, it’s these guys. Maybe I’ll leave the show with them, the camera rising above their little motel as they celebrate their winnings, Dire Straits on the soundtrack.
But at the same time, I’m going to miss the optimistic little smile on Dustin Hoffman’s face as he watches his horse on the webcam. I’m going to miss that little goat wandering around the stable, nuts the size of pumpkins. I’ll miss Escalante murmuring advice from the stands and Walter sitting in the stable, wondering about seeing a goat from the front, a horse from the rear, and a man from all sides. I’ll even miss the bit players, like Claire or Mike or Joey, people who weren’t in the main action but were just off to the side, informing what the others did and giving us a sense of who they were as people. And I’ll miss that horse the episode ends on, craning its neck over the stall, staring off into the distance at something we don’t see, its eyes both warm and weird to us. It’s a fellow living being, yet we’ll never really understand it, much as we try. But that’s true of people, too, and still we keep trying. That's where I'll leave the show: a place where we try to keep finding understanding and keep coming up short. Yet we keep plugging away because we must.
Farewell, Luck. Let’s hope some of your DNA shows up in other projects. It’d be too bad to forget you entirely.
- The scene where Gus and Ace go to see if the body at the morgue is Israel’s is a horrifying one. The look of the corpse on the gurney is just awful, and it nicely suggests the stakes if Ace fails to protect himself, his friend, or his grandson.
- I really enjoyed the scenes between Walter and Escalante. I suspect that would have been a relationship that bore fruit in season two, and it’s too bad we won’t get to see it flourish.
- I really like how Rosie always just seemed to be so glad to be invited to do anything. She seemed just as at home riding on the back of Gettin’ Up Mornin’ as she did hanging out with the gamblers at their hotel at the end.
- After complaining a bit about the music choices earlier in the season, I really enjoyed all of the songs selected for this episode, and that Otis Taylor tune is one I’m glad I know about now.
- Moment I didn't need: Leon saying, "You go, girl!" as Rosie rode to victory.
- If you wander over to Hitfix, Alan Sepinwall has an interview with David Milch about the show that suggests something pretty incredible about the Deadwood finale, one that might alter the perception some have of the show. It's worth a look.
- Thank you all for hanging out and watching this show with me these last nine weeks. If the second season premiere unexpectedly shows up as a DVD bonus feature or something, I’ll be sure to give it a review, just so we can all get together again. You’ve taught me more about horse racing and its history than I ever thought I’d know, and you’ve been very fun to talk with, even when you’ve disagreed with me heartily. I’ve felt as depressed about losing this show as any TV show that’s been canceled ever, and having you guys around has been a nice antidote to the sneering cynicism about how the show was “bad” or “boring” in other corners of the Internet. I hope you’re all Mad Men or Game Of Thrones fans, so we can talk a bit there. We’ll see you around.