The seventh episode of Luck is a bit of an odd duck in the season’s story because it seems like it’s just a series of short vignettes about these characters we’ve come to love, but it closes in a way where there are storm clouds on the horizon, and it feels as if everything is about to come to a head. In some ways, this structure ends up being a bit cumbersome. This episode was as loaded with goofy moments and head-scratching ideas as any episode in the show’s run so far. But it also felt like a respite of sorts, a chance to hang out with these people when times were mostly good and know that even if the worst was coming, we’d had a chance to get to see them before the shit really rained down.
Yet there are a surprising number of major plot developments in this episode. The young Mr. Israel is (presumably) killed when meeting with Mike and trying to pitch the old man on the idea that Ace doesn’t actually mean him harm. Walter ditches Rosie as the jockey for Gettin’ Up Mornin’, only to have the jockey he chooses to take her place, Ronnie, the horse’s original rider, not exactly stick to his promise to stay sober. Jerry not only hooks up with Naomi but also pushes on to the next round of the World Series of Poker, while Lonnie purchases himself a fine brood mare in a claiming race. Ace continues on with the next step in his revenge plot, Jo tells Escalante she’s pregnant, Walter is assured his claim to his horse is in fine order, and our four gamblers meet in the hotel room for Chinese food. Oh, and Joey takes over Rosie’s book, giving Leon even more to be despondent about.
That’s a lot for any episode of television, but it’s particularly a lot for this show, which has always had a bit of a slow burn feel to it. Certainly in the last three episodes, the tempo was picking up just a bit, but not to the degree with which things happen in this one. In fact, most of the above happens in the episode’s second half, making it feel even more jam-packed. Before that, we’re seeing Escalante and Jo hang out with a kid they rescue from the most hilariously evil uncle stereotype ever or watching Ace and Claire check out the racehorse operation he just sank all of that money into. These scenes are great scenes (well, maybe not that meeting with the evil uncle), but they’re also very idyllic, with a sense that whatever doom has hung over the series has been kept at bay for just this long. The Ace scenes, in particular, have some great feelings of peace and tranquility to them that this show has, frankly, needed. They’re just long, slow scenes of Ace hanging out with a majestic animal, and the smile on his face seems genuine.
But now—if we accept that the first three episodes were the first act of this little story and the second three the second act—we’re entering the climax of this season of TV, and that means everything has to pick up just a bit. I’m kind of impressed with how the episode used a lot of proxies to stand in for the characters’ actual emotions about things, but the device also teetered on the clumsy at times. The kid that hangs around Jo and Escalante seems a little too obvious as a device for dealing with their own feelings about the past and (ultimately) the child the two of them will have together, while I liked that the retired racehorses—one of whom is “about 70” in human years, just like Ace—were good stand-ins for Ace without the show really calling attention to it. Luck makes good use of the way that humans will funnel all of their hopes and dreams into things that aren’t them, be they objects or animals or children, and this episode offered up plenty of great moments using that device.
One of the things I like about the work of David Milch is that his stories never have moments so dark that they can’t be undercut by silver linings here and there. This is certainly an episode where a lot of terrible things happen, but just look at that closing montage. It features Ronnie trying to avoid snorting one of those pills, only to fail, then shows us Rosie and Walter and sundry others, wrapped up in their own miseries and failures to connect. Then it closes with something simple and hopeful and moving: Ace watching his horse on the webcam he had installed throughout the episode (the one that so irritated Escalante because the workman installing it was unable to do so quietly, so as not to spook the horses). This is an episode where lots of bad things happen—a horse has her racing career ended—but they’re tempered by the fact that new possibilities are just around the corner—Leon manages to pull her over to the side in time to save her life, and she’ll be able to be the mother to a new generation of racing champs.
Luck has been about a lot of things in this short first season—that’s almost over!—but it keeps coming back to these ideas of bad habits and new possibilities. Jerry goes back to the poker table, but something about his newfound confidence (instilled in him by his friends, I would guess) seems to rub off on what he’s doing, and he ends up not only winning at the table but also winning over Naomi. (Granted, she helps him, by driving some of his competition either away or far enough into the hole that he can get a leg up over them.) Ronnie’s given another chance in the terms the show likes to use to describe these things: Get fit, stay sober, and mount up. You only get so many chances, so you may as well not fuck up the one that’s staring you in the face.
One of the problems with possibility is that it’s harder to dramatize than the storm clouds that threaten to crowd it out. Fortunately, Milch has balanced all of this out with people who seem resolutely unopen to those possibilities, and in this episode, that’s Mike. Even if he’s right to suspect that what he’s being told about Ace isn’t true—since it isn’t and all—he still lashes out with a viciousness that’s not terribly commensurate with what’s being done to him. (Even his trusted lieutenants seem a little terrified of him in that moment, as well they should.) Blood was always going to spill on this show, and it’s fitting that Mike—who’s just as wrapped up in the arguments of the past as Ace is—would be the one to spill it. Ace, at least, seems more and more open to the possibility that there’s something more than the revenge he’s planning on getting, as represented by those horses. Mike can only see hanging on to what he already has, no matter what the cost.
The question, then, heading into these last two episodes is whether those hopes are going to prove strong enough to withstand the gale-force winds about to assault them. Relationships are put to the test in this episode, and there’s no real indication that any of them will be strong enough to survive what’s coming (outside of the gamblers, who would be able to withstand anything, of course). Possibility is a beautiful thing, but it’s also something that can be choked out quickly by the sins of the past, by allowing yourself to fall back into the habits that got you into the place where that hope looked far away and impossible to get to. The people of Luck have the choice now, but staying clear-headed long enough to make the right choice will prove as difficult as it does for anyone.
- Hey, I wrote these with screeners as I went along and watched, but I have since seen the whole series. You know the drill.
- This is reportedly the episode during which at least one of the horses who died in the filming of the episode was killed. As expected, none of that footage made it into the episode, and it’s impossible to say just what might have happened. Maybe some of you horse experts will have some thoughts. It’s an incredible tragedy, of course, and let’s hope the show has better safety precautions for season two. (However, speaking as someone who grew up in an area with a lot of horses, sometimes, there’s nothing you can do to protect against these sorts of calamities.)
- There was some interesting discussion last week in comments about how Walter’s story might parallel an actual, real-life horse-racing saga, full of double-crosses and horrible acts. Since he talks about how Gettin’ Up Mornin’s father might have been “murdered,” it sure seems like that’s the idea here.
- So, obviously, the kid has more of a connection to Escalante than we really get information about. I kept thinking he might have been Escalante’s nephew, but now I’m not so sure (since the guy who dropped him off is repeatedly referred to as his “uncle”). Thoughts?
- Escalante is rapidly turning into my favorite character. I loved when he was hanging out with the gamblers at the track or when he raced down to care for the horse who’d pulled up lame.
- “It's gonna be a big pleasure for us peeking in on that horse on that webcam thing.” Gus talks about technology like your grandparents do.
- “She seemed nice. She wore quite a bit of makeup.” Don’t judge Naomi like that!