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Luck Recap: No Icing Error, This

About a third of the way through episode six of Luck, a conversation between the horse trainer Turo Escalante and the veterinarian Jo is cut short by portents. A flock of birds erupts from behind, or within, the stands; silhouetted, they look like bats. The horses freak out. Then comes an earthquake. The walls tremble. The ground shakes. And then it's over.

When sudden horrible and/or miraculous events unite all the characters on David Milch's cable series, the shows suggest there are mysterious forces at work in the universe — that's "forces", plural. Nature is an insistent presence on Luck, with its talk of equine and human health, blood, and broken bones. (The relationship between Ace and his parole officer revolves around piss tests.) Accounting and probability are important, too: Every episode is filled with talk of percentages and dollar figures, odds and payouts. But that's as far as the intimations go. The great shake-up this week might be a metaphor, or it might be just a physical event. The show's opening credits suggest a multiplicity of possible manifestations of luck — praying hands, crucifixes, a shamrock, dice, a spinning coin, coins in a fountain — without favoring any one of them. Ultimately, what matters isn't what's happening or how the events came about, but how the characters interpret events and react to them — how they respond to good and bad fortune.

The manager Joey Rathburn loses his stutter when the gun that he's about to kill himself with misfires because of the tremors; the bullet ricochets through the room, inflicting only a flesh wound. "Hello. My name is Joey Rathburn," Joey says, upon discovering the change. Then, reading a clothing label: "Tommy Bahama. One hundred percent cotton. Extra large. Made in China. Machine wash. Cold water." The change in his personality is subtle but instantly apparent: Joey seems a bit more confident and forthright, not as much of a shmo demoralized by a failing marriage. Entering the bar, he exclaims, "Good evening, one and all!" as if he owns the place. By the end of the episode his stutter has returned, though in that last conversation with Ronnie, it seemed to me that he was able to at least assert a bit of control over it.

The Foray Stables boys seem as though they're going to lose a race owing to a near collision on the track — the Bug is inexperienced and still woozy from a head injury — but they win anyway. As the judges convene and examine evidence, the people in the stands look anxiously upward, mortals awaiting a verdict from the gods. The Foray boys seem collectively stunned and perhaps a bit sheepish when the verdict comes down in their favor. Marcus seems the most distrustful of the bunch. It's as if he's recognizing this win as a Monopoly-style bank error in their favor, a mistake that'll eventually be discovered and rectified.

Walter Smith gets a letter from the estate of his previous employer, the Colonel, sticking him with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt for a stud fee and boarding for Gettin'up Morning, and seems paralyzed by it. He continues mentoring Rosie, who earns his disapproval by using a riding crop on the horse even when it's clear that the animal is going to win anyway. The Colonel's murder of the horse's sire, Delphi, still weighs heavily on Walter; when he censures Rosie, he seems to be having an allergic reaction to the violence of the crop, not just to her disobeying his order. The so-mo crack of the crop is so exaggerated that Walter seems to react to it viscerally from hundreds of yards away in the stand — as if he, not the horse, just got hit. The tender scene between the two of them at Walter's place later — Rosie apologizing and Walter taking an unexpectedly conciliatory attitude — is one of the most piercing, best-acted scenes in the show to date, another building block in what's turning into one of TV's great surrogate parent-and-child relationships. Walter's belief that a horse has to be taught what it knows for each individual race is good advice for parents and mentors as well as jockeys.

In light of the show's belief in the transformative powers of mercy, it seems significant that Escalante and Jo's pre-earthquake argument is about whether it's a good idea for her behave with generosity and empathy toward someone she barely knows. "You got all the answers to keep your hands in your pockets," Jo says with contempt. "He's already dead, and you wake up with that no matter where you wake up," Escalante sneers, right before the ground shakes — a rare instance in which the universe itself seems to be expressing disapproval of a character. Later in the episode, Jo extends an olive branch, but the trainer rebuffs her. He'd rather sleep alone than stop it with the ice-cold macho man routine for five seconds. He's the only major Luck character who doesn't seem to have been shaken up by the shakeup. But he's a quiet type. Maybe it all happened on the inside. Or maybe it hasn't happened yet.

Ace receives a cake from Mike and his associates with a baffling inscription that sparks an Abbott and Costello comedy bit about the specifics of language: "Wait to go Greek." The arguments over whether the message was supposed to be "way" or "wait" and whether the wording was a mistake at the bakery or some kind of bizarre message from Mike — these seem jokey until Ace and Nathan Israel leave the room, and Gus regards the cake and says, "No icing error, this." (That's one of the best Milchspeak lines ever — hilariously ominous pseudo-Shakespeare. Only Dennis Farina's expert deadpan keeps it from tipping into self-parody.)

Ace seems sweeter in this episode than in earlier ones, probably because he's bestowing affection on both his horse and his prospective new girlfriend Claire and can't help but open up a bit. Returning home to the hotel after a long night at the stables, Ace beams like a man in love. But there's residual awkwardness between Ace and Claire because he sent her home from the barn before the sleepover. Exiting the room after the cake bit, Ace tells Gus to order some roses for "Miss What's-Her-Face." The two men's sly grins confirm that this is tough-guy ritual; Gus knows Ace is over the moon. But he made the tactical mistake of favoring his equine love over his human one; no woman likes being put second, even to an animal as beautiful as Pint of Plain. And besides, given Claire's line of work, she's used to sleeping in barns; she would have been more at home there than Ace. The way that Luck conflates Ace's love for his horse with his budding love for Claire is one of the show's most charming and surprising aspects. It's like something out of an old Western. And it's helped along at a metaphorical level by Claire's nonprofit work: She buttonholed Ace to donate to a charity that rehabilitates convicts by teaching them to care for horses. Of course Ace would respond to such a cause. He's going through the same thing; he just has more money.

"I have seen people profoundly changed just by being in proximity to horses," Claire tells Ace during dinner near the end of the episode. "Their size, their virtue, their complicated nature, bring out patience and respect. Don't be afraid of that, Chester." "Of what?" "Everything that can be," she replies. The line echoes one of Ace's lines from a couple of episodes ago, in reference to Claire: "Some people so used to hearing 'no' that 'yes' throws them for a loop." Ace's affection for his horse, and the possibility of love with Claire, are yeses — affirmative, positive events — but making them amount to anything will require continued vulnerability and trust on Ace's part. Is he built for that? The harder a character on Luck is, the more likely that he's afraid of giving and receiving kindness. And Ace is a hard man, a walking snarl. Or at least he wants us to think so. "What could be … " he says, chewing over Claire's observation back at the hotel. "My horse could be a champion. My grandkid could come home." His last line in the episode could be uttered by any Luck character: "What is fucking wrong with me?"

We start to see the outer edges of Ace's master plan for revenge against Mike and the boys; it has something to do with getting Israel ensconced in Mike's organization as a double agent while acting as a triple agent. Apparently Ace hired the kid as his representative hoping to use him to plant disinformation; by the episode's end, Mike is convinced that Ace has the Indian gaming lobby in his back pocket, and so far indications are that he really doesn't. Mike is a charismatic but terrifying man, oozing menace; the show seems to be setting him up as a representative of the dark side of Ace, the worst-case scenario of what the character could become, with Claire representing the good and merciful side: the destroyer versus the healer, Mike as Old Testament Ace, Claire as New.

This is teased out further in the scene between Ace and his parole officer (Michael Mann regular Barry Shabaka Henley) eleven minutes into the episode. "When you think about what you're gonna do, how does that make you feel?" the parole officer asks. "Good," Ace replies. "Good? What kind of good? 'Good,' like, 'It's good to have some fun, enjoy life,' or, 'Good' like 'I'm gonna rub those motherfuckers' noses in it who did this to me'?" Ace doesn't answer the question, but instead notes a photo of Miles Davis on the parole officer's desk and says he saw Davis play live in the Plaza Room of the Persian Hotel in 1958, then asks, "Did you ever look a horse in the eye?" He's still walking on air after last night's experience in the stable; the reference sets up that subsequent dinner-table conversation with Claire, the one that prompts Ace's moment of existential crisis at the end of the episode. The parole officer refines the question: "How do you feel going out to that racetrack?" "Good," Ace replies, "both ways." A work in progress.

Photo: Gusmano Cesaretti/HBO