Luck Recap: Radical Tenderness

Photo: HBO

Though much was made of the tension between David Milch and Michael Mann on the set of Luck — a battle of the gargantuans that ended with Milch controlling the script and Mann controlling everything else — by the first season’s midpoint the show is feeling very much like a David Milch production. The emphasis on community and the never fully resolved intimations of supernatural forces are very Milchian. Mann’s films sometimes have a slightly woozy, cosmic quality characteristic of trippy seventies movies, but they never attain the buzzing hive-mind quality of Milch’s cable series: Deadwood, John From Cincinnati, and now this. The montage that closed out the fifth episode conjured fond memories of Deadwood, which had a knack for making it seem as though all the characters were connected by virtue of being human and living in the same shared space, but without getting too soggy about it. Writer Scott Willson and director Brian Kirk cut among different major characters winding down after a very dramatic day — taking in, among other moving sights, Joey the stuttering agent in a moment of acute despair over a busted home life that money and success can’t repair — then closed with one of the most mysterious and moving scenes in any Milch production: the gangster-entrepreneur Ace Bernstein, who spent the night in the stable with his wounded horse Pint of Plain, waking up to find the the horse staring down at him. After a moment, this brittle old tough guy stood up and petted the horse tenderly, kissed it on the nose, and stared at it with a wonderment that we’ve never seen him lavish on any human being, not even his maybe-soon-to-be-sweetheart Claire. The music, Devendra Banhart’s “Now That I Know,” certified what anyone who’s been watching show already suspected: Luck, like all of Milch’s work, has a radical tenderness.

The sequence was an empathetic roundelay on par with those quiet checking-in-with-everybody montages that used to close out certain episodes of Deadwood — a matrix of loneliness, the characters scattered across it like pushpins. These people talk tough and act bitter and defensive, and they’re inclined to slap away any hand that’s offered to them. (“Some people are so used to hearing ‘no’ that ‘yes’ throws them for a loop,” Ace says early in the episode, speculating on why Claire never appeared to pick up the check that he had decided in advance to give her. What these characters really want and need is to open themselves up to something larger than their own constricted consciousness, to get beyond themselves by taking chances on affection and trust.

The shot of Pint of Plain’s eye staring down at the groggy Ace connected the closing montage with an earlier scene — the bit in the hospital between Marcus and his doctor. Marcus, we learned, has cardiomyopathy. He might be good for another five years if he can avoid stress, but he’ll probably check out before fifteen. Deflected at every turn by Marcus’s wounded hostility, the doctor finally asks if he has anybody he can talk to. “A horse,” Marcus replies. “That’s not bad,” the doctor says. This scene was followed by another reaching-out, Marcus conversation at the hotel with Jerry — a classic Diner- or Midnight Run–style straight-male bonding moment, with real affection nestled inside several layers of gay panic. Marcus worries that he’s “queer” for Jerry because “I worry about you all the time … Who else worries about another male that way but a fag?” The characters’ casual homophobia is just another example of how Luck’s characters are inclined to treat affection and trust as gateways to weakness, betrayal, and misfortune. They’re all prisoners of some kind of conditioning; anything that might possibly expose them to hurt must be avoided at all costs, and the avoidance has to be justified in some way, by appealing to superstition or bigotry or “fool me twice, shame on you” cynicism. This comes after a lovely scene establishing Jerry’s generosity: him giving “walking around money” to the security guard who was fired for running a loan-sharking business on the side, a scheme that drew blood from the Foray Stables and drove Marcus into apoplectic rages over “usury.”

The Luck characters are, almost to a man and woman, grievously damaged by life, and reluctant to trust anything or anyone, even if it seems like an emotional sure thing. Look at how slowly Marcus is thawing to the possibility that he might get something going with Geri Jewell’s character; like Claire, who later admitted to Ace that she avoided showing up because she was actually afraid that her fortunes would change, Marcus seems to prefer the knowns of misery to the unknowns of intimacy. (“Look now what you did to me with this woman,” Marcus tells Jerry as if Jerry’s sinister mesmerizing power is what made him wave at her in the stands.) When Jo the veterinarian goes after her secret lover, the horse trainer Escalante, for being so arrogant and volatile with Ace and Gus, he accuses her of being Judge Judy when he really means to compare her to Dr. Phil. That’s a mother lode of a Freudian slip: He’s conflating a pop psychologist with a cartoonish barrister whose stock-in-trade is snap judgments and withering putdowns. Like so many Luck characters, Escalante seems convinced that letting anyone into the emotional fortress he’s built around himself will result in humiliation and punishment. Those who lack the stamina to constantly fight the universe, or at the very least rail against it, go supine and accept powerlessness as the natural order of things. “We calmly accept our uncertain position,” Joey tells The Bug, who’s about to get pulled from a scheduled race and paid off with $5000 in walking-around money, a slap in the face disguised as a pat on the back.

Not that there aren’t plenty of good reasons to be guarded. Ace especially is right to be paranoid. Pretty much everybody he knows — except Gus and possibly Claire — is out to get him. “Some people, lying is like breathing,” he grouses early in the episode, rightly guessing that Escalante has ulterior motives (an odds-making ploy) for scheduling Ace’s horse to run the next day with an inexperienced jockey. And the cutthroat capitalist environment of the track guarantees that anyone who does too many favors is likely to get played for a sucker, or at the very least be left feeling responsible for somebody else’s fortunes when they have a tough enough time managing their own. “The gods of luck must be confusing me with somebody else,” Joey says to the ex-wife he still pines after, “because I made several hundred dollars that I thought I would drop off for you and the squirt.” By the end of the episode, he’s reduced to leaving her pathetic voice mail messages. The lovely, at times wordless images of the characters and their environment contribute to the feeling that everyone really is connected, not just by the horses, the track, the betting, and the scheming, but simply by virtue of being alive and sentient. Meanwhile the horses run for them, bleed for them, and stare at them with curiosity and casual trust and utterly without judgment.

Gus kept slyly encouraging Ace not to give up on Claire even when she didn’t show, nurturing his crush instead of tamping it down. Shades of Marcus with Jerry: Ace carried on as though he was forced into being smitten with Claire, when in fact the two-day stretch covered in this episode found Ace giving himself backwards-ass permission to be the nice guy he always had it in him to be. He even figured out a way to collaborate with Escalante, one of the only Luck characters who refuses to bow down before his money, power, and temper. Their victorious connection in the episode’s final third is a marriage of arrogant alpha minds, genius recognizing genius.

This is a great series, verging on Deadwood great, and for many of the same reasons, although of course its setting and themes are quite different from Milch’s town-based Western. That Robert Altman sense of connectedness through proximity comes through in every scene and makes Luck into more than a show about horses and gamblers. Over the last few weeks the hothouse environment of Santa Anita has become its own enclosed universe, a dream space on par with the camp in Deadwood and the seaside community of JFC — a limbo or purgatory in which flawed, battered, or burned-out characters try to make peace with themselves and one another before it’s too late. A bit from a Gus/Ace conversation in this episode echoed that classic line from Barry Lyndon: “It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarreled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor they are all equal now.” As Gus put it, favorably comparing his and Ace’s situation to that of Babe Ruth and General George Patton, “Tremendous ballplayer. Tremendous general. Out of the picture completely.”

Luck Recap: Radical Tenderness