Luck Recap: A Herd of Two

Photo: HBO

Episode seven of Luck at first feels like a placeholder, until you look back over it and realize that the universe is reordering itself beneath the surface of things. In the pilot, most of the characters seemed detached from life, or isolated; but now, with just two episodes left to go until the end of the season, they’ve formed or deepened relationships. More importantly, given the show’s seeming belief in kindness as good karma, a lot of the characters have taken responsibility for another human being or fellow creature.

Horse trainer-owner Walter Smith seemed terrified and nearly paralyzed by that letter from the estate of the Colonel sticking him for a $140,000 bill, but now that he’s got himself a lawyer (Bruce Davison) who seems serenely confident in what he’s doing, Walter seems a bit more relaxed. The moment where Walter moves to pay the lawyer in cash and is politely refused is a wonderful example of how trust can make the more cynical social niceties unnecessary. (It also indicates that Walter has probably never had a lawyer before; he’s used to the economy of the track, which seems to be based around paper money changing hands.) After being berated by Walter last week for taking an unauthorized crop to Gettin’-Up Morning, Rosie the aspiring jockey asks Joey Rathburn the agent to intercede on her behalf, and Joey counters by subtly indicating that if he’s going to be acting as her agent, he should actually be her agent; Rosie agrees, and another formalized partnership is born.

Lonnie, arguably the least essential member of the Foray Stables, tries to expand their operation by claiming another horse, Niagara’s Fall. The animal nearly wipes out during the race; Leon, who was kind of a disaster in earlier episodes, responds quick, preventing worse injury. But rather than earn the group’s unabashed contempt (or at least Marcus’s), the mishap seems to get written off as the sort of thing that happens when four guys go into business together. The group itself seems to be maturing in the way that an individual matures; its individual members are deepening and softening as well. Jerry, a genius-level race picker who has can’t stop blowing his horse winnings on poker games, enters a high-stakes tournament, and does surprisingly well. He seems emboldened by his erstwhile poker partner, the ex-card dealer Naomi (Polish actress and model Weronika Rosati). They get it on in the parking lot, and later in the episode he returns with her to the hotel and interrupts a meal between the other three amigos with a wonderfully unconvincing “Hey, guys, what’s up?” nonchalance. Anybody who’s ever tried to introduce a new lover to a circle of friends while pretending that the aura of sex isn’t hanging over everything can relate.

At the track, Jo takes a little kid under her wing, to Escalante’s disgust (“Look at what I’m looking at!” Escalante hisses when Jo gives the boy’s dad the $10 he asked for). Jo is a natural-born mom with a gift for ego-building improvisations, such as encouraging Leon the bug jockey to give his goggles to the kid as a souvenir after the race, a gesture that bonds the boy to the track as well as to Jo. By the end of the episode, Escalante, who’s as ostentatiously self-reliant and frankly assholish as a Humphrey Bogart character, is caring for the boy, too. He seems nearly as instinctive a parent as Jo, though much cooler and more remote. This subplot feels like a dry run for Escalante and Jo as parents: a premonition of what’s to come, and an indication that Escalante might be better at fatherhood than he thinks. That’s one of the lovely things about David Milch shows: Characters are always proving themselves far more loving and generous than they think themselves capable of being. The trick is getting past their own often incorrect self-image as somebody who’s selfish, hateful, or “not good at that kind of thing,” and committing to that other self: the kind and outgoing person nestled within the scowling cynic.

The Jo-Escalante-Mexican ragamuffin plot line and the stuff with poor, doomed Nathan Israel and his two business dads, Ace and Gus, darkly mirror each other. No sooner has Gus remarked that the kid seems to have settled into his job as a triple-agent than storm clouds start to gather over Mike’s boat. Michael Gambon’s performance on this series has been unsettling from frame one. Potential violence hangs over everything the character says and does, even when he’s being genial, and now it finally erupts. “I’ve known Chester Bernstein’s son since before your bleeding journey from your Irish mother’s womb,” says Mike, delivering a great Milch-y insult. “Not wishing to give offense, your being privy to his intentions is not a likely premise.” Nathan’s loyalties to Ace are inadvertently disclosed by what Mike terms, in terrifying voice, Nathan’s “syntax.” “Answers a question with a question,” Nathan says, giving the game away by quoting one of Ace’s pet phrases. And then it’s adios, kid.

Now Gus and Ace have to take some kind of responsibility for what happened to Nathan, who wouldn’t have gotten anywhere near Mike if Ace hadn’t pushed so hard to recruit and then mentor him and turn him into a kind of unofficial second, tough-loved grandson. Now Nathan’s two dads have to pursue some sort of justice or be unable to face themselves in the mirror. The trick will be counterbalancing that urge to right the scales re: Nathan with Ace’s need to win in his apparently Count of Monte Cristo–style business-revenge scheme against Mike and his partners.  In any situation there are always at least two courses that a person can take, and one is usually more coldly self-interested than the other. Remember the conversation last week between Ace and his parole officer? “When you think about what you’re gonna do,” the parole officer ask, in re: Ace’s plot against Mike and company, “how does that make you feel?” “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’?” 

The notion of the “loner” persona as a psychological cage — and for at least some people, a false one — shows up in Luck executive producer Michael Mann’s filmography as well as in Milch’s work as a TV writer-producer. Mann’s verdict on this lifestyle runs the gamut from “it ain’t pretty, but at least the guy’s the captain of his own ship” to “Just look at that poor bastard – what’s he trying to prove?” Think of Vincent the assassin dying pathetically on that subway car at the end of Collateral; or James Caan walking away from the fantasy life he destroyed rather than have compromised in Thief (its closing image a hideously dark echo of the final shot of The Searchers); or Neil, the career thief in Heat with the “thirty seconds flat” credo, expiring in that field near the airport, holding hands with the only man on earth who really understands him. Milch takes a similarly skeptical-to-unflattering view of Spartan-style loner characters, but in his work the type is treated more comically, sometimes with a raised eyebrow. The community, indeed the universe itself, seems to be continually reaching out toward such tight-sphinctered This-Man-Is-An-Island characters, beckoning them to come indoors and warm themselves by the fire rather than stand out in the rain grinding their teeth.  Think of Seth Bullock, Francis Wolcott and Cyrus Tolliver on Deadwood, three very different characters united by being unwilling or unable to really connect with other people.

This comes through most strongly in the two subplots involving Ace. From a symbolism standpoint it seems not remotely coincidental that the series started with the mogul-gangster getting out of prison. That prison was literal; but Ace was also, like so many Luck characters, still stuck within the figurative prison of his own limiting personality and life experience. He’s growing out of that slowly, thanks to his maybe-girlfriend Claire and his beloved horse, Pint of Plain, to whom he commits this week by having surveillance cameras installed in Escalante’s stable that allow him to look at the animal any time day or night. (Ace is the doting new adoptive father, and this is his version of a baby monitor, or a means of peeking into the kid’s room without having to ask Gus drive him all the way to the stable.) Out at the convict-retraining farm, Claire and Ace watch former thugs learning to care for animals, changing and growing in the process. She talks to Ace about how the convicts are “building a relationship with the horse based on trust and respect” and “breaking down dysfunctional differences.” That’s what’s happening to Ace, too, as he gets closer to a woman and to a new horse.

I love how you can see Hoffman getting sweeter and goofier by the week; it’s like watching a clenched fist gradually open into an extended hand of friendship, a concept literalized in that moment a few weeks back where Escalante taught the Foray guys the proper way to feed a horse a carrot. I also love how, as in a classic western, the women characters serve as civilizing influences on men: Claire, Jo, and even Naomi seem to have a calming effect on all these testosterone-poisoned blusterers, causing them to compromise on small things that they’d normally fight about, and quit constantly looking ahead to the next battle and look inward instead. One of Claire’s phrases is particularly apropos: She says that once trust is established between a horse and its caretaker, they form “a herd of two.”

Luck Recap: A Herd of Two