“They killed him, Gus. They fucking killed him.” So says Chester “Ace” Bernstein in the second-to-last episode of Luck. It’s a chilling line for both textual and extratextual reasons: Ace’s protégé, representative, and triple-agent Nathan Israel is dead, killed by Ace’s enemy Mike on his yacht last episode. But Luck is dead, too: canceled by HBO after the death of a third horse during production of the show’s second season. Near-death experiences are as rare on TV as they are in life. When we watch episode eight of Luck’s first season, directed by Allen Coulter and written by John R. Perotta and Jay Hovdey, what we’re seeing is very likely the penultimate episode of Luck’s only season. The season finale will double as the series finale. An image comes to mind of Deadwood’s Al Swearengen cleaning blood off a floor.
Director Coulter cuts from shots of Mike to images of Mike’s minions going out to sea to dispose of Nathan’s body and shots of Cohen, one of Mike’s two main partners, visiting with the owner of an Indian casino and offering him a bribe, presumably to get the man into Mike’s pocket and preempt Ace’s plans (plans that Mike learned via the late Nathan, who Ace wanted to spill the beans). The repeated shots of Mike staring not quite into the camera suggest a malevolent demon causing those other events — the casino bribe and the disposal of Nathan’s body — to happen. And of course, Mike is that powerful, that devilish — a fact slyly emphasized by Cohen’s noticing a poster of Meatloaf on the casino floor and mentioning the singer’s breakthrough album Bat Out of Hell.
Unbeknownst to Cohen, the casino meeting was a trap: We later see Gus in the casino’s security control room, watching the bribe as it occurs then taking a DVD with footage of the handoff. Ace later triumphantly hands this to Mike by way of fuck-you, after confronting Mike head-on with his belief that Mike murdered Nathan. Oddly, given Ace’s established temper, our hero says he won’t seek revenge for Nathan’s death; is he lying? “No old testament wrath,” says Mike, his English accent pronouncing “wrath” as “Roth.” Perhaps this is more wordplay from David Milch, placed in the mouth of a character who last week murdered another character over “syntax,” and who built a whole scene in that same episode around a mysterious message iced atop a cake. “You’re out,” Ace tells Mike. “You” — meaning Mike, Cohen, and De Rossi, whom Gus has been holding hostage sans cell phone out at the stable — “ain’t my partners no more … You get the one pass.”
Rosie and Ronnie are up this week, riding against each other; the bug is down because he can’t drop to 112 pounds in time for the weigh-in. Walter Smith gets pressured by the visitor Bowman, who represents the estate of the Colonel, the previous employer that horribly murdered Delphi, the father of Walter’s beloved and brilliant thoroughbred Gettin’ Up Mornin. The estate is sticking Walter for $140,000 in fees that Walter says he doesn’t owe because of a handshake agreement with the Colonel; luckily, Walter’s unflappable lawyer (Bruce Davison, terrific as always) brilliantly represents Walter in a hearing, and things seem to go in the old man’s favor. Then Walter loses his temper in a chance encounter with Bowman, who taunts Walter with a threat to post an affidavit and bring it to the attention of Geraldo Rivera (who I guess cares deeply about horse-racing? Whaa?); Walter gets up in his face, growling as only Nick Nolte can, then knocks him on his ass in the mud. (Aside: I wish some enterprising reader would make a GIF of Nolte knotting up his face like Popeye the Sailor on a spinach-jonesing rage bender and shrieking, “HurrAL-doh … RuhhVAYRA?!????”)
Jo the pregnant vet gets injured at the stables when a horse she’s treating rears up and kicks her. She goes to the hospital for treatment. The docs can still hear the baby’s heartbeat but say she’ll need more treatment, so she stays overnight. Jo’s lover Turo Escalante, introduced in the show as a hard-driving professional who needs nobody, takes the sorta-foundling child Eduardo home with him at Jo’s request; they both stay up late watching TV, Escalante on the couch and the boy on the floor beneath him. They lie in identical postures, hands behind heads; their bodies are perpendicular to each other, which from a high angle creates a crucifix shape. The show is dead, but at least some of these characters’ hearts have been resurrected. As mentioned in previous Vulture recaps of Luck, this episode, like others, contains numerous examples of selfish characters taking responsibility for other characters’ lives, easing their suffering or trying to impart wisdom that will help others avoid the mistakes that they themselves once made (see Leon asking Ronnie for a lead on rapid weight-loss drug and Ronnie, a constantly recovering addict, refusing).
The reordering of the cosmos that started in episode five and accelerated in six (the earthquake episode) continues. Enormous changes are occurring for all these characters; the emotional tectonic plates are shifting. Yet Milch and his writers still deliver marvelous borderline-nonsensical exchanges, such as Escalante describing E.T. as “the monkey on the bike likes the chocolates,” and executive producer Michael Mann and his filmmaking team still find space for pure directorial flourishes, such as that Mike-as-Satanic-god editing pattern early in the episode, and the thrum-thrum synthesizer music that ties together alternating sections of subplot, and the low-angle shots of the geometric latticework canopy outside the entrance of Ace’s hotel. If you’re a fan of this series — and you have to be, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this recap! — you already know that when detractors say of the show, “Nothing happens,” what they mean is, “I don’t like shows where a lot happens beneath the surface and you have to work to put it all together.” That’s the kind of show Luck is. Or was.