If you stuck with this show, you reaped the rewards tonight. There had been gorgeous camera work in the pilot; and Ace Bernstein, Walter Smith and Jerry had seemed like intriguing characters that might be worth investing in. And sure, plot items that were presented hazily—like who the hell is Mike is, and what Ace is up to—may have perturbed you, but none of those aspects, good or bad, really matters until this episode’s pivotal race.
Critics often rant about what makes compelling television. Is it in the moments where the art transcends the medium and makes you feel something as if on a higher plane? Is it in a cast of characters who make for lively company? Is it simply in the stories being told, in the truths being espoused by the actions and events that unfold. No matter what your criteria, if you haven’t found a reason to be sucked in by HBO’s “Luck,” I doubt you’ll find it if this week’s central race sequence didn’t take your breath away. If you didn’t find it as Gettin’ Up Morning swiftly pumped across the finish line, if you didn’t find it while Walter clapped his binoculars, remotely controlling the horse’s pace, and if you didn’t find it in the glee that radiated from Rosie’s pink cheeks as she yelled in victory, then you must not have seen what I saw: overwhelming, raw emotion, and the epitome of sublimity that solidified me as a fan.
Though there were moments within the first three episodes that might warrant similar exaltation, most of the time was spent laying down the foundation for that payoff. We had spent time with Walter yammering to himself about how special this horse was, how he wish his the colt’s daddy were here to see him run. We had seen Rosie’s evolution from exercise girl to jockey, and unfortunately those who had to suffer (Ronnie Jenkins) for her to get her shot. Upon watching the pilot, much of what was said by, about, or around these people felt atmospheric, not in the least consequential. Then why did I feel myself tighten my fists, muttering “Go, go, go” to no one in particular. Why did I find myself teary-eyed with pride as Rosie took her victory lap and Walter walked gingerly down the steps to the concourse, fist-pumping to himself? There was no trickery involved in what creator David Milch and tonight’s director Phillip Noyce were able to accomplish. It was technical mastery and precision, nothing more. And that’s what’s so infuriating. It’s all in the execution, but it won’t ever be duplicated.
Surrounding the majestic triumph at the episode’s center was my key word: wholeness. Marcus (Kevin Dunn), referring to Jerry’s gambling woes, says, “It’s not the money that makes him whole. Who ever made him, didn’t make him whole.” This is a nagging conceit that runs deeply in the veins of the track and flow through every soul who takes part in day-to-day operations, racing, placing bets, or training horses. This seeking of bottomless gratification is exemplified when Rosie and Leon share the high of her accomplishment with their bodies in heat. In some ways, their sex scene is sloppy, but in others it’s enchanting, watching these two young jockeys become intoxicated by their shared successes. It also serves as a somewhat ironic contrast to the Rosie prior to the race who fervently recited The Lord’s Prayer before the race.
We’re acutely attuned in to Jerry’s lack of wholeness this week as Leo’s obnoxious taunts reach excruciating levels of annoying. And whether it’s to shut him up, or because Jerry really does believe he is “a baby,” Jerry keeps shelling out the cash to prove him wrong. He hasn’t needed the money for three episodes now, but as Marcus observed, it was never about what he was chasing, it’s that he can’t stop chasing. Poker could be heroin, alcohol, sex, or number of addictions. Jerry doesn’t need to beat Leo. He did just two weeks ago, in incredibly theatrical fashion. So why does he come back? The feeling wore off. Rosie relived the ecstasy through watching the tapes and making love to Leon. Jerry relives his glories by buying and winning new ones.
Walter and Ace display vulnerabilities as well, indicating that in their elderly years they are either afraid to lose what makes them whole, or are afraid they never found it. The former scenario is Walter’s, that of a man desperate for the companionship and the care-giving relationship that horse ownership entails. His relishing of the win is short-lived when he wipes Gettin’ Up’s nose and a pool of blood is visible on the cloth. The horse will be fine according to the arthroscopic look into his nasal passages, but this does not sooth Walter’s worries. Near the episode’s end, he speaks aloud to Gettin’ Up’s daddy, Delphi, hoping that the deceased horse knows that this is his son, so that he can be proud of him. Then his anxieties amplify as he wonders whether he can handle losing the son, and the father. His heart is so full of compassion for these creatures that it tortures him to know just how fragile their existence becomes in this profession. But undoubtedly, he wouldn’t wish for any other life for this champion-in-the-making. It’s these sorts of fleeting glimpses into Walter’s psyche that give me the most comprehensive look at the toll a life at the track puts on you heart, mind, and soul. A 1st place finish is simultaneously nothing and everything at once.
Ace might not know if he’s ever been whole. During the now routine end-of-day processing with Gus before bed, he laments, “I’ve been confused about my behavior for some time, I’ll tell you that.” With little else besides revenge fueling his actions, his dealings with Claire have thrown him noticeably off-balance which for someone as composed as he, being in a business as ruthless as his, could be distressing. Speaking of which, plot-wise a lot is happening for Ace at this time. As mentioned, he and Claire of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation are poised to become business partners, and he seems unsure if he feels for her in an extracurricular way, but it’s hard to discount the enormous generosity he has shown her with both his money and his courtesies.
With Nathan, he continues to undermine the kid’s confidence. During dinner, Nathan brings up a couple whose having trouble with their mortgage and quips, “Did they not read the contract? They wouldn’t have these problems if they didn’t read the contract.” Ace’s response? “Well that’s an asshole eighth grade observation.” What a guy. Looking out for the defenseless, and humiliating the financially entitled. In addition, we meet Mike (played with verve by Michael Gambon), and I couldn’t help, but be shocked to hear the indecencies being shouted by Dumbledore on a yacht! Joking aside, the role is showy, but Gambon plays it with a balance between sophistication and recklessness. He plays the scene where Mike suspects Ace “must be pissed off” with an eerie control of his volume. One instance, he’ll be raging about how Ace sweats less than Jesus under scrutiny, and then he’ll lower his register when asking if Ace’s grandson is well (the one whom Mike supplied cocaine to). Rivaling his intensity, Ace demands he never speak of him again. The tension between Hoffman and Gambon remains that electric throughout and watching these businessmen clash is its own brand of magnificent.
Other notable happenings include Escalante and Jo, the vet ,shacking up (a step up from last week’s random sex), or at least it seemed that way since they were drinking and watching TV together. Joey Rathburn (Richard Kind) grows increasingly frantic as Ronnie sinks into relapse due largely to the incredible pain from his collarbone break. Not to mention Leon has gained weight caring for the dehydration he suffered that led to the gash above his eye from hitting the floor. With neither of his clients in riding shape, it means irrelevance for him, and his drunken ramblings to a unassuming bartender spell out his pitiful inadequacies. He too falls short of feeling complete without any working jockeys to validate his worth.
While Rosie’s first win trumps all in terms of significance and resonance in my book, the rest of the episode does not underwhelm by comparison. The race only serves as the most shining example of how the caliber of the season has been raised. The stakes are much clearer for everyone, we know what makes each of them tick, and any concern about gaps in understanding have been resolved or dismissed. Also Milch’s dedication to conversational authenticity leads to several gut-busters sprinkled throughout each episode to ease the various mounting intensities. For example, when Marcus begins to experience shortage of breath and requests that Renzo and Lonnie help him find Jerry, they get confused over who they should say is sick. Should they tell Jerry that he is sick, according to Marcus; or should they say Marcus says that he, Marcus, is sick? All Marcus can do is cuss at these incredibly inept associates of his and rue the day he decided to be grouped in with the rest of these beloved degenerates.
“Luck,” in Episode Four, has constructed one of the most moving sequences on TV, year-to-date. Between the staggering instrumentals, the brilliantly stylized closeups, and Nick Notle’s superb expressions of astonishment, Milch and crew set an impossible standard for filming sporting events. Also, for hitting home with a thorough examination of the characters’ incapacity to achieve wholeness, this episode comes ironically close to complete and utter satisfaction, delivering the inspirational and the bleak with equal potency. Like Jo said to Walter, looks like you’ve got a champion: A.