Cue the Boyz II Men, “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday.”
“Luck” was dealt a bad hand. Granted, the worst hands belonged to those majestic brutes whose lives were prematurely taken. And I will mourn every horse, every race I never get to see. It was through those powerful, fluid strides that a cast of characters were galvanized into taking risks of all kinds. Loving, killing, betting, praying and the like. And it is those same beautiful horses that have caused the series to cease to be. This is okay with me, because the show would have been, quite obviously, nothing without them. And so with a mesmerizing crane of Pint of Plain’s neck hanging out his stall, looking towards something of interest we’ll never see, I look to a diminished future where there’s no “Luck,” and yet I feel damn lucky to live in a present with that same “Luck” in my past.
Can we at least find solace knowing that its last hour was well spent? Yes, indeed. But in terms of narrative, the equally stressful question is can this season’s finale stand-in for a series ender? In many ways, it can. Your satisfaction will mostly depend upon your definition of resolution.
Mike and his cohorts still loom large over Ace and his dreams to buy the track, but he’s repairing his relationship with grandson, Brent, and opening up his heart to Claire. Our Four Amigos are rich once again with Marcus still the cynic and Jerry still a gambling addict, but both are keeping their tendencies in check. Walter? He holds onto his beloved horse, awaiting the next big race where Gettin’ Up will avenge the photo finish loss at the Western Derby. Escalante’s child dies in utero, but he holds Jo close anyhow as she becomes his family now—the one he only recently found out he wanted. Leon still has weight to lose before he can return, Rosie’s on top of the world, and Ronnie Jenkins falls just short, but hopefully not any further into his prescription pill abuse. Oh, and Joey’s still an agent searching for friends as vigorously as he is clients. In short, their world goes on without us, brimming with would-be’s and coulda-been’s, but whatever comes they’ll share in it. Because “Luck” prefers to view life as one big wager, and we’ve all put our contribution into the pot. And what we come out with will depend on how willing we are to throw our hearts in as well.
It’s peculiar that an HBO drama would end with such promise for what humankind can accomplish together. When the channel’s proudest products signed off with the (likely, never proven) death of its tragic mafioso (The Sopranos), and the continuing stranglehold of bureaucracy and the drug trade on an American city (The Wire), faith in tomorrow seems curious. But despite the avalanche of tension preceding the finish line, that’s how we cross it.
That menacing build-up began with the sudden appearance of Ace’s elusive grandson. Pain overtakes his face as he sees his loved one entering a world where his adversaries would love nothing more than to strike at his heart for striking at their wallets. The kid believes it was Gus who forwarded him a plane ticket to catch his gramp’s horse in the Western Derby, but it was Mike Smythe (Michael Gambon). Ace reacts with fear and anger by boarding up Brent in his penthouse, telling him he can watch the race on TV. From thereon, it’s a suspense-filled game of Dodging Death, as Gus helps him maneuver around his routine without being a sitting duck for hitmen. It’s a wonderful stroke of genius to include how Ace elects to continue with his schedule, despite how it will play into their hand, because of how it would disturb the balance he’s achieved in his life. And for the most part, the routine is not compromised. Through slight of hand, and one grueling, hand-to-hand Gus murder, Ace is able to slip by as his “guys” dispose of their “guys” and he makes it to the track. Dustin Hoffman plays the worn man well, showing how staying alert takes its toll, and further emphasizes the shift when at the end he’s at peace with his grandkid, even though the war with Mike rages on.
As far as the climactic races go, they’re both as gorgeous and enthralling as ever. The pre-Derby affair where our degenerate quartet (and guests! Renzo invites his mom, and Marcus invites his doctor) bet a considerable amount on their horse, entrusting Rosie to bring that bacon home. As usual, their win comes as no surprise, but it doesn’t detract from any allure. Thanks to Escalante’s muttered pointers in the stands, we witness the science of jockeying more precisely than before. It becomes clear that it’s all about windows of opportunity, just like bets and wagers themselves. If you don’t use the lane you’re given to bust out, then someone else will. And fortunately, Rosie breaks to the outside at the exact right moment and it allows her to come out the victor by a couple lengths.
But with no insult to the lovely Rosie and her triumph (I just adore how grateful she is just to be riding. When she wins, it feels like a reward for a good heart as much as a good rider), the race that follows is the best the show has done—ugh, I guess, did. The first truly neck-and-neck finish engineered the most excitement, and continued the strategic bent of the first by putting us in the POVs of the two trainers unleashing their game plans underneath their breath. Both, in order to lessen the agony, declare they probably just missed. There has to be a winner though, and Gus’ Pint of Plain comes out on top. Gus shouts out his tried and true motto: “Greatest f**king country in the world!” holding his trophy under his arm.
The elation is undercut somewhat when Brent shows up, disobeying his grandpa’s request. The trembling panic in his voice as he tries to whisk him away from open space to “where the people are” stopped my heart as I hoped against hope that he would go unharmed, as Mike observes from his box seats, “The primal, primitive scurrying.” Thank God, the kid suffers no consequence, but Milch and director Mimi Leder were masterful in creating and “anything goes” type of atmosphere. Also, credit the long-term effects of characterization. We know little overall about what Mike, Ace and the rest have done in the past, but through Ace’s borderline rage and phrases like Gus’ “Remember that one time in Chicago,” we know that Dodging Death has been their business for some time, and they’re grizzled veterans by now.
As I mentioned in a previous review, “Luck” can at its finest be a “symphony of evocative notes.” And as the minutes waned on this overwhelming, emotive masterpiece I found my heart hurting, knowing that those chords were being struck for the last time. There was the threatening implications of a somewhat innocuous conversation between Ace and Mike before the race, “Great gift, the ability to adapt. Do you feel it all diminishes, as time begins to reel us in? Then there’s Walter and Escalante, exchanging sincere congratulations on a helluva race. Walter promises the same next time around and I audibly moaned, “Noooo,” because we won’t get to be there. Also there’s the celebratory barbecue. Our Four Amigos, who only seemed tenuously bonded by circumstance and convenience, rejoice in their impenetrable friendship that survives ruthless taunting and addiction recovery to become possibly the grandest accomplishments of the show. Admittedly, I looked down upon these scoundrels, these railbirds. They seemed like parasites, festering wounds of a dying sport, hoping to soak up what little they could. But by the end, they became agents of their own destiny. They became a team of inspired spectators that are part of the dream instead of just wishing. They plan on buying a house with many hot tubs and stereos, and Jerry showers Naomi with hundreds as she’s sprawled out naked on his bed. It’s a cheesy, almost hip-hop image of success, but these perennial bottomfeeders deserve the glee of even the most cliched indulgences. If there were any folks you could latch onto as an everyman viewer, it was them.
There’s no mistaking who the star was though. Chester “Ace” Bernstein was the soul of the show. A battered ex-con, looking to turn his life into something worth taking pride in. Despite not fully ridding himself of the ghosts that haunt him—the Smythes, and DiRozzis, and Cohens of the world are still operating on the impulse to bulldoze the track and replace it with tract housing, crushing Ace’s aspirations of bringing interest back to the sport and glory of horse racing—there’s reason to be believe he can escape his past. Pint of Plain is now a Derby winner, and we see Ace stick his neck out by promising that he’ll be for Brent what he could have been. He changes the meaning of “luck” (lowercase intended) for me. He commits to seeing through the hand he’s dealt. He asks tenderly, “You feeling lucky, kid?” and it transforms the complexion of the show. In the beginning it was greed-driven, these men were invariably obsessed by their pursuit of “more.” But “more” does have an apex, it’s a loving home filled with those you care about. And if that’s the melody I’ll be humming when Milch the conductor signals it’s a wrap, I’m content. There’s nothing more life-affirming than you can have it all if you simply take a chance and open yourself up to the possibility of an almost impossible feat. Not a life of riches, but the richness of life.
It’s true what they say, the good die young. And this youngin’ passed away still vital. I’d like to think I knew what I had before it was gone, but I didn’t realize until about four episodes in how much I, nay we, needed a show like this. I spoke with my father yesterday and he talked about how he’s loved the developments of post-9/11 entertainment. The environment is shrouded in darkness, it’s grittier, and we’re embracing the evil that could always be surrounding us. And while this vigilance has made us paranoid, it’s made us hold onto what is good. And though not everything’s coming up roses, there’s something beautiful blossoming on the micro level that’s just as delicate a flower: family, friends, true love. They still exist, even when the foundations of our society crumbles all around us, it’s not the end as long as human connection is possible. And in “Luck’s” universe, your odds aren’t great, but we aren’t alone in that struggle. And ultimately, we walked away knowing that to some degree, everyone could sustain happiness. Ace and Gus eyed the feed of the camera they installed and the goat, the one with pumpkin size-nuts, strolls into the barn after they thought it had gone missing. Horses, though they’re still foreign and strange compared to our conceptions of being, too delight in the comfort of normalcy, depending on the day-to-day. “Luck” left me with hope that if that goat will always return, then so can my faith in people.
For that reassurance, and for providing gorgeous, compelling, well-written human drama in a world that would be a pleasure to hangout in beyond the constraints of the small screen, I congratulate “Luck” on a helluva race. But just because it’s over, that doesn’t mean we’re done.* So this isn’t goodbye. It’s more like Walter said, “More of the same next time?”, a prayer to the TV gods that they’ll honor the memory of these graceful deceased, as well as the achievements of the show, and will bring us a precious offspring just like it, real soon.
*For anyone interested, I’ll be reviewing “Game of Thrones,” another HBO drama based on George R.R Martin’s fantasy book series, “A Song of Fire and Ice,” starting next week!