Last week, Luck’s introductory episode concluded with an exhilarating race that ended badly. The horse that “bug boy” (named for the bug-like asterisk that follows the jockey’s name in the racing forms, signifying his apprentice status) Leon rode was put down after its front legs broke. That tragedy still hangs over the main plot of this episode (unlike most shows, Luck isn’t naming its episodes). But it also thrusts Leon into a kind of limbo reflective of all of the show’s characters. It’s in this episode where one is first able to grasp how the different permutations of fortune (good, bad, indifferent) have washed the show’s ensemble ashore onto the pretty and slightly desolate beach that is Arcadia’s Santa Anita Park.
Leon’s stuttering agent, Joey, is conscious that his client is haunted by the horse’s untimely death and fears it might lead him down the same path as the other jockey he represents, recovering alcoholic Ronnie Jenkins (real-life jockey Gary Stevens). But it looks like Leon’s troubles might manifest themselvesin a different form down the road.
Leon: I was thinking of getting a bear claw, Joey.
Joey: No, no bear claw. No, I don’t need you overweight, right before you ride for Escalante.
Leon: I was thinking I could do some extra roadwork.
It’s an early indication, I suspect, of future trouble for Leon in “making weight.” Ronnie, for his part, is just starting to climb out of the hole he drunk himself into. In this episode’s breezy first race, a practice one, Ronnie is duly impressed by the natural ability of exercise girl Rosie Shanahan (Kerry Condon), who wins riding Walter Smith’s colt, Gettn’up Morning. She asks Walter if she can be his jockey. But here we see, in a reversal of that famous cliché, how contempt breeds familiarity. Walter feels guilty that he didn’t do more for Delphi, a purebred horse he used to train in Kentucky who may have been killed by his owners for an insurance payout. Now Walter seeks redemption in Delphi’s son Gettn’up Morning the same way Ronnie does for his own reasons. The unspoken misfortunes that struck both Walter and Ronnie, when they each ran horses in Kentucky, bond the two men in a way that locks the inexperienced Rosie out of the running.
Luck’s other trainer, the paranoid Turo Escalante, continues his scheming by trying to drive down expectations on his winning horse, Mon Gateau, who paid off big—not just for Turo, but for Marcus and Jerry’s gang of railbirds—in the pilot’s centerpiece race. Turo’s newest plan is complicated enough that he ends up maneuvering himself out of ownership of his race horse in a claiming race—in which a horse is entered with the intention of being claimed for an amount determined before the race. This spectacular race is the visual highlight of this episode, due in no small part to the wonderful cinematography of Stuart Dryburgh. Leon overcomes two jockeys deliberately penning him in and rides Turo’s horse to victory. But what should be an important win for Turo, though, is marred by the realization that someone else has claimed his horse.
With his ambitious move to claim Mon Gateau, child-like Renzo hopes to continue the partnership with his fellow jackpot winners “under a new concept.” It’s in this secondary storyline that we see the ebb and flow of fortune’s tide on display most violently. Each of Renzo’s friends has an excuse for not joining in on his new business proposal. The lonely, disabled, Hall of Fame ballbuster Marcus frets about how much of their winnings his friends are starting to spend, calling attention to themselves. Jerry is pissing his money away on poker again. And Lonnie is trying to gently extricate himself from a personal injury scam involving two call girls as his accomplices—who end up nearly pummeling him to death in response.
Unexpectedly, newcomer Chris Mulligan has also put a claim on Mon Gateau. This leads to a “shake,” in which two dice representing each of the claimants are shaken in a box to see who gets the horse. The shake’s outcome encapsulates Luck’s stance on…luck. Fickle, heartless, and all-pervading, fortune stings those who go up against those she favors. Last week, Renzo’s crew wins, Turo wins, Leon loses; this week, there is a stunning reversal for each of them.
Seemingly operating outside the tides of fortune, maybe even influencing the direction in which it flows, is the show’s ostensible lead, Ace. Though he takes up less bandwidth in this entry, it’s quite significant because he finally puts his plan for revenge into motion. He offers the men who allowed him to go to jail, represented by one Isadore Cohen, a profitable piece of the racetrack he wishes to purchase. We also find out the circumstances behind Ace’s conviction. He lent his NYU-attending grandson a New York co-op co-owned by Ace’s former business partner, Mike, who used it to stash drugs. After the cops bust his grandson for a loud party and find the drugs, unwilling to rat Mike out under pressure from the feds (and unwilling to let his own grandson get pinched), Ace takes the fall for Mike. Nowit becomes clear what part of the reason is that Ace’s bodyguard Gus bought the horse, Pint of Plain. A transaction facilitated by former business partner Mike, it sets up Ace’s ex-partner to expect some kind of future reciprocity from him. Ace is literally using Pint of Plain as a Trojan Horse, with Gus as his instrument of revenge.
• An inside joke: Ace glances at photographs on the office wall belonging to his parole officer (Barry Shabaka Henley). One is of Malcolm X, the other of a jazz trumpet player. Both refer to characters Henley has played for executive producer Michael Mann. In
• Ace’s mobbed up associate (and go-between for Mike), Cohen, is played by Ted Levine. Levine’s been on both sides of the law for Mann before, playing highline burglar Frank Holman on Crime Story and one of Al Pacino’s task force cops in Heat.
• David Milch vets: Claim winner Mulligan is played by W. Earl Brown, memorable as hired gun Dan Dority in Deadwood. And is that an uncredited Geri Jewell (Jewel on Deadwood) watching the claiming race from the grandstands next to Marcus?
• Funny enough, Joey’s stammering (noticeable enough that Turo cruelly calls him Porky Pig behind his back) disappears when he signs Ronnie up with Walter.
• You don’t have to scratch too deep with the names of some of these locations. The railbirds’ quiet motel is called the Oasis. The bar frequented by the track’s employees is the Long Shot.
• Ace has trouble urinating for his frequent drug tests. “I have difficulty if someone’s looking,” he says. “What’d you do inside?” “People made adjustments.” Cut to his parole officer looking away in the restroom, overseeing the exam only using peripheral vision.
• Rosie, murmuring to herself, regretting her desperate display after asking Walter for a chance to ride Getting’up Morning, “Begging, like some chancer on the dole.”
• Renzo’s prospective trainer, Goose Keller (Woody Copland), assuring him nothing’s ever written in stone: “You know, horse ownerships tend to be fluid. That’s why pencils have erasers.”
• Gus winning off Mon Gateau in the claiming race: “Ace, I hit $200 on this race. Don’t ever knock this fucking country to me.”
• At least one of Lonnie’s hookers is a “birther.” One of the whores saysto Lonnie as she beats him savagely, “You think you can double-cross people or lie on your word and your promises, like our Muslim president from Kenya?”
• When Ace asks the prickly Turo what the bag of carrots in the stall costs, it’s his way of seeing if Turo knows Ace indirectly started him on the path to becoming trainer. Ace tells Gus how, as a recent immigrant, Turo was selling vegetables outside of the stables. He could tell how much Turo hated it, and Ace suggested that the young man be given a chance. But: “It’s him who took the bit between his teeth. He’s who made himself into something. All I did was tell some trainer whose bets I’d book, ’Hey, there’s a guy outside. You should hire him. Bring him in here, into the stable to shovel all our shit. Give him a start.’” Another example of luck?
• The show’s Greek chorus, Marcus and Jerry’s crew, not unsurprisingly, get Milch’s best lines. Marcus, fearful that Lonnie’s flashy threads will call attention to their winnings (“Won money. Head up ass.”). Marcus tells Jerry, “I have the right to object, off him draws scrutiny on me.” “Him” being Lonnie, who, sick of Marcus’s scolding, says, “My mental adroitness is dulled by this constant negativity.”
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