If I had to select one image that best represents the central theme of this week’s episode of Luck, it would be a medium shot of Marcus (Kevin Dunn), Jerry (Jason Gedrick), Renzo (Ritchie Coster), and Lonnie (Ian Hart), all holding carrots while they stand, befuddled, in Turo’s stall. The episode’s director, Allen Coulter, is known for the menacing edge he brings to his other projects for HBO, like The Sopranos. But what’s often ignored is his ability to leaven such dark material with a healthy dose of humanity, and this week, Bill Barich’s script provides just the right opportunity for Coulter to display his talent in this respect. A good number of our main characters are closer to catching on to what Luck’s horse trainers, old Walter (Nick Nolte) and Turo (John Ortiz), seem to know already: These horses aren’t just lucky talismans; they also possess a purity of spirit that rehabilitates many of the show’s jaded characters.
The statue-like countenance that Dustin Hoffman has so effectively erected to convey Ace’s icy resolve, for instance, begins to melt a bit when he meets the attractive Claire Lechea almost by chance. So it isn’t entirely surprising that her character is an agent proclaiming some of the horses’ therapeutic qualities. Though not unwelcome, she unexpectedly approaches Ace at a critical point in the episode, seeking a contribution for the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, which uses prison inmates to care for broken-down racehorses. Given Ace’s own history with the penal system, this is potentially a subject close to his heart.
Perhaps the horses’ mellowing effect might also explain why Ace hires the cocky Nathan Israel (Patrick J. Adams) away from his own company after Israel steps out of line in a board meeting. People make adjustments for Ace, we’re reminded of at the start of the episode, and this kid just wasn’t doing it, calling Ace out in front of the company board of directors for wanting to make his purchase of the track so conspicuous. Israel, whose expertise lies in “munis and derivatives,” serves as a sort of immoral alternative to the purity of the gambling involved at the track. After five minutes with Israel, Ace surmises, “Not fucking stupid, this kid. Brains and ambition, and thinks that’s supposed to get him somewhere. No fucking style, at all. He’s the type of kid that will irritate the shit out of Mike.” Contemplating how he can work Israel into his plan of revenge against Mike, Ace derides the young man for his hubris in what is essentially another form of gaming the system, leading to the episode’s most interesting exchange:
Israel: All right, sir. Okay, I’ll go out and get some overalls and some earthworms.
Ace: You want me to give you my tailor’s number and my plant store, or you want to tell me how much you make?
Israel: With my bonus?
Ace: [to Gus] Answers a question with a question. [Back to Israel] Do you make a million dollars? Simple question.
Israel: No, sir.
Ace: Go home. Come back tomorrow. Tell me every fucking thing you did between now and then. If I like what I here, I’ll give you a million dollars for the next 12 months, and you work for me.
Ace: That’s the first thing you write down. “Before I left here I asked him a stupid fucking question.”
Despite this almost open mocking of the young financial whiz, Ace seems to be taking a paternal interest in Israel. It’s not dissimilar to the one that led Ace to cover for his innocent grandson in the drug bust meant to incriminate Mike. It’s a parallel worth considering as Ace attempts to strike back at the man who used his grandson as a pawn to send him to prison.
So with this being such an Ace-heavy episode, why is the most resonant image that of Luck’s Greek chorus, Marcus and Jerry’s crew? Because the four railbirds, each with their own defects (Marcus’s respiratory issues, Jerry’s card-gambling, etc.), are the first to feel the mysterious effect created by proximity to the racehorses. They invest a substantial portion of their winnings to buy back Mon Gateau from the sleazy Mulligan (W. Earl Brown), who won him away from Turo in last week’s claiming race. Typically, Marcus constantly reaches for some oxygen when stressed out, but in this episode, the group’s plan to purchase the horse holds his hacking cough at bay. Linking Marcus to Ace is the protective paternal regard he increasingly shows toward Jerry; for Marcus, the happiest byproduct of their purchase is the effect Mon Gateau has on Jerry distracting him away from the poker table. This brings us back to the image of the four—Marcus, Jerry, Renzo, and Lonnie (still recovering from the skull fracture he incurred last week)—looking a bit perplexed in Turo’s stall as they face their new horse. Ironically, it’s just as Turo runs down the various costs of maintaining the animal that the crew begins to see Mon Gateau less as property and more as a beast with a soul. Renzo asks if they can pet him. Though outwardly Turo is dismissive of the request (muttering in Spanish that his stall is attracting so many visitors it’s starting to look like a zoo), it’s evident he’s appreciative on some level, as he gets Mon Gateau’s new owners carrots to feed the horse he spent years grooming for the race.
Still, it’d be unrealistic to think the horses’ mystical allure can cure all ills. Luck is a drama, so there must be some reversals during the course of the show. By the conclusion of this episode, a few of our characters have fallen off of their respective wagons: Jerry’s back to gambling, and the addicted jockey Ronnie (Gary Stevens), who falls off Gettn’up Morning during that horse’s first race (Luck’s only track set piece this week), seems to have orchestrated the spill deliberately, to get easier access to painkillers.
This episode’s final scene implies, however, that though it might take some time, the horses’ baptismal effect will take hold of even the racetrack’s most corrupt denizens. In what is now becoming a weekly tradition, Ace lies in bed and Gus (Dennis Farina) sits in his armchair, together discussing their machinations against Mike. As they both begin to drift off, Ace mumbles his plan to call Claire Lechea in the morning. But a smiling Gus, whose inexperience with horses was the greatest of all the characters when the series began, mutters, half-asleep, “That’s a beautiful fucking horse.” And in a rare instance of digression for the realistic Luck, we’re allowed a glimpse into Gus’s mind’s eye. Through a ¼-closed iris shot, we see the proud profile of Gus and Ace’s horse, Pint of Plain, galloping at full stride.
• Playing Ace’s potential love interest, Lechea, is guest star Joan Allen, who starred in one of executive producer Michael Mann’s earliest films, Manhunter, as the blind damsel in distress, Reba
• After Turo badmouths Mon Gateau, the racehorse he used to own, Jerry asks, “So, if we bought him, you wouldn’t want him back to train?” Turo, answering a question with a question, says, “Why I want him back to train if I just told you he can’t run no more?” “Well, a guy asks me about a girl I used to see,” Jerry says, “Maybe I still got eyes for her? I’d tell him she’s got crabs.”
• Nervous during his meeting with Ace and Gus, Israel tries to buy some time, and says, “I’d like to use the lavatory.” “America, kid,” responds Gus, as he points in the direction of the restroom.
• Renzo asks, “What would you think for our stable name, Four Amigos?” Marcus declares, “The Four A’s Stables.” “Not Four Amigos, huh?” “The Four A’s is a bigger tent: Four Amigos, Four Assholes…”
• Mulligan brags about the profit he made off the sale of Mon Gateau to Jo (Jill Hennessy), the horse vet, unaware that she’s dating Turo, the horse’s previous owner. Mulligan, realizing how inappropriate his language is, says, “I know you’re not gonna flunk him, just on account of me being halfway fresh.” Jo shrugs: “That’ll make us both unprofessional assholes.”
• Ronnie, after falling off Gettn’up Morning: “I break this fucking collarbone more than I get laid.”
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