For the past few weeks, those unfamiliar with David Milch’s style have probably been scratching their heads, wondering what, aside from the lush visual rubric established by Michael Mann, critics and fans see in Luck. As far as Milch shows go, Luck’s characters, at least initially, are a good deal less likeable than, for instance, Dennis Franz’s alcoholic, racist Andy Sipowicz was in Milch’s NYPD Blue. Because the writer incorporates horse-racing terminology into his trademark stylized slang, Milch-speak as it’s referred to, is made more impenetrable in Luck than it is in his period-accurate Deadwood—never mind the surfer-infused dialect of his failed John in Cincinnati. Tonight’s revelatory episode, written by Daily Racing Form columnist Jay Hovdey and directed by Phillip Noyce, marks the turning point that should put any detractors’ criticisms to rest.
The centerpiece of the episode is the emotionally engaging horserace Luck has been leading up to since it premiered. It’s a transformative event that highlights the power of the sport, one in which one victory can be shared by multiple winners. At the most fundamental level, there’s the colt, Gettn’up Morning, who’s running his first race. He has a bad start out of the gate, falling behind by a furlong or two before making his way to the head of the pack. Then there’s exercise girl Rosie Shanahan (Kerry Condon), whose Irish-accented cursing belies a bright spirit. Her emotional connection to Gettn’up Morning, it’s implied, might be part of the winning formula. When Rosie rides Gettn’up Morning, her body looks as if it fuses to the horse’s, both galloping together with the same rhythmic pulse. Rosie is starry-eyed at the chance to ride in her first professional competition, and her naiveté links her to Walter Smith (Nick Nolte), the horse’s owner. Having trained Gettn’up Morning’s father, champion thoroughbred Delphi, Walter is experienced in one regard, but Delphi’s untimely death at the hands of his rapacious new owners (part of an insurance scheme) has left Walter shell-shocked. From that standpoint, for first-time owner Walter, still recovering from the passing of a horse he connected to as deeply as Rosie has with Gettn’up Morning, this race is as new an experience to him as it is for her and the horse.
Loaded with backstory, this week’s race, as filmed by Noyce, becomes a catharsis not simply for those three characters (on Luck the horses are characters too), but for the track’s other denizens. Underscored by Max Richter’s elegiac “On the Nature of Daylight” (hat tip: Derrick White), the set piece masterfully intercuts between Walter in the stands, Rosie on Walter’s colt, her fellow jockeys facing their own demons, agent Joey (Richard Kind) wondering where his next paycheck will come from with both his jockeys out of commission, and Marcus (Kevin Dunn) and his railbirds fretting over Jerry (Jason Gedrick) out gambling again in a private game of poker at a Chinatown restaurant owned by Lester (Dennis Dun).
Nolte’s commitment to his portrayal of Walter is palpable. As Gettn’up Morning approaches the finish line, Nolte’s eyes well up with tears, and he begins to make the same motions Rosie does on the horse. His body’s spasms forward seem like involuntary convulsions. Losing Gettn’up Morning so soon after Delphi’s death would break this fragile man’s heart, he’ll admit later. Nolte’s vulnerable physical performance in the race scene makes the character’s verbal admission completely unnecessary. Nolte makes Walter’s reluctance to allow Rosie to ride his horse understandable; it’s less about her inexperience and more about protecting the relative innocent from the same disappointments he’s encountered as a result of binding with a horse. For one brief, transcendent moment, as Gettn’up Morning crosses the finish line, all of Luck’s characters are magically connected. It’s an inspiring moment that will linger over the rest of the season, a reminder of why the difficult Luck is a show worth getting to know.
• Apparently, from the one-sided conversation we overhear when Renzo (Ritchie Coster) is on the phone, his mom is also a degenerate gambler.
• Last week, we discovered Jo (Jill Hennessy), the horse vet, and trainer Turo (John Ortiz) are romantically involved. This week, we find out jockeys Leon and Rosie are too. These horses really do set hearts aflutter. Stay tuned for more horse-inspired romances in upcoming episodes.
• We finally meet Ace’s sinister former associate Mike. He’s played by Michael Gambon, best known as the wise old wizard Dumbledore (starting with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban). Gambon is a Mann veteran, having appeared in The Insider as Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation CEO Thomas Sandefur.
• That’s Ray Charles singing “Drown in My Own Tears” over Ace (Dustin Hoffman) and Gus’s epilogue as the credits start to roll.
• Think you’re the only one who can’t understand Milch’s dialogue? Here’s one instance where Ace’s syntax causes someone to misunderstand him: Claire (Joan Allen) is pitching Ace on how his support might help her foundation rehabilitate ex-convicts through time spent with horses. Ace agrees: “Also, better uses some people might say the money could go to. Times being what they are. The system being broke.” Claire, not understanding that Ace concurs, replies, “I wouldn’t call the system ’broke’ so much as ’broken.’” “Right,” Ace smiles, “I guess you could say either/or.”
• Rosie is ecstatic about finally getting her own locker. The official showing her around introduces her to her valet, Marcel. “I’m Rosie, Marcel,” she says, grinning. Making the universal sign for “lips sealed,” the official says, “It’s why they call him Marcel.” (History’s most famous mime was, of course, Marcel Marceau.)
• Over dinner, Ace talks to Nathan (Patrick J. Adams) about last week’s homework assignment, writing down everything he did for 24 hours in the hopes of getting hired for a million-dollar job working for Ace. Pointing to his bodyguard, Gus (Dennis Farina), Ace says, “He told me last night that if you read out loud what time you had a dump he was gonna walk up behind you, hit you in the back of the head. Anyway, when you’re done with your duck, you can leave him your social security number.”
• During their weekly conversation before they each hit the sack, Gus expresses doubt over Ace’s plan to use Nathan to strike at Mike. “A million dollars, Ace?” Gus asks. “For a million dollars you could put me in a paper bag, dump me off the Empire State Building to see how high I’d bounce.” “You’ve got a million dollars,” Ace reminds Gus. “I’m just saying, when I was this punk’s age,” Gus replies. “Mike will probably try that bouncing experiment on the kid,” Ace grimly asserts.
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