There’s no getting around the fact that this week’s episode of Luck, written by Robin Shushan and directed by Henry Bronchtein, was overstuffed with exposition. Last week’s entry was a bit of a respite after the turning point that was the fourth episode, letting us take in the state of some of the characters midseason. This week’s episode is one where David Milch and the writers start setting the plates into motion that will keep spinning all the way until the first season concludes three weeks from now. As such, much of the plot mechanics are a little more obvious, particularly in the storyline involving Ace’s (Dustin Hoffman) scheme to get back at former partner-in-crime Mike (Michael Gambon). So, given that Luck is strongest when the show is at its most elusive, eliding past plot points to get to a deeper truth, the strongest thread this week belonged to stammering jockey agent Joey Rathburn (Richard Kind), whose simmering financial/professional tensions have finally come to a boil.
It’s in Joey’s story that we’re rewarded with the lyricism Milch has gotten us accustomed to on Luck. With Leon (Tom Payne) still holding him responsible for being pulled off his first professional race last week and washed up Ronnie (Gary Stevens) still spewing his alcohol-driven vitriol at the poor mope every chance he gets, Joey sees his chances to eke out a living dwindle. How depressed must you be to continue to call an ex-wife who never returns your calls, inviting her to the Hamburger Hamlet. This is a woman whose only interest in Joey is receiving her alimony check, and the guy is calling her when he’s almost broke. So we see where this is headed when he holes up in a hotel room and a gun lies on the nightstand. Kind expertly calls up Joey’s stammer during key moments, notably when the man’s getting in touch with his wife, fumbling a deal for Leon, or anytime he has to deal with the sadistic Ronnie. One of the strengths of Milch’s shows is their courage to indulge long silences as a story unfolds. If dialogue isn’t necessary, why force it? As we see Joey’s hopelessness mount, it’s our good fortune to spy on some wonderful moments of silence showcasing Kind, as Joey gazes outside his hotel window, taking measure of the world he’s leaving behind, then again in a mirror as he shaves, getting ready for the inevitable.
It’s those character touches that save this episode from being simply an overloaded collection of plot incitements. At the track, Marcus (Kevin Dunn) and his railbirds (a.k.a. Foray Stables) give Leon his first chance at racing a horse, their thoroughbred Mon Gateau. The horse’s trainer, Turo (John Ortiz), again argues with his lover, Jo (Jill Hennessy), the horse vet, over her bleeding-heart empathy for strangers (in this case one of Turo’s employees who found out her son was murdered). Walter (Nick Nolte), absent from last week’s episode, returns to face a lawsuit from the children of his horse’s former owner, now contending that Gettn’up Morning is their horse. It’s all enough to feel like the world is falling apart at the seams. And then, for an instant, it does.
The separate worlds of Luck’s cast of players are often momentarily brought together by a major event, usually a race. This time, the event is signaled by a flock of birds flying out from the rafters of the track’s grandstands. When this is followed by the horses bucking their trainers and jockeys we become aware that this silent occurrence is an earthquake, one that strikes just as Joey aims to shoot himself in the head. Instead, a wonderful slow-motion shot follows Joey’s point of view as the misfired bullet’s trajectory causes it to ricochet and graze his cheek. Joey’s relief at surviving his own misguided suicide attempt turns to joy when he realizes he no longer stutters. To see Joey walk into The Long Shot for a drink, exuding confidence as he greets everyone loudly and without hesitation, will be a moment of bliss for fans of both the show and the long underrated Kind. Joey confronts Ronnie at the bar and says, “Peter Piper picked a peck of peppers.” (In response to Joey’s small victory, Ronnie sneers, “Pickled peppers, asshole.”) But does this mean we will be deprived of the wonderful characterization Kind built on the foundation of Joey’s stammer? The next time Joey and Ronnie see each other, near the end of the show, he winces with the realization that his stammer has returned. It’s a colossal disappointment that, as a fleeting look on his leering face seems to indicate, touches even Ronnie.
• Jürgen Prochnow (Das Boot) guest stars as the owner of the Santa Anita Race Track. He last worked with executive producer Michael Mann in 1983’s little-seen horror fantasy The Keep.
• After some initial reluctance due to the quake, the railbirds allow Mon Gateau to ride. With each successive race, we learn more about the different issues that may arise. The wrinkle this week is a possible penalty against Leon for bumping Mon Gateau into another competitor.
• In the episode’s second, more kinetic race (cut to the frenetic rhythm of the Dropkick Murphys’ “I’m Shipping Up to Boston”), Rosie (Kerry Condon) makes the mistake of hitting Gettn’up Morning with her stick. This despite Walter’s warning to just keep the horse settled: “He’s gonna do the rest, all on his own.” Walter’s rage at Rosie’s lapse may seem like an overreaction, but he knows that with two wins, all litigious eyes are now on Gettn’up Morning.
• Speaking of “I’m Shipping Up to Boston,” it’s the second piece of music associated with a Martin Scorsese film (The Departed) to show up on Luck. The first was heard in episode four: Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight,” also used in Shutter Island.
• Ace is annoyed that Gus (Dennis Farina) stayed in the car waiting for him all night as he slept in their horse’s stall (see
• Mike, Di Rossi (Alan Rosenberg), and Cohen (Ted Levine) send Gus a cake congratulating him for Pint of Plain’s win last week. The message on the cake: “Wait to Go, Greek.” Ace’s new employee, naïve Nathan Israel (Patrick J. Adams), guesses it’s just a mistake. But Ace and Gus know better, sensing an intimidating warning. Gus, in reference to the cake, says, “No icing error, this.”
• Ace tries to be nonchalant, saying, “Hey, Gus, order Miss What’s-her-face roses.” Gus lighting up, asks, “Claire?” Ace, caught making a move, confesses, “Claire.”
• Ace shares his plans to purchase the race track with his parole officer (Barry Shabaka Henley). “When you think about what you’re gonna do, how does that make you feel?” his parole officer asks. “Good,” says Ace. “Good. What kind of good? Good, like it’s good to have some fun with your life? Or good, like ’I’m gonna rub those motherfuckers nose in it who did this to me?’” After a momentary digression, Ace concludes, “Good, both ways.”
• One of the railbirds, Lonnie (Ian Hart), checking underneath the bronze thoroughbred statue at the Santa Anita Race Track: “They gave him actual brass ones.”
• Ace sends Nathan to Mike with the hope that the young financial wizard can spy on his former associate. Mike’s sinister toast at his first meeting with Nathan, Di Rossi, and Cohen: “To purposes guessed at, if not yet spoken.”
• Lonnie introduces himself to Leon after the race: “Lonnie McHinerny. Well, it sounds like McInerney, but it’s spelled m-c-h-i-n-e-r…” “…M-o-r-o-n,” Marcus interrupts.
• A portentous throwaway line: As Jo walks away from another fight with Turo, she mutters out of his earshot, “I’m knocked up, you bastard.”
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