Given the plentiful violence found in previous shows by executive producers Michael Mann and David Milch, early speculation on what Luck would feel like often ended up somewhere in The Sopranos territory. After all, Luck would take place in the shady world of gambling. Its cast would sport tough-guy actors like Nick Nolte and Dennis Farina. And it would air on HBO, which some say is at its most successful when exploring violent worlds like those of The Wire and Boardwalk Empire. Eight episodes in, it’s safe to say that this at times sweet show about the community forming around the Santa Anita Race Track is nothing like that. But in this, the series’s penultimate episode, Sopranos director Allen Coulter gives us a taste of what the darker Luck many of us had been wishing for might have been like. And it isn’t pretty.
For one thing, the good-hearted get the short end of the stick, like jockey-in-training Rosie (Kerry Condon), who loses her mount to drug-addicted rider Ronnie (Gary Stevens). The overweight Leon (Tom Payne) sees his own chances to ride a horse for a big Derby evaporate after his agent, Joey (Richard Kind), pushes Leon’s girlfriend, the unseated Rosie, instead of backing him. Walter (Nick Nolte), who chose expediency over empathy in firing Rosie in the first place, is now dealing with his own troubling issues as he tries to fend off an unfriendly takeover by his former employers trying to cash in on the success of Gettn’Up Morning. And the maternal horse veterinarian, Jo (Jill Hennessy), ends up in a hospital with her pregnancy in danger after a horse got spooked and kicked her in the abdomen. No, this version of Luck has no time to wax poetic about the track’s more upstanding inhabitants.
This version of Luck is a show about backstabbers and reprobates. Marcus (Kevin Dunn) and his railbird friends, who’ve been developing into quite the team as Foray Stables, snipe about everything in this episode. They criticize Turo (John Ortiz) for his arrogance after he fails to meet them to discuss Mon Gateau’s upcoming race. They bicker about whether Rosie is worthy enough to ride their horse, or if it’s just Turo assigning her the mount in order to increase the odds for his own financial gain. They even turn on themselves, knocking Jerry (Jason Gedrick), who for once is happy after taking up with the beautiful Naomi (Weronika Rosati), for bringing his new girlfriend to the races. Any progress the four guys at Foray Stables have made in starting to gel isn’t evidenced here, where they might as well be a crew of petty thieves angling for who gets a larger share of their take.
But this is all penny-ante level stuff. If one invokes The Sopranos then one should be prepared to trot out some fairly gruesome examples of disharmony and betrayal. And the disappearance of Nathan Israel (Patrick J. Adams), double agent for archenemies Ace (Dustin Hoffman) and Mike (Michael Gambon), more than qualifies. Coulter recalls the sometimes surreal characteristics of the grisly episodes he used to direct for The Sopranos. When Ace wakes up from a dream where he hears seagulls squawking, it’s reminiscent of the dreams that plagued Tony Soprano after executing his friend Big Pussy. The free association is further driven home by the fact that it points to Mike, who, like Tony, murdered Nathan on his yacht and has now sent his thugs to get rid of the evidence out at sea. The scene on that boat is the most horrific we’ll ever see on Luck. The deck is awash in the pink and maroon swirls of gore diluted by sea water. We get glimpses of body parts as Mike’s men stow Nathan’s remains in large trash bags, tying them to barbell plates before throwing them overboard.
Ace’s concern over Nathan’s disappearance is strong enough that he voices it to Gus (Dennis Farina). It’s indicative of the paternal way Ace viewed young Nathan, an association stemming from the whole thing which spurred Ace’s hatred of Mike in the first place: framing Ace’s own grandson for drug possession. In this episode, we finally see Ace put his plan for revenge into motion. Ace maneuvers his way through his scheme with the deftness of any Jersey mobster: cutting Mike out of the proposed co-venture to buy the Santa Anita Race Track; filming Mike’s lieutenant, Cohen (Ted Levine), offering the Indian gaming lobby a bribe; sticking Di Rossi (Alan Rosenberg) into one of Turo’s empty stalls with an intimidating Gus while he visits Mike. But Ace admits his part in getting Nathan killed and grants Mike a pass as a result of his own guilt. Is it a sign of softness from Ace? It’s one sufficient to embolden a surprised Mike to plan his own rival bid on the track and worrisome enough for Gus to prohibit Ace from being alone going forward.
One telltale signal that this episode of Luck isn’t set in some funhouse-mirror alternate universe comes at the show’s conclusion. As Gus prepares for all-out war with Mike, advising Ace to step away from the window of their high-rise hotel room, we get a glimpse of the real Ace. His greatest disappointment isn’t that Nathan’s dead or that his plan for vengeance has encountered an obstacle. It’s that Claire, the object of his affection, won’t be able to join him at the upcoming Western Derby to see Gus’s horse race. It’s a point that I’m not sure The Sopranos ever made as strongly over six seasons as Luck has been able to make in one. Even gangsters are capable of love.
• Sadly, next week’s episode will be Luck’s last. Though production was already underway on the second episode of the show’s second season, HBO made the unprecedented move of cancelling the show shortly after the death of a horse, the third to die since the series began shooting. Disappointing though this may be for the show’s small but loyal audience, I’m not sure there was any other choice given the controversy that already existed regarding the use of the animals in what must have been grueling shoots for the frequent race sequences. I feel saddest for Milch and the ensemble cast, who all were operating at a creative peak. For Milch, whose love of horse racing is well known, this was a personal project adroitly executed. I just hope we can all benefit from another collaboration by this wonderful group of talents in the near future.
• Best known for his role as the sniveling Clark in 1989’s Casualties of War, Don Harvey plays a recurring role credited as the Flack. He’s appeared in Michael Mann’s TV version of Miami Vice and again in the director’s most recent film, Public Enemies.
• After listing a litany of horse injuries Jo needs to look at, Turo lays into her for bringing Eduardo, the young Latino boy they looked after last week, to the track for an encore appearance: “You bring to my barn the monkey on the bike who likes the chocolates?” After a befuddled Jo fails to get his reference, Turo elaborates, in case she doesn’t get how alien kids are to him: “In the movie…on the bike that crosses the moon?” He is, of course, referring to E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.
• Approaching Ace about trouble between Gus and Di Rossi in one of his stalls, Turo ends up gaining a whole new respect for the ex-con after one conversation. Ace finally confesses that he used to buy carrots from Turo when the trainer was a street vendor 30 years ago in New York. As proof, he drops a name that means a lot to Turo. “Talked to Charlie Lacey,” Ace says, “would he get you going as a groom?” The accent Turo usually plays up almost entirely disappears as he says, “Bless Charlie’s soul. Why’d you get me a job?” “Thought maybe you’d be good,” Ace replies. “What a great trainer, Charlie, and what a lousy gambler,” says Turo. “That’s how I knew him,” Ace answers, “I used to book his bets.” Turo only half-asks, “And now you giving me this horse.” “That’s Gus’s horse,” Ace clarifies.
• Ace asks Mike, “What one word did that kid tell you any different from what I’ve been saying?” The irony is that poor Nathan was done in because of the degree to which he mimicked Ace’s speech patterns, signaling their complicity in Ace’s plans to take Mike down.
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