An earthquake! A miracle! The second coming of Man O'War! With everything that "Luck" packed in last night, I was shocked that it still came in under an hour. It was also an episode that reminded me of a criticism that I and many other critics had of another HBO show, "Big Love," which had an ambitious number of ends to get to, but in the end became too controlled by them. So far, "Luck" has taken the opposite trajectory of "Big Love." It was a show about a family, but it got so bogged down in wacky subplots regarding casinos and fundamentalist compounds that in the last two seasons episodes were more about plot points than story. We lost the best thing about the show - exploring the relationships among the wives and their families - in favor of wild trips to Mexico and political scheming for low public offices. Despite a dizzying number of plots, characters and insider jargon to start with, "Luck," as it has continued, has gone the "Mad Men" route of storytelling, where being immersed in the world is (so far) the point of the show. We know with "Luck" that there are things on the horizon, like Ace's scheme to bring down Mike and the "Three Stooges," which will seem to take at least a season, if not the entire series, to unfold. But beyond that it's slowed down into a deep character study that is never fully resolved in a single episode, to its benefit.
Take for instance the Joey story, which was a continuation from his spiraling downward last week. In the first few episodes, Joey appeared to be a comic figure, one who was stressed out but knew how to manage his jockeys well enough. But over the last few episodes that all fell apart, and last week in particular, Joey was seen making desperate calls to his estranged wife and seeming to deeply reconsider his place both in his chosen career and in the wider world. It all came to a head after a desperately awkward and painful conversation with his ex, after which Joey resolves to kill himself. Saved by the shock of the earthquake that made the bullet ricochet around the room and across his cheek rather than through his brain, Joey finds afterwards that his trademark stutter completely disappeared. In two fantastic follow-up moments, Joey carefully reads the label on his shirt, unable to believe he can do so without a speech impediment. Later, with new confidence, he strutted into the bar and called out to everyone, hoping that they would notice. They didn't, or didn't seem to (or care) except for Ronnie, who has been relegated lately to nothing more than a black hole of negativity. Later Ronnie childishly and cruelly confronts Joey, who responds with the hint of a stutter returned. What does it all mean? What was it all for? Joey's story does not end here, and it's an odd kind of minor character-specific cliffhanger that made me want to watch the next episode immediately.
As I have mentioned in the past, the Four Amigos (or Foray Stables, as I should perhaps call them) also have that magically engaging but closed-in narrative that never disappoints. The interactions among the four are played so well and fit together so perfectly that I could watch an entire show just about them and their hijinks. It was a special moment to finally see Mon Gateaux (do I have that right?) win a race, and for them to experience what Walter and Ace, our other owners, have tasted. To see grumpy Marcus do a 180 and zoom away in his mechanical wheelchair after the inquiry was dropped was hilarious, and watching the ragtag band come together (including their minority share holder trainer friend as well as their other wheelchair-bound friend that they watch races with) to celebrate with their horse was simply lovely.
Of course, the Four Amigos' story is intertwined with Leon's, and therefore with Joey's, as well as Escalante. Though each story feels like its own world, it connects to the others in planetary orbit around a common Santa Anita racetrack sun. The races are where everything comes together, and it seems that every episode will have at least one. Though the races themselves are absolutely the highlight visually and emotionally, I can't help but get nervous each time. What will go wrong? And if one horse wins and succeeds, a second race has me feeling ill over what horror might unfold to balance it out. After all, this isn't Seabiscuit! A horse died in the first episode - anything can happen.
Luckily, Episode Six only had jockeys misbehaving, and not in a way that cost their horses any damage. Did Leon whip or shove or otherwise impair and endanger a fellow jockey during his race? The stewards could not find conclusive evidence, and the comment that "it was like talking to someone who wasn't there" was an intriguing one. Is Leon just a fantastic "Who, me?" actor, or are his starvation techniques clouding his mind? Either way he was given a pass officially, though not in the changing rooms. We don't really have a grip yet on Leon as a person yet - he is mysterious in a way that draws you in - but is he someone to cheer for, or not?
Later in the afternoon, the other jockey-gone-bad Rosie did a bit of a ninja twirl with her crop and spanked Getting Up Morning a few times to send him into warp drive, breaking track records with his speed. Nick Nolte was so fantastic as Walter in the moments following Rosie's crop usage that I think an Emmy nod might be coming his way. His seething rage that overcame his happiness at the win, causing him to rip the crop from her hands and throw it in the trash was so muted in its emotions that it was also positively explosive. The sweet moment later when Rosie tearfully apologized set up what I had hoped would be a kind of father/mentor relationship between the two, where Walter trains not only Getting Up Morning but also Rosie in the art of how to be a champion the good and righteous way. Again, the horse was fine, the horse won, and the relationship was not torn asunder. It was another character portrait that was engaging and moving in just the right ways.
In the densest of plots, Ace sent Mr. Israel into battle again Mike, DiRossi and Cohen, getting him to work as a double agent. Israel is one who we also have gotten conflicting character traits from. He's arrogant and a little dense when it comes to social situations, but he must be a good man at heart if his work for Ace is making him ill. Ultimately he gets the job done, at least stage one, in making Mike believe Ace has Indian Gambling in his pocket, something that Mike wants for himself. I have no idea what Ace is setting him up with or for, but I know it's going to taste like sweet, sweet revenge when it plays out. How it comes to affect the other characters, though, might not be so rosy.
I leave each episode of "Luck" as if I actually was leaving a racetrack. It lingers with you. I'm hoping that it continues in this character-driven vein and does not pull a "Big Love" in the end, falling prey to "we have to get to here to get to there." Unfortunately for HBO's viewing numbers, a show like "Luck" is more likely to turn into an under-watched critical darling a la "The Wire" rather than a cultural juggernaut like AMC's "Mad Men." But for those who invest in the show, I believe the payout will be immense.
Musings and Miscellanea:
— I know that I did nothing but praise the show this week, what are some things you guys DON'T like about it?
— I loved the birds and horses goes a little crazy before the earthquake.
— The earthquake could have been overdone and overwrought, dramatically, but it was perfect.
— I'm not entirely sure what's going on with Walter's law suit. I listened to the dialogue several times but will just have to wait and see, I guess!
— Things are about to get crazy regarding Getting Up Morning. And who was that mystery man at the end?
— "That horse has bad legs but a good horse's heart" - Escalante about Mon Gateaux.
— Jo is pregnant?? Ok ...
— Clare and Ace will never have anything on Gus and Ace. And the conversation around the "wait to go Greek" cake was absolutely hilarious, as was their conversation at the end where Ace gets annoyed at Gus going to sleep and mutters "What the fuck is wrong with me!?"
— Sigur Ros and the Pogues in one episode? Doffing my cap to whoever is picking the music, but not the theme song.
— "Don't be afraid of what can't be" - Claire. What does that even mean?
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