Luck: Season 1, Episode 2
I'm new to the world of David Milch. I've never seen NYPD Blue, and I've been saving up Deadwood for a rainy day (or, more realistically, weekend). So you'll forgive me if I marvel a bit in the early going here about the way the man has with words (while this episode is credited to John R. Perrotta, its common knowledge that Milch heavily rewrites every script, especially the dialogue, so I'll be throwing credit his way all season long). There's a poetry to the dialogue on Luck, whether its creative profanity or rhythmic monologuing, a clever turn of phrase or a perfectly constructed put down. It never feels overly constructed or false (as much as I love Aaron Sorkin, his dialogue in no way resembles human speech), and yet there are lines here, hell, full scenes that feel as if they are flying off the page. Great writing is a thing to behold, and Luck promises to be top notch across the board.
The show's themes seem to be coming into starker relief this week as well. Every character on this show is chasing the past, hoping to regain their glory days or to make amends for some past injustice they did, had done to them, or allowed to happen as they stood idly by. Each of them is also, perhaps predictably, bound to the whims of luck. These are every one of them gambling men, it just so happens that some gamble with money and others with lives. Some of them are chasing a past in which they were better, smarter, or richer. Others are just chasing that temporary high that comes with a big score.
Perhaps my favorite moment of tonight's episode came in the final scene set in the casino, when Jerry faced down his opponent and pulled out a seemingly miraculous victory. The show did a perfect job of teasing out the cycle for Jerry, watching him spiral downward as he lost more and more, somehow unable to just walk away. It let us mourn his every defeat alongside him, and lifted us up in celebration when he finally won. There was a subtle tragedy to the whole proceeding (and I can already guess that Jerry will be a truly tragic figure within the world of Luck, though he'll hardly be alone there), and yet damned if my heart didn't leap into my throat as the cards went down. I was celebrating along with Jerry in the moment, and only afterwards mulling over just how dangerous that feeling was. It was a smart, subtle scene for the show, and one that made me very confident in this series going forward.
There's something to Jerry's casual aside at the table that this is a century for China, something that is built into Luck's core, a quiet, tragic feeling that the best days are behind us, and that we've reached the end of America's Golden Age. This isn't a new idea in television series; in fact, its a theme that has played out across most of the best television of the last decade (especially two of Luck's HBO predecessors, The Sopranos and The Wire), but it is a resonant theme for our times, and one I think this show will sink its teeth into going forward. As for now, not a whole lot happens in the series' second episode, not that it needs to. I talked last week about how Luck seems to be setting itself up to play out like a great novel, and this continues here. The series seems more interested in these early hours in building its world and the characters that inhabit it, and if this continues to be as compelling as it has been thus far, I am perfectly fine with the show taking its time out of the gate (I'll try to keep the horse racing jokes to a minimum, but there have to be some, right?).
We learn that Ace took the fall for his business partner Mike and went to prison for cocaine possession, and that though Ace knows he went down for a man who would have thrown him under the bus in a second, he has never ratted on anyone and didn't plan to do it then. He saved Mike and his grandson from jail time, though, as Gus says in the episode's closing moments (and I do hope these ending scenes in Ace's hotel room continue to be a theme), "You don't leave no open contracts." Ace isn't done with Mike, it seems. More as this story develops.
While Ace's plan to take over the track and turn it into a casino experience is interesting, the real meat of the episode is dedicated to our four sad sack winners from last week. We've already discussed Jerry's arc, but each of the others has some movement tonight as well. Jerry may be set to lose all his money at the casino, but Renzo wants to make something of himself, and tries to get his hands on the horse that made him a wealthy man. He isn't successful (for reasons I'm not quite clear on, as I am still new to horse racing and what a "claim race" is), yet the show seems already to be showing us the difference between a man who pushes his luck and one who takes a lucky break and tries to make something of it.
On that note, we have Escalante, who we learn tonight got his start at the track through an act of benign benevolence by Ace, who suggested he be hired. Ace is loathe to take credit for Escalante's success, however. He doesn't let the man know he gave him his shot, and points out to Gus that Escalanta "took the bit between his teeth" and made himself. If there is a theme to this episode, and one that I expect will be a major theme of the series, its that luck comes and goes. All that matters is what you do with your opportunities. Some people will squander them and hope for another lucky break; others will capitalize on them and turn a small success into a long-lasting prosperity. Where each character falls along this spectrum will probably have a lot to do with how they fare as the series progresses.
Sure, luck is random, a seemingly miraculous turn of events that allows us to get a leg up on an otherwise cruel and uncaring universe. That makes it a seemingly magical force in our life, but that also makes it dangerous, unstable, and unreliable. You can't plan on your luck holding out to maintain your lifestyle; you have to make something of your circumstances or you may end up, as Marcus so clearly fears, "broke and alone." Luck is a show about characters teetering on the edge of collapse. Some of them will fare well, and as for the others? Well, they'll just have to hope they have prepared to weather the storm.
-It looks like I may be able to continues reviewing this season. My thoughts on each episode will likely go up on Monday nights, so long as my (apologies in advance) luck holds out.
-"You try to see the perverse logic, you'll go blind."
-"That's enough. And it's hypothetically."
-"Why don't you stop by the barn? We'll tell each other some lies, huh?"
-"Horse ownerships tend to be fluid. That's why pencils come with erasers."
-"My mental adriotness is dulled by this constant negativity."
-"Rosie. It's an easy one." "Not once you get to know her."