‘Luck’ – ‘Episode 2’: Claim costs

A review of tonight’s “Luck” coming up just as soon as I hear a voice from inside my pants…

“Looks like you took a beat on a game you ran.” -Ace

Almost everyone but the serious horse racing fans, it seemed, could agree that the “Luck” pilot was hard to follow at times. The disagreement was between those who enjoyed it in spite of some confusion and those who couldn’t enjoy something they couldn’t fully understand. With the pilot, I fell into the former group; if I couldn’t decipher all the lyrics, I could sure appreciate the notes. And as the series went along, I had that HBO drama learning curve where I eventually figured out most of the terminology, on top of the usual David Milch dialogue curlicues, so I could appreciate both the substance and the style altogether.

But this particular learning curve took a dip with episode two, which managed to be even trickier to decode than the pilot, and which ultimately didn’t have the kind of strong emotional moments akin to the railbirds winning the Pick Six or Leon comforting the injured horse while the vet prepared to euthanize it. There are some rewards to the hour – coming mainly from getting to know the characters better – but on the whole this was an instance where I was very glad to have the ability to immediately move on to the next episode (and, really, to the episode after next) rather than stew too much in my own puzzled juices.

A lot of the hour’s confusion involved Turo Escalante, who almost feels like Milch was dared to create the most indecipherable character in primetime history. Between the usually unusual Milch syntax, Escalante’s paranoia and penchant for running cons on the rest of the world(*), and the thick accent John Ortiz is using (which the pilot established was just another of his cons, to make himself seem less capable than he actually is), there were times in these first couple of hours where I was relieved if I could keep up with half of what was going in in any Escalante scene.

(*) Some of you last week wondered whether Escalante was doing something illegal with Mon Gateau. He wasn’t. He was just trying to make the horse seem like an extreme longshot so the odds would be very high when he bet (and a trainer is allowed to bet on his own horse).

It doesn’t help that his plans are often much more convoluted than necessary, like his scheme to make Mon Gateau again seem like a longshot by entering him in a claiming race and bandaging his ankles to dissuade anyone from putting in a claim. At least other characters seem aware that he’s working too hard – Jo the vet is baffled that he’d risk losing this horse they spent two years rehabbing, and Ace helpfully explains exactly what Escalante was up to in a way suggesting Ace didn’t think the game was worth the candle – but I do not blame anyone and everyone who spent much of that storyline shaking their heads.

There are other confusing matters in the hour, even with track regular Goose explaining every step of the claiming process to Renzo.(**) It’s not clear for a good chunk of the running time, for instance, that the railbirds have already claimed their Pick Six winnings (the passage of time can appear very inconsistent on a Milch show) until we see all the cash in Jerry’s trunk. 

(**) There’s an almost childlike quality to Renzo, as shown in his desire to buy the horse for the others so they can all stay friends, and it makes him a useful target for exposition. At no point in the season does he wear a t-shirt saying “Explain it to me like I’m a 4-year-old,” but he very easily could.

We eventually find out what the deal is with Lonnie and the insurance money he was bragging about last week, but until we get to that revelation, that subplot is so muddled that even Marcus – who’s either tied with Escalante for having the most Milch-ian speech patterns, or only trails him slightly – starts complaining about his phrasing.(***) And the sequence where the two women try to kill Lonnie to collect on his policy tried to hit a comic note that it either couldn’t reach, or that simply didn’t fit in with the tone of the rest of the show.

(***) This is also something of a Milch trope. On “NYPD Blue,” Sipowicz would constantly complain about how Medavoy put things, and Swearengen became impatient whenever the dialogue got too Milch-ian on “Deadwood.” Milch is very much aware of how arch and confusing this stuff can sound, but he also knows that within those contortions of adverbs, gerunds and prepositions there can lie incredible beauty.

And yet, as I said before, I did appreciate getting to know several of the characters better – notably Ace, Marcus and Jerry.

Ace’s plan for revenge on DiRossi, Cohen and the still-unseen Mike begins to take shape. More importantly, though, we begin to comprehend the gravity and power of Ace Bernstein. He’s the man people make adjustments for, whether it was fellow cons who left him alone in the bathroom to do his business, Cohen and his colleagues jumping through hoops (admittedly, for a fee) to get Gus the money to buy the horse, or Escalante calming down from his tantrum over losing Mon Gateau when he recognizes the danger posed by Ace’s calm, quiet demeanor. (He was much more threatening here than he was ripping the buttons off his shirt with DiRossi last week.)

Though I was lost on some of the material with the railbirds, I really do enjoy the various misanthropic, self-loathing traits Marcus has inherited from Sipowicz and Swearengen, and his constant insults get to be much more profane (“What is it to you, you pig-faced, paper bag-looking cunt?”) than anything Milch could put in Dennis Franz’s mouth. And with Jerry’s epic self-destructive streak at the poker tables, we see not only that a skill at one kind of gambling doesn’t universally translate to all other kinds, but that the track, as seedy and corrupt as it is, is a much healthier environment for Jerry than those other parts of the world where there might be card games.

Some other thoughts:

* In case you missed it, HBO has already renewed the show for a second season (which will have 10 episodes versus this year’s 9). Given the way HBO conducts business these days, the renewal was a fait accompli, but it’s still good to know this story will continue for a little while.

* The horses are characters, too, and we learn as much about Walter Smith’s beloved Gettin’ Up Morning – whose legendary sire was allegedly murdered for the insurance money – as we do about Walter, Ronnie, and young Rosie, who loses out to the veteran Ronnie for a chance to ride that horse in the afternoon races. Nick Nolte is pretty fantastic as he tells the story of how “Kentucky quality killed” Delphi – so old and sad and frail that you understand Ronnie being overcome by emotion even without a sentimental attachment to either horse yet.

* In one of my “Deadwood” reviews last summer, I noted that Milch has never much cared about or for episode titles, and after turning every episode of “John From Cincinnati” into “His Visit, Day (Insert Number Here),” “Luck” doesn’t appear to bother with titles at all.

* Speaking of “Deadwood,” note the brief appearance by W. Earl Brown as Mulligan, the cowboy who wins the claim on Mon Gateau. Still, the Mann repertory players continue to outnumber the Milch ones, with the addition of a bearded Ted Levine (who’s been in several Mann films and did a stint on “Crime Story”) as Isadore Cohen and Barry Shabaka Henley (several movies, plus a regular job on “Robbery Homicide Division”) as Ace’s parole officer.

* No one in the cast gets more Mann-y than Dennis Farina, obviously, and though there are hints that Gus is tough (he regrets that Ace didn’t just let him kill the mysterious Mike), it’s to this point a fairly light role. Fortunately, as we know from “Midnight Run” and other roles, Farina does comedy just fine, and I laughed out loud at Gus’ roar of “Don’t ever knock this fucking country for me!” when he won a bet on Mon Gateau.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com