‘Luck’ – ‘Episode 4’: The father, the son and the holy goat?

A review of tonight’s “Luck” coming up just as soon as I call eight hours ahead to push 15 minutes…

“How do I feel? How the hell do I look?” -Marcus

We watch sports for all kinds of reasons, but mainly because we’re waiting for that moment.

The unspoken truth about fandom is that in the end, almost everyone suffers. Only one team wins the championship each year, only one horse wins the race, and if you have the bad fortune, or the stubbornness, to be a fan of a particular athlete or team, you can go years, if not a lifetime (see Cubs fans) waiting in vain for your moment. But we watch, and we at times suffer, because when the moment comes – whether it’s a championship, or a perfect individual performance, or something else special and/or unexpected – there ain’t nothing that feels quite like it. It’s a feeling that Knicks fans – and basketball fans in general, and Asian-American sports fans, and possibly just people who like fun – know well right now with this Jeremy Lin phenomenon. It is out of nowhere, it defies all logic, and yet it is glorious and joyful to behold.

And it’s a feeling that everyone at Santa Anita for Gettin’ Up Morning’s first race in this episode knows well, too, because… damn.

As I wrote before the season began, the race in this episode is the moment where everything in “Luck” clicked for me – where I could see exactly what it was the show was doing, and more importantly what all the characters on the show were doing building their entire lives around this run-down, half-empty, depressing racetrack.

Milch’s “Deadwood” was about the building of a community, brick by brick, selfless act by selfless act. And one of the ways Milch frequently chose to illustrate the growth of that community was with scenes set in the muddy middle of the Deadwood thoroughfare, with most of the large ensemble standing in different locations, everyone watching everyone else and being aware of what everyone else was up to. Santa Anita isn’t set up in quite that way. Where the thoroughfare let people look in nearly every direction, back and forth, left and right, the track is designed to put everyone but the jocks and the horses side-by-side, all facing the same way, all watching the same action. “Deadwood” was a diorama; “Luck” is a tapestry. It’s three-dimensional in terms of the depth given to the characters, but two-dimensional in how they’re arrayed in space during the races, and how we can see all of them at once, all looking the same way, if the angle’s right.

And what we can see throughout Rosie’s triumphant, unexpected, absurdly dominant ride along the back of Walter Smith’s prized horse is a similar feeling from person to person, and it is a mixture of shock, joy and something resembling religious awe. The expression on Marcus’ face, so perfectly captured by Kevin Dunn, shows us a man who has waited his whole life – at more than a little emotional cost – to see a thing like that. That look shows us a bitter, crippled, neurotic misanthrope briefly returned to a state of childish wonder, and inspired to finally get moving to go rescue the closest thing he has to a friend from his own demons.

What we can see is Walter Smith – so large and yet so frail that it seems like he could keel over any moment – throwing every fiber of his being into cheering on a horse that in turn puts so much into each ride that he coughs up blood after the race is over. We see that Walter was right to believe in Gettin’ Up Morning, and that there is joy but also tremendous relief – and, later, when he speaks of the horse’s murdered sire Delphi, grief.

That’s really what strikes me about the race. Rosie’s ride is itself beautifully shot, edited and scored. But the sequence that just hits like a ton of bricks every time I watch it (and I have watched it many, many times since I first got my screeners) is the aftermath: Marcus, and Walter, and Joey silently asking himself if he saw what he just thought he saw, but also the brief glimpses of Leon doubled over after his run, and Ace and Gus pulling back up to the Beverly Hilton. (And, before that, our view of Ronnie hanging out with the other junkies at the beach.) I watched that and suddenly felt sad for them for missing what just happened at the track. Do they not realize that? Will they ever be able to comprehend it without having been there? Rosie tells Leon about it later, and Escalante and Jo watch the replay, but to actually be there, watching it live – to see that unknown horse go from dead last after a flat-footed start to absolutely destroying the competition by race’s end – is something they won’t quite understand.

But I watched it in as live a manner as “Luck” was able to give it to me, and it was beautiful. This is why we devote time to our obsessions, whether they’re sports, art, or something else. Because we hope for the moment. Sometimes we can use that moment to inspire us to do something else good, as Marcus, Lonnie and Renzo do in coaxing Jerry out of Leo’s private game.

But sometimes just seeing the thing you’ve been waiting and suffering so long for is itself enough.

Some other thoughts:

* Though Ace is unfortunately absent for the big race, he’s very present for the rest of the episode, which includes a longer explanation from Claire about her horse/convict rehabilitation program, another session with quick learner Nathan Israel (who can already turn the “Answers a question with a question” line back on Ace), and, most importantly, a face-to-face with Mike, who finally appears in the person of Michael Gambon. (Gambon has no Milch connections, but played a heavy in Mann’s “The Insider.”) And holy cow, does Gambon make a big first impression. Of course, when you invite Dumbledore to drop lines like, “These godless motherfuckers, the ones I blame for me doing three years… Let me try to fuck these cunts up the ass,” you’re bound to get attention. But as with the famously-profane dialogue on “Deadwood,” the cussing is only one small part of why Gambon makes Mike so memorable, and so scary. Ace may have a brilliant plan to get back at this guy for his time in jail, but Mike makes it clear he’s not going to be easily fooled by anything Ace tries.

* I liked the sense of ritual leading up to the big race, and also just how happy and overwhelmed Rosie was to have the chance. Where a more seasoned jock might be turned off by having to get changed in what’s essentially a large closet, she’s just happy to be up in the big leagues, riding a horse this potentially great.

* With each action the railbirds take regarding one another, the tighter their bond grows. But even though Marcus is clearly transformed by what he sees Gettin’ Up Morning do, he still has plenty of temper left with which to get frustrated with Lonnie and Renzo. And his frustration is very, very funny.

* Ian Hart is from Liverpool (one of several reasons he made a great John Lennon in two different movies) and is doing an American accent on this show (like he did on FX’s “Dirt”), but is it my imagination or did his accent turn a bit Southern in this episode? He sounded different than in the previous two weeks, particularly in the scene where the guys ask Escalante if they can feed more carrots to Mon Gateau.

* While Rosie has her unexpected triumph, Joey is understandably freaking out about his own jockey clients – Leon desperately trying to make weight, Ronnie using again – and he delivers a very Milch-ian monologue about his troubles that’s presented in a very un-Milch-ian, stream of consciousness way with all the jump cuts.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com