‘Luck’ – ‘Episode 5’: Trust no one

A review of tonight’s “Luck” coming up just as soon as I confuse Judge Judy with Dr. Phil…

“Some people so used to hearing ‘no’ that ‘yes’ throws them for a loop.” -Ace

The characters on “Luck” should all, on paper, get along swimmingly. They have a shared passion for horses and racing, they spend as much time as is humanly possible in and around Santa Anita. (The Foray Stables guys essentially used their Pick Six winnings to finance a lifestyle where they don’t have to be anywhere else.) They’ve all been emotionally beaten up by life, it seems, and most, if not all, feel more comfortable around horses than they do any human being. Marcus outright says that to the emergency room doctor, and in the episode’s final scene, Ace shows more warmth and affection to the injured Pint of Plain than he has so far with ostensible romantic interest Claire Lachay. (Though we’ve seen characters on the show have sex before, that felt like the series’ first true love scene.)

But connections either don’t happen, or come about through professional convenience (Escalante working for Ace and Gus) or from a bond born of improbable circumstance (the Foray guys winning the Pick Six, and even there, they might have stayed together had the windfall not been quickly followed by Lonnie’s near-murder at the hands of the insurance ladies).

The problem is that the very thing that drives so many of these people to Santa Anita is what keeps them from connecting with each other. They are damaged, missing some part of themselves that they temporarily can grab hold of when the horses burst out of the starting gate, and they are guarded and skeptical of the kinds of ordinary human interaction that so many of us take for granted.

Marcus begins to feel concern for Jerry, and the idea is so foreign and terrifying to him that he convinces himself – with the help of some really good Valium – that he must be gay and attracted to him. (Jerry’s gentle explanation that this isn’t the way it works – involving the phrase “fag wheelchair Olympics” – is among the series’ funnier moments so far.)

Though Ace is running some kind of game on Mike and his people, that’s on hold this week as he focuses on Pint of Plain, the track, and Claire’s charity, and he gets involved in misunderstandings coming and going. He works himself up over why Claire might be missing their appointment, and doesn’t want to hear any of Gus’s perfectly reasonable explanations for it. And yet in his dealings with Escalante, it’s Ace who is the reasonable one, speaking very precisely and plainly (“Can we watch it?”), and yet convincing Turo at every turn that he’s playing an angle, because that’s all that Turo ever does.

Escalante and Marcus in particular seem like a matched set: paranoid, misanthropic, often badly overthinking situations, and yet somehow able to maintain one core relationship (Marcus with Jerry, Escalante with Jo). Escalante always has to make things too difficult by half out of some combination of his distrust of others and belief in his own genius, and it usually tends to bite him. He lost Mon Gateau in the claiming race, and though Ace forces him to replace Leon as Pint of Plain’s jockey, he’s actually fine with the idea of letting the horse run (and, ultimately, win) its first American race. He gets mad that Ace can read him so well, and only slightly less annoyed that Jo can as well (with Jo, there are fringe benefits, after all).

The great race last week temporarily gave everyone in the building a bond, but a new day brings a new race, and new problems, and new reasons for these marvelous misfits to assume the man in front of him is looking to screw him over in some way or other. Oh, well.

Some other thoughts:

* In that trip to the emergency room (where the friendly doctor was played by character actor Shaun Toub), we find out that Marcus’ breathing problems stem from cardiomyopathy, and later at the motel, we learn that he’s been in the chair since he fell out of a tree when he was 11. Fate has not smiled kindly upon him.

* A rough couple of days for Joey. Ronnie, his top client (albeit an injured, past-his-prime junkie) ditches him for another agent, and Leon gets bumped off of Pint of Plain on Ace’s orders (though he may still have a shot at riding Mon Gateau). It’s no wonder Joey sounds practically suicidal as he starts leaving desperate voicemails for his ex-wife.

* Pint of Plain finally runs, as we continue the pattern of at least one race per episode – and of each race feeling in some way different from what’s come before. This time out, the big change is the accident in mid-race with the errant horseshoe, which was a good use of digital effects, I thought, and the sort of thing you wouldn’t be able to do on a show like this even a few years ago.

* Okay, time to call in a good accountant. The Foray Stables guys win $2.7 million on the Pick Six. The government takes its cut, and then the four of them split it four ways. Jerry blew $268,000 to Leo at the poker tables. About how much does he have left, before we even start factoring in how much it’s costing the guys to keep Mon Gateau in Escalante’s stables? Clearly, he still has enough that he can give a thousand to Kagle without really hestitating.

* Was anyone guessing, by the way, based on the guys’ discussion of the name last week, that “Foray Stables” was going to be the way it was spelled? I like the play on words, but I just assumed they were going to do “Four-A” or “4-A” or something similar.

* Milch generally likes to follow a pattern on his shows where each episode covers a single day, though not always consecutive days. Every now and then, though, we get an outing like this one that spans a couple of days.

* Speaking of the transition from day into night into day, they do such a gorgeous job of shooting in and around the track, don’t they? The red sky on the second morning was so beautiful.

* Joan Allen is much, much taller than Dustin Hoffman.

* The song over the final montage is “Now That I Know” by Devendra Banhart.

* After Gettin’ Up Morning had a triumphant ride last week, both he and Walter Smith get the week off. Even though Nick Nolte’s one of the show’s two big names, I’d rather the series not try to force Walter and/or Ace into every episode just because.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com