‘Luck’ – ‘Episode 6’: A peck of pickled peppers

A review of tonight’s “Luck” coming up just as soon as I flag you for bad breath…

“What matters is the event in its entirety.” -Joey

The characters on “Luck” are, by and large, a miserable lot, burdened by some combination of regret and self-doubt (or, in some cases, pure self-loathing). They have experienced too many worst-case scenarios to assume anything else is likely.

And yet throughout this sixth episode, different characters experience brief moments of grace, only for their peace and joy to vanish almost as quickly as it came. When Mon Gateau wins yet another race, only to be flagged for bumping another horse, Marcus fumes that everyone invoked the old Yiddish superstition of a kinahora by celebrating prematurely. And though their horse ultimately gets to keep the win, everyone else’s happiness is far more temporary.

Joey is saved from the depths of despair when an earthquake foils his suicide attempt, but the serenity he develops as a result slips away as he spends more time around people like Ronnie who know the depressed, stammering clown he usually is. Rosie exults in another breathtaking win aboard Gettin’ Up Morning, then has her dreams quickly snatched away right along with the whip whose use so outraged Walter Smith. We see how Ace relaxes and opens up when he’s around Pint of Plain, but this course of vengeance he’s placed himself on makes his time with the horse just a brief interlude before he has to coil himself back up.

The earthquake sequence is a stand-out – particularly in the way that the animals all know it’s coming well before the humans do – but where some shows might use it as a metaphor or impetus for major changes for the characters, the only one altered at all is Joey, and even then only briefly. Milch has an unerring fondness for this kind of stammering loser character (see also Medavoy on “NYPD Blue”), and will even grant them a victory from time to time, but all Joey really gets to do is read a Tommy Bahama label without difficulty(*) before Ronnie needles him back down to his original level.  

(*) And yet the use of the same piece of music from Gettin’ Up Morning’s first race during that scene gave the label-reading an odd sense of grandeur. To anyone else, this is nothing; to Joey Rathburn, this is (temporarily) everything.

Ronnie’s injury, meanwhile, has given Rosie a shot to ride a once-in-a-generation horse, but she’s too inexperienced – and too unaware of how tormented Walter is over what happened to Gettin’ Up Morning’s sire – to recognize that she probably doesn’t need to use the whip, and that its use will rattle Walter even more deeply than the quake. It’s an incredible victory, but one that the show treats as a mortifying stumble instead. (And besides his demons about Delphi’s murder, Walter can’t even fully enjoy Gettin’ Up Morning’s rise because the people from Kentucky are trying to get a cut of the horse, if not full ownership.)

And then there’s Ace. His plot against Mike to this point feels detached from the rest of the action on “Luck” – almost as if Milch felt he needed some kind of crime plot because horse racing in and of itself wouldn’t be commercial enough(**) – and there’s no question that he’s happier when he’s in the show’s regular milieu.

(**) If that was his intention, it hasn’t exactly worked. The show is averaging only about 500,000 viewers for its first Sunday night airing, which is quite small even by HBO standards. Of course, ratings don’t much matter to HBO – especially since lots of people watch later viewings, On Demand, on HBO Go, etc. – and they’ve already ordered a second season. To HBO execs, reputation and relationships with talent is of great importance, they love Milch and I get the sense that the Milch/Mann relationship, while bumpy at times, kept the trains running on time in a way that didn’t happen on “Deadwood” and, especially, “John from Cincinnati.” We’re getting at least two seasons of this show, and given that “Treme” is getting at least a third, I wouldn’t be surprised if they let Milch and Mann run for a while.    

But what’s interesting about the revenge storyline is how almost no one seems fooled about his intentions. Mike, Ace’s parole officer and the track’s owner all know that he’s working an angle, and likely one against Mike. The only thing that seems open to question is exactly what his plan is, in the same way that Ace knows that “Wait to Go Greek” was a threat, and not an icing error, but not quite what Mike is threatening with that cake.(***)

(***) To paraphrase Homer Simpson, “Mmmm… threat cake!”

It makes Mike a more interesting adversary that he’s not blind to what Ace is up to – as Elmore Leonard often shows, a smart villain is a more compelling villain than someone who’s shocked by the hero’s plan – and yet given that Ace’s scheme is transparent to some degree, I can’t help wondering if he (and the show) might not be happier if he set it aside and hung around the stables some more.

Some other thoughts:

* The three main horses have won every race they’ve been in so far, but the show has done a good job of giving each race – and each victory – a different feel. Here, Mon Gateau nearly gets disqualified, while the triumph of Gettin’ Up Morning’s annihilation of the field is immediately dashed because of Walter’s reaction to Rosie’s use of the whip.

* The show has also done an excellent job of picking music thus far. But while I love the instrumental opening of the Dropkick Murphys’ “Shipping Up to Boston” that was used for Gettin’ Up Morning’s race, I also associate it way too closely with “The Departed” (and/or the Red Sox).

* It took me several replays to decipher that Jo whispers, “I’m knocked up, you stupid bastard” as she walks away from Escalante at the end of their argument. That’s a relationship that was introduced several episodes into the series, and one that’s only starting to come into focus right now.

* I love, by the way, Escalante’s exasperation at having to deal with panicked post-earthquake calls from the Foray Stables guys and Gus back to back. I laugh out loud every time I see him cross himself and ask God why he has to deal with these people.

* That was Jürgen Prochnow, probably best known as the submarine commander in “Das Boot,” as Santa Anita’s owner. Prochnow has some history with Michael Mann, as he co-starred in Mann’s “The Keep” back in 1983.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com