‘Luck’ – ‘Episode 7’: Ashtrays to ashtrays

A review of tonight’s “Luck” coming up just as soon as I watch my barn get put on the Facebook…

“If you’re gambling, you got the edge, don’t you want to keep the gamble going?” -Jerry

More than any other modern TV writer, David Milch obsesses over words and how best to deploy them, both with the synonyms he chooses and the order in which he arranges each word. Milch sentences are constructed in a way that resembles no one else’s work, and, when he’s on his game – as he’s been for most of this inaugural season(*) – they’re also constructed in a way that gives them deeper meaning and greater power than if they were written with a more predictable syntax.

(*) As we’ve discussed previously, the working arrangement with Michael Mann meant that Milch couldn’t do his usual last-minute rewrites. I suspect that’s probably cost us a brilliant monologue or 12, as some of the most memorable scenes on “NYPD Blue” and “Deadwood” poured out of Milch’s brain right as the cameras were supposed to roll. But I also think, based on these first 7 episodes and the two you have yet to see, that having restrictions and an absolute deadline have probably been better for the work overall. There’s more cohesion to what’s happening here than we saw in his later periods on “NYPD” or “Deadwood” or for all of “John From Cincinnati.” 

So there may be no more fundamentally Milch-ian moment than the shocking scene late in this episode, where Nathan Israel makes the mistake of throwing Ace’s “Answers a question with a question” at Mike, leading Mike to figure out where the young man’s loyalties truly lie, and kill him in a fit of rage over it.

“100% solidarity with Ace!” Mike bellows (Michael Gambon is great at many things, but particularly  good when he yells). “Syntax is how I know! Syntax!”

Ace’s choice of the untested Israel as a crucial part of his plot against Mike is a gamble that backfires terribly, and much of this hour deals with other characters making bets based on shaky information. Some pay off, and some don’t, and yet no one ever feels entirely comfortable with the choices being made.

Walter Smith has to choose between keeping Rosie on Gettin’ Up Morning or giving the mount back to Ronnie. Ronnie’s much more experienced, more likely to follow Walter’s instructions to the letter, and he appears to be sober. Much as we may like Rosie and be irked with Ronnie, he seems to be the safer bet. And yet almost immediately after Walter makes the call, we see Ronnie unable to resist snorting up some oxy.

For that matter, Rosie takes a risk in asking Joey to speak to Walter on her behalf. Not only does she wind up with Joey as her agent when that’s not necessarily what she wanted, but Joey winds up pushing Walter into making the decision before he’s ready. I figure he’d have gone with Ronnie no matter what, but being nudged by Rosie’s irritating representative surely didn’t help her cause.

Lonnie understandably feels like the fourth wheel of Foray Stables. Jerry and Marcus are the brains (or Brains Housing Department), Renzo’s the one who thought to buy Mon Gateau, and Lonnie’s just someone who helped bankroll the Pick Six. So in an attempt to have a life, “instead of just listening to conversations I’m not a part of,” he tries to catch lightning in a bottle twice by claiming a horse under similar circumstances to Mon Gateau, only for the mare to pull up lame(*) in the claiming race. He and Renzo look to send her to a stud farm, but it’s not the victory he was hoping for.

(*) And a nice callback to the climactic race of the pilot, as this time Leon has the instincts to pull back on the reins before the horse can suffer a life-threatening injury.

The most successful gambler, surprisingly enough, is Jerry, who returns to the poker tables and does far better at a World Series satellite tournament than he did during his epic losing streak with the Pick Six money. Not only does he win the tournament, but he goes home with beautiful dealer-turned-player Naomi, with whom he has a difference of opinion on strategy during a break. She sees an aggressive play by her that scared away the rest of the table as something to be pleased with (an easy victory), where he sees it as a missed opportunity to take the other players for even more.

As with Milch’s obsession with syntax, it’s a case of putting something under a microscope and trying to extract maximum value from it. We’ve seen in the past that Jerry overvalues his poker skills, but on this day, his instincts and analysis are right on. It’s a terrible – and final – day for Nathan Israel, but for Jerry, life is looking good.

Some other thoughts:

* While Israel is in meetings with Mike, Ace splits his time between his revenge scheme (all but posing for surveillance photos on his trip to the Indian casino) and dealing with various horse-related matters, including another visit to Claire’s horse farm (where Dustin Hoffman gets to run amusingly), and having a webcam set up in front of Pint of Plain’s stall so he can stop worrying so much. Too bad he couldn’t have wired up Mike’s yacht (or Israel’s suit) in similar fashion.

* Escalante finds out about Jo’s pregnancy, and takes the news well (after his initial impulse to make an ill-timed joke about who the father is), but even before that, they both get to do some practice parenting with young Eduardo, whose uncle leaves him beind at the track.

* As Walter’s new attorney, Bruce Davison is the first notable guest star in a while who doesn’t have a history with either Mann or Milch. Gregory Cruz, who played Ace’s casino contact, had a supporting role in the Mann-produced “Drug Wars: The Camarena Story” miniseries.

* The photo of Walter as a younger man with a horse was a young Nick Nolte, but I’m guessing the picture of Escalante as a little boy was not John Ortiz.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com