‘Luck’ – ‘Episode 8’: Lost Israel

A review of tonight’s “Luck” coming up just as soon as I choose to believe your email…

“Comes a time when he’s entitled to a life!” -Walter Smith

In case you missed the news earlier in the week, HBO, Milch and Mann agreed to permanently shut down production on “Luck” after a third horse died during filming of the second episode of what would’ve been season 2. Given this stunning but, to me, understandable decision, there’s a temptation to just throw up my hands, accept that the show has ended before its time and not even bother analyzing these last two episodes.

But just because I already wrote a eulogy for the series on Wednesday doesn’t mean these last two don’t deserve the same kind of attention as the previous seven. As I argued when FX declined to renew “Terriers” before the finale aired a while back, the fact that the show won’t continue doesn’t suddenly invalidate what we actually got to see. This is not an incredibly plot-driven show, aside from the Ace revenge story, and I’m thankful that we got to meet the likes of Marcus Becker and Turo Escalante, got to watch Gettin’ Up Morning run a race for the ages, got to soak up the atmosphere of the track, to see the poetry of David Milch married to the visual artistry of Michael Mann. It may not continue, but it was here, and it was beautiful. And so I’m happy to look at these last two hours the same way I did the ones preceding the announcement.

Our eighth episode actually increases the focus on plot a good amount, as Ace and Gus respond to their assumption that Israel has been murdered, while Walter has to deal with increased pressure from Mr. Bowman and the Kentuckians he represents who are trying to steal Gettin’ Up Morning out from under him.

Though Hoffman and Nolte are the show’s two big stars, Ace and Walter’s paths have yet to cross in this season. Here, their stories operate in parallel, as we see these two men respond to pressure in very different ways based on their backgrounds.

For all that Ace loves the sights and sounds of the track, and acts like a proud father whenever he’s around Pint of Plain, he’s not a horseman by trade; he’s a wiseguy. Dealing with threats to his life and livelihood is part of his skillset – skills complemented by Gus, who’s always been more than the cheerful limo driver he plays at being – and he counter-attacks the threat with precision. He has Gus peel Nick DiRossi off from his allies to sow dissent among the Mike/DiRossi/Cohen axis of evil, then directly confronts Mike with blackmail evidence against Cohen that he will use to keep them out of the casino deal. Mike isn’t exactly scared by any of Ace’s actions – he’s been doing this just as long, and with more apparent success – but he’s at least going to have to try another move, possibly involving the hitman from Chicago who’s been trailing Ace and Gus for a while.

Walter Smith, on the other hand, is a horse trainer to the first and last. If he has a life, or any interests, outside the track, we’ve yet to see it. (The only times we’ve even seen him away from Santa Anita have been at the bar where all the track regulars hang out.) He understands horses – is more comfortable around Gettin’ Up Morning than he is around Rosie, Ronnie or anyone else on two legs, it seems – but is not so great with outside complications. So even though Walter has a more-than-capable lawyer to represent him, and to win the first major challenge from Kentucky, he can’t resist being goaded by Bowman into shoving him and muddying the situation further.

Ace uses finesse and threats to try to get what he wants; Walter uses actual force and probably makes things worse for himself.

I’ll confess, though, that while Nolte continues to be tremendous, all the business with Kentucky reminds me of Al Swearengen’s two least favorite words: “fucking Yankton.” Not only is this part of the show getting too bogged down in a lot of legal procedural details (as opposed to the specific procedures of horse racing, which it’s done a good job of dramatizing), but it also features constant references to actions that took place far away and/or long ago. A character’s past should inform his present, but there are times when Walter Smith becomes too defined by things we’re being told about in elliptical, Milch-ian sentences, rather than things that are happening to him within the context of this series.

Compare all the references to the Colonel and Delphi, for instance, to Ace and Escalante’s brief conversation about the history Turo didn’t know they shared. That’s a more interesting scene for a number of reasons. It involves a pair of characters we’re invested in, rather than someone we know monologuing about people we don’t. It’s compelling in that Ace chooses this particular moment in time,  when he’s involving Escalante in a shady bit of business and needs to cement a bond with the man. And it does fill in a few blanks about both Ace and Turo, where I feel like I already understand the important emotional truth of what happened to Walter when Delphi was murdered. 

And the Escalante backstory comes in an episode where he gets to demonstrate that he has the capacity to care about more than opportunities to prove his own genius with horses. Dr. Jo gets horse-kicked, placing their unborn baby in serious jeopardy, and we see that when push comes to shove and someone Escalante cares about is in need, he doesn’t have to be a paranoid asshole. He’s there for Jo, and for Eduardo as Jo’s proxy. This baby may not have been something either of them planned for, but he understands the importance, and the danger, of what’s happened, and he steps up, dammit.

Walter and Ace have yet to meet, but tonight we see Walter and Escalante share the screen as they draw the post positions for the big Derby Day race, in which Gettin’ Up Morning and Pint of Plain are, understandably, the two favorites.

Two horses, both of whom the show has made us feel attached to, whose owners and/or trainers we like, with different histories and running styles but equal amounts of affection built up.

Soon, they race. And though “Luck” will end not long after, at least we’ll get to see that.

Some other thoughts:

* Milch isn’t big on doing fan shoutouts or references to prior works, but apparently he couldn’t help himself in having Walter use “free gratis” (another Swearengen-ism) to describe the Colonel gifting him the breeding rights.

* As someone who knows an absurd amount about popular culture, I always enjoy whenever Milch has one of his characters – who are aware of movies, TV and music, but not to the obsessive degree that I am – talk about it, whether the Foray Stables guys last week bickering about the old “Niagra Falls” vaudeville routine, or here Escalante trying to describe “E.T.” as a thing with a monkey on a bicycle.

* Rosie may not have Gettin’ Up Morning anymore, but she gets the mount on Mon Gateau at Leon’s expense after he fails to make weight. And when Leon reaches out to Ronnie for help securing some weight-loss drugs, Ronnie seems genuinely selfless and self-aware in refusing to involve someone else in the same addictions that have brought him so much hurt.

* The song in the closing montage is “Paradise Circus” by Massive Attack,” which has also been memorably used in the UK as the theme to Idris Elba’s “Luther.”

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com