Series finale review: ‘Luck’ – ‘Episode 9’: It takes two

And so “Luck” has ended earlier than anyone expected or planned for. I interviewed series creator David Milch about the abrupt end, and I have a review of the series finale coming up just as soon as we can afford multiple hot tubs…

“You want to know how I feel? Today’s the day they take it all away from us.” -Marcus

When word of the cancellation came in, I began thinking about how this episode might function as a series finale. I knew that the Ace/Mike story never got resolution, and there were other stories still hanging out there like Kentucky’s attempt to take Gettin’ Up Morning away from Walter. But the more I thought on it, the more it felt like it was, if not the perfect ending, than a far better one than the abrupt cancellation could have led to.

We get to see the degenerates of Foray Stables celebrate one more victory, even as they acknowledge that they’re likely to go broke in the end. (The one silver lining of the cancellation, to my mind, is that we never had to see that play out, as I had become too attached to those guys during their long winning streak to see them inevitably suffer.) Rosie gets an impressive victory on a bigger stage than she’s ever had before. Jo loses the baby, but the tragedy brings her and Escalante closer together. Gettin’ Up Morning and Pint of Plain stage a magnificent duel where we want both horses to win, and where Ace’s beats Walter’s by the thinnest of margins. And though we’ll never see Ace carry his plan(*) through to fruition, he gets an unexpected greater reward when Mike delivers his estranged grandson Brent(**) to his doorstep. Mike wants Ace to feel vulnerable, and he does, but the danger, and the thrill of the race, and the ways Ace has changed since he went into prison, combine to make him realize it’s a good thing if the kid is back in his life.

(*) Though Milch didn’t want to delve too much into stories that won’t happen now – clearly too painful for him to ponder the “might have been”s – he did acknowledge that NotMyDayJob came pretty close in his explanation of the plan in recent comments: Ace actually wanted Mike to steal the casino deal out from under him, and because the deal itself was so tainted, Mike would wind up going to prison. 

(**) In case you somehow couldn’t tell it from the resemblance, that’s Dustin Hoffman’s son Jake in the role.

And what I noticed when I re-watched the episode the other day to prepare for writing this review is how much of the episode feels eerily prophetic about the cancellation, and about the possibility of defeat being snatched from the jaws of victory. There’s Marcus’ line quoted above (though that suits his general pessimistic worldview), and then the victory barbecue where he and the rest of the Foray Stables guys acknowledge this streak won’t last. There’s the way that neither Escalante nor Ace can really enjoy Pint of Plain’s victory, both because of how the race ends and because they have endangered loved ones on their minds. Gus takes out Mike’s hitman – in a brutally-choreographed fight scene that was one of many highlights of Mimi Leder’s direction – but his response, and the way the show treats the aftermath, isn’t one of triumph, but of weariness. Gus is too old for this, and knows just how easily the fight could have gone the other way and ended his life in a second.

And then, of course, there’s Ace’s speech to his grandson, particularly the concluding passage:

“Whatever complications, this is where we are. What we have to make our lives with. Hands are dealt. We get to see how we play ’em. Feeling lucky, kid?”

This is a man, and a show, acknowledging just how little this life actually lets us control, and how quickly and easily we can lose the things we care about. In the real world that gave us “Luck,” three horses lost their lives. A lot of actors and crewmembers lost their jobs. Milch lost his dream project. These are not equivalent losses, but they are losses, nonetheless, and none of them were “supposed” to happen. But this is the hand that was dealt.

Beyond all this acknowledgments of the fragility of both luck and life, the finale also worked because it was, simply, excellent. In the interview, Milch acknowledged that the show hadn’t quite gotten to the level he wanted it in the first season, but that “the materials were moving in that direction.” The finale feels like the materials were pretty damn close.

First, we have two of the most thrilling, visceral racing sequences to date. As Milch says in the interview, and as I’ve argued to anyone who has asked why the show couldn’t continue by using stock racing footage, CGI horses, or what have you, the races were too fundamental a part of the show to try that. Not only are the three horses treated as characters as important as Ace, Walter, Marcus, etc., but the method of filming that Michael Mann came up with for the pilot, and that other directors like Leder used so beautifully in the next 8 hours, was so exciting, and so unlike the way anyone’s ever filmed a horse race before, that the show would have suffered enormously with substitutes. 

Just look at Rosie’s win on Mon Gateau, and the way she breaks from the pack  after Renzo’s mom(***) is beginning to doubt, and just as Escalante telepathically tries to tell her (as he will Pint of Plain’s jockey later) “now you ask him,” until Mon Gateau gets out so far ahead that there isn’t even another horse’s shadow, let alone entire horse, in frame. Stirring stuff, and a culmination of a variety of stories about Rosie, Escalante, the Foray Stables guys, etc. And then look at the duel between our two Derby horses, and how Escalante wants his jock to make his move before Walter wants the same from Ronnie, and then how the two horses thunder along, side-by-side, for an agonizingly long period of time before Pint of Plain gets his nose a tiny bit ahead at the finish. I’m not saying footage of a similarly close race doesn’t exist, but I can’t imagine it was filmed at the high level that all this was, nor that it could be cut in with footage of the human “Luck” actors to achieve that effect.

(***) Played by Mercedes Ruehl, who had signed to be a regular castmember for the second season. Oh, well.

“Luck” was more than its races, of course, and there were plenty of fantastic moments involving the characters who walk on two legs. I already mentioned the fight in the restaurant bathroom, and the motel barbecue, but there was also Ace and Gus taking a trip to the morgue to identify Israel’s remains – and to give themselves an up close and personal view of the cost of their game. And there was Ace visiting Pint of Plain before the race and looking so sad and tired – no doubt wishing that this horse could be his whole life rather than this complicated, all-consuming scheme that has put blood on his hands. (Assuming Dustin Hoffman’s name is enough to get him what we all assumed would be an automatic Emmy nomination, this should absolutely be the episode he submits.) And there were plenty of great small moments, whether comic (Dr. Khan checking Marcus’ pulse after the photo finish) or tragic (Turo climbing into Jo’s hospital bed to comfort her after the miscarriage).

One of the flaws of the show, which Milch acknowledged to me, was that the Ace story was so separate from everything else. Here, at least, all the players wound up at the track, though Hoffman and Nick Nolte never had a real interaction. (Though they were in frame together a few times during the race.)  There was life in this setting, in this world, and in these characters, and all of that unfortunately goes away now. But at least the series got to close out strong, to give some sense of the heights that Milch, Mann, Eric Roth and everyone else might have achieved had they gotten to continue working together on the project.

And given the reason for the series’ end, it feels appropriate that our final image isn’t of Ace, Gus, Jerry or any other person, but of beautiful, peaceful, magnificent Pint of Plain, just turning his head this way and that in the stable.

Though Milch says in our interview that the series would have continued were the decision up to him, that’s not the comment of a callous man who puts his own ambition above the lives of these animals. Milch has been going to the track since he was five or six years old. He loves horses. He owns them, he races them, he bets on them, and he takes enormous pleasure from them. His view, simply, is that even though they were taking what they believed to be every possible safety precaution, horses die – the third horse died in incredibly mundane, non-dangerous circumstances – and that he would rather continue being as safe as he could while telling a story that shared his love of horses with anyone who watched.

And that love was palpable in every frame of “Luck,” and particularly in this finale. It’s hard to watch the second race and not feel in awe of the horses playing Gettin’ Up Morning and Pint of Plain. It’s hard to watch Ace with Pint of Plain before the race and not feel the love and calm that he feels. It’s hard to look at that final webcam footage and not think, simply, “This is a beautiful, mysterious, marvelous animal I would love to watch and keep safe.”

Animals died in the making of this show. As I said when it was canceled, I can’t object to HBO’s decision-making, even as I can see some merit to Milch’s argument as well. Matters of art would seem to pale compared to matters of life and death.

But I’m glad Milch finally got to make this show, even for a little while. I’m glad I got to see it. And I’m glad that if it had to end so soon, it could also end so well.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at