Is Dustin Hoffman really the star of Luck? He's clearly the biggest name in the cast, and as one of the most acclaimed actors and movie stars of the last forty or so years it's odd to see him as a regular in a TV show. His character, Chester "Ace" Bernstein, is clearly the focus of the show. He was the first character we saw in the pilot and every episode so far has ended with him grumbling himself to sleep. His storyline feels divorced from everything else happening, though. It's almost like we're watching two shows in one, and they only intersect fleetingly and sporadically. Hoffman feels less like the star of Luck than an outsized presence that occasionally commandeers the entire show, kind of like how Ace can reshape every situation to revolve around him.
"Then we're busy getting rid of the body."
Episode four reinforces how disconnected Ace's storyline is from the rest of the show. It's probably an intentional shadowing of the economic divide between the "1%" and the "99%" that has been referenced in passing a few times throughout the season, but his scenes still feel out of place, like they're from a different show entirely. Every other storyline is so closely tied to Santa Anita, but even though Ace's plan will clearly have a big impact upon the track, his connection to it at the moment is tenuous at best.
That's never been more clear than during this episode's centerpiece montage. As Rosie (Kerry Condon) finally gets the chance to ride Gettin' Up Morning in a real race, the camera cuts between every major character. Almost all of them are at the track, watching in disbelief as Morning initially stumbles before incredibly closing a massive gap and somehow finishing first. In-between shots of Joey Rathburn (Richard Kind) and Marcus (Kevin Dunn) (who's so amazed and confused by Morning's win that he looks like he just stared into the face of God) and every other character at the track we see Ace and Gus Demetriou (Dennis Farina) driving silently in a luxury sedan. While the rest of the cast mills about the muck of the track Ace is sealed up tight in tasteful opulence, headed home from a meeting that could directly impact the lives of everybody involved with Santa Anita.
That meeting was with Mike (Michael Gambon), Ace's oft-discussed but until now unseen former friend and business partner. He's the guy whose drug issues put Ace's grandson at risk, and whose coke stash sent Ace to prison for three years. Ace meets Mike at his impressive yacht, stocked with fine liquor and sexy young attendants. Gambon plays Mike with genial menace, putting on a friendly face while making casual threats. He's a far flashier criminal than Ace, and his businesslike demeanor slips when he offers Ace the sexual services of any of his employees.
Ace cuts straight to business and lays out the plan to Mike. Ace will take control of Santa Anita and use Mike's casino operation to slip gaming into California. In return Ace gets 51% and Mike splits the rest with the other involved parties. After a handshake Mike asks about Ace's grandson; an irate Ace tells Mike to never mention him again. Mike says he's glad that the grandson's well in a clearly threatening manner. Ace grimly replies that Mike "better fucking pray he stays that way." It's an amazingly tense scene between two fantastic actors, who subtly threaten and antagonize each other without any flash or scenery chewing. The actual content might be mundane for a crime drama, but Gambon and Hoffman played it well.
"I don't think I can lose two of you."
That race montage is the episode's highlight, though. It's a triumphant scene beyond Rosie's personal victory over those who though she wasn't ready to ride in important races. This was a big episode for Nick Nolte, who has been phenomenal as Walter Smith, Gettin' Up Morning's owner/trainer. Smith doesn't just see Morning as a potential winner, but as a chance for redemption after failing to protect Morning's sire, Delphi. Smith's emotional turmoil during and after the race, as he tries to relegate his desire for Morning to live up to Delphi's memory on the track with his dread over the fatal injuries that can occur in any race, is the most powerful Luck has gotten so far. Smith's tearful speech after the race, where he says he can barely stand to look at Morning because he looks and moves so much like Delphi, is genuinely touching. I'm pretty sure I will cry like an abanonded baby if anything happens to Morning.
That brings up another issue: I had a really hard time watching that race, especially during the frequent close-ups of Morning's legs whirring in full motion. I kept waiting for the worst to happen, for another horse to be put down, for Rosie's body to break and Walter's heart to be destroyed. This fear almost turned to guilt when I thought about how two horses had to be euthanized during filming. The races are quickly turning from powerful dramatic engines into genuinely uncomfortable horror movie moments. I had to look away whenever they'd show those legs, like my wife avoiding the bloodier parts of an action or mob movie.
"Not only can he lose all his money we can get our fucking throats cut."
In the episode's other main storyline Jerry (Jason Gedrick) continues to lose big at the poker table to Leo Chan (Dennis Dun). Jerry's increasingly desperate behavior gets him kicked out of the game, at which point Leo offers to start a private game for the two of them at his restaurant. We learn a bit more about Leo this week - he's not just a restaurateur and gambler, but some kind of criminal, as well. When Renzo (Ritchie Coster), Lonnie (Ian Hart) and Marcus find out where Jerry is, they risk their own well-being to go pull him out. An awkward scene in Leo's kitchen leads to what is basically an intervention for Jerry's gambling addiction. Even the belligerent Marcus seems to sincerely want to help Jerry.
It's easy to be pessimistic and fear for the worst with every character. I am positive that Gettin' Up Morning will break a leg and be put down on the track, devastating Walter Smith, Rosie and every viewer with a heart. I maintain that Renzo is entirely too sweet-natured to live, and that the charismatic Jerry will be destroyed by his gambling. We've already seen one character fall prey to his weakness, as the dissolute jockey Ronnie Jenkins (Gary Stevens) spends most of this episode getting high with beach bums. The only character whose fortune I'm not pessimistic about is Ace. He's entirely too smart and competent to wind up on the losing end. The 1% always finds a way.