Many people were confused by the first episode of Luck. That's not surprising: After all, series creator David Milch wrote it. So far, HBO's horse racing drama respects viewers' patience and intelligence, expecting us to devote a few hours just to understand the most basic motivations and plot points. Toss in a variety of accents and the low, grumbly voice of Nick Nolte and you get a show that gives your Rewind button a workout, for better or worse. And fortunately, the second episode, cleverly titled "Episode Two" (and directed by Hotel Rwanda helmer Terry George), clears up some of the confusion raised last week, but, frustratingly enough, by the end of the hour one might have as many questions as they did at the hour's start. We sure as hell know we do.
"Nothing Mike likes better than taking somebody else’s idea."
In "Episode Two," we learn a lot about Ace Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman). A visit with his gruff, Chi McBride-ish parole officer informs us that Ace is used to controlling his surroundings. He gets the officer to turn his back and turn on the faucet during a piss test, and mentions that "people made adjustments" so he could use the bathroom in privacy in prison.
A subsequent meeting with his old criminal associate, DiRossi (Alan Rosenberg) and a casino boss/potential investor, Cohen (Ted Levine), lays out Ace's plan. Which is to buy the racetrack, which is the only place people can legally gamble in California, and then use it as a "Trojan horse" to introduce casino games into the state. This scene places Luck solidly within the post-crash America of today, as Ace assumes the economic hardships in California will make it possible to convince Sacramento to allow new forms of gambling at the track. Because Ace is a felon, he can't legally own a track or a casino, so Cohen will act as the frontman and put his company's name on the sign for a small cut of the proceeds.
It's also revealed that Mike (Michael Gambon), Ace's former business partner, is one of the men for whom Ace took the fall and went to prison. Mike was once a good friend of Ace's, but he let success (and drugs) go to his head. They owned a co-op in New York City, and Mike used it to store his drugs; an annoyed Ace correcting Gus that it was a co-op, and not a condo, is another small reminder that this friendship has a definite power structure. Ace’s grandson is partying at the co-op when cops come by and find six kilos of coke. Instead of letting his grandson go to jail or turning on Mike as the Feds suggested, Ace took the wrap and spent three years behind bars.
Showing his darker side, Gus "The Greek" (Dennis Farina), Ace's loyal driver, tells Ace he'd love to kill Mike for him.
“You know what breaking legs sounds like? Branches snapping.”
Ace isn't the only character to get an origin story this week. We also learn that the old trainer Walter Smith (Nick Nolte) has a special connection to his current horse, Gettin' Up Morning. The horse sets a shockingly good time during a practice race under aspiring female jockey Rosie (Kerry Condon). Smith's interest goes beyond potential winnings, though; Gettin' Up Morning plays a major role in a terrible occurrence that lays bare the more inhumane aspect of horse-racing.
Smith explains Gettin' Up Morning's history in a depressing chat with drunken jockey Ronnie Jenkins (real-life rider Gary Stevens). Smith used to train Gettin' Up Morning's sire, a horse called Delphi; Delphi was an all-time great owned by a rich family in Kentucky. When the patriarch died the family raced through his fortune. They took out a $30 million insurance policy on Delphi and broke his legs. Smith blames himself for not being there to stop it. As Ronnie points out, Smith has a chance to make up for that with Delphi’s son.
We also get a glimpse into Smith's paternal misogyny. He knows Rosie is a good jockey, yet he won't let her ride Gettin' Up Morning in a race. Instead he turns to jockey agent Joey Rathburn (Richard Kind) to hire the veteran jockey Jenkins. Smith recommends that the inexperienced Rosie first establish herself in less important races at smaller tracks, such as Portland Meadows, and even asks Rathburn if he can find her any work at that track.
“Looks like you took a beat on a game you ran.”
It's also divulged that Turo Escalante (John Ortiz) got his start as a trainer due to Ace's intervention, although Escalante himself doesn't know that. Escalante's story also hinges on an arcane piece of perplexing horse racing decorum: He runs the horse that helped the four gamblers win last week's Pick 6 in something called a "claiming race." Any horse that races can be claimed by anybody with an owner's license; if claimed. a horse must be sold. If there are multiple claimants the winning claim is essentially pulled out of a hat.
Escalante doesn't want anybody to claim his horse, whose ownership he basically assumed when the horse was injured and a derelict owner defaulted on his bills, but he runs it in the claiming race anyway. He has the horse's legs wrapped in bandages before the race, hoping to both drive up the horse's odds and to dissuade anybody from making a claim. Basically, Escalante is trying to play everybody to make a quick profit off this horse. He doesn't expect anybody to claim it. Of course, Renzo (Ritchie Coster) and another trainer, Mulligan (W. Earl Brown) claim the horse, and Ace astutely reads the situation and calls Escalante on his ploy.
“My mental adroitness is dulled by this constant negativity."
Once again the most intriguing and human parts of Luck involve the quartet of pathetic gamblers who won big in the Pick 6. Throughout the episode, we see Jerry (Jason Gedrick) sweating through high-stakes poker matches against a condescending Asian guy named Lester (Dennis Dun). Lester wonders where Jerry got the money he continually loses. Jerry lies and says he inherited it from an aunt. Luck gets some laughs out of Jerry and Lester's antagonistic (and racially-tinged) relationship, but the inherently depressing milieu coats that laughter with guilt.
Jerry's co-winners Marcus (Kevin Dunn) and Renzo (Ritchie Coster) are split over what to do with their Pick 6 jackpot; Renzo really wants to put in a claim on Escalante's horse, whereas Marcus is dead-set against any of them doing anything that would draw a single iota of attention their way. Jerry stumbles in and Marcus immediately accosts him for losing big at poker. Marcus wants to keep their win under wraps—there was no press conference or photographs when they claimed their purse—and Jerry’s high rolling at the poker table threatens that anonymity. Marcus wants to draw no attention at all, which is why he doesn’t want to claim Escalante’s horse. For the same reason Marcus is incensed when Lonnie (Ian Hart) shows up wearing a fancy new suit.
Despite Marcus's strongly worded argument against attracting any scrutiny whatsoever, Renzo persists in claiming Escalante's horse. His goal is to win the claim and let his buddies split the ownership even if they don't want to buy in. Renzo's nature is almost as sweet as his mustache.
The claiming race itself is the episode's dramatic centerpiece. Ace and the Greek are in the stands, and after Escalante guarantees a victory for his horse the Greek makes his biggest bet ever. Renzo submits his claim before the race, and even the attention-averse and wheelchair-bound Marcus makes his own bet. (For a track that looks two-thirds empty, the wheelchair section is surprisingly full.) Escalante's horse wins another pulse-pounding race cut with a driving rock score that feels like something from producer Michael Mann’s Miami Vice. The Greek excitedly tells Ace he bet an entire $200 on Escalante's horse.
Marcus suddenly comes around on the idea of owning Escalante’s horse. Escalante looks crest-fallen over the claim. Renzo isn’t the only claimant, though, and despite a 50/50 shot he loses the claim to the smug cowboy trainer Buck Mulligan (W. Earl Brown). Meanwhile, Jerry is back at the poker table, facing down Lester again. Jerry loses big on one hand and then tosses down a thick wad of hundreds. Next he's digging even more cash out of the trunk of his car. He’s determined to crush Lester even if he runs through his entire winnings. Jerry barely wins, recouping all his losses and then some.
Elsewhere, Lonnie’s at a bar with a couple of female con artists with whom he's working a slip-and-fall/personal injury scam. He politely tells them he’s out of the job; they drug Lonnie's drink and entice him into an HBO-appropriate threesome during which they try to murder him. They whack him over the head with what looks like a cross between a blackjack and a dildo, and he escapes only by bursting through a sliding glass door and running pant-less to a dude working nearby on a pickup truck. Said dude's sole line, "Sup, bro?", is the most hilarious Luck may ever get. Lonnie's broken body gets dropped at Renzo's front door as he's talking to Marcus. Jerry drives up in triumph only to see Renzo and Marcus struggling to pull the bloody Lonnie into a hotel room.
Let's pause to reflect on the tremendous job Kevin Dunn has done during these two episodes. Marcus could easily be a cartoon character; he's smart guy whose physical handicaps make him hateful and resentful of everybody else. But Dunn makes Marcus' deep self-loathing shine through the utter contempt for others that animates his actions. So far, Dunn is out-acting both Hoffman and Nolte.
“That’s how I know what’s waiting for Mike—you don’t leave no open contracts.”
The episode ends with Ace and Gus talking like two old friends in Ace's fancy hotel suite. Ace lays out his plan to get a go-between to run the casino deal. The Greek immediately volunteers himself but Ace says he gets too hot under the collar, another reference to the violent side of Gus that we haven’t seen yet. Gus asks if Ace should get somebody they trust or somebody they don’t, and Ace says it doesn’t matter. Ace asks Gus to set up a meeting with his investment company the next day so he can pick his go-between.
in all, Luck remains confusing even as it explains itself in perhaps too obvious a fashion, but at least those explanations help us better understand the major characters and what they're after. The worlds of horse-racing and gambling are still confounding here; fingers crossed that Luck's storylines all eventually congeal into something that, you know, makes sense as a whole; if not, all the great acting in the world won't be enough to compensate. Let's hope that David Milch learned from John From Cincinnati.