Sunday, February 26, 2012

"Luck" recap: People, let me tell you about my best friend

From left: Joan Allen, Dustin Hoffman, John Ortiz and Dennis Farina on HBO's "Luck"

Spoilers for this week's episode of "Luck" below. Don't click through if you don't want to know.

Most people think last week's episode is where things started to really come together for "Luck." After all, we finally saw Walter Smith's horse run (and win), finally met Ace's nemesis Mike and generally took a step forward in the narrative. But episode five is where this season really gelled for me, and not because of that spectacular race in which the spectacular Pint of Plain is injured, yet, in the parlance of REO Speedwagon, keeps on running.

No, what makes this a pivotal episode is that we finally see these insulated, guarded characters coming out of their shells. That's particularly true in the scenes involving Marcus and Jerry, which, once again, features superlative work by Kevin Dunn and Jason Gedrick. Marcus is so worried about Jerry's gambling, it's damaging his health. And he's so confused about those feelings, he assumes that he's in love with Jerry. I agree with Jerry that that's probably not the case -- that Marcus has just spent so much energy being angry and self-reliant that friendly concern is a totally new emotion he can't process. The scene where the two discuss is this is, to me, the emotional core of the episode. Yes, it's crass and profane, but there's a certain tenderness to Marcus's uncustomary vulnerability and to Jerry's (relatively) gentle rationalization. It's a nice moment and, again, Dunn and Gedrick are just swell.

The other key relationships to develop in this race include those between Ace and his new lady-friend Ms. LeChea and, to a much larger extent, between Ace and Pint of Plain. Yes, Claire finally picks up the check from Ace ($367,000 -- much larger than what she originally asked for) and attends the race. But Ace's affections are mostly tied up in his amazing Irish horse.Of course, the centerpiece of the episode is the race sequence where we finally see Pint of Plain win.

The race itself is, of course, wonderfully shot and scored, which practically goes without saying at this point. The moment where the shoe flies off one of the other horses, hitting Pint of Plain in the leg, is heart-stopping. Even more exhilarating is the moment when Ace, Gus, Escalante and the other spectators realize that the injured horse plans to finish -- and win -- the race ("That is some wonderful horse," exclaims Ace). But the race's aftermath is equally affecting, with Ace insisting on spending the night with his wounded animal, who still needs an X-ray and ultrasound to determine how bad the injury is. Ace nuzzling the prized animal -- which is supposed to be owned by his driver -- is a sweet, tender act. Along with the conversation between Marcus and Jerry, the scene helps transform "Luck" from a smart, well-written, technically accomplished drama about somewhat distant and unsympathetic characters into something with real emotional resonance.

This is a real show now, with characters I absolutely want to spend time with. You?

Here are some more thoughts on episode five:
  • Once again, we see Escalante trying to inflate the odds on a horse -- this time, Pint of Plain. It doesn't go quite as well as he would hope. Ace and Gus find out that he's scheduled the horse to run with the apprentice Leon as its jockey to help inflate the odds. Ace immediately sees what's happening and forces Escalante to change riders. The prickly trainer at first resists, but, realizing he might lose his best horse, honors Ace and Gus's request. For his trouble, Ace asks Escalante to watch the race with him, which the trainer accepts with thinly disguised appreciation.
  • On a related note, we see a little deepening of Escalante's character this episode. Mainly, we see that the relationship between he and Dr. Jo isn't just sexual. He actually seems to value her opinion (even though he erroneously calls her "Judge Judy" when she confronts him about monkeying around with Pint of Plain). And they seem awfully cozy curled up together in his office at the end of the episode.
  • Things aren't going quite so well for Joey, who tries to sell Escalante bumping Leon from Pint of Plain as a positive, because it produces a financial windfall. But the increasingly hateful Ronnie unmasks the money for what it is -- a "kiss-off" from Team Ace for replacing the apprentice. With Leon angry and Ronnie obviously descending into drinking and addiction, Joey is emotionally at sea. The scenes where he leaves those pathetic, ridiculously upbeat messages for the woman that I assume is his ex-wife (and/or the mother of his child) are pretty hard to watch. But nice work by Richard Kind as always.
  • This show is pretty good at creating three-dimensional characters with just a handful of lines or scenes. Just as Ace's P.O. has emerged as a decent, complicated guy in his few moments on screen, this week we see that Marcus's doctor is compassionate, honest and firm -- namely, the kind of doctor most of us would love to have. So perk up, Marcus. Yes, you might not be around in 15 years, but at least you have a doctor who is capable of sharing that information in a gentle, respectful way.
  • Um, when did the gamblers' stable become "Foray Stables"? I thought it was "Four A's"? If it was just an error with the company that printed the T-shirt company, someone probably would have pointed it out, so I assume they actually changed names. Hmm.
  • No Walter this week. So, no jokes about Nick Nolte's voice. I feel empty inside.
  • Gus and Ace Pillow Talk of the week: "I'm so distracted by this horse running so imminent, I can't even think." -- Gus. Our weekly boudoir convo between gangster and driver actually occurred in the middle of this week's episode, and not at the end. Thus, it mainly concerns their excitement over Pint of Plain and his impending race. But Ace still has a few choice words for Claire and her seeming inability to pick up the phone. Gus's deadpan worst-case-scenario about why Claire might not have called (involving a flat tire, a run-over cell phone and some bad dentistry) is delivered with trademark weary dryness by Dennis Farina.

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