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HBO's horse racing drama, Luck, is noteworthy in the fact that the show has a very stacked cast in front of the camera as well as an impressive technical crew behind it. The show stars Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Farina, Richard Kind, Kevin Dunn, and Nick Nolte with guest stars Ted Levine, Joan Allen, and, as of this past Sunday, Michael Gambon making appearances from episodes two through four. On the technical side of things, the show is created by David Milch, who has spearheaded previous HBO programs like John From Cincinnati and the critically acclaimed Deadwood, with director Michael Mann (Heat, Collateral) on board as a producer. Also, all four episodes have been directed by a positively recognized film director. The pilot was directed by producer Mann, episode two was helmed by Hotel Rwanda's Terry George, the following episode was directed by Hollywoodland's Allen Coulter, a frequent HBO program director, and this week's episode saw Phillip Noyce behind the camera. Noyce is best known for his Tom Clancy adaptations like Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger with his most recent directorial credit being the action-thriller Salt starring Angelina Jolie. This is worth noting because many times actors and directors find future work as a result of their participation in an HBO series, rather than backtracking from film to TV. Actors like James Gandolfini and Timothy Olyphant became popularized due to their successful turns in The Sopranos and
We begin at the familiar Santa Anita track at the beginning of another fun-filled day of racing and we find a great deal of activity as horses are being exercised and everyone is getting ready for the day's first few races. We find the gentle Walter waiting in his stables as a beaming Rosie approaches him. After all his fearful deliberating, Rosie returned back to Santa Anita happily and ready to ride GettinUp Morning. Walter stands by as Rosie asks the horse if he'd like to go running today, the colt happily nods his head. Rosie hops up on the horse and heads over to the track to get a practice run in before the horse's first race that afternoon. She spots Cajun jockey, Leon, on the way over and calls him out for the nasty, stitched up cut on his forehead (the one he got when he face planted on the tile floor in the sauna after eating so little during the day that he got lightheaded and passed out). Leon ignores Rosie's comment and wishes her good luck today. Leon doesn't seem to be too sprightly and talkative today, and he really shouldn't be.
Joey is stuttering more than ever. The neurotic jockey agent is stressing over the prospects of his two jockeys. Leon is struggling to make weight, while Ronnie still has some weeks left to spend with his arm in a sling which has made him resort back to drug and alcohol abuse. Joey tries to talk to Ronnie, who has bolted from the hospital with prescription drugs and has decided to come watch the horse races all drugged up with a coffee in hand, but Ronnie is just angered by Joey's criticisms. Joey threatens to not help Ronnie get out of his slump if he is too fall that far downward again, but Ronnie just yells and curses at Joey and tells him to go away. During a brief conversation with Escalante before the loud encounter with Ronnie, Joey asks if Mon Gateau, the longshot horse that the four degenerates purchased from the cowboy, is back in Escalante's barn. Escalante says that the horse is taking some time off as a result of having ran two races so close together so recently. Joey then asks if Leon will be able to ride Mon Gateau whenever Escalante decides to have him race again. Escalante gives a vague answer, but clearly states that he has realized that Leon is gaining weight. Joey knows Leon is struggling and has been unable to get many mounts from other trainers as well. Joey also knows Leon is putting himself in danger trying to manage his weight, but Joey stutteringly reassures Escalante that Leon is approaching all jockey related duties professionally, including his eating habits. Escalante does not look totally satisfied, but ends the conversation without another word as he watches Mon Gateau take an exercise run around the track.
Joey knows that for him to get paid, his jockeys must be riding and, currently, neither of his jockeys are riding. He's been pushing both his jockeys through their harsh times so that they can ride and he can get paid. Joey came across as a very fragile character at the show's beginning seeming to be genuinely interested in his jockeys' health, stability, and success. But then, he met with Walter in the bar that night and agreed to have Ronnie be GettinUp Morning's jockey and the stutter, the disability that made Joey seem like such a fine and harmless character, disappeared. What was that? Now we are starting to see Joey more clearly. It would be one thing to simply chastise his jockeys, but he's provoking their unhealthy behavior, especially Leon who after his fall last week shouldn't be thinking about riding anytime soon, but Joey begged the doctor to clear Leon. After all this time, is Joey actually much more slippery, slimy, and selfish than we originally thought?
The new owners of Mon Gateau are also watching their horse take a practice lap. Lonnie, Marcus, and Renzo are posted up at their usual hangout spot in the track stands. This usual spot also happens to be a great vantage point to look into the stables and see what Escalante is up to. Lonnie watches Escalante approach the stands from the stables through his binoculars while Renzo fears that Escalante will see them spying. Lonnie says there is no way that Escalante could see them, but then Escalante appears and proves Lonnie wrong, he does see them watching him in the stables. The degenerates try to defend themselves, but Escalante doesn't really care and he walks away. Marcus, meanwhile, is sitting there demanding to know the whereabouts of Jerry. He knows where the kid is, but doesn't want to admit it. Last episode, Marcus was so thrilled to see Jerry being productive and helping them get possession of Mon Gateau, but now he's back at the casino blowing all of the winnings and not even caring to respond to Marcus' text messages simply inquiring about his whereabouts and safety.
It's likely that Jerry is too scared to answer Marcus, or he really thinks that his luck is going to turn up, because right now it is not looking too good. Jerry is squaring off against the antagonizing Leo yet again, the Asian gambler who loves to get inside Jerry's head, force him into tight spots, make him make bad decisions, and take all of his money. Jerry has yet to score a winning hand, but the duffel bag he has with him is not out of money yet so Jerry continues to play always losing out to Leo's manipulations. Jerry is starting to get very angry. Naomi, the table dealer, is showing sympathy toward Jerry through her facial expressions, obviously wanting him to stop and walk away from the table before he's broke, but Jerry isn't paying attention. He just wants to win and beat Leo at his own game. After many losses, Leo decides to move the game from the casino to Leo's restaurant back in Chinatown. The game will be a private, one-on-one game with very specific rules and Naomi will accompany them as the card dealer. We all know this is going to end even worse for Jerry so we want him to do one of two things: Either decline, and keep playing poker at the casino, or just leave the casino entirely and go back to the hotel. Unfortunately, he doesn't choose either option and agrees to play the private game with Leo. Leo is thrilled, he smiles and cheers at the idea of taking all of Jerry's money.
We cut over to Ace who is at his hotel preparing to meet with the sweet Claire LeShay (Joan Allen) who stopped him in the elevator midway through last week's episode to give Ace some information about a foundation that allows ex-cons to own horses that would otherwise be slaughtered. Ace told Gus to remind him to call the woman back, apparently he did and is very excited to meet with her. He has food and drinks set up and is anticipating her arrival. This is a side of Ace we have never seen, it seems that being in prison did not totally kill him of his desires. Yet, there is other, much more important business to be attended to today. Ace is finally going to meet with the dreaded Mike Smythe, the man who Ace took a fall for which resulted in a three year prison sentence. Mike and Ace shared a co-op and Ace was allowing his grandson to use the co-op while the kid attended college. Little did Ace and the grandson realize that Mike was also using the co-op, secretly, to store his surplus of cocaine. When the cops busted down the door during one of the grandson's parties, they came across all the cocaine. In order to save his grandson and refusing to rat out Mike, Ace decided to do the time. Ace meets with Mike on Mike's boat and Ace is treated with respect but very little gratitude. Despite saving Mike, Mike does not view Ace as an equal. Instead, Mike views Ace as a very weak, worn down, former partner, but nevertheless, Mike knows about Ace's plans to turn the Santa Anita track into a casino and he wants in. Ace made his terms very clear two episodes ago when he stated that Mike can get in on the plan but his percentage is going to come out of the 49% percent that DeRossi and Cohen (Ted Levine) were sharing. Mike says that is fine and the two shake hands. Then Mike starts to dig at Ace, "How's your grandson? He should be grateful for what you did for him" he pokes devilishly. "Don't you ever ask about him again," Ace calmly responds. Mike wants to assure that Ace's plan does not involve some form of retribution against him personally, luckily Ace keeps that completely hidden, even after Mike pokes far enough that Ace visibly loses his cool. Mike probably believes that, when the time comes, Ace will be easily overthrown, but it's more likely that Mike is playing directly into Ace's hands.
We return to Santa Anita as we near the episode's halfway point preparing for GettinUp Morning's first race. Walter slowly walks up the stairs so he can watch the race from the stands. He's visibly nervous. He knows that this horse is special, GettinUp Morning's father was a brilliant race horse that met a violent and tragic end. This horse haunts Walter's past and has had a crippling affect on the withered trainer. He knows this horse can do wonders, but all of these hopes lie on an unproven female jockey. Rosie gears up for the race and stations herself with GettinUp Morning in the gate. The horse is a little jumpy and apprehensive, he thrashes around in the gate while Rosie tries to calm him down. The gate explodes open and the horses fly forward, but due to the GettinUp Morning's shenanigans he has fallen six lengths behind the pack right off the bat. Walter's heart stops for a moment as he watches Rosie try to move the horse forward. The degenerates and Joey are also watching the race from the stands. It looks like this will be the fourth tragic race in a row featured on this show, we had such high hopes for Get-. But wait, is that GettinUp Morning coming from behind. He seems to be flying down the track as if he had wings. He's coming up behind the pack. He propels himself past all his competition and rounds the final curve swinging into full gear down the straight away. Walter has lost all self-control, he is in the stands using his entire body to rhythmically clap to the stampede of horse hooves soaring down the track. He watches the colt fly by and GettinUp Morning wins his very first race. Rosie throws her right arm up in the air with a celebratory, "F--- yea!" During the practice run this morning, Rosie threw Walter a thumbs up while riding the horse and Walter yelled back, "Both hands on the wheel, girl! For Christ's sake." Now, that precaution means nothing, Walter is happier than ever, crying tears of joy.
Coming from a person that despises Nick Nolte as an actor, I was blown away by his performance in this episode. Nolte is absolutely perfect as Walter Smith.
But while Walter and Rosie are having one of the best days of both of their lives, Joey and Marcus are having one of the worst. Joey quickly calculates all the money he is losing by having an injured jockey that had the opportunity to ride a winning horse while Marcus is on the verge of a heart attack, literally struggling to breathe. He grabs Renzo and Lonnie and wheels himself out of the stands.
The pre-race excitement has left GettinUp Morning with a nosebleed, a pretty severe one at that. However, it's nothing uncommon or too trivial. In fact, its called Exercise-Induced Pulmonary Hemorrhage (EIPH), according to Jo the vet (the one that Escalante is romantically involved with). After prescribing some simple antibiotics, Jo says to Walter, "You've got yourself a winner, Mr. Smith." Walter knows he does...he knew all along.
We cut to Rosie who is reliving the glorious events of the day with Leon...naked and in bed. Another surprise romance within the world of Luck. Last week, Jo showed up at Escalante's house looking for some intimacy despite Escalante's crude remarks toward her in the stables. This week, we find out that Leon and Rosie do much more than simply flirt with one another at the track. They are much more romantically involved. Rosie is all over Leon, excited by her victory, while Leon is comforting and complimentary, despite the personal issues he is enduring at the moment (he went on a long run during the day trying to lose weight healthily and as a result missed Rosie's first race). Simultaneously, Jo is with Escalante again. The sneaky Spaniard knows that Jo took a look at Walter's horse after the race and he casually inquires about the horse's health. Jo keeps quiet, realizing that Escalante is looking for some inside information on Walter's new spectacle. How long will she hold out for?
Renzo, Marcus, and Lonnie go on a search for Jerry. They know he is probably on the verge of losing all of his money which could put him in serious danger if he ends up in some other gambler's debt. They trio arrive at the casino and learn that Jerry has taken his gaming to Leo's restaurant in Chinatown. This makes Marcus uneasy, "Not only can we lose all our money, we can get our throats cut." They arrive at Leo's restaurant where Jerry has become a laughing stock. Leo is way ahead and Jerry continues to sink, taking money out of his duffel bag and literally handing it over to Leo. Lonnie and Renzo enter the restaurant and tell Jerry that they need his help with Marcus who they claim is very ill. Jerry doesn't believe their lie, but goes with them anyway realizing the situation he has put himself into. Finally, Jerry decides to quit before it's too late and takes what little money he has left with him. Jerry's gambling addiction is way too serious and it will not be surprising if he soon finds himself in a much more serious, life-threatening situation. If it's not with Leo, it will be with someone far more dangerous. Marcus isn't the nicest of guys, but he looks out and definitely cares for Jerry and it angers him that Jerry is so careless. Marcus needs to get some sense into the kid's brain.
Ace meets with Claire again after concluding his meeting with Mike. He gives her $220,000 for her foundation, smells the letter that she leaves him, and literally agrees to everything she asks of him before she has had an opportunity to fully explain all that she wanted to discuss. When talking to Gus later on, he denies any sexual attraction, but, like Gus, we all know better. Gus doesn't fight Ace, but Ace is acting like a giddy middle schooler when he talks about her and when he is with her. He is clearly interested but is choosing a very strategic way to go about it. When visiting Mike, Ace was offered the opportunity to take one of Mike's many women employees down below deck, but Ace declined. He still has morals and values and he sees something in Claire. Ace also meets with the prodigal Nathan, and treats him much nicer this time than during their initial meeting last episode. He seems very sure of this kid who will apparently be a key player in Ace's overarching scheme to get back at Mike. Let's hope the kid lives up to what his college degrees say he can do.
Before the episode ends (with the final moments taking place in Ace's hotel room showing Ace and Gus converse, as per usual), we see a sporadic sequence in a bar where Joey is talking to himself loudly and drunkenly. He is worried about Leon and Ronnie. Will Leon lose the weight he has to so he can ride? Who will call him first regarding Ronnie, the bail bonds man or the hospital? He can't get that sight of GettinUp Morning flying down the Santa Anita race track out of his head. He knows that Rosie is going to be a target now, what jockey wouldn't kill to ride that lightning fast horse. “They’re going to be lining up to knock her over the fence to free up that mount… hypothetically I’m saying.” Is Joey planning something?
Don't you just love when characters are the complete opposite of what you expect?
So who's excited for episode 5? I sure am, with dense HBO programming there is a limited number of episodes per season and this first season of Luck has only 9 episodes. Will Ace's plan come together and will he extract revenge on Mike? Will Jerry finally take Marcus' advice to heart and stop gambling? Will Rosie find herself thrown off GettinUp Morning's saddle, and will Walter be dealing with more injuries before long?
Please comment, and discuss your reaction to this episode's fantastic horse race sequence. This show has featured some really great races, even when they play out negatively, but director Noyce really captured something magical in this episode's race. So amazingly orchestrated and crafted. Best part of the season thus far. We drop into familiar HBO direction this coming Sunday with director Brian Kirk. Let's see what him and Milch have in store for us next.