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From the very beginning, prospective viewers should have realized that the driving force of David Milch's HBO series, Luck was going to be star Dustin Hoffman. Like Steve Buscemi and James Gandolfini of Boardwalk Empire and The Sopranos, respectively, they are our protagonists (and every now and then our antagonists) who are pulling the strings and always involved with each subsidiary and supporting character, even if those characters don't realize it themselves. With Dustin Hoffman's Ace Bernstein on Luck, Hoffman has strategically added more to his character with each successive episode. During the pilot, Ace seemed to be a reasonably tame and somewhat withered older man with many demons and anger toward a multitude of people for reasons unknown. In fact, Ace was barely present in the pilot at all as the bulk of the episode was used to introduce the rest of show's ensemble. Now, more than halfway through the first season, Ace has become a mesmerizing character, always so assuredly right and present in everybody's mind even if half the ensemble doesn't know who he is. He is a secretive character but is such a substantial component to the heart of this series. I predict an Emmy nomination at the very least.
Ace begins this episode a little more crabby than usual as he barks at Gus for spending a night in the car in the race track parking lot while Ace slept in the stables beside Pint O'Plain. Could the restless Ace just be grumpy or are there other things on his mind? Well it turns out that Ace has quite a busy day ahead of him. First, he has marching papers to give to Nathan Israel, who meets them at the elevators in the lobby of the hotel (Ace says he has to give Nathan his marching papers, rather than orders, which is what I believe he meant to say. Was that a simple mistake on Ace's part, is Nathan being fired or hired?) He also has an appointment with the owner of the Santa Anita racetrack to discuss purchasing the track and he has to check in with his parole officer. Upon entering the hotel room, Gus, Ace and Nathan are greeted with their first tremor in this episode, a delivered cake that says "Wait To Go Greek!" spelled out in blue icing. The cake is from Mike, DeRossi, and Cohen but Ace seems more upset about the presence of "Wait" in the text when it is obviously supposed to be "Way." Nathan suggests that there might have been an icing error at the bakery, but the angry Ace is not buying that. Ace really did get up on the wrong side of the stable this morning. But then, as Ace retreats into his bedroom to talk with Nathan, he turns around and tells Gus to send flowers to Ms. LeChea. Gus smiles, but then looks back down at the cake. "No icing error this," Gus utters.
Our friendly neighborhood lowlifes (Renzo, Marcus, Jerry, and Lonnie) appear at the stables excited for another day of racing thinking about Mon Gateau's forthcoming race today. They trail trainer Escalante and Jo the vet as Renzo tries to offer them, awkwardly, a token of the team's appreciation for all that the two of them have done for Mon Gateau. Renzo tells them that he has free racing shirts for them that they can wear during Mon Gateau's race this afternoon (the offer is optional of course). Escalante and Jo continue to walk quietly until they are interrupted by a blood curdling scream from behind them. Jo whips around to see a woman sink to the ground, sobbing, while clutching a phone on the wall of one of the stables. The Degenerates are frozen in shock while Escalante continues to walk in the direction they were all headed, leaving Jo to run to the poor woman's side. "Bad news, probably," says Renzo. Simultaneously, we see the return of Walter Smith, who was absent in last week's very personal episode. He is being badgered by this strange man who is questioning Walter about how he feels that GettinUp Morning will do in his second race tomorrow. Walter ignores the annoying man and picks up a letter he has received in the mailroom.
The down-on-his-luck sadsack Joey Rathburn has yet to turn himself around. After a brief appearance at the track, where Leon gave him a very angry and dirty look, Joey has returned to his apartment. He desperately calls his ex-wife, Lynn, again but this time she picks up. Unfortunately, at his moment of need, his ex could care less about Joey's well being and after a brief conversation she hangs up the phone abruptly without even saying goodbye. Severely hurt internally, Joey begins to cry again and then turns his attention to his nightstand where a black pistol lay waiting for him. Joey picks up the gun and begins to contemplate where he should shoot himself, when suddenly everything begins to shake. An earthquake suddenly rocks Santa Anita and all of our characters feel it. Luckily for Joey, the earthquake is his saving grace. He removes the gun from his temple and stands there stunned and the shaking apartment. However, the movement makes Joey accidentally pull the trigger of the gun and the bullet ricochets off the bathtub and off a ceiling pipe before charging downward and tearing through Joey's right cheek. He stumbles to the ground. Later on, Joey gets stitched up at the hospital where the doctor doesn't believe Joey's tale: He was cleaning a loaded gun at his home when the earthquake occurred making him accidentally fire the gun at himself. The doctor says that he has to do a better job at convincing the doctors that he is not a danger to himself or he will be put on lockdown at the hospital. As the doctor leaves, Joey takes the first step at self-progression by reciting trivial sentences to himself out loud attempting to stop his stammer. Richard Kind does such a terrific job as Joey and this is one of his finer moments. Will Joey finally turn himself around, did the incident related to the earthquake prove to be a cathartic experience? We can only hope so.
At the racetrack, just before the earthquake, Turo is standing with the Degenerates who are inquiring about their horse's strategy for the day. As always, Turo is half listening and therefore half responding to the questions. His attention is directed at the nearby Jo who is standing by herself with a strange emotion resonating from her facial expression. Turo walks over to his vet-girlfriend and she tells him that the poor woman from the stables had learned that her 12-year-old son had been killed in Mexico while he was walking home from school. Turo shows no sympathy to this tragic news and instead chastises Jo for helping the poor woman, he assumes that Jo gave her money. Turo says the money Jo provided will do nothing and in the end, if the woman heads back to Mexico, will only harm her wellbeing. Jo is shocked at how inconsiderate Escalante is to this news, and then the earthquake strikes. Following the tremors, Turo's phone is blown up by owners calling him to ask if their horses are ok. One of the owners is Gus to whom Turo assures that everything is alright and if there were anything wrong with the horse then Gus will be called immediately. Ace is not content with Escalante's promise over the phone, he wants to go check on the horse himself. Just another thing that Ace has to do today.
In the meantime, Nathan heads into the inferno and visits Mike Smythe on his yacht only to meet DeRossi and Cohen as well. Attempting to keep calm and confidant, it does not take long for Mike to verbally strip down Nathan and label him an errand boy for Mr. Bernstein. He asks if Nathan had thought that by direct employment to Ace he would be managing multi-million dollar hedge funds instead of simply reporting and relaying information to various business partners. Nathan says that one should not exclude one from the other, but then Mike proposes that Nathan work both sides of the game and asks if the kid can adapt to receiving two paychecks instead of one. Is Nathan going to turn on Ace so quickly? Nathan also slips that the Indian Gaming Lobby, which is the foundation that will allow for casino gaming to be brought into the Santa Anita racetrack, is in Ace's pocket. When Nathan leaves, Mike tells Cohen and DeRossi that they have to pull the Indian Gaming Lobby out of Ace's pocket and put them into their own. They have turned Nathan on his original employer and now they attempt to pull everything else out from under Ace as well. Will Ace still have the power to go through with his plan if all of his business partners already suspect a revenge plot beneath Ace's business exploits? The evil Mike is far more heartless than Ace, so Mr. Bernstein better watch himself.
After checking on Pint O'Plain, who is both healing well from his horseshoe incident on the track during last week's episode and was unfazed by the earthquake, Ace goes to meet with the Santa Anita track owner (Das Boot's Jurgen Prochnow, adding his name to the impressive guest star list for this series). The owner is puzzled by Ace's decision to buy the racetrack, but at the same time does not seem too threatened by Ace's proposal. The owner brings up the idea that Ace is maybe thinking about turning the track into a casino (uh oh) to which Ace doesn't assuredly say one way or the other. Luckily, the owner tosses that idea away before stating, “I think maybe, Mr. Bernstein, something else is going on here. Something personal. And my track is only the stage where it all plays out.”
"That's a good guess," says Ace, calmly. Ah ha! Ladies and Gentlemen, revenge is the ticket.
Leon is back on a saddle, but like his jockey agent, he is lucky to dodge a bullet this week. He hops atop Mon Gateau and propels the horse to another win, but not without bumping into the two leaders during the race's last turn. Escalante throws angry words at Leon when the race stewards put up an inquiry after the race concludes and questions Leon to see if he rode recklessly. Even though it looked like he did and Leon's responses to the stewards' questions seemed to be rather inconclusive, the three stewards surprise the entire track by stamping the race's winning order as final. Lucky Leon! In the locker room, one of the jockey's that Leon bumped into during the race comes at him angrily. After a short confrontation, that ends with Leon brushing the other jockey off and simply walking away, the other jockey gives him an angry stare. Leon should watch himself, he might find himself the victim of much more serious dirty jockeying the next time around. In the stands, the Degenerates were worried that the inquiry would cost their horse the win, but thankfully their good luck is still present. Goose appears by Escalante's side (Turo is marveling at the horse, obviously still furious that he lost this longshot in the claim race a few episodes back). He learns that Goose has a minority interest in the horse as well, this news obviously does not ease Turo's pain.
Later on at the bar, Renzo, Lonnie, Marcus, and Jerry celebrate another fine day at the track with multiple rounds of drinks and some games of pool. A drunk Lonnie proposes a toast to Leon for his outstanding jockeying today and then offers the kid an extra $200, Leon attempts to respectfully refuse, but Lonnie forces the cash into the kid's hand. Then Joey enters, with his giant face bandage, exclaiming a salutation to the entire bar before ordering "the usual" from the barmaid and congratulating Leon on another win. He then spots Ronnie and condescendingly recites a tongue-twister to show Ronnie that his stutter has gone away. It's heartwarming to see Joey in this kind of position, but it can only last for so long right? Rosie also enters the bar and gives her secret bed-buddy, Leon, a smile and a big thumbs up before sitting down next to a perpetually sighing Walter Smith. She needs to amp up, tomorrow is her turn to run the track for GettinUp Morning's second race.
That night, Nathan reports to Ace's hotel room and informs Ace that Mike, DeRossi, and Cohen have offered him cash to play double agent and that he accepted. He also tells Ace that the scheming trio took the bait, turns out that Ace has no 'in' with the Indian Gaming Lobby. Ace tries to make Nathan understand the kind of position that Nathan is in, but Nathan says he in unsure that he can continue if this business is going to make him feel sick all the time. "Feel sick?" asks Ace, "Cause you're an honest man...so far."
The next day, it's Gettin’up Morning’s turn, but Walter's letter he picked up the day before has been flooding his thoughts. Turns out the soulless scion of Kentucky who is responsible for brutally killing GettinUp Morning's father for the $30 million insurance policy is now challenging Walter’s ownership of the prize horse, claiming that his father-in-law, the Colonel, wasn’t in his right mind when he gifted the colt to Walter. Clearly distracted, Walter urges Rosie to sit tight and let the horse do the work, unfortunately she runs into a little trouble and upon feeling boxed in during the straightaway, she goes for the whip. As expected, GettinUp Morning responds accordingly by sprinting forward, winning, and setting a course record, but Walter angrily snatches the whip out of her hand and dumps it in the trash. Despite the win, this is not what Walter wants. Later at the barn, Walter was calmer, but no less disappointed. “I’m not saying we’ve ruined him,” he told a teary-eyed Rosie. “It just wouldn’t be what should’ve been done… Track record… it’s gonna get crazy now.” Let us not forget Joey's drunken claim from a previous episode stating that Rosie now has a target on her back, for every jockey wants to have a chance to ride this wonderful horse.
In addition, Walter's problem that appeared in writing the day before now has a face to go with it. Out of the darkness emerges the suing son-in-law who scarily asks, "How's my horse, Walter?" Rosie recommended one of the trainers, who is a part-time lawyer, to Walter earlier in the episode. It appears that he is going to need a far better one, ASAP.
That night, as well, we find Ace out on a dinner date with Claire. She tells him that she has seen people change simply by being in the proximity of horses. She seems to see the good in Ace, and it appears that she brings out the best in him. In her presence, he is all smiles and is much kinder than when he is with anybody else, even Gus, of whom he may be growing suspicious. Post-date, Ace is sitting alone in his room talking to himself when a disheveled Gus walks in. As Ace tries to talk to him, Gus nods off. Ace yells at Gus, "Don't pretend to have a conversation with me if you're too tired to have one." He shoos Gus back to bed. "What the f--k is wrong with me?" he questions just as the screen cuts to black and the credits roll. Could Ace truly be doubting his best friend? He doesn't know what kind of communications may have gone down between Mike and Gus while Ace was locked up. Nathan was quick to tell Ace about Mike's attempt to persuade his loyalty to lie differently, maybe Gus is much more secretive. Who knows? We probably will soon enough.
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