Luck’s Fortunes: Keep your hand open

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Nick Nolte. ()
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The third episode is where "Luck" really starts to show its hand.

If you’ve been watching but not quite loving the new HBO drama—perhaps hanging on because you trust creator David Milch, or else the critics encouraging you to give it a chance—this third hour features a good deal of payout.

And yes, that includes sex, even if it’s not depicted in traditional “do me,” premium-cable fashion. (This is a choice that makes the event seem like the intimate approach between two steely characters that it is.) Plus we see Joan Allen added to the cast, playing an advocate for prisoners—as well as old, broken-down horses. And we also get a plucky young I-banker who specializes in derivatives but is lacking any humor or style. When that junior banker, named Nathan Israel, nervously announces to Dustin Hoffman’s Ace Rothstein that he’d “like to use the lavatory,” Ace’s sidekick dryly responds, “America, kid,” and points the way.

If you’re not enjoying any of this yet, odds are you might not ever.

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Quite aside from the expansion of the cast, though, the third episode of "Luck" also brings several of the potentially confusing narrative promises in and around the racetrack to a form of temporary fulfillment. The crew of Four Degenerate Gamblers actually makes good on their efforts to purchase Mon Gateau, the horse most critical to their multimillion Pick 6 jackpot in the first episode. Meantime, old horse training hand Walter Smith (Nick Nolte) is awarded—and absolutely nails—the finest Milchian soliloquy handed out yet on the show.

Here’s how the writers set it up. As he is preparing his three-year-old horse, Getting’up Morning, for its inaugural race, Smith looks on in horror as his chosen jockey drops from his mount, cracking his collarbone, in an earlier contest. Now without a rider, Smith casts about at the local watering hole for jockeys and agents and realizes that Rosie, the “exercise girl” he dispatched up to Portland Meadows in the last episode, is the only alternative he could be happy with for the forthcoming race.

Embarrassed about needing to reverse himself—and also perhaps for having dealt her away so easily—Nolte’s character paces and swats at his body in his makeshift kitchen, trying to figure out the most efficient and gentlemanly way to swallow his pride. After losing himself down a rabbit hole of mild profanity and unhelpful-to-anyone self-recrimination, he alights upon the correct strategy for approaching Rosie’s new agent up in Portland: that is, to ask if bringing her back down to California for a bigger potential purse would hinder her progress at the track up north. That pivot from self-pity to empathy seems like a hallmark of Milch’s own ex-addict brand of humanism; when you’re in a cul de sac of your own pain, the way out might involve trying to think about someone else for just a moment.

Ep.3 Clip - Ace Meets with the Board

 

When the Degenerate Gamblers go to Turo Escalante’s barn to look at their new horse, a similarly touching moment occurs. After itemizing the costs involved in trading Mon Gateau to the greenhorn horse-owners, the all-business Escalante indicates that he’d prefer to talk to only one man from the group, before asking if they have any further questions. Renzo, the most guileless and doe-eyed of the Degenerates, has just one: can he pet the horse yet? Escalante is shocked by the sentiment, and has an assistant hand each of the Degenerates a carrot to feed their horse. “Keep your hand open,” Escalante calls out with a rare trace of warmth in his voice—perhaps because it’s something he’s also telling himself.

When Jill Hennessy’s veterinarian, Jo, swings by Escalante’s barn just afterward, she asks him why he recommended her for a recent gig, as he’d seemed cold of late. The trainer replies that his prior, paranoid suspicions about her supposed lack of discretion were flat wrong—and then halfway flirts with her, after Jo berates him for having ever doubted her in the first place. Later that night, she shows up on his porch, proclaiming herself a member of the “neighborhood watch,” asking if he was the gentleman who had reported “trouble getting sex.” In the last shot we see of the pair, in which they are walking down a hallway toward a bedroom, Jo slips her fingers inside Escalante’s open hand.

Not everything works so beautifully in the episode. The Cajun apprentice jockey, known as “Bug,” slips and faints after a too-long stint in the sauna, as part of his efforts to keep his weight down. His stuttering agent, Rathburn, catches him later at the bar and tries to impart a lesson about the tradeoff choices involved in being a jockey—but it’s not anything Bug doesn’t already know himself, and there’s nothing like humor involved, so the time spent on the arc feels a bit without purpose.

Hoffman, though, does a lot with his character during an episode that sees him simply setting up all his plays for the next several episodes. (Weekly reminder: most critics received the whole series in early January, and are therefore re-watching the episodes every Sunday before recapping.) Ace cannily wins over his parole officer, who, in the first scene of the episode, drops by Rothstein’s gym in order to administer a surprise urine test. Instead of insisting on standing behind Hoffman’s character (as the officer did the last time he needed a urine sample), he gives the ex-con a wider berth. Ace offers him one of the fresh apples the gym keeps at a desk. Later, Ace offers the junior banker from his investment firm one million dollars, over the next year, if he can just manage to be straightforward and stop answering questions with questions.

“Do you think he’s up to it?” The Greek asks Ace at episode’s end, as both men drift into the sleep of the old. “Only if he doesn’t know what he’s up to,” Ace replies, setting us up for the on-screen introduction of his nemesis in the fourth episode. Until then, though, HBO needs to hope that this hour of "Luck" fed viewers enough in the way of sustenance to earn another week of attention, if not love outright.

Seth Colter Walls will be writing about "Luck" every Monday.

Previously: Luck's fortunes: Handicapping David Milch's new series for HBO