Luck’s Fortunes: They play through pain and stand quiet (but where’s Nick Nolte?)

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Joan Allen and Dustin Hoffman. (HBO.com)
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In this week's only (onscreen) race, the horse all-but-officially owned by Dustin Hoffman's Chester "Ace" Rothstein takes a flying chunk of metal in one of his back legs, yet manages to win anyway.

In fact, there's a case to make that the screaming pain brought on by the errant horseshoe (flung from a hoof at the front of the pack) drives Ace's horse into the no-doubt-about it lead. Playing through pain is something of a theme running through this episode, even if the humans who are subject to it aren't so obviously going to be winners in the near future.

The biggest and most obvious loser this week is the corpulent Santa Anita guard named Kagle, who reappears after a couple-episode absence. But he's not in his uniform. After he was discovered loansharking on racetrack premises, the man lost his job. After which, Kagle went on an interstate bender, which terminated in his acquiring "a stomach bug from cathouse coffee." (His sweatshirt does look like it could use a wash.) Jerry, the most degenerate member of the show's Four Degenerates gambling crew (and the only character who feels anything for Kagle), takes the poor man out for a cup of coffee—and gives him a thousand-buck loan, with no interest. That's a bit of kindness that rubs Marcus the wrong way—but only because he's struggling with how to manage brotherly affection himself.

Wheezing badly, his heart condition flaring up, Marcus chastises Jerry for having blown nearly $300,000 of his gambling winnings with Chan at the poker tables. He's also convinced that his respiratory disease is about to finish him off.

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"My problem isn't compliance; my problem's I'm about to die," Marcus tells the doctor at the hospital, after being asked about his prescription-drug regimen. But the doc disagrees, giving Marcus an additional scrip for Valium and a helpful nudge to check out one of the books on meditation available in the gift shop. Does Marcus have anyone he can talk to, when he gets anxious?

"A horse," he answers.

"That's not bad," the doctor replies.

But he also has Jerry, who has decided to back away from the poker tables on this particular day, and return to the group's hotel to check on Marcus' health. And it's Jerry who plays the needed role of therapist, particularly when he allays Marcus's Valium-induced wonderings about whether their fraternal bond equates to something resembling homosexuality. (Marcus: "Cuz I worry about you all the time; 'Oh Jerry,' this and that. 'If something's gonna happen to Jerry,' or so forth. … Who else worries about another man like that except a fag?" Jerry: "Marcus: A fag finds occasion for showing up in a bathroom naked, or the like. … Maybe you're not familiar with havin' a buddy.")

This winds up seeming sweet, in its own roundabout, un-P.C. fashion. With that bit of friction behind them, the group of Degenerates can go to the track and watch some races—with their newly printed stable-shirts identifying them all as the best of platonic buddies. Romantic affections, though, face a little more difficulty in this episode —though they also take a slight turn for the better by the end of the hour.

Episode 5 - Preview

 

After being called out by Rothstein for trying to sneak his horse into an early race, with an unknown rider (the better to juggle the odds against their strong entry), trainer Turo Escalante bucks and bridles at everyone in his barn, including his new flame, the vet Jo (played by Jill Hennessy). They make up a bit near the end, while watching Rothstein sleep in a chair, outside his wounded horse's stall.

Rothstein has to have some place to put his affections, since prison-advocate Claire (Joan Allen) has been a bit cautious in responding to his advances. On the day that she's meant to come pick up a $200-something-thousand-dollar check for her prisoners-training-horses program, she's a no-show. ("Emotional problems, I attribute it," Rothstein tells The Greek. "Or maybe she had a flat tire," he replies.) She does, however, show up the next morning, apologies at the ready. Ace hands over the check … which has an extra hundred thou or so appended. (Since 367 is his lucky number, that's how many thousand dollars he made it out for.) Claire seems stunned enough by this discovery, made at her desk, that she agrees to join Ace, the Greek and Escalante at Santa Anita for the horse-imperiling race. Despite the blood (at which Claire winces) and the subsequent vet visit by Jo in the stalls, she finally declares herself glad that she came along, giving Ace at least a little hope before he asks the Greek to drive her home.

Nowhere close to hopeful is the stuttering jockeys' agent Rathburn (or, as Escalante never ceases calling him, "Porky Pig"). Amid the complicated switcheroos being pulled by Escalante and Rothstein, it's his junior jock (known as Bug) left with no mount on race day. After trying to prepare Bug, one day ahead of time, for the uncertainty of it all—"we're realists; knowing that we're on the outside looking in, we calmly accept our uncertain position"—Rathburn finds himself crushed as well when the bad news comes down that Rothstein has demanded a better-known jockey. This uncertainty wouldn't sting so badly, perhaps, if he could get his ex-something (girlfriend? partner? wife?) to return a phone call—or at least confirm that their "squirt" is doing all right. (It certainly doesn't help that the fallen/drunken jock Ronnie Jenkins takes every opportunity to mock Rathburn, at the track or at their favorite watering hole.)

The whole episode is a heaving, tender, just-about-to-cry hunk of sentiment. Did you notice who was left out? Nick Nolte's Walter, for one—though probably just for want of screen time (or possibly a decision to focus on one horse's fortunes per episode). But also missing is everyone in that whole malevolent crew of Mike and his associates. Their absence speaks to something problematic in the show, hinted at in last week's recap. They're too cardboard cut-out and villain-like to fit in with Milch's humanism. (Even a foil character like Chan is more complex than Mike, for example.)

And thus they can't really be integrated into an episode like this one—even though they've just been introduced, and it would be a great time to set a few plot points in motion that the last episodes of the first season will depend upon. (Weekly reminder: critics have already seen the first season in full, and are resisting specific spoilers.) Marcus might still be worrying a little bit about what kind of man has emotional concerns about another dude, though viewers of Luck probably aren't—because we know they are the most interesting ones to watch.

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

 

Previously: How can Dustin Hoffman's Ace Rothstein help the down and out?