Luck’s Fortunes: Uncovering love, and betrayal, through syntax

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David Milch’s new show has a great knack for knowing when a character might really chew on a scene, and in so doing tease out a sublime revelation from a story beat that had already done its basic narrative duty.

The back end of this arrangement is that when macro-plot-advancement comes, it can feel as though it’s executed with a hurly burly force that means to make up for lost time—handing the viewer a jagged bouquet of narrative shards that need piecing together in the mind well after the episode is over.

But Episode 7 finds a graceful balance between the time given to the actors and the effort required to move all the show’s many stories along their narrative arcs.

Episode 7 - Preview

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Think of all we got this week: the violent end of Nathan Israel’s brief tenure as a triple-agent trying to double-cross Team Mike; some actual flashes of intelligence (finally) from Mike himself; the culmination (for now?) of rider Rosie’s relationship with Nick Nolte’s Old Walter; Joan Allen’s Claire making a subtle but unmistakably physical sort of overture to Dustin Hoffman’s “Ace” Bernstein—while Ace, elsewhere, sets some sort of trap for Team Mike at a local Indian casino.

Oh, and right: card-dealer Naomi gets out of her casino uniform and stalks Degenerate Jerry to a poker tournament, the better to protect him against his own worst instincts as a gambler. And also so they can have sex in the parking lot, in between hands.

The moment in which Jerry discovers that Naomi’s purposefully bad gambling was a gift, and that she doesn’t need any lessons from him, clearly gets to the character in a way that no amount of hectoring from his fellow degenerates can. She’s watched him go bust in her place of work, and at the cash game at Chan’s restaurant, and yet she’s still barking up his tree (making her own form of bad bet, perhaps). “Having learned so little, I can offer to teach you everything I know,” Jerry says, before inviting her on a proper date. (That they wind up not being able to wait for it doesn’t matter; at least Jerry asked her right.)

Even more satisfying is the way that the brusque, all-business horse trainer Turo Escalante is brought around to a state of feeling by his on-again-off-again veterinarian flame, Jo (played by Jill Hennessy). After she takes charge of a gruff track worker’s neglected son for the day (and at a cost of $10), Jo ends up needing to pass the child, Eduardo, off to Turo when an injury at the track requires her intervention. (The lame horse in question was claimed by Degenerate Lonnie—another way this episode is always managing to give us plot and character development at once.) By the end of their afternoon together, as Turo drives the boy to his neighborhood of rickety shacks, the trainer is writing down his number and telling Eduardo to call if he should ever need anything. It’s a big enough shift in his attitude that, later that night, when he hears that Jo is pregnant, he not only steps up—he also wonders aloud that “a boy might be okay.”

Though “Luck” indisputably spends most of its time revolving around old-man characters, it’s no surprise that it’s at its best when the distribution of great lines seems at least somewhat to echo their likely gender-breakdown in real life. Rosie’s slow recognition—and then resignation to—the fact she’s losing the mount to Getting’up Morning, works as sweetly as does Jo’s windup to telling Turo about their pregnancy. Claire, by contrast, does most of her communicating in non-verbal ways—in particular, by the manner in which she suggests that Ace take a turn working with a wounded horse, over at her prisoners-into-ranch-hands country spread. After encouraging Ace to jog, and pace the horse, Claire then tells Ace he can go “a bit faster,” and then grins sweetly as Dustin Hoffman does precisely that. For a man who was telling The Greek only recently that he was more or less shut-down as a physical being with physical desires, he seems awfully close to getting back into the kinetic swing of things.

No more movement awaits Nathan Israel in this life, however. After being dispatched for another round of triple-agenting with Mike and his henchmen (do they ever leave their luxury boat?), Israel makes one too many mistakes. Having already been chided by Mike for seeming too confident in his putative double-agent status, the young investment banker uses a bit of Ace’s own patented Milchism—“answers a question with a question”—as he tries to calm Mike down about the potential for subterranean scheming. Mike’s two associates give each other a look—perhaps they recognize Ace’s language as well, though not even they are prepared for Mike’s response, which comes courtesy of a thick-weighted ashtray. Brutally slammed twice into Israel’s —the second time coming after he’s already fallen, in bloody fashion, to the floor—Mike’s henchmen recoil in surprise, and also with a hint of uncertainty about whether the apparent murder was justified, or necessary. Mike explains that Israel was most certainly in solidarity with Ace, and pressed to show his work, explains: “Syntax is how I know. Syntax!”

That’s some totally ideal Milch TV, right there.

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

Previously: Luck's fortunes: The mistake with the whip, and the icing on the cake, remind us the show's still getting its legs