Luck’s Fortunes: The day they take it all away

Dennis Farina and Dustin Hoffman. (HBO)
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There’s always some character on a David Milch show who winds up seeming closest to the creator’s heart.

In "NYPD Blue," it was Detective Sipowicz, of course. On "Deadwood," it came to be Al Swearengen.

During the final episode of "Luck," the show about you might begin to realize that person is Marcus, the wheezing, wheelchair-bound, grimacing oldest hand among the quartet of Degenerates who haunt the Santa Anita track.

It’s not just because Marcus pronounces the word “Arab” with a heavy, flat accent on the opening vowel and a hyphen in the middle (the way Sipowicz would). Or because, once again, we’re watching a character with a small lexicon, whose sometimes provocative diction reflects a discomfiting unfamiliarity with the broader world more than any real meanness or prejudice. None of that is why this gambler seems closest to the show-runner’s heart.

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It’s because Marcus understands better than anyone how fleeting is the nature of success. “Want to know how I feel?” he asks Jerry before their windfall of a horse, Mon Gateau, wins the undercard race on Derby Day. “Today’s the day they take it all away from us.”

Marcus wasn’t right, in this episode. In fact, he couldn’t have been more wrong; Mon Gateau wins. And the Degenerates pick the winning horse, against the odds, on the top-billed race, too (good job, Rider Rosie, pushing Dustin Hoffman’s horse to the victory!).

But Marcus was right about "Luck"; the god of fate can and will take it all away—as they did for the quickly renewed HBO show that saw production shut down suddenly this month, after a third horse fatality.

Does this final, unintended series finale deliver anything resembling closure? Oddly, yes. We’ll never know the final outcome of Team Ace vs. Team Mike, in their baroquely-plotted contest to control which group brings Indian casino gambling to the track. But anyone who was hanging onto "Luck" in order to find that particular question resolved had likely bailed from the show already.

The drama was in the telling—in whether Ace would find a measure of peace at the track, and in his post-prison life. After Team Mike lures Ace’s grandson to town as (again) a baroque way of threatening his life, Ace is tested. He doesn’t want the kid to know he’s in danger, and asks him to stay in the penthouse. When that’s read as punishment (understandably), Ace bristles and calls his grandson a smart ass. But by the end of the show, when Pint of Plain is having its photo taken as the derby winner, Ace is able to accept his grandson’s desire to stand with him in public, while Team Mike looks on with malice from a skybox.

It’s not as though Ace’s fears about security were unfounded. This, finally, was the episode where the audience was treated to some evidence of The Greek’s skill as a bodyguard—luring Team Mike’s assassin into the bathroom (after a great fake argument with Ace) before a floor-grappling session that resulted in a neck-snapping execution. (Dennis Farina’s mournful face in the mirror, after the deed is over, may make you miss that character, however.)

Jill Hennessy’s Jo may lose her baby in the final act, but the bond that we’ve seen forming between her and Turo Escalante appears all the stronger for that trial.

“I don’t know if we win or lose,” Turo says to her voice mail, about the show’s photo-finish final race, not knowing she’s been wheeled back into the E.R. But he will still take care of the wayward child Eduardo that night, and tell him Jo’s been thinking about him. (The sentimental viewer, sad to leave the world of "Luck," wonders if they might be able to adopt.)

The jockey known as Bug departs for the lower-stakes track up in Portland, but not before watching his sometime rival and sometime lover Rosie ride the Degenerates’ horse to some moderate amount of good fortune.

“God bless you for your positive attitude,” the stuttering agent Rathburn tells Bug—wanting to sound supportive and yet something short of emotionally vulnerable. It seems an appropriate end for this part of the show’s narrative, which never fully took off.

That last race, though, is a stunner. And it’s almost beautiful enough to make you forget the tragedy of the horse deaths on the show. Yet not quite.

Could it have been any other way? After all, the characters on the show never get off so easily when it comes to death. They carry their burdens around for years, if not decades—and now Ace has Nathan Israel’s bloodied face (glimpsed in the morgue) on his conscience, too.

Maybe the biggest compliment one can pay to this Milch-Mann collaboration is that it sticks in the mind with that level of moral seriousness, too—along with an odd mix of longing for what could have been, and pain over what did. That’s the part nothing—whether it's a god of chance or a human failing or a premium cable network—can take away.