“Today’s the day they take it all away from us.” — Marcus.
The racetrack can be a setting for a thousand tragedies, as the cast and crew of Luck themselves learned firsthand this month. Most of the drama’s characters — including the Degenerates, Ace Bernstein, Joey the jockey agent — have rebounded from episodes of misfortune to taste success. But can it last? Would executive producers David Milch and Michael Mann let them emerge from the first season unscathed?
Marcus had made up his mind that their winning streak was about to run out. Their horse was racing on Derby day in the South Bay Handicap, and even though Jerry liked Mon Gateau’s chances — especially since Rosie was going to be aboard, jacking up the odds — Marcus was certain trouble was lurking. And not just horse trouble — he had impulsively invited his Middle Eastern doctor to join them for the race, and hours before post time, he became paranoid that the “Arab doctor” might be a suicide bomber. That didn’t stop him from ordering two chocolate donuts with rainbow sprinkles, but he was still on edge.
Gus and Ace also had been on edge ever since Nathan went missing and they learned that they were being stalked by a hit-man from Chicago. Ace allowed himself to be distracted by Pint of Plain’s big race, a Western Derby showdown with Getting’ Up Morning, but Gus’s morning paper included a morbid reminder that their grand scheme was in dire straits. “…body found off Marina del Rey,” read a headline, proving that you have to do much more than just chop up a dead body, bag the pieces, and send them to the ocean’s bottom with heavy weights. (Nice try, hired goons.)
Ace felt compelled to visit the morgue to confirm the identity of the body, but before they could get out of the hotel, they ran into a familiar face. “Jesus Christ…” said Gus, who had ramped up security to protect his boss. “Look who’s here.” A cloud of shock crossed Ace’s face, as if he’d seen a ghost.
My first thought (despite last week’s epilogue)? Nathan Israel was waiting in the lobby, alive and dry, reporting for duty. That would’ve been a shocker, right? But instead, it was a fresh face… for us anyway. Ace’s grandson had accepted Gus’s invitation to fly in for the Western Derby. Problem was, Gus had extended no such offer. Meaning that Mike Smythe was behind it — another threat aimed at the center of Ace’s heart. In their first post-prison encounter, Smythe had provoked Ace by asking about his grandson, the kid whose parties in their co-owned New York apartment led police to Smythe’s cocaine and ultimately led Ace to take the fall and serve three years. Ace had exploded on Smythe, gifting the immoral creep another card to play at the appropriate time. “Can you believe this?” Ace said to Gus, once that had a moment to ponder this game-changing development. “Look what these bastards did.”
At the morgue, a doctor allowed the pair to view the decapitated remains of the washed-up body. Gus shook his head — No, it’s not our guy — but it was Nathan, no doubt about it. “One step at a time, Ace,” counseled Gus, as they tiptoed out. “You’ll do what you have to do.”
For a guy who knows better than anyone the warped character of the criminal he’s facing, Ace has demonstrated enormous shortcomings of vision and judgment in the last two episodes. In one single morning, Ace learned that his go-between had been hacked to pieces and that his adversary had raised the stakes by putting his grandson in harm’s way. Meanwhile, Ace is well aware that there is a bull’s-eye on his own back. Yet despite three years in jail plotting revenge, he still seems rather unprepared and naïve. Did Ace really think Mike was going to play fair? Shouldn’t he have expected some of this?
At the track, Rosie was getting a feel for Mon Gateau during a quick morning breeze. “Nottin’ bothers this fella,” she crowed. Escalante stared at the horse like it was his own child. “Old pro. Seen it all,” he said, expressing his bond with this special animal. Not far away, Leon checked in with Joey and announced his plans to leave Santa Anita for Portland.
The Degenerates were primping themselves at the Oasis for Mon Gateau’s big day. Renzo picked up his mother (Mercedes Ruehl) at the bus station, and a nervous Marcus pulled on his saddest Cosby sweater. As post time approached, the crew met their new jockey in the paddock. None of the owners seemed too encouraged by Rosie’s first impression — except Lonnie, who was immediately smitten with the pretty rider and the way she bobbed up and down on the horse.
Marcus’ doctor arrived late, and what he lacked in horse sense, he made up for in fashion. At least he seemed thrilled to be there. Not so much for Renzo’s mother, who had her doubts about everything associated with anything. “You’d think she might try to catch up,” she whined, as Mon Gateau got off to a typical slow start. But wouldn’t you know it, Rosie positioned him beautifully and pulled away for an easy victory. The Degenerates were swimming in riches, so much so that could afford to be generous with the doctor — who hadn’t wagered on the race — by telling him they’d bet for him. (Nick Nolte once told a similar story about going to the track with the savvy Milch.)
While Lonnie cozied up to Rosie in the winner’s circle, Jerry handed a lucrative $500 Win ticket to Leon, “We don’t get here without you, kid.” Jerry can afford to be gracious these days, but there also seems to be an almost Buddhist sensibility to his recent gestures, ever since he was rescued from that backroom poker den. Recall that he also gave a points-free loan to an old adversary, the down on his luck shylock. His handling of Marcus’s medication-infused “queer for you” admission was impressively understanding and rational. Life is good, apparently, when you’ve got a ticket to the World Series of Poker, a winning horse, and a knockout girlfriend.
NEXT: Gus proves his worth