The cold war between Ace and Smythe gets hot in a hurry, while Jo and Escalante play house and get ready for a baby

By Jeff Labrecque
March 12, 2012 at 04:28 AM EDT
Gusmano Cesaretti/HBO
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Last week, Ace Bernstein made what could have been perceived as a Freudian slip, telling his number two, Gus, that he was going to give his young financial whiz, Nathan Israel, his “marching papers.” Did he really mean marching papers, or did he mean marching orders, as he specified in a later scene? The ambitious Nathan had been plucked from obscurity to serve as Ace’s go-between with some unsavory characters for a multi-million dollar effort to buy the Santa Anita racetrack. Putting this young amateur in the path of the immoral Mike Smythe and his minions seemed almost cruel, so which was it: marching papers or marching orders? The difference potentially could be huge, and go a long way toward revealing whether Ace is some Andy Dufresne, an innocent con with a brilliant scheme for revenge, or if he’s some sadistic Keyser Söze.

Early on last night, Gus volunteered that he thought that Nathan was holding his own. (Where he would get that impression, your guess is as good as mine.) Ace seemed to agree, saying only, “He’s standing up all right,” horse lingo for a foal’s first baby steps. But is Ace even confiding in Gus any more? Last week, he seemed uncharacteristically suspicious of his driver, what with the Wait to Go Greek cake and their uncomfortable late-night chat. Ace might have crossed Gus off his list. Perhaps that’s why he insisted Escalante install a webcam in Pint of Plain’s stall, so he could check in on his horse at all times without having to go through Gus. Or am I being paranoid?

There were also aftershocks in the show’s other adorable bromance. The four Degenerates running Foray Stables are struggling with the all-for-one ethos. Well, at least Lonnie is. He’s always been the odd man out, winning his share of the Pick 6 jackpot only because he had some money to put up in a pinch when Jerry had gone bust. He’s not a handicapper like Marcus or Jerry, or even Renzo. But he’s getting tired of being treated like the village idiot, and announced plans to put a claim in for his own horse. “I’m entitled to a life like everybody else, instead of just listening to conversations I’m not a part of,” he told the gang at the diner. Turned out, he’d done a little homework on this filly, Niagara’s Fall, and he suspected her trainer was gaming the system just like Escalante had with Mon Gateau. The other three didn’t object once they crunched the numbers — maybe Lonnie isn’t so dumb after all. “I also like her because she’s gray,” Lonnie then added, confirming their original assessment.

Jerry is going his own way too — back to the gambling tables. This time is different, he assured an agitated Marcus: it’s a non-cash game to win a ticket to the World Series of Poker. His nemesis, Leo, was there, but so was Naomi, the casino dealer who batted her eyelashes at him when he was losing hundreds of thousands of dollars. “Hey, handsome,” she said when they crossed paths on the floor. They sat at the same card table, and Naomi came out strong — too strong. Her aggressive bid spooked the other players, costing her a chance at a bigger pot. Jerry read her every tell, and he put the finishing touches on her day with a three-of-a-kind. She wasn’t happy about losing, but she didn’t hold it against him. She sidled up to him on his way to a dinner-break nap in his car, and asked if would “like some company for that?” He would, actually. They skipped the nap, though.

Dr. Jo quickly retracted her warning to Escalante to stay away from her; she’s  pregnant with his kid and last week’s bitter exchange was apparently ancient history. Unfortunately, she approached him again to break the baby news while an electrician was loudly attempting to install Ace’s webcam, upsetting all the horses in the barn and most especially its manager. The couple’s subsequent heart-to-heart was interrupted by some lowlife whose nephew was pissing in public. Jo, who we already know has a heart of gold — not only does she think Escalanate is redeemable but she gave money to that bereaved mother last week — acquiesced to the creep’s demand that she pay him $10 dollars in order to speak to his nephew, a frightened wisp named Eduardo. Escalante bolted in disgust, “You be a babysitter and I’ll go watch my barn be put on the Facebook.”

Meanwhile, Rosie took advantage of her pillow talk with Leon to float the idea of asking his agent, Joey, to approach Walter about whether she’s still Gettin’up Morning’s jockey. (Called it!) Leon didn’t exactly warm to the idea, but if he had expressed any misgivings, well, his night could have been ruined. The next morning, Joey was sympathetic to Rosie’s plight, especially after Walter had so publicly admonished her, but… What’s in it for me? he asked. He’s had an opening ever since Ronnie bolted, and this is a logical solution for both of them. Deal. Joey quickly checked in with Walter to take his temperature about the mount. “Is there any particular goddamn time you need me to decide,” Walter grumbled through gritted teeth. I don’t think Joey cost Rosie her job, but he and Walter don’t seem like people who would ever be pals. Ronnie ultimately won his job back, but for how long? His recovery is dead on arrival, and let’s be honest, his redemption (or self-destruction) story doesn’t seem like one of Luck’s essential threads. This can’t bode well for Gettin’up Morning.

Ace and his new windbreaker went on safari with Claire to the prison rehabilitative horse farm, but I can’t pretend to care too much about this relationship. I had privately hoped that Joan Allen’s character would turn out as unscrupulous as the others but hearing her talk about ponies again made me think her ultimate purpose is as a sacrificial lamb. You see, Nathan let slip to Smythe & Co. that Ace had a new girl. It was his first mistake in his delicate negotiating, but sadly for him, not his last. Smythe had turned up the heat, doubting the kid’s identity and his forthrightness in their double-dealings. Nathan argued that Ace was sincere in his goodwill, but Smythe cut him off. “I’ve known Chester Bernstein, son, since before your bleeding journey from your Irish mother’s womb…” he lectured. “You being privy to his intentions is not a likely premise.”

NEXT: Niagara Falls… Slowly I Turn

Lonnie’s claim was running in the third race, with Leon aboard, so you knew tragedy lay ahead. Do they keep stats for jockeys breaking horses? Leon’s practically the grim reaper. Niagara’s Fall looked destined for victory, and Lonnie, who’d received Escalante’s blessing, could smell vindication. But two naked blonde women jumped on to the track and skulled Niagara’s Fall with a billy club. No, that didn’t happen. But the filly pulled up lame with an injury before the finish, crushing Lonnie’s hopes and dreams. My question: Are we supposed to wonder whether Leon is killing these horses because he’s fat?

The horse survived but will never race again, and Lonnie didn’t take the loss well, blaming Escalante for bad information. Marcus attempted to explain to Lonnie that it was his impulsiveness that was at fault, but his own patience ran out when Lonnie suggested his gray horse’s name should’ve been enough of a warning signal because it resembled the title of a famous Three Stooges sketch, “Niagara Falls, Slowly I Turn.” Kudos to whoever (writer Amanda Ferguson?) connected these doofuses to the legendary yucksters — it was my favorite exchange of the season.

When the horse pulled up lame on the track, Jo rushed to the scene, leaving Escalante to bring Eduardo back to his uncle. When the uncle never showed at the rendezvous point, Escalante took the boy under his wing in his own gruff way. Was he doing this for Jo, or was he doing it because he recognized something in the boy that maybe reminded him of himself? Maybe both, but the black and white photo in his apartment at the end of the episode — after Jo finally broke the baby news to him — made me think it was more of the latter. Jo was relieved — exhausted but relieved — Escalante demonstrated he wasn’t a total heel, but I don’t expect the news will have much of an impact on the cut-throat trainer moving forward. Poor Jo: she might be better off without him in her life.

Jerry came back to the Oasis Motel with two prizes. One, a winning ticket to the World Series of Poker. Two, Naomie. Lonnie and Renzo were polite enough, but Marcus wasn’t having it. He stared at her like a jealous lover, which… perhaps he is. Jerry had dismissed the notion a few weeks back, when a medicated Marcus admitted he was “queer for” him, but maybe Marcus’s semi-lucid confession had been right on the money. Not that there’s anything wrong with that!

At the bar, Walter officially dumped Rosie, opening the door again for her to retreat to a smaller track where she can gain useful experience. Joey, though, is now invested in keeping her around, putting Leon in a difficult position. He clearly wasn’t keen on sharing an agent with her, and he certainly has some influence in what her next move might be. For example, if their romance becomes serious, she might hang around for awhile. If he breaks it off, well, she might be more inclined to bolt Santa Anita. “We’ll have to see if she stays in town,” Joey said to Leon cryptically.

Maybe Nathan won’t be the only person to get his marching papers. On the yacht, the kid was holding up strong despite a withering verbal examination from a paranoid Smythe. But the more composed Nathan was on the hot-seat, the more aggravated Smythe became. “What makes you think I’m so simple to be able to be deceived by Ace Bernstein and you in the first place?” he yelled after Nathan asked him if he hadn’t been anything but candid in his dealings. “He answers a question with a question,” Nathan said smugly, recycling the line Ace had used on him in their first meeting. It was a damning mistake; Smythe grabbed a heavy glass ash tray and slammed it across Nathan’s face. Another blow left him motionless in a pool of his own blood. “One hundred percent solidarity with Ace!” he explained to his two shocked colleagues. “Syntax is how I know! Syntax!”

Ace and Gus had had a long day, gallivanting with Claire and going through the motions of a business meeting with the Indian casino chief for the sake of Smythe’s photographer. Back at the penthouse that night, they awaited any word from Nathan on his sit-down with Smythe. No messages. Radio silence. Ace floated the idea that perhaps Nathan was enjoying the company of some of Smythe’s lady friends, but he didn’t believe it. Neither did Gus. They know. But they didn’t say anything more to each other. They parted ways, each to his own counsel. Gus looks to still be under a cloud of suspicion, and now that Ace can fall asleep with live images of his horse on his laptop, Gus’ usefulness just might be running out.

What did you make of these developments? Is Nathan dead or just seriously disfigured? (For what it’s worth, IMDb.com lists actor Patrick J. Adams for only four episodes…) Did Ace willingly sacrifice Nathan, or is his plan now in jeopardy? Do you think Gus is working both sides of this deal, and if so, how gruesome will his death be? (The teaser for next week, though, makes it sound like Gus is prepared to go all Luca Brasi on Ace’s enemies.) Whenever he does die, though, I trust his last words will be something about how great America is. What was your take on Marcus’s reaction to Jerry and Naomie? And how will Ronnie ruin his opportunity aboard Gettin’up Morning?

If you have more questions about the show and curious about the sport of horse racing, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association has been managing a Twitter conversation (#LuckChat) every Monday night at 9 p.m. ET. Noted track experts have been participating, as well as actors from the show, including John Ortiz, Tom Payne, and Gary Stevens. Check it out.

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