As Luck comes down the stretch, Gus pulled his punches as Ace set the table for the season -- and series -- finale

By Jeff Labrecque
Updated March 19, 2012 at 04:15 AM EDT
Credit: Gusmano Cesaretti
S1 E8
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For fans of HBO’s sterling horse racing drama, Luck, the urgency intensified this week, and sadly, it’s not only because Nathan Israel is sleeping with the fishes. As you no doubt already know, HBO stopped production of the show’s second season on Wednesday after a third horse had to be euthanized. Though it appeared to be a freak accident — reportedly the horse was simply being led back to its barn when it reared, fell, and injured its head — the incident invited a fresh wave of criticism from animal rights activists and persuaded HBO to pull the plug on the underperforming series. As a result, next Sunday’s season 1 finale is likely a series finale. (The first episode of season 2 was filmed, but it’s unclear if that will ever be made available — either on TV or the season 1 DVD.)

So fans find themselves suddenly saying an early goodbye to a collection of colorful track misfits who slowly squirmed into viewers’ hearts. Luck proudly took its own sweet time to get started, as if the first season was to be 22 episodes long instead of just the mere nine that now feel like a six-furlong sprint. But that was also part of its charm, and the patient viewer was rewarded with a deeper understanding of the track culture that sustained folks like degenerate gamblers Marcus and Jerry, backside vips Turo and Jo, and complicated jocks Ronnie and Leon. Last week, the show began its final kick for the finish, with the despicable Mike Smythe leaving Nathan in a pool of blood. With only one more episode to go, fans will have to come to grips that they’ve just encountered a heck of a colt who’s being sent out to pasture before his time.

An agitated Ace woke up the day after Nathan’s suspicious disappearance with one thing on his mind. “Did we hear from the kid yet?” he asked Gus, who wasn’t yet around. Cut to early riser Smythe, who’s watching a fishing boat head out of the harbor. His partners in crime are already on the move: Cohen is off to the Indian Gaming Commission to elbow in on Ace’s deal and DeRossi is on his way to play dumb with Ace and Gus about the missing kid. Out at sea, the fisherman decided to chop up whatever’s in the bag and send it to the bottom with some heavy weights. They spared us the grisly dismemberment, but the bloody deck certainly confirmed our suspicions that it was a body, most likely Nathan’s. (I felt horrible for thinking this, but a part of me thought for a second it could be Claire…)

Not long after, Gus received an email purportedly from the kid, explaining that he wanted out of the deal and that he didn’t want to have anything further to do with Ace or his associates. “They killed him, Gus,” Ace concluded. “They f—in’ killed him.” To his credit, Ace later shouldered some of the blame, because there had been plenty of build-up that indicated that Ace recognized this was a possibility. In fact, his rational response to the murder reinforced my suspicion that this was all part of Ace’s plan. When DeRossi showed up, though, Ace didn’t hesitate to express his skepticism by inviting DeRossi to accompany them to the track and cryptically promising that “Gus will find everything out.” At the track, Gus literally pulled Escalante aside and asked if he had a place where he might be able to have some privacy for a meeting with Mr. Bernstein’s friend. The millionaire chauffeur manhandled the trainer, with a firm grip on the neck. It was a request he couldn’t refuse. So Gus and DeRossi ended up in a dark abandoned horse stall (shredded with bullet holes?). How exactly would Gus find everything out?

NEXT: Gettin’ Up Morning to duel with Pint of Plain

In another area of the stables, Dr. Jo was examining a horse with a bruised rear foot, and everyone who saw last week’s epilogue knew to look away when the injured animal kicked her in the gut. Baby drama alert.

Not far away, Walter Smith was sputtering about the legal challenge to his ownership of Gettin’ Up Morning. The lawyer for the miserable son-in-law who now wants a piece is skulking around the track, saying lines like “That horse is mine, old man! Miiiiiinne!!” Apparently, the shameless opportunist has some affidavit from an incarcerated guy that he thinks strengthens his case — or at least will pressure Walter into settling. No dice. And please, Mr. Bowman, stop making Nick Nolte angry — it’s hurting my TV! The informal track tribunal ruled for Walter, but Bowman isn’t giving up. Adding even more agita to Walter’s life was another difficult starting position as Gettin’ Up Morning drew the rail for the $1 million Western Derby. (Starting in the next slot will be Pint of Plain.)

In addition to his baby mama being kicked in the uterus and helping Gus arrange a possible rub-out, Escalante had actual track business to attend to. Leon’s weight was no longer something he could ignore, so he told Joey that the bug couldn’t ride Mon Gateau. But what about Rosie, Joey’s new client? “She won’t hurt you none on the odds?” enthused Joey, who couldn’t believe his luck. “Holy cow!” Escalante replied. “I never think of that.” Line of the night… point to Turo.

Gus’ interrogation technique left a little to be desired — but then, Ace didn’t really need to know what precisely happened to Nathan. All that mattered was the kid was gone, and Ace had already moved on to the next step of his plan. While Gus occupied DeRossi, he confronted Smythe on the yacht. Though Smythe feigned ignorance, Ace cut through the bull but declined to seek retribution. Instead he shared the DVD of Cohen attempting to bribe the Indian casino chief and simply said that Smythe and his cronies were out of the deal: “You ain’t my partners no more.” Well, that’ll show him, Ace. I’m going to give Mr. Bernstein the benefit of the doubt and predict there’s still some retribution to be had next week. “Be well, my friend,” Smythe said coolly, who didn’t mean one word of it.

Leon’s weight struggles have become all-consuming. When he walked out of the bathroom stall in the jockey room, he wiped his chin as if he’d just dumped his breakfast in the toilet. And he didn’t take the news well that his five-pound weight violation cost him a mount, especially when Joey told him that his girlfriend was his replacement. Rosie, on the other hand, was ecstatic. Sure, she hesitated for a second when she thought of Leon’s misfortune, but only a second.

Ronnie was back in the saddle, too, working out Gettin’ Up Morning, and riding his first race since the “accident.” He and his horse set a rapid pace at the front before they seemed to run out of gas. “Thank you, Ronnie Jenkins, you washed-up, run-out has-been,” sneered a track official as Ronnie drifted back into traffic. “Hang on, oh ye of little faith,” answered another official, as Ronnie broke the spirit of his rivals with a final kick that propelled him to the wire first. “That Jenkins fellow is a maestro,” marveled Rosie. And perhaps not a complete derelict either. Later at the bar — where all recovering alcoholics should hang out — he refused to hook a desperate Leon up with “the most specialest” weight-loss pills. Good for you, Ronnie Jenkins. And then he left, likely to snort some ground-up painkillers.

When Ace returned, they let DeRossi leave unscathed. The stooge was still hoping for some good news on their joint project and thrilled that he was still breathing. “Gus and I just killed the clock, just sat here and no one said nothing,” he told Ace. “Yeah, see how that sounds on the boat,” Ace answered. In other words, good luck convincing Smythe that you spent several hours with the notorious Gus Demitriou and didn’t spill your guts. In fact, DeRossi’s likely a dead man walking. In his debriefing on the yacht, Smythe revealed that their plan is now “to take over and multiply Ace’s plans,” but DeRossi practically jumped out of his seat when Smythe circled behind him. He might be in as much danger as Ace, who Smythe has already decided to kill. That photographer who snapped shots of Ace glad-handing the chief last week? A Chicago-based hitman, said Gus later. “My thought, Nick,” said Smythe, when DeRossi asked what Ace would be doing while they took over, “would be doing nothing at all.” Dead.

What did you think of the penultimate episode? Did you miss the Degenerates, who were relegated to a minor background subplot about how even Lonnie is annoyed by Naomi’s constant presence at Jerry’s side? What loose ends can we reasonably expect to tie up next week? Jo’s pregnancy? Walter’s legal troubles? Ace and Smythe? The two prize ponies in the Western Derby? Me, I just want to see Gus go all Luca Brasi on someone, anyone. Tonight was such a tease in that regard.

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