The Degenerates taste victory and Gus flexes his muscle on Derby day as Luck wraps up on a winning note

By Jeff Labrecque
March 26, 2012 at 02:52 AM EDT
Gusmano Cesaretti/HBO
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“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

Ace’s pre-race routine was disrupted by his grandson’s appearance, but he still had his regular pee-in-a-cup appointment with his probation officer. Gus had hired two bodyguards, but Ace nearly walked into a turkey shoot before Gus altered plans at the last second. But they weren’t out of the woods. At lunch, Gus spotted their shadow a few tables away. The two friends feigned an argument, and Ace ordered Gus back to the hotel to take care of the petulant grandson. When the spotter saw Ace head to the bathroom alone, he called in the killer to finish the job. Except when Gus told Ace that morning that “you’ll do what you have to do,” he apparently meant he would snap the neck of the guy hired to knock Ace off. Gus Demitriou, ladies and gentlemen. His two muscle guys then picked up the other bad guy and perhaps took him fishing into deeper waters.

Escalante’s barn was a little jumpy, mostly because the big-balled goat had gone missing and Pint of Plain seemed to notice. Escalante turned his pre-race chat with Ace into a philosophical discussion on fatherhood. He’d been to the hospital that morning to check on Jo, whose pregnancy was still under close observation after she was kicked by the horse. Now he asked Ace if he had any children, before saying, “I never did think I wanted a family before. Now, I think, maybe I do.” In Spanish, he whispered to the horse what Ace translated as, “You’re ready.” But Escalante kindly corrected him. “I’m ready,” he’d said. He’s ready to be a dad.

Ace’s day was far from over. While he enjoyed a short respite where he daydreamed of owning Santa Anita and giving free horses away, Smythe popped up in the paddock like Pennywise the clown. “I understand you’ve had a busy day,” he hissed to Ace from behind the fence. Ace asked Smythe how long his people would allow him to operate so wrecklessly — even Smythe has bosses, apparently — but Smythe seemed unconcerned. “I think I’m on a long leash, Ace,” he said. “Didn’t we find that out three years ago?”

For a showdown of the show’s two most promising colts, the Western Derby was a little anti-climactic, despite a photo finish. (I mean, were you really rooting for one of these starring horses over the other?) The drama had by then shifted to Ace and Smythe, who watched with his minions from the luxury boxes. It seemed just that Gus’s horse was deemed the winner, after the day he had already put in. “Best f—in’ country in the world,” Gus said with the trophy in his hand.

Upstairs, Smythe glowered like the Grinch. “One’s impulse is to bulldoze and bury this facility… and Ace’s dreams with it,” he said. “Put up tract houses in its place… Real estate being depressed, casinos do seem a better bet.”

The only people possibly happier than Ace and Gus about Pint of Plain’s victory were the Degenerates. They’d bet heavily on Escalante’s colt in the Derby, and all told, they’d won approximately $417,000 during the day’s racing, not counting Mon Gateau’s winning purse. Lonnie celebrated with Rosie, Jerry really celebrated with his Pocohontas, and even Marcus was in relative good spirits, though he did say, “I expect in the long run, our story is we all go broke.” Spoken like a true gambler.

That line would’ve been a fitting coda to the show and the series, but there was still Jo’s baby drama. She’d had an emergency right in the middle of the Derby, and when Escalante came bearing flowers after the long day, all the medical machines that had been monitoring her and the baby were gone. It was just Jo in her bed. She didn’t have to tell him that she’d lost the baby for him to know. But she did anyway. And he had been right, back in the barn when he said he was ready. He was ready to be a father, but he was also ready for this. He climbed into bed with her and held her while both of them saw one possible future disappear.

Back at the barn, the lucky goat strolled through the barn, causing Walter to mumble the Assyrian proverb, “Fear the goat from the front, the horse from the rear, the man from all sides.” Oooooo-kay.

Back at the hotel, Ace made up with his grandson — whose sudden reappearance at the track during the race added a moment of tension — and then joined Gus as the two of them watched their horse on the webcam. Gus raved about the goat’s return — only in America! — and Ace stared glassy-eyed at his four-legged pride and joy. Me, I was just happy that Gus had earned his spot back as Ace’s bedtime consigliore.

Did you watch Luck’s finale last night? Sad, right? Were you hoping Ace’s feud with Smythe would have ended more conclusively? How did you feel about Ace’s clueless grandson? Which character are you going to miss the most? (Me? Gus Demitriou, not even close.) Did the show live up to your expectations? Can you envision the show getting resurrected, or will low ratings scare off potential buyers even more than the horse fatalities?

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