Luck, Ep. 1.03: “Episode Three” offers advances, none miraculous

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Luck, Season One, Episode Three
Written by Bill Barich
Directed by Allen Coulter
Airs Sundays at 10pm ET on HBO

First, a word about the controversy surrounding the show that arose this week. For the uninitiated, it came out that two horses perished over the course of the filming of the show’s first season; as a result, the usual Humane Society spiel about “No animals were harmed…” etc. was pulled from the pilot and the forthcoming seventh episode. There’s no way around the fact that this is unfortunate, but a little perspective is called for here. According to Race Horse Death Watch, over 150 horses fell dead or were “destroyed” as a direct result of racing in 2011 alone; this number does not even factor in the ones who are put down as a result of injuries sustained in training, or who are simply disposed of when they are deemed unworthy, which is apparently true of the majority of equine fatalities. According to HBO, the necessary precautions were taken to protect the safety of the horses, but the fact remains: when you make the horses perform, some will die.

Horse racing exists, it will likely exist in perpetuity, and it kills hundreds of horses every year. In the face of this, a pair of horse fatalities in the service of a show that illuminates both the appeal and the tragedies of the sport (both human and equine) seems to be guilty of a considerably lesser trespass than the sport depicted. The idea that these fatalities are especially heinous because they occurred in the creation of “fiction” is ludicrous. Johnny-come-lately sorts who protest against HBO or David Milch given what came to light this week without focusing the bulk of their attention towards horse racing itself seems to me to have their priorities utterly backwards. Anyone who condemns the sport and the show in equal measure is slightly askew in their thinking as well, and not just because of the statistical disparity; with all things equal, as horrible as this may sound to some, is a horse’s existence not better spent in the service of art that exposes us to some of realities of its species’ life and hardship, rather than in strict servitude to the almighty dollar? (Also worth considering: since 1940, at least 150 jockeys have died on the track in the Americas alone; even that doesn’t seem to slow the sport any, if anyone needed more anecdotal evidence of the intractable power of gambling dough.) With that said, I’d be surprised if Milch, Mann and company don’t at least consider seriously revising their production schedule and strategy in order to reduce strain on the animals when Season 2 begins shooting later this month.

Off the soapbox and back to Luck itself. “Episode Three” is rife with place-setting, but still finds novel ways to expose us to the vagaries of horse-racing and ownership that generally feel cinematic rather than, as with some of the Hoffman-Farina scenes last week, blankly expository. Case in point: Jerry goes to see Escalante about training Bon Gateau, which he and his buddies (headed up by the winningly hangdog Renzo) still have an aim to own. Jerry proves sharp for the first time since his pilot winnings when he makes an STI-related analogy that breaks down Escalante’s stance towards the supposedly ailing horse; the scene serves its multiple functions, both informative and dramatic, admirably. Jerry qualifies as “most improved” this week by demonstrating a keen sense of hustle in his dealings with W. Earl Brown’s cagey cowboy. A close second: Jill Hennessy’s horse doctor Jo, who finally gets more to do than stick an arm into a horse’s nethers, and steals some plum one-liners in the process. (Her sexual relationship with Escalante is less interesting, though the complete lack of sentimentality exhibited in their pairing does make for a striking contrast to the characters’ deep, abiding love for the animals they tend to.)

Surprisingly, everything involving Jerry, Marcus, Renzo and Lonnie (or “The Four Horsemen,” as lovingly coined in this episode and in these recaps from here on out) works wonderfully; initially these figures seemed like the most potentially tiresome, but they’ve grown increasingly distinctive and easy to root for, and that’s only helped along by their successful purchase of Bon Gateau. The backroom antics of Dustin Hoffman’s character this week fare less well by comparison; it doesn’t help that we’ve still yet to meet Mike (Michael Gambon), the primary target of his considerable anger. That his scene in which he corrals an ambitious, serious young associate (Patrick J. Adams) is broken in half over the course of the episode, rather than being allowed to quietly build up steam, is a shame. Gambon arrives in next week’s episode; hopefully that’ll help kick this portion of the show into a higher gear.

Even plainer than last week, serious shades of Deadwood are cropping up all over the place. Nolte’s solo ramble as he prepares to call and request Kerry Condon’s services, the varieties of wonderment the Four Horsemen exhibit when faced with Bon Geateau (echoing a strain of wonder and naivete frequently exhibited by Milch’s more sympathetic figures), and especially the recurring motif of Hoffman and Farina summing up their plotting at the end of each hour; all of these touches feel contiguous with Milch’s past masterwork. If they can make each and every piece of the puzzle click as well as the lovable degenerates now do, it should start to win over some of the skeptics, if not those who lack patience.

Simon Howell

3 Comments
  1. John Doppler Schiff says

    ARGH. The “No animals were harmed” certification is *NOT* from the Humane Society of the United States, it is from the American Humane Association. Please don’t confuse the two!

    HSUS works aggressively to protect all animals from cruelty.

    AHA tries to protect animals from cruelty, but only when that doesn’t inconvenience the industries that pay their licensing fees.

    AHA only supervises the use of animals during shooting. An animal that is beaten, shocked, and otherwise tortured in order to “train” it can be used in a film or commercial, then dumped on a sanctuary or euthanized… and AHA will gladly slap their “no animals were harmed” certification on the production.

    And their willingness to overlook abuse during production has come to light more than once. Look into the filming of “Project X” and the abuse of chimpanzees by trainers on the set. Nothing wrong with that, according to AHA.

    They are an ally of industry first, animals second.

  2. Steve Marantz says

    Never wrote to this site before, or read Simon Howell. Not a horse racing fan or critic. Not a fan or critic of David Milch.

    But I am a consumer of journalism and this strikes me as the rant of an apologist, a classic of the genre. This sentence in particular:

    “with all things equal, as horrible as this may sound to some, is a horse’s existence not better spent in the service of art that exposes us to some of realities of its species’ life and hardship, rather than in strict servitude to the almighty dollar?”

    Really. As if David Milch and “the service of art” were unconcerned with a payday. As if “the service of art” – the entertainment industry, Hollywood, etc. – is a higher calling than mere horse racing.

    Isn’t this, on its face, laughable and absurd? Isn’t it the kind of pompous idea that could launch a thousand jokes on late-night television?

    Yes, I am a ‘johnny come lately” that Mr. Howell sneers at – I don’t follow this issue very often, until something happens that draws it to my attention. And then I read an entertainment writer “in the service of art” who raises pomposity to an art.

    Earth to Simon Howell: The deaths of two horses in production of a “fiction” may very well be as heinous as the death of a human actor in the production of an action scene. If a horse or human fatality occurs in the production of “art” who needs it? What’s the point? The deaths are too high a price to pay for the presumed social or artistic benefit.

    And certainly a responsible writer would not dismiss this without going a bit deeper on the ethics, not to mention the details of what caused it.

    Other than that I enjoyed his article.

    Steve Marantz

    1. Simon Howell says

      Thanks for the reply Steve. I fully cop to being both pompous and an apologist, but I still think there are degrees of harm, and yes I think art (which has ties to commerce, yes, but not commerce alone) trumps gambling. Did I say the deaths weren’t unfortunate? I don’t think I did. And as I said, I think Milch and co. will (and I’ll add here, should) take a serious look at how they make the show and see what they can do to make it safer (though I doubt HBO has the coffers for, say, photorealistic CGI horses). But the fact is I write about film and television because I think at their best, they serve as both art and commerce, and I’m being honest when I say that, not (just) pompous or contrarian.

      Oh, and on the subject of death and injury on film sets; shall we ban Ben-Hur?

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