Luck, Ep. 1.04: Michael Gambon adds a touch of menace to a strong outing

Luck, Season One, Episode Four
Written by Jay Hovdey
Directed by Phillip Noyce
Airs Sundays at 10pm EST on HBO

Several of the small legion of critics who have access to Luck‘s entire first season have been claiming for weeks that it’s in this fourth installment that the show really kicks it up a notch and finds its rhythm. Sure enough, “Episode Four” does constitute a slight upward tick in urgency, but it thankfully still retains the bizarro qualities that have kept the show so distinct (and distinctly Milchian).

Most improved this week: the Ace Bernstein side of the equation. Both major developments on his front this week – the first face-to-face with the mythical Mike (Michael Gambon) and the establishment of a maybe-courtship with horse-shelter activist Clare Lachay (Joan Allen) – go off nicely and with a noted lack of obvious expository dialogue. Watching titans like Gambon and Hoffman face off is a rare treat, though hopefully the next weeks take us deeper into the nitty-gritty of Bernstein’s ploy so that we can become more fully engaged.

Elsewhere, the Four Horsemen continue to be surprisingly engaging. Renzo doesn’t get much to do beyond fret over his dealings with Escalante (though a cell-phone conversation with his mother says a lot about the character: “how are you doing with our filtered-cigarette experiment?”) No, the real standout thread this week is actually Jerry’s – surprising, since his bad-luck-at-the-tables scenes have been one of the show’s more egregious redundancies. Yes, he continues his losing streak this week, but the machanics are at least delightfully specific – take the episode’s first poker sequence, and the agonizing length of time Jerry cusses and stalls before finally folding when he shouldn’t have – and it resolves pleasantly when the other Horsemen root out his secret high-stakes game and “sober him up” at the motel. He’s the character most sucseptible to possibly adopting a too-familiar narrative, so it’s nice to see the expected crash course get re-routed this week,

Probably the biggest stride forward for the show as a whole, though, comes with this week’s race sequence, which does a stronger job of synthesizing the show’s various concerns into a gripping few minutes of TV. As the strings begin to strain (the music this week is provided by Jeff Beal as opposed to Dickon Hinchliffe), Nolte’s Old Man gets his binoculars out, a frazzled Leon goes for a grueling jog to attempt to get back to racing weight, and Gettin’ Up Morning (piloted by the returning Rosie) gets a rough start out of the gate. Nolte’s face grows increasingly horse-like as he stamps the binoculars between his hands, sweat and tears dripping freely from his brow. Elsewhere, the benched post-accident Ronnie stands apart from the action. Joey looks on in calculating amazement from the pen. Marcus, Renzo and Lonnie can only grin. As Rosie crosses the finish line victorious, with Beal’s score subsiding to just a wistful string melody, we also see Joey on the verge of collapse, and then – cut to Bernstein, in his car on the way to his meeting with Clare, and then to Jerry, once again risking losing it all at the tables. In a few fleet edits, we get a more convincing sense of the show as a coherent statement and universe, both the (for now) fortunate and the (for now) damned. And the horses, of course.

Horse-racing journalist Jay Hovdey gets the screenplay credit this week (though of course we have no idea how much of the dialogue we can really credit him with, Luck being a Milch production and all), and the dialogue is up to the usual standard, though the show’s many mumblers and grumblers hide that more than ever, with one Nolte soliloquy in particular benefitting from a quick relisten. (It’s his “chat” with Gettin’ Up Morning after the race, in which he addresses the horse as though he were speaking to its father, Delphi. Here, even the conversations with horses are loaded with history.) With Gambon and Allen in the ensemble, drawing out both rage and serenity from Bernstein, there’s no way to go but delightfully gnarled.

Simon Howell

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