Luck, Ep. 1.05: “Episode Five” adds a horse, and deepens the humans too

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Luck, Season 1, Episode 5
Written by Scott Willson
Directed by Brian Kirk
Airs Sundays at 10pm ET on HBO

For a show initially mostly noted for its denseness and incomprehensibility, Luck seems awfully human in “Episode Five.” Possibly the least racing-intensive outing yet, this week principally works towards getting us better acquainted with a few of its more elusive characters, or at least their more elusive characteristics.

First up and most obvious: Joey, the jockey agent. As played by the inimitable Richard Kind, Joey has mostly been presented as a stammering screwup who happens to be very invested in his job. With the benefit of a little more screentime, that impression isn’t contradicted, exactly, but we get a better sense of Joey’s work relationships, his specific duties, and his particular brand of desperation. (That last quality is in such long supply on this show that one needs to start differentiating.) In a few scenes, we see Joey call up his ex-wife ostensibly just to talk, but then also to try to convince her he’s doing well, and that they really can consider a reconciliation to mark the occasion. It’s not an unfamiliar character beat, but Kind has the character down so cold that it’s no less brutal and heartbreaking every time he picks up his cell. (The hour’s one misstep might be that last shot of him alone at the bar, nearly picking it up one last time. It’s a redundant optic.)

Then there’s Ace. We’ve seen a lot of Ace Bernstein in each of Luck‘s episodes so far. but this week sees us completely immersed in the character’s romantic side, rather than his more frequent scenes of scheming. He spends a goodly portion of the episode just wondering why Joan Allen’s Claire hasn’t shown up to pick up her enormous check for her charity, worrying that she’s gotten cold feet or that he’s done something wrong. This is a marked contrast to the Ace we’ve seen so far, the alternately detached, sardonic or rageful operator. He’s even more refreshingly human when Claire does finally show; yes, he’s given her an exorbitant sum of money, but he sees that principally as a gateway to a pleasantly conventional friendship, or more. That he sees courtship as just another transaction is perfectly in keeping with his character, but it’s not as alienating as that may sound.

Finally, Marcus. We already know him as the spiritual head of the Four Horsemen, the elder statesman of sorts, but this week we get a clearer sense of his health problems, as well as why he remains friends with the generally-troublesome Jerry. There’s a real tenderness to their scenes together this week; only Milch could derive mock-paternal warmth from a lengthy exchange between male friends that includes a pep talk that includes talk of the “fag wheelchair olympics.”

And of course, there’s a direct line to be drawn between Marcus’s ill health and the future status of Pint of Plain, who gets a nasty wound in his first race (that we’ve seen) when he gets a flying horseshoe to the leg, but keeps on running regardless. Marcus doesn’t have the option to literally run, but he does have the good sense to try and not take life so hard and maybe even rely a little on his beloved shitheel buddies. Besides Escalante and Ace’s brief confrontation, there are no real conflicts between individuals on Luck this week, just an assortment of people trying to get by, and a horse doing the same. And in those final moments, set to Devendra Banhart’s lovely “Now That I Know,” Ace unites those concerns when he spends the evening sitting by Pint of Plain’s side as it recuperates. Proof that you don’t need constant dramatic fireworks to make a serialized drama work.

Simon Howell

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