The American Dream has been and will always be about making yourself into your ideal. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, as long as you — to paraphrase Dustin Hoffman’s Ace — take the “bit” by your teeth and make something of yourself. Sure, there may be some help along the way or there may be obstacles — as it is the nature of humankind — but winning through smarts and strength is all that is asked for. This is the thesis of our country. This is also the thesis of David Milch, whether it was in his classic Deadwood or his massive misfire John from Cincinnati. Two episodes in, Luck is no exception. Luck, as a matter of fact, may be the ultimate study in Milch’s fascination with The American Dream.
Though the chess pieces are still moving on the board and we don’t yet see the end game(s) in sight, “Episode Two” was still a resounding act of interesting characters looking for ways to better themselves despite themselves; to finally attain The American Dream. And it happens at all hierarchical levels within the racetrack; from the bottom up.
The bottom, of course, is represented by the quartet of gambling losers, led by wheelchair-bound and wheezing Marcus (Kevin Dunn). While he’s worried with paranoia that his friends are out spending the money that they won in the previous episode, they are doing just that — but with goals of attaining even more success. Lonnie (Ian Hart) is living it up with a couple of racist female con artists running insurance scams when not not-enjoying three way sex. Jerry (Jason Gedrick) is busy trying to beat Lester (Dennis Dun, star of Big Trouble in Little China) at blackjack with almost everything he’s already won. And Renzo (Ritchie Coster), well, Renzo is actually doing something practical. He wants to buy a racehorse for himself and his buddies. Though he is ultimate unsuccessful during the “claiming race”, it shows that he has initiative — and a sense of goodwill.
Now, what is a “claiming race”? Again, like in the pilot, Milch and company don’t seem to be interested in explaining it, nor many of the nuanced aspects of horse racing, outright for viewers. (Unlike a couple of clunky expositional moments involving Ace’s past.) From what I was able to gather, it’s pretty much a trial run for horses in front of potential buyers. Folks can put a bid on the horse. If there’s more than one bidder, then the new owner is determined through a lottery – a game of chance. (Sort of like The Voice but for horses!)
In the middle of the racing hierarchy are Escalante (John Ortiz) and The Old Man a/k/a Walter (Nick Nolte). Both are phenomenally good with horses but seem to have two very different goals: Escalante is still hungry for more success — as evident in his ire when the horse he entered into the “claiming race” is sold for a low price — while Walter just simply wants to do right by these majestic creatures and by the folks he cares about, like Rosie (Kerry Condon). The meaty monologue Walter gives about a horse that was killed for the insurance money is both heartbreaking and gruesome. It is so beautifully delivered by Nolte that you can’t help but to notice the world-weariness that hovers over his character. You know he’s been around horse racing for a very long time and even though he loves it as passionately as one can love a concept, he’s also seen enough shit in his lifetime to break his spirit.
On top of the racing food chain is Ace. He’s still looking for revenge on the man who set him up to go to jail and one way to do that is to buy into the race track and use his old connections to bring in a casino. Success would be the ultimate revenge. Success would mean strength and strength would mean that no one will ever f*** with him ever again. Again, like in the pilot, Hoffman’s Ace isn’t in the bulk of this episode but it looks like his storyline is the Season One arc. While others go about their business of putting together and/or gambling on horse races, Ace is slowly putting things in motion for his ultimate accession into the king of all he sees.
Even though it is, indeed, slow, boy are Hoffman and Dennis Farina (as Gus) having a grand old time together. Their camaraderie — as well as the camaraderie between the four loveable gambling losers — really make the show click. There is a sense that they need each other in order to claim their piece of The American Dream. And if every episode ends with Ace and Gus going over things they need to take care of in the future and their not-so-differing philosophies on life then I will be a happy man. Those scenes are what David Mamet wishes his recent works were like.
By the end, not everything works out for our cast of characters. Though Jerry wins big, there is a sense that his lucky streak won’t last very long. Lonnie is beaten within an inch of his life by the racist con artist cougars. And Escalante is still a man who feels very much threaten by everyone, in a business sense. Sometimes obtaining one’s goals takes a little longer than planned.