Don’t tell me this isn’t a great f**king country!
Gus exclaims after winning his first bet at the racetrack in Luck's second episode. What he seemed to forget, or was willfully ignoring, was that his win wasn’t the result of traditional American virtues – hard work and good luck – but what are increasingly becoming modern American values: cheating and lying.
In many ways, Luck is a show about the deteriorating. Horse racing has long since lost its place in the sports spotlight. Similarly, in the current economic and political climate, the American dream is struggling to stay alive. Luck is not first and foremost a political show, but commentary on our contemporary moment is peppered into each episode. When the show is at its best, you don’t consciously recognize its political message, but simply absorb it.
No character is immune from the stagnation of the American ideal. Gus’ win was the result of an insider tip from Escalante, who seems to have a system down for betting, and winning, on his own horses. It’s legal for trainers to bet on their own mounts. The extra steps Escalante takes to increase the odds on his horses, and therefore the payouts on a winning bet – like exercising them at half capacity or putting bandages on their uninjured legs - are similarly permitted.
It does feel like Escalante is gaming the system, yet there’s still an element of a self-made man about him.
As we learn from Ace this week, Escalante started out selling vegetables outside the track. Ace told one of the trainers to hire the young immigrant, but the rest of Escalante’s success was the result of pulling himself up the good ol’ fashioned American way. Was Escalante always partial to dirty tactics, or is he just now exploiting them at the height of his career? It’s difficult to say. Luck is wary to romanticize the American dream.
Even for those living the rags to riches story, life isn’t easy. Having claimed their Pick 6 money quietly and without publicity, the gamblers have holed up in a nearby motel to decide their next move. It takes time to adjust to their new lifestyle, Renzo suggests, but whether these guys are capable of handling their new fortune remains doubtful. Jerry squanders close to ten grand at the poker table against his formidable, trash talking opponent; Renzo puts in to buy the horse that clinched their Pick 6 win; Lonnie splurges on a new wardrobe. Marcus, however, stridently disapproves of his compatriots spending and has kept his habits frugal. It seems that only he understands the weight of achieving the American dream overnight. With great power comes great responsibility, Marcus intones, but it feels like he should be saying absolute power corrupts absolutely.
In fact, even a little bit of power lends itself to corruption. In a contentious meeting with old business associates, Nick DiRossi (Alan Rosenberg) and Isadore Cohen (Ted Levine), Ace lays out his plan for the racetrack, and it’s anything but legal. Smuggling slots and table games into the racetrack to increase the track’s profitability seems like a dubious plan that won’t fool the authorities for long, but as the architect of his revenge, Ace appears to know what he’s doing. He’s a very deliberate man who, despite his unscrupulous business deals, lives by a certain code. It’s revealed that Ace, in order to save his grandson from going to jail, took the rap for his old business partner Mike’s cocaine stash. By not confessing to ownership of the dope, Mike betrayed Ace, and Ace doesn’t look kindly on disloyalty.
Betrayal flows through more than just Ace’s story. Prior to meeting up with Renzo and the rest of the gamblers, Lonnie had gone in with two female insurance agents on an insurance scam where he would fake an injury and they would all claim the money. Unbeknownst to Lonnie, the women had actually filed a life insurance policy on him and had schemed to kill him then claim the cash. When he wants to back out of their deal because of his new wealth, the women try to make good on their plan. I can’t say that I feel bad for Lonnie, but I’m curious how this will affect the rest of his Pick 6 compatriots.
The more heartbreaking treachery, however, we learn from Walter Smith. In a gravelly, difficult to understand monologue, Walter relates what really happened to Delphi, the sire of his colt Gettin’ Up Mornings. Delphi was killed as part of an insurance scam, and Walter holds himself responsible for not stopping it. The old trainer is haunted by the sound of the stallion’s legs breaking. Now, as his sole shot at redemption, Getting’ Up Mornings has become his obsession. Visit the quotes page for Walter's whole story.
It’s not all moral degradation in Luck. Upward mobility, redemption, and second chances are still possible. Jerry, after losing a good chunk of cash at the poker table, wins it all back. Ronnie gets the chance to revive his career by riding Gettin’ Up Mornings. Rosie works hard to convince Walter she’s ready to ride in a real race, and while she doesn’t get that opportunity, he puts her in touch with an agent. There is hope here, but it’s sullied by a sense of desperation from a world and way of life that’s slowly fading into obsolescence.
- Without Mann helming, I thought the cinematography lost some of its beauty. The racing scenes were still spectacular, but Mann’s breathtaking visual odes to sleekness and sharpness were gone.
- The scene where Marcus interacts with the handicapped woman was really intriguing. It echoes what Jerry told him about ending up broke and alone. Also, what’s in the laundry bag tied to his wheelchair? My guess is his winnings.
- I thought this episode spelled the complicated world of the racetrack out a little better. The explanation of the claiming race was much clearer than the show’s description of the Pick 6.