“Luck is the residue of design.” Or is it?
Whether or not Branch Rickey’s famous dictum – an appeal to reason and not the gods – is true lies at the heart of the fourth episode of Luck, written by staffer Jay Hovdey and directed by Philip Noyce (“Salt”). The question also illuminates what’s right and what’s wrong with the series. (If you don’t know Branch Rickey, the man who transformed baseball and with it American society, Jimmy Breslin’s fine short biography is a good place to start.)
In the series as in life, there are gamblers who ignore the dictum entirely. They abandon themselves to the gods, who play games with no skill involved -- be it slots, roulette or bingo. (There’s a passing reference to Renzo’s (Ritchie Coster) mother’s bingo addiction, one of many such touches in this episode.)
And there are those who, like Rickey, use reason to move the odds in their favor. From Herbert O. Yardley onward, the best poker advice is quite simply to fold more often than not. Calculate the odds, use your mind and not your heart, and never expect the gods to be kind. (Alas, if you do this in a friendly game, you may not be invited back.)
The problem, of course, is that those who trust in the gods are fools (and, like all who trusted in gods before them, inevitably brought down), while those who rely on reason are still subject to the gods’ whims. (Despite putting together great teams during the eight years he ran the Brooklyn Dodgers, Rickey was never able to win a World Series title.)
In the series, this tension between reason and faith is best expressed by Jason Gedrick’s Jerry, a man of reason at the track (he’s the one who puts together the degenerate quartet’s winning ticket), but an utter plaything of the gods at the poker table. In one world, he is the patient designer. In his other – addictive – world, he is unable to examine his hand and very much at the mercy of the taunts of his Chinese restaurant-owner nemesis (a not very flattering portrait that feels at once utterly authentic and not a little stereotyped).
That inner conflict means Jerry’s soul is at stake, which means that there’s something we, the audience, care about. It’s what makes Jerry the most consistently compelling character in the show.
We feel it as well with Rosie (Kerry Condon), who gets her first onscreen mount in this episode. Preparing for the ride, Rosie prays – sincerely but privately, calling upon not the gambling gods, but “Big G” God, not so much for a win but for protection. Rosie is another designer, but she’s also well aware of the role of fate.
This scene is particularly moving, because Rosie’s rise comes at the expense of both her boyfriend and his agent. Hovdey’s script intercuts her prayers with the jockey’s running and the agent’s despair. Fate is elevating one and lowering the others. The very thing Rosie wants is going to come at the expense of the man she loves. Her prayer is a double-edge sword.
Balancing this is the story of the horse she is riding, trained and owned by Nick Nolte’s Walter Smith. The horse is a winner and a bleeder, and Nolte cannot bring himself to approach the beast with reason alone. Sentiment enters into things (indeed, the story is beginning to veer into the sentimental) and we are left with the flip side -- those who have only reason at their disposal do not have the heart for any game.
All of this bears no mention of Ace Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), who once again seems to be on the sidelines of the story. He's so immersed in reason that he's not a gambler at all. His soul is not at risk, he’s come out of the slammer with his wealth intact and he’s lost all interest in sex.
He’s losing his place in the series, too.