This post contains spoilers through the January 29 episode of Luck.
Because Luck is so big and sprawling, I’m going to focus these recaps on a different character every week. And because this is the premiere, and I’m new to horseracing, I want to start with Gus. I’ve always liked Dennis Farina, who I think can be a wonderfully sensitive and underrated actor, and I particularly appreciate him here as Gus, a role I found to be even more sensitive and nuanced on a second pass.
I think it makes sense to look for structure and the larger idea in David Milch’s work. We’re not far enough into Luck for me to see the show as clearly as I do the themes in Deadwood, of course, but Ace is clearly the power broker here, the man who thinks he can see the future and manipulate it, who can turn the recession and the financial desperation of the area into a revitalization and expansion of gaming at Santa Anita. That life is made possible in part by Gus, who handles the great details and the small of Ace’s post-prison existence, whether he’s adjusting Ace’s thermostat to “67 degrees. 67 degrees is perfect,” or acting as “the first front in history” so Ace can own a horse again. But does that make him a butler? A political factotum? Or the citizen to Ace’s great man?
Whatever it turns out to be, there’s a real tenderness in Gus’s service to Ace. “I got a pencil right here, and I got an old ad from Sears I can write on the back of,” he tells Ace when Ace asks him to get a tape recorder, eager to be helpful as quickly as possible even though he misses the larger picture in the process. We learn that he’s answered every letter Ace got while he was in prison, a touchingly old-fashioned gesture. And though he ventures into the world of horse racing out of duty (Gus has trees to tend), telling Ace nervously “What do I know? All four of his legs reached the ground,” Gus finds genuine joy there. The look on his face when Mon Gateau eats a carrot off his hand for the first time is utterly charming in a world that’s already revealed itself to be brutal in the break of a horse’s leg, desperate in the form of Jerry’s gambling.
“All I’m worried about is you relying on me when I’m out past my depth,” Gus confesses to Ace after the latter’s tiring first day out of jail. “You don’t know your own depths,” Ace tells him. It’s an interesting, paternalistic moment, and it remains to be seen what it means. Is this the powerful issuing a vote of confidence in the common people, or a powerful man seeing in his factotum a man who could rise above his station?