‘Luck’ Character of the Week: Consider the Hustler

This post contains spoilers through the February 5 episode of Luck.

While I essentially agree with Tim Goodman that difficult television isn’t inherently a bad thing, I’m still having trouble finding my big emotional hook into Luck. Fortunately, my political hook’s presented itself in the stocky, short-fused person of one Chester “Ace” Bernstein, also known as Dustin Hoffman, or a man currently living out the kind of cushy parole of which Bernie Madoff can only dream. He is—or would like to be—the man who holds all the other characters’ fortunes in his hands even if they don’t know his name. And at the moment, he’s reading like a dour Al Swearengen (fitting, given Geri Jewell popping up on the track next to Marcus this week)—a visionary without the sense of humor or personal charm.

Or perhaps he’s Rhett Butler, who before he married her told Scarlett O’Hara “There’s good money in empire building. But, there’s more in empire wrecking.” Ace has come out of prison at the perfect time to capitalize on a wreck. “The U.S. economy’s in the fucking toilet. The New York bankers with their three-card monte bond swaps brought the whole fucking walls down. Tremendous structural damage to tax base, unemployment, plus my impression, tremendous, tremendous compression of the leisure gaming dollar,” he explains to his potential fronts. “In California, established and passed by the legislature, horse racing is legal and casino gaming isn’t. Leaving aside for a second the fucking rain dancers. And like the whole state economy, the race track is desperate for new streams of revenue. Perfect fucking Trojan horse.”

There’s a grandiosity to his schemes, a grand sense of what Ace thinks he’s owed. And while he’s almost meek with the parole officer who has Malcolm X on his wall, who asks him, with what sounds like genuine concern “How are you settling in?” Ace can be button-poppingly angry when asked about his prison experience, snapping at the investor who remarks that his company name will be on the new venture that it’s “Because I’m a fucking felon. Anything else you want to explain to me?” But it sounds like he’s angry less that people don’t understand what he’s been through and more that they don’t understand the code that got him there, founded on an overdeveloped sense of responsibility that led him to take the rap for his partner’s cocaine stash when the drugs were mistakenly pinned on his nephew, a New York University student. “All I remember from that time is a little boy who was running around with his shoes untied,” Gus recalls. “The question is, Ace, what if it was all turned around?” “Mike would have given me up in a heartbeat,” Ace says with certainty. Self-righteousness may not keep you warm at night, but the fire it provides will fuel you during the day.

Interestingly, it seems like the biggest threats from Ace’s plans may come not from Mike and the other higher-ups, but from below, from Escalante, bitter already at losing his horse in a claiming race. “Ace Bernstein that they calling him coming with his beard to see what his $2 million bought him,” he grumbles. “Ace Chester Bernstein gonna look to running my business?” And it remains to be seen what their history is. “There’s a picture for your, Escalante behind a pushcart full of fruits and vegetables,” Gus muses at the end of their day. “Doesn’t know to this day it was you who got him through the gate?” “It was him made himself into something,” Ace tells him. Escalante may be living by the code, just on a different scale.