Lucky Hank S1E2 Recap: “George Saunders” — Foils, Fights, and Friends

George Saunders and Hank Devereaux teach a class
Photo Credit: Sergei Bachlakov

The following recap contains spoilers for Lucky Hank S1E2, “George Saunders” (written by Paul Lieberstein & Aaron Zelman and directed by Peter Farrelly)

If you haven’t quite figured out yet whether Lucky Hank is serialized television or episodic television, don’t worry, that’s probably on purpose. As Lucky Hank tries to figure out if it wants to remain humorous “soft television” or if it’s aiming to be something with a more direct purpose or message, the viewers are left with a delightful combination of Hank Devereaux’s (Bob Odenkirk) foil of the week combined with an ongoing allegory of the destruction of a man. Add in a dash of the old-school Odenkirk comedy and we have a delightful dramedy tour-de-force through two episodes.

Episode 2, “George Saunders,” carries with it some of the plotlines and unresolved issues from Episode 1. Barto Williams-Stevens still has not moved on from the dressing down he received from Hank in the first episode. The English Department of Railton College is still as eclectic and dysfunctional as we remember them, and Hank has taken just a few more steps down the spiral staircase of self-destruction.

But we are also introduced to a new character in “George Saunders” named, obviously, George Saunders. Saunders (played by brilliant character actor Bryan Huskey) may be new to the viewer but he is an old friend of Hank. They both started writing and had their seminal novels published at the same time, but their lives have diverged drastically since that point.

We learn that Saunders (unapologetically modeled after the real-life author George Saunders) was a finalist for the National Book Award, won the Man Booker Prize for best fiction in English, received a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, and was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world. All of these things are true about the real Saunders as well as the famous book he penned, Tenth of December, which is frequently cited in the episode.

George and Hank greet each other at Railton College
Photo Credit: Sergei Bachlakov

In addition to all of the writing accolades, Saunders is also a wildly popular writing professor, is very wealthy, and charges a “freaking crazy” $50,000 speakers’ fee to participate in an event.

Hank’s life has gone in a wildly different direction. He hasn’t published a book or anything significant since his initial novel, Table of Cowards, he is a disfavored Chair of a petty English department at a mid-rate school, and he is estranged from his world-famous and beloved father who was a literary and critical genius.

“For about eight days,” Hank mentions to his wife Lily (Mirielle Enos), the literary world considered Hank Devereaux to be the better writer. The two men published their books on the same day about 30 years earlier, but when the sales data came out eight days post-publishing, it was clear which book held more appeal. The problem, Saunders believes, is that Hank simply hasn’t written anything else and can’t make himself do it.

Hank's students listen to George Saunders
Photo Credit: Sergei Bachlakov

Feeling second-rate, feeling mediocre, and feeling like he “missed the window” has now become habitual for Hank. But what Saunders tells Hank’s class when he visits is “if you want to be excellent, you have to reject the habitual. That’s where mediocrity lives.” What we see through two episodes that will be Hank’s likely downfall is that his whole life is now “the habitual.” He drowsily makes his way through his classes. He has a routine racquetball game. He is more annoyed than overjoyed at the thought that his daughter might be pregnant because it would disrupt the routine and because of how much Hank and Lily would have to chip in to help.

His life is so habitual that even in the three times we see him sit down to actually try and write something in this episode, to explore something else in his mind, to create something new, he can’t do it. At one point he looks at his hands like “why won’t you work, you bastards!” But we all know (as does Hank) that the problem is between his ears and not his hands.

When George Saunders comes to town, he compounds what we learned about Hank and his relationship with his famous critic father William Henry Devereaux, Sr. Hank’s father loved Saunders’ work. His father praised Saunders. His father wrote a pull quote for the jacket of Saunders’ famous book that reads “He is truly the voice of his generation. There is no one—no one—who comes anywhere near the depth of his talent.” It’s the final knife in Hank’s back of his sliding doors life.

Hank may have railed against the mediocrity that he sees all around him at Railton College in the first episode of the series, but it’s really the mediocrity and fear in his own life that is driving him over the edge. Much of it established by his father. But for all of his flaws, you can’t say Hank is not self-aware. The best line of the episode is when Hank is trying to get out of moderating the event that features Saunders and he tells Dean Rose that he is “worried I might say something consistent with my personality but inconsistent with the modern university.”

Lily and Dean Rose worry that Hank should not go on stage
Photo Credit: Sergei Bachlakov

Hank knows he is a miserable grump but refuses to let himself do the one thing that could potentially get him out of that habit: write another great novel. The jealousy he feels towards Saunders and the rejection he feels from his father are two weights sitting on top of his hands every time he tries to pick them up and put them back on his keyboard.

As Hank reluctantly agrees to go on stage with Saunders at the event, his plan initially is to eviscerate him. But just before they go on, George tells Hank the words that he has wanted to hear from someone, from ANYONE, for so long. George tells him, “for someone with your kind of talent to stop writing? I’m against it.”

For a few minutes on stage, Hank allows himself to transform into a new person. Or rather an old person. He transforms into the person he was before his book went on sale. Before the sales data. Before Railton College and Barto Williams-Stevens. He was a good writer. George, his foil, became his friend again, and Hank was happy.

George Saunders and Hank Devereaux on stage at an event
Photo Credit: Sergei Bachlakov

But George will surely now take his $50,000 and go home, leaving Hank with his habits once again. Will we see a new “mystery-of-the-week” in Episode 3 where we learn about another person who has pushed Hank into his depths or will we continue to add gunpowder to the stick of dynamite that is Hank Devereaux’s mediocre life? Likely both.

Random Observations From Episode 2 of Lucky Hank:

  • If you want a masterclass in Bob Odenkirk humor, watch his reaction when Barto asks George Saunders what kind of paper he uses to write on. Odenkirk can say 8,000 things without muttering a word.
  • Hank thinks, and says to a bartender, that his son-in-law is an idiot. But Hank doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy who would have just let his one daughter pick this guy to spend the rest of her life with. Some interesting backstory is there and I hope we get to explore it this season.
  • I’m about 70% convinced that Tony Conigula, Hank’s best friend and confidant (played by Diedrich Bader), is not a real person. I think we have an inner monologue situation here that might be bordering on the next Tyler Durden. Hank always speaks to him alone. We have no idea who Tony is or what job he has on campus. He has all the same beliefs as Hank: racquetball is a must, field hockey is the only good sport, George Saunders is an asshole. How this manifests itself this season will be fascinating to watch.

Written by Ryan Kirksey

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