HBO’s Inside The Episode blurbs aren’t always worth watching for review purposes, as so many of them simply rehash what most of the audience already knows. Every now and then, however, a writer, director, or actor will say something that gives unique insight into a series. Take tonight’s episode of Vinyl, for example. After the credits are phased out by the static and heavenly chords of the Home Box Office logo, Terence Winter refers to “The King And I” as “Richie’s experiment with sobriety” in the post-show interview.
Maybe it’s unfair to read so far into Winter’s words, but I can’t help but think it’s just more proof that he and the writers of Vinyl are aggressively trying to make their protagonist as horrible as possible. I can’t help but think it proves that the only reason “The King And I” functions as a redemption song for so much of its runtime is so Richie can backslide into shittiness at the very end. And this comes after his most despicable traits already got maxed out in both “He In Racist Fire” and “Cyclone.” At least the latter offered a glimmer of change, hinting that Richie would hoist himself back on the wagon to try and right things with his marriage and his record label.
And for much of “The King And I,” that’s exactly what he does (the label, anyway; Devon still isn’t returning his calls, and rightfully so). After realizing American Century needs to tighten the belt wherever they can, Richie and Zak head to Los Angeles to sell the company’s private jet to rival record executive Lou Meshejian (an appropriately tan, puffed up, coked out John Ventimiglia). While at a party of Lou’s that’s swarming with self-destructive soft-rockers from the Laurel Canyon scene, Richie overhears a rumor that Elvis Presley’s dissatisfied with his own label, RCA. Smelling blood in the water, he and Zak hop on another plane to Vegas in hopes of signing The King to ACR.
For most of their stay in Sin City, Richie keeps his eyes on the prize, staying away from alcohol and even turning down coke from two women they meet at the hotel pool. This newfound sobriety, however brief, is a shot in the arm for Vinyl, not just because it’s refreshing to see Richie try to be a better person, but because, when his eyelashes aren’t dusted with blow, he’s really fucking good at his job. His skills come to a head when, after Zak begins a much sought-after threesome with the two women, Richie heads up to Elvis’ room alone, attempting to woo the rock legend without the self-admittedly square Zak or Presley’s notoriously iron-fisted manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Gene Jones), there to threaten the deal.
In a way, the scene plays like the opposite of Richie’s ill-fated attempt to convince Buck Rogers to give Donnie Osmond airtime on his radio station. Even though both targets are stunted, drugged-out behemoths, Elvis comes off like a picked-over teddy bear to counter Buck’s rabid grizzly, a guy who’s still magnetic for reasons outside of anyone’s control, but also well past his prime. As portrayed by champion Elvis impersonator Shawn Klush, the semi-fictional King embodies the usual touchstones of Presley’s later years: the hokey stage outfits, the droopy jumpsuits, the pill popping, the extra pounds, the kung fu. But Klush also unearths a childlike eagerness to please in his performance, his eyes momentarily lighting up when he gets to show Richie his collection of rings and police badges. Granted, Richie’s playing a calculated game largely driven by finance, but their connection somewhat transcends deceit and A&R schmoozing. A bit washed up himself these days, there’s a part of Richie that seems to genuinely sympathize with the musical icon, a part of him that can only emerge when the writers give Cannavale quiet, wondrous moments to play with. His bond with Elvis wouldn’t feel as sad, sweet, and yearning if he was in the character’s default Scarface mode.
All of that shatters when the two men are interrupted by the Colonel, who abruptly disarms Richie by taking advantage of his client’s Stockholm Syndrome. Although Elvis protests the Colonel’s dismissal of Richie at first—insisting that he wants to get out of his Vegas contract—his resistance melts into Svengali puppetry when his manager asks him to show off some of his self-defense tactics. The deal is suddenly out the window, a failure made all the more heartbreaking since Klush plays Elvis as if he knows what just happened to him. He’s just too sluggish, too medicated, and in too much of a holding pattern with the Colonel to do anything about it. The blow becomes even more crippling when Richie returns to his hotel room to find that the two women have (supposedly) made off with the $90,000 from the jet sale while Zak was passed out.
Regardless of the outcome, the whole Elvis plot is still one of the more compelling sequences on Vinyl because it forces Richie to fight for something. It forces him to demonstrate manipulation and empathy at the same time. But then that word from before ruins it: “Experiment.” “Experiment” implies that Richie’s more focused, sober approach to wheeling and dealing will only last a short time. And indeed, Winter can’t even go a single episode without putting his main character right back where he was last week. In the closing moments, it’s revealed through a flashback that Richie was so distraught by the Elvis debacle that he’s actually the one who stole the $90,000, only to gamble it away at the blackjack table in a Hail Mary attempt to earn American Century more money. Even worse, he starts drinking again on the cramped plane ride home, where he and Zak are now symbolically seated in coach. And there you have it, ladies and gentlemen: In the space of only one episode, Richie’s relapsed, put his company in even hotter water than it was already in, lied about it, and blamed his friend for the whole shebang.
To Winter’s credit, these are all completely logical things for Richie to do, especially when considering his general awfulness and how well Cannavale maps out his rise-and-fall arc in Vegas. Also, the man is an addict, and the path to total recovery is never easy. So yes, this all makes sense from a character standpoint. It all makes sense given what we know about Richie Finestra. But is the twist at the end of “The King And I” interesting? Not one bit. Maybe it would be if it came in the season finale, or even two episodes after he made the decision to get sober. But one episode? That’s not even 50 minutes before Richie’s right back to square one—not exactly a compelling or dynamic narrative for a protagonist.
It’s not satisfying on a visceral level either. Even though Zak acts like a complete scumbag himself with his horny-puppy philandering, he’s still been nothing but kind to Richie. He still looks up to him as his best friend and mentor. And unlike his partner, he’s had consistently redeeming qualities throughout the series, which renders the late-in-the-game reversal as little more than cruel, as opposed to some kind of justified comeuppance. I’d like to think that the next episode will be a more significant step towards cooperation and redemption for the folks at American Century (it seems they’ll be applying for a bank loan), but just look at what happened this week. And that’s to say nothing of another shot in the preview that shows Richie once again locked in a frenzied “Lemme fuck the moon, baby!” stare after doing a bump of cocaine. That doesn’t give me much hope. Then again, hope doesn’t seem to be valued much at all on Vinyl. Unless it’s for experimental purposes.
- The “18” moments were a little much, no? The idea of numbers being predictors of tragedy/symbols of good fortune just always feels like a lazy plot device, no matter the spiritual or philosophical origins.
- Richie isn’t exaggerating when he calls Malibu a mortuary with an ocean view. While Stephen Stills remains alive, the Joshua Tree visits mentioned by Gram Parsons proved to be fatal to the young musician—he died out there in 1973 of an overdose of morphine and alcohol. Mama Cass Elliot would die of a heart attack just a year later at 32. And of course, Elvis Presley lasted only four more years after this episode.
- I can’t remember if the show specifies exactly when “The King And I” takes place (summer or fall, I’m assuming), but I wonder if it’s implying that this particular Joshua Tree trip is meant to be Parsons’ last. That would set the events sometime in mid-September.
- Zak’s fat joke about Mama Cass seems unnecessarily mean.
- Clark’s storyline continues to be inconsequential, but his getting hazed by the mailroom guys and apologizing to Jamie on the fire exit earns him some sympathy.
- Richie’s absolutely right about John Simon, who, in addition to his organic production work and being the unofficial sixth member of The Band, released one of the great “lost” records of the ‘70s, the aptly titled John Simon’s Album. For an entry point, give “Tannenbaum” a spin. It features Garth Hudson on sax!
- Lots of Sopranos love tonight thanks to the work of Coulter and Ventimiglia (Artie Bucco). I also just realized that Galasso is portrayed by Armen Garo, who played Salvatore “Coco” Cogliano (a.k.a. the guy Tony curb-stomps in season six).
- “You passed ‘sorry’ months ago. We’re in the donating-an-organ phase of contrition.”
- “You’re not here. I’m not here. We all just happen to be here.”
- The Sonics’ “Strychnine” plays in the American Century office when Richie’s tossing out his booze. I mentioned this song once before in “The Racket,” where it closed out the credits on the screener. However, some of you said it got switched to Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” in the broadcast.
- Speaking of which, the version on the show sounds like the original, but the cover on this week’s Vinyl EP is sung by X frontman John Doe, so I could be wrong.
- Jan and Dean’s “Surf City” (not a Beach Boys song, contrary to popular belief) plays on the plane, with the singers themselves popping up in the cabin during a fever dream. Their lyric “Two girls for every boy” not only comments on the Jim Morrison threesome recalled by Richie, but becomes a cautionary foreshadowing of Zak’s tryst.
- In the first mailroom sequence, everyone dances to Kool & The Gang’s “Funky Stuff.”
- And that transitions into “It Never Rains In Southern California” by Albert Hammond (Sr., not Jr.).
- At the start of Lou’s party, that’s Dr. John’s cover of “Big Chief,” written by Earl King and originally performed by Professor Longhair. Fess’ version was featured prominently on Treme.
- We also get Jackson Browne’s “Doctor My Eyes” later on at the mansion. Dylan Nowik is listed in the end credits as Browne—maybe he was supposed to be the guy playing guitar at the party?
- In what might be my favorite of the show’s surreal musical interludes, British psychedelic-punk weirdos Pink Fairies rip through “Do It” on the beach, then trash their gear in the surf.
- The James Gang’s “Funk #49” scores Richie and Zak hightailing it to Vegas to try and sign Elvis.
- Shortly afterward, Richie bribes the hotel desk clerk to the tune of Tom Jones’ immortal “It’s Not Unusual.”
- In another negotiation by Richie, Steely Dan’s “Do It Again” soundtracks him convincing the two women to talk to Zak by the pool.
- Keeping with the theme of song titles that accurately describe the people of Vinyl, The O’Jays’ “Backstabbers” plays in the second mailroom scene.
- Much to Zak’s dismay, Elvis covers Tony Joe White’s “Polk Salad Annie” in his Vegas show. Is it wrong that I enjoy that song infinitely more than “Hound Dog”?
- The Isley Brothers’ “That Lady” takes Richie and Zak from the casino floor back up to their hotel room.
- I’m not sure whose version of Ivory Joe Hunter’s “No Money, No Luck Blues” is playing in Elvis’ hotel room. Maybe B.B. King’s?
- The big reveal at the end is set to Bobby Darin’s “18 Yellow Roses.”
- And we’re taken into the credits by Focus, who—in a combination nobody asked for—experimented with both yodeling and prog-rock on their hit “Hocus Pocus.” The band also gets brought up during the partners’ meeting earlier on in the episode.
- I don’t know if it’s a cover or where it played on the episode, but a song by Jesse Malin called “My Reflection” opens the latest Vinyl EP. Also included are “Strychnine,” “Big Chief,” “Doctor My Eyes,” and “It Never Rains In Southern California.”