“Who you are ain’t gettin’ signed.”
Richie wants to believe that, like Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon, his skills amount to more than a good ear and a practiced mind. His return to the arms of addiction has him convinced that what he heard when the New York Dolls brought that building down was a sound from just behind the wall. If he can tear back the wallpaper, if he can show others how to find it, then he can keep his business and his dreams while harvesting raw new talent and keeping rock ‘n roll alive. It’s a plan dredged up from the asbestos-suffused wreckage of the collapse he survived, and as he executes karate chops and wild yells in a darkened movie theater it becomes apparent exactly how reverent Vinyl is going to be toward the hallowed art of rock ‘n roll.
Richie’s rants and outbursts give Cannavale a chance to strut his Boardwalk Empire stuff with delightful panache. He bursts into the conference room hours late and with a visible head wound to claim he’s just been mugged by God (though he stole His wallet) and to cancel the deal on a whim. He’s seen the light, or snorted it, and now his skills have gone beyond the mere physical level! He blusters as much before unleashing kung fu on his partners in a coke-fueled rampage that leaves Zak with a broken nose and Scott (whose squeals of “I’m a junior partner!” are, along with Skip’s terrified roll over the back of the sofa, easily one of the episode’s best jokes) bloodied and baffled. Then he berates his team, does more coke, sobs in his wife’s arms, and delivers a singularly savage line reading. “I just want a sip,” he says to Devon as he sobs against her chest. It’s a sentence that tears at the ligaments, so raw and needy that I felt myself tearing up.
Devon’s segment of ‘Yesterday Once More’ feels like something that will land completely once we have a better idea of who she is. Flashing back to her electrifying romance with Richie during the Warehouse scene, their early escapades owe a heavy debt to Mad Men. There’s a lot of smoky looks and bathroom trysting, and their chemistry is formidable. It’s a clear bridge to her statement to Zak that Richie’s magnetic charisma often means that others pay the price for his failures, drawn in and smashed on the rocks. This man swept her off her feet, but years later they’re still spinning and whirling as he dives once more into drug abuse and heavy drinking. Devon is so absorbed in recollecting this past, Karen Carpenter soundtracking her fugue in the passenger seat, that she accidentally abandons her children in a Friendly’s. It’s a raw scene, a gut-punch of a statement about the way parenting effaces the self and, in a way, makes it taboo to have a self outside your children.
What’s striking is the pains the episode takes to avoid really giving Devon a viewpoint. We never see her photographs. She poses for a reel, mute and smiling. Again and again we hear what others think of her, how captivated they are by her, but aside from her concealment of her mistake with the kids and last episode’s steel-clad rage, there isn’t much there yet. Her memories, though, feel hypnotic and powerful, and even if the flashbacks scenes are still one of Vinyl’s clunkiest elements, Wilde sells their draw. Lou Reed’s ‘Venus in Furs,’ fucking in the bathroom, what looks like a close relationship to Ingrid; it’s the paradise Richie rants about to his partners as he screws them out of the deal they were depending on. The root and power of rock ‘n roll. Obsession. Dereliction. Transformation.
Zak’s journey through bat mitzvah hell plays deadpan counterpoint to Richie’s sizzling aporia/epiphany and Devon’s brutal day out. The antics of his shrewish wife, some kind of avatar of Brooklyn, ring a little tired alongside the relative thinness of Devon’s story. There just isn’t much for the women to do here, and it feels like prestige drama should have the classic problem of what to do with wives well in hand by now. Still, watching Zak calculate exactly how badly he’s going to get fucked, complete with sound effects, is a delight. His off-the-cuff story about how he broke his nose leads to one of the episode’s best scenes when, forced to contemplate destroying his own car’s rear fender to support his lie, he briefly considers suicide before getting a wrench and setting in on the tail lights. His sense of defeat is so total that when plastic starts to shatter, the bottomed-out catharsis is palpable.
Over all of Vinyl‘s mess and riot hovers the idea that the kind of mythic music Richie wants to find is impossible to reconcile with the money he wants to use it to make. His acquisitions agents and producers suck at finding artists precisely because they’ve become good at doing business. They’ve become stagnant and can only work with established parties; newness is inherently unsafe and unrefined. That stagnation, though, is inescapable. The company he’s built is like the house Devon wanted in order to feel safe. New York, with all its sirens and riot, is buried safely in the distance, but what remains outside is lifeless. That dichotomy is a real knee-slapper, frustrated suburbia on the one hand and the clownish sellouts of the world of rock on the other. It’s all the same damn mess, and even tracing his steps back to Lester Grimes won’t help Richie fight free of it.