“You know that’s actually Devon in the portrait?”
Looking in the mirror and realizing you don’t know who’s looking back, and that no one else knows either, sucks. ‘Whispered Secrets’ ends with Richie staring at a hole in the world where his wife’s portrait used to be, its pale spot on a wall a blocky halo for a head mired in a swamp of confusion. These people haven’t just lost track of each other; they’ve lost track of themselves. In a world like the record business where identity is a commodity and managers spin personas out of necessity and bullshit, all that shit is up for grabs even before you watch a sleep-deprived Italian beat a dude to death with his own radio award.
Devon spends the episode trying to dredge something up out of the chaos and confusion her life with Richie has bcome. Olivia Wilde’s command of Devon’s frustration, her realization that Richie’s respect for her is something that comes and goes depending on how easy his life is, that even the work she does on her own has no space for her as a person, is enough to make a hollow in the pit of your stomach. “Good work,” Richie chides her after their daughter sees her shouting at him. It’s an unbelievable slap in the face from a man who has tossed aside what I assume from her reaction to his drinking is a pretty serious sobriety pact between the two of them, and it’s also a harsh, cruel reminder that parenting robs us of the range of expression we use to make ourselves heard. Richie’s hiding his fuck-ups behind a teary-eyed little girl, just like he tries to paper over his betrayal of Lester with a slapped-together record deal suggested as much to keep his company afloat as to actually help Lester’s kneecapped career.
Lester’s flight of fancy, in which his scarred throat heals and he fast-forwards through a career in which his voice carries him to domestic bliss and an office full of gold records, is a devastating moment. Ato Essandoh’s croaking performance at either end of the daydream feels like an epitaph on the grave of something that never really got a chance to live. He, like Devon when she sells a beloved Warhol portrait that her oblivious friends don’t even know she’s the subject of, has lost the only version of himself that he knew how to love. More and more it seems like watching Richie scramble desperately after his own beloved self-image is what the show has at its heart, a bloody-fingered and terrifying conceit rife with flashbacks to the controlled demolition of Buck’s skull.
It feels right that Richie recognizes when other people have lost their luster, the qualities that make them unique and noteworthy, as when Julian sands away the Nasty Bitz’ rough edges and renders them indistinguishable from any other generic band. He may not have any idea who he is or what he’s going to be (he spends a solid ten seconds watching water swirl down a drain), but he can sure as hell outsource the business of having a concrete self-image to his golden ear and his status as a tastemaker. Hell, it’s practically normal to live through your interests and the media you consume or create. Cannavale continues his captivating streak with the manic goofiness he snaps in and out of in his scene with Essandoh, a rubber-band snap as sharp as the shot that whips from Clark, the dupe of dupes, to living god Alice Cooper, played with Midwestern manners by Dustin Ingram.
Clark’s subplot, following his ill-considered wooing of Alice Cooper with the prospect of a solo career backed by American Century, is a gift. A harrowing, blood-soaked ode to teamwork and a big fuck-you to Clark and the amoral yes-men like him. The staging of the concert, complete with guillotine, is a crackerjack piece of film-making. Its irreverence toward the business of rock ‘n roll, combined with its culmination of Alice’s days-long punking of Clark (which includes a golf scene memorable all on its own), makes for something that produces a sort of hysterical, edge-of-your-seat, are-they-actually-going-to-behead-this-poor-sap laugh-scream. It’s a smart bit of self-critique that doesn’t take itself too seriously, a reminder that it’s all too easy to overlook the “buncha guys who stand behind Alice” and, in so doing, miss how art is made.
‘Whispered Secrets’ is replete with memorable images ranging from the playful (Julian framed against the frustrated Nasty Bitz like someone walking in front of the projector at a movie) to the crushing (Devon weeping on camera next to the rakish painting of herself, Lester in his broken-down apartment) to the open for interpretation (the empty space on the wall). The characters are all fixated on who they used to be, on ideas of themselves that have slipped through their fingers. The use of Alice Cooper’s “I Love the Dead” is a cute wink at their fetishization of what has come before. Everyone’s fucking old, dead versions of themselves, as unable to move forward as Richie is to pick a name for a new label he hopes will represent his future. Lester, confronted by Richie’s high-flying airs, frames the dilemma with cutting simplicity. “People change themselves, or they don’t. Willingness is the key.”