15th Mar2016

‘Vinyl 1×05: He In Racist Fire’ Review

by Gretchen Felker-Martin

“Inside every man is another version of himself.”

Julie’s just running up to firing Clark when he says it, but his bullshit bit about dopplegangers doubles as a cruelly insightful observation on what’s going on all around him. Clark begging his way into a job as a gofer to avoid his father’s belief that he’s a loser, Richie bullshitting Andrea with promises that he’s changed as a naked enticement to get her to work for him, and Jamie lying to the mysterious Mrs. Feinman about a promotion that never materialized are all variations on the idea of throwing out phantoms of yourself that are closer to who you want to be, or to who you think will get you what you want. That lack of clarity hangs like smoke over the rest of the episode, finding its purest expression when Richie (maybe) decides to christen his new label ‘Alibi Records.’ He thinks he’s found a way to push past his inability to define what comes next, but the reality is that he’s replaced an empty seat with one filled by a cardboard cutout in the shape of his deepest anxieties. Richie’s need to be relevant is so intense that he construes his next endeavor as a perfect version of himself, a version with all the answers, all the hottest tracks, reaching back through a mirror to lead him onward.

‘He in Racist Fire’ is a dense, plot-heavy episode that leans into the anxiety of navigating life while maintaining a coherent self-image. Hannibal scrambles names into enigmatic koans in a hypnotic scene set right before one of the series’ most upsetting sequences. Richie holding Cece back as she struggles against his arms, furious that Hannibal is grinding on Devon in the hotel room he shares with her, and the complex play of emotions across Richie’s face as he watches his wife seduce the artist form a very ugly tableaux. Devon’s claim that Richie brought her along for that very reason is dead on, but in his need to imagine a version of himself that he can live with, he rejects it as absurd. Note also how he recoils from his father’s descriptions of him, even from an embarrassing but relatively harmless anecdote about his youth. Richie’s version of Richie can’t survive sustained contact with reality.

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It’s a clear thesis statement on what women mean and how they’re used in the world of music. That Devon is both pawn and partner to Richie creates an unsustainable dissonance, a situation in which he wants to broker her sexuality for favors and power but is incapable of watching the fallout without blaming her for its incitement. Olivia Wilde blazes in the elevator as Devon pulls her husband’s fingers up into herself, a rare moment of sex on television being actually, well, sexy, but Richie can’t stand that she’s already wet. He rails at her on the sidewalk as she bridles at his immense hypocrisy and eventually walks off into the night. Cece, similarly, is expected to act as a lure to Hannibal and is berated for failing to keep his eye from wandering to another record company even as she is forced to endure his more literal unfaithfulness as a cost of doing business. That he leaves American Century is just salt in the wound for Devon and Cece alike. The indignities they suffered come to nothing.

The episode is less visually adventurous than previous installments, its flourishes limited to weaker versions of the mirror tricks in ‘Yesterday Once More’ and pedestrian tight-angle shots of vintage cars, but its pervasive atmosphere of unease and dissatisfaction is strong enough to sustain the dip. Even the episode’s slowest, least engrossing element, the dismissal of Duck from the Nasty Bitz, is a matryoshka doll of thematic whammy. The Bitz, in pursuit of an identity, must submit to the vision of themselves living in Richie’s mind, erasing the very originator of their name in the process. The scene in the conference room is Faustian in its intensity. It feels deliciously unclear whether Richie really believes Duck needs to go or if he just wants to punish Lester and the Bitz for standing up to him. Either way, the dangled promise of opening for the New York Dolls proves too tempting for Kip. Richie just wants him to step into a skin, after all, to force himself through the same machine that Richie later rails against. Like Transatlantic says, there’s no maze to unwind. It’s labyrinth all the way down.

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