Vinyl (HBO) Episode 7: "Record Man's" Needle And The Damage Done
As usual, if you have not seen Episode 7 of Vinyl - cease all reading forthwith - or do what you want to do? In other words...
At the end of last week, I wrote a fairly lengthy defense of Vinyl against some of the shows most prominent critics (and criticisms). For those that are still wondering about things that the show gets right. They get addiction right.
Richie Acts Exactly Like An Addict
The episode starts and ends with Richie's (Bobby Cannavale) addiction to drugs and alcohol. It starts with him clearing his office of all the substances and ends with him downing a double shot of Vodka.
So, I am well over five years into being a recovering addict myself and I speak to multiple other addicts in different stages of recovery every single day (of every single week). Here are three things in this episode that prove that someone on the writing staff of Vinyl knows what they are talking about:
1. Fake Recovery - Oh, I had so many of these before recovery really took. If you notice throughout the episode Richie almost seems as if he is watching himself from outside of himself. Like he is constantly evaluating virtually every second if he should keep on the path. You can almost feel the itching as you watch his character. Absolutely he still thinks he is the one driving his addiction and it is just a matter of saying yes or no.
I can certainly tell you story after story of all the times that I devised foolproof plans to quit all of which had nothing to do with admitting I had zero ability to objectively judge my own capacity to stop anything. Shockingly, none of those plans worked out. No matter how much of a genius you are in the other areas of your life, you are an idiot when it comes to addiction. There is no time in episode 7 where Richie looks at drugs or alcohol without "hungry eyes."
Last but not least when it comes to false recovery, you can tell he is constantly trying to decide if quitting it is worth it. You have heard about a television show or movie having an unreliable narrator but when you suffer from addiction your internal voice is an unreliable narrator. You are always trying to justify going back to using or acting out. Bobby Cannavale does an amazing job portraying the constant internal debate in this episode. Let me just say it is NO surprise that Richie dives for the Vodka at the end of this episode.
2. Lucky Number 18 - Addicts always have schemes and plans. Again, in the throes of the addictive cycle you are constantly wrestling your feelings of guilt, feelings of justification, and feeling that you can fix everything as long as you get a fix first. Objectively, outside of your addictive cycle, the extravagant plans you come up with to make everything okay later are always 100% insane but in the moment they are always genius.
Richie leaves for LA in order to sell one of the only assets American Century Records still has the company plane. Zak (Ray Romano) insists on coming along because as he later puts it "I would trust my wife naked in bed with Burt Reynolds more than I would trust you right now with $100,000." Somewhere along the way, Zak overhears from two other record executives at a party (thrown by the record company boss who purchased the plane from Richie) that Elvis Aaron Presley might be looking to get out of his "forever" deal with RCA Records (one of the two record execs looks like Paul Rudd FYI).
So, of course, the two take their buddy show on the road to Vegas Baby (It probably says a great deal about how desperate the straits American Century have reached and how delusional Richie is at this point that they even consider for a second that Presley would bolt RCA for them). During the trip, the camera keeps having Richie's gaze linger over several elements highlighting the number 18. First, the bottle of Scotch on the plane is #18 Scotch, then the plane tail code ends in an 18, and finally the reserved table next to theirs at Elvis Presley's Vegas Extravaganza is table 18. Oh, he also wins a few hands of blackjack sticking at 18 against a dealer's exposed 9.
Well, once we find out Elvis turns down American Century (more on this in a second) Richie is deflated and goes on a gambling binge with the money they got from selling the plane. Addiction is almost always triggered by feelings of failure and inadequacy (usually an echo of similar feelings in early childhood development). Another thing that you might not understand immediately here is that many addicts can "act out" in several ways. Many people are cross-addicted and can get a rush from sex, drinking, drugs, alcohol, even gambling.
The important thing here is that Richie losing all of American Centuries payroll money on a gambling binge because after being triggered by failure he convinces himself that the Gods want him to bet 18 makes perfect sense. This is classic addict behavior.
3. The Big Lie - So, we have covered time and time again that this show is not centered around an anti-hero or a loser on a redemptive arc. I am not saying that Richie cannot find redemption or that he is not worthy of being redeemed. I am saying that Richie is not seeking redemption, he is still deep in the throes of his addictive cycle.
Richie is, at this point, not a good person. Richie is, at this point, not trying to be a good person. Richie is a fucking asshole.
Zak Yankovich is not at all cool, is no longer very good at his job (remember his interaction with Bowie last week), and is in a huge financial hole because of Richie's narcissistic insistence on retaining American Century Records. But Zak, in his own sad-sack kind of way, still has some lovable characteristics. At the very least, it is easier to feel sorry for Zak than it is to feel sorry for Richie. Richie has it all but is burning down the house he and everyone else lives in. Zak has nothing but whatever money is left from the golden days of American Century and is going to have nothing left at all.
Richie will always have his golden ear, what will Zak have? Bills?
So, at the beginning of the episode, when they are on the plane, Richie tells Zak that Jim Morrison had his "last threesome ever" right on the bench they are sitting on in the jet. Zak allows that he has never ever had a threesome, and if he did he would probably "cum so fast he would only disappoint two women at once."
Richie spends much of the rest of the episode bonding with Zak and setting up a plan to make Zak's carnal dreams come true. He finds two ladies who accompany them to the pool at the hotel and to the Elvis Vegas Extravaganza. After the show, Richie leads the girls and Zak to the suite and leaves just as Zak gets both girls to focus on him (as if this could happen without it being set up by Richie).
But, right before he leaves, we see Richie put the money into the safe in the room and lock the safe. However, when he returns to the room and wakes Zak up, the money satchel is on the floor empty. Zak immediately realizes that he has let the two professionals take him for all of American Centuries money. But because of the safe tell earlier, we know Zak didn't lose the money to the prostitutes.
Now remember the episode begins with Richie being called out for monetary irresponsibility by Zak. We know that since Zak found out about Richie blowing the Polygram deal he has held money over Richie's head. It seems virtually certain that either: A) Richie is just an addict doing addict things and can't handle telling Zak he gambled away all of their money or B) Richie sees his gambling disaster as a way of evening the playing field so Zak no longer has the moral high ground.
Either way, Richie lets his partner and friend believe he lost the last 100k American Century Records had when he knows that it was him that blew the money.
You keep on hoping for the best. I am just letting you know the truth, Richie is an asshole. Addicts in the throes of addiction are often very manipulative and very rarely tell the truth. And yes, at times, this all applies to me too. Thank God for recovery.
Elvis and California Ghosts
Ladies and Gentlemen, we have more ghosts. This week we have ghosts in the form of Jan and Dean singing the Brian Wilson song "Surf City" (kind of tricky choice of ghost here). I don't want to go into too much detail here because I believe their only point is to signify the hopes and dreams a young Richie Finestra had whenever he first purchased the corporate jet (he is reflecting on his younger self "California Dreaming")..
So, there is another major figure in this episode who is dealing with this exact kind of wistful regret, his name is Elvis Aaron Presley (Shawn Klush).
Serious Elvis fans will probably engage in a great deal of debate over this episode because it comes down pretty squarely on the side of Elvis ending up kind of a sad puppet entirely under the heel of Colonel Tom Parker (or as Zak calls him at one point Col. Tom Fuckin' Parker). I kind of feel like this episode is almost wish fulfillment for serious Elvis fans. In this version of the story, Elvis was basically a prisoner of Parker, left to be a play out a sad parody of himself on the Vegas stage every night for rich retirees coming to Vegas to see The King.
Zak, who has many of the best lines of the night, says during the show that you can "forget Vietnam," seeing Elvis like this was the absolute worst disappointment he has faced (he also mentions that Elvis and Richie apparently "saw the same movie" in reference to one of EAP's karate kicks and Richie's murder alibi the movie "Enter The Dragon.".
I like to think Elvis was no fool, and I personally like some of the Vegas period Elvis stuff (Suspicious Minds is a particular favorite). But, I suspect someone who knows much more about Elvis can educate me more about the actual truth of what happened. I did love Sun-era Elvis and I like Vegas-era Elvis. I loved the first few movies (like Jailhouse Rock and Kd Creole) but really despised the later formulaic Elvis movie vehicles.
I enjoyed the fantasy fulfillment aspect of Richie and EAP's discussion, them riffing on how they could get the band back together (Scotty Moore on guitar, DJ Fontana on drums, and Bill Black on bass - Elvis' best known backing players although they were originally a trio). I also felt Klush ( a real-life Elvis impersonator) did an admirable job of portraying late-period Elvis (I suspect many others hated it because that is how the internet works). At the end of the day, this is what most people think Elvis really felt or what we all hoped he really felt (but only the Colonel really knows and he is dead too)..
Bits and Pieces and Odds and Ends
Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young show up independently at the party. Stephen Stills has a decently long discussion with Richie and Zak. That is actually a conversation between Stephen Stills, Gram Parsons (Wesley Tunison), Zak, and Richie. I mention this because last night, after I first published (around 5 am) Tunison became the second member of the cast to acknowledge my recaps on Twitter (thanks!). Thanks for the shout out!
I felt a little odd about the inclusion of Dr. John's version of "Big Chief" on Vinyl. If you watched Treme you saw Dr. John himself talk about how the Mardis Gras Indians don't really like the song being used outside of school (school, in this case, being New Orleans and the Mardis Gras Indians see it as a sacred song). I am sure Dr. John had to sign off on including the song and I love Dr. John, but it seemed odd to include Big Chief in an LA scene?
Oh and if you have not seen Treme and love music, shame on you.
Jamie Vine (Juno Temple) has another throwdown with her Mother (Lena Olin), who does not like it even one little bit that Jamie is working in the record industry. There is some subtext about her prostituting herself involving one of her Mother's friends but I may have to watch this scene again (I clearly missed something here).
Clark is back (Jack Quaid). And he is not doing well as a mail room clerk. The other folks in the mail room hate him and want to beat his ass. There is a funny scene where they do a dance off to Funky Stuff by Kool and the Gang (which is a total jam). Jamie eventually runs into him and tries to console him but he is a total ass to her (implying she has only gotten ahead of him using her sexual wiles). She is so nice that she still saves his ass by giving him some drugs he can share with his co-workers. He shares the drugs, and they decide not to kill him.
There is an odd cut-scene during the California party where a band is playing "Do It" (by the Pink Faries) literally in the surf of the ocean. I am not entirely sure I understand what they point of this cut-in was. The Pink Fairies were known for playing impromptu concerts, so maybe this was intended to be literal.
Richie spends part of the episode reading a book by Maslow. Elvis and Richie share a moment about self-actualization, and Richie's vodka glass and straw leave a ring that looks like the number 18 on the books cover at the end of the episode.
Oh, and the first thing Elvis does is show Richie the DEA badge Nixon gave him. Supposedly, Elvis showed everyone this badge.
And if you forgot about the police investigation, the mobs payola man Joe (remember him from the murder of Frank "Buck" Rogers?) connects the big mob players (the Boss and Maury Gold) to the payola while the police are listening in at a restaurant.
So, Richie is still a pretty awful human being, Clark gets screen time and I don't really understand why, and Jamie Vine (Juno Temple) still barely gets screen time which is a crime. Devon (Olivia Wilde) had this episode off entirely because she left Richie last week. And while Zak is kind of douche for cheating on his wife, he is still kind of sadly adorable (in a doomed kind of way).
Credit where credit is due, I have been hard on Gavin Edwards of the New York Times (not that he probably cares - he writes for the New York Times and Rolling Stone) but this week he made a good catch. I didn't mention Gram Parson's speech about Joshua Tree in Episode 7 and Parson's later died of an overdose at Joshua Tree (fitting the theme of Richie's addiction perfectly).
I do not agree with Mr. Edwards that this episode was the "strongest of the season so far." But, it was a good housecleaning episode and the Elvis stuff was great.
Some More On Addiction
It sounds like I am being pretty hard on Richie (as I have been throughout the entire series) and I am hard on him. I have seen first hand what he is going through. I am not saying that deep down he is unredeemable or even that he is really a terrible person "really."
We addicts are a bit like people with diabetes, only instead of not being able to correctly process our insulin we cannot correctly process emotions and emotional trauma. When we are forced to feel our fears or sadness we go into our version of diabetic shock. We reach for our insulin and medicate ourselves to get past the pain.
It becomes like a chronic disease in a sense because a pattern gets established between the emotional triggers we experience and the brains call for dopamine (a powerful chemical related to the pleasure centers of our brains). Think of it like when you are thinking about a million things in your car on the way home but somehow still end up in your driveway. In a way, addicts start to operate on a kind of auto-pilot.
Recovery is often about learning to identify and short-circuit those patterns in effective ways and substitute positive for negative behaviors in trying to find relief when triggered. Richie is still trying to "think" his way out of addiction using only his self-will (rarely if ever works). So, when he encounters a trigger that makes him feel sad or inadequate he reaches for one of his acting-out behaviors (sex, gambling, drinking, drugs, or other dopamine triggers).
So, it is not that Richie is inherently bad, it is more like he is a crate of nuclear materials capable of radiating anyone who gets too close (and, if the right combination of elements gets near him he is capable of causing damage to literally everything in his path). Last but not least, nobody (and I mean nobody) understands why people recover. Luckily people do, but there is no proven technique for predicting or forcing recovery (certainly not "tough love" because shame and insecurity are two of the biggest acting-out triggers).
I believe addicts, like everyone else, are responsible for the harm they do to others when addicted. Just like a diabetic would be responsible for deciding to drive a care when suffering insulin shock addicts are still morally responsible. At the same time, addiction is AWFUL, you are constantly miserable and desperate, your judgment gets progressively worse, and your life resembles a slow-motion car crash that you feel you are responsible for but cannot quite stop. It is absolutely awful.
If you are curious, I write about addiction semi-regularly on my Recovery blog and wrote a eBook (available on Amazon) about Recovery tools called Writing Your Best Story: Addiction + Living Hope. I also have an upcoming feature in the June issue of "In Recovery" magazine. I am also very active in my local recovery community. Feel free to ask any questions you might have, especially if you are struggling. I am not a therapist or counselor, just another recovering addict (with some unique experiences and perspective).
That is the end of another episode, what did you think? Did you like the portrayal of Elvis Presley, did you enjoy Zak and Richie's Vegas Vacation? Let me know, leave a comment!