'Vinyl' Recap: Dirty Dancing

A little bump and grind causes big trouble for Richie and Devon

Bobby Cannavale, Olivia Wilde, Daniel J. Watts and Susan Heyward in 'Vinyl.' Credit: Macall B. Polay/HBO

Five episodes into Vinyl's initial spin and one thing is clear: This show hates Jethro Tull.

Remmeber a few episodes ago, when Richie Finestra got so incensed by the "Aqualung" impresarios' flute-laden prog rock that he yanked the record off the turntable and smashed it over his knee? This week, merely presenting our antihero and his A&R right-hand man Julie with a group of I Can't Believe It's Not Ian Anderson renaissance-faire goobers was enough to get the Ivy League tryhard Clark ("I graduated from fucking Yale!") demoted to sandwich gofer. Look, we believe Metallica should have won that Grammy 27 years ago too, but after the second season of Fargo used "Locomotive Breath" to score an amazing gang-war montage — this should all be water under the bridge. You're really gonna listen to "Cross-Eyed Mary" and argue that these dudes were everything wrong with Seventies rock & roll, while Loggins & Messina walk free? Fight the real enemy, folks.

Dubious taste in targets aside, this week's Vinyl episode — the aptly titled "He in Racist Fire" — kept things moving at a fairly steady clip. While not as exciting visually as the previous two installments, it was buoyed by strong guest stars and its most complex, if unpleasant, investigation of how women and sexuality are utilized as means to an end in Richie's wild world.

That deep dive took place in the swanky hotel room of Hannibal, the charismatic and razor-sharp funk musician whom American Century Records is desperate to keep on the roster. Since the singer has been stepping out with Richie's secretary, Cece — who's also leaking him information regarding douchebag record-industry rival Jackie Jervis — Finestra's got an idea: a double date that ropes in his wife Devon. "Wear something sexy!" he shouts enthusiastically over the phone, hoping to trot her out as a glamorous incentive to stay with the label. Over dinner, the couple marvels at the superstar's ability to create anagrams out of anyone's name within seconds; what he comes up with for both Finestras — "Finest Dove Ran" for Devon, "He in Racist Fire" for Richie — proves remarkably prophetic.

When the foursome winds up back at Hannibal's hotel, he and Devon begin to dance; it's immediately apparent their physical connection goes far beyond their boogie shoes. An increasingly uncomfortable Richie offers the singer cocaine; "I don't need a bump —I got a bump," Hannibal jokes as he presses up against his partner. "Why yes you do, sir!" Devon chimes in, grinding against him for the evidence. Her desire is too much for her husband to take. As long as she's an object of lust, hey, fine and dandy, that's why he invited her. But when the lust in question is hers, even if she had no real plans to consummate it, well …. cue accusations of wanting "black cock" as a "consolation prize" for not getting those millions of dollars when Richie refused to sell the company. Any desire she has that doesn't accord with his own is literally obscene.

This fits well with what we learn about Andrea, Jervis's right-hand woman and apparently one of the most visionary talents in the business. When Richie tracks her down at a pair of glam-rock-related gigs, culminating in a "Phantom of Rock"–era Lou Reed performance, we learn they used to be an item; despite loving her, he chose Devon because "she was more beautiful." Accoding to him, the choice has more to do with how "Andy" looks like him than some objective standard of the feminine ideal: "It's like narcissism or something, I don't know. You're like my family!" In other words, he needs to be able to observe women from a metaphorical distance, and it's when things get too close that he starts to freak out. Andrea, at least, knows what she's dealing with now, and agrees to take a job at American Century to work on their new sub-label. The one condition: any personal contact with her new boss is kept to a minimum.

But maybe there's more to Richie's aversion to "family" than we're giving him credit for. His father Sal, a jazzbo drunk who lurches between charm and abuse, is certainly the kind of kin you'd want to distance yourself from. He's also a terrific showcase for actor David Proval, a veteran of producer Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets and showrunner Terence Winter's alma mater The Sopranos. A big deal back in the big band era, he's the kind of character who can claim from lived experience that "Artie Shaw was an asshole." His presence shows how alive music history was at this point, how players from the entirety of American pop were still floating around either as resources to be tapped or bulwarks to be swept aside. As a metaphor for the crossroads at which Richie finds himself personally, it leaves the show with several paths to follow, some more promising than others. We just hope they're gentler to Jethro Tull along the way.

Previously: Funny Business