'Vinyl' Recap: Pop Life

Andy Warhol and Alice Cooper drop by — but it's Olivia Wilde's character who really gets to shine

James Jagger and Juno Temple in 'Vinyl.' Credit: HBO

Well, that was fast. Last week we complained that none of the fun that Richie Finestra was having (or at least the fun we were having at his expense) had trickled down to the scenes involving his neglected wife Devon. And on this week’s installment — "Whispered Secrets" — she's doesn't seem to be enjoying herself any more or less than when we last left her. This week, though, however her misery made for marvelous viewing. Now we get Devon's turn in the spotlight, proving that Vinyl is a lot like Alice Cooper (the band, not Alice Cooper the guy). As the shock-rock icon himself informs us this episode, every member of the team is important. Neither he nor Richie can afford to go solo.

Devon goes to visit her old friend Andy Warhol, with a silkscreen of herself in tow. As he shoots her with his new video camera, their playful banter turns serious when he realizes he's being prodded to sign the painting so that she can sell it. The dance company she oversees up in Connecticut, the last vestige of her old bohemian lifestyle, needs the money. "I can get a brush and sign it. That way they'll buy it," he tells her as she chokes back tears, before adding a joke to put her at ease: "You want me to sign your dress? They'll buy that too."

It's a killer scene for several reasons. One is John Cameron Mitchell of Hedwig and the Angry Inch fame, who plays the great pop-art painter. His Warhol, as others have pointed out, is an altogether warmer and more charming figure than the shock-topped zombie we're accustomed to seeing in films. (Wouldn't he have to be, given that his entire business model as a superstar artist was knowing everyone?) In Mitchell's hands, the Pop Art godhead is a people person, immediately intuiting the real reason for Devon's visit and becoming quietly defensive. Then when he senses how desperate she truly is, he responds by helping her out.

But the scene is a standout primarily for how it's shot. Courtesy of the episode's director, Mark Romanek — whose influential music videos include Nine Inch Nails' "Closer," Johnny Cash's "Hurt," and Jay Z's "99 Problems"— we see Devon primarily through Warhol's camera, via either a nearby video monitor or POV shots from behind the lens itself. The living, breathing woman is out of focus, as is her silkscreen simulacrum; even the picture on the monitor is grainy. Andy's questions become more like an interrogation designed to draw the truth out; Devon's responses read like a performance playing positivity toward the camera. The setup emphasizes the fluidity of what she's saying, the reduction of a former Factory luminary to a blurry memory of what she used to be. It's thoughtful, carefully considered work, both verbally complex and visually stunning.

And such sequences aren't the exception to the rule here. More evenly weighted than either of its predecessors, this episode maintained a consistent level of quality through a diverse array of scenes and tones. For example, the odd-couple routine involving Alice Cooper and hapless A&R man Clark — who sees the Billion Dollar Baby as his ticket out of interminable recording sessions with soft-rock wimps  — is a thing of beauty. It astutely mines the personality of the real Alice (né Vincent Furnier), whose scandalous snakes-and-guillotines antics onstage belied an offstage demeanor that was intelligent, business-oriented, and bizarrely devoted to golf. When he finally pulls the rug out from under Clark, he does so because Richie did it to him in turn years ago, revealing a bit more about Finestra’s character amid the comedy. This way, when our antihero du jour reunites with broken-throated bluesman Lester Grimes to attempt a rapprochement, we know he's not the only act the mogul has screwed over, intentionally or not.

There's a similar scene-to-scene resonance between the Warhol/Devon dynamic and what happens when ambitious young Leslie Vine finally gets her pet project the Nasty Bits in front of Richie. As the protopunkers plunk their way through the half-hearted Kinks cover that Leslie's brutish boss Julie insisted they play, the manic executive is ready to leave in disgust, but not before reading the pair the riot act. Leslie generously leaps on the grenade, taking the blame for her superior's bad coaching. The move denies her the catharsis she deserves after a week of being berated by this creep, but blowing up his spot still wouldn’t have gotten the band signed. By pulling his hide out of the fire and prompting the band to play one of their own songs, she gets the result she wanted without fucking over her own career. Like Warhol, she can sense the needs of the people around her and use that to her advantage.

In other words, she's cut from the same ambitious-underling cloth as many characters on showrunner Terence Winter's previous HBO effort. Indeed, this episode had that old Boardwalk Empire feeling, and not just because a mob boss made a cameo and a dead body turned up. Sure, Corrado Galasso and his music-industry underboss Maury Gold are likely to have an outsized impact on the future of the label moving forward, while the return of Joe Corso, Richie’s partner in the murder of a radio executive, bodes ill as well. But it's the overall air of anxiety that is most reminiscent of the prohibition-era prestige drama show at its best: Devon watching her dreams go up in smoke when she raise enough funds; Richie returning to their house, remaining out of focus until the moment he sees that the painting is missing, or staring off into space in shock when he hears the body has been recovered. Music may be a wild business, but less bombast and more menace suits the show's strengths to a tee.

Previously: A Lad Insane