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Vinyl: Season 1, Episode 7 - "The King and I"

Leyla Hamedi

Wise men may say only fools rush in, but when Richie and Zak get the opportunity of a lifetime, it's a rush to Viva Las Vegas.


Airtime: Sundays, 9pm
Cast: Bobby Cannavale, Olivia Wilde, Ato Essandoh, Ray Romano
Subtitle: Season 1, Episode 7 - "The King and I"
Network: HBO
Air date: 2016-03-27

Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale) and best friend/head of promotions Zak Yankovich (Ray Romano) are off to Los Angeles to sell their baby; the American Century plane. Richie’s rubbed the wrong way by the buyer, as he’s wont to, and so he decides to stay in LA for a couple extra days and take his revenge. The buyer is the head of a West Coast rival record company and of course Richie wants his roster. Thus begins the best episode of the season so far.

Richie is on the wagon and so rather than unnecessary shots of him crackling on coke, we actually get to see some story. Zak admits that he'd trust his wife, "naked in bed with Burt Reynolds", before allowing Richie to hold on to that much money and even Richie admits he has a point. Zak may be the most shat upon of the American Century heads, but as the California sun melts his cynical, tightly strung heart, we see that he's just another nerd who somehow made it into the coolest industry and yet, still doesn't think he's good enough to belong.

Amidst a party with more real people cameos (and a crack about Mama Cass at the buffet table), he and Richie listen to Gram Parsons (Wesley Tunison) lecturing them about going into the desert to find that, "thing [they] loved but lost". This resonates deeply with Richie, because isn't that what he's trying to do with his offshoot label and American Century? Everything seems like a sign to him. Figuratively and literally: he keeps seeing the number 18 and believes it must mean something beyond the most common age of consent.

Ignoring his own good advice to "act British, spend Yiddish", Zak overhears a conversation about Elvis (Shawn Wayne Klush) and his troubles with RCA. He and Richie abandon all pretense of thrift and charge off to Vegas to sign the King. Bright light city sets Zak's soul on fire, and he hits it off with two poolside bunnies. In a magnanimous act of best wingmanship, Richie lets him have both ladies. They escort them to the King's performance, and while Presley's pelvis still attracts the ladies, they can't help but notice the audience is more hip replacement rather than just plain hip.

Loosened by alcohol and various other modes of excess Zak proclaims that rock 'n' roll has died to the dulcet tones of, "Polk Salad Annie". Richie shushes him when he sees the man behind the King, Colonel Parker (Gene Jones), watching and encourages him to reach for the stars and their dates' breasts in his first threesome. Neither man can lose that night, as Richie wins big on number 18 in roulette. After seeing his best friend's dreams on the path of coming true, Richie seeks Elvis. It's all in for the love of music.

Played with such understated nuance by Shawn Wayne Klush, here's yet another little boy lost. He may be the King, but deep down, trapped by his manager and jailer, the Colonel, Elvis is another wide-eyed innocent that sold his soul to rock 'n' roll only to have it chewed up, spat out, and reassembled as a facsimile of the original dream. Richie wins him over slowly, talking about how it was when he first started. No flash, no spectacle, just a group of guys making music. He psychs him up to the point of joyful delirium until the Colonel comes in. He asks Elvis to perform the move he did on the President's Secret Service and then orders him to bed, turning Elvis into a little boy allowed to show what he's learned, then dismissively shown out the room so the adults can talk.

The bubble bursts, and the dream remains in that intangible world of wishes and fantasy. Because while Richie pretended to be cool until he actually was, Elvis and to some extent Zak, never quite figured out how to make themselves actually be what they wanted to be. Which is why Presley died three years after this alleged scene, and Zak got robbed blind by his dates.

"Fuck JFK, fuck MLK, fuck Vietnam, this is the real tragedy," snorts Zak during the performance earlier on in the evening, and he's not wrong. There's no glamour or joy in jumpsuit Elvis well on his way to obesity, but it remains to be seen if this is a castigation of the industry at large.

This view of an eager but crushed Elvis, though, is the real truth of the episode. It's painful to watch how thoroughly controlled and groomed to suit others' expectations, rather than what he is. Kind of can't help but see the parallel with Richie's harsh judgment of the Nasty Bits and Kip Stevens (James Jagger). Except, you know, Elvis Presley had talent and even Kip's sneer is out of tune. This episode truly does highlight the overarching theme of the series -- reality versus fantasy – and the fact that neither seem to be the ideal.

Twist ending, Zak didn't lose the money. Sure that 18 meant something, Richie gambles it all away after the Colonel shuts down his proposition. Without admitting what he did to Zak, Richie downs vodka on the flight back, thus ending his "found" weekend of sobriety. The watermarks from his drinks form the number 18 again, but whether it’s a sign of misinterpreted luck or of infinite bad choices is unclear. Richie will always be his own worst enemy. Cheer up, bud; at least it wasn't 666.


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