Vinyl episode 5 review: He In Racist Fire

Vinyl seems to be running out of things to explore about Richie Finestra worryingly early. At least the music's still great...

This review contains spoilers.

1.5 He In Racist Fire

I’m starting to worry about Richie Finestra. I’m not concerned for his welfare, or his financial standing or even his marriage. He’s perfectly capable of screwing all of those up by himself. I’m worried about what Richie Finestra actually does. He is necessarily the lynchpin character in Vinyl but I’m not convinced that he is interesting enough to carry a sufficient amount of the narrative on his own and this episode, the least effective of the season so far, does very little to ease that feeling.

It’s not entirely barren. Two of Richie’s significant relationships are explored in more detail than they were before, while a third (and possibly more interesting one) is introduced. The trouble is that none of them are particularly original or interesting in themselves. We gathered that Richie’s relationship with his father was a difficult one within a couple of minutes of learning that the decrepit old horn player in the jazz club was the record exec’s old man. Indeed, a problematic parental relationship could have been reasonably inferred the moment we met Richie alone. He’s that easy to read.

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Spotting a troubled marriage was easier still. We’ve been privileged to the inner workings of the Finestra marriage for the past few weeks and have watched Devon and Richie from their impetuous first moments together to their bitter and absurd marriage guidance counselling and beyond. This week’s episode offered a lengthier insight into their relationship and further confirmation of what a terrible husband Richie is. He’s content to deploy his wife as a business asset, in an uncomfortably similar way to his use of booze, drugs and limousines to grease the wheels, but not happy to let her actually enjoy it for herself. It’s an acute form of hyper-possessiveness that would be creepy enough without the drug-addled sexualised violence and racist, misogynist epithets. It’s a mode that we’ve come to expect from Richie, so despite the escalation in severity, it’s not all that shocking. The only surprising thing about it is that the marriage has lasted this long at all. Perhaps somewhere beneath his anger and abuse there’s a kernel of truth to his suspicions; maybe things were easier for Devon (or at least more bearable) in better financial times.

The third relationship offers a hint that ‘bearable’ might be as good as Devon could have expected and may also be the best she can hope for yet. Richie’s soured association with Andrea Zito and, in particular, his impoverished explanation for its termination (“she was more beautiful” being only fractionally better than “you look like me” as mitigation) is confirmation that the one constant in these failed and failing relationships is Richie. Andrea’s accusation that Richie cannot stand to be with somebody smarter than him is an especially accurate assessment of his character, and something that colours not only his personal relationships but his business ones too. It certainly shades the difference between his work with Kip Stevens and Lester Grimes as well as some of the testier business meetings with Julie, Zak and Skip. He’s not sure how to handle people with more brains than him, his usual tool of cocaine-flecked rage doesn’t quite work against people who can outsmart him and who aren’t impressed by his status. Maybe Andrea was, once. She’s not so impressed or intimidated any longer and their future relationship will be conducted on her terms, which might be good for Richie, if not for those he considers subordinate.

In dramatic terms, the concern is that there may not be that much more of Richie to explore. He’s a successful man, approaching the peak of middle age and going through a period of personal and professional difficulty. The world that he helped to build is changing before his very eyes and he, for the first time in his adult life, is experiencing that transformation as its witness, rather than its agent.  His family, who he has neglected in favour of his own interests, are also experiencing a change but at a different rate and in different directions to him. He’s a man adrift, preferring to rage at the sea than to pick up a paddle. The trouble is that such a description could be applied to any number of male television leads from recent years. We’re now six hours into Vinyl and there’s little to suggest that we’ll find anything materially different in Richie than we found in Tony Soprano, Don Draper or Walter White.

It’s a question of focus. The music remains exquisitely chosen and brilliantly presented. The references, from Little Richard to the Velvet Underground, to Iggy Pop, to Big Star to Sylvia, represent a catholic taste, selected with love and a connoisseur’s discernment. It is a weaponised soundtrack, a multi-party mixtape that is as localised as the setting demands while remaining eclectic enough to satisfy and inspire a viewership in an age in which millions of songs are available at the press of a button. As I have written before, the early 1970s was a moment of significant change for the music business (for both the music and the business), and Vinyl, if it is able to look past its protagonist, has a wonderfully rich cultural terrain to explore.

The solution must lie in Jamie Vine, whose negotiation of frustration is adept and who, unlike her boss, has not yet been burned out too much to hear the music in an untainted form. Her devotion to the Nasty Bits is a mixture of the personal and the professional but in much more interesting way than Richie’s confusion over his reason for travelling today. Her core motivation, denying and defying her mother, is a little undercooked, but her desire to succeed can stand on its own terms. A love for music should be, and is, enough for her to continue her dogged pursuit of success (and hopefully, of better bands to find). It was good enough for Richie, once upon a time, it’s good enough for Jamie. I’m not worried about her yet.

Read Michael’s review of the previous episode, The Racket, here.

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