“You GET it, man.” So says an aging, pot-bellied Elvis Presley to our (anti) hero, Richie Finestra. Quite an endorsement, over-the-hill Elvis! Yet the irony that is suggested by this moment seems lost on Vinyl, which puts Richie and Zak through the paces of a mind-expanding Western adventure, one whose results are decidedly disappointing in terms of both their fate and, alas, ours as viewers. Not even a three-way hookup with Ray Romano in the middle of the sandwich is quite enough to redeem the show from its nosedive.
Speaking of nosedives, the purpose of this Western trip is to sell the company plane, home of so many trysts and binges. Zak accompanies Richie even though — one week after going on a wild, rock-bottom ride because of too much of the white stuff — the record man is now keeping clean, reading Esalen handbook The Farther Reaches of Human Nature and generally signaling that he is about to go on a journey that is a cheap, pale imitation of every “Don Draper goes west” Mad Men episode ever.
The beginning of that journey leads to my favorite line in the episode, which unfortunately is wasted early: “I trust my wife naked in bed with Burt Reynolds more than I trust you with 100 grand in cash,” says Zak, explaining why he’s on the plane with Richie. “I partly see your point,” acknowledges Richie, whose wife has fled into the night, with his kids, thanks to last week’s hallucinatory meltdown.
Yet the plane ride gives them a chance to tentatively squash the beef from Zak’s daughter’s bat mitzvah and wax lyrical about threesomes and their families. “Jim Morrison had his last three-way on this plane,” laments Richie, while Zak admits to never having partaken in such a ritual. They reach a kind of rapprochement before arriving in LA and feeling, in general, like out-of-step New Yorkers, in dark suits among the pastels and florals. Graham Parsons and Mama Cass float by in the Malibu breeze, and Richie’s earnest attempts to pick off these superstars for his label fall flat.
Also falling flat? Clark’s attempt to be cool back home while the hep cats in the mailroom mock his white boy routine viciously (he gets a little comfort from Jamie Vine) , and Vinyl’s endless insertion of mobster characters Maury Gold, Joe Corso, and Corrado Galasso, who are corralled together in an unnecessary menacing scene at a restaurant. Can we just make these guys sleep with the fishes already?
The episode wants to stay out West, and so do we. In Cali, our heroes keep mingling, and eventually they overhear a rumor about Elvis being unhappy with his current business situation. Inspiration strikes, and their journey (or what Joni Mitchell might call a Hejira) takes them to Vegas to rendezvous with Elvis and the Colonel. The latter is creepy as fuck but tells the to check out the King’s show and stop by afterwards. There, they pick up two frisky ladies by the pool and Richie secretly refuses to take a friendly bump, looks at a family being happy together, and finds himself submerged under the water, thinking about stuff, and stuff, and we’ve reached peak Draper.
Their big night with their new companions ends up being quite wild. At the Elvis show, Zak is high out of his mind and gets furious at his hero’s staged, cheesy pathetic performance, walking out half-way though. They hit the Casino and Richie has some luck betting on 18, a number he has seen recur over and over again all day (Zak is sure to tell him that it has significance for Jews). Again, showing some sense, Richie pockets his many earnings and they head back to the hotel room where things with their fair companions get a bit frisky. While Zak is about to accomplish his dream of a three-way (praise Yahweh!) Richie slips out, has his heart-to-heart with Elvis, and ends up this close to signing the King, before the Colonel comes in and puts the kibosh on it, even getting Elvis to point a gun at Richie and freak him out before he slinks out.
Then he arrives back at the hotel to find Zak passed out naked, and the money and girls gone. Or so it would seem. A montage as they fly home suggests that in fact, Richie took all the money he’d won and blew it betting on 18 over and over again. He stole from his own company and is letting Zak take the blame. No wonder he takes a drink as they fly into the clouds, off the wagon yet again.
Oh, Vinyl. How badly I want to enjoy you, every week! But not even the twistiest twist can redeem this episode from feeling like a warmed over casserole from the tupperware deep-freeze where rejected Mad Men plots linger. There’s the ghost of a good flavor in there somewhere, but it’s been freezer-burned out of existence.