“E.A.B.” is the best episode yet of HBO’s Vinyl, which is the kind of compliment that risks being construed as backhanded given how awful a few of them have been. But to clarify: it’s an engaging and edifying hour of television that (finally) moves a couple longstanding plot points forward, and at long last finally espouses its vague philosophy about music in a way that makes sense. It’s artful and has a deep-rooted connection to actual character business.
It begins in the studio, with the Nasty Bits, who are being wasteful, aimless shitheads because that’s kind of their thing. After one of Richie’s patented hybrid pep-talk/threat speeches where he challenges them to be more like The Stooges (we should ever be so lucky) and then leaves, Lester finally breaks down and gives the band a lesson, complete with demonstration, of getting back to fundamentals. The show has broached this subject before, usually in badly written Richie speeches, but never gave any usefully specific examples of what this meant. Here, Lester actually does, introducing the band to the chord progression E-A-B, the point of origin for blues-based music. Kip, who had hilariously complained that “there’s no more notes!” when lamenting his songwriter’s block, zeroes in on the one song Lester plays for them that he doesn’t recognize, which of course is one of Lester’s own, and over a rooftop cigarette while on break, guilelessly asks Lester if he can cover the song and make it his own. Not only do the two scenes contain masterful work by Ato Essandoh — still giving the show’s best performance as its most interesting character — and not only does it feature James Jagger’s best and least mannered work yet as Kip, but Vinyl comes right out and boldly makes text one of rock ‘n’ roll’s open secrets: it all came from black people showing white people how it was done, and the white people were the ones who reaped the disproportionate share of the gold and glamour. It’s one thing to talk about it, it’s another to literally show that happening and have that be a pivotal moment for two of the show’s characters. Somehow, miraculously, Vinyl being on the nose worked for once!
The theme of appropriation was also explored in Clark’s storyline, where his utility to the rest of the show is finally coming into focus. For most of the season, he’s been hanging around for no apparent purpose, not showing any particular aptitude for a job that hinges on being social and likable, and this week at his apparent lowest low, left alone in the mailroom with only one remaining (highly resentful) colleague. But the fact that Clark has coke — “Cocaine™! Helping Maladroit White Dorks Make Friends Since 19something!” — solves everything, and leads to an invitation to an underground proto-disco. Clark is going to discover disco and bring it to American Century. This is perfect.
Finally, in the spirit of moving forward, sometimes accomplished by moving backward, Richie’s grand solution to get himself out of his self-created financial crisis is to get in hock to the Outfit, because that never goes wrong for anyone. Oh, wait, Maury tells him a whole story about how Golasso personally garrotted a dude who couldn’t pay, that week, in Maury’s office! No! Doing business with gangsters is a bad idea after all? Don’t do it, Richie! Too late, Richie indebts himself inextricably (cue sad trombone,) And the cops, who are still ridiculously inorganic and badly written and otherwise awful, have him on tape talking to Joe Corso confessing to Buck Rogers’ murder (Bo Dietl, incidentally, has been a delight as Corso; he’s raw, to be very kind, as an actor but his Old New York accent has a way of yielding golden line readings, to wit “She hadda harrible voice! Whaddaya, fuckin deaf?”). So, Richie’s in trouble with the cops now.
It would not be right, even though this is running a bit long, to not mention the big scenery-chewing scene Jay Klaitz gets as Hal, putting a Satanic curse on the office while “Take Me Home Country Roads” plays, because that scene was wonderful. John Denver playing while everyone loses their shit six ways from Sunday after Richie snapping at his secretary several scenes before to “play some music in here!” was delectably droll.
With two episodes left, if Vinyl can stick the landing it will (largely) redeem the horrors of Season 1. Should that happen, it will take its place in the Zeus spot in the “Ya gotta slog through Season 1 but then it gets good, I promise” Pantheon. Because, man, when Vinyl sucks, it really sucks. But when it doesn’t suck… it doesn’t suck. Read that back as early 70s Iggy Pop, it’s a better line that way.
Danny Bowes (@bybowes) is an artist and critic whose film and TV writing has appeared in Premiere, Tor.com, The Atlantic, Indiewire, Yahoo! Movies, RogerEbert.com, Salt Lake City Weekly, and The A.V. Club.