Richie and Zak take a gamble on Los Angeles and make a play for the King in Vegas
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Richie Finestra rages; he snorts, he screams…he reads? As episode 7 opens, the guy we’ve never seen skim more than a contract clause is all suited up, apparently sober, and deeply absorbed in the pages of humanistic psychologist Abraham H. Maslow’s The Farther Reaches of Human Nature.

That’s almost definitely good news for his mental health and a nice bonus for his employees, too. (One happy first responder when Richie’s newly liberated liquor cart is wheeled out: “S—, baby, Boss is on the wagon — it looks like Christmas up in here!”) Boss is also cutting up his staff’s Diners Club cards and pledging a newer, thriftier era for the label: “We’re running lean, guys. Hungry. That’s where we wanna be.” He’s also going to sell the company plane to an interested buyer, which he decides he wants to do in person, in Los Angeles — not just to close the deal but to clear his head. Zak (Ray Romano) says he’s coming too. “But you hate L.A.!” says Richie. “I hate everywhere,” Zak shrugs back.

Is he running away from the Great Bat Mitzvah Disaster of 1971? Does he really want to spend an extended amount of time with the guy he just had a knock-down fistfight with in a banquet hall? Is it wrong that I’m excited for a change of scenery? This trip could give us some real Don-Draper-in-the-Golden-State possibilities. On the cross-country flight, Richie is talking fun facts (apparently, Jim Morrison had his final threesome on this very plane) and Zen koans about perception from his new favorite book. “Does it say how you can get unf—ed?” Zak replies. “’Cuz I’d like to be unf—ed by you. Can you tell me when you get to that chapter?” Well, that picks the scab right off; suddenly they’re both going at it with every pent-up frustration and recrimination — no punches thrown this time, but we do get the deathless phrases “you wanna bust my scrote?” and “I trust my wife naked in bed with Burt Reynolds before I trust you with a hundred grand in cash,” among others. (“I partly see your point,” Richie concedes on the last one.)

It actually clears the air, and leads to what feels like the first good honest moment between them in a long time. Zak tells him about the kid singing Bowie at the bat mitzvah that he might want to bring in to make a demo; then Richie admits how weird and quiet it is to wake up without Dev. And the whole time he’s demurely sipping Coke, not shoving it up his nose. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t miss it.

Back in New York, Jamie Vine’s disapproving mother is trying (unsuccessfully) to bribe her to get out of the music business, and poor Clark (Jack Quaid) is the new punching bag for the mailroom crew. In L.A., the plane is officially passed over to its new owner, a rival record mogul, but Zak and Richie don’t jump on their scheduled flight back; instead, they head to Malibu with the intent to “steal half his roster.” The party’s guests include Mama Cass, Micky Dolenz, at least 75 percent of CSNY, and there’s Gram Parsons, selling Richie on peyote and sunrises in Joshua Tree. But the real white whale they want to land will require another kind of trip: The word is that Elvis Presley’s contract is coming up, and he’s not happy at RCA.

NEXT: Richie and Zak book it to Vegas

So the two of them book it for Vegas and finagle a meeting with Colonel Parker, Elvis’s legendary manager/Svengali. While Joe Corso’s busy greasing radio-programmer palms back East and unwisely touting his Mafia friend Galasso’s bona fides, Richie and Zak are poolside chatting up pretty-lady plus-ones. One of them has party favors in her bikini top, and just like that, Richie is about to fall off the wagon. Instead, he manages to walk (or cannonball) away. Drugs are actually good news for Clark, who realizes that Jamie’s earlier gift of a joint is all he needs to make friends with his mailroom antagonists. God bless a peace pipe!

And then we’re watching the King sweat onstage in his white spangled jumpsuit; the plus-ones are feeling it, even if Zak only sees the sad decline of an icon. (“This is a tragedy,” he moans. “F— JFK, MLK, Vietnam. This, this… I can’t, man. Rock and roll has died tonight, my friend.”) They leave the show early for a little blackjack, and the dynamic has officially flipped: Zak’s out of his mind and Richie’s being the responsible one for once, taking his gambling chips to go. Then the girls are making out, and is Zak’s threesome dream actually coming true?

Richie doesn’t stay to find out; he slips out the side door to take a meeting with the Colonel. Except it’s just Elvis, in shades and purple velour, and suddenly they’re talking about “living inside the music” and bonding over Maslow. Part of Richie’s pitch is telling him, “You’re gonna die a rich man, 50 years from now. But are you gonna die King?” He wants to get him down to Muscle Shoals, strip down the sound, get back to what he does best. He can do whatever he wants — even make a whole album of spirituals with Pops Staples! Elvis is smelling what he’s cooking. But right then, the Colonel comes in, and Presley may be the King, but Parker pulls the strings. He tells Elvis to pull his Nixon Secret Service move on Richie (which is basically scaring the crap out of him with some “praying mantis” pose and a pistol), and Parker finishes Richie off without a bullet: “Son, see yourself out.”

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Also, that threesome? It’s cost American Century everything they have; when Zak wakes up the party girls are gone, along with all the money from the sale of the plane. So now they’ve both been screwed, twice in one night. And Zak’s devastation might be the most genuine pathos we’ve seen all season. He’s wrecked, but also so touched that Richie forgives him and is standing by him. Except he didn’t: He came back to the room, saw them having sex — you knew those girls weren’t that kind of bad, didn’t you? — and took the money back down to the casino, betting it all on No. 18 because it was a symbol he kept seeing everywhere and thought it must mean something.

But it doesn’t, of course. So he’s the one who lost it all, and he’s going to go ahead and let Zak kill himself with guilt about it anyway. In other words, he’s still as Richie as he’s ever been. And now he’s downing Smirnoff on the airplane like it’s a magic roofie that will let him forget. All it does, though, is leave a wet spot on his Maslow in the shape of — yep, a 1 and an 8.

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2016 HBO series starring Bobby Cannavale, Olivia Wilde, and Ray Romano
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