Entourage – “Play’n with Fire”

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“Play’n with Fire”

November 16th, 2008

It has been a good many episodes since I last discussed Entourage, a period explained by a variety of reasons. Perhaps first and foremost, I don’t quite have time: while Mad Men left a gap in my Sunday nights, other commitments have meant that The Amazing Race is all the time I’ve got (I’m two weeks behind on Dexter and barely catching up with Brothers & Sisters as it is).

But if Entourage had been anything but a mixed bag over these past few weeks, I may have been more likely to discuss it in earnest. Whether it had been horrible (like much of the fourth season) or fantastic (like the early days of the series), I would have found time to make note of the various developments; instead, the season just took its initial setup (Vince is in tough shape career wise, needs a new opportunity) and played that chord over and over again.

It was a good chord, in the begnning, and I’d tend to argue that it’s a good chord in the end; the entire on-set experience of “Smoke Jumpers” has been a return to the show’s proper perspective, and the explosion that takes place within this episode is a far more natural and logical wrinkle in the development process than anything we saw from the caricature of Billy Walsh. “Play’n with Fire” features a lot of things which feel natural: by abandoning the member of the group who has most resembled a walking punchline (Drama, that’d be you) for the one who is perhaps the most emotionally interesting and undefined (Turtle), and by frontlining Vince as someone facing a crisis of his own, the show just feels likes it’s on a more logical path heading into next week’s finale.

What works about Entourage right now is that there are emotional consequences to these actions, and that each character is handling them differently. This season has, to be honest, been fairly weak for Ari – he hasn’t really had to show much emotional capability, and for once he isn’t actually the center of attention (outside of his near-ascension to the position of studio executive). This has been Vince’s story, from the very beginning: his struggles to land a job, his struggles to perform on that job, and then his struggle once he realizes that the job is gone.

The fascinating thing about it is that he has been, for the most part, a passive participant in many of these events. While Vince was committed to doing “Smoke Jumpers,” and was willing to work in order to do so, he’s remained quite grounded and focused on just doing good work. When “Smoke Jumpers” began to fall apart, he didn’t rush to conclusions about Werner and storm off the set but became vulnerable and racked with self-doubt; there has never been the cockiness we mostly see with Vince, a quality that I’ve never quite liked. Even when he was trying to reconnect with that model, and the photographer dumped the model to keep her to himself, it never felt like Vince was being a jerk but rather that he was feeling like everything was being taken away from him.

This is why Vince’s reaction in this week’s episode is so telling: he’s devastated. He’s angry, sure, and certainly wishes it could work out, but Vince is entirely willing to shake hands with Werner and start this movie over again. Vince walks off of that scene because he’s being insulted, because the director isn’t giving him specific notes and because it’s part of a larger pattern of behaviour in which it was clear the director didn’t want him on the film in the first place. The old Vince, vapid and vanity-driven, would have walked off the set when his lines started getting stolen; instead, what we’ve seen is something much more interesting development of an actor who just wants to act, who stays up all night watching his old movies recognizing that he isn’t the world’s best actor but wanting to prove himself worthy on his own merits.

Werner, similarly, is not a caricature by any means. Sure, he was out to get Vince from the beginning, but from what we’ve seen of Vince’s acting can we really blame him? Ari’s Aquaman argument, if you’ll excuse the pun, doesn’t hold water: very clearly, Vince is not a fantastic actor, and while Werner’s conduct was unbecoming it did have a basis in his own beliefs. When he had the chance to shake hands with Vince and make it all go away, he didn’t do it: he couldn’t give in that easily, just as Vince wasn’t willing to let himself get bossed around. What we have, then, is not a primadonna actor with a whackjob director, but rather two people whose convictions lead them to the breaking point (wherein, yes, Werner turns into a psychopath).

That final scene, though, with Stellan Skarsgard invading the secretary’s personal space and then rushing down the hall to the music of Rammstein, was genuinely exciting; I can’t remember the last time an episode of Entourage felt like this much of a crisis, as opposed to a long, protracted, predictable event that feels manufactured. This was something they built up to, and the end result was similarly natural and bleak: the movie is shut down, everyone’s out of work, and the future of Vinny Chase lies back in Queen’s, of all places. This doesn’t feel like a contrived sort of tragedy – it feels like a real setback, a real sign of giving up.

And the decision to couple this with a story for Turtle, as opposed to one of Drama or Ari’s ridiculous storylines, contributes to the success of the episode. Turtle, more than Drama or E, has nothing to define himself outside of his relationship with Vince; heck, even his nickname creates a different identity that we presume was created by his friend, as opposed to something he’s had since childhood. When he reveals that he was the one, through an illegal gambling ring, who funded the trip out West to stay with Drama, we see a much more human side of Turtle…or, Sal, if you will.

There is an honest tragedy in the final scene, Turtle making his way onto the plane in order to fly off to New York and away form his burdgeoning relationship with Jamie-Lynn Sigler (Who reprises from her earlier cameo). The thing about Turtle’s past storylines (such as his relationship with the auto shop owner’s daughter) is not that they were not entertaining so much as they were never given time to grow. In a single episode, though, you wish they’d gotten to all of this sooner: that his early relationships had felt this poignant, and that his humanizing factors would have come out sooner.

All in all, it came together to a moment where Vince is at his absolute lowest, where Eric and Ari weren’t able to solve this problem, and where Turtle is an innocent victim of friendship, even. My only concern now is whether the finale is going to try to rewrite all of this and attempt to leave this on a hopeful note. My personal hope is no: I think that a point where the Entourage is broken up (Turtle rushing back to L.A. to start his own life, Drama left to his own devices, Vince going off-grid, Eric having to redefine himself outside of Vince’s image) would actually be meaningful…and if Entourage Season Five goes into the books as making this show and its characters matter again, consider it a resounding success.

Cultural Observations

  • Gary Cole is officially part of Ari’s office now, and also officially part of the show’s cast for its sixth season – I like this, and I also like that they didn’t spend much time on his arrival before jumping into the chaos of Vince’s firing.
  • I like the idea that, as soon as Turtle gets something approximating freedom in his relationship with Jamie-Lynn (who also appears on How I Met Your Mother tonight, coincidentally), he wants to go to Sea World – he’s not a complicated guy, but he’s more complex than we think and I just like spending time with him. Especially compared to Drama, there’s something still left to be discovered in Turtle – Jerry Ferrera and Sigler are dating in real life apparently, and their chemistry worked well here.
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