Thursday, June 14, 2007

Sopranos Mondays: Season 6, Ep. 21, "Made in America"

By Matt Zoller Seitz

"It's my nature."

That's the punchline of the the fable "The Scorpion and the Frog," a fable repeated in numerous pop culture works, including The Sopranos, which referenced it in Season Two. About 10 minutes into "Made in America," the final episode of the final season of David Chase's drama, that phrase wriggled into my head and stayed there. It's key to appreciating the final episode, and key to understanding Chase's attitude toward people; they are what they are, they rarely change, and when they do, they stay changed for as long as it takes to realize that they were more comfortable with their old selves, at which point they revert; and once they're taken out of the picture, by illness or incarceration or death, the world keeps turning without them.

Which is a roundabout way of saying, what the hell did people expect from David Chase? Closure? Satisfaction? Answers? A moral?

It was the perfect ending. No ending at all. Write your own goddamn ending.

Tony goes to a restaurant to meet his family for dinner, after an episode showing you that after all the bloody machinations of the past six episodes, life had begun to return to something like "normal," whatever that means for this sordid bunch of self-deluded materialistic suburbanites with blood on their hands; he sits down in a booth and flips through the jukebox trying to pick a song (a great self-referential joke for a show that prides itself on picking exactly the right song for a scene). He chooses Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" (the refrain "Don't stop" expressing the feelings of Sopranos fans so perfectly that I fear it'll be the go-to headline for stories about the finale); when Steve Perry sings, "Just a small town girl," the little bell on the restaurant's front door rings and Carmela enters and sits with Tony. They exchange chitchat -- most of the episode, which was both written and directed by Chase, is chit-chat heavy, with some halfhearted exposition sandwiched in. "What looks good tonight?" Carmela asks. "I don't know," Tony replies. He tells her Carlo flipped, that he's going to testify; Carmela's grave expression indicates that this could be the beginning of the end for their family as well as Da Family.

The bell rings again, Tony looks up, and a middle-aged white guy in a Members Only Jacket (so named in the final credits, and another nice extra-textual gag) enters the restaurant and peels off screen right toward the bar, revealing AJ coming in right behind him. AJ sits with them. More chit-chat. Tony makes eye contact with the Members Only guy, who seems to be staring at him a bit too intently; is he an assassin, sent to kill Tony and maybe his family as well, or is he just someone who recognized Tony from TV and newspaper stories? We don't know; the guy eventually gets up from his stool and goes into the bathroom. Is he pulling a Michael Corleone? Is there a gun taped to the back of a toilet tank? We don't know. Moments later, two young black males enter the restaurant. Tony was almost killed by a couple of young black men in Season One; are they assassins, or just a couple of friends going out for dinner? We don't know.

Meadow is the last Soprano family member to arrive at the restaurant. The scene cuts between Tony, Carmela and AJ inside and Meadow outside, desperately trying to parallel park. The final episodes of the final episode of The Sopranos, and David Chase is spending a solid minute on Meadow's poor parking skills. Who does he think he is? Doesn't he know we want to know that everyone died or that everyone was all right, or that Tony eventually flipped or didn't, or that the Sopranos went into witness protection or didn't, or that Tony ripped the skin off his face, exposing circuitry, and proceeded to reveal to his family that all this time, he was a cyborg sent from the future to save humanity from extinction? And yet the tension is unbearable. So often on The Sopranos, when a character or characters spend a lot of screen time shooting the breeze or fixating on some mundane bit of business, the non-drama is followed by a beat-down or a bullet in the brain; your attention starts to wander and then WHAM. We expect the same dynamic this time; but Meadow successfully parks the car. She walks across the street. We think she might get hit by a car; she does not. Cut to the inside of the restaurant; Tony looks up at the sound of the bell ringing; cut to black.

The sound cuts out, too.

The credits roll.

There is no music.

What happens next? We don't know. We'll never know.


"What the hell?"

The above sentence is the opening of a brief conversation I had with my sister-in-law. She called at 10:15 eastern time. She and my brother had just finished watching the final episode of The Sopranos. They wanted to talk about it. I hadn't watched it yet. I cut her off. "Don't tell me anything," I said. "I want to watch it myself." I'd wanted to watch it in real time, but my three-year-old son refused to go to bed by nine. I hung up and headed upstairs and pulled up the episode on my digital video recorder. Keith Uhlich, my managing editor, called, and even though I tried to cut him off instantly, he still managed to squeeze out, "I think David Chase just pissed off millions of people."

If so, they were millions of people who weren't watching The Sopranos, but another show that they hoped would turn into what they wanted The Sopranos to be. They kept hoping that this time, the scorpion won't sting them. He always did.

Here, yet again, Chase did exactly what I expect him to do: the unexpected. No gangster story has ever ended like this. The lack of resolution -- the absolute and deliberate failure, or more accurately, refusal, to end this thing -- was exactly right. It felt more violent, more disturbing, more unfair than even the most savage murders Chase has depicted over the course of six seasons, because the victim was us. He ended the series by whacking the viewer.

This ending was so consistent with everything that came before -- consistent with the show's themes, its style, its cruel sense of humor, its belief in the utter finality of death as the only real ending, the sense that life goes on anyway, even without the incredibly important person known as You -- that it was the greatest Sopranos ending ever. As I've said over and over in these posts and in Star-Ledger coverage of Seasons One through Three, Chase would rather frustrate, baffle or disappoint than deliver what audiences expect. This finale was the ultimate example of that principle. It was the film breaking five minutes before the end of a gripping movie, or having a novel ripped ripped from your hands before you were done with the last chapter.

Phil Leotardo was shot in the head at that gas station in mid-sentence; he didn't even live long enough to see the wheel of his daughter's SUV roll over his skull. Life went on without him.

Good luck naming a season of The Sopranos that ended with the simultaneous rising of action to a delirious peak and the tying up of loose ends. Season One probably came the closest to attaining that kind of classical narrative shape, and that season doubtless ended as it did because Chase figured he was doing a one-off that wouldn't get picked up for another go-round. Left to his own devices -- as he was from Season Two onward -- he established that he'd rather insinuate, tease and then frustrate. Starting with Season Two, every season has packed a lot of plot (and a fair amount of violence) into the second-to-last episode, left the final episode as a denouement -- a protracted down-shifting -- and left a lot of subplots, many of them seemingly major, unresolved. We never found out what happened to the Russian from "Pine Barrens." Tracee's murder at the hands of Ralphie Cifaretto was apparently never discovered by law enforcement, and justice was done obliquely, by Tony, months later, in a different context, and it's doubtful that it occurred to him that he was avenging Tracee.

This is considered bad drama because it's like life.

"Made in America" was the ultimate season ender; if you thought previous season enders were unsatisfying, well, you hadn't seen anything yet.

We were always frogs offering a scorpion a ride across the river. And this scorpion never promised not to sting us.

The Sopranos eschews tidy resolutions, and seems (or perhaps I should say "seemed") to delight in providing closure on small matters while denying it in big ones. In "Made in America," Meadow's wedding was discussed, but only in the abstract. We heard that Carlo flipped but we never saw it and never got any indication of why, or whether any evidence he might provide would prove damning enough to bring down the family. We heard twice that subpoenas were being handed out, but despite Tony's depressed reactions, we never learned if they would lead anywhere; there were indications that the gun charge might finally bring Tony down, but there was no closure on that, either. Tony visited Sil in the hospital, but we never learned if he lived or died. We heard Meadow had to go to the doctor to change her birth control pills. Did she have a pregnancy scare? Did she switch medicine to be extra-certain that she didn't have a child by the son of a known gangster, thus perpetuating the family legacy? Unlikely, since she told her dad she went into law after seeing his treatment at the hands of cops and FBI agents -- but we don't know. Tony's boys brought a cat from the safehouse back to the Bing; it kept staring at a picture of the murdered Christopher for hours on end. When the picture was moved, the cat moved with it, and kept staring. What does this mean? We don't know.

Tony's lawyer sat there whacking that bottle of ketchup over and over until Tony grabbed it out of his hands and tried to do it himself, and the ketchup still didn't come out.

The pilot episode started with Tony telling Dr. Melfi that he feared he'd come into the business (and by implication, America) at the end; that the best was over. The creeping sense of numbness and despair, the sense that the best (whatever that means) is over, and the concurrent sense that nothing that happens to us is as important as important to history, or even to our friends and relatives, as we'd like think, that when we're gone we'll probably be forgotten like 99.99999% of the human race, is encoded in every line and scene of this finale. Almost nobody gives a damn about your life but you, and according to Chase, there's a good chance you don't give as much of a damn as you think, because if did, you would have already changed yourself to match your idealized image. Uncle Junior doesn't remember anything about his long, colorful, nasty life, including the shooting of his own nephew; he might not even recognize his nephew. The widowed Janice seeks refuge in a house that used to belong to Johnny Sacrimoni. It's surrounded by McHomes; Tony informs her that when Johnny built the house, the area was all cornfields. We learn that the key to finding Phil is locating a gas station with a pay phone in front of it; a gas station attendant explains that few gas stations have pay phones anymore. One of the Little Italy scenes begins with a shot of a double-decker tour bus zipping through the neighborhood, and we hear an announcer telling the tourists that Little Italy used to be a huge, thriving neighborhood, but now it's been reduced to a handful of restaurants and stores; the scene ends with a shot of the street teeming with Asians. "Fuckin' A, I'm disappointed," Phil exclaims at one point. To quote another episode title, "Join the Club."

Tony looks up at the sound of the door opening. Cut to black. Roll credits. The story continues. You're not around to see it.

Throughout its run, The Sopranos has insisted, in dialogue and imagery, that there is a life beyond what we can see, a world beyond the familiar. Chase could never show us that world outright because no artist has that power. But for eight years, he did the next best thing, which was show us a fiction that wasn't quite like any of the fictions that influenced it -- a fiction that prompted contemplation of our own world, however small or large it might be. And in the final moments of the final hour of the final season, he gave us an ending we did not anticipate -- an ending unlike any he's ever staged, but not the least bit out-of-character for The Sopranos.

Appreciate it.

Sopranos recaps run every Monday at The House Next Door. For more articles about the series, see The Sopranos in the sidebar at right.


Sopranos Mondays: Season 6, Ep. 20, "The Blue Comet"

By Matt Zoller Seitz

David Chase is the king of the double-reversal. He trains viewers to expect something other than the obvious -- an out-of-left-field development, even an anticlimax or a baffling digression; then, when he decides to do what you'd expect a gangster melodrama to do, you're not only surprised by the events themselves, you're surprised Chase went there. The penultimate episode of The Sopranos, "The Blue Comet," was the most atypically typical whack-fest the show has served up in quite some time, maybe since the final leg of Season One. It was the sort of hour that fair-weather fans of the series keep craving even though Chase has consistently refused to give it to them. It was an orgy of Mafia mayhem best characterized by a line from Ray Liotta's Goodfellas narration: real greaseball shit. By the end of it, Tony had sent his wife and kids into hiding and was last seen in in wartime mode, holed up in a house with his boys, clutching the AR-15 rifle that Bobby had given him and awaiting the inevitable assault. So much for the theory that The Sopranos would go out with one long moan.

The episode starts with Silvio taking the initiative and garroting Burt Gervasi for "playing both sides of the fence" and trying to steer Silvio and others to join the Lupertazzi Family. The latter family's acting boss, Phil Leotardo, declares war on the Soprano family; Tony gets tipped off by Agent Harris ("wheels have been set in motion") and Tony OK's pre-emptive strikes, starting at the top (a mirror of Leotardo's plan to destroy the Soprano family by killing its top three members, Tony, Silvio and Bobby). But Tony's plan to bring some hired guns from Italy to kill Phil goes horribly awry; Tony subcontracts the planning of the hit to Paulie, who in turn asks Corky Caporale and Patsy Parisi to explain the details to the killers; the trigger-man kills an innocent senior citizen who vaguely resembles Phil and takes out his daughter in the process. (Now we know why Tony hates delegating; it only creates more problems.) Silvio gets shot and gravely wounded in a hit outside the Bada-Bing (though Steve Van Zandt's acting was so off in the tracking shot revealing his bloodied body that it was hard to tell if Silvio was dead, unconscious, playing possum, or remembering his senior prom). Silvio's fellow passenger, Patsy Parisi, escapes and is last seen fleeing the scene. Backing out of the Bing's parking lot, Phil's button-men cause an accident involving a motorcyclist, prompting the second of two "Run away! Run away!" reaction shots from the gawking crowd, a crowd we assumed had gone inside for safety's sake. This was a good, mean joke -- in the spirit of that cutaway to the girls driving the car that caused the accident in "Kennedy and Heidi," but with an undertone of audience criticism. The crowd outside the Bing runs away from the hit like Tokyo extras fleeing Godzilla, then comes back to watch again, their rubbernecking impulse made plain when a gangland hit is followed by an actual car accident.

Bobby Bacala's death is a companion to that Bing joke. He gets shot in a model train shop while coveting a scale model of a defunct passenger car that gave the episode its title. The prized toy was a very busy little metaphor. On an obvious level, it stood for any nostalgic impulse the gangsters have ever demonstrated; the lionizing of The Good Old Days when gangsterism supposedly had rules; Tony's criticizing the ongoing pussyfication of the American white man, and asking, "Whatever happened to Gary Cooper?" (For all his delusions, Paulie sees the past more clearly, remarking in a gravely distressed tone that he survived the New York gang wars of the 70s by "the skin of my balls.")

Bobby's execution was intercut with a model train jumping the tracks, which seemed like a too-obvious Godfather borrowing (a murder intercut with something mundane) until you remembered Phil's contemptuous statement earlier in the episode implying that the Sopranos weren't even a real family, but a pygmy clan that needed to be wiped out. They're not gangsters, they're scale models of gangsters. Phil intends to smash them like a toy train set. As he smashes them, it will be difficult to muster much sympathy for the vanquished because Chase has exposed their selfishness unmercifully, like a prosecutor building an airtight case. Thanks to the ever-more-conspicuously nasty behavior exhibited this season, often by characters we might otherwise be inclined to identify with (like Bobby Bacala, who killed for the first time on Tony's orders), it's hard to get to choked up over the destruction (and self-destruction) of Tony or the members of his blood family and crime family. The series has underlined, italicized and boldfaced the fact that they're all killers or tacit enablers of killers. As we watch them go down, we might as well be watching a model train jump the tracks.

Lastly, Orson Welles once called Citizen Kane "the greatest electric train set any boy ever had.” The train shop scene is a jokey admission that filmmakers are overgrown kids playing God with life-sized toys. As the series chugs along toward its final destination, Chase is staging one collision after another. We shudder in revulsion, then go online and try to guess what he'll smash next. Bacala's death (a virtual boss sprawled out atop a pile of model trains) ties in with the sight of those rubberneckers at the Bing recoiling from horror, then going back for more, all the while drawing no apparent distinction between a gangland hit and a car accident. They're drawn to pain like flies to shit. It's as if Chase is simultaneously celebrating and condemning his own ability to mesmerize viewers with violence -- saying, in effect, "Yeah, I know it's compelling -- I enjoy making it as much as you enjoy watching it," and "Jesus, what's wrong with you people? Why do you keep coming back for more?"

It's not your imagination; in Season Six, the show has, in fact, gotten progressively grimmer, its characters more pathetically life-sized. Chase has made it tough to mourn his principal characters for any reason besides their stillborn human potential. It's as if he's conducting a perverse social experiment, trying to see how much loathsome behavior he can show without driving us off. The episode's bits of meta-commentary -- on violence as entertainment and suffering as spectacle, and on the morality of those who watch -- gain context in the scene where Melfi decides she's had enough of Tony's charismatic intransigence and kicks him out. Melfi's decision comes after two weeks' worth of pressure from her own shrink, Dr. Kupferberg, who kept bringing up a study indicating that criminals don't make real progress in therapy, they just learn how to manipulate their therapists.

The (theoretically final) Melfi-Tony scene might be the most explicit acknowledgment of Tony's brutishness since he pinched Christopher's nostrils shut in "Kennedy and Heidi." As he talks to Melfi about his son's botched suicide and subsequent treatment, and his daughter's decision to give up medicine for pre-law, he isn't saying anything he hasn't said before; we should be, if not moved, than at least sympathetic. But because we're seeing Tony through Melfi's eyes, it looks like crocodile tears. Melfi wonders, and we're supposed to wonder, if this burly killer with a soft spot for pets and children really feels anything at all, or if his emotionalism is just a form of overcompensation, a means of lying to himself and the world about his cauterized human potential. (When AJ broke down and started to weep, Tony dragged him across the floor and berated him for his weakness.) If Tony is Chase's surrogate, Melfi is (or is supposed to be) ours. She's saying she feels deceived and manipulated, that she's had it, that this relationship isn't really going anywhere, and for the sake of her mental health and personal honor, it has to end. I understand her position, and I'll be standing alongside her next Sunday night, after one last hour of rubbernecking.

Sopranos recaps run every Monday at The House Next Door. For more articles about the series, see The Sopranos in the sidebar at right.


Sopranos Mondays: Season 6, Ep. 19, "The Second Coming"

By Matt Zoller Seitz

After last week's Sopranos episode, "Kennedy and Heidi," viewer discussion centered on Tony's climactic, "I get it!", bellowed twice to the sun on a desert ridge during a peyote trip. People wondered what, exactly, did Tony "get"? Was it the fact that his thieving, whoring, murderous life was the number one contributing factor to his unhappiness -- the fuel that kept his inherited tendency toward depression burning like an oil well fire? Or, as my friend Alan Sepinwall suggested, did Tony "get" the fact that ethics, religion and every other means of judging behavior was an abstraction that has no weight beyond what you choose to give it? The first realization might have led Tony to confess his sins to Melfi -- this mostly non-religious gangster tale's closest equivalent to clergy -- and maybe end up in witness protection, selling out Da Family as an alternative to destroying what's left of his soul. The second realization could have pushed Tony -- who spent much of "Kennedy and Heidi" denying his guilt over murdering his surrogate son, the potential rat Christopher -- to finally embrace his inner monster, give Dr. Melfi the heave-ho and start whacking people without misgivings.

The problem with this either-or argument is that it's either-or, and The Sopranos is not, and never has been, an either-or kind of show. Like most TV series -- and more like life than movies -- it's a series of situations that repeat themselves with the details changed. I argued in another post that The Sopranos' freshest element is how it ties TV's open-ended "life goes on and on" format to a consistently pessimistic, often wickedly honest vision of human nature. It shows characters winning or losing big, suffering and transcending this or that situation, and moving a few baby steps closer to a series of realizations that could change the the substance of their lives -- then backing off at the last second (often without realizing how close they came, much less that they're backing off), and returning to some version of the status quo. Both "I get it, I'm a criminal and that's bad," vs. "I get it, I'm a criminal and I like it" are realizations that would be not only reductive, but inconsistent with the view of human nature Chase and company have built over six seasons -- a view that's either cynical or realistic, depending on your faith in humankind's ability to assess their strengths and weaknesses, redefine themselves and not revert.

It wouldn't surprise me if Chase served up a conclusion somewhere between those two poles -- a ambiguous or at least elusive and frustrating ending, one consistent with the acerbic and often infuriating universe he's built up since 1999: Tony comes close to a life-changing realization, maybe closer than he's ever gotten, but still can't push himself over the line into true epiphany, and ends up backsliding into the grim routine of his life. Given Tony's unusual (for a gangster) level of self-awareness, that would be a tragedy of a type never seen in the gangster story -- a genre which, to quote Tony, usually ends with the protagonist dead or in the can.

Tony doesn't have the language to describe as such, but he's a seeker, looking for something beyond what he already knows. The title of episode 16, "Chasing It," suggested as much, and the screenwriter of "The Second Coming," Terence Winter, put a slightly finer point on it during one of this week's Tony-Melfi therapy scenes. The exchange between patient and therapist -- about Tony's peyote trip last week, and what he did or didn't "get" -- was revealing enough that I'm quoting it here at length:

Tony: All I can say is, I saw, for pretty certain, that this, everything we see and experience, is not all there is."
Melfi: What else is there?"
Tony: Something else.
Melfi stares, nonverbally pushing for him to elaborate.
Tony: That's as far as I'm gonna go with it. I don't fucking know.
Melfi:Alternate universes?
Tony: You're gonna be a fucking comedian now?
Melfi: I'm not.
Tony pauses, nods.
Tony: Maybe...This is gonna sound stupid, but I saw at one point that our mothers are the bus drivers. They are the bus. They are the vehicle that gets us here. They drop us off and go on their way. They continue on their journey, and the problem is, we keep trying to get back on the bus. Instead of just letting it go.
Melfi: That's very insightful.
Tony: Jesus, don't act so surprised.
Long pause.
Tony: You know, you have these thoughts, and you almost grab it, and then, pffft.

That's Tony in a nutshell -- always pushing toward some realization greater than what his relatives, colleagues and friends can muster, but invariably coming up short. In Walker Percy's The Moviegoer, the narrator talks about a similar dynamic. When he was on the battlefield in Korea in 1951, pinned to the ground and staring at a dung beetle crawling around in leaves, he had a similar realization -- that there was something else out there, something beyond what we can see. And then he forgot about it. He periodically remembers that he had that epiphany -- every few pages of the novel's first chapter, in fact, and many times thereafter -- but then he gets drawn into what he calls the "everydayness" of life, the familiar and comforting and numbing routines, and he forgets again. Unlike Tony, he has a developed enough psychological vocabulary to put his sensations into more precise words--and even feel a bit smug about it, his narration lording it over the businessmen and working stiffs who lack his sophistication, his sense that there's Something Else Out There--but in the end, he and Tony are in the same predicament, the predicament we're all in, whether we realize it or not, whether we care to admit it or not. Changing one's essential nature -- one's entire world view -- is not easy, even when, like Tony, you've suffered (and inflicted) trauma on an unimaginable scale, and have immediate life-or-death reasons for needing to make a major change.

Tony tells Melfi that he knew he had a golden moment after Junior shot him, and that he let it slip away; the implication is that his Las Vegas trip was a half-assed attempt to create a new chance for epiphany. But is such a thing possible, for Tony or anyone else?

The evidence does not bode well. Tony's son AJ plunged into the abyss and tried to drown himself by putting a plastic bag over his head, tying a concrete block to his ankle and hurling himself into the swimming pool. His father saved him, purely by a fluke of timing. But Tony's reaction to the near-tragedy mimics the dynamics of his post-shooting and post-Vegas trip reactions. He does what's right (dives in and saves AJ). Then he reverts to macho type, berating AJ for his stupidity and weakness and perhaps resenting the vulnerability it made Tony feel. Then he turns nonjudgmental, purely empathetic. He cradles his weeping son and cries with him (maybe the most heartrending moment in the entire series, sharply acted by both James Gandolfini and Robert Iler). But then he reverts again, with both Melfi (admitting he despises AJ's sensitivity, his weakness) and Carmela (pushing her into an argument that pivots on who's genetically responsible for AJ's depression; later, in a session with Melfi, Tony shifts blame to Carmela for "coddling" AJ). In this episode, Tony admits his depression, and his family history of depression, more frankly than at any other point in the show's run. But he ultimately pulls back, stifles his bleeding emotions and tries to soldier on and be a gangster Gary Cooper. (There are even seeds of a Melfi self-reckoning: her shrink, Dr. Kupferberg, tells her of a study indicating that sociopaths in talk therapy don't get better, they actually tend to revert to bad behavior more quickly -- and perhaps learn better methods of scamming via therapy. Melfi keeps a poker face, but her subsequent session with Tony finds her subtly pushing him to acknowledge that there might be another reason why AJ is in despair -- that maybe it's not just an inherited tendency toward depression; maybe Tony's criminality might have just a little bit to do with it. But how far down this road is Melfi willing, or able, to go?)

From the episode's opening moments, there's a sense of long-deferred bills coming due, long-denied facts asserting themselves, dreams being disturbed, reality asserting itself. In "The Second Coming" -- a poem that's proving integral to this final run of episodes -- William Butler Yeats warns that,
Things fall apart
The centre cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
This isn't just a more eloquent restatement of Tony's pet phrase, "Everything turns to shit." It's a description of an existential predicament that has ensnared both Tony and AJ. (And as the esteemed Mr. Sepinwall points out in his Star-Ledger recap, this is the second time the show has quote Yeats' most famous poem: "In season five's 'Cold Cuts,' Melfi used the famous 'Things fall apart' line with Tony.")

There's a sense that terrible knowledge -- knowledge of toxic truth held at bay with rationalizations and outright lies -- is intruding on the characters' waking dream states, their privileged, outwardly carefree existences. The episode's first two shots show a mountain of asbestos moldering near the marshlands of North Jersey, a stone's throw from a big city skyline (Jersey City?). Then director Tim Van Patten cuts to a tracking shot that reveals a sleeping Tony, followed by a shot of AJ sleeping. Then AJ awakes, puts on rap music to drown out his depression, and in so doing, wakes up his father. Just as the asbestos is bound to contaminate the blood of North Jersey residents, gangsterism will poison the plush lifestyle it enables -- a lifestyle the criminals and their spouses and children hoped they could keep separate. Everyone will inhale a bit of poison. A tiff over asbestos dumping and construction spills into Tony's private life, leading to the crude sexual harassment of Meadow in a Little Italy restaurant, and Tony's vengeance against the perpetrator --a pistol-whipping plus an indoor curb job -- only makes things worse. More contamination: at family therapy with AJ and Carmela, Tony spots a bloody tooth in the cuff of his slacks. And early in the episode, the Bobby Bacala visits a construction site and refuses to shake the hand of his business contact because it's been touching asbestos, seemingly oblivious to the fact that it's going right into his lungs.

All these gags are variations on the same theme: Paulie ripping up Christopher's manicured lawn and the like. The gangsters think because they love their spouses and kids that they're good people, and the other guy is corrupt. They ask sympathy and understanding from others but give little themselves. Tony cites his hospital bonding moment with Phil to make a human connection, but he's really exploiting that sacrosanct moment to get a better deal. Phil returns the favor, telling Tony about his own epiphanies in the joint, making grilled cheese sandwiches on a radiator and jerking off into a tissue. Phil, like Tony, might have had a come-to-Jesus moment in intensive care, but he snapped out of it quickly and resumed looking out for Number One (and indulging in his own version of Tony's angry daddy score-settling -- the homophobic hit job on Vito). Everybody wants a fair deal on their own terms. They admonish colleagues and subordinates not to mix business and personal matters, then do exactly that, and view the inevitable unpleasant outcome as an affront. They shit where they eat and wonder why the food tastes funny.

AJ's depression was, in every sense, a wake-up call; here again we see The Sopranos indulging a parallel structure. AJ's long-delayed "loss of innocence" about his father's true nature, his father's business, dovetails with his sudden overwhelming awareness of all the evil and stupidity in the world -- the religious and ethnic feuds going on for thousands of years, the way that the profit motive trumps ethics and results in toxins being sprayed on food. "Depressed?" AJ's shrink asks him. "How can anybody not be, when everything is so fucked up?" AJ replies. AJ's deep distress is mirrored by Tony's own dawning sense that his entire universe is decaying, that there's no way to repair it, that he's helpless before realities he's only begun to acknowledge. Better to withdraw, ease back in the passenger seat, let Heidi drive. You believe, even hope, that some revelation is at hand; then you remember Tony's predatory, blank look as he pinched Christopher's nose shut and made him drown in his own blood: a gaze as blank and pitiless as the sun. Maybe the center holds just fine.

Sopranos recaps run every Monday at The House Next Door. For more articles about the series, see The Sopranos in the sidebar at right.


Sopranos Mondays: Season 6, Ep. 18, "Kennedy and Heidi"

By Matt Zoller Seitz

The most significant scene in the entire run of The Sopranos occurred in last night's episode, "Kennedy and Heidi." It wasn't the bloody car wreck or its disturbing aftermath. It wasn't Tony's trip (in any sense of the word "trip"). It wasn't either of Tony's two therapy scenes, and it wasn't any of the scenes of mourning (or not mourning). It wasn't even a scene really. It was a five-second cutaway to the two title characters, Heidi and Kennedy -- the teenage girls in the car Chris Moltisanti swerved to avoid.

"Maybe we should go back, Heidi," says Kennedy.
Heidi's reply: "Kennedy, I'm on my learner's permit after dark."

We all know David Chase's view of human nature is profoundly cynical. The Sopranos is set in a universe where good and evil have renamed themselves principle and instinct. Animals are not known for their inclination to act on principle. Nearly significant scene enacts the same basic struggle, pitting the instinct toward self-preservation against the influence what Abraham Lincoln called "The better angels of our nature." The angels have glass jaws.

That cutaway to the girls in the car made Chase's central, recurring point more bluntly than six season's worth of beatdowns, strangulations and shootings, because the girls seemed so "ordinary" -- just a couple of students driving on the highway late at night, maybe thinking that when they got back home they might sneak a couple of glasses of wine and watch some TV (Six Feet Under, maybe). The difference between Heidi and Kennedy and Tony and Christopher is one of degree, not kind. The young women had a chance to do the right thing but didn't. The exact reason for their decision not to help -- by driving back to the scene or calling the cops -- doesn't matter in the end. What's important -- for Chase's purposes -- is that they were presented with a moral test and they not only failed it, they didn't seem terribly aware that it was a test. Tony Soprano and Christopher Moltisanti have failed too many moral tests to count.

Besides mirroring Tony and Chris at various stages of their lives, Kennedy and Heidi also represent the two identities inside so many Sopranos characters -- especially Tony, whose deeply submerged true self (the guy who dotes on his kids, banters with his wife and idealizes young mothers and innocent animals) rarely breaks the surface of his toxic cesspool of a personality. There have always been two Tonys, and in case we hadn't figured that out, Chase gave Tony a cousin named Tony Blundetto, a convicted gangster who'd gone straight, and introduced him in an episode titled "Two Tonys," and then, near the end of the season, had Tony B. impulsively revert to his gangster self and go on a rampage. Kennedy is the voice in Tony's head that says, "Do the right thing." To which Heidi replies, "Fuck that."

As I sit here writing this in the wee hours of May 14 -- and grinding my teeth over a computer problem that made it impossible to post episode screenshots -- I am already dreading morning-after discussions that focus on whether Chris, who spontaneously killed his screenwriter and AA mate JT at the end of last week's "Walk Like a Man," had already turned state's witness when we saw him at the Staten Island Ferry meeting.

True, there were a lot of clues suggesting as much, from Chris' nervous glancing around during the talk with Phil to his incessant fiddling with the radio while driving with Tony to the fact that he was wearing a goddamn Cleaver hat. (As Sars pointed out to me, Chris is not a hat man.) And I'm sure that in the last three hours of The Sopranos, Tony and various associates of Tony's will discuss the matter, obliquely or directly, with each other and perhaps with representatives of law enforcement; Tony already brought it up this week in the "dream" therapy session, telling Melfi that he has killed friends and relatives but that you get used to it, and that he was relieved to be presented with an opportunity to kill Chris cleanly and quietly because Chris fit the description of a guy who might turn state's witness and he was tired of waking up every morning wondering if this would be the day that Chris flipped. (I don't recall any indication that Tony or anyone else in the crew knows about JT's murder.)

In the end, the question of whether Chris flipped or was just acting strangely because he was coked up is not central to the show's concerns. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if the show ended without definitively answering the question of whether Chris flipped or not, because I have a strong feeling that it's the ultimate example of a Sopranos specialty: a characterization catalyst posing as a big plot twist.

The disappearing "Pine Barrens" Russian has never reappeared because he was just the catalyst for a bleak comedy revealing how helpless and whiny Paulie and Christopher could be when denied creature comforts and a home-turf advantage. Ralphie's murder of his pregnant girlfriend -- the stripper and single mom, Tracee -- was never "resolved" in the law enforcement sense (i.e., in scenes where cops snoop and gangsters cover for each other); it was the catalyst for a nearly two-season arc that saw Tony trying to punish, or at least control, Ralphie while concurrently demonstrating his deeply buried capacity for tenderness by doting on the racehorse Pie-O-My. Tony snapped after Ralphie killed the horse (an innocent animal) in a fire for insurance money, fought Ralphie and killed him, then dismembered the body (with help from Christopher) and made the pieces disappear, just as Tony's mob family must have made Tracee's pieces disappear months earlier. The show never came out and said that Tony snapped because on some subconscious level, he associated the horse with Tracee (whom he described to Silvio in "University" as "a thoroughbred"), and belatedly did what he'd wanted and needed to do on the night that Ralphie killed Tracee, for an outwardly different set of reasons. The Sopranos never spelled this out because if it did, it wouldn't be The Sopranos.

Tony's murder of Christopher isn't about Tony's murder of Christopher: it's about the human impulse towards cold self-protection, illustrated with Macbeth-like viciousness in the scene where Tony silences his potential rat of a surrogate son, and in the cut-away to Kennedy telling Heidi they should go back and Heidi saying they can't because she'll get in trouble. (Tony starts to dial 911 but stops himself, punching all three digits only after Chris is safely dead.)

During that long, beautiful, sad moment in the car where Tony looked over at Christopher -- perhaps realizing that Christopher was high, or maybe fearing he was a rat; who knows what he was thinking, the show won't tell us, and like I said, it doesn't matter -- Chris' stereo is playing Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb." That's the second time in two episodes that the writers have invoked that song (Tony quoted the lyrics at the start of "Walk Like a Man," coming down the stairs to find his depressed son sprawled out before the television). The most important word in the title isn't "numb," but "comfortably."

Numbness is the means by which comfort is attained; if you're numb to morality, to empathy, you can do whatever you want and feel little or no guilt. Comfortable numbness pervaded "Kennedy and Heidi." It was there in the scene at the hospital where Tony is told that Chris is dead but can't muster the energy to feign shock or anger. It's tempting to rationalize Tony's non-response as a reaction his physical trauma, but remember, he's lucid after the accident -- lucid enough to abort his initial 911 call and kill his surrogate son -- and he later mentions (incredulously, and perhaps with a glimmer of deep guilt) that he escaped the wreck with no serious injuries (except for some damage to his knee -- the same knee he damaged while playing baseball in college). As the episode unfolds, Tony can't even muster a facsimile of authentic shock and grief; the best he can manage is paranoid touchiness about the fact that he's not dead, and occasional Tourette's-like anecdotal nuggets. At Chris' wake, he told the director of Cleaver about seeing the tree branch juxtaposed with Chris' daughter's car seat. His affable delivery was so inappropriate -- along with the rest of his autopilot responses throughout the episode -- that ironically, it could be interpreted as the behavior of a man in shock. Tony's expression as he kills Chris is horrifying because it's the face of a predator acting on instinct. It's frightening because it's inscrutable, mask-like, blank: comfortably numb. (AJ had a similar close-up in "Walk Like a Man," in the scene where he and the two Jasons pour acid on a debtor's toe. It was the most animated AJ had seemed in some time -- and the most disconnected from his own emotions.)

The Sopranos is Comfortably Numbland. Only a comfortably numb person could begin a condolence call on the survivor of a car wreck as Paulie does, by noting that the deceased had a lead foot. Carmela betrays her comfortable numbness by deflecting Paulie's anger over the fact that she and Tony arrived late to his mother's/aunt's funeral. In that same scene, Tony betrays his CN-ness in a small way, by cutting off Paulie's legitimate outrage over Da Family's non-attendance ("It's a fundamental lack of respect and I'm never gonna fucking forget it") by reminding him that Tony's the boss and a very busy man, and Paulie should be grateful that he showed up. Comfortable numbness enables men to kill again and again to protect money, property and reputation. Comfortable numbness allows women like Carmela to live with deep knowledge of their husbands' viciousness while reassuring themselves that a disinterest in details equals a lack of complicity. Carmela knows Adriana didn't just "disappear," but she chooses not to think about it because thinking about it would make her uncomfortable.

The Time-Warner cable summary of this episode promised, "Tony has a revelation." That sounds like a joke, and that's how it will probably play out. Regular readers of these post-Sopranos columns know that a part of me wants to see Tony and the rest of his criminal gang suffer tangible earthly punishment for their viciousness. There are suggestions that Chase, in his typically roundabout way, might have been heading in this direction -- that the series would confound our expectations in the most spectacular fashion yet by having Tony realize the error of his ways, probably with help from Melfi, and try to save his own soul by confessing not to law enforcement, but to his therapist, who would be well within her rights to report a man who has killed people and is bound to do it again.

But the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that these intimations of impending moral reversal will remain just that. If Tony brings down the family, he'll do it without realizing why he did it. He'll do it by amping up the same behavior we've seen throughout Season Six: the self-destructive, "Take me out of the game, coach" impulses, manifested in his heedless gambling and his willingness to hang personal dirty laundry out to dry in front of employees who should view him as strong and in control. If justice is finally done to Tony and his circle as a result of Tony's actions, it won't be intentional. Tony's flirted with a moral awakening many times without embracing it. (In this very same episode, he had a dream -- a revelatory dream -- in which he confessed his numb viciousness to Melfi, but when he got the chance to make the dream real, he couched the same statements in euphemisms.) Tony can't have a moral awakening. He's been too comfortable and too numb for too long. His family and "Family" are numb, too. There must have been three or four dozen verbal expressions of condolence in last night's episode, and none of them seemed truly felt.

It's no accident that this episode contained so many echoes of previous Sopranos dream sequences, including the Season One dream about the ducks (obliquely references in images of asbestos being dumped into marshlands, an image suggesting how Tony's business pollutes his domestic fantasies) to the image of Chris' wife nursing their orphaned baby daughter (reminiscent of Tony's breast-feeding dream from Season One) and the extended purgatory dream that occurred in the second and third episodes of Season Six. In the latter dream, Tony impersonated Kevin Finnerty, a solar heating salesman who, as far as we could tell, was a self-interested bastard; then he fell down some stairs and was incidentally diagnosed with Alzheimers', declined to tell his wife back home, or to return home at all (an interesting touch in light of Tony's Vegas trip, during which he contacted his family zero times). Then he found himself standing outside of a palatial woodland home on the night of a party where the other Tony, Tony B., served as gatekeeper. He was informed that his family was in there -- including a fleetingly-glimpsed Livia figure -- but he could not enter unless he dropped the briefcase, a symbol of his professional identity (Finnerty the heating salesman, Tony Soprano the gangster). At Chris' wake, there's a moment where Tony exchanges a silent nod of acknowledgment with Daniel Baldwin, who played a character in Cleaver who was so much like a worst-case-scenario version of Tony that Tony was actually hurt by it. The classic shot-reverse shot exchange has a mirror's symmetry: Tony denies that he is the man depicted in Cleaver, but in some fundamental sense, he is. Dreamworld Tony and Kevin Finnerty are the same guy, too.

There's a sense in which Tony's trip to Vegas seems a coded attempt to replay his tour of Coma Land in the waking world, with the peyote trip substituting for the actual out-of-body-experience he had after Junior shot him. Tony's subconscious presented him with a series of complexly interwoven but fairly clear instructions on how to change his life and be happy, as well as a warning of the consequences if he did not; after he awakened from the coma, he went through an uncharacteristically gentle period, then reverted more or less to type. In "Kennedy and Heidi," he goes to Vegas to revisit a critical juncture in his development as an adult human being (his dream detailing the two competing Tonys and the stakes in their struggle) and maybe get it right this time. He goes to Vegas hoping to see the light.

And he does see the light twice in the episode, literally -- first by looking up at the lamp on the ceiling of his hotel bathroom, then by watching the sunset with Christopher's former stripper girlfriend and erupting with joy at the sight of a solar flare that resembled the helicopter searchlights/operating table lamp from his coma experience. "I get it!" he shouts. "I get it!"

But he doesn't. Any righting of this universe's moral scales will be incidental. Tony's been living an expedient life for too long. If he was going to change, he would have done it. He's been going down this road forever. He's had too many close calls to count. Each time, he hears some version of Heidi and Kennedy in his head, Kennedy saying, "Let's go back," and Heidi saying, "No."

Heidi is driving.

For a review of Episode 19, "The Second Coming," click here. Sopranos recaps run every Monday at The House Next Door. For more articles about the series, see The Sopranos in the sidebar at right.


Sopranos Mondays: Season 6, Ep. 17, "Walk Like a Man"

By Matt Zoller Seitz

Written and directed by Terence Winter, "Walk Like a Man" came close to being all things to all Sopranos viewers. For the "less yakkin', more whackin'" segment of the audience, it offered tits and blood aplenty, and it zipped through its densely packed narrative with a breathless sureness reminiscent of the show's more conspicuously plot-driven first season (which makes sense, considering that there are only four episodes left; the show might as well circle around to where it started). But beneath its surface pleasures (and surface nastiness) was one of the most complicated structures of any single Sopranos episode -- so dense, in fact, that I felt obligated to watch it twice before writing this, and had intended to watch it a third time until the 24-hours-in-a-day rule kicked in until it became clear that if I didn't write something soon, I'd have to title the column "Sopranos Tuesday." So I won't attempt to be as comprehensive here as in previous posts; if I gloss over anything, hopefully we'll get to it in the comments section.

I figure the best way to move through this thing is layer by layer, starting at the level of What Happened. Tony earned goodwill from the feds who dine at Satriale's by giving them information on the two Muslim guys, Ahmed and Muhammad, who used to hang at the Bada-Bing but now seem to have gone fundamentalist -- or so Tony claimed; he's not the most culturally sensitive mobster in the neighborhood. "Tell me they're not gonna blow up the chemical plant or some shit," says Christopher, who then responds to Tony's request for a contact number. Whether this will culminate in a terrorism-related final stretch or just a commendation (or "5-K") letter in Tony's file as a possible sentencing buffer is anyone's guess.

Tony also belatedly responds to Dr. Melfi's request to be a more diligent patient by declaring that he plans to quit therapy because it's bullshit that isn't doing him any measurable good -- but he ends up sticking around to seek counsel on his son AJ's depression. AJ has spiraled into the lower depths of despair, blankly watching TV all day, making suicidal remarks to sister Meadow and not-quite-stalking his ex-fiancee, Blanca; he goes to therapy -- with a shrink so impassive that he seemed to have been animated by Chuck Jones; when he stared blankly at AJ, I half-expected to hear a lone piano key go, "plink!" -- but seems to have pretty much the same reaction to the experience as Tony in super-grump mode, namely, thinking it's useless at best, a scam job at worst. Tony's own version of therapy consists of urging AJ to attend a party with the two Jasons, the Rutgers-enrolled, gambling-rich, petty mobster sons of a couple of made guys, one of whom is Patsy Parisi.

Patsy's bragging on his boy's ambition spurs Tony to confess to Melfi that he fears that AJ's life is doomed to be shit because depression, and perhaps criminality itself, flow through Tony's veins. AJ does start hanging out with the Jasons, and the experience doesn't so much pull him out of his depression as distract him with intoxicants and power-tripping. Inadvertently fullfilling Tony's own prophecy to Melfi, the Jasons use AJ as muscle-by-implication, keeping him around to sweat clients that haven't paid up, then inviting AJ along as they punish one debtor by kidnapping him from a party, dragging him into the woods and pouring acid on his toe. (AJ's closeup in this scene ranks among Iler's strongest acting moments. It's terrifying yet oddly blank, as if a switch has been flipped inside AJ even though AJ doesn't know it yet.)

Meanwhile, Christopher's father-in-law, who's doing a brisk business in stolen construction tools courtesy of Paulie, gets ripped off by a couple of Paulie's boys. Christopher's complaints over Paulie's rudeness sparks a feud between the men, who were already accustomed to pissing in each other's Wheaties. A switch seems to get flipped inside Christopher as well. He's increasingly sensitive about the fact that his dedicated sobriety has put him at odds with his line of work. His insistence on walking the line, coupled with Bobby Bacala's increasing closeness to Tony (indicated in a backyard barbecue at the Moltisantis' house where Tony blows off Christopher so he can keep conferring with Bobby), makes him feel shut out. Early in the episode, Chistopher gets his balls busted by Paulie for refusing to drink with him at the Bada-Bing, and for declining an invitation to take a ride and get some prime rib. All this leads Christopher to lash out against the most obvious source of his discomfort, Paulie -- an embittered colleague who never got over the fact that Chris rose faster in the family than he did.

The episode culminates in a series of brutish and tragically absurd acts: Christopher busting up a card game and laying into one of the tool thieves; Paulie taking revenge by doing donuts all over the Moltisantis' landscaped suburban lawn; and ultimately, Christopher visiting Paulie at the Bing to make peace, impulsively deciding to make the bond official by drinking with him, getting drunk and talking in slurry Hallmark terms about being a dad and embarassing himself in front of all the macho men of the Bing, then stalking off and seeking counsel from his AA buddy JT (Tim Daly), the writer of Cleaver. Christopher tries to unburden himself of his agony over the dark secrets of Da Family -- in particular, his participation in the death of his fiancee, a mob stoolie.

JT doesn't just deny Christopher the empathy he seeks; he rebuffs him, supposedly because he's got a deadline to deliver a Law and Order script, but really because he doesn't want to get too close to a guy who's in the mob and seems hell-bent on filling his head with incriminating information. "You're in the Mafia," JT tells him bluntly -- maybe the most banal yet vicious cutdown since the moment in the film version of Glengarry Glen Ross when Kevin Spacey's smug office manager twists the knife in down-and-out salesman Shelly Levene (Jack Lemmon) by telling him that the leads Shelly tried so hard to close were never going to buy anything: "They salesmen." On his way out, Christopher pulls his gun and ventilates JT's forehead.

And now's as good a time as any to switch over to some drive-by analysis. On a level of pure craft, this episode was a marvel, not just because of the amount of information it contained, but also because of how it toyed with audience expectations. So many potential "endings" for the show were teased out and then either defused or complicated that at times it seemed as if series creator David Chase had ordered some intern to dig up every article every written that speculated on how the show would wrap up, then compile a master list and distribute it to the writers so they'd know what not to do. Could a Christopher-Paulie feud still bring down the family? Maybe, but the peacemaking scene at the Bing seemed to put a period to that. Might Tony or Christopher get in a jam and squeal to the feds? It could still happen, but while Tony's gambling continues, and Christopher's stupidity in this episode left him with a conspicuous killing to deny, I don't think Chase will go in this direction -- and that if he does, he'll avoid the obvious route. Both the Chris-Paulie feud and Christopher's repeated attempts to confess his role in Adriana's death and relieve himself of his overwhelming guilt -- notice how each time he alluded to the event, he used more specific, incriminating language -- seemed less about "How do we end the show?" than "How do we force these characters to acknowledge the reality of their lives"? (My former Star-Ledger colleague Alan Sepinwall has suggested that Chase's idea of ultimate punishment is forcing someone to look in mirror and see the truth.)

I've theorized at various points that Christopher would be the one who ultimately sold out the family, because his compulsion to sell screenplays and produce movies indicated an overwhelming desire to tell stories -- a sick twist on "Write what you know." I thought maybe it would turn out that the entire series has been filtered through Christopher's perspective. But that's probably too neat for Chase, and really, at this late stage, there's no point trying to anticipate where things are going, because Chase just isn't going to go there. The episode's closing image represents Chase's M.O. in one shot: Christopher heads for his front door after re-planting a tree uprooted during Paulie's rampage, and as he walks up the steps in a static wide shot, we keep staring at that tree, thinking it's going to fall over. And it doesn't. What's brilliant about the shot is the fact that Chase has been outsmarting us for so many years -- with climaxes and anticlimaxes -- that when Winter cuts to the wide shot, we feel certain the tree won't fall. Then we expect it to fall anyway, because Chase wouldn't normally do something like that, and doing it would violate our expectations. Then he doesn't do it, which means that he's violated our expectations by satisfying them. David Chase's CAT scans aren't photographs. They're drawings by M.C. Escher.

The "What's next?" game is fun, but what's more interesting -- to Sopranos-ologists, and perhaps to Chase as well -- are the reflections, doublings and tangential echoes created by juxtaposing plotlines: not what happens, necessarily, but what it tells us about the characters, and what the events tell the characters about themselves. For instance, I don't believe that Christopher killed JT to prevent him from revealing the secrets Christopher drunkenly confessed about the family. (The death of a screenwriter he employed would draw so much attention that it would cancel the zip-your-lip aspect of the murder.) I don't think JT's killing was about anything but Christopher's realization that -- like the late Eugene and Vito, and like Tony -- he's trapped in this life and can't get out without destroying the organization, himself, his blood family or some combination. He's rooted to Da Family even though, emotionally, he's uprooted himself many times.

More than some episodes, "Walk Like a Man" often indicated that The Sopranos' true interest isn't gangsterism, but psychotherapy, and psychology's determination to unpack, define and fix the roots of human unhappiness despite evidence that it's not possible to do such a thing because people are just too complicated, and therapy's methods too reductive (despite their insistence on respecting the mysteries of the personality). There are at least five sequences in "Walk Like a Man" that depict therapy or something like it. None are comforting. There's Christopher's group therapy confession; there Chris' subsequent, coded one-on-one in the stairwell, where he recasts his fiancee's murder as a dispute over a bad employee he happened to be sleeping with (a characterization that's true, as Obi-Wan Kenobi once bullshat Luke Skywalker, from a certain point of view); and of course, there's Chris' final visit to JT, where he seeks an authentic connection, and a reassurance that he can finally tell the truth about who he is and what he'd done without being manipulated or punished or sold out, only to be rebuffed (thus the killing round: JT told him a truth he didn't want to hear, and Chrissy literally shot the messenger). Then there's Tony's scene with Melfi and AJ's interlude with his own shrink: both prove equally useless in the short run, though the respective relationships might eventually amount to something if both therapist and patient pledged to dig deeper.

Speaking of digging: the scene in the TV room between Tony and AJ contained one of the best uses of a film clip in the show's history, from the 1968 movie The Hellfighters. That's a drama in which Wayne plays Chance Buckman, a fictionalized version of real life firefighter Red Adair, who was also the basis for Bruce Willis' character in Armageddon. Adair's specialty was putting out fires on oil rigs -- fires that might conceivably burn forever, depending on the size of the deposit below -- by drilling deep into the earth and extinguishing the blaze with a well-placed explosive charge. That's a macho metaphor for the more sensitive, feminized work done by Dr. Melfi and her colleagues, who dig into the heart of patients' histories and personalities trying to root out the sources of lifelong trauma -- or at least, that's what Melfi's sessions with Tony ought to be. Unfortunately, Tony's right to say that Melfi has spent much of the past six seasons treating symptoms rather than probing root causes -- though, to be fair, she might have dug deeper by now had Tony seemed more open to the idea. (If you're inclined toward a Roman Catholic reading, the Wayne film's title seems rather on-the-nose.)

Equally intriguing is Winter's examination of the destructive effect of macho culture, which is passed along through the generations (witness the two Jasons) through a combination of nature and nurture. Building on last episode's amazing use of the theme to The Deer Hunter in the scene where AJ proposes to Blanca, Winter teases out the Cult of Macho -- not just through numbing images of violence and whoring, but through seemingly incidental touches that linger in the mind because of their metaphoric aptness. The old codes, defined in last episode's scenes where would-be surrogate fathers Tony and Phil berated Vito's disturbed goth son, are repeatedly likened to hazing. The scene where the Two Jasons torture their client in the woods has overtones of an initiation rite (for AJ). Tony himself invokes fraternities to Carmela as a justification for sending AJ to a party where he can drink and cavort with hookers even though he's not of legal age. The low end of hazing is represented in the party scenes with the Two Jasons: all male entitlement and apelike swagger. The devilish depths are represented by Tony's recalling how his dad pulled him into the life by making him do a hit back in 1982 (a murder only recently uncovered by the authorities), yet punishing Bobby for humiliating him in a drunken brawl by forcing Bobby to do a hit (his first). The hit draws Bobby even deeper into Da Family and tightens Tony's control over his destiny.

Then there the related matter of fathers and sons. Tony vocally obsesses over the idea that both criminality and depression are genetic, even as he rejects (to Christopher) the notion that alcoholism is a condition, an inherited disease like, well, Alzheimers'. (If Chris' dad and Tony's hero, Dickie Moltisanti, was nothing but a junkie -- as Chris says at the barbecue -- then what does that make Tony? Nothing but an overeating, boozing, coke-snorting, stripper-banging fraud?) Tony tries to save his own son, who he fears will follow him into mob life, by commanding him to attend a party at Sin Central, the Bing, a mob-run fleshpit where, as Christopher notes, booze and sex are everywhere and half the strippers are cokeheads. Tony evinces a similar push-pull attitude toward Christopher. As Chris points out, Tony's the kind of guy who will pour a recovering alcoholic a drink with one hand, and with the other, judge him for taking it.

These codes are intertwined with straight male identity. Even men who have never gotten within a thousand miles of a fistfight or a whorehouse have entertained urges like the ones that are the Sopranos mobsters' stock-in-trade. Yet these impulses -- and the industries devoted to satiating them -- coexist with banal rituals of family life, wage slavery and consumerist reflex. The episode's penultimate scene finds Tony and AJ -- both hung-over and trying not to act too guilty -- joining the women of the house, Carmela and Meadow, for a family dinner around the kitchen table.

Sopranos recaps run every Monday at The House Next Door. For more articles about the series, see The Sopranos in the sidebar at right.


Sopranos Mondays: Season 6, Ep. 16, "Chasing It"

By Matt Zoller Seitz

"What are you chasing?" Dr. Melfi asks Tony Soprano, whose compulsive gambling is destroying his life. "Money. or a high from winning?" The episode's title, "Chasing It," seems to promise an answer, but it's another form of evasion. Tony pointedly doesn't reply to Melfi in his session. He seems to respond later, when he apologizes to Carmela for belittling her adventures in real estate; she notes the illogic of Tony's betting ever-larger sums of money hoping to win his way out of debt, and he replies, "You start chasing it, and every time you get your hands around it, you fall further backwards."

This is what Tony Soprano talks about when he talks about happiness. I don't mean happiness in the la-dee-da, skipping-through-the-daisies sense. I mean a deeper sense of happiness that, when identified and consciously cultivated, endures even during grim times: a sense of being centered, of having a pretty good idea of who you are and feeling reasonably sure that your life is working with you rather than against you. Six seasons into The Sopranos, I've never gotten a sense that Tony feels deep happiness for longer than a few moments at a time -- when he's taking pride in the accomplishments of loved ones or enjoying the company of old friends he can trust (for the moment), maybe; but even then Gandolfini's melancholy performance suggests that there's something gnawing at Tony, an unease more profound than the physical fear of ending up dead or in jail.

Since his shooting at the hands of his demented Uncle Junior, Tony's unease has become palpable. He radiates misery and instability in his everyday life and no longer seems able (or willing) to hide it. He says whatever's running through his head -- impulsively proposing a politically impossible tactic, openly copping to his gambling debts in front of subordinates, and otherwise inspiring furtive "The fuck's up with Tony?" glances everywhere he goes. He's behaving like a man who isn't happy being a mob boss, or a mobster period, and wants out. Because he knows he can't get out (as Eugene and Vito found out the hard way) he expresses that wish unconsciously, by doing and saying things that destabilize the life he's always known.

This is why I can accept Tony's all-consuming and seemingly out-of-nowhere gambling addiction as something more than a typical network TV crisis-of-the-week improv. When a character is convincingly drawn, the details of his self-destructive compulsion don't matter that much; what's important is that it makes sense given what we know about the character, and arrives at a critical juncture in the storyline. I think both criteria have been satisfied here -- and if it wasn't gambling, it would be something else. Tony has a lot of different nests -- his marriage, his identity as a father, his relationship with his crew, his associates (including Hesh Rabkin, Tony's chief creditor) and his fellow bosses (notably Phil Leotardo, the late Johnny Sack's replacement) -- and he seems determined to foul every one of them.

Late in the episode, there's a significant hard cut between two scenes -- one of Tony's ugliest (and ultimately most pathetic) confrontations with Carmela, and a pivotal moment in the episode's "B" plot, in which Vito, Jr., the goth-posing, profoundly troubled son of slain gay mobster Vito Spatafore, responds to bullying in the boys' locker room at school by defecating in the shower. The Tony-Carmela scene builds on an earlier, more subdued confrontation, in which Carmela celebrates the successful sale of her first home, and Tony suggests spending $200,000 of the $600,000 sale betting on a Jets game that he insists is a "sure thing"; the follow-up finds a bathrobe-clad Tony berating Carm with sweeping accusations of ruthlessness and hypocrisy that she's already heard many times and has clearly decided not to think about (just as Tony had decided, until fairly recently, not to obsess over the major and minor sins he committed in order to amass the Soprano fortune). "The fact is, you're a shitty businesswoman who built a piece of shit house that's gonna cave in and kill that fucking unborn baby any day!" Tony bellows. "And now you can't sleep!" Carmela throws a vase at him and goes upstairs; in wide shot, Tony lumbers off into the background, leaving the vase shards untouched on the foyer floor.

In the very next scene, Vito, Jr. -- whose mix of "Fuck You" indifference, goth affectation and doughy sensitivity reads as closeted gay, or at the very least, way too sensitive for the macho zoo of high school; whose already innate feelings of alienation were surely inflamed by the murder of his dad, who was murdered not for what he did, but for who he was, and the continued defamation of his dad's memory by the same thugs who rooted for his demise -- responds to teasing in the shower by facing his tormentors, squeezing out a deposit and mashing it beneath his bare foot. It's social terrorism -- a visual and olfactory assault that clears the room. It could only have been committed by a human being who cannot understand, much less articulate, the source of his unhappiness, but who has decided that if he cannot master or destroy his environment, he'll deface it.

It's the act of a young man who hates himself and everyone else so much that he just wants out, and doesn't particularly care how he gets out. Of course, the kid didn't anticipate getting rousted from his bed in the middle of the night by Idaho youth camp goons -- a scene that ranks as one of the most disturbing in the entire series, despite its absence of bloodshed, for the way that it syncs up with last week's account of how Tony's dad Johnny Boy ordered Tony to perform his first hit back in 1982. In both instances -- Johnny Boy forcing his son into a venal, violent lifestyle he might have transcended if left alone, and Vito Jr. being hauled off (on his mother's orders, and at Tony's suggestion) to a brainwashing camp designed to force him to be the kind of person everyone around him would prefer -- we're seeing a potentially free and unique soul brutalized by life and then brainwashed into adopting, and potentially exemplifying, the mentality of his tormentors.

After the shower outrage, we see Tony react to news of Vito Jr.'s action by deciding to pay the boy's mother, Marie, the $100,000 in relocation money she begged for in the episode's opening scene -- money he failed to convince newly-installed New York mob boss Phil Leotardo that he should pay, because he's related to Marie and responsible for her husband's murder. Tony somehow assembles the money for Marie, then gambles it away -- an act that makes both his home life and his professional life more unstable. In both the "A" and "B" stories -- Vito, Jr. and Tony -- men liquidate assets, so to speak, to rebel against a life that's suffocating them, a life that forces them to embody lies. (Tony is more self-aware, intelligent and empathetic than almost anyone around him, including his wife and children, but favors his sadistic and violent streak, for survival's sake; Vito, Jr. is rebelling, in his halting and inept way, against the macho straight mentality that contributed to his father's "disappearance," and the various institutions, from organized crime to the schools, that blandly continue its work.)

As I've noted in previous Sopranos recaps, Season Six is heavy on parallel narratives, a la Season One's "College" and Season Three's "University." Written by Matthew Weiner and directed by Tim Van Patten, "Chasing It" was temperamentally quite like those two signature installments, and in a few scenes, it went further and let the plotlines converge, even collide, so that the "A" and "B" stories seemed to be facing each other and examining each other. The most obvious example is the scene where Tony, who cops to a long history of playing surrogate daddy, goes to Marie's house and confronts Vito, Jr., only a tad less brutally than Phil had done earlier. When the man and the boy sit across from each other, it's like visiting hour at a prison, only we don't know who's in jail and who's visiting. When Tony urges Vito to step up and be the man of the house because nobody else will, he could be addressing himself as a boy -- maybe even paraphrasing words spoken by his mother, Livia, the dark shape that lingers in the back of his mind, telling him what to do and say even when he's thinks he's not listening. (It's notable that when Tony berates others, he seems to be talking about himself in code. His attack on Carmela accuses her of evading the facts of her own corruption -- her willingness to compromise for convenience and profit, expressed in the construction of a shoddy house that could cave in and kill its inhabitants. Carmela later counters with a similar image, of Tony as a cartoon character blithely wandering through life oblivious to the piano dangling from a rope above his head. There's a difference, though: in his inarticulate way, Tony is accusing Carmela of complicity in corruption -- a corruption he embodies. Carmela, on the other hand, seems to be warning him of physical rather than moral punishment: a value-neutral statement along the lines of, "You go in the water, you get wet.")

When Tony fouls his nest, what's he rebelling against, exactly? Probably none of the positive things in his life: a strong, if volatile, marriage to a woman who truly loves him, and who bore him two children who look up to their dad even as they see through him; the security of knowing that he rose higher in his profession (organized crime) than anyone could have predicted, and that he's amassed a fortune that allows him to drop $3.2 million on a yacht (according to Hesh) and bribe a building inspector so that his wife's probable-deathtrap home can jump-start her real estate career. But more than ever, he seems ill at ease around people who used to make him feel comfortable. When he's surrounded by people, he still seems alone, and when he talks, even if he's in direct conversation, he seems to be talking to himself. He seems like a spiritual cousin of Eugene and Vito -- guys who wanted out and got taken out; guys who unearthed their true selves too late, unbalancing their world and ensuring their demise. The Sopranos seems to be disintegrating as we watch it. That sense of volatility is indicated in uncharacteristically (and I think purposefully) loose camerawork. Did my eye deceive me, or was this week's episode -- comprised mostly in nervous, hand-held, zoomed-in closeups and medium shots, except for the scenes in Melfi's office, which were nailed to the floor, befitting an oasis of stability --the first episode to be shot on high definition video rather than 35mm film? Whatever the means, the intent was clear, and the result suited the story. The show's characteristic brown-and-gold-and-green palette looked flatter, more washed out and sickly.

There's so much more to talk about here: Tony's anti-semitic baiting of Hesh (more nest-fouling); Dr. Melfi's insistence that Tony attend sessions regularly, then ending the scene by standing up (she's the only character besides Carmela who seems unafraid of standing up to him); the death of Hesh's companion (a possible foreshadowing of Carmela's fate?); Tony's astoundingly cold treatment of Hesh right afterward (dropping off a sack full of cash to pay off his debt, and leaving as quickly as possible); the canny use, in the scene where A.J. proposes, of the main theme from The Deer Hunter, a movie about how men express emotion by not expressing it, referenced in scene where a man defies gender stereotype and speaks from his heart. His heart gets stepped on later, but that's another story.

Sopranos recaps run every Monday at The House Next Door. For more articles about the series, see The Sopranos in the sidebar at right.


Sopranos Mondays: Season 6, Ep. 15, "Remember When"

By Matt Zoller Seitz
"Is this what life is like at our age?" asks Carmela Soprano, as Tony prepares to flee New Jersey while the FBI excavates the site of his first murder.

"The tomatoes are just coming in," Tony replies, a tad wistfully.

It's an odd thing to say, but it feels right. The tomatoes in his backyard are just one entry on a long list of things that he's never properly appreciated and maybe never will. The malaise that hangs over Tony like Pig-Pen's dirt cloud in Peanuts isn't a matter of fretting over the persistent unanswered question, "How will I go out, dead or in jail?" It seems more unconscious -- an incidental affliction, rooted in the curse of living in a perpetual state of disharmony with your own life. Tony's going about in pity for himself (with good reason) while a great wind carries him across the sky. He's a bit smarter and more self-aware than most of the crooks he competes with or bosses around, but on The Sopranos, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. During Tony's eight years of therapy with Dr. Melfi, he's learned enough about himself to realize and admit that his life was fucked up from the start, and he fucked it up worse with each passing year; yet he's never shown the insight necessary to seize that knowledge and break it open, much less act to change his circumstances (a virtual impossibility anyway, considering how tightly he's chained to a life of privilege -- and a wife and kids and relatives and employees that cling to every link). A bullet in the torso got the message across, but it didn't take. He's back to being beat-up-'em, bed-'em-down Tony, except more of an automaton, a bad boy reverting to type but not really reveling in it.

When Tony and Paulie go down south and hang with Beansie in Miami, Tony agitates to visit a motel and massage parlor they once enjoyed and eat some steaks, only to discover that the motel has been replaced by a depressingly respectable hotel that only offers sandwich wraps after 11. Tony grumbles about this but accepts it. It's a smaller-scale version of the episode's parallel narrative of Uncle Junior in a group home for the criminally insane, where he goes from being a tinpot dictator running a secret Poker Nation with chips as currency to a medicated institutional yes-man (joining in a singalong of "Take Me Home, Country Road," for Christ's sake); it's a forced capitulation to a bland new world. (The explosive anger of Junior's behind-bars Bacala -- played by Ken Leung, the star of Spike Lee's superb, unappreciated Showtime film Sucker-Free City -- is all about trusting in a role model/mentor, then feeling betrayed.) In Miami, Tony gripes to Paulie about Johnny Sack's holier-than-thou attitude toward marital fidelity, and takes a young blonde up to his room, but after he's spent himself inside her, he rolls over and makes chitchat, and you wonder, is it an Alpha Male rutting urge he's satisfying, or does he just miss talking to Carmela? A bit of both, probably -- but more of the latter.

The title of this episode, "Remember When," is spoken by Tony, when he grows disgusted by Paulie's nonstop Glory Days yammering during a dinner with Beansie and their lady friends, and leaves the table in disgust. "Remember when is the lowest form of conversation," he says. Funny, though: three episodes into the second half of Season Six (which is so different in tone from the first half that it should probably be considered a shadow Season Seven) and it seems the final stretch of The Sopranos is about the consequences of failing to remember and fully comprehend past choices, and having to face the consequences of having made those choices. If the first half of this season was about the difficulty, even impossibility, of altering one's life (much less one's nature, as if they aren't the same thing) then the second half is about the past catching up with you, inflicting inconvenience and sometimes grave damage; and how the inconvenience and damage wouldn't be such a serious threat if you hadn't made the wrong choice; and (a corollary) how the the consequences of a past bad choice wouldn't be so troublesome if they caught up to a changed person.

To face the past is to face one's essential nature, and ask how much one has grown or changed, or will change, and the extent to which one even can change. Nobody likes to look in a mirror, except maybe a sociopathic narcissist like Paulie, who seems to think everything that ever happened to him is pure anecdote magic. (Tony's flirting with a pre-emptive whacking of Paulie made for a suspenseful sequence on rented boat -- one that any viewer with a brain would have recognized as psychic return to Big Pussy's execution, without the aid of a flashback -- but the whole setup seemed inplausible to me, because Paulie's a petty thug, not a novice meathead, and because, even if Paulie had been established as a diarrhea-mouthed dummy who dropped incriminating statements left and right, he surely would have been whacked by his own guys long ago, perhaps by Tony, who should have noticed this tendency earlier.)

But like Paulie, I digress. The point is, bills Tony thought he'd skipped out on keep coming due. In the season opener, Essex County cops found a gun he dropped a year-and-a-half earlier; from the look of dumb astonishment on his face when the police mobbed his house, you could tell he'd barely given that piece a second thought. In "Remember When," he runs from his cherry-pop killing, the 1982 murder of a Newark bookie; Paulie rather pathetically tried to reassure him that there couldn't be much left, but as Tony rightly observed, bones and teeth are all they need. (In the season opener, "Soprano Home Movies," Bobby Bacala left copious amounts of his own DNA at the scene of his own cherry-pop murder, a killing ordered by Tony, out of greed for a better deal on black market medicine and a desire to assert his power over Bobby, who beat him in a drunken brawl.) True, Tony appears to have wriggled out of the gun charge, and he escaped responsibility for the 1982 killing as well, thanks to jailed mob boss Larry Barese fingering the late Jackie Aprile for the murder. Either he's the luckiest mob boss who ever lived or just another TV character, living in a blood-and-guts crime story that just happens to be structured like a situation comedy: Everybody Fears Tony.

Or maybe series creator David Chase is about to unveil the series' ultimate bit of misdirection: its insistence that certain events were one-off incidents that didn't mean anything beyong the episode in which they appeared, and that we should forget about them, because The Sopranos isn't that kind of TV show. Wouldn't it be unsportsmanlike, and maybe wonderful, if it turned out Chase was lying about that -- if all of a sudden, The Sopranos became like Deadwood or The Wire, a show with an elephant's memory, and brought down the whole crew over an investigation into Ralphie Cifaretto's murder of his pregnant stripper girlfriend Tracee (which I never believed would have gone so conspicuously unnoticed), or had Paulie return from Miami and open his own front door to see the disappearing Russian from Pine Barrens standing there with a machete? In other words, a final six in which a string of seemingly long-defused outrages suddenly pop one after the other, like Chinese firecrackers.

That's probably too grand and too traditionally satisfying a strategy for Chase, though. He's an aficionado of the anticlimax, which is why it makes perverse sense that Tony would keep having to leave his home not because of unpunished sins he broods over constantly, but because of errors and offenses he hasn't thought about in years. (Al Capone got nailed over income taxes.) Tony may have given himself permission to forget certain things (morally speaking, everybody has a touch of Uncle Junior's condition). But other people -- cops, victims' relatives, maybe witnesses he didn't know existed -- never forgot. It would be poetic justice if the lowest form of conversation did Tony in.

Then again, maybe punishment for Tony will be the recognition that he's lived a nasty, brutish life, that it brought shame and pain to many of his loved ones (cue Godfather music) that it's too late to do anything about it; what's done is done. My former Star-Ledger colleague Alan Sepinwall speculates that in the final stretch of episodes,
"...we're going to see a lot of characters suffer a fate worse than jail or even death: being forced to confront who they really are.

In episode one, it was Bacala who had to abandon the pretense that he could be a made man without blood on his hands. Last week, Tony saw how much Christopher resented him, while Phil and Johnny Sack questioned how they had lived their lives. Here, Junior and Paulie -- Tony's biological uncle and his unofficial one -- come to terms with their decay into lonely, pathetic old men, not useful for much besides dirty jokes and stories about the good old days.

Characters have been telling old stories all season, often about the resentment that grows between fathers and sons, or between mentors and proteges. Here, Junior recalls the day his father (Tony's grandfather) made him walk home 11 miles for turning down a 25-cent tip from a rich woman. Carter loses his temper recounting the time his father dismissed a 96 score on a third grade spelling test because it wasn't a 100. Paulie notes that Johnny Boy Soprano gave Tony the Willie Overalls hit when Tony was 24, but Tony quickly and forcefully says that he was 22.

It's those details they don't forget. Even in the grips of dementia, Junior knows he walked 11 miles. Carter remembers the exact grade on the test. Tony remembers how old he was when his father made him into a killer (which he in turn would do to Christopher and Bacala).

Earlier in that conversation, Tony suggests that Johnny Boy never believed in him. Paulie counters that Johnny trusted him with the hit, after all, but Tony clearly resents that Johnny didn't believe he could become anything but a thug, condemning him to this life."


The bifurcated structure of "Remember When" played like a cousin of acclaimed early Sopranos episodes, particularly Season One's "College" and Season Three's "University." But the parallels between the main storylines -- Uncle Junior/Carter Chong and Tony/Paulie -- seemed more muddled here than in earlier mirror-structure installments. Uncle Junior is Carter Chong's surrogate dad behind bars, but Carter eventually grows disillusioned with Junior and lashes out against him, as he apparently never did against his real father; Tony belatedly realizes how disappointed he is in his father figure/mob big brother Paulie, and comes close to murdering him, but doesn't. But wait: Carter had another, better father figure, his granddad (even though he never puts it in quite those terms). And Tony had a real father, Johnny Boy Soprano, and a sorta-kinda surrogate, Uncle Junior -- the former retaining mythic status even though he poisoned his son's life with violence, the latter serving more as an irritant to Tony and an obstacle to his ascension than a guru or role model.

Then again, was "Remember When" really that muddled, or have the show's writers just gotten more confident, more inclined to let scenes and lines of dialogue complement each other obliquely, without the Playwriting 101 symmetry that many TV series (even The Sopranos) equate, often speciously, with Art? I doubt episode writer Terence Winter intended one-to-one correspondences here, and that's probably a good thing. And when all is said, done and explicated, the superficial parallels between Sopranos characters aren't as important as their actions, which often just erupt without warning or explanation, just as they do in life. This is my favorite aspect of The Sopranos, and of most HBO dramas, for that matter: the insistence that human beings are mysterious creatures who usually don't know what they're doing, much less why they're doing it. This is as true of the show's most self-aware characters (Tony, Melfi, Meadow) as it is of the more caricatured supporting players (Silvio, Paulie, Janice, Bobby).

But the one characteristic that unites all of them is a willingness to speak the language of self-knowledge without stepping outside of themselves and standing at sufficient distance from their own egos to make true perspective possible. Nobody on the series seems to have a conception of life outside of his or her own head, or a sense of history that goes beyond self-justifying factoid or self-pitying anecdote: Chris proclaiming that Lauren Bacall starred in The Haves and Have-Nots; Tony repeatedly whining, "Whatever happened to Gary Cooper?"; the hotel attendant who responds to Tony's questions about what happened to the old, sleazy, fun place by repeating, blankly, "I don't know." One rarely gets the sense that Chase's characters understand that the world existed before they were born and will continue to exist after they're dead and buried (perhaps in a Newark basement). When The Sopranos is depicting mob life or suburban life or the fine points of psychoanalysis, it's a compelling black comedy; but when it's showing us the distance between a character's self-image and the reality seen by others, it's a documentary.

Sopranos recaps run every Monday at The House Next Door. For more articles about the series, see The Sopranos in the sidebar at right.