Thursday, June 14, 2007

Sopranos Mondays: Season 6, Eps. 8 & 9: "Johnny Cakes" and "The Ride"

By Sean Burns

Howdy, folks. Sean Burns here pinch-hitting for Matt on Sopranos Monday. As if this task wasn’t daunting enough already, it turns out that last week’s “Sopranos” episode, “Johnny Cakes,” turned out to be a miniaturized, Jersey-hood version of “The New World.”

Sure, this time we’ve got franchise restaurants instead of British colonialism, and in lieu of the naturals we’re stuck with a foul-mouthed racist old lady, but the gist is the same – watching an ancient culture surrender itself to dubious, inevitable developments thrust upon it by outsiders. Obviously David Chase is an artist of a far more cynical temperament than Terence Malick, and his idea of “progress” here seems to be exchanging one old load of miserable bullshit for a newer, shinier one, but the theme was spelled out a few weeks ago, back in the hospital when our gang was discussing dinosaurs: “evolve or die.”

“It’s over for the little guy,” sighed Patsy Parisi, after trying to shake down a new Starbucks-ish coffee shop and getting stonewalled by a middle manager. There’s not enough wiggle-room on this low level to creatively account for protection payouts. And how can a couple of mobsters cause any real headaches for some CEO by breaking a window, when there are 1,200 other shops on the East Coast?

The times, they are a changin’. And so is Tony Soprano.

Yes, the man who Carmela once accused of “sticking his dick in everything that walks,” actually spurned the advances of Julianna Marguiles’ hotcha real estate broker. Tony turning down sex? What’s next, skipping dessert?) Naturally this sudden attack of virtue came about a little bit late and more than a little bit clumsily. But earlier, in an uncharacteristically valuable session with Dr. Melfi, we were able to watch Tony test-drive his usual rationalizations, insisting that he couldn’t be blamed “for seeking an outside avenue” -- only to discover that the old lies he always told himself suddenly weren’t working anymore.

Tony and the realtor did, however, consummate something: a business deal (which probably means more to most people than fucking these days, anyhow.) Diane Frolov and Andrew Schneider’s teleplay cannily used the gentrification of the North Ward to stand in for a disappearing way of life. The key difference is that while Tony used to mawkishly sentimentalize “the old ways,” we saw a very different man strolling through the neighborhood. Selling that quaint poultry shop to make way for Jamba Juice could be a sign that Tony is turning a corner. It would appear that taking a bullet from his old-school uncle has finally hipped him to the fact that “the good old days” aren’t all they were cracked up to be.

It’s a point that came through most powerfully in A.J.’s storyline. Much like his mother, the boy is finding it impossible to create a life outside his father’s looming shadow. His misguided attempt to “join the family business” was an unmitigated disaster, and in a startlingly effective moment, we and Tony both learned that the half-cocked revenge scheme was inspired by the kid’s memories of watching “The Godfather” – the ultimate romanticized gangster myth – with his dear old dad.

Tony might as well be summing up his own recent journey when he said to the kid: “But that’s just a movie!”

The episode did have its share of odd moments. I’m still puzzled at what to make of “Brokeback Vito’s Adventures In Gay Hampshire.” Though of a piece with this season’s theme of characters trying out alternate lives for themselves, there’s something stilted and surreal about these sequences that isn’t quite cohering for me. Of course it didn’t help that Vito’s perfect man – a motorcycle-riding-firefighter-who-can-cook! – was granted an over-the-top heroic entrance that looked like suspiciously like an out-take from “Can’t Stop The Music.”

Much better handled was the hilarious scene at Blockbuster, as A.J. and his sidekick indifferently went through the motions of customer service while chatting on their cell-phones and cursing. It’s Chase’s sickly funny vision of our garish, impersonal, franchised nation, proving once more that “The Sopranos” is hardly a television show about the Mafia – it’s a show about America the way we live now, from Starbucks to shining Starbucks.

On the other hand, this week’s episode, “The Ride,” felt like a bit of a place-holder. Now that Tony is finally beginning to straighten up and fly right, Chase and company took a breather to remind us that regular life is… well, it’s kinda dull sometimes.

“Sure, every day is a gift,” Tony repeated once more, “but does it have to be a pair of socks?”

Spelling everything out with uncharacteristically ham-fisted obviousness, Terence Winter’s teleplay used a broken, dangerous carnival ride as a metaphor for our characters’ appetite for self-destruction. Janice noted in the final moments that even though this shoddy teacup contraption could have killed her daughter – the child still wanted to get back on the ride.

It’s a sentiment that certainly applies to Christopher – who, when faced with a blushing pregnant bride and shiny new McMansion (“stately Wayne manor,” he called it,) eventually stopped jabbering about his domestic bliss long enough to spin out on a heroin bender.

The episode’s early highlight found Tony and Chris hi-jacking a hi-jacking, accidentally stumbling over a biker gang mid-robbery and swapping bullets, making off with a trunk full of stolen wine. The amusing escapade was discussed, celebrated and then endlessly rehashed… most pathetically in T’s basement, as the two men sadly realized they had nothing else to talk about, so why not bring it up again?

More amusing was the cheerful, tangential corruption that accompanied cheapskate Paulie’s mishandling of the St. Elzear’s Feast. You know the times have changed when a friendly little religious festival (one that used to be quite a lucrative endeavor) gets all gummed up because the new parish priest wants a larger cut of the take. There was an amusing men’s room discussion, wondering how a humble street fair can compete with DVDs and videogames for your entertainment dollar these days (a conversation that’s no doubt being echoed in every movie executive’s boardroom) and the hour’s most haunting visual showed a statue of the Saint festooned with cash.

(This feast debacle also prompted the show’s funniest line of the year thus far, as Tony surveyed Paulie’s gross mismanagement and smiled: “You’re doing a heck of a job, Brownie.”)

It’s never a pretty sight when Tony Sirico is forced to do some real acting. Don’t get me wrong --he’s a great, cartoonish sidekick, but giving Paulie Walnuts a prostate cancer scare is hardly an effective use of this particular performer’s gifts. (Much like Little Steven Van Zandt, Sirico needs to bounce his persona off one the show’s more seasoned actors, otherwise his scenes tend to run off the rails.) Curious though, how after Paulie’s reconciliation with his mother, we saw a shot of that wind Tony’s always carrying on about.

The ghost of Adrianna loomed large over the proceedings. Could Carmela’s close encounter with Ade’s mom finally be enough to knock her out of denial? Edie Falco played the confrontation close to the vest, but I thought I saw something flicker behind her eyes when Tony had to pour himself a drink in order to get through his (absolutely ludicrous) explanation.

Stranger still was the flashback to last season, when Christopher broke the news to Tony. It was a brilliantly acted moment – memorable for both Michael Imperioli’s whimpering helplessness and Gandolfini’s chilling shift from anguish to ice-cold sociopath mode. Yet the scene felt awkwardly inserted, like one of those sitcom clip-shows that always clumsily segue with characters saying stuff like: “Hey, remember that time I came over to your house and…”

I guess we can only expect that an episode all about boredom would have to be a little on the tedious side. “The Ride” felt like a transitional hour, with Chase lining all his characters up in the same mood of seething discontentment, setting the stage for the fireworks to come in this season’s final three episodes.

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