Thursday, June 14, 2007

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.


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