Thursday, June 14, 2007

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.


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