Although my Star-Ledger colleague Alan Sepinwall and I find ourselves in agreement more often than not, I can't second his summation of Sunday's Sopranos episode "The Fleshy Part of the Thigh." In his weekly wrapup, he says the episode confirmed that "people don't change."
He writes, "If there is one simple, persistent message of The Sopranos, it's that you can get a new haircut, switch jobs, find another lover, embrace some new self-help philosophy, but no matter how much you talk about it, at heart you're going to be the same person you've always been. (And if you're a character on this show, chances are that person is pretty rotten.) Here's Tony, slowly recovering from an incident that by all rights should have killed him. He's talking a good game, chatting up the visiting evangelicals and the friendly scientist down the hall, telling a nurse he doesn't feel like his old self. And yet he's sneaking out of the hospital for stogie breaks, getting chesty with Phil Leotardo and basically ruining the life of the Barone family so he can protect his own interests. And here's Paulie, who receives the kind of information that should fundamentally alter his sense of self, and how does he respond? With the same woe-is-me, the-world-owes-me-some-ice-cream-cake attitude he displays under even the best of circumstances, blaming his own mother for the crime of taking him in and raising him, blaming Jason Barone for the bigger sin of having a biological mother who loves him more than she loves life itself. (You'll note the $4,000 a month shakedown is the exact cost of keeping Nucci in Green Grove.) And in case we doubted the depressing moral of the story, there's Tony sitting at the curb outside the hospital, declaring, 'From now on, every day is a gift,' as Janice—the show's poster girl for staying the same deep down, no matter how often you repaint the facade—rolls her eyes at him.
"Sure," Alan continues, "Tony may have forgiven the paramedic from picking his pocket (assuming the guy really did it), but the whole scene reminded me of that sequence from Schindler's List where Schindler persuaded Amon Goethe to show power through mercy—which lasted for about three scenes before Goethe got bored and went back to shooting people in the head....Everyone has a selfish agenda. Tony's being friendly to Aaron, a man he once threw food at during a Thanksgiving dinner (he was Janice's narcoleptic boyfriend in season three), because he's looking to acquire a Get Out of Purgatory Free card. Deluxe's manager is happy his client got shot because it'll boost record sales (and his cut). Hesh's daughter is fond of born-again Christians, but only because they're supportive of Israel. The insurance rep smiles and flirts with Tony, but she just wants him off the company books. About the only person who's not blatantly looking out for number one is Bell Labs retiree John Schwinn, so of course he suffers a fate worse than death: a man who loves to talk (and is good at it) robbed of the ability to speak"
There's much in that description that no regular Sopranos watcher could refute. As I've said in previous columns, series creator David Chase expects the worst from humanity and confirms his cyncism every chance he gets. The world he shows is rotten to the core, and with few exceptions, nice people tend to get manipulated and manhandled (Artie Bucco, for instance) or beaten down by goons (the truck driver with the son in Sunday's episode). Throughout the series, nearly every subplot, indeed almost every scene, forces a character between choosing the expedient or purely selfish route and a new path that demands self-examination, perhaps even seismic change. The first course tends to win out.
That said, if there's one thing I know for sure about Chase, it's that he likes surprising viewers; he likes it so much, in fact, that he and his writers routinely embrace anti-climax. (Think of Tony deducing Big Pussy's betrayal via a food-poisoned dream, or hotheaded rival Richie Aprile getting whacked not by Tony or some other rival, but by abused wife Janice.) So I have to wonder, if The Sopranos tries, whenever possible, to give us an outcome we didn't expect, what better way to outguess, even flabbergast regular viewers than by having Tony come back from death determined to change his life?
Yes, I know it's unlikely, given what we know about Tony. But for every bit of evidence Alan supplies to buttress the "leopard can't change his spots" argument, there's another touch that suggests Tony, arguably the show's most introspective and even philosophically-inclined character, is not beyond an eleventh-hour change of heart. Just for the hell of it—and bearing in mind that Chase has outsmarted me too many times for me to risk grand predictions—consider the following:
1. The repeated invocation of the Ojibwe saying, mysteriously posted on Tony's hospital room bulletin board: "Sometimes I go about in pity for myself, and all the while a great wind carries me across the sky." The quote suggests that Tony, like most people, is so preoccupied with his own selfish concerns that he fails to take a larger view of life, to see himself as one atom in what Deadwood creator David Milch calls "the larger human organism." The "great pity" part of that quote gently mocks Tony's (and our) fixation on the visible part of life—the first-person part that we experience as individuals—while insisting there are larger forces at play, Destiny, fate, God—pick your mystical noun.
2. The second, third and fourth episodes of this season contain more allusions to morality, spirituality and eternal rewards than any three consecutive Sopranos hours that I can recall. Besides Carmela's hospital bed apology for telling Tony he was going to hell and Tony's purgatorial adventures in Coma Land, we've seen numerous appearances by characters who represent some version of a holy man expressing a vision of life that goes beyond self-interest. Tony's Coma Land ramblings put him face-to-face with monks whose lives he'd literally made more hellish (Tony's mistaken identity alter-ego, Kevin Finnerty, sold them a defective heating system). Among other theological ambassadors, Sunday's episode featured a born-again evangelist named Pastor Bob who was once addicted to cocaine and strippers; a old nun who confessed on her deathbed to being Paulie Walnuts' real mother ("How could you be a bad girl?" Paulie cried, "You're a nun!"); a cameo by Camela's favorite hunky priest, Father Phil, and a televised glimpse of David Carradine as the hero of "Kung Fu," arguably the only network action series that doubled as a spiritual journey.
3. It's interesting that right after Tony returns from his brush with eternity, Pastor Bob sells him on evangelical Christianity as a way to relate to Christ directly, without the intercession of liturgy. Pastor Bob really means what he says—and I was pleasantly surprised that the show treated his message with such evident respect, even if they did make him look like a buffoon later, with his dinosaurs-walking-among-humans spiel. But note that his word choice appeals to Tony's practical side; Bob is a theological salesman offering a prospective customer a better deal, a chance to get his guidance from the source and cut out the middleman. "What God wants is for you to love Him directly," he tells Tony.
4. Intriguingly, even Hal Holbrook's terminally ill scientist, John Schwinn (for my money, one of the finest cameos in the show's history) came across as another kind of holy man, a guru nudging Tony towards enlightenment. In a memorable hospital room scene with an injured rap star De Lux and his posse, he regaled Tony with monologues that sounded like the continuation of religion by other means. Among other things, he said that two boxers fighting on TV weren't really opponents, and weren't truly separate, that they were all part of the same continuum. The perception of individuality, of distinctness and apart-ness, was an illusion, he said: "The shape is only in our own consciousness."
5. Dinosaurs, dinosaurs, dinosaurs. Carmela gives Tony a book about dinosaurs. Pastor Bob tells Tony (in a scene that struck me as badly misjudged because I couldn't believe such a smart salesman would tip his hand so early) that scientists are wrong, that dinosaurs walked among humans. Perhaps Tony, the 20th-century gangster, is a kind of dinosaur, a species doomed to extinction by predators (other criminals, the FBI) and by its own overreaching, by its failure to evolve and adapt. But according to the script, what happened to the dinosaurs? They didn't die out, they evolved into birds. Is it not possible that Tony has it within himself to evolve into another kind of person, one who is still recognizably Tony despite being repentant and perhaps even law-abiding, just as birds retain characteristics of their dinosaur ancestors? (Aaaahhhgggghh....Sorry. I stretched so far with that last one that I think I threw my back out.)
6. Granted, this might be temporary, but the post-coma Tony seems more inclined to forgive and negotiate than hold grudges and fight for every scrap. After demanding $2000 in cash from the paramedic he accused of ripping him off during a "wallet biopsy," he declines the cash with a wave of his hand. Later, he accepts Phil Leotardo's generally unfavorable terms of continued waste management employment with a sigh and a handshake.
Plus, he seems more aware of the world beyond his own fevered mind. The combination of near-death experience and nonstop (if unasked-for) spiritual counseling appears to have made him subliminally aware of the continuum John Schwinn described. Both the dialogue and the filmmaking support this reading. Leaving the hospital, Tony says aloud that he was supposed to be dead, and then he basks in natural sound—the wind, some distant church bells. Then, in the episode's magnificent finale, Tony sits in his backyard listening to the wind in the trees, and the camera tracks from left to right over the treeline, echoing a camera move in the Coma World sequence that ended episode three. A crane-down reveals that the treeline isn't the one in Tony's backyard, but on the Passaic river, where Tony's chief goon, Paulie Walnuts, is about to enforce the terms of Tony's employment by beating down the young man who's now trying to sell the waste management company. The editing and camerawork collapse Tony's world and Paulie's, confirming they aren't separate. The left-to-right treeline pan is repeated a second time, gliding over the trees in Tony's backyard. Then it's repeated a third time, panning the treeline over Paulie as he exits the frame in the episode's final shot.
7. Last but not least, as I was finishing this post, Alan offered an observation that buttressed my point. Put that Ojibwe saying into Sopranos language, and what does it say? "Poor you."
Sound like anyone we know?