In the comments section of Odienator's recent article on parting shots, House regular Wagstaff speculated that "if [a] movie has a philosophy, then that philosophy is most directly expressed in the final shot." I countered that if you considered the first and last shot of any halfway decent movie, "you get a snapshot of the filmmaker's worldview so accurate that nothing in between can deny it. Sort of polygraph-by-cinema." If you subject Sunday night's Sopranos episode to the polygraph test, the statement seems crystal-clear, and consistent with every episode that's aired during this exceptional season: it was about the difficulty of envisioning a life different from the one you're living—and the greater difficulty, even impossibility, of making it happen.
The hour opened with a wide shot of the still-recovering Tony Soprano shambling around the backyard of his palatial McMansion in his bathrobe and having his reading interrupted by the grinding whine of a defective ventilation unit. He walked over to the unit, futzed with it, ripped off the top and hurled it away in disgust, then resumed reading. Moments later, the grinding noise returned, and rather than attack the problem again, Tony ignored it. The episode's finale showed forcibly-outed mobster Vito, who'd fled to a small town in New Hampshire that seemed to be filled with handsome young bourgeois gay men (my brother Richard remarked, "He could be dead already; maybe this is heaven"), strolling down main street and then ducking into an antiques shop. When he asked the clerk about a particular vase, the clerk complimented Vito's taste. "You're a natural," he said. As the clerk walked away, director Tim Van Patten's camera dollied in slowly on Vito as he continued to regard the vase. What made this shot so potent was Vito's unselfconsciousness. For the first time in his history on the series, he seemed completely at ease. (Actor Joseph Gannascoli, who's seemed out of his depth in other episodes, underplayed this and other moments exquisitely).
Those two shots are gateway images that invite us to reflect on everything we've seen this season. In a sense, Tony's story and Vito's story are the same story. They're about men who want to change (or escape) the lives they have, and become different people—or the men they always should have been.
Tony's near-death by gunshot shook him up and caused him to adopt a live-and-let-live approach to mob management. After his discharge from the hospital, he cheerfully released a paramedic from having to repay money he'd been accused of filching from Tony's wallet. Then agreed to Phil Leotardo's hard bargain to stay employed by the waste management company. This week, Tony ran afoul of his crew by greeting news of Vito's closet homosexuality with a shrug. "I got a second chance," he said of Vito. "Why shouldn't he?" And a more poignant response to his crew: "You gonna take care of his kids after he's gone?" Notwithstanding his calculated public beatdown of his new driver last week, he does seem softer and more reflective than we've ever seen him. Lying in bed with Carmela, the vertical scar on his exposed belly suggested a C-section; could we really be privy to the gradual birth of a New Tony? (This arc echoes saloon owner/powerbroker Al Swearengen's brush with death in season two of Deadwood, which announced the birth and maturation of a more socially constructive yet still hardassed Al.)
The defective ventilation unit illuminated Tony's present problem and his larger arc. Vito's exposure tossed a wrench into the gangster machinery, and Tony can't just ignore that grinding sound. His hamfisted jabs at enlightened thinking ("It's 2006! There's pillow biters in the Special Forces!") don't work on this bunch, which views homosexuality as a much graver sin than, say, killing a guy and scattering his body parts across Ocean County. Sooner or later Tony will have to (1) give the order to kill Vito, (2) stand by helplessly while someone else freelances the deed, or (3) take a stand and pay the price.
More significantly, though, that opening reminds us of Tony's failure to recognize the root cause of his psychic distress: he's a murderous criminal. Every reform-minded move up to now has been cosmetic, the equivalent of tearing the top off the air conditioning unit, tossing it away and going back to his reading. Even therapy hasn't really attacked the heart of the matter. As Sean Burns pointed out, it often seems that Melfi's therapy is not making Tony a better man, but a better gangster. His dead mother isn't the problem, he is.
Vito, meanwhile, appears to be enjoying his own version of the rustic yuppie life that Eugene Pontecorvo was denied when he escaped his mob-ligations by hanging himself. As Vito wandered around that small New Hampshire town, he seemed more relaxed—more himself—than we've ever seen him. The masterful slow-build sequence depicting his flight included eerie shots of Vito trudging through torrential rain after his car broke down (abandoning the vehicle we'd seen him in during his various mob errands). Drenched in water and barely protected by a thin poncho membrane, the infant-doughy thug was reborn at a bed-and-breakfast, courtesy of an innkeeper who refused to take a fistful of thank-you cash. For all she knew, he was just some traveller trying to get out of the rain. Vito awoke the next morning in an elegant four-poster bed, framed in a low-angled master shot that faintly reminded me of astronaut Dave Bowman's evolutionary stint in the white room at the end of 2001.
It's surely no accident that Vito's stopover in Norman Rockwell country echoed Tony's sojourn in Coma Land, right up to his climactic arrival at a welcoming home. (Vito, unlike Tony, dared to step inside.) I also doubt it's an accident that this episode saw Carmela chew out her pop for looting and dismantling the new house she was building for herself and Tony. (Her dad countered that the house was a lost cause because she was supposed to wrangle the proper government permits to build with inferior material, and didn't do it; in other words, she neglected a problem that threatened a long-term dream, and now she has to accept the consequences.) This season is all about new beginnings (or reconstructions) and how they are thwarted by a variety of forces, from luck and bad judgement to social conditioning and genetics.
This was another tight, strong episode; except for a pro forma "Lost in Yonkers" quip by Chris and an unconscionably lame conversation between Meadow and Finn that sounded like it was ghostwritten by the Six Feet Under gang, every scene and line stood on its own while simultaneously strengthening this season's serious and compelling themes. I was going to end by observing that the episode's title, "Live Free or Die," had the wrong conjunction, that it should have been "and." But then I woke up this morning and read my colleague Alan Sepinwall's Star-Ledger wrapup and saw he'd already made that connection and many more. This Sopranos column is less thorough than the others in part because Alan already said a lot of what I wanted to say, so rather than ramble on, I'll just invite you to click here.