How many amazing James Gandolfini reaction shots can you squeeze into one hour?
The hulking bear of an actor might have the most expressive eyebrows since John Belushi, and they certainly got a workout in this week’s episode, “Moe ’n’ Joe.” Of course, there’s never a shortage of great Tony faces when Janice is around—and Aida Turturro’s hilariously monolithic self-absorption was cranked up to eleven this week, reminding us all how much her shrill, anarchic presence has been missed since she’s been relegated to background status this year.
Last week I wrote of expecting “fireworks to come” in this year’s final three episodes, but I’ve begun to back off on that prediction. (It figures—whenever I think I can guess what’s going to happen on this program, I’m inevitably proven wrong.) As our friend Alan Sepinwall noted in the comments thread, this batch of episodes seems headed more towards an implosion than an explosion. “Moe ’n’ Joe” continued in the same muted tone of the past several weeks, and while several important plot turns occurred, the execution was again low-key, almost lifeless. Rewatching these past few episodes I’m noticing a very deliberate slackening in the drama—this is how their world ends, not with a bang, but a whimper.
The final breaking of Johnny Sack by the Feds was almost too excruciating to watch. Vince Curatola has been such a powerhouse on the program over the years (he also smokes a cigarette with more style than anybody in showbiz) it was something of a heartbreaker to see this once pompous, quick-tempered boss glumly accepting his fate, barely able to work up enough energy to curse his “friend” Tony Soprano for swooping in and stealing his wife’s house right out from under her.
There’s a vivid sense rightnow of everything just sort of ebbing away from our characters. It was another hour about the very palpable fear of weakness: Loudmouth Paulie is finally rendered soft-spoken, with his strangely moving secret cancer revelation, and Tony can barely bring himself to look at the ailing Bobby Bacala—already the show’s resident castrato, now emasculated even further by a humiliating eyepatch after an embarrassing mugging. Christopher has no choice but to stand by helplessly while the Feds tow away his precious pilfered Maserati, and Tony is forced to spend a dinner listening to all sorts of disrespectful blather from one of Johnny’s semi-legit business partners. Did you ever think the day would come when some civilian could shit-talk Tony Soprano like that and not wind up in the hospital?
No wonder T was taken back with such admiration by Janice’s vicious dressing-down of bratty Bobby Junior—it was the episode’s only display of strength!
At last we understand why Vito’s Gay Hampshire was rendered in such over-the-top idyllic fashion. In a throwback to that brilliant moment in “Long Term Parking” when Christopher sees a ratty vision of his future at the gas station, Vito realizes that even heaven on Earth isn’t quite worth it if you have to actually work for a living. His abject uselessness on the construction site—another of the hour’s uncomfortable wallows in weakness—was unfortunately over-cooked by a voice-over narration, the series’s first. I’m always hyper-sensitive to any shake-ups in the program’s rigidly classical format, but there was nothing in that narration that wasn’t already being conveyed visually.
Drunk and listening to “My Way,” Vito returned not just to New Jersey, but to his old way of life, coldly executing an innocent man in an underplayed wide-shot. Again, there was nothing momentous about the presentation of his virtual suicide, just an air of seeping, depressing inevitability.
So did Tony finally reach some sort of peace regarding his relationship with Janice? Another surprisingly productive session with Dr. Melfi tackled the way his sister has scarily morphed into his mother (I believe Janice even dropped a couple of Livia quotes during the episode.) Did Tony finally recognize that his resentment of Bacala is because he sees too much of himself in the way the teddy bear is ground down daily by this impossible woman? It’s tough to tell, as Gandolfini’s usual masterful performance once again showed us a man rocked by contradictory impulses that he can’t even explain to himself.
Maybe the Sacrimoni house was a genuine gesture of goodwill, or maybe was it just another way to stick the shiv in Carmela? One might expect the newly faithful Tony Soprano to be devoted to his wife, but his inability to cheat seems to be making him resent her more than ever before.
It doesn’t help that Carmela, the most willfully blinkered character on the program, is currently laboring under the delusion that this real estate project will give her some sort of identity outside of Tony’s shadow—and yet she still needs him to lean on the building inspector. Carm seems to die a little bit inside every time Angie Bompinsero takes a business call, but in typical Sopranos fashion, it never occurs to her that she wouldn’t have such headaches right now if she only considered building the damn house legally. She’s been living outside the law for so long that this is a completely foreign concept, and let’s credit Falco for plumping new depths of petulant un-likeability when she didn’t get her way.
But the episode’s clear highlight was when Tony reacted to one of Meadow’s crying jags the way we viewers do—with profound disinterest. “You know who’s good to talk to about this stuff… your mother,” he offered, with those exhausted eyebrows speaking volumes as he tried to figure out how he could disentangle himself from his weeping daughter long enough to get his breakfast out of the microwave. Every ding of the oven’s timer brought another hysterical grimace from Gandolfini—a sharp comic encapsulation of this season’s grumbling, weary discontent.