“Is this it?” Carmela asks Tony in Sunday’s episode of The Sopranos, after waking up to the sound of cops beating on their front door.
No, it’s not quite “it”—if by “it” you mean the point where Da Family’s bad deeds finally catch up with it. Tony is rich enough to buy a good lawyer, and the charge that prompted his latest arrest is old and weak (possession of a handgun and hollow point ammunition—fallout from the end of Season Five, where Tony fled from the feds’ arrest of Johnny Sack and chucked his piece in the snow, where it was discovered by a dumbass suburban teen). But in another sense, yes, this is “it”—the final stretch for The Sopranos, the series. To answer one Carmela quote with another—from Season Four—“Let me tell you something. Everything comes to an end.”
The opening sequence of this episode—an off-kilter prologue, really, with an alternate narrative that opens like a hypertext link—also echoes the lyrics of the show’s theme: “Woke up this morning/Got yourself a gun.” But this time, it was a gun Tony that didn’t have anymore—and damn sure didn’t want. The charge, though not quite resolved, looks like it won’t stick (emphasis on “looks like”), so it counts as a close call—one of many that Tony has endured over six seasons, the most drastic of which was his shooting by demented Uncle Junior. That near-death experience, complete with purgatorial dreamworld visions, didn’t change Tony permanently—he just turned sensitive for a few weeks, got sized up as a softie by more predatory men, then re-embraced his instinct for self-preservation, starting with a flamboyant beatdown of his gym-muscled chaffeur that was intended to show his crew that the big dog still had teeth.
Tony’s said that guys who live this kind of life tend to go out one of two ways: on a slab or in the can. But there’s a difference between knowing and understanding, and while Tony knows the risks of mob life, it’s still not clear that he truly understands them—or that if he does understand them, that he has the willpower, or even the inclination, to act against omerta, his fucked-up childhood, a possibly genetic predisposition to violence, and an addiction to big houses, big cars, big TVs and (it would seem) lifetime membership in the Blowjob of the Day Club. (Tony got a B-Day BJ from Carmela this episode, but her self-satisfied “Happy birthday” suggested it was a special gift for a special occasion.) A leopard cannot change its spots.
I’ve said in other House recaps—and in a piece published in Sunday’s Star-Ledger—that The Sopranos might be the most cynical long-running series in TV history, a worst-case-scenario look at human nature in which people can always be relied upon embrace their own caricature and do whatever’s most convenient for them at any given moment. Dr. Melfi’s passive tough-love notwithstanding, there isn’t much noble behavior on display, just thugs and thugs-by-proxy tearing into each other like hyenas. The characters keep going through the motions of change, or reform, only to slip back into old behavior. How many times has Christopher relapsed into substance abuse? How many times has Tony sworn off adultery only to find himself in flagrante four or five scenes later? How many times has Carmela flirted with her conscience (through therapy, religion and simple anger over Tony’s brutishness) only to drift back into Tony’s embrace? The show’s detractors have a point when they ask if the lurid weekly spectacle of The Sopranos isn’t ultimately exploitive and numbing, no matter how many times creator David Chase and company shock us (and themselves) out of complacency with a stakes-raising atrocity, a satirical jab or a moment of real introspection (like the ones Tony seemed to experience during the first half of Season Six). And a part of me would still like to see Tony and people close to Tony suffer for their sins, partly to bring The Sopranos in line with classic gangster narratives (the prospect of which apparently fills Chase with self-loathing, otherwise he wouldn’t keep insisting that the show isn’t a gangster story), and partly because yes, from week to week, the show often does seem a bit fatuous, like Scarface for New Yorker subscribers (the pop culture-laden insults that pop out of the gangsters’ mouths often sound more L.A. writers’ room than Jersey Turnpike).
But the closer we get to the end, the more convinced I am that such an outcome simply isn’t possible. I say that not just because Chase seems to have a low opinion of the human species but also because of of the peculiar genius of The Sopranos, which takes an aspect of TV storytelling that’s long been considered a weakness and treats it as a strength.
Movie snobs (those who look down their noses at TV for not being movies) trumpet commercial narrative cinema’s preference for a forward-moving, goal-directed story in which characters face problems, learn something about themselves and change (usually, but not always, for the better); they contrast this tendency with TV’s open-endedness, its cyclical repetitions, and its addiction to what might be called kinetic stasis—the dramatic equivalent of running in place. And it’s true: Kinetic stasis is TV storytelling’s DNA. On TV, characters do things and have things done to them; they go through dark nights of the soul, or get married or divorced, bury a child, go back to school and drop out, convert to Catholicism or buy a new boat; but in the end, they don’t really change all that much, because if they did, viewers that tuned in each week to be reassured by the sight of familiar characters and situations would get irritated and stop watching, the ratings would fall, the sponsors would pull out, and soon there would be no show. Every now and then comes a show like The Wire and Deadwood, where there’s a continual sense of collective forward motion, and key characters change so drastically that from one season to the next that they truly seem to have become different people. But these exceptions don’t disprove the rule.
Intriguingly, though, some of the most memorable TV shows—usually comedies like The Honeymooners and All in the Family and Everybody Loves Raymond—don’t bother depicting characters that grow and change because they aren’t interested in that process and perhaps, on some level, don’t believe that it happens as often as movies and plays and novels would have us believe. These series would rather show us the many ways in which human beings don’t change—the ways in which they stay consistent, true to form or type, from cradle to grave, despite occasional flurries of effort designed to convince themselves and their loved ones that this is it, they’re really changing, and from now on everything is going to be different.
The Sopranos is the ultimate example of this. It takes the kinetic stasis that’s an incidental quality of other shows and puts it right in the foreground. On some level, The Sopranos is often about characters becoming the thing that their subculture requires them to be, or the thing they were born to be. Anyone who goes against preconditioning, whatever its form, suffers. Eugene Pontecorvo wanted out, was told he couldn’t leave, and hung himself; Vito Spatafore came out of the closet, found the beginnings of a new life, then tried to return home a changed man and got beaten to death in a cheap motel room. Christopher keeps trying and failing to kick drugs, but his real drug is Da Family. He gave up his true love to appease it—a gangster to the core. A.J. can’t really force himself to break away from the family; he gestures toward creating a new life with Blanca and her kids, but under his parents’ roof. (The episode has a good laugh at the expense of A.J.’s identifying with Blanca’s culture when Tony comes home from jail and A.J. says, “in my neighborhood people don’t get out right away.”) Meadow has spent the entire series trying to be something other than a godfather’s daughter (rather comically—the show rarely takes her aspirations seriously) and now seems to have grown closer to her parents than ever before. (When the cops roust Tony in “Soprano Home Movies,” she complains to her mom, “That show of force—was that all about humiliating dad?” Yep—just like the feds hauling Johnny Sack away from his daughter’s wedding.) And Carmela and Tony’s marriage is an affectionate bond that rests on a bedrock of lies, trades and compromises; she’s a mob wife and he’s a mobster, and that’s that.
Sunday’s action was all about enforcing hierachies and deepening the status quo; it was a demonstration of Tony’s inability to escape being Tony even when escape is the whole point. He and Carmela try to flee the anxiety surrounding Tony’s gun charge and the irritation of A.J.’s new situation by heading out to Bobby and Janice’s spectacular lakehouse to celebrate Tony’s birthday. By the episode’s end, Tony has resserted his personal and professional dominance over Bobby—probably the only guy in his crew he can really trust—by loutishly reminding Bobby that his good life comes from Tony, insulting Janice during a drunken Monopoly game, and provoking Bobby into a clumsy, stupid fight. (The music in the scene is Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five”—as in, take a break, relax.) Unable to accept the fact that he lost the fight, Tony obsesses for the rest of his vacation, then avenges himself by forcing Bobby to do a hit, something Bobby had avoided doing until now. The action confirms Tony’s trivial sadism, certifies Bobby’s helplessness before Tony and bonds Bobby ever tighter to the organization.
On The Sopranos, when a character compliments another character on bettering himself, or simply changing, it’s usually a sick joke. “The credit goes to you,” Janice tells her brother, noting how mellow he’s become. “You’ve really changed.” Of course neither Tony nor Janice has really changed—they’ve just become more powerful and loathsome over the years, and more tragic because of the glimmers of self-awareness that keep getting snuffed out. The sense that Tony had a chance to really change but missed his moment is indicated, subtly, when Carmela spots a jumping fish (probably the most important animal on this show, even more important than the ducks in Tony’s season-one dream) and Tony looks up too late to see it.
“You’re a young man,” Bobby tells Tony. “We both are. The world’s still in front of us.” But the episode’s real message can be found in another Bobby line, when he tells Tony that he’s glad he never had to do a hit because DNA evidence makes it so hard to get away with crime these days. It’s a significant image: you literally cannot escape your identity.