“Is it possible on some level [that] you’re reading into all of this?” Dr. Melfi asks Tony Soprano, after Tony says he suspects that his cousin, budding filmmaker Christopher, based a hot-tempered, spouse-betraying gangster boss on Tony.
“I’ve been coming here for years,” Tony replies wearily. “I know too much about the subconscious now.”
And on that note, let’s dive into “Stage 5,” arguably the most self-reflexive episode of a series that’s already offered plenty.
The hour was remarkable enough for its richly detailed events, including the premiere of Christopher’s first film as producer, a mob-flavored splatterfest entiled Cleaver; Carmela’s confrontation with Tony over the implication, via Chris’ movie, that Tony slept with Chris’ doomed stoolie fiancee, Adriana; Silvio’s survival of a mob hit, apparently instigated by New York underboss Doc Santoro, that killed Gerry “The Hairdo” Tortiano; Tony’s admission in therapy that he fears Chris hates him and wants him dead and has forgotten Tony’s big-brotherly love for him; and of course, the sudden decline and death of cancer-ridden gang boss Johnny Sacrimoni, who faced his final curtain with fear in his eyes. He kept smoking those coffin nails right up to the end, so stubbornly that even his wife Ginny, who was furious over his unwillingness to quit, busted out a pack at Johnny’s bedside after hearing her husband call out for his mother. It was as if she thought the promise of one more puff might inspire John to turn on his heel and walk away from the light.
On top of that, there was a persistent, at times suffocating aura of futility—a sense that individual hits, schemes, scores and power plays don’t mean much once you’ve accepted the fact that, as Carmela once put it, “Everything ends.” “Stage 5” was the most literally and figuratively funereal hour the series has yet given us. It was reminiscent of the Season Three Deadwood episode “Unauthorized Cinnamon.” The latter was as afterlife-fixated as “Stage 5” but more uplifting, celebrating the human life force even as it conceded the limits of its power. No such celebration for “Stage 5,” a melancholy-to-depressive installment whose very title was a synonym for death—a reference to a nonexistent stage of cancer beyond Stage Four.
The characters, led by Tony, spent much of the hour going about in pity for themselves, to quote a certain Ojibwe saying. Johnny dies of cancer; Phil Leotardo talks about his own heart attack, nurses an ancient family grudge against America’s ruling classes (his family name got changed from Leonardo to Leotardo at Ellis Island) and worries aloud that he’s compromised too much during his life. Shockingly, he even expresses doubts about the wisdom of staying mum while serving time, and about failing to personally avenge the death of his brother, Billy, at the hands of Tony’s cousin, Tony B.
Tony himself seems stricken, battered, exhausted. Whether brooding over Johnny’s fate or sweating Christopher’s cinematic hit job (“All those memories are for what? All I am to him is some asshole bully”), you can tell his mind is elsewhere—most likely, on the prospect of his own demise and the question of whether he’ll leave behind anything but money, grief and fat jokes. (When the Bada Bing inner circle gathers to hear news of Johnny’s death, a slow dolly into Tony’s face in profile isolates; it’s as if a dark thought has just snuck up on him.) Paulie Walnuts’ toast to the dearly departed consists of bragging that he’s kicked cancer; then he quotes the Blood, Sweat and Tears song “Spinning Wheels,” which, considering recent events, seems like a Top 40 omen. (The first line is, “What goes up/must come down,” echoing Tony’s admission to Melfi in the pilot that he felt like he came into the business at the end, and the best is over.) The Reaper—or The Cleaver—gets everyone eventually. Why spend your days on things that don’t make you happy?
In what I suspect will later seem one of the most important scenes in the show’s entire run, “Little” Carmine Lupertazzi Jr., the other executive producer of Cleaver, meets Tony for lunch at a country club, where they discuss succession in an era of two-bit gang warfare and increased federal harassment (the F.B.I. even made an arrest at the premiere of Cleaver). Tony—who wants somebody to step up and lead the family but would rather it not be him—asks Carmine what happened to his ambition. Little Carmine responds by describing a dream he once had. In the dream, his father turned 100, and Little Carmine gave his father “a mellifluous box,” which the elder Carmine looked upon with “...gaze of absolute disappointent,” because there was nothing in it. His dad told him, “Fill it up…Come back when I’m 200.” On the basis of that dream, and his wife warning him that she didn’t want to be the wealthiest widow on Long Island, Carmine decided to seek happiness outside of the family business. The dream “wasn’t a dream,” Little Carmine explains to Tony. “It was about being happy.” It’s also about the foolishness of pursuing wealth, power and the approval of one’s elders (or social betters) instead of actually living your life and enjoying each day as if it’s a gift (even if, as Tony laments, the gift is a pair of socks).
As if that’s not enough to chew on, “Stage 5” turns its mortality obsession back on itself, deploying so many images and lines of dialogue calling attention to The Sopranos as a TV series that at times, the episode doesn’t seem to be posing the question, “Will anyone remember us fondly after we’re dead” but rather, “Will anybody remember The Sopranos as anything but a blood-’n-guts gangster show?”
There are warnings of the dangers of overinterpretation that seem like intentional retorts to Tony’s remark to Melfi. Christopher wriggles away from charges that he based the film’s mob boss villain (played by Daniel Baldwin, with a voice that sounds like Bob Hoskins doing an “American” accent) on Tony. Whether Chris intended the comparison or not, he damn sure did it on purpose, yet he begs off responsibility, insisting that creativity is a mysterious thing. “It was an idea, I don’t know, who knows where they fucking come from? Isaac Newton invented gravity cuz some asshole hit him with an apple!” he tells the film’s credited screenwriter, Timothy Daly’s J.T., before braining him with a Humanitas prize. (This isn’t just a follow-up to a joke from a previous episode where the hard-up J.T. tried to sell his Emmy and found out it wasn’t worth jack; it’s also a sideways reference to the fact that The Sopranos won a Peabody award the same year as that bastion of liberal enlightenment, The West Wing, a fact that even the show’s most trivia-minded fans have already forgotten.)
Then there’s the bit where an unseen viewer’s widescreen TV shows Geraldo Rivera interviewing mob experts about the current New York mob madness. The panel bets on possible replacements for Johnny with the same jocular attitude you find in conversations about who’s going to get whacked next on The Sopranos (which in turn echoes a comment about Cleaver, “These audiences today, they want blood”). The punchline: a reverse angle revealing that the TV belongs to none other than Peter Bogdanovich’s Dr. Kupferberg, the shrink behind Dr. Melfi’s shrink. (“This Santoro thing…I called it a year ago!”) Carmine praises his own film’s cleverness, particularly a closeup of a crucifix and a vaudevillian hanging from a rearview mirror. (“The sacred and the profane,” Carmine beams.) And let’s not forget the “interpretation” of Phil’s heart problems as “...a metaphor. He lost his balls is what I’m saying.” (If so, it’s a metaphor for a metaphor.)
Are we seeing evidence that the writers sometimes worry that detractors are right—that The Sopranos is a whack-’em gangster soap gussied up in academic pretension? In scenes like the one with Carmine and Tony at the country club—where the gangster-gone-Hollywood Carmine orders seared ahi, mixed greens and an iced tea, and Tony orders a Philly cheesesteak—you gotta wonder.
The self-reflexive aspect of “Stage 5” even shows up in the storyline about Johnny Sack’s cancer—particularly when Johnny gets a second opinion from his orderly, Warren Feldman (Sidney Pollack in a brilliant one-off supporting turn). Feldman’s an incarcerated oncologist convicted of killing his cheating wife, her aunt who just happened to be there, and a mailman with bad timing. (“At that point, I had to fully commit.”) Yet both Johnny and the episode seem clear in their conviction that just because the oncologist is a killer doesn’t mean he doesn’t have medical knowledge worth imparting. After all, the blood on O.J. Simpson’s hands doesn’t make him any less of a great running back.
This is a self-justifying observation, not just for gangsters, but for those who write TV shows about gangsters, but there’s a strong hint of self-awareness to it, a sense that it’s being offered not as an apology but as a kind of coded self-excoriation. (For all the talk of Feldman’s wisdom, he turns out to be wrong; Johnny actually dies more quickly than anyone foresaw.) This whole subplot is of a piece with Tony worrying that Chris only sees him as a bullying fiancee-banger, and Phil worrying that he muffed some of the most important choices of his life. After all these years, is it possible that The Sopranos judges itself as harshly as the harshest critics judge The Sopranos?
That seems hard to believe, considering the enjoyment the series takes in being black-heartedly hilarious (“Fuck Ben Kingsley! Danny Baldwin took him to fuckin’ acting school!”) and their evident pride in its longevity, ambition and popularity, and in the simple fact that it exists at all. “You made a movie,” Tony tells Christopher, in a rare, tender moment between them. “Nobody can take that away.”