“Is this what life is like at our age?” asks Carmela Soprano, as Tony prepares to flee New Jersey while the F.B.I. excavates the site of his first murder.
“The tomatoes are just coming in,” Tony replies, a tad wistfully.
It’s an odd thing to say, but it feels right. The tomatoes in his backyard are just one entry on a long list of things that he’s never properly appreciated and maybe never will. The malaise that hangs over Tony like Pig-Pen’s dirt cloud in Peanuts isn’t a matter of fretting over the persistent unanswered question, “How will I go out, dead or in jail?” It seems more unconscious—an incidental affliction, rooted in the curse of living in a perpetual state of disharmony with your own life. Tony’s going about in pity for himself (with good reason) while a great wind carries him across the sky. He’s a bit smarter and more self-aware than most of the crooks he competes with or bosses around, but on The Sopranos, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. During Tony’s eight years of therapy with Dr. Melfi, he’s learned enough about himself to realize and admit that his life was fucked up from the start, and he fucked it up worse with each passing year; yet he’s never shown the insight necessary to seize that knowledge and break it open, much less act to change his circumstances (a virtual impossibility anyway, considering how tightly he’s chained to a life of privilege—and a wife and kids and relatives and employees that cling to every link). A bullet in the torso got the message across, but it didn’t take. He’s back to being beat-up-’em, bed-’em-down Tony, except more of an automaton, a bad boy reverting to type but not really reveling in it.
When Tony and Paulie go down south and hang with Beansie in Miami, Tony agitates to visit a motel and massage parlor they once enjoyed and eat some steaks, only to discover that the motel has been replaced by a depressingly respectable hotel that only offers sandwich wraps after 11. Tony grumbles about this but accepts it. It’s a smaller-scale version of the episode’s parallel narrative of Uncle Junior in a group home for the criminally insane, where he goes from being a tinpot dictator running a secret Poker Nation with chips as currency to a medicated institutional yes-man (joining in a singalong of “Take Me Home, Country Road,” for Christ’s sake); it’s a forced capitulation to a bland new world. (The explosive anger of Junior’s behind-bars Bacala—played by Ken Leung, the star of Spike Lee’s superb, unappreciated Showtime film Sucker-Free City—is all about trusting in a role model/mentor, then feeling betrayed.) In Miami, Tony gripes to Paulie about Johnny Sack’s holier-than-thou attitude toward marital fidelity, and takes a young blonde up to his room, but after he’s spent himself inside her, he rolls over and makes chitchat, and you wonder, is it an Alpha Male rutting urge he’s satisfying, or does he just miss talking to Carmela? A bit of both, probably—but more of the latter.
The title of this episode, “Remember When,” is spoken by Tony, when he grows disgusted by Paulie’s nonstop Glory Days yammering during a dinner with Beansie and their lady friends, and leaves the table in disgust. “Remember when is the lowest form of conversation,” he says. Funny, though: three episodes into the second half of Season Six (which is so different in tone from the first half that it should probably be considered a shadow Season Seven) and it seems the final stretch of The Sopranos is about the consequences of failing to remember and fully comprehend past choices, and having to face the consequences of having made those choices. If the first half of this season was about the difficulty, even impossibility, of altering one’s life (much less one’s nature, as if they aren’t the same thing) then the second half is about the past catching up with you, inflicting inconvenience and sometimes grave damage; and how the inconvenience and damage wouldn’t be such a serious threat if you hadn’t made the wrong choice; and (a corollary) how the the consequences of a past bad choice wouldn’t be so troublesome if they caught up to a changed person.
To face the past is to face one’s essential nature, and ask how much one has grown or changed, or will change, and the extent to which one even can change. Nobody likes to look in a mirror, except maybe a sociopathic narcissist like Paulie, who seems to think everything that ever happened to him is pure anecdote magic. (Tony’s flirting with a pre-emptive whacking of Paulie made for a suspenseful sequence on rented boat—one that any viewer with a brain would have recognized as psychic return to Big Pussy’s execution, without the aid of a flashback—but the whole setup seemed inplausible to me, because Paulie’s a petty thug, not a novice meathead, and because, even if Paulie had been established as a diarrhea-mouthed dummy who dropped incriminating statements left and right, he surely would have been whacked by his own guys long ago, perhaps by Tony, who should have noticed this tendency earlier.)
But like Paulie, I digress. The point is, bills Tony thought he’d skipped out on keep coming due. In the season opener, Essex County cops found a gun he dropped a year-and-a-half earlier; from the look of dumb astonishment on his face when the police mobbed his house, you could tell he’d barely given that piece a second thought. In “Remember When,” he runs from his cherry-pop killing, the 1982 murder of a Newark bookie; Paulie rather pathetically tried to reassure him that there couldn’t be much left, but as Tony rightly observed, bones and teeth are all they need. (In the season opener, “Soprano Home Movies,” Bobby Bacala left copious amounts of his own DNA at the scene of his own cherry-pop murder, a killing ordered by Tony, out of greed for a better deal on black market medicine and a desire to assert his power over Bobby, who beat him in a drunken brawl.) True, Tony appears to have wriggled out of the gun charge, and he escaped responsibility for the 1982 killing as well, thanks to jailed mob boss Larry Barese fingering the late Jackie Aprile for the murder. Either he’s the luckiest mob boss who ever lived or just another TV character, living in a blood-and-guts crime story that just happens to be structured like a situation comedy: Everybody Fears Tony.
Or maybe series creator David Chase is about to unveil the series’ ultimate bit of misdirection: its insistence that certain events were one-off incidents that didn’t mean anything beyong the episode in which they appeared, and that we should forget about them, because The Sopranos isn’t that kind of TV show. Wouldn’t it be unsportsmanlike, and maybe wonderful, if it turned out Chase was lying about that—if all of a sudden, The Sopranos became like Deadwood or The Wire, a show with an elephant’s memory, and brought down the whole crew over an investigation into Ralphie Cifaretto’s murder of his pregnant stripper girlfriend Tracee (which I never believed would have gone so conspicuously unnoticed), or had Paulie return from Miami and open his own front door to see the disappearing Russian from Pine Barrens standing there with a machete? In other words, a final six in which a string of seemingly long-defused outrages suddenly pop one after the other, like Chinese firecrackers.
That’s probably too grand and too traditionally satisfying a strategy for Chase, though. He’s an aficionado of the anticlimax, which is why it makes perverse sense that Tony would keep having to leave his home not because of unpunished sins he broods over constantly, but because of errors and offenses he hasn’t thought about in years. (Al Capone got nailed over income taxes.) Tony may have given himself permission to forget certain things (morally speaking, everybody has a touch of Uncle Junior’s condition). But other people—cops, victims’ relatives, maybe witnesses he didn’t know existed—never forgot. It would be poetic justice if the lowest form of conversation did Tony in.
Then again, maybe punishment for Tony will be the recognition that he’s lived a nasty, brutish life, that it brought shame and pain to many of his loved ones (cue Godfather music) that it’s too late to do anything about it; what’s done is done. My former Star-Ledger colleague Alan Sepinwall speculates that in the final stretch of episodes,
“...we’re going to see a lot of characters suffer a fate worse than jail or even death: being forced to confront who they really are.
In episode one, it was Bacala who had to abandon the pretense that he could be a made man without blood on his hands. Last week, Tony saw how much Christopher resented him, while Phil and Johnny Sack questioned how they had lived their lives. Here, Junior and Paulie—Tony’s biological uncle and his unofficial one—come to terms with their decay into lonely, pathetic old men, not useful for much besides dirty jokes and stories about the good old days.
Characters have been telling old stories all season, often about the resentment that grows between fathers and sons, or between mentors and proteges. Here, Junior recalls the day his father (Tony’s grandfather) made him walk home 11 miles for turning down a 25-cent tip from a rich woman. Carter loses his temper recounting the time his father dismissed a 96 score on a third grade spelling test because it wasn’t a 100. Paulie notes that Johnny Boy Soprano gave Tony the Willie Overalls hit when Tony was 24, but Tony quickly and forcefully says that he was 22.
It’s those details they don’t forget. Even in the grips of dementia, Junior knows he walked 11 miles. Carter remembers the exact grade on the test. Tony remembers how old he was when his father made him into a killer (which he in turn would do to Christopher and Bacala).
Earlier in that conversation, Tony suggests that Johnny Boy never believed in him. Paulie counters that Johnny trusted him with the hit, after all, but Tony clearly resents that Johnny didn’t believe he could become anything but a thug, condemning him to this life.”
The bifurcated structure of “Remember When” played like a cousin of acclaimed early Sopranos episodes, particularly season one’s “College” and Season Three’s “University.” But the parallels between the main storylines—Uncle Junior/Carter Chong and Tony/Paulie—seemed more muddled here than in earlier mirror-structure installments. Uncle Junior is Carter Chong’s surrogate dad behind bars, but Carter eventually grows disillusioned with Junior and lashes out against him, as he apparently never did against his real father; Tony belatedly realizes how disappointed he is in his father figure/mob big brother Paulie, and comes close to murdering him, but doesn’t. But wait: Carter had another, better father figure, his granddad (even though he never puts it in quite those terms). And Tony had a real father, Johnny Boy Soprano, and a sorta-kinda surrogate, Uncle Junior—the former retaining mythic status even though he poisoned his son’s life with violence, the latter serving more as an irritant to Tony and an obstacle to his ascension than a guru or role model.
Then again, was “Remember When” really that muddled, or have the show’s writers just gotten more confident, more inclined to let scenes and lines of dialogue complement each other obliquely, without the Playwriting 101 symmetry that many TV series (even The Sopranos) equate, often speciously, with Art? I doubt episode writer Terence Winter intended one-to-one correspondences here, and that’s probably a good thing. And when all is said, done and explicated, the superficial parallels between Sopranos characters aren’t as important as their actions, which often just erupt without warning or explanation, just as they do in life. This is my favorite aspect of The Sopranos, and of most HBO dramas, for that matter: the insistence that human beings are mysterious creatures who usually don’t know what they’re doing, much less why they’re doing it. This is as true of the show’s most self-aware characters (Tony, Melfi, Meadow) as it is of the more caricatured supporting players (Silvio, Paulie, Janice, Bobby).
But the one characteristic that unites all of them is a willingness to speak the language of self-knowledge without stepping outside of themselves and standing at sufficient distance from their own egos to make true perspective possible. Nobody on the series seems to have a conception of life outside of his or her own head, or a sense of history that goes beyond self-justifying factoid or self-pitying anecdote: Chris proclaiming that Lauren Bacall starred in The Haves and Have-Nots; Tony repeatedly whining, “Whatever happened to Gary Cooper?”; the hotel attendant who responds to Tony’s questions about what happened to the old, sleazy, fun place by repeating, blankly, “I don’t know.” One rarely gets the sense that Chase’s characters understand that the world existed before they were born and will continue to exist after they’re dead and buried (perhaps in a Newark basement). When The Sopranos is depicting mob life or suburban life or the fine points of psychoanalysis, it’s a compelling black comedy; but when it’s showing us the distance between a character’s self-image and the reality seen by others, it’s a documentary.
Sopranos recaps run every Monday at The House Next Door. For more articles about the series, see The Sopranos in the sidebar at right.