“What are you chasing?” Dr. Melfi asks Tony Soprano, whose compulsive gambling is destroying his life. “Money. or a high from winning?” The episode’s title, “Chasing It,” seems to promise an answer, but it’s another form of evasion. Tony pointedly doesn’t reply to Melfi in his session. He seems to respond later, when he apologizes to Carmela for belittling her adventures in real estate; she notes the illogic of Tony’s betting ever-larger sums of money hoping to win his way out of debt, and he replies, “You start chasing it, and every time you get your hands around it, you fall further backwards.”
This is what Tony Soprano talks about when he talks about happiness. I don’t mean happiness in the la-dee-da, skipping-through-the-daisies sense. I mean a deeper sense of happiness that, when identified and consciously cultivated, endures even during grim times: a sense of being centered, of having a pretty good idea of who you are and feeling reasonably sure that your life is working with you rather than against you. Six seasons into The Sopranos, I’ve never gotten a sense that Tony feels deep happiness for longer than a few moments at a time—when he’s taking pride in the accomplishments of loved ones or enjoying the company of old friends he can trust (for the moment), maybe; but even then Gandolfini’s melancholy performance suggests that there’s something gnawing at Tony, an unease more profound than the physical fear of ending up dead or in jail.
Since his shooting at the hands of his demented Uncle Junior, Tony’s unease has become palpable. He radiates misery and instability in his everyday life and no longer seems able (or willing) to hide it. He says whatever’s running through his head—impulsively proposing a politically impossible tactic, openly copping to his gambling debts in front of subordinates, and otherwise inspiring furtive “The fuck’s up with Tony?” glances everywhere he goes. He’s behaving like a man who isn’t happy being a mob boss, or a mobster period, and wants out. Because he knows he can’t get out (as Eugene and Vito found out the hard way) he expresses that wish unconsciously, by doing and saying things that destabilize the life he’s always known.
This is why I can accept Tony’s all-consuming and seemingly out-of-nowhere gambling addiction as something more than a typical network TV crisis-of-the-week improv. When a character is convincingly drawn, the details of his self-destructive compulsion don’t matter that much; what’s important is that it makes sense given what we know about the character, and arrives at a critical juncture in the storyline. I think both criteria have been satisfied here—and if it wasn’t gambling, it would be something else. Tony has a lot of different nests—his marriage, his identity as a father, his relationship with his crew, his associates (including Hesh Rabkin, Tony’s chief creditor) and his fellow bosses (notably Phil Leotardo, the late Johnny Sack’s replacement)—and he seems determined to foul every one of them.
Late in the episode, there’s a significant hard cut between two scenes—one of Tony’s ugliest (and ultimately most pathetic) confrontations with Carmela, and a pivotal moment in the episode’s “B” plot, in which Vito Jr., the goth-posing, profoundly troubled son of slain gay mobster Vito Spatafore, responds to bullying in the boys’ locker room at school by defecating in the shower. The Tony-Carmela scene builds on an earlier, more subdued confrontation, in which Carmela celebrates the successful sale of her first home, and Tony suggests spending $200,000 of the $600,000 sale betting on a Jets game that he insists is a “sure thing”; the follow-up finds a bathrobe-clad Tony berating Carm with sweeping accusations of ruthlessness and hypocrisy that she’s already heard many times and has clearly decided not to think about (just as Tony had decided, until fairly recently, not to obsess over the major and minor sins he committed in order to amass the Soprano fortune). “The fact is, you’re a shitty businesswoman who built a piece of shit house that’s gonna cave in and kill that fucking unborn baby any day!” Tony bellows. “And now you can’t sleep!” Carmela throws a vase at him and goes upstairs; in wide shot, Tony lumbers off into the background, leaving the vase shards untouched on the foyer floor.
In the very next scene, Vito Jr.—whose mix of “Fuck You” indifference, goth affectation and doughy sensitivity reads as closeted gay, or at the very least, way too sensitive for the macho zoo of high school; whose already innate feelings of alienation were surely inflamed by the murder of his dad, who was murdered not for what he did, but for who he was, and the continued defamation of his dad’s memory by the same thugs who rooted for his demise—responds to teasing in the shower by facing his tormentors, squeezing out a deposit and mashing it beneath his bare foot. It’s social terrorism—a visual and olfactory assault that clears the room. It could only have been committed by a human being who cannot understand, much less articulate, the source of his unhappiness, but who has decided that if he cannot master or destroy his environment, he’ll deface it.
It’s the act of a young man who hates himself and everyone else so much that he just wants out, and doesn’t particularly care how he gets out. Of course, the kid didn’t anticipate getting rousted from his bed in the middle of the night by Idaho youth camp goons—a scene that ranks as one of the most disturbing in the entire series, despite its absence of bloodshed, for the way that it syncs up with last week’s account of how Tony’s dad Johnny Boy ordered Tony to perform his first hit back in 1982. In both instances—Johnny Boy forcing his son into a venal, violent lifestyle he might have transcended if left alone, and Vito Jr. being hauled off (on his mother’s orders, and at Tony’s suggestion) to a brainwashing camp designed to force him to be the kind of person everyone around him would prefer—we’re seeing a potentially free and unique soul brutalized by life and then brainwashed into adopting, and potentially exemplifying, the mentality of his tormentors.
After the shower outrage, we see Tony react to news of Vito Jr.’s action by deciding to pay the boy’s mother, Marie, the $100,000 in relocation money she begged for in the episode’s opening scene—money he failed to convince newly-installed New York mob boss Phil Leotardo that he should pay, because he’s related to Marie and responsible for her husband’s murder. Tony somehow assembles the money for Marie, then gambles it away—an act that makes both his home life and his professional life more unstable. In both the “A” and “B” stories—Vito Jr. and Tony—men liquidate assets, so to speak, to rebel against a life that’s suffocating them, a life that forces them to embody lies. (Tony is more self-aware, intelligent and empathetic than almost anyone around him, including his wife and children, but favors his sadistic and violent streak, for survival’s sake; Vito Jr. is rebelling, in his halting and inept way, against the macho straight mentality that contributed to his father’s “disappearance,” and the various institutions, from organized crime to the schools, that blandly continue its work.)
As I’ve noted in previous Sopranos recaps, Season Six is heavy on parallel narratives, a la season one’s “College” and Season Three’s “University.” Written by Matthew Weiner and directed by Tim Van Patten, “Chasing It” was temperamentally quite like those two signature installments, and in a few scenes, it went further and let the plotlines converge, even collide, so that the “A” and “B” stories seemed to be facing each other and examining each other. The most obvious example is the scene where Tony, who cops to a long history of playing surrogate daddy, goes to Marie’s house and confronts Vito Jr., only a tad less brutally than Phil had done earlier. When the man and the boy sit across from each other, it’s like visiting hour at a prison, only we don’t know who’s in jail and who’s visiting. When Tony urges Vito to step up and be the man of the house because nobody else will, he could be addressing himself as a boy—maybe even paraphrasing words spoken by his mother, Livia, the dark shape that lingers in the back of his mind, telling him what to do and say even when he’s thinks he’s not listening. (It’s notable that when Tony berates others, he seems to be talking about himself in code. His attack on Carmela accuses her of evading the facts of her own corruption—her willingness to compromise for convenience and profit, expressed in the construction of a shoddy house that could cave in and kill its inhabitants. Carmela later counters with a similar image, of Tony as a cartoon character blithely wandering through life oblivious to the piano dangling from a rope above his head. There’s a difference, though: in his inarticulate way, Tony is accusing Carmela of complicity in corruption—a corruption he embodies. Carmela, on the other hand, seems to be warning him of physical rather than moral punishment: a value-neutral statement along the lines of, “You go in the water, you get wet.”)
When Tony fouls his nest, what’s he rebelling against, exactly? Probably none of the positive things in his life: a strong, if volatile, marriage to a woman who truly loves him, and who bore him two children who look up to their dad even as they see through him; the security of knowing that he rose higher in his profession (organized crime) than anyone could have predicted, and that he’s amassed a fortune that allows him to drop $3.2 million on a yacht (according to Hesh) and bribe a building inspector so that his wife’s probable-deathtrap home can jump-start her real estate career. But more than ever, he seems ill at ease around people who used to make him feel comfortable. When he’s surrounded by people, he still seems alone, and when he talks, even if he’s in direct conversation, he seems to be talking to himself. He seems like a spiritual cousin of Eugene and Vito—guys who wanted out and got taken out; guys who unearthed their true selves too late, unbalancing their world and ensuring their demise. The Sopranos seems to be disintegrating as we watch it. That sense of volatility is indicated in uncharacteristically (and I think purposefully) loose camerawork. Did my eye deceive me, or was this week’s episode—comprised mostly in nervous, hand-held, zoomed-in closeups and medium shots, except for the scenes in Melfi’s office, which were nailed to the floor, befitting an oasis of stability—the first episode to be shot on high definition video rather than 35mm film? Whatever the means, the intent was clear, and the result suited the story. The show’s characteristic brown-and-gold-and-green palette looked flatter, more washed out and sickly.
There’s so much more to talk about here: Tony’s anti-semitic baiting of Hesh (more nest-fouling); Dr. Melfi’s insistence that Tony attend sessions regularly, then ending the scene by standing up (she’s the only character besides Carmela who seems unafraid of standing up to him); the death of Hesh’s companion (a possible foreshadowing of Carmela’s fate?); Tony’s astoundingly cold treatment of Hesh right afterward (dropping off a sack full of cash to pay off his debt, and leaving as quickly as possible); the canny use, in the scene where A.J. proposes, of the main theme from The Deer Hunter, a movie about how men express emotion by not expressing it, referenced in scene where a man defies gender stereotype and speaks from his heart. His heart gets stepped on later, but that’s another story.
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