After last week’s Sopranos episode, “Kennedy and Heidi,” viewer discussion centered on Tony’s climactic, “I get it!”, bellowed twice to the sun on a desert ridge during a peyote trip. People wondered what, exactly, did Tony “get”? Was it the fact that his thieving, whoring, murderous life was the number one contributing factor to his unhappiness—the fuel that kept his inherited tendency toward depression burning like an oil well fire? Or, as my friend Alan Sepinwall suggested, did Tony “get” the fact that ethics, religion and every other means of judging behavior was an abstraction that has no weight beyond what you choose to give it? The first realization might have led Tony to confess his sins to Melfi—this mostly non-religious gangster tale’s closest equivalent to clergy—and maybe end up in witness protection, selling out Da Family as an alternative to destroying what’s left of his soul. The second realization could have pushed Tony—who spent much of “Kennedy and Heidi” denying his guilt over murdering his surrogate son, the potential rat Christopher—to finally embrace his inner monster, give Dr. Melfi the heave-ho and start whacking people without misgivings.
The problem with this either-or argument is that it’s either-or, and The Sopranos is not, and never has been, an either-or kind of show. Like most TV series—and more like life than movies—it’s a series of situations that repeat themselves with the details changed. I argued in another post that The Sopranos’ freshest element is how it ties TV’s open-ended “life goes on and on” format to a consistently pessimistic, often wickedly honest vision of human nature. It shows characters winning or losing big, suffering and transcending this or that situation, and moving a few baby steps closer to a series of realizations that could change the the substance of their lives—then backing off at the last second (often without realizing how close they came, much less that they’re backing off), and returning to some version of the status quo. Both “I get it, I’m a criminal and that’s bad,” vs. “I get it, I’m a criminal and I like it” are realizations that would be not only reductive, but inconsistent with the view of human nature Chase and company have built over six seasons—a view that’s either cynical or realistic, depending on your faith in humankind’s ability to assess their strengths and weaknesses, redefine themselves and not revert.
It wouldn’t surprise me if Chase served up a conclusion somewhere between those two poles—a ambiguous or at least elusive and frustrating ending, one consistent with the acerbic and often infuriating universe he’s built up since 1999: Tony comes close to a life-changing realization, maybe closer than he’s ever gotten, but still can’t push himself over the line into true epiphany, and ends up backsliding into the grim routine of his life. Given Tony’s unusual (for a gangster) level of self-awareness, that would be a tragedy of a type never seen in the gangster story—a genre which, to quote Tony, usually ends with the protagonist dead or in the can.
Tony doesn’t have the language to describe as such, but he’s a seeker, looking for something beyond what he already knows. The title of episode 16, “Chasing It,” suggested as much, and the screenwriter of “The Second Coming,” Terence Winter, put a slightly finer point on it during one of this week’s Tony-Melfi therapy scenes. The exchange between patient and therapist—about Tony’s peyote trip last week, and what he did or didn’t “get”—was revealing enough that I’m quoting it here at length:
Tony: All I can say is, I saw, for pretty certain, that this, everything we see and experience, is not all there is.”
Melfi: What else is there?”
Tony: Something else.
Melfi stares, nonverbally pushing for him to elaborate.
Tony: That’s as far as I’m gonna go with it. I don’t fucking know.
Tony: You’re gonna be a fucking comedian now?
Melfi: I’m not.
Tony pauses, nods.
Tony: Maybe…This is gonna sound stupid, but I saw at one point that our mothers are the bus drivers. They are the bus. They are the vehicle that gets us here. They drop us off and go on their way. They continue on their journey, and the problem is, we keep trying to get back on the bus. Instead of just letting it go.
Melfi: That’s very insightful.
Tony: Jesus, don’t act so surprised.
Tony: You know, you have these thoughts, and you almost grab it, and then, pffft.
That’s Tony in a nutshell—always pushing toward some realization greater than what his relatives, colleagues and friends can muster, but invariably coming up short. In Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, the narrator talks about a similar dynamic. When he was on the battlefield in Korea in 1951, pinned to the ground and staring at a dung beetle crawling around in leaves, he had a similar realization—that there was something else out there, something beyond what we can see. And then he forgot about it. He periodically remembers that he had that epiphany—every few pages of the novel’s first chapter, in fact, and many times thereafter—but then he gets drawn into what he calls the “everydayness” of life, the familiar and comforting and numbing routines, and he forgets again. Unlike Tony, he has a developed enough psychological vocabulary to put his sensations into more precise words—and even feel a bit smug about it, his narration lording it over the businessmen and working stiffs who lack his sophistication, his sense that there’s Something Else Out There—but in the end, he and Tony are in the same predicament, the predicament we’re all in, whether we realize it or not, whether we care to admit it or not. Changing one’s essential nature—one’s entire world view—is not easy, even when, like Tony, you’ve suffered (and inflicted) trauma on an unimaginable scale, and have immediate life-or-death reasons for needing to make a major change.
Tony tells Melfi that he knew he had a golden moment after Junior shot him, and that he let it slip away; the implication is that his Las Vegas trip was a half-assed attempt to create a new chance for epiphany. But is such a thing possible, for Tony or anyone else?
The evidence does not bode well. Tony’s son AJ plunged into the abyss and tried to drown himself by putting a plastic bag over his head, tying a concrete block to his ankle and hurling himself into the swimming pool. His father saved him, purely by a fluke of timing. But Tony’s reaction to the near-tragedy mimics the dynamics of his post-shooting and post-Vegas trip reactions. He does what’s right (dives in and saves AJ). Then he reverts to macho type, berating AJ for his stupidity and weakness and perhaps resenting the vulnerability it made Tony feel. Then he turns nonjudgmental, purely empathetic. He cradles his weeping son and cries with him (maybe the most heartrending moment in the entire series, sharply acted by both James Gandolfini and Robert Iler). But then he reverts again, with both Melfi (admitting he despises AJ’s sensitivity, his weakness) and Carmela (pushing her into an argument that pivots on who’s genetically responsible for AJ’s depression; later, in a session with Melfi, Tony shifts blame to Carmela for “coddling” AJ). In this episode, Tony admits his depression, and his family history of depression, more frankly than at any other point in the show’s run. But he ultimately pulls back, stifles his bleeding emotions and tries to soldier on and be a gangster Gary Cooper. (There are even seeds of a Melfi self-reckoning: her shrink, Dr. Kupferberg, tells her of a study indicating that sociopaths in talk therapy don’t get better, they actually tend to revert to bad behavior more quickly—and perhaps learn better methods of scamming via therapy. Melfi keeps a poker face, but her subsequent session with Tony finds her subtly pushing him to acknowledge that there might be another reason why AJ is in despair—that maybe it’s not just an inherited tendency toward depression; maybe Tony’s criminality might have just a little bit to do with it. But how far down this road is Melfi willing, or able, to go?)
From the episode’s opening moments, there’s a sense of long-deferred bills coming due, long-denied facts asserting themselves, dreams being disturbed, reality asserting itself. In “The Second Coming”—a poem that’s proving integral to this final run of episodes—William Butler Yeats warns that,
Things fall apart
The centre cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
This isn’t just a more eloquent restatement of Tony’s pet phrase, “Everything turns to shit.” It’s a description of an existential predicament that has ensnared both Tony and AJ. (And as the esteemed Mr. Sepinwall points out in his Star-Ledger recap, this is the second time the show has quote Yeats’ most famous poem: “In season five’s ’Cold Cuts,’ Melfi used the famous ’Things fall apart’ line with Tony.”)
There’s a sense that terrible knowledge—knowledge of toxic truth held at bay with rationalizations and outright lies—is intruding on the characters’ waking dream states, their privileged, outwardly carefree existences. The episode’s first two shots show a mountain of asbestos moldering near the marshlands of North Jersey, a stone’s throw from a big city skyline (Jersey City?). Then director Tim Van Patten cuts to a tracking shot that reveals a sleeping Tony, followed by a shot of AJ sleeping. Then AJ awakes, puts on rap music to drown out his depression, and in so doing, wakes up his father. Just as the asbestos is bound to contaminate the blood of North Jersey residents, gangsterism will poison the plush lifestyle it enables—a lifestyle the criminals and their spouses and children hoped they could keep separate. Everyone will inhale a bit of poison. A tiff over asbestos dumping and construction spills into Tony’s private life, leading to the crude sexual harassment of Meadow in a Little Italy restaurant, and Tony’s vengeance against the perpetrator—a pistol-whipping plus an indoor curb job—only makes things worse. More contamination: at family therapy with AJ and Carmela, Tony spots a bloody tooth in the cuff of his slacks. And early in the episode, the Bobby Bacala visits a construction site and refuses to shake the hand of his business contact because it’s been touching asbestos, seemingly oblivious to the fact that it’s going right into his lungs.
All these gags are variations on the same theme: Paulie ripping up Christopher’s manicured lawn and the like. The gangsters think because they love their spouses and kids that they’re good people, and the other guy is corrupt. They ask sympathy and understanding from others but give little themselves. Tony cites his hospital bonding moment with Phil to make a human connection, but he’s really exploiting that sacrosanct moment to get a better deal. Phil returns the favor, telling Tony about his own epiphanies in the joint, making grilled cheese sandwiches on a radiator and jerking off into a tissue. Phil, like Tony, might have had a come-to-Jesus moment in intensive care, but he snapped out of it quickly and resumed looking out for Number One (and indulging in his own version of Tony’s angry daddy score-settling—the homophobic hit job on Vito). Everybody wants a fair deal on their own terms. They admonish colleagues and subordinates not to mix business and personal matters, then do exactly that, and view the inevitable unpleasant outcome as an affront. They shit where they eat and wonder why the food tastes funny.
AJ’s depression was, in every sense, a wake-up call; here again we see The Sopranos indulging a parallel structure. AJ’s long-delayed “loss of innocence” about his father’s true nature, his father’s business, dovetails with his sudden overwhelming awareness of all the evil and stupidity in the world—the religious and ethnic feuds going on for thousands of years, the way that the profit motive trumps ethics and results in toxins being sprayed on food. “Depressed?” AJ’s shrink asks him. “How can anybody not be, when everything is so fucked up?” AJ replies. AJ’s deep distress is mirrored by Tony’s own dawning sense that his entire universe is decaying, that there’s no way to repair it, that he’s helpless before realities he’s only begun to acknowledge. Better to withdraw, ease back in the passenger seat, let Heidi drive. You believe, even hope, that some revelation is at hand; then you remember Tony’s predatory, blank look as he pinched Christopher’s nose shut and made him drown in his own blood: a gaze as blank and pitiless as the sun. Maybe the center holds just fine.
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