David Chase is the king of the double-reversal. He trains viewers to expect something other than the obvious—an out-of-left-field development, even an anticlimax or a baffling digression; then, when he decides to do what you’d expect a gangster melodrama to do, you’re not only surprised by the events themselves, you’re surprised Chase went there. The penultimate episode of The Sopranos, “The Blue Comet,” was the most atypically typical whack-fest the show has served up in quite some time, maybe since the final leg of Season One. It was the sort of hour that fair-weather fans of the series keep craving even though Chase has consistently refused to give it to them. It was an orgy of Mafia mayhem best characterized by a line from Ray Liotta’s Goodfellas narration: real greaseball shit. By the end of it, Tony had sent his wife and kids into hiding and was last seen in in wartime mode, holed up in a house with his boys, clutching the AR-15 rifle that Bobby had given him and awaiting the inevitable assault. So much for the theory that The Sopranos would go out with one long moan.
The episode starts with Silvio taking the initiative and garroting Burt Gervasi for “playing both sides of the fence” and trying to steer Silvio and others to join the Lupertazzi Family. The latter family’s acting boss, Phil Leotardo, declares war on the Soprano family; Tony gets tipped off by Agent Harris (“wheels have been set in motion”) and Tony OK’s pre-emptive strikes, starting at the top (a mirror of Leotardo’s plan to destroy the Soprano family by killing its top three members, Tony, Silvio and Bobby). But Tony’s plan to bring some hired guns from Italy to kill Phil goes horribly awry; Tony subcontracts the planning of the hit to Paulie, who in turn asks Corky Caporale and Patsy Parisi to explain the details to the killers; the trigger-man kills an innocent senior citizen who vaguely resembles Phil and takes out his daughter in the process. (Now we know why Tony hates delegating; it only creates more problems.) Silvio gets shot and gravely wounded in a hit outside the Bada-Bing (though Steve Van Zandt’s acting was so off in the tracking shot revealing his bloodied body that it was hard to tell if Silvio was dead, unconscious, playing possum, or remembering his senior prom). Silvio’s fellow passenger, Patsy Parisi, escapes and is last seen fleeing the scene. Backing out of the Bing’s parking lot, Phil’s button-men cause an accident involving a motorcyclist, prompting the second of two “Run away! Run away!” reaction shots from the gawking crowd, a crowd we assumed had gone inside for safety’s sake. This was a good, mean joke—in the spirit of that cutaway to the girls driving the car that caused the accident in “Kennedy and Heidi,” but with an undertone of audience criticism. The crowd outside the Bing runs away from the hit like Tokyo extras fleeing Godzilla, then comes back to watch again, their rubbernecking impulse made plain when a gangland hit is followed by an actual car accident.
Bobby Bacala’s death is a companion to that Bing joke. He gets shot in a model train shop while coveting a scale model of a defunct passenger car that gave the episode its title. The prized toy was a very busy little metaphor. On an obvious level, it stood for any nostalgic impulse the gangsters have ever demonstrated; the lionizing of The Good Old Days when gangsterism supposedly had rules; Tony’s criticizing the ongoing pussyfication of the American white man, and asking, “Whatever happened to Gary Cooper?” (For all his delusions, Paulie sees the past more clearly, remarking in a gravely distressed tone that he survived the New York gang wars of the 70s by “the skin of my balls.”)
Bobby’s execution was intercut with a model train jumping the tracks, which seemed like a too-obvious Godfather borrowing (a murder intercut with something mundane) until you remembered Phil’s contemptuous statement earlier in the episode implying that the Sopranos weren’t even a real family, but a pygmy clan that needed to be wiped out. They’re not gangsters, they’re scale models of gangsters. Phil intends to smash them like a toy train set. As he smashes them, it will be difficult to muster much sympathy for the vanquished because Chase has exposed their selfishness unmercifully, like a prosecutor building an airtight case. Thanks to the ever-more-conspicuously nasty behavior exhibited this season, often by characters we might otherwise be inclined to identify with (like Bobby Bacala, who killed for the first time on Tony’s orders), it’s hard to get to choked up over the destruction (and self-destruction) of Tony or the members of his blood family and crime family. The series has underlined, italicized and boldfaced the fact that they’re all killers or tacit enablers of killers. As we watch them go down, we might as well be watching a model train jump the tracks.
Lastly, Orson Welles once called Citizen Kane “the greatest electric train set any boy ever had.” The train shop scene is a jokey admission that filmmakers are overgrown kids playing God with life-sized toys. As the series chugs along toward its final destination, Chase is staging one collision after another. We shudder in revulsion, then go online and try to guess what he’ll smash next. Bacala’s death (a virtual boss sprawled out atop a pile of model trains) ties in with the sight of those rubberneckers at the Bing recoiling from horror, then going back for more, all the while drawing no apparent distinction between a gangland hit and a car accident. They’re drawn to pain like flies to shit. It’s as if Chase is simultaneously celebrating and condemning his own ability to mesmerize viewers with violence—saying, in effect, “Yeah, I know it’s compelling—I enjoy making it as much as you enjoy watching it,” and “Jesus, what’s wrong with you people? Why do you keep coming back for more?”
It’s not your imagination; in Season Six, the show has, in fact, gotten progressively grimmer, its characters more pathetically life-sized. Chase has made it tough to mourn his principal characters for any reason besides their stillborn human potential. It’s as if he’s conducting a perverse social experiment, trying to see how much loathsome behavior he can show without driving us off. The episode’s bits of meta-commentary—on violence as entertainment and suffering as spectacle, and on the morality of those who watch—gain context in the scene where Melfi decides she’s had enough of Tony’s charismatic intransigence and kicks him out. Melfi’s decision comes after two weeks’ worth of pressure from her own shrink, Dr. Kupferberg, who kept bringing up a study indicating that criminals don’t make real progress in therapy, they just learn how to manipulate their therapists.
The (theoretically final) Melfi-Tony scene might be the most explicit acknowledgment of Tony’s brutishness since he pinched Christopher’s nostrils shut in “Kennedy and Heidi.” As he talks to Melfi about his son’s botched suicide and subsequent treatment, and his daughter’s decision to give up medicine for pre-law, he isn’t saying anything he hasn’t said before; we should be, if not moved, than at least sympathetic. But because we’re seeing Tony through Melfi’s eyes, it looks like crocodile tears. Melfi wonders, and we’re supposed to wonder, if this burly killer with a soft spot for pets and children really feels anything at all, or if his emotionalism is just a form of overcompensation, a means of lying to himself and the world about his cauterized human potential. (When AJ broke down and started to weep, Tony dragged him across the floor and berated him for his weakness.) If Tony is Chase’s surrogate, Melfi is (or is supposed to be) ours. She’s saying she feels deceived and manipulated, that she’s had it, that this relationship isn’t really going anywhere, and for the sake of her mental health and personal honor, it has to end. I understand her position, and I’ll be standing alongside her next Sunday night, after one last hour of rubbernecking.