The most important scene in Sunday’s Sopranos episode came during Carmela’s surprise visit with Tony’s therapist, Dr. Melfi. Poring over her conflicted feelings toward Tony, who was still incapacitated from a gunshot wound, Carmela admitted that from the very start of their relationship, she knew he was a criminal. But she chose not to think about it. “I don’t know if I loved him in spite of it, or because of it,” she said.
Throughout the show’s long run, fans have periodically been forced to ask themselves that question—but rarely for long. David Chase’s series, a rude social satire disguised as a gangster soap, was usually so preoccupied with power plays, domestic melodrama and cavalier injections of comic sadism—and so inclined to let its murderous heroes err on the side of crackpot lovability—that you couldn’t stay conflicted. For all its metacritical self-analysis, in the end The Sopranos was usually content to be seen, first and foremost, as a bloody good show, emphasis on show.
But now, in the home stretch, the emphasis seems to be changing; or at least it looks that way from the first four episodes. (Yes, I’ve seen the fourth installment, but since most of you haven’t, I’ll write around it for now.) The tricky moral calculus that informs all gangster stories has been foregrounded in almost every scene of episodes one, two and three. A cloud hangs over everything, a sense that a lot of bills are coming due, one after the other. The question is, how many of Chase’s characters will grasp this fact and pay up before the universe collects at gunpoint? Not Carmela, I’m guessing. She told Melfi that over the decades, she’d confessed her deepest fears of a compromised life to friends and advisors. And she admitted that Tony’s shooting, a local media event, had forced her now-adult children, Meadow and Anthony Jr., to “face all these years of facade-ing.” (Facade-ing isn’t a word, but you knew what she meant.) Then she executed a typical about-face and suggested that Tony’s gangsterism was a speck on the world’s moral radar. Her admissions of guilt, she told Melfi, were “bullshit, because there are far bigger crooks than my husband.” Melfi kept mostly silent during Carmela’s session, but she did manage to interject what might prove to be the most significant three-syllable word in the show’s history: “Complicit.”
Complicit in what, exactly? Not just Tony’s life of crime, but also a generalized (and, Chase suggests, very American) tendency to put one’s own self-interest ahead of everything and everyone else. To look out for Number One. Except for Melfi, whose Talmudic scrutiny of her patients’ rationalizations makes her Chase’s true dramatic surrogate, every major Sopranos character is supremely selfish, even when they present themselves as compassionate.
Silvio, who was conveniently revealed as a secret athsmatic so he could suffer an eleventh-hour respiratory attack, stepped up to play boss in Tony’s stead, and warned his wife not to ask self-interested questions about the future; but she still asked, and he listened. The day before Silvio’s athsma attack, Uncle Junior’s caretaker Bobby Bacala pressed him to rule on how to distribute proceeds that used to go to Junior; Bobby arrived at Silvio’s house the next morning as he was being loaded into the back of an ambulance, just in time to whine: “I didn’t hear from you!” Slimmed-down Vito unsubtly suggested that he’d make a pretty good boss himself, and collaborated with Paulie Walnuts, his partner in a nasty robbery of Columbia drug dealers, to avoid giving Tony’s mob-mandated kickback to Carmela; then, after Tony unexpectedly awakened from his coma, they cobbled a bag of cash and handed it to Mrs. Soprano, making a big show of their generosity. (“We’re here if you need anything,” Vito told her.) Tony’s quick exit from Coma Land was spurred by the sound of Paulie’s selfish drone, which pushed him into cardiac arrest; asked by Carmela to sit by her husband’s bedside and talk to him, the silver-haired capo blathered on about himself, at one point regaling Tony with an account of his three-peat victory in a military chin-up contest. Afterward, when the big boss was awake but barely functioning, Chris stopped by long enough to tell Tony he expected him to invest Chris’ first venture as a movie producer, a digital horror flick about an eviscerated mobster who reassembles himself and goes after his killers with a meat cleaver. Grotesquely invoking the memory of his slain former wife Adriana, whom Chris gave up as a snitch, he said, “You owe me this.”
As my Star-Ledger colleague Alan Sepinwall observed, “The Keystone Kops antics of Silvio and company also neatly illustrate how much smarter Tony is than the rest of his army combined. These are dumb, dumb people, and a world without Tony telling them what to do would be a grim future indeed.”
Compared to the first couple of episodes, this one meandered and occasionally ran into a ditch and spun its wheels. And there were more than a few cringe-inducing moments—particularly Paulie’s groin injury (“My fuckin’ balls!”), Vito’s cliched predatory homosexuality (very 1970s) and the predictably crude decision to stage a dramatically significant Vito-Paulie-Silvio conference in a hospital men’s room while Silvio was unburdening himself in a stall. (My brother Richard observed that on The Sopranos, “You always know there’s gonna be trouble if somebody’s taking a shit.”) In the end, the drama cohered (barely) thanks mainly to powerful performances by Edie Falco and James Gandolfini (whose winsome Coma Land performance as average guy Kevin Finnerty suggested he’ll have a long life as an Everyman character actor) and by the show’s bemused contempt for venality in all its forms.
Chase and his writers are so cynical about people that they make Luis Buñuel seem like Frank Capra; they expect the worst of humanity and show humanity at its worst. Even most of the one-off characters are scumbags, hustlers and swine (including Timothy Daly’s pretentious screenwriter J.T. Dolan, who’s writing Chris’ horror movie to pay off a gambling debt). And the series routinely makes room for condemnations of whole classes of entertainment industry types—no small feat for a drama set in suburban New Jersey. Chris describes indie moviemakers as “Douchebags who never made a film before,” and when his henchman drag Dolan out of a Writers’ Guild class, the blank-faced would-be William Goldmans don’t even get up from their seats. “An entire room full of writers, and you did nothing!” Dolan moans.
Say this for the Sopranos writers: they’re equal-opportunity misanthropists. They see the bad in everyone, themselves included.
As for the dream/hallucination/afterlife imagery, I am not quite sure what to make of the final scene of Tony standing outside of the Finnerty home, making cryptic small talk with the gatekeeper (Steve Buscemi, who played Tony’s most recent shooting victim, mobbed-up cousin Tony Blundetto) and hesitating to enter. Both times I watched the episode, I saw it as a surreal and rather beguiling “Godfather” riff—business vs. personal, the family vs. The Family; Tony can’t enter the domicile and be a real husband and father until he sets aside business (symbolized by Finnerty’s briefcase). That’s in addition to the obvious interpretation: Tony was in purgatory, the house is heaven, and he’s called back to earth before he can step through the front door. There also seemed a faint suggestion that to get into heaven, i.e. to finally merge with, and be safe with, his true family, Tony will have to literally give up his business family—meaning rat them out. Given what we know about Tony Soprano, that seems unlikely. But perhaps not impossible. Those voices rustling in the trees might be the children he never spent enough time with, or they could be the spirits of people he killed. At this point, we just don’t know, and I’m fairly sure that Chase, being Chase, won’t tell us.