Tomorrow, the Writers Guild of America will announce its 2014 award winners, and whichever scribe(s) waltz off with the Original Screenplay prize may do the same on Oscar night, as all five nominees in the category were replicated by the Academy’s writers branch. The result of the WGA’s Adapted Screenplay race, however, won’t prove as keen a barometer of what might go down at the Dolby on March 2. Only three of the guild’s Adapted Screenplay contenders—Before Midnight, Captain Phillips, and The Wolf of Wall Street—made it onto Oscar’s shortlist, and even if one of them triumphs, breezing past Tracy Letts’s opus about familial dysfunction, August: Osage County, and Peter Berg’s bizarrely recognized soldiers-as-mincemeat shit show Lone Survivor, there’s still the seemingly impassable hurdle of John Ridley’s script for 12 Years a Slave, which, though ineligible for WGA honors (you can get those exclusion deets here), looks like Oscar’s indisputable frontrunner. Steve McQueen’s chilly directorial shortcomings may underscore what’s weak in Ridley’s take on Solomon Northup’s memoir (namely an undernourished depiction of the precious family from which our hero is stripped), but it feels nuts to bet against the one script in this field tied to a plausible Best Picture winner.
Terence Winter (#1–10 of 6)
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.
Written and directed by Terence Winter, “Walk Like a Man” came close to being all things to all Sopranos viewers. For the “less yakkin’, more whackin’” segment of the audience, it offered tits and blood aplenty, and it zipped through its densely packed narrative with a breathless sureness reminiscent of the show’s more conspicuously plot-driven first season (which makes sense, considering that there are only four episodes left; the show might as well circle around to where it started). But beneath its surface pleasures (and surface nastiness) was one of the most complicated structures of any single Sopranos episode—so dense, in fact, that I felt obligated to watch it twice before writing this, and had intended to watch it a third time until the 24-hours-in-a-day rule kicked in until it became clear that if I didn’t write something soon, I’d have to title the column “Sopranos Tuesday.” So I won’t attempt to be as comprehensive here as in previous posts; if I gloss over anything, hopefully we’ll get to it in the comments section.
“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.
Sunday’s episode of The Sopranos began with the reading of a wedding invitation, then showed the bride’s father, imprisoned mob boss Johnny “Sack” Sacrimoni, taking off his jailhouse togs, donning a suit and tie, and petitioning the court for permission to attend an event he’d waited his whole life to see.
He was allowed six hours of freedom, including transportation time, provided he paid for security screening at the wedding and reception and spent all six hours within sight distance of federal agents. Of course Johnny agreed. What else could he do?
The blessed event started with a metal detector screening at the church that nearly exhausted the gunshot-weakened Tony. It continued with an awkward reception dance between gangsters and agents, and ended with Johnny being prematurely evicted from the cake-cutting ceremony and packed off to jail in tears. (Afterward, Tony’s boys mocked Johnny’s breakdown as a sign of weakness—a scene that informed Tony’s climactic decision to reassert his Alpha Male dominance by beating his muscular new henchman to the floor of the Bada-Bing office, then loping off the to washroom to puke blood in private, twice.)
Talk about starting with a bang. Last night’s Sopranos premiere broke with the show’s traditional slow-building intro by jam-packing two hours of plot into 60 minutes and capping the episode with one of its most startling violent acts: de-fanged, housebound and Alzheimers’-suffering ex-mob boss Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) shooting New Jersey mob kingpin Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) in the chest at close range. It was vintage Sopranos, expected yet somehow surprising, and twisted and pathetic rather than superficially exciting. You always figured Tony might get shot, but not like this. It was downright humiliating, especially when director Tim van Patten cut to a God’s-eye-view shot of fat, bloody Tony lying on the kitchen floor, laboring to hoist his bathroom-scale-certified 280 pounds high enough to grab the wall phone and call 911.
Tony can’t die, of course; at least he can’t die this soon. Series creator David Chase can go on all he likes about how every cast member is fair game, but you still know he’s not going to kill his leading man with 19 episodes left to go. So as powerful as that shooting was, it still feels a bit like wheel-spinning. (Michael Imperioli’s Chris Moltisanti survived a less embarrassing shooting incident in Season Two.) But it’s still a shocking development, one that sets the stage for Chase and his writers to indulge their David Lynch-Dennis Potter fixation by pulling Tony out of this world and putting him into another one. The lead sentence from one of my Star-Ledger colleague Alan Sepinwall’s Sopranos preview pieces now makes sense: “There are going to be more dreams. Deal with it.”