Sunday, April 15, 2007

"I'm glad you caught that Alexandra. Very observant. The sacred and the propane.": The Sopranos

I was pleasantly surprised to find the minimum of grousing about last week's Sopranos episode. Perhaps this was because fans were just so happy to have the show back, but I'd prefer to believe that they've also realized that The Sopranos has always been as much (if not more) about its slow, meandering passages, full of portent, as it is about its big, bloody gun battles and moments of extreme violence. Still, for the small number of fans that found last week's show too slow, tonight's episode more than made up for it by piling on the ominous doings and stapling them together with a healthy helping of plot advancement and even some whackings (one from cancer, one from gunshot). And the episode ended with a nicely portentious montage, one that seemed to boil with undercurrents for the season to come.

For starters, the episode gave Vincent Curatola his finest showcase to date as Johnny Sack. Johnny Sack's character has really grown as the show has gone on, and this episode showed just how vital he is to the New York family. His death seems likely to touch off a huge war that could drag even Tony's family into it. The first strike in this war came when an assassin knocked off The Hairdo while he was having supper (in a nicely shot sequence that seemed almost as if Silvio were seeing the hit before it happened until we realized that time had just slowed down from our point of view). It was one seeming Godfather reference in an episode full of them -- almost as if the show were playfully acknowledging its debt to that stalwart of the mafia genre.

The episode was also scathingly funny, full of terrific one-liners and other jokes. Terrence Winter is maybe the show's best writer after David Chase (it would be between him and the team of Robin Green and Mitchell Burgess, which has left the show), and he's always able to mix the show's darker moments (of which there were many in this episode) with some great jokes (of which there were many others). One of the things that The Sopranos does well that many of its imitators never got down was having a sense of humor. The Sopranos' humor is ever-present -- scabrous and ready to be deployed at any moment.

The foreshadowing in the episode was also spot-on. I'm actually not expecting the FBI agents' constant warnings of possible terrorist attacks to pay off in any real way, but I do like that it's giving us a sense that there are certain things Tony might actually place ahead of the Family (namely, his actual family). And the christening scene at the end was both a sly Godfather shoutout (okay, not actually THAT sly) and a way to increase the tension between Tony and Christopher.

The Christopher stuff (in which Tony saw that Chris doesn't think as highly of him as he would like via the device of the tired Cleaver movie that seemed like it wouldn't have a point until this week) was pretty good, but it was a little over-obvious for this show, complete with that final scene with Dr. Melfi that drove the point home (Tony wants Christopher to respect him!) devoid of subtext. Still, the gradual building of anger between these two doesn't bode well for the future, and I imagine the final conflict will come because Chris betrays Tony somehow. One question about Cleaver: Why couldn't they get a bigger star to be in the movie-within-the-show? David Chase seems able to make anybody do anything (or so David says), so why not get a Ray Liotta or someone for the part? Also, on a completely unrelated note, is A.J.'s girlfriend pregnant?

But I keep coming back to Johnny Sack. His sad swan song, dying of lung cancer over the course of the episode, was beautifully acted and heartwrenchingly written and directed. That this vital man would be taken out by something so prosaic seems in line with the show's brutal view of life and the toll it takes on people. And Johnny's sadness that he had finally changed only to see his prior lifestyle catch up with him seems emblematic of the way the show views change -- you can try to change, but it will probably be too late. In my review of the show's fifth season, I said that I thought the show's novelistic construction meant that the characters would get their just desserts, starting with the more innocent evildoers. While Johnny Sack was far from innocent, he's being karmically paid back for a life of wrongdoing, perhaps in the most mundane way possible. There's an almost Catholic undercurrent to The Sopranos that manifests itself in unusual ways.

Finally, the episode title, Stage 5. While it literally referred to the movie stage where Cleaver was shot and edited, it also seemed to be referring to the stages of grief (or perhaps even the fifth of the seven souls from the poem that opened the season way back last year). Your thoughts, of course, are welcome.

But don't stop here! Go read Sepinwall's commentary and then check out whatever Matt Zoller Seitz has to say at The House Next Door.


Steve said...

Finally, the episode title, Stage 5. While it literally referred to the movie stage where Cleaver was shot and edited, it also seemed to be referring to the stages of grief

No, it is a reference to John Sacrimon's cancer. Sacrimon's doctor tells him he has Stage 4 cancer. Sacrimon asks "There is no Stage 5, is there?"

Stage 5 is death.

Anonymous said...

Nice review.

I agree with Steve above, Stage 5 referred to the cancer.

Re: a bigger star for "Cleaver" I have no doubt Chase could have pulled just about anyone he wanted. I think the choice was a nod to the humor you mentioned. This is Chris and Little Carmine running the show after all. They shot for Ben Kingsley and basically ended up with Jonny Drama.

And while I disparaged Little Carmine above, I have to say I was impressed with his story to Tony about why he did not want to be boss (his wife not wanting to be the richest widow on Long Island / happiness, not being the boss, is the goal, etc.). While he is the character most in need of a dictionary, he showed awareness in that sense that the other characters (accept maybe Hesh) don't display.

Todd VanDerWerff said...

Ah, my bad.

I got distracted by seeing the number 5 on the wall somewhere in the movie sequences and thought that was the reference, forgetting about Johnny's cancer stages.

I really need to take notes on this show.