Tuesday, April 24, 2007

"This is what life is like? At our age?": The Sopranos

Long and langorous, the latest episode of The Sopranos continued the introspective tone of the first two of this season's second half, punctuated only by the violence imagined by the audience when Tony took Paulie out on that boat (complete with a largely unnecessary flashback to the murder of Big Pussy) and the actual violence meted out on Doc Santoro by the power-hungry and vengeful Phil Leotardo. Still, the episode was gripping and mesmerizing, digging in deep to the sense that the past is rising up from the ground itself, surrounding these characters to drag them down to their end (even if it seems increasingly unlikely that the show will end with Tony dead).

While Sopranos Home Movies and Stage 5 were both probably narrowly better than this episode, Remember When was another sterling hour dedicated to ushering the show itself out, even as its characters ruminate on what has happened to them so far and confront their own mortality. Tony, perhaps, saw his eventual decline reflected to him in Paulie, a man who started as a higher-up and eventually became a loyal soldier. Even as Paulie cackled at a sitcom and let loose many old stories that could come back to haunt the gang, Uncle Junior, Tony's father figure for so many years, was trying to battle back against the dementia he was slipping into by refusing to take his meds and organizing a poker game (with the help of an angry young man named Carter -- regrettably, the actor who played Carter was Asian-American, but I'm glad HBO didn't even think about pulling the episode in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings; art, after all, should make us uncomfortable from time to time, especially The Sopranos). Still, after a threat to be transferred, Junior decided to take his meds and ended up in a drugged-out stupor, happily singing along to "Country Roads Take Me Home" and petting a cat sadly, a shell of himself. If this was Dominic Chianese's final performance as Junior, it was a heck of a way to go out.

As Matt Zoller Seitz has noted, the episode was reminiscent of earlier episodes in the show's run when two stories that were vaguely parallel were told (the best example of this is probably still College from season one). As Seitz notes, the parallels here weren't as neat as the parallels in the earlier episodes, but that was nice, in a way. It could feel a little too comfortable to do that, a little too neatly self-contained. The Sopranos has gotten messier and messier over the years, and the fraying at the ties between the two stories was nicely in keeping with this messiness. In many ways, the show's gradual acceptance to avoid easy, pat answers has evolved along with the characters gradual realization that all of life can't be tied up in a bow. Eventually, you're going to try to change, and you're going to fail (at least in this show's dispiriting worldview) or you're going to find the past catching up with you.

The episode's structure meant that many of the characters -- Carmela, most notably -- barely appeared, but that was all right. The entire season has taken on the feeling, so far, of Tony confronting his relationships with the people around him and realizing how his actions have affected them. Perhaps the show won't end with a bang, but it seems unlikely that it won't end with Tony not realizing just how much of a mess he has made of so many lives.

I also liked the episode's focus on past sins and regrets. While Tony said that "Remember when" is the lowest form of conversation, the flashbacks to his first murder (of a bookie) provided the impetus for the episode itself (as he and Paulie had to escape to Miami for a few days to ride out a concern over the finding of that bookie's body) and the whole hour resonated with the idea that people may not change, but their situations and surroundings sure do (especially as Tony and Paulie couldn't find the Virginian hotel they wanted to stay in).

All in all, it was a sad hour, though it was leavened, as always, by some great jokes, particularly Junior's hope for help from Dick Cheney because both had been involved in gun mishaps (ultimately, Cheney did not have time to check out the matter, a form letter informed Junior).

But the general sense of the episode is that there's little room for the decaying in Tony's world and that he's going to have to find a way to keep himself vital before he's one, big "Remember when?" story.

(Expect a 24 review tomorrow, along with our American Idol coverage. We should be all caught up by then!)

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