(Gross. Words all over the picture. Get with the program, HBO!)
While so very many Sopranos fans longed for an outright bloodbath to close out the series, this continuous, blistering buildup is even better. I wouldn't even mind, at this point, if it all fizzled out, because the feeling of festering entropy has been impressive, a remarkable crumbling for all of the characters, who seem just as likely to end the season truly aware of their evil natures as they are to end the season in jail or dead (Alan Sepinwall first posted on the idea that the show's hell would be realizing just how bad of a person you are back around episode two, and his theory seems more and more prescient).
First things first.
I've got a friend (Jacob, who's on the contributor list over there but never contributes) who insists that Robert Iler is one of the show's greatest strengths. Up until these last few episodes, I wouldn't have agreed with him. Iler isn't bad, but he's never had a whole lot to work with until now, and his work with that little stuff wasn't remarkable enough for me to sit up and proclaim him a genius of acting. But now that he's been handed a huge storyline, the kid's practically Emmy-worthy. His work tonight, especially the whole section from his reading of Yeats' "The Second Coming" through Tony's rescue of him after the attempted suicide, was incredible. His gasps on the side of the pool were difficult to watch, and his sobs felt desperately real.
Speaking of The Second Coming, let me unearth my college English major for a moment. Here's a little Yeats for you. . .
All straining for significance aside, doesn't that second stanza suggest Tony's journey over the back half of this season? The desert, specifically is mentioned, and the blank gaze that he's increasingly used as he sinks more into his sociopathic self. And how else to read the final shot of the episode, where Tony walked down the long hallway of the hospital toward his son, shoulders slouched, finally having become the rough beast after he smashed Coco's face in (and how did he not kill him, exactly?).
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
What's been most remarkable about these last nine episodes is the way they feel like they truly encompass the series 80-plus episode run. In many cases, the show has seemed to mostly forget its past, resetting every week like most other TV series. But in these last nine, there have been copious numbers of callbacks to old grudges and events -- Phil's still mad about Tony B killing his brother so long ago, and he so holds it against Tony and the Jersey crew that he seems hellbent on provoking a pointless war. Is there a way either side can back down? And is there a way to unfurl the war in two episodes? If there is, I imagine The Sopranos will find a way to do it.
Meanwhile, Meadow's dating a guy with mob connections. Meadow has previously been the only character who successfully was able to carve out a life separate from her father's profession. But now that she's with Parisi, is there any way she can continue to be both in the world but not of it? Or does she get sucked down into the mire, just like her mother, who's had her chances but let them slip by?
Perhaps the most illuminating scene was Melfi's therapy session with Dr. Kupferberg, who said he was sad to not see Tony in the news. But he also shared the disquieting news that sociopaths don't respond well to psychotherapy as we understand it, mostly using it to find newer, more efficient ways to be sociopaths (which connects with what we've seen of Tony over the years). One of the foremost tropes of The Sopranos over the years has been its embrace (however half-hearted) of dime store psychology and philosophy, but these last nine episodes have seemed to reject all of that -- people are just people, and they'll do the terrible, terrible things they do for any number of reasons.
The show isn't completely free of psychotherapy -- as the terrifying fight between Tony and Carmela over the Soprano curse and who was to blame for A.J.'s depression showed -- but it's increasingly suggesting that there are no easy answers to anything, which must frustrate those who want to read the show as a simple morality play or mob fantasy. Indeed, the Tony and Carmela fight seemed to suggest just as strongly that there was no easy solution to A.J.'s malaise. After all, the guy seemed genuinely despondent about the very state of the world (Paulie suggested the rampant depression among mob kids had to do with all of the toxins in the air -- a line which can be read literally or metaphorically). But the show's suggestion that Tony is truly becoming his mother (right down to saying "Poor you" many, many times in this episode) is a bit too easy and pat. Certainly his mother lies at the root of many of his problems, but his foremost problem is that he is a monster of a human being and he's unwilling to admit it to himself.
The episode's centerpiece was Tony revealing his revelation from the end of the last week's episode. It was a long, rather hallucinatory ramble about how there is more to life than just what we're seeing and the role of the mother in life (she's the bus driver, see?). Parsing out this whole stretch will require a few more viewings (and consultations with those wiser than I), but Tony appears to finally be disconnected from any twinges of guilt he has about who he is or how he makes his money. And that's a frightening way to enter the final episodes.
The opening image of the show was a giant pile of junk, asbestos wafting off of it in the chill wind. The toxins are spreading, and they'll catch everyone.