Monday, June 04, 2007

"Yeah, but what were you doing? Nothing.": The Sopranos

(Warning: If you haven't seen Sunday's Sopranos episode yet and you still plan to watch it, this is yet another episode where if you spoil yourself, you'll probably ruin the whole thing. Here's the short version: It was a great episode -- like the last two, one of the series' best -- and you really should watch it for yourself and come back prepared to discuss the following themes: collateral damage, the declining role of the U.S. in world geopolitics and an impending sense of doom. -- ed.)

The car skidded away after its occupants had entered a gun battle with two other characters. The people in the car had proved victorious, but as they zoomed onto the highway, a motorcycle plowed into the side of the car and the bike's rider flew off, sliding across the road. He might have been OK, clad in protective gear and helmet as he was, but he was soon run down by another car, his bones crunching beneath its tires. A large crowd looked on and winced, oohing and ahing at the pointless carnage of both the gun battle and the motorcyclist's accident.

In the world as seen by David Chase, we, the audience, serve the role of both the motorcyclist and the onlookers. The human cost of those surrounding the Sopranos gang is dire indeed, stretching right down to a faceless man who was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time (the season has been filled with one-scene characters like this -- given a chance to do the right thing or show their innocence or die pointlessly -- people who come in contact with the Sopranos and leave bloodied). When we choose to do the convenient thing instead of the right thing, Chase almost seems to argue, someone will get hurt. Sure, you might not run down a motorcyclist, but the human cost is still present. The Sopranos has always been a deeply moral work, almost in spite of itself, but that morality is tempered with cynicism. America used to stand for things, Chase seems to say, but now what does it stand for? (More on that in a moment.)

Chase also seems to indict much of his audience by sending the crowd of onlookers outside to gawk and stare at the gun battle between the two on the New York crew and Silvio and Patsy Parisi and then the motorcyclist's accident. Primarily, the onlookers were strip club patrons, and Chase seemed to be tweaking those who watch the show only for the violence by giving them a huge dose of it all at once (and the gun battle sequences and execution scenes in this episode were tense examples of how to direct and edit these sorts of things). Is it any coincidence that most of these people were strip club patrons? By not wanting to engage with the show on any level other than "who's gonna' get whacked," Chase seems to say, some audience members are simply turning into the very voyeurs that Tony and the gang prosper off of. It's fine to watch the show (or any television) that way, but there's little to no point to it.

But the whole episode seemed to be about the collateral damage the Sopranos gang has caused as it cut a swath through the Jersey landscape. Lots of people died because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, including Phil's mistress' dad and the mistress herself. A.J. watched a PBS documentary that talked about insurgents in Iraq cutting down people with IEDs. The patrons of the model train store where Bobby was gunned down screamed and shouted as the murder took place. Carmela is forced to pack up the kids and get them to a safe location. Even Melfi got taken down simply because she associated with Tony, mocked at a party by her lousy friends.

But at least Melfi did the right thing. After realizing that there was no way she could get through to Tony (as expressed previously, he was simply using the sessions to become a more efficient monster), she cut him off in a scene that hinted at as many of her misgivings about treating a mobster as it did bring others to the surface. I don't believe the show's finale won't have a Tony/Melfi scene in it, but the whole sequence where she berated him for everything from treating Meadow differently from A.J. to ripping a page out of one of her magazines was a resonant one, the sort of thing you wouldn't see in, say, Analyze This (a movie with a similar premise that the show was frequently compared to in its first season). After years of doing unspeakable things, what sets Melfi over the edge is Tony's casual destruction, his disregard for a piece of her property as (seemingly) insignificant as a magazine. She's done with this man, and he, shamed by the one person who COULD shame him, is equally done with her. Melfi has always been the show's one moral character, and her refusal to associate with Tony anymore seems designed to allow the viewer to cut him loose once and for all as well.

The whole episode also resonated with ideas of a fading American world power. A.J. and his friend Rhiannon discussed the ascension of the Chinese (we caught a quick glimpse of what she was looking at on the computer before Tony kicked her out). A.J., the child of a monster, proved completely ineffectual in the face of adversity, curling up in bed and having to be dragged out of it (perhaps suggesting what, exactly, Chase believes of my generation). And poor Bobby spoke wistfully of a world where people could take the Blue Comet train from Manhattan to Atlantic City and ride in a luxurious Pullman car, sleeping in a nice bed and sipping fine drinks. The idea of the American cultural miasma slowly sucking itself down into a tarpit has always burbled beneath the surface of The Sopranos, but the show has never so blatantly referred to the idea that a corner has been turned and there's no way back. And it's been doing so all season, making increasingly pointed political commentary about the Bush administration and the war in Iraq and obliquely commenting on China, a nation ascendant as the U.S. was when Bobby's imagined man could ride The Blue Comet.

The Blue Comet is everything that has been lost by both the characters and the country they live in. The characters are unable to step out into the world without spreading death, and they long for simpler times and greater men (Tony's admiration for Gary Cooper, for example). They themselves are incapable of measuring up to the men who preceded them (look at Tony fetishizing World War II, as so many baby boomers do), and their children seem unsuited to the tasks ahead of them (contrast Tony's WWII documentary watching with A.J. watching a documentary on how messed up things have gotten in Iraq). After Bobby finishes discussing the Blue Comet, we see a masterfully edited sequence that cut between the New York soldiers advancing on Bobby and the model train rushing through its little, perfectly constructed world. Bobby, in his death throes, falls through that world, destroying it utterly, and the rushing locomotive plunges off the track. The train is coming. The end is near. Are you ready for the Rapture? (Interestingly, the series that will inherit The Sopranos' time slot, John from Cincinnati, is ALSO uniquely preoccupied with the end of the world. But we'll get to that later this week.)

The episode ended with Tony laying in a bed in an old, creaky house (haunted, literally, by a ghostly cardboard cutout of Sil, now incapacitated and in a coma doctors say he will never come out of). He's surrounded by the skeletons that remain from his crew, including the increasingly ineffectual Paulie, who farmed out the hit on Phil that went so badly and chuckled about A.J.'s new girl immediately after telling Tony that Sil would never recover. He lies in a bed, clutching an assault rifle given to him by his now dead brother-in-law, and waits for the end to come.

1 comment:

Tom C. said...

Todd,

I feel your pain; whenever I write about the Sopranos, I always feel like anything I say pales in comparison to Seipwall and Seitz. But don't sell yourself short. This is really insightful and well written.