Christopher believes that he visited the Afterlife. Paulie has some very specific beliefs about life after death. Tony and Big Pussy go get some revenge on Matt Bevilaqua, and some steaks afterwards.
EPISODE 22 - ORIGINALLY AIRED MARCH 12, 2000 WRITTEN BY MICHAEL IMPERIOLI DIRECTED BY HENRY J. BRONCHTEIN
Two episodes ago, in “D-Girl,” Tony gave Chris Moltisanti an ultimatum; he must choose to pursue either his dream of becoming a screenwriter or his goal of becoming a Made Man. After thinking it over, Chris chose the latter. This doesn’t mean, however, that the actor playing Chris cannot be a screenwriter. David Chase likes to play with Chris/Michael Imperioli in the metalevel (that strange place between fiction and reality) and Imperioli’s writing credit here adds to the playfulness.
“SEEING THROUGH DIFFERENT EYES”
About midway through this episode, Agent Skip Lipari tries to reassure Big Pussy that Tony is neither acting differently nor has he made Pussy out to be a rat. On the contrary, Lipari tells Puss, “You’re the one who’s different now. You’re the one who is seeing through different eyes.” This idea of seeing through different eyes—of shifting perspective—informs the entire episode. Characters view themselves, each other, religion and the afterlife in shifting, changing ways as the episode progresses.
The episode begins atypically, with musical scoring over the first scene. (It is almost as though Chase is now making up for the lack of musical scoring over the ending of the previous episode, which closed to the sounds of life support machines.) Otis Redding’s “My Lover’s Prayer” is used evocatively throughout the hour. We identify the “lover” in the song ostensibly with Adriana, who hopes for Chris to recover, but the “lover” may just as well be Carmela, who prays for Chris’ recovery and also for her own husband to be faithful. In “D-Girl,” Carmela’s Christianity seemed dogmatic and trite when she tried to answer AJ’s serious questions, but now her Christian belief is more high-minded and noble, providing her with comfort when she needs it. Of course, the relief and sense of meaning that she finds through her belief is not necessarily an experience that others will share. She is convinced that her prayers saved Christopher’s life, and tries to share the significance of this to him while he lays in bed. Carmela has the hypnotized eyes and serene expression of the True Believer – and it freaks Chris out a little bit. He starts pounding the morphine pump; he has always found relief and a sense of meaning through chemical means. (I can relate to him here – I too have sometimes wished for opiates when talking to the Born Again and other fundamentalists.)
Carmela has been operating under a misunderstanding – she believes that Chris had a sweet vision of Heaven while unconscious, and is therefore very surprised to learn now that Christopher’s vision was not of Heaven but of Purgatory (perhaps even Hell). It’s a bit of a reality check for her. By the end of the episode, she loses much of the glassy-eyed conviction that she showed earlier. Early in the hour, she chose the Bible (to Tony’s surprise) as her bedtime reading material, but she switches back to her usual popular fiction before the end of the hour:
Paulie too loses some of the religious certainty that he’s been living under. It turns out that he has an absurdly simplistic conception of Heaven and Hell. According to his spiritual accounting system, all of his mortal and venial sins add up to a 6000 year stint in Purgatory, after which he will be granted access to Heaven. He strongly believes that Chris visited the Afterlife during the minute that he was clinically dead (and is also convinced that the “3:00” that his victim Mikey Palmice utters in Chris’ dream/out-of-body experience is some kind of ominous warning). Unsure now that his financial donations to his church have adequately protected his everlasting soul, he rails against his Priest and decides to make no more contributions. In his uncertainty, he even goes to a psychic, whose seemingly accurate reading pushes him further into a nervous state. Before this episode, we did not know Paulie Walnuts to be a man of such simple, absolute religious convictions. His certainties here seem a bit ridiculous, particularly because this TV series is one that argues that there are no absolute truths, only relative ones. In the backroom of the Bing, Tony voices the relativist position, trying to get Paulie to see through different eyes:
Tony: You eat steak?
Paulie: What the fuck you talkin’ about?
Tony: If you were in India, you would go to hell for that.
Paulie: I’m not in India. What do I give a fuck?
Tony: That’s what I’m trying to tell you. None of this shit means a goddamn thing. [He gets up to answer the telephone.]
There is some wisdom in Tony’s words. But there is also ugliness in them. Although Tony is wise enough to recognize the foolishness of absolute certainty, he has great difficulty figuring out how to live in a world without absolutes. A relativist worldview can be very creative, one in which meaning, morality and identity are responsibly and rationally constructed. And relativism need not necessarily be an agnostic or atheistic position; religious faith can still have an important, fulfilling role in the life of someone who has shrugged off the crushing certainties of dogmatism. But Tony cannot understand any of this. As an heir to Livia’s philosophy of meaninglessness (“It’s all a big nothing,” she said two episodes ago), he can only convey to Paulie the lesson that he has inherited: in a relativist world, “none of this shit means a goddamn thing.” (Metallica’s “King Nothing” playing in the next room underscores that, for Tony, neither Jehovah nor Shiva nor any other deity is king – the Big Nothing ultimately rules.)
This episode is laced with the ambiguity and uncertainty found in a relativist worldview. Tony’s reference to Hindu belief undermines the idea that there is only one true faith, as does the presence of the Muslim family in the waiting room of the Catholic hospital. We can’t reach an absolute conclusion about the psychic Paulie visits; although most of us would tend to think he is a scam artist, some of his observations are precise enough to make us think twice. Even the episode title itself points to uncertainty. The title is obviously derived from the 1953 film, From Here to Eternity (or the 1951 novel of the same name). By changing the word “Here” to “Where,” Chase calls the inciting event of this episode into question – exactly where did Chris go while he was clinically dead? Was it Hell? Or was it Purgatory? Or was it all just a bad dream? Impossible to say with certainty…
It would be almost paradoxical for an artwork to clearly convey the theme of uncertainty. Ambiguity expressed unambiguously would be a contradiction. That’s why I find it so interesting that the clearest expression of the relativist position in this episode—that conversation between Tony and Paulie in the backroom of the Bing—is cut short by a telephone call. Before Tony can expound on his idea any further, he gets up to answer the phone. The telephone call is never referenced again, we don’t know who calls or what for – its only purpose within the episode seems to be to kill this conversation. As I argued in my write-up for “D-Girl,” Chase cloaks his life-lessons well (so well, sometimes, that we can’t be sure that there is actually any lesson there). Tony’s words here do serve as a counterpoint to Paulie’s absolutism, but the curtains are drawn too quickly for us to be able to say anything more about them with certainty. David Chase may indeed be using Tony’s words to reflect his deep commitment to an art of relativism and uncertainty, but we just can’t say so for sure.
Carmela sees Tony with different eyes over the course of the episode. Early in the hour, after learning that another mobster’s goomar gave birth to an illegitimate child, she wants Tony to get “snipped.” Tony sarcastically appeals to her newfound religiosity to make his counter-argument: “Whatever is down here [grabbing his crotch] is God’s creation. Isn’t it a sin to undo the good work He’s done?” (Now that’s an awkward Sunday School lesson: “And on the sixth day, God created Tony’s junk…”) Carmela is losing patience with Tony and his lies. However, her attitude changes after he returns from the Bevilaqua killing. Tony does not say it outright, but Carmela knows that he has avenged the attack on Chris. She now recognizes him as a man who must make difficult choices for the sake of his family and his business, and he does so decisively. Although Tony is now willing to get the vasectomy, Carmela refuses. They embrace passionately, and the camera moves in close to them. In a very tight shot, we see them kiss more passionately than we have ever seen before. I think this scene may be a further reference to the 1953 film, which was famous for its extremely steamy (by 1950s standards) beach scene with Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr.
Like Carmela, Dr. Melfi is seeing Tony through a shifting perspective. Until now, Melfi has tried to retain professional distance and be non-judgmental toward this particular client. But now she seems to have lost some patience with him, and some of her questions and comments have the tone of a personal attack. When Tony argues that he is immune from eternal damnation because “We’re soldiers. Soldiers don’t go to hell. It’s war,” she pushes him, questioning whether this is a valid justification for his behavior. When he takes a different tack in defending himself, going on a rant against the JP Morgans of the world, she just pushes him some more, almost mockingly rather than therapeutically. Later, crying in Dr. Kupferberg’s office, she admits that her personal feelings are getting in the way of Tony’s therapy. She is truly scared of Tony Soprano and what he is capable of. She wonders if she hates him. She reveals to Eliot that she’s been drinking. The relativist stance that she has taken toward Tony Soprano from their first meeting onwards is taking a toll on her. Next season, another therapist—Dr. Krakower—takes an absolute position against Tony and his criminality – and many of us find it quite admirable. But even then, Chase undermines Krakower’s simplistic, black-or-white absolutism through the juxtaposition and sequencing of scenes (as we will see).
We see Paulie Gaultieri through different eyes over the course of the hour as well. As I mentioned earlier, we were not so aware previously of his deep religiosity. Although there is something cartoonish about certain aspects of his faith, I think Paulie’s belief reveals that there is a deeper dimension to him. More surprisingly, perhaps, we learn in this episode what a tender man Paulie can be. He is all sweetness and light with his girlfriend and her small children. Chase likes to shift our perspective on his characters, and so everyone becomes full o’ surprises on The Sopranos.
FOOD, FAITH AND FIREARMS
Religious and culinary images snake their way through this episode: the hospital in which Chris recovers is a Catholic institution filled with crucifixes; Pussy is munching on some capocollo at Satriale’s when an informant tells him of Matt Bevilaqua’s whereabouts; AJ drops the giant tray of pasta that he pulls out of the refrigerator. But there is a particular sequence of scenes, occurring around the climax of the episode and about eight minutes long in total, that spectacularly underlines the connections between food, faith and violence in The Sopranos:
- Tony is sharing pizza and a six-pack of soda with his son when he gets a call from Pussy regarding Matt’s hiding place
- In the next scene, Tony and Pussy grab some guns from a hidden arsenal at—where else?—Satriale’s Pork Store
- Tony and Pussy drag Matt to the snack bar at Hacklebarney State Park
- The badly beaten Matt drinks a diet Coke (and vengeful Tony rubs it in that that “sugarless motherfucker” is last thing he will ever drink)
- Tony and Pussy fire more than 15 rounds into Matt’s body. Cut to…
- An exterior shot of Paulie’s church
- Paulie’s chain-smoking Priest almost looks like a mobster himself (and he seems more interested in Paulie’s checkbook than in his salvation)
- Paulie glares at Jesus as he leaves his church. Note the stain-glass windows which get echoed in the next shot…
- An exterior shot of Duke’s Stockyard Inn, with neon-tube signs in the windows that simulate stain-glass in a secular way
- Tony and Pussy indulge in rich food at Duke’s Stockyard after a job well done. Tony asks Pussy here if he believes in God. (On the DVD commentary track, director Bronchtein says they staged the shot so that the “stain glass” would be seen behind Pussy, and producer Landress notes the significance of the cut from Paulie’s temple to this “temple of beef.”)
Director Henry Bronchtein says that he is constantly asked about the significance of “3:00.” After the beguiling Series Finale, many “Tony is killed” theorists cited this episode’s reference to “3:00” as evidence that a shooter emerged from Tony’s right (his three o’clock) to kill him. Now of course, it may very well be true that Mikey Palmice’s warning, via Chris, does indeed play into the final moments of the series. I just don’t think it is rationally justifiable to reach a state of utter certainty regarding these things. I mean, geez, we don’t even know for sure if Mikey was actually communicating to Chris from the world beyond, or if Chris was just having a trauma-induced (or medication-induced) dream. I suppose it is our human need for certainty that leads us to discover meaning where there may actually be none. There is a hilarious scene here in which Paulie’s girlfriend discovers her own meaning of “3:00”:
She travels a twisted, roundabout road to reach her discovery. She is so dazzled by the coincidences that they leave her almost breathless. “3:00” becomes very meaningful to her when she looks at it through her own eyes – she plugs it so neatly into her own experience and her own emotions that “3:00” ceases to simply be a coincidence and instead becomes fraught with meaning and significance. When we look at it through eyes different from her eyes (i.e. our own), we can’t help but laugh at the absurdity of her roundabout conclusion.