Carmela sees a shining beacon in Paris, while
Vito’s lights are permanently shut off in New Jersey.
Episode 76 – Originally aired May 21, 2006
Written by Diane Frolov, Andrew Schneider and David Chase
Directed by Tim Van Patten
“Cold Stones” is my favorite episode of Season 6A. It is a dense hour, packed with action, allusions, puns, drama, humor, cultural commentary and multiple connections to earlier episodes, all coming together in layer upon layer of lip-smacking, finger-licking goodness. (I might be comparing it to a layer-cake here because the episode title makes me think of Cold Stone Creamery. Plus I’m a little hungry.) Over the course of the hour, Chase cuts back and forth between Carmela’s trip abroad and Vito’s return home. Several commentators have noted the clever cuts that Chase uses to switch between the Paris and New Jersey locales (Alan Sepinwall described the episode as “a tale of two cities, told in edits”), but few commentators have given proper focus to what I think is an important thematic parallel between Carmela and Vito’s stories: both storylines are concerned with the issue of identity.
In the opening scene of the hour, Carmela and Tony are very angry at their son; AJ’s latest screw-up has been to get fired from Blockbuster and then omit to tell his parents about it for three weeks. AJ behaves like a complete twerp here, full of excuses for every criticism that his parents make. I find the shot that closes this scene very interesting. AJ shoots a bird at his parents as they walk away, and Chase frames him between the two half-wall columns. We’ve seen Chase use blocking before to show how characters feel trapped and frustrated, and the half-walls here serve that function to some degree. But the spaces left open by the columns and half-walls also seem to signify that AJ is not truly trapped, he has many options and opportunities available to him if he were only smart enough to recognize them. His extended finger expresses his frustration, but in truth, Tony and Carmela have been quite flexible and tolerant of him.
(Season 6A will end with a shot of this room from this same angle, but the moving camera at that time will turn the half-walls and columns into much stronger symbols of entrapment—but I’ll get into that in the next write-up.) Later that night, Carmela is distressed over AJ’s attitude, she can’t sleep. She bolts upright in bed, awakening Tony:
Carmela: It’s not only that he is a complete stranger to the truth, he’s got this dead streak in him…Deep down, it’s like this big “Fuck you” to everything.
Tony: I don’t know what that’s about.
Carmela: Remember that whole “God is dead” business on the day of his confirmation?
Of course, Tony does know what it’s all about—and so do we. Several of the Soprano family members—Tony, Janice, AJ—have inherited Livia’s nihilism, her “Fuck you” attitude towards the whole universe. Livia instructed AJ in “D-Girl” that “It’s all a big nothing,” and he seems to have taken his grandmother’s lesson to heart. (“D-Girl” is the thematic forerunner of this episode, and Chase helps us to recognize this—the “‘God is dead’ business” that Carm now mentions occurred in “D-Girl.”) As the parents discuss their problematic son, daughter Meadow comes in to tell them that she may go to California to be with Finn and therefore might not be home for Christmas. (She is indeed absent from the Christmas party in the next episode. Meadow is learning more and more how to put distance between herself and her family.) As Meadow discusses her plans and options, we understand that there is a great difference between her and her brother—Meadow potentially has a very bright future in front of her, unlike her bro. AJ has inherited his father’s nihilistic inclinations, while Meadow has inherited her mother’s resilience to such undermining beliefs. Carmela will have a brush with nihilism—with the utter meaningless of everything—in Paris later in the hour, but she will come away from it with both her sense-of-self and sense-of-purpose intact.
Carmela has won a trip to Paris and suggests to Tony that she take it with Rosalie Aprile, to make up for the earlier Rome trip that they had to cancel. (It was in episode 2.12 “The Knight in White Satin Armor,” in the aftermath of Irina’s call to the house after a suicide attempt, that Carmela leveraged Tony’s philandering into a trip to Rome for herself. But apparently that vacation never took place because AJ walked through a plate-glass door.) Carm is so happy and grateful when Tony agrees to the idea that she practically gives him permission to cheat on her while she is away, telling him he “could do whatever it is boys do when they’re on their own.”
As we would expect him to do, David Chase uses the early part of the trip to demonstrate that “the fuckin’ regularness of life” which is such a fundamental part of daily existence in New Jersey cannot be escaped even in a world-class city like Paris. Carmela is frustrated and enervated by Rosalie’s constipation and by the blaring rap music in the taxi and by her difficulties with the language. But then a funny thing happens. Moved by the art, history, beauty and culture of the radiant city, Carmela begins to have a transcendent experience. She is particularly impressed by the longevity of the cold-stone monuments, sculptures and buildings that surround her.
Season 6 has been heavy with philosophical, metaphysical explorations of identity—we haven’t forgotten Tony’s trip to Costa Mesa in the earlier part of this season. Now, Chase is giving Carmela a chance to explore who she is as a person. Some viewers and critics saw this episode’s script/location simply as a way for the cast and crew to go to the famed City of Light at HBO’s expense. But I’m not so cynical. I think Paris is the most fitting place in the world that Chase could have chosen to investigate certain notions of identity.
Paris is the locus of modern Existentialist thought. Although Existentialist ideas began to appear throughout Europe a century earlier, it was in Paris in the years immediately after WWII that the philosophy really took shape and reached a broader audience. If David Chase had been of age in the 1950s, I don’t think it would have been surprising at all to find him discussing the meaning of life in a Left Bank café with Camus, Sartre, Ionesco and other postwar thinkers and artists…
Our lives seem so insignificant in the broad scheme of things—we find ourselves somehow thrown into an unimaginably vast universe. Astrophysicists estimate that there may be well over a trillion stars for each human being alive today, and the number of planets may be substantially greater. We seem so relatively puny, without any inherent significance. Nevertheless, Existentialists assert that it is possible to find significance and meaning in life—but we are each individually charged with this task. I am responsible for discovering what is significant and meaningful to me. Only then can I live an authentic life. Each of us alone carries this responsibility. I may turn to God or priest or society for assistance, but neither God nor priest nor society can magically confer a sense of authenticity upon me. Carmela’s questions about life and authenticity have been a long (though often subtle) part of her story: “Our existence on earth is a puzzle,” she philosophically mused all the way back in the Pilot episode. Her questions about existence now come to the forefront of the narrative.
It is upon a bridge in Paris—the Pont Alexandre—that Carmela begins to recognize the relative insignificance of her life. For me, the bridge-setting recalls Albert Camus’ novel, The Fall, because its protagonist Jean-Baptiste Clamence began to recognize the pettiness of his own life also while walking across a Parisian bridge. Let me give a quick recap of the novel here. Clamence is a dashing, well-respected and successful lawyer, but his life begins to unravel when he hears some laughter as he walks across the Pont Des Arts. He becomes convinced that the laughter was directed at him because people recognized him to be a sham and a phony, they recognized that the image he projects of himself as a proud, noble and courageous man is actually a charade. Clamence has been carrying an embarrassing secret: years earlier, while strolling along the nearby Pont Royal, he passed a suicidal woman leaning over the railing. Moments later, he heard a splash, and then heard her screams as the current carried her downstream. In a moment of cowardice, he didn’t jump into the water and try to rescue the drowning woman; in fact, he didn’t even turn his head, but continued to walk as though nothing happened. He successfully represses the memory of this event for years, but it finally resurfaces and destroys the carefully wrought image of himself that he presents to the world. The bridge on which Carmela now begins her “inner” journey is just downstream from the two bridges upon which Clamence experienced those two life-shaking, life-changing events in The Fall:
I’m not suggesting that Chase is making a deliberate reference to The Fall here by placing Carmela on the Pont Alexandre. I’m only saying that we can find precedence within Existentialist literature for a protagonist to have an epiphany of the sort that Carmela has while in this particular setting. David Chase is clearly interested in investigating the same type of questions and issues that Existentialist literature explored, and told The Hollywood Reporter as much in 2008: “By and large, I still find TV to be a franchise-ridden bog. I still see a lot of policemen and lawyers and judges and sheriffs. There still seems to be a very intense interest in institutions and not as much interest in the existential situation of being alive.”
While there may not be a conscientious allusion to The Fall here, I do think there is something very deliberate in Rosalie’s reference to the 1963 film Charade. As Ro and Carm walk along the Pont Alexandre, a riverboat passes beneath them, reminding Rosalie of that film’s scenes along the River Seine:
The deeper, nested significance of the allusion to the film may be that Carmela is beginning to recognize—as did Clamence in The Fall—that her life is, in a sense, a “charade.” (In the film, several characters are not who they claim to be; their false identities are part of a charade.) Carmela’s marriage and lifestyle are something of a charade, they are part of a deal with the devil that has cost her her integrity and her core values. Carm’s earlier instruction to T to “do whatever it is that boys do when they’re on their own” underlines the payment she has had to make in this Faustian deal. In a Parisian cathedral now, she stands before a sculpture of a Madonna and Child, possibly thinking of Tony. We may remember that in “Amour Fou” (3.12), Carm similarly stood before a painting of a Madonna and Child—The Mystical Marriage of St. Catherine—and wept over her husband’s infidelity while complaining that she too has married a child:
Tony’s childish immaturity is now underscored by the edit that Chase makes; Chase cuts from Carm gazing at the Madonna and Child to a shot of Tony:
No, that’s not Tony having a panic attack behind the wheel of his car; that’s Tony getting a hummer from a Bada Bing girl behind the wheel of his car. Tony’s infidelities undermine Carmela’s self-identification not only as a wife but also as a woman who deserves at least a modicum of respect. While standing in the cold stone ruins of an ancient Roman bath, Carmela questions her identity, using the same words that her husband had used earlier in the season: “Who am I? Where am I going?”
Carmela has placed much importance on the events of her life—as we all do—but is now realizing that it is all made insignificant by the grand sweep of time. “In the end it all just gets washed away,” she cries to Rosalie. Carmela is feeling what author Milan Kundera described as “the unbearable lightness of being.” This thing that we call Life is so weightless, so ephemeral. The bodies that we each inhabit hold together for a number of years, then disintegrate into dust for all eternity. We desperately want our lives to have substance, gravity, mass, weight—like a “cold stone” would have. But in the end, everything that we are and everything that we have ever experienced—the good, the bad, the beautiful, the foul, the painful and the profound—it all just gets washed away.
There is an interesting moment in this hour that drives the point home. Just before leaving for Paris, Carmela asks Tony if he remembers her saying how much she loved him while he was recently in the hospital. Tony flatly responds “No.” It was an intensely emotional and significant moment that Carmela experienced standing there at Tony’s bedside, but the moment didn’t even register for Tony. It doesn’t necessarily take centuries or millennia for the profoundly significant events in our lives to be washed away or forgotten, it might only take days or weeks.
I love how Rosalie Aprile in presented in this episode, there is such a sweetness to her. When Carm starts crying, Ro embraces her and starts humming “La vie en rose” (which makes them both chuckle). Ro sweetly believes that her son is up in heaven alongside his grandmother, his dad and Jesus. She gives a delightfully perfect response to Carm’s criticism that her Parisian motorcycle-riding stud-muffin is only 28 years old: “Duh!” And there is something lovable in her naïve surprise that Paris also has an area named Belleville. (I am pretty sure that the Parisian neighborhood came into existence before the New Jersey one did.)
Livia Soprano’s nihilistic attitude was exacerbated by (and perhaps even a result of) her lack of deep connection to anyone or anything. But Carmela is bolstered by her many meaningful connections, particularly her close friendship with Rosalie, as she gets into a staring contest with the abyss now. Chase closes out the Paris trip by pulling out an element familiar to us from earlier in the season: the beacon. Carmela looks up at the light emanating from the top of the Eiffel Tower with a look of peace upon her face. During her trip, Carmela unexpectedly came face-to-face with a great darkness, but she has emerged from the confrontation unbroken.
When she returns home to north Jersey, Carmela slips back into the fuckin’ regularness of her life. It may seem a little pathetic and sad for her to be doing laundry and boring household chores after having such a transcendent and vital experience in Paris. But there is nothing pathetic or sad about it—when she asks AJ, with a laundry basket in her arms, if he has any darks to wash, we recognize that she is right where she most wants to be. After her crise d’ identité in Paris, Carmela has regained the identity that is most authentic and meaningful to her: a mother, wife and homemaker in Essex County, New Jersey.
There is a small but important scene early in the hour (at a Costco) in which Tony and Phil negotiate No-show construction jobs for a new project. It is an important scene because it adds a bit of irony to Vito Spatafore’s story (which I’ll come back to later in the write-up).
After returning from New Hampshire, Vito makes his first contact with la famiglia by sneaking up on Tony at a mall. He makes a fairly persuasive argument of why and how he can resume working for the mob (although the suggestion that he can get a doctor’s note explaining his recent behavior is fairly ridiculous). Vito brings his brother Bryan along for backup. Bryan, all quiet and expressionless, looks kind of creepy the two times we see him in this hour. Perhaps poor Bryan suffered some brain damage when Mustang Sally grabbed a golf club and tee’d off on his skull in episode 3.05:
Vito has lunch with his family at Rockefeller Center. The golden sculpture of Prometheus behind Vito at the sunken plaza perhaps comments upon Vito’s return; Prometheus was punished by the gods for stealing fire and bringing it to Man, and Vito too is playing with fire now by returning to New Jersey:
Vito explains his absence to his kids by telling them that he is a CIA spy, working deep cover in Afghanistan. Chase really gets mileage now out of the earlier Charade allusion; the film is a spy-thriller whose story about multiple identities reflects Vito’s storyline in which he has had to manage multiple identities. (***Charade Spoiler Alert! Cary Grant’s character assumes several fake identities, but it is finally revealed that he actually is a member of the CIA.***) Just over the last few episodes, we have seen Vito take on various inauthentic identities: he has pretended to be a heterosexual man, a writer named “Vince,” and now a CIA operative. He just can’t stop living a charade. Back in his hotel room, Vito momentarily slips back into the fake-identity that he had in Dartford—he pretends to be “Vince” once more when he makes a phone call to Johnny Cakes. But Johnny Cakes wants nothing to do with him and hangs up.
Vito is all smiles and friendliness when he meets Terry Doria at a Stop & Shop grocery store, calling the goombah “Hopalong Cassadich.” (The endearment is obviously a play on the popular fictional cowboy Hopalong Cassidy. Interestingly, Big Pussy used the same endearment with Silvio in the episode in which he was killed, “Funhouse.”) Terry hits Vito up for a $20,000 loan, ostensibly for child support back-payments. Eager to ingratiate himself to his fellow Mafioso, Vito agrees to loan the money. At this point in the hour, there is some sense that perhaps Vito can make his return to north Jersey work: his wife wants him back; Tony is considering his plan to set up shop in Atlantic City; and now Terry is willing to meet Vito at the grocery store. But Vito shouldn’t get his hopes up. The market’s logo appears throughout the scene, seeming to underscore that it is still unsure whether the Mob will “green light” or “red light” Vito’s attempt to get his old life back:
Phil Leotardo is outraged to learn that Vito is back in Jersey and still alive. He spews his outrage at a meeting at Lou Costello Memorial Park (the same place he expressed his homophobic outrage in 6.08 “Johnny Cakes”), but Tony walks away now—he doesn’t want to hear any more of Phil’s shit.
We come to suspect over the course of the hour, however, that Phil may not be so furiously homophobic as he makes himself out to be. And he almost certainly is not as bigoted as his wife. Patty Leotardo feels completely humiliated having a homosexual in her family. She is almost too embarrassed to attend her Concerned Catholic Mothers meeting, especially since a minister from Denver, an “expert” on these matters, is scheduled to speak there. When she tells Phil that “Vito has to be made to face his problem squarely,” Phil understands that she is willing to sacrifice Vito’s life if that is what it takes to spare her the embarrassment of having a finook in the family.
Many viewers (particularly those with an atheistic bent) found The Sopranos to be very critical of religion, particularly in Season 6. Bible-thumping Patty Leotardo is something of an ugly character here (and something of a caricature in the way that Evangelical Pastor Bob was in “The Fleshy Part of the Thigh”). But I don’t think that Chase is criticizing religion per se: moments after Patty pressures her husband to do something about Vito, Chase cuts to a beautiful sculpture of Jesus at St. Eustache in Paris:
The quiet scene in the Parisian church conveys a sense of grace, awe, wonder, humility, comfort, fraternity, contemplation—y’ know, all the genuinely good stuff that religion can provide to believers. But Patty Leotardo represents an entirely different aspect of religion, one that is very familiar in America though rarely found in other Western democratic nations: the unholy alliance between politics and Christianity. Chase, I think, is criticizing not Christianity but our politicization of religion. I’ve argued that Season 6 is all about Chase’s effort to place The Sopranos in its times. When this episode originally aired in May 2006, we had a self-described Born-Again Christian in the White House and Republican majorities in both Houses of Congress, and all three of these governmental Houses supported anti-gay legislation. There was a real sense that our country was lurching to the right. The Religious Right had been on the rise for over two decades, and now it seemed that their uber-conservative social agenda would finally come to fruition. Ted Haggard, leader of the National Association of Evangelicals, was a frequent advisor to President Bush. I can’t help but wonder if the “pastor from Denver” that Patty Leotardo now mentions is a reference to the Colorado-based, gay-bashing Haggard, who was not a household name when “Cold Stones” first aired but became quite famous after being outed by a male prostitute as a meth-smoking homosexual six months later.
In the mid-2000s, there was a spate of American leaders and politicians who had to resign from their jobs when their anti-gay rhetoric proved to be hypocritical. Perhaps most memorable of the bunch, along with Ted Haggard, were Congressman Mark Foley (whose hypocrisy I outlined in an earlier write-up) and Senator Larry Craig (R), who resigned after getting busted for “lewd conduct” in an airport bathroom. We understand, of course, that their hypocrisy was a matter of political expediency. A sizable percentage of our politicians at the time were in the pocket of a powerful anti-gay lobby. Organizations such as the Family Research Council and the American Family Association, which virulently spewed anti-LGBT propaganda and proclamations, had great clout with many conservative voters and politicians. I can’t help but wonder if the “Concerned Catholic Mothers” group that Patty Leotardo mentions is a reference to such barbarous organizations as the F.R.C. and the A.F.A.
The series has long made links between the values of la famiglia and the “family values” that so many Americans love to tout. Lorena Russell, in her essay “Defense-of-Family Acts: Queering Famiglia in The Sopranos,” recognizes that:
When Tony mourns for Gary Cooper (see 1.01 and 4.03) or the simpler life of the 1950s (see 1.11), part of what he is asserting is the value system of white, bourgeois, heterosexist family values. Yet the ironic distance the show maintains not only calls Tony Soprano into question, but his entire system of conservative family values as well.
The show thus becomes a microcosm of cultural tensions within the early twenty-first century United States, where conservative legislations like the “Defense of Marriage Act” seek to protect the idealized American family, and where homophobia and sexism parade as family values.
George De Stefano, in his essay “A ‘Finook’ in the Crew,” finds a connection between the disingenuous talk about “family values” and Vito’s disingenuous attempt to return to the mob as a heterosexual man:
With the Vito Spatafore storyline, The Sopranos once again made the organized crime genre perform metaphoric heavy lifting in service of a larger critique. The series broadened the focus to take in a new and disconcerting development in American life: the convergence between the moral agendas of right-wing, evangelical Protestants and conservative Roman Catholics…
The lives of evangelical Ted Haggard, Senator Larry Craig, and fictional gangster Vito Spatafore attest to a sad but apparently universal truth: the need to belong to a structure that provides meaning and purpose and even identity, as well as power and money, can be more powerful than the urge to live authentically.
While I don’t doubt that Chase is taking a shot at the hypocrisy of so-called “family values,” I think Chase primarily directs his criticism at Vito who makes the morally questionable decision to come back to Jersey. Like Christopher, who was given a choice in “D-Girl” to leave the mob, or Tony Blundetto, who returned to the mafia despite having the intelligence and training to make a living elsewhere, Vito allows the lure of power, money and excitement to pull him back into la famiglia.
As I mentioned earlier in the write-up, there is some irony in Vito’s story here. It was because Vito couldn’t hack being a regular guy and making a regular living with a construction/handyman job in Dartford that he decided to return to New Jersey. He essentially became a “no-show” at his construction job in Dartford, and ironically, it is because of a difficult negotiation with Phil Leotardo over no-show construction jobs that Tony finally decides Vito must be whacked. The fruitless meeting with Phil Leotardo at the Costco earlier proved to Tony that he can’t afford to have his business relationship with Phil get further complicated by Vito’s presence. Tony will not give Vito a pass.
In Vito’s last conversation with Tony, we can hear Skynard’s “Simple Man” playing over Tony’s radio. It’s too bad for Vito that he never understood the wisdom in the song’s lyrics:
Forget your lust for the rich man’s gold
All that you need is in your soul
Don’t you worry, you’ll find yourself
Follow your heart and nothing else
This scene contains a shot that visually rhymes with a scene from episode 5.11 “The Test Dream”—Vito now and Angelo Garepe earlier are both captured with a hood-mounted camera just moments before they are each killed by Phil Leotardo. I don’t think this is a very significant parallel, I just think it’s one of those little subconscious connections that Chase often throws into his show:
When Vito steps into his motel room, Fat Dom Gamiello and Gerry Torciano are there to greet him while Phil Leotardo emerges from the closet. Vito is beat to death with a pair of cue sticks (one of which is rammed up his behind in a not-so-subtle message). Although Phil’s face remains expressionless as he watches the blows rain down on his cousin-in-law, he grasps the mattress in what almost seems like a flinch—and it made me wonder if Phil really believes all the hateful stuff he spews against gays.
We also wonder if Phil is gay himself. He literally comes out of the closet in Vito’s motel room, perhaps a sort of visual pun that suggests his own latent homosexuality. He demands the bodybuilding contest on the TV to be turned off, perhaps trying to turn off his own excitement at the sight of buff male bodies. And he has trouble sleeping after he whacks Vito. Ultimately, however, there isn’t enough information to clearly indicate that Phil is gay, and it really doesn’t matter anyway. Even if Phil has an attraction to men, I don’t think he would ever act on it because he is a mobster thru-and-thru. I can’t imagine him engaging in any activity that could destroy his standing within the mafia. I think he identifies himself as a mobster so strongly that he would repress any desire to act as a gay man.
(Some viewers took it further and believed that not only is Phil gay, but that he was carrying on a relationship with Vito. I just don’t see it. If there was some romance between the two men, I don’t think David Chase would have sat on the story or been so subtle with it. I’m not saying that Chase would have turned it into a Montagues vs. Capulets sort of drama, but two star-crossed gay mobsters from opposite sides of the river would have been a storyline too rife with potential not to develop further.)
Phil kills Vito, a made-man, without any authorization. There may be multiple reasons why he committed this murder. He may be posturing, demonstrating his power (as well as the NY famiglia’s power) after Johnny Sac’s imprisonment. Phil may also be carrying out a long-waited retaliation for a similar situation that Tony Soprano had put him in two years ago: Tony had blocked him from getting to Blundetto then just as Tony blocked him from getting to Vito now. (The savagery of the beating that Vito takes makes me glad that Blundetto didn’t fall into Phil’s hands in Season 5.)
But the biggest reason why Vito is killed, of course, is the prejudice against gays that runs rampant in mob-land. We have heard characters make gay slurs throughout the series. We have also seen characters suffer a sort of “gay panic”: Richie Aprile punches Janice in the mouth when she suggests it is ok for his son to be gay; Corrado, worried that he will be seen as gay if word of his oral proficiency gets out, smashes a pie in Bobbi’s face; and Brian Gibson points out in his essay “‘Black Guys’ My Ass” that it may not be a coincidence that Ralph Cifaretto is killed soon after Tony learns about his non-traditional sex fetishes. Not surprisingly, “Cold Stones” is an hour filled with examples of gay bigotry: Hernan makes a demeaning gay joke, Silvio believes it was right of Richie Aprile to disown his son after finding out he is gay, Fat Dom cracks ugly jokes about Vito’s homosexuality. I think the most troubling example of the hour comes from Patty Leotardo who uses religion to justify her intolerance. She is quite horrible here. She cries out “Walk in those shoes!” in sympathy with her tailor who is going blind, but shows no sympathy for her gay family member even after his murder. Phil is unsympathetic too, telling recently widowed Marie that perhaps Vito’s death is a good thing as the kids may be better off not having him as a role model. I’ve long been amused at how these mobsters think of themselves as basically good people despite the fact that they are up to their eyeballs in murder, racketeering and extortion. Over the last few episodes, however, their moral hypocrisy has been more infuriating than amusing. These criminals delude themselves into believing that homosexuality is a greater sin than the panoply of illegal and immoral acts that they commit on a daily basis.
On his way to visit his daughter in Metuchen, Fat Dom stops by Satriale’s and starts talking shit. (The “homo actor Ramon Novarro” that he compares Vito to was beat to death by two men in 1968.) Silvio hits the back of Dom’s head with a Dustbuster and Carlo plunges a knife repeatedly into his belly. In a well-rendered, but ghastly, bit of detailing that expresses the unpredictability and transience of life, we see the blood seep into Dom’s shirt as we hear his cell phone ring—whoever is calling (perhaps his daughter?) has no idea that he has just been killed.
And so the gay-mobster storyline comes to an end. For some viewers, the end couldn’t have come soon enough. I don’t think most of the animosity was due to the nature of the storyline itself, which may have been rooted in similar real-world stories. (For example, John D’Amato, acting boss of the DeCavalcante family, was killed in 1992 after he was suspected of having a swinging homosexual lifestyle.) I think the sticking point for many viewers was the issue of believability. Many viewers just didn’t buy the story, and perhaps part of this was because the story didn’t seem to live up to the standard of realism that we had come to expect of The Sopranos. But as I argued in previous write-ups, Chase may have been leaning away from realism in order to purposefully give Vito’s fable a fairytale quality. Some viewers also didn’t find Joe Gannascoli’s performance as a gay mobster believable. Part of this may be due to our knowledge of Gannascoli’s history on the show. Gannascoli was not originally hired to play a gay mobster, he was hired to play ‘Gino the bakery customer’ in Season 1. A year later, he was recycled into a generic goombah named ‘Vito’ and—perhaps even more unexpectedly—was presented in Season 5 as a significant famiglia player with Captain status. It might have been difficult for some viewers to swallow that this dude that originally sauntered into SopranoWorld by asking for a pair of Neapolitan loaves in “The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti” could now take up so much narrative space in the final season of the world’s greatest TV series. But I have come to feel that Gannascoli was very good in the role of Vito, and furthermore, I think there is an element of genius in David Chase’s decision to morph Joe Gannascoli into a gay mobster. I’ll come back to this point in the “IDENTITY GAMES” section a bit further down…
HOME SWEET HOME
The idea of “home” generally has warm and sweet connotations, we equate it with love and security and comfort. But the idea of home can also be a great source of pain if we associate it with rejection or feeling out-of-place. Vito left Dartford to come back home to New Jersey, but the place turned out not be as warm and welcoming as he hoped. Chase highlights this conflicted idea of home at the tail-end of the hour. The song over the end-credits is “Home” by Persephone’s Bees. Although the track’s complete lyrics are not heard here, the song describes a warm and idyllic place that the singer wants to come back to—but it is not clear that home is a place that can be returned to now, it may exist only as a past memory. About two minutes before this song starts up over the final credits, Chase gives us a quick back-to-back-to-back sequence in which we see Carmela returning home to Tony’s warm embrace, and then Rosalie returning home to her mother’s warm embrace, and then Vito’s kids struggling to understand why their father will never return home:
Vito Jr. reads the news of their father’s death to his little sister:
Vito Jr: (Reading from the newspaper) “Relatives say that the victim had surprised his friends and family by declaring himself a homosexual and saying he wished to lead an openly gay lifestyle.”
Francesca: I don’t understand. Dad wasn’t a spy?
Vito Jr: No.
Vito Junior’s “No” is one of the most heartbreaking syllables uttered in the entire series. He slowly comes to realize what really went down with his dad. The sadness that washes over him here sets up the later story of his rebelliousness in “Chasing It” (6.16). Members of two different mob famiglias decided that there was no place for Vito Spatafore in New Jersey, but it is the young members of Vito’s immediate family that must pay the dearest price for their decision.
The episode closes on a photograph of Vito taken from his time at the “Thin Club.” We might remember seeing this particular photo shoot during the “Seven Souls” montage (featuring William Burroughs’ voice) that opened Season 6:
When we heard the spoken-word piece “Seven Souls,” many of us played “the identity game,” trying to match up each of the “souls” that William Burroughs mentioned to some equivalent SopranoWorld character. I’m still not convinced that it is useful to come up with some sort of identity-matchup (like “Meadow equals Sekhu” or whatever), but it is important to note that Chase made a game of the notion of identity in Season 6. A strange, wild example of Chase’s “identity game” was Tony’s coma-visit to Costa Mesa as a legitimate businessman-version of himself who than had the persona of “Kevin Finnerty” superimposed upon him. Carmela’s identity as a wife and mother is also explored in this hour as she suffers a bit of a personal crisis. But the approach that Chase takes to explore Vito’s identity is in some ways the most interesting of the ‘identity games’ played this season. As I detailed earlier, Chase has a history of shifting Joe Gannascoli from one character to another through the series and, in some sense, this makes Gannascoli’s “Vito” the natural choice to shift from “mobster” to “gay mobster.”
But I think the real genius in Chase’s decision to assign the role of “gay mobster” to Joe Gannascoli is connected to Joe’s weight loss of about 150 pounds. (I touched upon this in my 6.08 write-up but it is worth expounding now.) Chase uses Gannascoli’s real-world attempt to remake his identity by losing weight to emphasize and highlight Vito’s fictional-world attempt to remake his own identity by losing weight. In his essay “Until the Fat Man Sings,” Keith B. Mitchell argues that Vito’s
dramatic weight loss is tied to a gradual acceptance of his homosexuality. It is linked to his coming out process as a man… His weight-loss enables him to open the closet door and explore his sexuality… Vito is no Brad Pitt, but within certain quarters of the gay community he does not need to conform to this idea of male corporeal beauty. This he learns when he is on the lam.
Vito found a significant opportunity in a small New Hampshire town to live an authentic life as a gay man. But his identity as a father & husband & mobster in New Jersey kept pulling at him, drawing him away from the new identity he was forging for himself in Dartford. Vito was unable to successfully integrate and reconcile his various identities, and in the end everything got fucked up for him. Game Over for Vito Spatafore.
Carm refers to AJ as “Prince Albert” in this hour, and I believe this is the third time in as many episodes that his parents have called him that. They are referring to Queen Victoria’s son, heir to the throne, who came to embody the leisured and fashionable life while he waited for his crowning (at which point he became King Edward VII). Tony has always wanted to take a tougher tack with AJ, and he exploits Carmela’s absence to do so now. I have to admit, it was nice to see AJ lose his smug mug as T smashed the windshield of his SUV. I argued in my previous write-up that the American mafia has developed something of a negative attitude towards blue-collar work and blue-collar workers, but Tony now pushes his son into a blue-collar construction job in order to make a man out of him. Many of us had thought at this point that AJ’s new position might be one of those no-show jobs that Tony negotiated with Phil, but no, it is an actual job that entails actual labor, as we will soon see…
As Alan Sepinwall noted, this episode is a “tale of two cities, told in edits.” I’ve already mentioned some of the clever cuts that Chase uses to switch back and forth between Paris and north Jersey: cutting from Bible-thumping shrew Patty Leotardo in NJ to St. Eustache in Paris; and then from St. Eustache in Paris to Tony getting his knob polished in NJ. A couple of other memorable edits include:
Carmela’s soulful reverie on the Pont Alexandre to → the crass Bada Bing sign:
Carmela looking at the neon pig in front of Au Pied de Cochon to → Murmur telling a crass “my wife is a pig” joke at Satriale’s pork store:
BLACK AND WHITE
Tony has been a good boy since surviving his gunshot, he hasn’t played around on Carmela. But he is slipping back into his old ways. Two of the song titles in this episode’s soundtrack perhaps reflect Tony’s slide now from “white” fidelity to “black” infidelity: Tony chastely watches a stripper dance while Giorgio Moroder’s “Knights in White Satin” plays at the Bing, but it’s AC/DC’s “Back in Black” that is playing when he gets a blowjob from her:
I thought that Chase had done something similar to this way back in the Pilot episode; Chase dressed the restaurant host all in black when Tony was with his goomar, but put the host in white when Tony played the good husband to his wife:
(Perhaps an additional note to be made about Moroder’s “Knights in White Satin” is that it recalls “The Knight in White Satin Armor,” the episode in which Carmela first requested Tony to allow her to make a trip to Rome; that trip was cancelled but she uses its cancellation to justify her trip to Paris now.)
- It all gets washed away: Silvio wants some “biangaleen” to wash away any blood that might remain after Fat Dom’s murder. I don’t think anyone in the country, other than a few NY/NJ Italian-Americans, was familiar with this regional term for bleach before this episode aired.
- Carmela pauses at the mention of Heloise and Abelard in her guidebook. She is surely thinking of the conversation that she had with Robert Wegler about the doomed lovers in “Sentimental Education” (5.06).
- The “tree” thing: Carmela dreams of Adriana standing with Cosette in a tree-lined courtyard, and various tree-lined streets catch Carm’s interest in Paris.
- The title “Cold Stones” can function as a reference to Phil’s testicles: “The fuckin’ balls on that prick,” Chrissy says after learning that Phil whacked Vito. But maybe it is wife Patty with the really cold stones—she sleeps peacefully while Phil lies awake after murdering their relative.
- Boy, these mob wives, I tell ya… A few episodes ago, we saw Carmela try to get Tony to lean on the building inspector, and now Patty Leotardo subtly pressures Phil to kill Vito. The wives, as we see over and over again, can be just as selfish and evil as their mafia husbands.
- When Carmela calls home from Paris, Tony asks her “Is Paris burning?” Prof. Yacowar notes the significance of the question: Is Paris Burning? was a 1966 movie about the WWII liberation of Paris. (The program that Tony was watching on the History channel earlier was about this topic and probably prompted Tony’s playful question to Carmela.) The similarly-titled Paris is Burning, Yacowar continues, is a 1990 documentary about drag-queen culture in NYC—an interesting topic to be referencing in this episode where Vito is killed for being homosexual.
- The second song over the end-credits, after “Home,” is “As Time Goes By” as it was performed in the movie Casablanca. It is a brilliant song selection because, for one thing, it echoes Carmela’s storyline in this episode: she wonders if everything gets washed away into nothing “as time goes by,” (and ultimately understands that in the end, “the fundamental things apply”). Secondly, the song makes us think of Casablanca with its very famous line “We’ll always have Paris.” Indeed, we will always have this moving and meaningful hour that we spent with David Chase in Paris.
- Blowjob Symmetry. Matt Zoller Seitz notes that this episode has a blowjob scene (with Tony and the stripper) which may call back the blowjob scene in “Unidentified Black Males” (with Vito and the security guard). The gay-mobster storyline originated at that moment and it comes to an end now.
- We hear a dog barking in the early morning scene as AJ goes to work. Perhaps it is Esterhaz, the neighbor’s dog that barked in the wee hours of the morning back in “The Test Dream” (5.11).
- Chase has made two references to Cary Grant movies in as many episodes: Rosalie mentions Charade in this hour, and there was a visual reference to Hitchcock’s North by Northwest in the previous hour. And the next episode will have an easy-to-miss (but I think significant) reference to another Hitchcock film: Vertigo.
- Chase will continue playing his ‘identity games’ in the next episode “Kaisha,” an hour which derives its title from the fake identity that Chris applies to his mistress.