Vito and Jim get closer up in Dartford.
Tony makes a real estate deal.
AJ seeks vengeance.
Episode 73 – Originally aired April 30, 2006
Written by Diane Frolov & Andrew Schneider
Directed by Tim Van Patten
“Johnny Cakes” is a thoughtful hour, taking an intelligent and humorous look at how gentrification and corporatism can have a bulldozing effect on our neighborhoods. But viewers remember this hour primarily for another reason. You know what I’m talking about. The imagery of Vito and Jim getting all lovey-dovey beneath the trees and falling leaves of an autumnal New Hampshire day was so unexpected—and sort of cheesy, perhaps even a little creepy—that it quickly imprinted itself on to our mental tissue. But years have passed since the episode first aired, and plenty of re-watches—plus our evolving attitude toward gay displays of affection—means that the surprise or discomfort that some of us may have felt at seeing a homosexual biker and a chubby goon make out on primetime TV has faded over time:
Jim Witowski is an integral part of this episode—the hour is even titled after him. He is important for more than simply being Vito’s new lover (which I’ll come back to later); he is important because he represents an ideal which the Soprano men—Tony and AJ—do not live up to. Tony does not have Jim’s authenticity or civic-mindedness, and AJ lacks Jim’s heroism. An early juxtaposition of scenes lays out the contrast:
Brave and dutiful Jim runs into a burning house to save a small child. Chase cuts from this selfless and heroic act to a shot of the Soprano boys aboard the Stugots, guzzling beer and burping while they fish the day away. In this write-up I’ll focus on the failings of the two Sopranos, first Tony and then AJ, as they are presented in this hour.
Jim Witowski is a civic-minded man, serving his community by volunteering for the fire department. In contrast, Tony Soprano cares for his community only to the extent that it does not impede his ability make a buck. And there’s always a buck to be made. Realtor Julianna Skiff approaches Tony with an offer from Jamba Juice to purchase the building that houses Caputo’s Live Poultry. Tony understands that small mom-and-pop shops like Caputo’s are what give the old neighborhood its character and authenticity. He is thoughtful enough to recognize that corporate retail stores have a soul-squashing, culture-killing homogeneity about them. Mr. Caputo and the elderly woman on the street that strikes up a conversation with Tony as well as everyone else in the neighborhood will lose something unique and authentic if generic companies are allowed to move in with their single-minded devotion to turning a profit.
I think it is worth noting that Jim makes his delicious johnnycakes at a small, independent diner, as opposed to, say, simply reheating pre-made “McJohnnycakes” at a McDonalds. Jim represents a certain type of authenticity. The community of Dartford is—like Jim—warm, convivial and authentic. Perhaps Tony’s old New Jersey neighborhood was once as authentic as Dartford, but it is rapidly being consumed by corporate interests. Tony must choose to align himself either with the faceless corporations or with his neighbors. (The fact that elderly Mrs. Conte doesn’t know not to bring up the subject of Corrado to Tony when she passes him on the street must only push him closer toward siding with the corporations.)
Patsy Parisi and Burt Gervasi try to shakedown the manager of The Great Seattle Coffee Experience, but soon realize that their protection racket is not going to work at an incorporated coffeehouse such as this one. We might remember that David Chase had previously criticized the generic and noxious nature of modern, corporatized coffee shops back in episode 1.02 (particularly with the inclusion of a logo that seemed like a ‘toxic materials’ warning):
In “46 Long,” Paulie railed against the co-optation of Italian food and culture (and stole a cafetera from the coffee shop in protest); in “Johnny Cakes,” we see that Big Business isn’t just making small inroads into the culinary culture of the gangsters, Big Biz is encroaching upon entire neighborhoods.
Jamba’s offer to allow Tony to carry the note means that Tony could multiply profit from agreeing to the sale. And the possibility of bedding Julianna only sweetens the pot for Tony, whose libido has finally awakened after a long convalescence. Tony finally agrees to the sale after subtly negotiating Julianna’s vagina into the deal.
But Tony reneges on that particular, unwritten contract rider. Some echoing camerawork at Julianna’s apartment clues us in to why Tony uncharacteristically restrains himself:
As Julianna unbuttons his Canali shirt, Tony is reminded of how Carmela helped him button up the shirt just a short while earlier. This episode began with the sight (and sounds) of Tony love-pounding his wife into their bed. Normally, we only see Tony be so sexually enthusiastic when he is with his goomars. The fact that he is so excited by Carmela tells us something about the current state of their relationship: their marriage is humming along nicely. Tony does the honorable thing by leaving Julianna’s apartment right after signing the contract, but he is not exactly at peace with his decision. When he returns home, pent up with sexual tension (and perhaps a little bit of guilt about selling out the old neighborhood), he yells and slams things, shifting his frustration onto the lack of smoked turkey in the refrigerator, shifting it away from the lost opportunity to have Julianna smoke his turkey.
A couple of seasons back, in 4.07 “Watching Too Much Television,” we saw Tony and his cohorts put a real estate plan into action that would ostensibly rebuild part of a poor black neighborhood, but in reality was nothing more than a scam to fill their pockets. Their scam ultimately resulted in a young black man taking a bullet to the groin. Tony may have never learned about the man’s horrible injury, but even if he did, it is unlikely that he would have felt much regret. We see in the current episode, once again, that in the end it is money that speaks to Tony Soprano far louder than any concerns about protecting the integrity, security and authenticity of a neighborhood and its citizens. “Watching Too Much Television” made this point is an ultimately tragic fashion, with a young man’s manhood destroyed. But “Johnny Cakes” ultimately makes the point with humor—the final minute of the hour is one of the most purely comic sequences of the series:
The clip contains almost too many hilarious elements to count: Tony’s displaced anger, Patsy’s Jews/juice confusion, the squawking chicken, Patsy’s ironic punchline about the old neighborhood, Ray Charles singing “I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town” which underscores the “gentrification” theme, and then finally the song’s cackling trumpet which comes in and echoes the earlier squawk of the chicken. Chase makes quite a damning criticism against the corporate world in this hour, suggesting that big businesses can have as much of a lethal effect on a community as the Mafia does. But we don’t feel like we’ve just been preached to or waylaid by some anti-corporate diatribe, in part because Chase ushers us out of the hour with such a light and humorous scene.
Johnnycakes Jim performs an act of true heroism when he runs into a burning house to rescue a small child. (Perhaps I need to point out to younger viewers that “firefighter” was the de facto American symbol of heroism in the years after 9/11—and the fact that Jim risks his life though only a volunteer firefighter makes his act even more heroic.) AJ wants to be a hero too, and figures that getting vengeance against the man who shot his dad will make him one. But AJ doesn’t quite have the maturity to recognize what it is that actually constitutes a heroic deed, and perhaps not even the competence to successfully perform such an act.
AJ is growing up to be the lazy and irresponsible young man that many of us expected him to become. Tony’s heart sinks at the thought of his slacker son. Dr. Melfi tries to reassure Tony that AJ’s immaturity may in part be a characteristic of his generation: “Sociologists say ’26’ is in fact the new ’21.'” This may be true, but if Melfi knew AJ like we do, she would know that he can be a puerile, manipulative twerp. Nevertheless, my heart does go out to the young man a little bit. It’s clearly difficult for him to live in Tony Soprano’s shadow. He hasn’t yet figured out how to substantially flesh himself out, independent of his mafioso father (the way that his sister has managed to do to some degree). AJ starts to feel that the only reason he gets taken seriously by anyone is because he is the son of a mob boss.
AJ reaches the conclusion that the only way to be taken seriously is through an act of violence. We’ve seen young men in SopranoWorld reach this conclusion in earlier storylines. In Season 2, Matt Bevilaqua and Sean Gismonte decided to whack Chris after feeling emasculated on multiple occasions. And in Season 3, Jackie Jr. and Dino made the decision to rob a mob card game.
Melfi is correct when she says that AJ’s generation is growing up a in media-saturated culture. Much of AJ’s sense of reality comes from what he sees in the media. He thinks that he can learn proper knife-wielding technique from a movie playing on the TV screen at the Blockbuster store. And he finds inspiration in the fictional character of ‘Michael Corleone,’ who violently avenged the attack on his father in The Godfather. It is a with a head full of bad intentions that AJ goes to visit Corrado.
But AJ is more “Fredo” than “Michael.” In fact, he drops his knife just at the moment of truth much like Fredo dropped his gun as he tried to defend his father from the hitmen in G1:
Luckily for the Soprano family, Assemblyman Zellman is able to spring AJ before he gets charged with a crime. In a powerful scene in the police-station parking lot (and one of Robert Iler’s best performances of the series), Tony and AJ cross swords. When Tony yells that it was wrong of AJ to try to get violent vengeance on Corrado, both of them recognize how ridiculously hypocritical this statement sounds coming from the mouth of Mr. Mob Boss. Tony appreciates that his son was trying to get revenge on his behalf, but is disappointed by his immaturity. As the tears stream from AJ’s eyes, Tony cups his son’s face and tenderly tells him, “You gotta grow up. You’re not a kid anymore.” AJ desperately wants to prove that he is manly and heroic and formidable outside of his father’s orbit, but he just doesn’t know how.
The next time we see AJ, he is back at the nightclub. Nothing has changed. When a club-goer starts raving about AJ’s powerful dad, AJ realizes that nothing has in fact changed: he is still stuck in his famous father’s shadow. The realization triggers a panic attack. AJ did not inherit Tony’s criminal competence nor his managerial skills nor his wily understanding of the world he lives in. Instead, AJ has inherited a tic in his nervous system’s response to stress, which leaves him panting and sweating on a bathroom floor now.
Many of us had an issue with the way the ‘gay mobster’ storyline was developing; we felt that it just didn’t seem very realistic at times. But not everyone found it to be unrealistic for the same reason. Some of the more bigoted viewers of the show might have felt that it was unrealistic for the gay men of Dartford to be so “normal”—they talk and act much like straight men do. Chase underlines their similarity by formally connecting the homosexual men of Dartford and the heterosexual men of north Jersey with a matching gesture:
(Gay or straight, the guys shoot the bird at each other as they joke around and break each other’s balls.) Other viewers found it unbelievable that trim-and-fit Jim could be so attracted to chubster Vito; the mutual attraction between the two men didn’t quite fit their expectations. But the reality, of course, is that romantic attraction doesn’t always conform to logical expectations. Our culture so glorifies thinness that we sometimes forget that overweight people are not necessarily damned to eternal loneliness or only get attention from “chubby-chasers.” (And perhaps there is some gay bigotry at work here also, because most viewers that make this criticism would not balk at the idea that heterosexual female Marie Spatafore might want to make love to her tubby husband.) In a way, some of the venom directed against Vito’s storyline may reveal that, as a nation, our prejudice against the overweight is actually greater than our prejudice against homosexuals.
Some of the antipathy against the storyline may also have come out of the feeling that Joe Gannascoli somehow tricked David Chase by suggesting the story and then wriggling himself into the starring role. Gannascoli seems to have built up a reputation as a bit of a self-promoter during his time on the show. Even if this description of him is true, I don’t think Chase is so naïve that he would allow the wool to get pulled over his eyes by an opportunistic actor, particularly in Season 6 when he had years of experience in managing his cast. Chase would have greenlit the story only because he found something relevant and compelling in it. Additionally, I think there is a possibility that Chase gave Gannascoli the role because his real-life weight loss fit in very well with the storyline. Gannascoli’s real-world physical transformation neatly corresponds with Vito’s attempt to reinvent himself in SopranoWorld. Keith Mitchell recognizes in his essay, “Until the Fat Man Sings,” that Vito’s weight loss is inextricably linked to his exploration of himself as a gay man:
Vito takes pride in his new, slimmer waistline, and he begins to wear clothes that fit his new bodily image. That his new bodily image coincides with his acceptance of his homosexuality is not coincidental…More physically fit, Vito becomes psychologically confident to explore a life that does not conform to cultural norms promulgated in a society that views homosexuality as an anathema.
When I originally watched the series, something about either the storyline or Gannascoli’s performance (I wasn’t sure which) seemed to strike a false note. Over re-watches, however, I’ve come to really appreciate Gannascoli—I think he is solid in the role both before and after Vito is outed. I now believe that the reason why this story originally rang false to me is because it just felt too idyllic. For example, the images of Vito and Jim undressing and making out in an open field under skies of blue felt too much like something out of a Hallmark movie (if Hallmark did gay stuff). Chase usually excels at creating scenes that feel true-to-life, and so the fact that some of the Dartford scenes don’t feel very natural makes me wonder if perhaps Chase was trying to create something a little bit unreal. Todd Vanderwerff over at AVclub.com wrote of this episode, “The more I look at the New Hampshire idyll this time around, the more I feel like its sheer implausibility within the show’s universe is supposed to mark it as just that: a fantasy.” I agree completely. The scenes in Dartford seem designed specifically to have a fairytale quality. (I’ve been struggling not to call the gay-mobster storyline a “fairy” tale. Sorry, I have a teenager’s sense of humor.) I argued in my write-up for episode 6.06 that Chase may have supplied a clear clue that Dartford represents some sort of mythical fairytale:
Vito looked a bit like Little Red Riding Hood standing before the Wolf—Betty Wolf, that is—in the doorway of her cottage. But in the fairytale setting of Dartford, the Wolf doesn’t eat the grandmother, the Wolf is herself grandmotherly: Betty Wolf treats Vito with kindness and understanding. The genteel, magical quality of Dartford brings the dark realities of New Jersey mob-land into sharper relief. Vito has a big, bad wolf back at home to worry about: Phil Leotardo. Phil and Tony now meet at Lou Costello Memorial Park where Phil goes on a rant about the finook in Tony’s crew. The park, with its statue of Costello, is interesting because it is such a unique, site-specific, instantly-recognizable place—very much in contrast to the bland, generic, corporate places (like Jamba Juice) that we see popping up everywhere in this episode. But the park is also interesting because we might wonder if its statue of Lou holding a bat might be foreshadowing Vito’s death: will he get beat down with a baseball bat? “Bat” imagery was used previously in episode 5.09 to add some menacing commentary to a scene, when Vito waited for Finn DeTrolio beneath the giant bat at Yankee Stadium:
Now that I’m seeing Vito’s time in Dartford as a conscientious effort at fairytale-making, I’ve come to hold Chase’s “gay mobster” storyline in higher regard. One of the ways that Chase is able to give resonance to Vito’s narrative is by carefully weaving it into the series: we viewers first learn of Vito’s homosexuality in episode 5.09; the mobsters in SopranoWorld learn of it in 6.05; Vito’s story takes center stage in 6.06 but then there is practically no attention paid to it in 6.07; it receives half the spotlight now in 6.08, but virtually no spotlight in 6.09; it becomes a focal point of 6.10, and it finally reaches a head in 6.11. Chase is like a master chef, he knows how long to marinate a story, when to put indirect heat on it, when to baste, and when to move it over the fire.
Nevertheless, many viewers were (and still remain) displeased over how much attention was given to Vito’s story. They are convinced that Chase was just using the story to pad out the extra length of Season 6. They expected Chase to focus on more important issues in this final season. But Chase revolts, to a large degree, against the idea that some stories are more “important” than others. Storylines don’t fall into some rigid hierarchy of importance on The Sopranos. Any story can be activated and pulled up to the front at any time. This feature of the series adds to the realism of SopranoWorld, because there is no objective, universally agreed-upon pecking order of importance for real-life stories out in the real world either. (News of a gruesome terrorist attack, for example, would be relatively unimportant to me if I learned of it while trapped in the jaws of an alligator. Or—more difficult to admit—if the terrorist attack occurred in some village I had never heard of on the other side of the world.)
Over the length of the Western artistic tradition, heterosexual male viewpoints have defined and dominated the established hierarchy. The awareness that this hierarchy is something that is constructed—and therefore something that can be deconstructed—is a relatively new realization, one that has shaped post-modern works like The Sopranos. Chase began performing this deconstruction right with the opening shot of the series, when Tony Soprano’s dominance (i.e. masculinity and power) was subverted by filming him through the legs of a female statue. In the second episode, Christopher’s line to Brendan—“guys don’t even know who to make payments up the ladder to”—signaled the destabilization and deconstruction of an established order within the mob that mirrored a destabilization within society as a whole. Throughout the series, Chase rebels against the established narratives and viewpoints that have long dominated Western art. Vito’s storyline here isn’t just a foray into exploring the social issue of gay rights; it is part of Chase’s sustained post-modern effort to replace the old, worn-out hierarchy with something that better fits our contemporary understanding of the world.
This hour, as per the usual, is filled with clever cuts but one in particular caught my eye:
Dr. Melfi tells Tony that the most important thing in dealing with AJ is that he and Carmela “are in agreement on the issues, that you don’t undercut each other or act at cross-purposes.” Chase immediately cuts from this scene to Carmela walking into AJ’s room to give him cash—and this is after Tony had told AJ that he isn’t getting any more money from them. Carm undercuts and acts at cross-purposes from her husband. There has always been a fundamental difference between the parenting ideologies of Carmela and Tony, and this difference will cause serious friction in 6B as AJ’s problems get worse. (In his very next scene, we see AJ wearing a spiffy new jean-jacket at the club; it’s very likely that this is where Carm’s cash went, not into the suit he was supposed to buy for job or college interviews.)
FALLING OFF THE WAGON
When Tony first makes his come-on to Julianna, she rejects him by saying, “For once in my life, I will exercise a little self-control.” This is our first clue that Julianna has a substance abuse problem. Despite making this statement, Juliana does not exercise a little self-control—she is rarin’ to go when Tony comes over to sign the contract. When he brusquely changes his mind and leaves, we see her drain a glass of the champagne that Tony had brought. In the final episode of 6A, we learn that it was this specific interaction with Tony that began her relapse. And in the next episode, Tony pulls Christopher off the sobriety wagon. Julianna and Chris are both sabotaged by Tony, and this commonality between them (whether they realize it or not) is one of the things that eventually pulls them closer to one another.
- Leave the gun, take the cannoli. I’m sure Tony was just being hospitable and not making some subtle phallic reference by offering Julianna a cannoli when they first meet. But I wonder if the writers were having a bit of fun because just moments earlier, Tony did compare his erection to another food item—a baguette. And in the previous episode, Benny mentions he saw his son’s “cannoli” in the ultrasound.
- Ha! Tony describes his father as “an early community leader” to Julianna.
- Ha!! The girl that AJ meets at the club describes him as “so intense” when she gives him a back massage. (Although, to be fair, AJ does now show an intensity uncommon for him, and he also does become more focused and thoughtful than we’ve ever seen him be by the end of 6A.)
- It’s not clear to me whether the building that Tony sells to Jamba is one of his personal holdings or if he controls it on behalf of la famiglia. In any case, Patsy and Burt are completely surprised to learn that they can no longer ply their racketeering trade there. The irony is that by selling the building, Tony’s profit comes at a cost to his own famiglia members.
- Soprano-world & the real-world: Tony agrees to sell out to Jamba, but just six weeks before this episode aired, the real-life Jamba Juice corporation was itself sold to a corporation headed by a former CEO of Blockbuster—which coincidentally is the company AJ works for now.