A beacon shines in the distance of the strange and mysterious place that Tony
finds himself wandering through.
Episode 67 – Originally Aired March 19, 2006
Written By David Chase
Directed By David Nutter
There have been many polarizing episodes of The Sopranos but perhaps none evoked the extreme responses that “Join the Club” did. Many fans and professional critics, such as Time magazine’s James Poniewozik, include this episode in their top ten lists. But many others are almost physically repulsed by it. It is an audacious and risk-taking hour, and therefore a wide range of responses is to be expected. Alan Sepinwall of The Star-Ledger applauded David Chase during an interview for putting such an unconventional episode right after one that appealed more to his “hits-and-tits” fans:
I complimented him on having the onions to put a major dream sequence like this so early in the season, considering how many fans complain about the dreams…Chase is pushing his chips to the center of the table and telling the audience they had better go all in—murder and therapy, flatulence jokes and metaphysics—if they intend to stay at the table for this final season.
Chase tosses us headfirst into the weirdness. For the first ten minutes of the hour, we are left to wonder at what it is exactly that we’re looking at. The previous episode ended with Tony bleeding and unconscious on a kitchen floor, and then this hour begins with him waking up in a hotel room. We can’t even be sure that it is Tony. The man looks like Anthony Soprano and calls himself “Anthony Soprano,” but he has a different manner, and no thick Jersey accent. We’ve been primed from earlier episodes to believe that this is another dream sequence. But the sequences here, bizarre as they are, lack that jumpy, surreal quality that characterized previous Sopranos dream sequences – there are no talking fish here, or teeth falling out of Tony’s mouth, or a butterfly sitting on Ralph Cifaretto’s bald head. In the Sepinwall interview, Chase refrains from giving a definitive explanation of the bizarre sequences, but he does say, “I frankly would not call those ‘dreams.'” (And in a much earlier interview with Martha Nochimson, Chase said that Season 6 would feature “other mental states that people think are dreams, but they’re not.”) Although Tony is ostensibly in Costa Mesa, there are plenty of clues throughout the hour that suggest that Tony is actually stuck in Purgatory, perhaps most notably that a beacon (Heaven?) shines in the distance while wildfires (Hell?) rage nearby (and the religious program on the hotel TV seems to underscore the possibility of this being some part of the Afterlife):
Of course, Purgatory (as it is usually defined, a sort of waiting room for the dead) doesn’t strictly make sense considering that Tony is not deceased yet – he is laying in a coma in an intensive care unit. Nevertheless, the idea of Purgatory fits in nicely with the idea that Tony is here to “purge” the many sins that are on his existential rap sheet. Additionally, the episode title seems to suggest that Tony is in some Purgatory-like place between life and death, just one step away from “joining the club” of the dead. Ultimately, however, it really doesn’t matter whether Tony is dreaming or visiting the Afterlife or has slipped into some alternate reality. What does matter is Chase’s intentions. Whatever else it may be, Tony’s unconscious sojourn is first and foremost a narrative device that Chase uses to explore questions of identity.
The Sopranos had thematized the search for self and meaning right from its opening hour. Over the years, Tony and many other characters have implicitly questioned themselves and their place in the world. Those implicit questions of identity and meaning are explicitly voiced in this hour, when Tony speaks to his beautiful dinner companion:
Tony: I’m 46 years old. I mean, who am I? Where am I going?
Lee: Join the club.
Lee’s reponse confirms the universality of Tony’s concerns. There is a club, called the human race, whose members have all had—or will have, if they live long enough—questions about identity and meaning. Tony is a part of the club. Being boss of the New Jersey mob doesn’t exempt him from having these questions about himself. Every question represents a quest, but these particular questions make up the ultimate quest: the quest for self-knowledge. Tony wakes up to find that he has someone else’s wallet and briefcase, and his hunt for his own wallet and briefcase in this hour is a thinly veiled metaphor of his hunt for his own self. This is never an easy hunt for anyone. Part of the difficulty stems from the fact that the Self is such a shifting, multi-layered thing…
Tony Soprano has always been a complicated character, but his identity is literally shifting and multi-layered here: he appears as an alternate version of himself who also has the identity of “Kevin Finnerty” superimposed on him. (I totally didn’t get that his last name was a pun on “infinity” until that bar patron made a bad joke about it. Thanks David Chase.) The viewer has fun trying to figure out all the various ways that Tony/Kevin is different from our Tony Soprano, as well as all the various ways that their lives and personalities overlap. He is still something of an alpha-male, attracting Lee, but he is a committed husband now – he does not cheat. Over the phone, his wife and kids sound more like the Brady Bunch than the Soprano family. He seems to be a contractor for the Dept. of Defense (which would mean he ultimately works for George Bush instead of la cosa nostra – that’s something of an improvement). He is a former patio furniture salesman. (It was in the Pilot that we first heard Tony imagine this particular career for himself had he been able to avoid the Mob.)
The coma-dream sequences have a complexity that I think is pretty unique in the annals of television. The coma-dream is mystifying and kind of spooky but also quietly resolute in its determination to reach the end of the hour without spoon-feeding answers to the viewers at home. The “locked in” trope is very common in TV and film, we’ve all seen that type of situation where a guy gets a flat tire on the side of a mountain, for example, only to discover that his spare tire is also flat. The protagonist feels more and more stuck as each avenue of escape gets closed off. Chase’s complex reworking of this old trope puts a very unique tone and atmosphere into this episode, and it leaves viewers feeling trapped and disoriented, just as Tony feels. Chase’s calculated misdirection and customary use of ambiguity puts us further off-kilter. But the true complexity of this hour comes from the nature of the path that Chase is sending Tony down now.
As I watched Tony wander through his coma-dreams, I was reminded of mythologist Joseph Campbell’s idea of the Left-Hand Path. This is a path of self-discovery, one that deviates from the normal Right-Hand Path of everyday life. The Left-Hand Path is full of mysteries and dangers that the Hero must negotiate as he tries to complete his quest. Generally speaking, an odyssey on the Left-Hand Path requires the Hero to abandon many of society’s rules and norms – and thus the Hero and his odyssey sometimes have the whiff of being socially unacceptable. What is ironic here, though, is that given Tony Soprano’s regular status as a criminal and moral outlier, the Left-Hand Path that takes him out of his normal life now actually makes him conform more to society’s definition of a productive, legitimate member of the community. This inversion is what truly complicates the hour: it underscores how Tony’s search for identity and self-knowledge is complicated by his place within a Mafia family/famiglia.
As powerful as all the loaded imagery and “symbolism” and superimposed personality stuff is in the coma-dreams, it is arguably all the various scenes outside of Tony’s near-death experience that catapult this episode into so many top-ten lists. The hospital scenes are very nicely done, accurately depicting the back-and-forth swing between urgency and weariness that is so characteristic of ICU waiting rooms. Edie Falco is achingly good in this hour – we feel your pain, Carmela. (A shot of Christopher holding a sobbing Carmela always bring a sting to the corner of my eye.) Meadow annoys Dr. Plepler with her treatment suggestions. Plepler also seems annoyed by Janice’s “Janice-ness.” Infighting and tension within the mob grow as the guys—particularly Paulie and Vito—scramble to get brownie points with the Boss’s wife and kids. Vito squeezes out a long fart into the Soprano couch. (It’s an ambiguous fart: is it meant to convey Vito’s true feelings about the Soprano family, or is Chase simply depicting real life, in all its stinky banality, once again?) Silvio becomes Acting Boss. Corrado is slipping further into confusion. But the character that really draws much of our attention is AJ.
SopranoWorld becomes a genuinely dark place in Season 6, where hopes of redemption dwindle for virtually all of its characters. Arguably no character personifies this descent into darkness as AJ does. AJ is incredibly callous here. He fakes a stomach flu to avoid his familial responsibilities. He airs his family’s dirty laundry to a cute news reporter. He feigns interest in the environmentally-friendly Toyota Prius when what he really wants is an M3 or a Shelby GT500. (I’ll give him a pass for this, I was a Mustang guy at his age too.) He even uses the phrase “Poor you,” which is a dialogic shorthand in SopranoWorld for cold-heartedness and insensitivity. When he recognizes that he has built some equity in his mother’s good graces by spending the night with his father, he immediately tries to take advantage of it by choosing that precise moment to tell Carmela that he has flunked out of college. Rosalie tells Carmela a possibility that Carm doesn’t want to face: “Maybe AJ is just a selfish boy who doesn’t give a shit.”
Meadow, in sharp contrast to her cold-blooded brother, is maturing into a warm, humane young woman. She reads Jacques Prevert’s poem, “Our Father,” to her father as he lays unconscious. The poem has been embraced in atheist and humanist circles for how it takes the most well-known prayer in Christianity and gives it an earthly focus. We only see Meadow recite the first three lines to her dad. I’m including the entire piece here because I think it provides a perspective that characters in SopranoWorld rarely express (and I will argue in the next write-up that it may even play a role in saving Tony’s life).
Our Father who art in heaven
And we will stay on the Earth
That is sometimes so pretty
With its mysteries of New York
And then its mysteries of Paris
Which rival those of the Trinity
With its little Canal de l’Ouroq
Its Great Wall of China
Its River of Morlaix
Its Bêtises de Cambrai
With its Pacific Ocean
And its two pools at the Tuilleries
With its good children and its bad apples
With all the wonders of the world
That are there
Simply on the Earth
Offered to everyone
Wondering at themselves at how they could be so wonderful
And who dare to show it
Like a beautiful naked girl who dares to show it
With the horrible misfortunes of the world
That are legion
With their legionnaires
With their torturers
With the masters of the world
The masters with their praetors their traitors their raiders
With the seasons
With the years
With the pretty girls and the old codgers
With the straw of misery rotting in the steel of cannons.
The poem suggests that living in this world, despite its miseries and misfortunes, can be a beautiful and meaningful experience. Tony has struggled so mightily with questions of meaning and identity, at least in part, because of the poisonous influence of his nihilistic mother. She believed that there is no meaning in the universe – it’s all a big nothing, a big nada. Tony has inherited his mother’s toxic philosophy of nothingness, and he is passing it on to his son. Livia and AJ would surely find Ernest Hemingway’s version of the “Our Father” to be more accurate than Jacques Prevert’s version:
Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name. Thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee. (“A Clean Well-Lighted Place”)
Prevert’s humanistic poem represents a middle ground between the pat comforts of Christianity and the brutality of nihilism. I think that the Buddhists in Tony’s coma-experience also represent an alternative to both Christianity and nihilism (but this only becomes clearer over the next two episodes). Right now, the Buddhists seem to represent karma – one of the monks smacks Tony/Kevin right in the face because he is—ostensibly—in violation of a past contract. (We can guess how mobster Tony Soprano would have reacted to the slap, and so Tony/Kevin’s clumsy, indignant response becomes the funniest moment of the episode. And he’s still bitching about it when he calls his wife later.) Some viewers have noted that Tony/Kevin gets slapped at the Omni Hotel, which seems to give the scene greater religious significance, because the Latin prefix omni is often used to describe God: omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent. I have a somewhat different take on why Chase may have set this scene at the “Omni,” and I’ll come back to it my entry for “The Fleshy Part of the Thigh.”
Karma may also be playing a role in the hotel stairwell. Steps and staircases have long been sites of pain and cruelty in SopranoWorld, and this seems to also be true in the limbo-world where Tony now finds himself. Tony/Kevin takes a hard tumble down the stairs of the Omni Hotel. (See my entry for 4.03 for a listing of incidents related to staircases.) After the fall, Tony/Kevin wakes up in a hospital where he is found to be at risk for Alzheimer’s. (It was in episode 4.09 that Corrado similarly was diagnosed with possible neuro-degeneration soon after taking a tumble down some steps.)
The reason why Tony/Kevin had to take the stairs was because the elevator wasn’t working. As he waited for the broken elevator, we could see that he was on the seventh floor. This little detail supports the argument that Tony is not in Purgatory, but in Hell. Dante, in his Inferno, reserves the 7th circle of Hell for violent criminals and murderers. Not surprisingly, the DVD Scene Selection menu names this DVD chapter “Seventh Circle.” (And another chapter is titled “Hotel California,” obviously a reference to The Eagles’ hellish hotel.)
Maybe he is in hell, maybe it’s purgatory, maybe it is neither – as I said earlier, it doesn’t really matter exactly where Tony is. We’re better off approaching “Join the Club” with open-mindedness and flexibility because of the inherent ambiguity of so many of its elements. One such ambiguous element is “the beacon” (which eventually becomes one of the great artifacts of Sopranos mythology). The shining light brackets this hour, appearing in the opening seconds of the episode as Tony wakes, and again in the final seconds as Tony prepares to go to bed.
What exactly is the shining light? I don’t think it’s possible (or necessary) to define it absolutely. It may represent God or heaven or Life or Death or enlightenment. It may be the light that Tony must reach if he is to escape his current predicament. It might just be an airport at the edge of town. It may be all of these things, or none. I will come back to the beacon in later write-ups, but even then, I will not have a fixed idea of what the beacon represents. Like the black bear in Season 5, the beacon is referenced multiple times throughout the season but still manages to retain its basic ambiguity. “What is the beacon?” is just one of those questions like “Who am I?” or “Where am I going?” that Chase has little interest in answering definitively.
AN AMERICAN STORY
As I argued in my previous write-up, I believe that one of Chase’s primary concerns in Season 6 is to conclusively locate The Sopranos in its American milieu. Terrorism, and all of its related aspects, was at the forefront of our thoughts at the time that “Join the Club” originally aired. We not only worried about the threat of another attack, we debated the politics and efficacy of the War on Terror, while disputing what constituted anti-Islamic sentiment both in our foreign policy and at home. Issues related to terrorism crop up throughout Season 6, beginning here when Agents Harris and Goddard fill Christopher in on the FBI’s work in combatting terror. Chris dismisses the notion that he, as an ordinary citizen, could play a role in fighting terrorism. Agent Goddard subtly suggests that Chris is shirking his duties as an American. Chase, notably, cuts from this scene where Chris gets his American patriotism questioned to the scene at the hospital where Carmela plays Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “American Girl” on the CD player:
While the classic song’s jangling guitars ring in the background, Carmela reminisces some of the good times that she and Tony had. Carmela Soprano is an American Girl. Some of the details of her life may differ greatly from those of the typical American woman, but the majority of her worries and hopes and memories are not very atypical at all. The Sopranos is a classic American tale. Whether it is delving into large-scale national issues like terrorism or probing into characters’ lives at a much more intimate level, the series is exploring what it means to be American in the 21st century.
Some of the details of Tony Soprano’s life may differ greatly from those of the average guy, but he has always been portrayed essentially as a typical American Man. By turning Tony the mobster into Tony the businessman in this episode, Chase is underlining how typically American he really is. It makes it much more difficult to distance ourselves from Tony Soprano when he is presented as a legitimate, successful businessman (in line for a government contract, no less) as opposed to when he is presented as a mobster. In her essay, “From Here to InFinnerty: Tony Soprano and the American Way,” Professor Terri Carney argues that this episode highlights our (and Tony’s) complicit participation in a dehumanizing, consumeristic society. She writes that both the Mafia and our middle-class baby-boomer consumer culture…
…espouse individualist values, thrive in liberal markets, and dabble in partial morality to justify their wealth accumulation and the me-first practices that obtain that wealth…The fact that Tony Business [aka Tony/Kevin] is being held accountable for another man’s immoral practices dramatizes degrees of guilt and complicity within a business culture that defines success by monetary gain and reduces humanity to a stack of identification cards and boarding passes.
Prof. Carney contends that the reason why so many fans were turned off by this episode is not so much its foray into the surreal as it is the fact that “Join the Club” tells us something about the crookedness of the American Way – which is something that many of us just don’t want to hear about. But we will hear more about it. Chase has more to say on the topic (and I will be coming back to Carney’s essay in my next write-up).
In the credits, one of the doctors at the hospital is listed as “Dr. Ba.” (I’m guessing it’s the bald Asian doctor who looks a bit like one of the monks in Tony’s coma-dream.) William Burroughs identified Ba as “the heart, often treacherous” during the previous episode’s “Seven Souls” montage. More accurately, in Egyptian mythology Ba is the soul or spirit of a person which manifests itself as a bird at the moment of the person’s death, and which eventually reunites with the dead body. Did David Chase have these connections in mind when he gave the name “Ba” to the doctor? Possibly, but I’m not going to hazard a guess what the greater significance of it might be. It’s probably just another example of Chase throwing in connections that are meant to pull at us at a subconscious level.
- David Chase wrote this unorthodox hour, which is not surprising given that he also scripted the non-traditional narratives of “Funhouse” and “The Test Dream.” I guess if you want something weird done right, you gotta do it yourself.
- Though this episode is far from being universally loved, there seems to be a consensus among viewers that Moby’s “When It’s Cold I’d Like to Die” which closes the hour is one of the great song selections of the series.
- Because he is unconscious, Tony may not be able to enjoy Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” playing on the radio in his hospital room. We might remember that Tony fell unconscious behind the wheel while this same song played on his car radio in “Guy Walks Into A Psychiatrist’s Office” (2.01).
- Carmela apologizes to comatose Tony here for having told him that he is going to hell. (We saw the incident that she is referring to in the Pilot episode.) The irony is that Tony may actually be loitering around Hell—depending on how you interpret the Costa Mesa scenes—as she makes her apology.
- At one point, Vito Spatafore says that Corrado “Marvin Gaye’d” Tony. (Gaye was shot to death by his father.) Some viewers have noted that Marvin Gaye’s last concert was in Costa Mesa. Is this significant to why Chase set the near-death experience in Costa Mesa? Nah, probably not. I’m with Maurice Yacowar and others that believe Chase may have chosen Costa Mesa simply because it sounds a little bit like “cosa nostra.”
- Looks like little Nica might have gotten a read on Vito Spatafore. When he discusses closet homosexuality, the little girl turns right towards him:
- On the DVD commentary track, Falco, Sigler and Iler note that it had been a while since they were directed by someone outside the usual stable of directors. “Join the Club” is the one and only episode that David Nutter directed, and I think that his lack of prior experience with the series serves this episode well: this hour’s distinctive texture and tone might not have been achieved by Tim Van Patten or Alan Coulter or someone more closely tied to The Sopranos.
- This hour shares a trait with “From Where to Eternity” (2.09). In that episode, Christopher purportedly had a near-death experience while comatose, and—just as with Tony’s experience here—we cannot be sure whether he visited Hell or Purgatory or if it was just a dream or a hallucination or something else more inexplicable…