Tony continues his odyssey through a mysterious dream-world, while AJ and Vito
add to the general stress level in the real world.
Episode 68 – Originally aired March 26, 2006
Written by Matthew Weiner
Directed by Jack Bender
“Mayham” is a multi-faceted episode, it has a little bit of everything for every type of viewer: broad humor, serious drama, spookiness, surrealism, post-modern playfulness. The hour begins by reaching out to the “blood-and-guts” fans – Paulie and one of his soldiers get into a shootout with some Colombian drug dealers. The raid on the drug dealers nets an enormous prize, perhaps as much as $1 million. Some of the major tensions of this episode stem from how this money is to be distributed, within the mob and to Carmela. (This is not the first time that we have seen a Colombian drug dealer get killed: when Chase wanted to infuse a large amount of cash into the narrative in “A Hit is a Hit” [1.10], it came at the expense of a whacked Colombian dealer.) During the bloody fracas, Paulie takes a knee to the groin:
Chase milks all the humor he can out of Paulie’s nuts. I chuckled as Paulie grumbles, “I’m livin’ it up here” as he applies a big bag of ice to his balls. We’ve seen Paulie take it in the walnuts before. Valery the Russian knocked him with a shovel in 3.11 and Minn Matrone thumped him with her knee in 4.12.
Chase gets a good amount of humor from Silvio here also. Many viewers found fault with Silvio’s storyline, finding the plot-point of his sudden asthma too forced and Stevie Van Zandt’s acting abilities underwhelming. Both valid criticisms. But I think Chase very cleverly uses Van Zandt’s limitations as an actor to serve the story. Silvio/Van Zandt has always played second fiddle to The Boss (whether that be Boss Soprano or Boss Springsteen). Silvio/Van Zandt is more effective as a Number Two man. (Bruce Springsteen has even referred to Van Zandt as his consiglieri.) Silvio’s queasiness in this hour may be a reflection of Van Zandt’s actual discomfort at having to play a bigger role in this hour than what he is used to. Silvio is as uncomfortable being the “Acting Boss” as Van Zandt is acting as a Boss. Chase similarly hedges Maureen Van Zandt’s liabilities as an inexperienced actress by having her play “the wife,” the same role that she plays in real-life. Both of the Van Zandts are unseasoned actors, but by mirroring their onscreen-relationship to their offscreen one, Chase is able to get strong, believable performances out of the two.
At the beginning of the hour, it seems that Gabriella Dante is turning into a Lady Macbeth, pushing her husband to grab power with both hands. We might wonder if all the mirrors-shots are meant to reflect their two-faced ambition:
As the episode progresses, however, we recognize that the Dantes really are not cut-throat opportunists. In fact, Silvio may be the man that Tony and Carmela can trust the most. (Sil putting his hand on comatose Tony’s arm is one of the few genuine expressions of concern that any of the gangsters have shown since Tony was shot.) All of the other guys are two-faced and selfish. Especially Vito Spatafore. Vito tries to claim a bigger piece of the Colombian’s drug money from Paulie. He clashes with Bobby over income and territory. He tries to garner Larry Barese’s support for a run at the top leadership position, in the event that Tony doesn’t survive. He does all this while stiffing Carmela of the significant financial package that she is supposed to receive. Silvio tries to referee all the hostilities and infighting but is overwhelmed. Bobby Baccalieri won’t even give Silvio a break as Sil is being loaded into an ambulance. Everybody is being an asshole.
The biggest asshole of the hour must be AJ. (I kinda wished somebody would kick him in the nuts.) He is truly insensitive and callous here, to a degree that cannot be justified by the pain and anxiety he must feel in this difficult situation. He almost seems proud to be a jerk – his T-shirt even says “Most Likely To Bogart.” We learn here that AJ is planning to infiltrate a federal lockup and kill Corrado as payback for shooting Tony. I think the plan is less an attempt to get vengeance and more an attempt to be taken seriously, but the poor kid doesn’t understand that brewing up such an idiotic idea makes him seem even more like a clown.
Carmela is infuriated to learn that AJ has spoken to the national media. His obscene outburst is shown on Bill Kurtis’ television program. The presence of Bill Kurtis here, who is well-known for shows like Investigative Reports, blurs the line between SopranoWorld and the real world. Chase likes to use famous faces to pierce through the “fourth wall,” mingling the real and the fictional in true postmodern fashion:
The greatest postmodern gambit of Season 6 surrounds the production of Christopher’s mobster-slasher film Cleaver, a storyline that gets introduced this hour. J(ames) T(imothy) Daly returns in this episode as writer “JT Dolan.” (Perhaps “returns” is not the right word, he’s dragged back into the narrative by Christopher’s goons.) In a funny bit of irony, Dolan is instructing his writing students to exploit their hang-ups when the Mob foists a writing job on him because of his hang-up – his gambling debt. The entire multi-episode storyline about Cleaver is, in a sense, generated out of Christopher’s hang-up – he has never let go of his dreams of Hollywood. JT has a pitch-meeting with the goombah investors now that is pitch-perfectly hilarious. Lil Carmine fancies himself a film-industry insider because he’s got nine movies under his subspecies. Silvio looks like he wants to whack JT just for mistakenly thinking that Michael Myers is a supernatural being like Freddy Krueger or Jason. The rest of the guys get caught up in insignificant plot issues. (Based on this meeting, we probably wouldn’t expect Cleaver to ever get made. But actually, ‘Saw-meets-Godfather’ is a pretty good premise for a slasher flick, so it’s not that surprising that the movie does eventually get produced.)
YOU, ME and THE TREE
This hour is best remembered for continuing Tony’s journey (or whatever you want to call it) through Limbo (or wherever you want to call it). Tony is still trapped in the labyrinth, he hasn’t escaped the belly of the whale. Tony/Kevin wakes up in his hotel room to find that he has been served with a summons. He is being sued by the Crystal Monastery for breach of contract. He visits the monastery to speak to the monks. It’s a very quick visit, but a very key scene:
One reason the scene is important is because it seems to be pointing to the idea of karmic retribution for Tony/Kevin for his crimes. In her essay, “From Here to InFinnerty; Tony Soprano and the American Way,” Prof. Terri Carney contends that Tony/Kevin’s misdeeds can be conflated to the misdeeds of our entire society. She notes that when Tony insists that he is not Kevin Finnerty, the older monk responds that “To a certain extent, all Caucasians look alike,” a response which…
…gives voice to an overarching theme: all businessmen, from Tony Business to Kevin Finnerty to Tony Mafia, will have to account for their part in the corrupt practices of accumulating wealth in disregard of fellow human beings, whether those human beings be murdered or more indirectly victimized…We, like Tony, are unavailable to redemption as long as we blindly support and enable an economic system that is self-justifying even when perpetrating ‘victimless’ crimes such as polluting the environment or cheating employees out of benefits and retirement packages.
Dr. Carney argues that we, like Tony/Kevin, will be left lost and disconnected from each other if we continue to allow personal and corporate greed to shape our culture. Corporate capitalism, as it exists in America today (and which Tony/Kevin seems to represent), is a destructive force, disintegrating the connections that exist between human beings. Buddhism, on the other hand, is a philosophy of integration. The young monk’s words convey his sense of integration with the world: “One day we will all die, and then we will be the same as that tree. No ‘me,’ no ‘you.'” For the Buddhist, there is no division between himself and all the other elements of the universe. Tony/Kevin, however, is no Buddhist. The economic model that guides his life and generates his worldview is inherently divisive. In her essay, Carney includes a quote from Prof. Richard Stivers on the meaninglessness that inevitably arises when humanity is so divided:
For meaning to be effective, it must be shared meaning that binds people together in common responsibilities and reciprocal moral relationships. Consumerism is a shared belief but it leaves one psychologically isolated, for it is based upon freedom without responsibility. The ability to create meaning in consumerism, to spiritualize consumerism, fails because its utopian promise of perfect happiness and health cannot be achieved in this world…
In a democracy like ours, we have the freedom and power to shape society as we see fit. If American society is afflicted by a callous and inhumane form of consumerism, then we are ultimately to blame. We are complicit in empowering a system that isolates us rather than unifies us. Carney asserts that the issue of complicity is a major concern of these last two episodes, and I think the scene here in which Carmela visits Dr. Melfi reinforces her assertion. Of course, Carmela is directly complicit in crimes greater than simply contributing to the consumerization of mankind. In Melfi’s office, Carmela feels pain as she comes clean (or at least comes cleaner than we’ve ever heard her come before) about her collusion with criminals. But her greater pain comes from the thought of what she has done to her two children. She can string together only half-formed sentences, barely able to express the guilt she feels:
Carm: It’s all out in the open now, the whole thing. And them…they’re not in grade school anymore…they become…the longer they stay with us…
Carm: Oh God. (Sobs.)
Carmela can’t even say the word, so Melfi needs to supply it for her. We too may hesitate to admit our own guilt in creating the value-system that motivates people like Tony Soprano and, to a lesser degree, Tony/Kevin. It might be quite distressing to think that their values are not very different from our own.
I think Terri Carney makes a powerful reading of these last two episodes. But I don’t think that Tony’s troubles in Limbo are meant to primarily be a criticism of American consumerism/materialism. Sure, Tony/Kevin’s sense of dislocation within the coma-dream may at least partially be a reflection of the dislocation that Tony Soprano feels within the depersonalized, consumerized world of contemporary America. (And I have little doubt that our consumerism and vulgar materialism are high on Chase’s list of concerns; several episodes this season including “Luxury Lounge” and “Johnny Cakes” specifically target materialism and corporatism.) Ultimately, however, I think Tony’s sense of dislocation is more a result of his particular childhood and his life-choices than it is a result of the prevailing socio-economic model of America. Tony would probably be struggling for meaning (“Who am I? Where am I going?”) even in a less corporatized, less materialistic culture, like that of Canada or Bhutan for example, as long as he was born to Livia Soprano.
Livia did not believe in connections, and so what few relationships she had with friends, family, community and society eroded into nothing over time. She was a very emotionally isolated person. It wasn’t very surprising to hear her tell AJ in “D-Girl” that, “In the end, you die in your own arms…It’s all a big nothing.” For Livia, life and death were little more than big, meaningless voids. The young Buddhist at the monastery now presents a very different worldview. The practice of Buddhism is the practice of recognizing one’s holistic connection to everyone else and every thing else. A genuine Buddhist does not die alone, in his own arms. He dies just as he lived, integrated and assimilated with everything around him – even that tree out there in the garden.
The scene with the Buddhist monks here is instrumental to my understanding of the series. Chase uses Buddhism, I believe, to represent an alternative to Livia’s nihilism. (I think this is an extremely important point, but I am going to leave it for the next write-up.) Though Buddhism may be a counterweight to Livia’s nihilism, her poisonous influence on Tony does not suddenly lose its venom just because he makes a visit to the Buddhist monastery. (Oh, if only it were that simple.) In this episode, Livia seems to appear—in a manner of speaking—in order to exert her dark philosophy over her son just at the moment when he is most vulnerable to fall victim to it.
Tony/Kevin drives out to the Inn at the Oaks ostensibly for a family reunion, but the party turns out to be a far more metaphysical affair than what he was expecting. This sequence is one of the most spine-tingling of the entire series. The appearance of Tony Blundetto, who we know to be dead, hints that this Inn is a portal into death — but Chase confounds us by listing Buscemi’s character only as “Man” and not as “Tony Blundetto” in the credits. We cannot be certain that he is in fact Blundetto, nor can we be certain that the mysterious woman that appears on the stoop of the Inn is Livia. But we are led to this conclusion partly because the woman and the setting are so reminiscent of the dreamscape we saw in episode 4.11.
(In truth, we also don’t know for sure if the Dark Woman on the stairs in “Calling All Cars” represented Livia. But I argued that that was a reasonable guess because Livia had so strongly been associated with stairs while alive. And Chase all but confirmed that the Dark Woman was Livia in an interview with Martha Nochimson.) There are some tense moments now as Tony/Kevin ponders going into the Inn, and Chase further elevates the viewer’s heart rate by cross-cutting to the hospital room where Paulie’s incessant chattering has sent Tony into tachycardia. (There is something wickedly funny in the thought that Tony Soprano might not be killed by a hitman’s bullet or by the electric chair but by Paulie Walnuts’ ceaseless jabbering.) Just as the tension reaches its peak, the screen fades to white. We wonder if this is the end for Tony, if this is the famous white light that reportedly marks the end of the line. But the white screen fades back into the hospital room, to Mead and Carm’s faces. Tony comes out of his coma and out of danger. He has survived.
I think we can give a large amount of credit to Meadow for saving her father’s life. It was her pleas (“Don’t go, daddy, we love you”), probably more than anything else, that pulled Tony back from whatever precipice he was on. Meadow started the series out as a bratty and annoying little girl but she is maturing into a caring, thoughtful young woman. She seems to have dodged the nihilistic attitude that plagues others in her family. Over the last couple of seasons, she has arguably become the antithesis of her grandmother, a sort of “anti-Livia”:
While Livia’s connections to others continuously disintegrated, Meadow tries to integrate herself into her family and society, even formally
studying the ways in which do this at Columbia, as we saw in “No Show” (4.02):
While Livia continuously demonstrated her callousness on steps and staircases, Meadow showed compassion and insight on the staircase
of the family home in “Eloise” (4.12):
Faced with the choice of following the mysterious woman into the luminous Inn or turning back toward a young girl’s voice calling from the trees, Tony chooses the latter. Tony, it seems, chooses Meadow over Livia. In the previous episode, we heard Meadow read the first three lines of Jacques Prevert’s poem. I provided the full text of the poem because I felt it to be relevant to this scene now. The poem lauds the earth in all its beauty, but also in its banality and ugliness. Humanists/agnostics/atheists have embraced this poem because it exalts the earth without romanticizing it. Our planet may not be perfect but it is all that we have for certain. We cannot know with any reasonable certainty what the Afterlife may hold, but we know for certain that all members of humanity must share some time together on this small blue planet. Meadow is far from being an ideal person, and she is not a Humanist (with a capital H), but she sometimes demonstrates a humanity that is rarely seen in SopranoWorld. It is her voice that pulls Tony back to this imperfect earth of ours.
Someone has put an Ojibwe saying up on the bulletin board in Tony’s room. Christopher reads the proverb out loud: “Sometimes I go about in pity for myself, and all the while, a great wind carries me across the sky.” The proverb evokes the idea of humility, of recognizing that we are part of something larger than our individual self. But this is an idea that cannot gain much traction in SopranoLand. We see great exhibitions of selfishness in this episode, as we’ve seen in every episode. Just moments after reading the Ojibwe quote, Christopher undercuts its sentiment by doing the most selfish thing of the hour: he tries to capitalize on Tony’s frail state in order to get a greenlight on his movie project. The unfair advantage that Chris takes now parallels an earlier scene, in which we saw Bobby focus on his own desires before an ailing Silvio:
Christopher argues that Tony owes him the movie because Chris turned Adriana over to him after finding out she was a rat. When Cleaver is finally released, we see that the movie expresses some of Christopher’s long-simmering feelings about the connection between Tony and Ade — not the fact that he had her killed, but the fact that they were in that fishy car accident together. Christopher is still harboring suspicions about that night. Poor Tony — he emerges out of an existentially disorienting Limbo/near-death-experience only to immediately be confronted by suspicion and selfishness.
The Mystics’ “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” starts up over the final scene and takes us well into the end credits. During his coma, Tony was in some mystical place “over the rainbow,” but he is back home now. Chase seems unwilling, however, to close out such a mind-bending, spooky episode with soothing music from a 1950s DooWop band. He segues into Daniel Lanois’ truly eerie “The Deadly Nightshade” over the tail end of the credits.
YOU, ME and THE TREE (Part II)
“Trees” have long been a part of Sopranos mythology, going all the way back to the rotting tree that Tony thought he saw in Melfi’s “Korshack” painting in episode 1.03. And a forest of trees was famously the setting of existential dislocation in Season Three’s “Pine Barrens.” (See my 5.12 entry for a more complete list of tree references.) I think that Chase deliberately evokes his long-running “tree-mythology” in this hour, first with the Buddhist’s line, “One day we will all die, and then we will be the same as that tree,” and then with those suggestive shots of the trees outside the Inn at the Oaks. (Even the name of the inn points to its tree-lined setting.) Many viewers took note of these recurring references and began to equate trees with death. While this is a perfectly justifiable interpretation, I think we miss the true richness of the show’s imagery and its metaphoric power when we make simplistic, one-to-one associations like “trees = death.” Prior to this episode, the strongest symbolic association between trees and mortality was made in “Long Term Parking” — but in that episode, the trees evoked life as well as death:
Chase substituted the imagery of Adriana’s killing with a shot of the overhead canopy, and then later came down from a canopy to find Carmela and Tony beginning their new life together. Chase uses trees in multiple ways throughout the series. Sometimes trees signify life, sometimes death. Sometime they add tone and texture, or establish a setting. It is a human tendency to ascribe fixed meanings to symbols (i.e. trees = death), but I think Chase’s instinct is to leave his imagery and symbols unfixed, without definitive meanings. One way he creates ambiguity is by linking images and symbols together in vague, indefinite chains that can be read in multiple ways. For example, one viewer may believe that the “great wind” found in the Ojibwe proverb here links to the wind that rustles the trees at the Inn at the Oaks. Another viewer may link the Ojibwe proverb to the “great wind” that Vito released into the Soprano couch in the previous episode. As in the real world, there is no omniscient voice in The Sopranos that supplies definitive interpretations. Without the comfort and clarity of clear-cut answers, SopranoWorld characters are perpetually at risk of falling into chaos, isolation and “mayham.” But living in uncertainty is their lot in life (as it is in ours) and so they would do well (as would we) to accept it and learn how to function morally and purposefully within such ambiguity. (Of course, it would make for one hell of a boring show if they all actually did this…)
THE WRITERS CLASS
Sopranos’ writers love using the character of “JT Dolan” to make fun of writers themselves. It was in episode 5.07 that JT couldn’t get squat for his writing Emmy at the pawn shop, and now JT yells at his writing students for not doing shit when Benny and Murmur beat and drag him out of the classroom. (You can bet that the students will try to incorporate the scene into their future stories and novels, though. I love that one of the students is wearing a giant top-hat, the type that only budding literary artists or Guns ‘n Roses guitarists wear.)
JT tells his students that writers “mythologize our inner narrative.” We know that Christopher, though not a very talented writer, shares this characteristic — he sees his life in story/narrative terms. (Remember when he complained that his life-story back had no arc back in episode 1.08?) His script for Cleaver, we will see, is based on his inner narrative regarding his place in the mob and his relationship with his Boss. To put it in mythic terms, he is the Hero while Tony is the Villain. In the classroom, JT references one of the earliest known mythic stories of literature: the Heroic story of Beowulf. There may be something very clever and fitting about this particular reference. In the story, Beowulf mortally wounds the villainous creature Grendel by chopping off his arm. In Christopher’s movie, there is a neat reversal: the Villain chops off the Hero’s arm. Which then gets replaced with a cleaver. (And we know where the story goes from there.)
The “gay mobster” storyline which is such a prominent feature of Season 6A won’t kick off for another two episodes, but there are a couple of interesting moments in the current hour that relate to Vito Spatafore and this particular plotline:
- In Patty Leotardo’s first appearance of the series here, she is very thoughtful to Vito, offering him fresh fruit instead of a rich dessert as she knows that he is on a strict diet. But her thoughts toward Vito will not be nearly as warm once she learns he is gay.
- In the early part of the episode, Vito figures that Tony doesn’t have very long to live, so he resists paying Carmela what is due to her — it would just be money down the drain if Tony dies. In a cool irony later this season, Terry Doria will reverse this logic and borrow money from Vito when he figures that Vito doesn’t have very long to live.
- Finn feels intimidated when he runs into Vito at the hospital. Vito gets a bit intense and handsy with the young man, and its tough to tell if the gangster wants to fuck, marry or kill him — maybe all three. (Meadow displays her usual delusion when she assures her boyfriend that Vito is harmless.) I think this must be the first time the two are seeing each other since Finn stood Vito up at the baseball game in episode 5.09. Finn, of course, will soon provide the eyewitness account that confirms Vito’s homosexuality to the other mobsters.
- Malapropisms are such an integral part of the series that this episode is actually named after one.
- It was in episode 5.13 that Tony described his predicament to Silvio, “You got no idea what it’s like to be Number One. Every decision you make affects every facet of every other fuckin’ thing. It’s too much to deal with almost.” Silvio assumes the responsibility of being Number One in this episode, and he would certainly agree with Tony’s description.
- I love how this episode gets so many little details at the hospital right. Anyone who has spent time in an ICU would recognize these details: having to sneak outside-food in, the callousness of some of the staff, the conversations about where you parked the car, the disproportionate number of Asian doctors and nurses…
- Gotta love Paulie: he just scored a major payday with the Colombian thing (worth upwards of $200,000?) but he’s still clipping coupons for Band-Aids.
- If we take a close look at the bulletin board in Tony’s room, we see that Georgie has signed the card from the Bada Bing. He said he would quit the place after Tony gave him a severe beating in “Cold Cuts” (5.10) but apparently he didn’t.
- Some “Tony dies” theorists find evidence in this episode for their argument that Tony was killed at Holsten’s Diner. The “cut-to-black” that signifies Tony’s death, they argue, is inversely correlated to the “fade-to-white” that signifies Tony’s emergence back into life in this episode. It’s not a bad argument, there is some logic to it. But as with the trees, I think our understanding of the series becomes impoverished if we ascribe absolute interpretations to ambiguous details. (I’ll go further in the final write-up into why I’m underwhelmed by the deduction “fade-to-white = life, therefore cut-to-black = death.”)
- I wasn’t trying to pick on Steven Van Zandt’s acting abilities earlier. I’m only suggesting that Chase may have tailored the material to fit his actor. I think Van Zandt is awesome on The Sopranos, and I liked him on Lilyhammer too.
- Chase exponentially builds on this episode’s ideas of integration and connectivity in the next episode, “The Fleshy Part of the Thigh.” The next hour is crucially important to my understanding of the series, and I’ve been itching for years to share my thoughts on it.