Eugene Pontecorvo and Tony Soprano each experience a shocking reversal of fortune.
EPISODE 66 – ORIGINALLY AIRED MARCH 12, 2006
WRITTEN BY TERENCE WINTER
DIRECTED BY TIM VAN PATTEN
As is well known by now, David Chase had not originally planned to do a fifth season of The Sopranos, much less a sixth. His contract with HBO was for four seasons, but (after some hemming and hawing) he agreed to do a fifth. In the 2002 TV Guide Sopranos Companion, Chase insisted that he would not go beyond a fifth season because…
Tony Soprano, guys of his ilk, they’re not very reflective people, they don’t do a lot, in reality. So there’s only so many stories, so much depth that you can impart to a character like that and still stay true to realism. Plus, its just my personality. I can’t stand solving the same problem over and over again.
I think this quote reveals much about why Chase ultimately decided to go forward wih Season 6. (Whenever I mention “Season 6,” I am generally referring to both Parts I and II.) This season exists only because Chase set up some new creative problems for himself and his team to solve. I believe the biggest difference between this season and earlier ones is that S6 is more issue-driven. I’m referring to the big issues, the things that uniquely affected (and still affect) our particular nation and culture: conspicuous consumerism, imperialism, religious fundamentalism, spiritual hunger, environmental degradation, gay rights, corporatism. This is not to say that The Sopranos began to imitate its more socially activist HBO sibling The Wire. David Chase is not David Simon. And he’s certainly no Mother Jones. (I wouldn’t even venture to call him politically liberal.) I don’t think that David Chase explores cultural/political issues in Season 6 in order to promote his own political agenda, but rather to fully nestle The Sopranos into its American milieu. It truly becomes our series now, the way Berlin Alexanderplatz belongs to the Germans or how the Brits have Brideshead Revisited. With Season 6, The Sopranos becomes the definitive work of turn-of-the-millennium American art.
FBI newbie Ron Goddard begins the hour with an H. L. Mencken quote: “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the tastes of the American public.” Agent Harris concurs by barfing on to the street. With this scene, Chase is acknowledging that his series has more than a fair share of philistine “hits-and-tits” fans. But more importantly, this quick sequence begins to immediately establish some of the characteristics of the entire season. Season 6 is more self-conscious than previous seasons, it has a very post-modern awareness of the viewer’s gaze. Season 6 is also more militant — Chase attacks certain targets just as firebrand Mencken did. (Christian fundamentalism, creationism, and anti-intellectualism are targets that Chase and Mencken have in common.) And Dwight Harris’ vomiting hints at a physicality that marks this season. There are many visceral moments over the next 21 hours, moments in which the body and bodily functions are highlighted. We will see numerous scenes of illness, convalescence, farting. Characters will constantly step out of scenes to go take a piss. Tony’s body has become a ponderous mass. Vito Spatafore will radically transform his body, and his son Lil Vito will later radically reinvent his physical persona (as well as “bodily” vent his frustration in the school shower). Immediately after Agent Harris pukes in the early moments of this Season Opener, the episode detours into a mystical mode for a few minutes, using ancient Egyptian mythology (via William Burrough’s reading of “Seven Souls” over the opening montage) to evoke a kind of otherworldliness. But after this evocative, almost ethereal montage, “Members Only” becomes quite physical again, culminating finally with a shot to Tony’s (and the viewer’s) gut.
Right off the bat, Chase lets us know that we’re in new territory. The previous five Season Openers all featured a shot of The Star-Ledger in Tony’s driveway, but Chase conscientiously abandons this convention now: there is no shot of the newspaper whatsoever. “Members Only” does resemble one of the earlier season openers in a another way however: this episode gets things going with a scored montage just as “Guy Walks Into a Psychiatrist’s Office…” (2.01) did. Chase utilizes the montage here in order to give us a much-needed reintroduction to SopranoWorld, because it has been 21 motherfuckin’ months since the previous episode aired. (Sorry, I’m still a little sore about how long Chase made me wait.) But this hour’s montage is markedly different from the one that opened Season 2. That earlier one was scored to an old-school song by NJ-born entertainer/mob-buddy Frank Sinatra. The montage that opens “Members Only,” in contrast, is scored to a reading by Midwesterner/Harvard-grad/Po-Mo writer/junky William Burroughs. Burroughs brings a very different aesthetic to the series. The juxtaposition of his spoken word piece (technically a track by the band Material) against carefully selected imagery creates a montage that is seemingly suffused with significance and meaning. I think we all feel the instinct to try to match the gods and goddesses that Burroughs mentions with an equivalent SopranoWorld character. But I also think the sequence is ambiguous enough to foster a wide variety of interpretations, so I’m not going spend time trying to decipher it here, other than to say that the invocation of Egyptian mythology is the first of this season’s several forays into “alternative” mythologies and spiritualisms. For all of its focus on the body, Season 6 will also be concerned with the soul. Catholicism has always had a presence in SopranoWorld (sometimes only as a cloak that characters use to cover their hypocrisy), but in Season 6, other belief-systems and forms of spirituality will also appear: Buddhism, Existentialism, Transcendentalism, Ojibwe belief, nature worship and a metaphysics associated with quantum mechanics. And the dead will continue, as always, to bring a level of mysticism to the series as they haunt the dreams of the still living. The dead are an essential part of the framework of The Sopranos:
(When Carmela dreams of Adriana inside her half-built spec house, we remember how Adriana and the spec-house where strongly associated at the end of “Long Term Parking” last season: a shot of the overhead tree canopy led us to believe that we were at the site of Ade’s murder but the camera panned down to reveal that we were at the site of Carmela’s proposed building project.)
“Members Only” is a dense hour, a lot of time has passed since Season 5 ended and so we have a lot of catching up to do. Kudos to Chase for catching us up in a way that doesn’t feel too forced or obvious. Johnny Sac is in jail awaiting trial. Bobby and Janice have spawned a babygirl. Bobby has a new hobby (with a fetching railroad engineer’s cap to go with it). Phil Leotardo is following his boss’ orders to let the NJ mob off the hook for his brother’s death (but Benny still recoils at the sight of Phil, and Christopher doesn’t like his face or eyebrows, despite having a very similar face and eyebrows). Gerry Torciano is a major player in the NY famiglia. Tony and Carmela have settled into a comfortable relationship. Carm is frustrated that construction on her spec-house has hit a roadblock, but she is thrilled to receive a new Porsche. AJ is still a slacker. Vito Spatafore has shed some weight and can’t stop talking about it. As he converses with Agent Harris, we learn that Vito is a fan of the low-carb Atkins diet, and I reckoned this was the reason why Vito eats a hot dog minus the bun. But many viewers see the frankfurter as a phallic symbol that foreshadows a major Season 6 storyline:
The bulk of the hour, however, belongs to Eugene Pontecorvo. A $2 million inheritance from his deceased aunt puts dreams of Florida into Gene’s head. Gene remains the good soldier while Tony ponders his request to retire. He whacks Teddy Spirodakis up in Boston, splattering blood all over the diner and himself. (The blood that Gene smears on to his map is a powerful signifier of how the landscape gets stained by mob violence.) As the hour progresses, we see that various tensions are pulling at Gene: his son’s trouble with addiction, his wife’s desire for a new vista, his unsatisfying position on la famiglia’s totem pole. But the most strain, surely, comes from his concurrent and contradictory commitment to both the mob and the FBI.
Gene should have known that the Feds would never greenlight his request to move to a sunnier climate, he should have nipped his dreams of Florida in the bud. But as anyone who is being crushed by pressure from all sides might do, he allows his brain to seize on to a fantasy for the relief it affords him. He enthusiastically makes his argument to Agent Ron Gosling but the agent finally tells him, “Florida is just one of those things you gotta let go.” Gene goes quiet as he sits in the back of Gosling’s car. It is the quiet of someone who is slowly realizing how great his delusion was as the full weight of reality settles upon him…
Gene Pontecorvo’s suicide is probably the most explicit, realistic hanging ever depicted on American television. I have no idea if the scene is “realistic” in the sense of authentically replicating an actual hanging. But it authentically expresses the grim desperation of the physical body as it struggles, in vain, to hold on to life as death overpowers it. Many viewers argued, perhaps justifiably, that we don’t know Gene well enough to be deeply moved by his suicide. But his death—because of its impressive depiction—is one of the most extraordinary of the series.
I learned recently that there are twice as many suicides per year in the United States than homicides. And half of those suicides come by firearm. We know that Gene owns a gun, so it’s a little surprising that he would choose to hang himself. His reason for choosing a rope over a bullet may be a mystery, but we can guess one reason why Chase would choose to end this particular character’s life in this manner: it fits metaphorically. Gene was caught in a metaphoric noose between the mob and the FBI, and they choked off the avenue of escape that his aunt’s will seemed to provide.
Gene Pontecorvo experiences quite a reversal of fortune in this hour: he starts out thrilled about a $2 million windfall but ends up dead in his garage. Tony Soprano goes through a reversal too. The episode makes a point of showing how good life is for Tony right now. His marriage to Carm is running smoothly, Meadow is doing well, and AJ seems to be relatively stable. Tony has discovered Nori, a delicious Asian restaurant where he scarfs the food down hand over fist. (Season 6 has a far-Eastern flavor at times, and this Japanese restaurant provides us our first taste of it.) Tony has conspicuously gained some weight, an indication of how well things have been going for him. (An extended sequence with his bathroom scale underscores how heavy he has become.) He’s a lucky sonavabitch and he knows it. “$40 for a piece of fish they just flew in first class — I think we’re more than lucky,” he tells Carmela before tossing a piece of sushi into his mouth. He’s even lucky when he doesn’t know it — moments after complaining that he can’t catch a break, he catches the biggest break of his life: Ray Curto slumps over and dies just as he is about to incriminate Tony in a murder.
So: two rats that were collaborating with the FBI to bring Tony down end up dying in this episode. It seems like the gods are smiling down on Tony Soprano. But by the end of the hour, Chase reminds us that often what looks like the smile of the gods is actually a maniacal grin. The gods of SopranoWorld have a wicked sense of humor — just when things are going good for Tony, things go very, very bad.
At Uncle Jun’s house, Tony cooks up some pasta for supper. Corrado comes down at Tony’s dinner-call, but he is not coming to eat — he is carrying a pistol. Tony was planning on a simple Italian dinner with his uncle, but the gods—or at least David Chase—has a different plan. Corrado’s mental state has continued to deteriorate since we saw him last in Season 5. In his dementia, Corrado confuses Tony for Pussy Malanga and shoots him in the stomach. (It was in the Pilot episode that we learned of Corrado’s plan to hit Malanga.) David Chase shocks us now, no one would have predicted that Tony would get shot. Especially by his uncle. Especially in the first episode of the season. But the shooting doesn’t come completely out of nowhere: the hour’s multiple references to Pussy Malanga bring Season One to the mind of the viewer — a season, we remember, that ended with Corrado’s attempt on Tony’s life. We are also reminded of this in Melfi’s office, where the topic of Corrado’s earlier assassination attempt comes up. Regarding this, Alan Sepinwall of The Star-Ledger notes an ironic reversal between Seasons 1 and 6. In the first season, Livia wanted Tony dead because he put her in a retirement community. Now, Tony’s senile uncle is able to take a shot at him only because he refused to put Corrado in a nursing home. (And this reversal is underscored by Tony’s reversal of language: when Dr. Melfi describes Green Grove as a “retirement community,” Tony [hilariously and finally] admits that it is a “nursing home.”)
The bloody shooting of Teddy Spirodakis and the agonizing death of Gene Pontecorvo had already given this episode a disturbing physicality. Tony’s struggle to make a 911 call puts an exclamation point to this hour’s corporeal concerns. He leaves a trail of blood as he drags himself to the kitchen phone. He passes out and collapses to the floor with a thump. Chase goes to an overhead camera to emphasize Tony’s great bulk and the reality of his significant weight gain:
Chase fades from this shot of fat Tony to the credits, scored to that mystical “Seven Souls” piece from earlier. The image of Tony’s large body just before the myth-laden music begins to play prefigures the attention that Season 6 will give to both the physical and metaphysical aspects of life. Come to think of it, the “physical aspects” that I refer can perhaps be folded into this season’s emphatic exploration of the “material” aspects of life. Materialism, in its multiple definitions, is a major concern of this season:
- There is arguably a greater emphasis, as I’ve mentioned, on the material human body than in previous seasons.
- There will be greater focus on materialism in the sense of goods produced, purchased and consumed. Chase will take a closer look at consumerism as it exists at the personal level, as well as a defining national characteristic. In this episode, we already see signs of the Sopranos’ increasing material wealth: Tony has a new boat while Carm receives a Porsche Cayenne. (I love how Chase cuts away from Tony struggling to make a 9-1-1 call → to the scene in which Carmela shows off her new ride, only to see the Porsche that she was given get topped by the Corvette that Angie has purchased for herself.)
- The material reality of the universe plays into the major themes of this season. Scientist John Schwinn will fuse materialism and spirituality into a kind of “spirituality of physics” in “The Fleshy Part of the Thigh.”
As he lays on the floor, we start to believe that this might very well be the end of Tony Soprano. It would be unthinkable for the main character to be killed in the season opener of any other show, but it’s certainly within the realm of possibility in David Chase’s universe. Chase will continue to push the boundaries of what is possible all the way up to the final moments of this incredible season.
THE QUESTION OF IDENTITY
Season 6 will be more explicitly concerned with the notion of identity. The Sopranos has always explored various facets of its characters — their ethnic, cultural, social/class identities, and even their meta-identities as fictional characters in a 21st century TV show. The investigation of identity becomes more overt this season, as both Tony and Carmela ask “Who am I? Where am I going?” Other characters such as Vito Spatafore and Chris Moltisanti will not articulate these questions outright, but their storylines will also be driven by Chase’s inquiry into who they really are and where they’re really going.
WHAT ROUGH BEAST
Tony Soprano is noticeably larger now, and he somehow seems more animalistic. His voice has grown guttural, his breathing is heavier. He lumbers and hulks his way through New Jersey like some land-bound Leviathan. Tony was always a big man but there used to be a vitality and athleticism to him that almost made him seem light on his feet, particularly in the early seasons. That lightness has given way to coarseness now and he will become even more brutish as the season progresses. Eventually, Tony will seem to be an incarnation of the apocalyptic beast that is invoked by Yeats’ “The Second Coming” near the end of the series.
The episode title obviously plays off of Gene Pontecorvo’s outdated jacket and the fact that he can’t escape his membership in the mob nor his membership in the FBI’s club of collaborators. By placing a guy in a Member’s Only jacket in the final scene of the series at Holsten’s diner, Chase seems to purposefully and significantly call back the title of this episode. But what his purpose was in doing so and how much significance it should be accorded are matters that are still debated today.
- Corrado watches Paths of Glory, my favorite Kubrick film, on his TV. The movie is about a group of WWI soldiers who get royally screwed by the conflicting politics of their various military commanders, and perhaps the parallel here is that Gene Pontecorvo gets fucked by the policies of both the mob and the FBI.
- Agent Dwight Harris has been moved out of Organized Crime into the Anti-Terrorism division of the FBI. There will be a recurring focus on terrorism in Season 6, and Harris’ move almost feels like a signal by Chase to the viewer that domestic/social issues will be more important than O.C. issues this season.
- I love the fact that it is Agent Robyn Sanseverino that Ray Curto is talking to when he slips into death. Adriana LaCerva was lost while under Agent Robyn’s protection last season, and now the agent has also lost Ray Curto.
- It must really stick in Gene’s craw when he gets ordered around by Chris Moltisanti. He and Chris became Made Men on the same day, as we saw in “Fortunate Son” (3.03), but Chris has already reached the rank of captain, despite being younger. Perhaps the black bird that appeared during their initiation ceremony really was a bad omen as Chris had feared, but for Gene.
- When Gene’s body releases its grip on life, his bladder relaxes and pee runs down his leg. And then Chase seems to match the sound of Gene’s urine dripping to the floor with the sound of water boiling in Corrado’s kitchen.
- When this episode first aired, I almost began to feel like David Chase was speaking to me personally, with all the “Rons” that appear in this hour: Agents Ron Goddard and Ron Gosling, and building inspector Ron Senkowski. There have been others in previous seasons: Assemblyman Ron Zellman as well as one or two offscreen Rons and Ronnies. And there are a couple more Rons yet to be introduced. By the time the series ended, I halfway believed that there was some uncanny link between my name and The Sopranos, like it was some sort of metaphysical clue that Chase was giving me. Speaking of clues…
- Gene’s Members Only jacket and the murder of Teddy Spirodakis (initials: T.S.) in the diner here are two “clues” that I absolutely do not look forward to dredging up in my entry for “Made in America,” but these subjects loom so large in Sopranos fandom that I don’t think I’ll be able to avoid revisiting them.