Tony is discharged from the hospital, but not before he meets a scientist
with an interesting theory. Bobby gets a chance to test his marksmanship.
Episode 69 – Originally aired April 2, 2006
Written by Diane Frolov & Andrew Schneider
Directed by Alan Taylor
“The Fleshy Part of the Thigh” is one of my favorite episodes, it is truly a keystone hour in my understanding of the series. Although I have a fairly specific interpretation of this outing, I recoil from calling it the definitive interpretation. (I think “definitive interpretations” have the effect of a solvent, dissolving all the magic and mystery out of a work of art. And this particular work of art is chock full o’ magic.) When this hour first aired, it rang a deep chord in me. And then, in the aftermath of the cut-to-black at Holsten’s Diner, I found myself thinking about “Fleshy Part” quite a lot. Within days of the Series Finale, I had formulated an interpretation of that cut-to-black that was deeply informed by this episode. (Part of the reason why this write-up is so long is that there is a lot I need to get “on the record” here if my “Made in America” entry is to make any sense.) I am sure that many viewers will not agree with how I’ve unpacked this hour. But that’s perfectly ok with me. In fact, one of my favorite things about this episode is how it seems to endorse the idea that there is room in this world for varying viewpoints (and that dogmatic positions that insist otherwise are just plain silly).
Tony is slowly recuperating after coming out of his coma. Some residue of his near-death-experience (or whatever that long, strange trip was) seems to be lingering in his consciousness—he tells his nurse, “I’ve been feeling, I dunno, not myself.” We get the sense that Tony is at a crossroads in his life, he has been given a second chance to change his ways. Will he take advantage of this opportunity?
It seems to me that Chase has always put his audience at a crossroads in how we choose to view the series. Although it’s easy to watch this series and think about it in terms of “good vs. evil” or “right vs. wrong,” I think Chase is far more interested in getting us to see SopranoWorld in a complex way as opposed to looking at it in a simplistic way. This parallels a choice that was being debated in the real world at the time this episode originally aired (and is still being debated today): would America be better off if we approached social and political issues with a nuanced understanding of their complexities, or would the country be better off if we were guided by uncomplicated, strongly-held values and decisive action?
The Sopranos is stocked with characters that would prefer the latter choice, and Chase now adds two more to their number. Aaron Arkaway, who we haven’t seen since “…To Save Us All From Satan’s Power” (3.10), reappears now with a brand new character, Pastor Bob. The duo represent that segment of our population that revels in simplistic certainty, those folks that are 100% sure that they embody all that is Good and Right while all others are Evil and Wrong. I’ve stated before that Chase seems to make a conscious effort in Season 6 to place The Sopranos within its American milieu, and Aaron and Bob represent the Religious Right that began truly flexing its power in the first decade of the 2000s. This episode makes reference to several battles of the “culture war” of the period, including Pro-life/Pro-choice standoffs and the Terry Schiavo case. The reference in this hour to Charles Colson, President Nixon’s hatchet man, is particularly interesting because it explicitly brings politics into the episode. (Colson served time for his role in the Watergate cover-up. He became a Born-again Christian while in prison, and was enjoying great popularity within the Evangelical community at the time this episode first aired.)
It was Colson’s boss Richard Nixon who engineered the “southern strategy” (making an appeal to white, religious, sometimes racist voters) which transformed the Democratic south into a Republican stronghold, and which eventually led to the election of Born-again Christian George Bush in 2000. President Bush wore his certainty on his sleeve. Mr. Bush (like Pastor Bob here) tended to see things in a black-and-white way, he retreated from nuance or complexity. Bush placed the entire world in a duality: “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists,” he famously said just before launching his War on Terror.
Of all the cultural battles of the Bush era, I found the skirmishes over the theory of evolution to be the most infuriating. Religious radicals, not surprisingly, find evolution to be a threat because it undermines their radical beliefs. (As do a hundred other discoveries of the modern world.) What was outrageous to me was that many mainstream believers at the time were egregiously siding with their radical brethren on the issue, even though the theory of evolution does not threaten mainstream beliefs. (Evolution does not attempt to explain how life began on earth, nor why; it only accounts for the great diversity of species.) Even relatively mainstream President Bush got in on the act in August 2005, weighing in on an ongoing court case (Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District) by saying that the faith-based “Intelligent Design” curriculum deserved to be taught alongside evolution in public school biology classes. (Just four months later, John E. Jones, the judge—a Bush appointee—who presided over the case, eviscerated proponents of Intelligent Design for their cynicism and pseudo-intellectual ploys in his ruling against them.) About three months after “Fleshy Part” originally aired, the journal Science published the disturbing findings of a recent study on the subject. Of the world’s 34 most developed nations, we ranked second-to-last in percentage of adults who accept evolution to be true.
It was widely understood that it was the efforts of Christian fundamentalists that put us in this embarrassing spot. (And similarly, it was the work of Islamic fundamentalists that put Turkey in last place.) I’ve been taking this long trip down memory lane to give a sense of the cultural context in which “Fleshy Part” was written and first broadcast. But let me get back to the episode now.
Early in the hour, Pastor Bob seems to be a kind-hearted and thoughtful minister. He presents a vision of Christianity in which God is forgiving even to the worst criminals, and Tony seems to grow interested in what Bob has to say. But then Bob presents his “Young Earth” view of history, claiming that the planet is only 6000 years old and that dinosaurs coexisted with humans. (“What, like The Flintstones?” wonders Tony.) Bob, wielding a creepy smile, asserts that one cannot both believe in evolution and be saved from damnation. Pastor Bob reveals his true colors. His Christianity is not one of generosity and inclusiveness as he has led Tony to believe, but one of division and punishment.
Pastor Bob is certain that John Schwinn, the scientist in the room next door, is a lost soul if he has accepted evolution to be true. This is Bob’s version of Christianity, one that puts up barriers between faith and science, between “true believers” and everyone else. I find it very interesting that Chase places Hesh and his daughter Beth in this scene. Chase inserts three shots of Hesh while Bob speaks, and we get the feeling that the old man has some suspicions about the young pastor.
Hesh surely knows that many fundamentalist Christians deeply and truly believe that all non-Christians will literally be sent to Hell when they die, an eternal “concentration camp” from which there is no escape. As a Jew, Hesh’s afterlife doesn’t look too bright according to these fundamentalists. Beth is correct in pointing out that the Evangelical community is very supportive of Israel, but Hesh understands that this show of fundamentalist love is temporary: “You wait,” he responds.
In contrast to the fixed, simplistic divisions that Pastor Bob makes, scientist John Schwinn presents a view of the universe in which no divisions exist—everything is connected to everything else. When Schwinn makes his case in Da Lux’s room, this episode gets really interesting for me, because his philosophy is so contrary to the prevailing tenor of the series. With each passing season, The Sopranos has been growing darker. The murders of Adriana and Tony Blundetto at the end of last season finally put the series, I felt, in some of the darkest territory that a television show has ever inhabited. It is fairly common to find very grim narratives in film and literature, in works like Chinatown or The Sound and The Fury, for example. On TV shows, however, we always expect to find some sort of light at the end of the tunnel. But after the bleak ending of Season 5, I started to feel sure that David Chase would throw up a cement wall at the end of the tunnel. I became more and more convinced that a dark philosophy would dominate SopranoWorld all the way through its final hour, a philosophy that was most clearly articulated by Livia in “D-Girl” (2.07):
Why does everything have to have a purpose? The world is a jungle. And if you want my advice, Anthony, don’t expect happiness, you won’t get it. People let you down…In the end, you die in your own arms…It’s all a big nothing.
When “Fleshy Part” first aired, I immediately saw it as a sister episode to “D-Girl.” These two episodes, I believe, present two very different approaches to the fundamental philosophical question of life. Livia proclaimed from her hospital room in Season 2 that “It’s all a big nothing,” but John Schwinn—also from a hospital room—now gives us an alternative idea: it’s not all a big nothing, but a big everything. Everything is everything:
Livia didn’t believe that everything is everything, she believed that everything is nothing—everything had zero value for her. Livia never made any profound connections to anyone or anything, and so it is not surprising that she would feel that “it’s all a big nothing.” Schwinn might agree, in a very limited sense, with the idea that it’s all nothing; he explains that nothing actually exists, at least not in the way we perceive them to. He says there are no boxers, no tornadoes, no separate entities whatsoever—the appearance of individual entities is only an illusion. But the fact that it’s all an illusion does not necessarily reduce the universe to a desolate “big nothing.” On the contrary, Schwinn sees the universe as a big everything—a giant soup of assimilated particles. Schwinn’s idea that “nothing is separate, everything is connected” is a powerful metaphysical counterargument to Livia’s philosophy of disconnection and fragmentation.
Livia is not here now to make her side of the argument, but Paulie almost functions as a stand-in for her as he bitterly grumbles in Da Lux’s hospital room. His words closely echo the sentiments that Livia expressed to AJ from her hospital bed in “D-Girl”:
- Livia had told her grandson that “People let you down…in the end, you die in your own arms,” and Paulie now says of family members that “in the end, they fuck you too.”
- Livia had compared the world to a jungle, while Paulie compares it to a boxing ring where everyone has to stand alone and fight.
Paulie is angry because he has just learned that the woman he thought to be his mother is actually his aunt. His relationship to his “mother” suddenly feels false to him, it is not what he had always thought it to be. His life suddenly feels like a farce. The mother-child connection is arguably the most profound connection that exists in the human experience, and so it quite understandable that Paulie would feel bitter right now. (Perhaps even more so in this case because Paulie doesn’t have a wife or children, only his mother.) Livia’s bitterness was not the result of some painful revelation as Paulie’s is—she was permanently hostile towards the world. Her relationship with her children—and everyone else too—was truly a farce.
There is a clever meta-joke hidden in Da Lux’s response to Schwinn’s theory: “Everything is everything, I’m down with that.” Of course he’s down with it—the character “Da Lux” is played by rapper Lord Jamar, a member of the 1990s hip hop group Brand Nubian which released the album Everything is Everything in 1994.
Far from simply being a little inside-joke for hip hop fans, Chase is using Da Lux’s real-life persona to call further attention to the notion that “everything is everything.” Re-watching this episode now, I realized that “lux” is the Latin word for “light,” and further research showed that “da lux” in Latin means “give light.” John Schwinn and Da Lux now give an outlook that could function as the light at the end of the tunnel. We have known SopranoWorld to be a place darkened by greed, violence and nihilism. The idea that “Everything is everything” may very well be the shining beacon that lights up this dark world.
EVERYTHING IS EVERYTHING
Although this is the first time that the philosophy that “everything is connected” has so clearly been articulated on The Sopranos, David Chase had previously expressed the idea on his earlier TV series Northern Exposure. In the episode “The Great Mushroom,” which appeared in the sixth and final season of that series, Joel expresses a sentiment to his friend Maggie which sounds a lot like John Schwinn’s theory. It’s a long clip (with some weird moments where Maggie imagines Joel being killed, which I’ll discuss later in the write-up), but it’s worth taking the time to watch because I think it can really deepen our understanding of the current episode:
Joel saying that there is only “an illusion of separateness” is a precursor to John Schwinn’s “It’s actually an illusion, those two boxers as separate entities.” Joel telling Maggie that “We’re part of the same big mushroom” is a more poetic expression of Schwinn’s line, “We’re all part of the same quantum field.” The similarities in dialogue from these two different episodes (from two entirely different TV shows) may seem surprising at first, but the explanation for the similarities is quite simple: “The Great Mushroom” and “The Fleshy Part of the Thigh” were both written by the husband-and-wife writing team of Diane Frolov and Andrew Schneider. Frolov and Schneider were longtime writer-producers of Northern Exposure, and worked with David Chase when he ran that show in its final two seasons. “Fleshy Part” is the first episode that the duo wrote for The Sopranos, and they became significant contributors to Chase’s mobster drama in its final season. David Chase may have specifically tapped Frolov and Schneider to write this particular Sopranos episode because he knew from prior experience that they could handle this theme of connectivity in the way that he wanted.
Although a philosophy of connectivity had never been articulated outright on The Sopranos prior to “Fleshy Part,” I have argued throughout this website that Chase has always emphasized connectivity through the very structure of the series. Chase purposefully exploits the medium of television to create a great number of connections. He spoke about his use of “connective tissue” in a 2004 interview for the L.A. Times. (I included this quote previously in my “D-Girl” write-up, but I’ll put it up again here.)
“…I come back from France with a chart of every character over 13 episodes,” he says. “What happens here, what happens there, how do things intermesh. Then I show the chart to the writers and ask, ‘What are we going to do that really interests us?’ Separate stories sometimes emerge, and the chart sometimes becomes just connective tissue.”
We can see how Chase’s use of connective tissue could be considered the televisual equivalent of John Schwinn’s doctrine of connectivity. In her essay, “The Sopranos: If Nothing is Real, You Have Overpaid For Your Carpet,” Martha Nochimson writes that David Chase invites us to…
…explore in greater depth the innovative use he has made of the structure of serial television, a narrative form more suitable than film for depicting the world according to Schwinn, since serial television can, after all, be understood as a replication of the world of particles combining with other particles to make a whole.
Just in this episode alone, we find myriad connections. Some are obvious but innocuous: the scuba socks that Paulie gets for his aunt (er, mother) visually connect to the scuba socks that Jason Barone wears when he goes sculling. Some connections may be more tentative: is the Browns’ song “The Three Bells” evoking John Schwinn’s place of employment, Bell Labs? Other connections reward the conscientious viewer with their irony and humor: in Season 4, Paulie was so concerned about his mother’s TV when she first moved into Green Grove that he ordered both Lil Paulie and Benny to carry it, but now he angrily tosses the TV out of her Green Grove window:
I think one of the most important clusters of connectivity to be found this season developed around what we might refer to as “the Asian theme.” This season has had something of an Asian flavor, beginning with the scenes at Nori Japanese restaurant in the season opener. Professor Terry Carney, in her essay “From Here to InFinnerty,” lists several Asian references found in the second and third episodes of the season: the Buddhist monks, the Crystal monastery, Tony’s Asian doctor, an Asian nurse, Janice’s mention of Chinese food, Christopher’s mention of the popularity of Asian horror-films, AJ’s Asian-print shirt, and the Chinese-lettered decor in Silvio’s bathroom. And now we find Tony watching the 70s TV show Kung Fu in his hospital room. I believe the significance of Kung Fu here is that is extends the “Asian theme” into this episode, allowing us to bridge the Asian metaphysics in the previous hour to John Schwinn’s physics in this hour…
When the young Buddhist monk said to Tony/Kevin in the previous episode, “One day we will all die, and then we will be the same as that tree. No ‘me,’ no ‘you,’” he expressed a notion of integration and connectivity that parallels John Schwinn’s idea. David Chase uses the young monk’s Buddhism just as he uses Schwinn’s physics—as a way to counter the nihilism that perpetually looms in SopranoWorld. Schwinn looks at the same universe that Livia saw, but he sees it in a positive light—a universe in which all disparate things are connected. Buddhism is similarly able to take Livia’s “big nothing” and give it a positive spin. The Buddhist concept of sunyata is a little complicated to understand, and I’m no expert on it, but I think it may inform these last couple of episodes. “Sunyata” can most closely be translated in English as “emptiness.” Barbara O’Brien at Buddhism.about.com clarifies the definition:
Sunyata is often misunderstood to mean that nothing exists. This is not so. Instead, it tells us that there is existence, but that phenomena are empty of svabhava, a Sanskrit word that means self-nature, intrinsic nature, essence, or ‘own being.’
She gives the example of a chariot: if you removed pieces of the chariot one by one (wheels, axles, etc), at what point would the chariot cease to be a chariot? One person may say that a fully disassembled chariot is still a chariot, while another might argue that a chariot missing just its wheels cannot rightfully be called a chariot because it can’t be used for transport. Each person subjectively perceives and defines what a “chariot” is—there is no inherent, intrinsic “chariot-ness” in its parts. Even a fully-assembled chariot does not contain some intrinsic “chariot-essence, ” it is only a contraption upon which someone has projected the label “chariot.”
So how does sunyata relate to The Sopranos? Buddhist doctrine claims—as does John Schwinn—that the things we perceive in the universe are only that—perceptions. We project properties and definitions on to things, they do not themselves contain a definitive essence, whether they be boxers or tornadoes or chariots—or even ourselves. Barbara O’Brien spells it out:
We also are empty of self-essence. However, if we don’t perceive this, we understand ourselves to be distinctive and separate from everything else. This gives rise to fear, greed, jealousy, prejudice, hatred. If we understand ourselves to inter-exist with everything else, this gives rise to trust and compassion.
Hmm, “fear, greed, jealousy, prejudice, hatred”—personality traits commonly found in several SopranoWorld characters, particularly in the family matriarch. Buddhists are something like Livia in that they believe, in one sense, that “it’s all a big nothing.” But the Buddhist conception of the “big nothing”—sunyata—is not the same as Livia’s desolate void. Sunyata is simply the absence of intrinsic essence, and the recognition of this absence is the beginning of wisdom, compassion and trust.
Historically, Eastern religions and philosophies like Buddhism have been more friendly than Christianity to the idea that all things are interconnected. As the great mythologist Joseph Campbell noted, Eastern thought-systems generally place a great emphasis on harmony and perpetually attempt to bring all things into accord. Christianity, on the other hand, is a religion built upon dualisms: good vs. evil, God vs. Satan, God vs. man, man vs. woman, man vs. nature, earth vs. heaven, heaven vs. hell, body vs. soul, life vs. afterlife. Not all Christians are so dualistic in their thinking. But Pastor Bob certainly is, and that’s the reason why he is so averse to the theory of evolution. Evolution is a theory of inter-connection (just as Buddhism and John Schwinn’s physics are). Evolution literally makes a connection between creatures as disparate as an orangutan, a squid, and a cyanobacterium. All living thing are connected by common ancestors, and perhaps even linked by one common ancestor.
Chase seems to allude to the theory of evolution quite early in the episode, when he cuts from Tony’s dinosaur book to a shot of birds flying above Barone Sanitation:
With this edit, Chase may be giving a nod to the scientific consensus that modern birds are descendants of dinosaurs. (Many of us were probably first exposed to this idea while watching Jurassic Park years earlier.) Chase further legitimizes this scientific consensus as Meadow reads from the dinosaur book:
Meadow: “In Montana, the fossilized remains of a Tyrannosaurus rex yielded soft tissue that indicated a definite link between dinosaurs and modern birds.”
I almost took a heart attack when I heard Meadow read this line, because of a particular term that it contains. I had always believed the term “soft tissue” to contain special Sopranos significance ever since the first time I heard it, back in Season One’s “Isabella.” Just as Livia was engineering his assassination, Tony hallucinated a woman named ‘Isabella’ who possessed all the warmth and kindness and maternal characteristics that his own mother lacked.
We may remember that as a dental student, Isabella was “interested in tumors of the gum and the soft tissue of the mouth.” I had argued in my “D-Girl” entry that Tony’s real mother is someone who destroys connections, but his fantasy-mother is someone who repairs connections, literally: soft tissue is connective tissue. I think that these two mentions of the phrase “soft tissue,” first by Isabella and now by Meadow, may have a parallel function: they highlight the thematic importance of connectivity on the series. David Chase had previously used Isabella (and her interest in healing connective soft tissue) as a contrast to Livia (and her alienating, disjointing nihilism), and now Chase seems to use evolution (a theory bolstered by the discovery of fossilized connective soft tissue) as a contrast to Pastor Bob (and his alienating and narrow-minded ‘either/or’ dualism).
I recognize, of course, that the repetition of the phrase “soft tissue” may simply be a coincidence, not some well-planned refrain seven years in the making. David Chase obviously cares about connective tissue, speaking about it on multiple occasions including in the interview for the L.A. Times which I quoted above, but that doesn’t prove he actually drew a line between the “soft tissue” mentioned in this hour and the “soft tissue” mentioned in “Isabella.”
I’ll admit, the more I thought about it, the less I believed that Chase was conscientiously calling back an almost throwaway line by Isabella in Season 1. But I will submit one more point on the matter: this episode’s title actually references soft tissue—the fleshy part of the thigh is literally made up of the stuff. Of course, the episode title may not actually be highlighting the possible metaphorical significance of “soft tissue,” it may simply be making a joke: the title most obviously refers to Bobby’s attempt to shoot Marvin in the thigh (but he misses the target, hilariously sinking a slug in the aspiring rapper’s buttock instead). The title can also refer to the back of Jason Barone’s leg which Paulie thwacks with a metal pipe. (And it may also refer to Paulie’s mother’s thighs, which he tries to cover up as he slips the scuba socks on.)
But if Chase does mean for the episode title to carry some of the metaphorical weight that I’m suggesting, then the fleshy parts of Marvin’s and Jason’s thighs may indeed be underscoring the use of “soft tissue” as a symbol of connection. It would be quite fitting, metaphorically speaking, that Bobby shoots at the soft tissue of one thigh and Paulie thwacks at the soft tissue of another; the damage done to each would represent Bobby and Paulie’s dehumanizing way of making a living which perpetually damages and destroys all forms of connection and connective tissue.
Paulie goes after Jason because he is jealous of the strong connection that the young man feels with his mom. After finding out the truth about the identity of his birth-mother, Paulie’s relationship to adoptive-mother Nucci feels false to him. There is no good reason for him to feel this way, but he has always been a simplistic man, a man of simple rules and easy conclusions. As I noted earlier, Chase uses Paulie’s simple black-and-white worldview as a foil to Schwinn’s more complex worldview as they talk in Da Lux’s room. Paulie is also used as a foil in this hour, as in previous hours, to Tony. Tony Soprano is not as broadminded as John Schwinn, but there is a greater complexity and dimensionality to his thoughts than there is to Paulie’s. We may remember how their views clashed in Season Two’s “From Where to Eternity.” Paulie said he believed in a literal Heaven and Hell (as well as Purgatory, where he’ll spend 6000 years for all his mortal and venial sins). Like Pastor Bob, Paulie has a fixed, absolute view on religious matters. Tony has a more relativistic view, as we may remember from their conversation in that same Season Two episode:
Tony: You eat steak?
Paulie: What the fuck you talkin’ about?
Tony: If you were in India, you would go to hell for that.
Paulie: I’m not in India. What do I give a fuck?
Tony: That’s what I’m trying to tell you.
Paulie has a similar function in this hour as he had in “From Where to Eternity”—he provides a contrast to Tony Soprano. Tony tries to give Paulie a broader, more universal view of things, tries to get him to recognize that the truth is much bigger than what he sees out of his limited, self-absorbed viewpoint. Tony recalls the Ojibwe proverb, trying to convince his friend that he is part of something bigger. But Paulie doesn’t see it.
Tony takes the broader, more relativist position. This episode’s argument for relativism and against those certainties that come out of dogma or faith is probably the most important thing to take away from the hour. David Chase has fashioned a world, much like the real world, in which truths that are held with an absolute grip are not very reliable, and they may even be laughable (like the idea that humans lived with dinosaurs). The world is composed mainly of relative truths, not absolute ones.
Buddhism is relativistic too. Once again, Barbara O’Brien explains: “Because all phenomena exist interdependently, and are void of self-essence, all distinctions we make between this and that phenomena are arbitrary and relative. So, things and beings ‘exist’ only in a relative way…”
I think John Schwinn also underlines the idea that there are no absolute certainties when he makes a reference to Schrodinger’s Equation. The equation takes into account the uncertainty that is at the heart of quantum physics. I am even less versed in quantum physics than I am in Buddhism, so I’m not going to try to get into the mathematics of it. From what I understand, particles within a quantum system have certain properties—like location—which we cannot predict with any real certainty, but we can use Schrodinger’s Equation to express their most probable locations within a wave of probability. It doesn’t matter if we don’t exactly understand the mechanics of the equation for our purposes here, because I think Chase is more interested in what it says as a metaphor: we don’t have certainty about even the most basic building blocks of the universe, so how can we claim to have certainty about any of the larger things within the universe?
In addition to “The Great Mushroom,” Frolov and Schnieder produced another episode of Northern Exposure called “The Robe” which also seems like a forerunner to the current Sopranos hour. In “The Robe,” Esau (a wooden dummy) tends to “speak” in platitudes and certainties. His morality is black-and-white, fixed. Chris Stevens, the radio DJ who voices the dummy, is not very comfortable at all with such a “wooden” morality (although he does recognize, of course, that whatever comes out of Esau’s mouth is actually coming out of his own mouth):
I’ll very quickly list some of the notable similarities between “The Robe” and “The Fleshy Part of the Thigh” which are not completely apparent in the video clip above:
- Esau in “The Robe” and Pastor Bob here both have a fairly simplistic sense of morality
- In “The Robe,” Esau makes a joke about Buddhism; “Fleshy Part” continues a sort of “Asian theme” from the two previous episodes (which both featured Buddhist monks)
- There is a reference in “The Robe” to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, the idea in physics that a quantum particle’s paired variables (like speed and position) cannot both be known simultaneously with any certainty; “Fleshy Part” contains a reference to Schrodinger’s Equation which is closely related to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle
If you let my clip play out to the end, you can see in the credits that Chase, Frolov and Schneider were all directly involved in the production of “The Robe.” So, we see that the three of them were previously engaged in this debate between certainty and uncertainty (or Absolutism and Relativism, or the simplistic and the complicated, or whatever other terms you want to use to frame the contrast), and they had previously used very similar elements: Buddhism, quantum physics and a character with a simplified viewpoint (Esau the dummy).
Like Chris the deejay in Northern Exposure and John Schwinn here, David Chase turns away from easy certainties and simple dualisms. It’s tempting, of course, to indulge in certainty; there is nothing more effective at alleviating our existential confusion and anxieties. And there is plenty to be anxious about. Our society is relentlessly cold—the insurance company’s representative at the hospital, for example, is as callous as a mobster. (Tony first calls her a “sick cunt” and then a “bird of prey.”) The universe is even more callous and cold. “If the history of the Earth was represented by the Empire State Building,” Tony’s dinosaur book tells us, “human existence would only be a postage stamp at the very top”—the immensity of Time seems to render our very existence into something trivial. We hunger for explanations that make sense to us. It would be nice, for example, to have a reasonable explanation for why God would allow the little girl in the other room to get so horrifically burned. She has suffered third-degree burns over 80% of her body:
I’m sure Esau the Dummy or Pastor Bob could conjure up an explanation for such a heartbreaking sight—perhaps the child is paying for someone’s sins, or maybe God means it to be a test of faith. But Chase resists such simple answers. I don’t think, however, that Chase submits to the idea that there are never any answers. Some of the answers we seek might be found within a doctrine of connectivity, which Buddhism, Physics, and the serial nature of TV itself are all able to convey. Martha Nochimson continues in her essay…
…David Chase has designed a twenty-first century gangster story in which the nothingness that the characters fear is visible to the audience as a delusion we need not share.
But here’s the thing about David Chase: he’s a crafty one. As I’ve mentioned in earlier write-ups, Chase incorporates (or maybe “buries” is the better word) his themes and designs so well into The Sopranos’ narrative that it’s often difficult for us to know if we’re actually seeing what we think we’re seeing. In this hour, Chase uses humor to cover his tracks. For example, I figured that Chase may have used the name “Da Lux” because it means “give light” in Latin, but this insight is made completely pretentious when we consider that Chase may have chosen the name simply because it sounds similar to a brand-name laxative, which then generates a funny joke: Bobby refers to the rapper as Ex-Lax. Similarly, I want to ascribe great thematic significance to the scene in which Marvin’s “soft tissue” gets injured, but it’s hard not to laugh when we see him writhing on the ground, clutching his butt and shouting “They shot me in my ass!”
David Chase used humor to lighten heavy thematic explorations in his earlier series too. If we look at that above video clip from “The Great Mushroom” again, we can see how its important message is undercut by humor: While Joel throws down some deep philosophy, Maggie fantasizes that he gets squashed by a boulder and bombed by an airplane. Chase likes to shroud the importance of any messages he may be sending us. We may note in the current hour that it is precisely when Schwinn is making a critical point about connectivity, using the boxers on the TV as an analogy, that the TV signal gets lost:
A similar thing happens in “D-Girl,” the episode that complements the current hour. Big Pussy expresses a sentiment of friendship and connection to AJ that counters the bitter opinion that his grandmother had spewed at him earlier. But as he does so, the audio signal through which we hear him catches some static. Pussy is providing a powerful lesson but Chase’s universe—like the real universe—is filled with obstacles that sometimes prevent such lessons from coming through clearly:
In “Fleshy Part,” John Schwinn gives voice to a shining philosophy of connectivity, but he is ultimately silenced by David Chase—Schwinn’s voicebox is removed after he is struck by laryngeal cancer. (The absurdity of the universe: Schwinn came in to the hospital for a sinus infection, but now he must leave without his larynx.) Tony thinks of stopping by Schwinn’s room as he is being wheeled out of the hospital, but decides not to when he sees the man recovering in bed after his laryngectomy. Tony will never hear whatever final words John Schwinn might have had to say to him.
Tony exits the hospital and Chase immediately starts flinging “symbols” at us. The sound of wind fills the air. (Wind!). The wind rustles the leaves of a tree. (Tree!) The sound of a bell wafts down from a nearby tower. (Bell!) Tony clutches his sister’s hand and says, “I’m supposed to be dead, now I’m alive… From now on, every day is a gift.” Tony’s outlook on life is changing. (Janice, however, doesn’t look like she’s buying it 100%.) Perhaps this changing outlook is the reason why Tony gave Rudy the E.M.T. a pass, he didn’t shake him down for $2000 as originally planned. And maybe this is why he finally accepts Johnny Sac’s offer for the sale of Barone Sanitation, even though the offer doesn’t include the skim money that he wanted. “Truth be told, there’s plenty of garbage for everybody,” Tony concedes to Phil.
THE BELLS and THE TREES and THE WIND
I introduced this hour by saying it’s chock-full of magic, and I think much of its sorcery comes out of the way Chase pulls together a number of evocative motifs. It is this episode that truly begins the process of establishing bells as one such motif:
- John Schwinn worked at Bell Labs
- The sound and image of a nearby bell tower marks Tony’s reentry into the world
- “The Three Bells” by The Browns scores the scene in which Jason is out sculling
- The last diegetic sound of the hour before the credits start to roll is a ringing church bell
The presence of “The Three Bells” is especially interesting. This particular version of the song came out in 1959, the same year that Tony Soprano was born. The first verse—which is the only verse heard in this episode—is about the birth of Little Jimmy Brown. Perhaps Chase is leading us to make an association between these lyrics and Tony’s “rebirth,” the idea that Tony has come back in the world with a new attitude after a long duel with death. I don’t necessarily buy into this theory, but I do believe the lyrics are important because they evoke a particular view of the world—I’ll explain what I mean a bit further down:
The Three Bells (first verse)
There’s a village hidden deep in the valley
Among the pine trees half forlorn
And there on a sunny morning
Little Jimmy Brown was born.
All the chapel bells were ringing
In the little valley town
And the song that they were singing
Was for baby Jimmy Brown.
Then the little congregation
Prayed for guidance from above
“Lead us not into temptation,
Bless this hour of meditation,
Guide him with eternal love.”
Trees are another motif that is used with great effect here. The very first shot of Tony when he exits the hospital includes a tree with its leaves rippling in the wind. Chase uses trees to connect scenes here as he has done in the past: the camera pans up into the canopy in Tony’s backyard, and moments later pans down from the canopy at the river where Jason is attacked by Paulie. Perhaps also notable, “The Three Bells” contains a line about pine trees. Trees, as I’ve mentioned before, are themselves great symbols of connection. The dialogue about evolution in this hour made me think of those “tree of life” illustrations that are often used to diagram the connections between creatures from the past and creatures of the present. I really like Bart Simpson’s version of the diagram:
Wind is another major motif in The Sopranos. The Ojibwe proverb, with its mention of a “great wind,” is seen and referenced throughout the hour. John Schwinn also mentions great wind—tornadoes—in his explanation of the universe. The sound of wind is heard multiple times within the hour. The way that wind is used in the episode’s final two sequences—when Tony relaxes in his patio and then when Paulie attacks Jason—is particularly clever. Both sequences are scored with the sound of wind, which gives way to the sound of Pink Floyd’s “One of These Days” as the credits begin to roll. Floyd fans might recognize that the wind that is heard toward the end of this episode is actually coming from the beginning of the musical track: “One of These Days,” as it appears on the album Meddle, begins with nothing but the sound of wind for about 30 seconds before two bass guitars come in and kick off the actual music. (And the song ends with the sound of wind again before segueing into the next track, “A Pillow of Winds.”) The wind-motif is so important to Chase that he chose a song here that has the sound of wind incorporated right into the track.
What I find more interesting about the song, however, is how it almost seems to work in conjunction with “The Three Bells” (the only other non-diegetic song in this hour) to together represent that simplistic, black & white view of the world that Chase seems to criticize in this hour. The two songs are at complete opposite ends of the spectrum, lyrically and sonically—they are, in a manner of speaking, “black” & “white.” “The Three Bells” almost sounds Pollyannaish and foolishly optimistic in how completely it invokes a world that is so peaceful, mild and well-ordered. The song’s 3-person harmony reflects the harmonious world that it depicts. The song plays while Jason is out rowing, which is itself such a peaceful and serene scene, unlike many of the scenes we are often subjected to in The Sopranos. The simple lyrics portray a village filled with faith and light and heavenly guidance, a place like the Eden that Pastor Bob surely believes once existed, and believes will exist—at least for some people—once again.
The Pink Floyd song, on the other hand, evokes an entirely different world. Instead of serene harmonies, we find a composition that sounds almost diabolical. The basses come in first, played through a delay effect that creates an echoing sound. A heavily distorted guitar joins in, adding a disturbing layer. An organ provides dramatic flourishes. The drums finally jump in, increasing the frenzy. There is exactly one lyric in the song, uttered by an ominous, monstrous voice: “One of these days I’m going to cut you into little pieces!” This is the song that fits SopranoWorld as we’ve known it over most of the last 5+ seasons—dark and disturbed with violent overtones. This song, which could almost be described as nihilism made audible, evokes Livia’s black conception of the world.
Chase seems to suggest in this hour that a simplistic, black & white mentality can be divisive and lead to a nihilistic worldview. John Schwinn gives us a way in this episode to transcend the nihilism, transform the nothingness into something positive. But Chase silences Schwinn with a laryngectomy by the end of the hour. Despite this silencing, I believe that a philosophy of connectivity and integration like the one expressed by Schwinn will continue to undergird The Sopranos all the way to the end, even through its final, memorable moment.
This hour has more than its fair share of unfortunate sons. Paulie learns that his mother is actually a nun and his father is some G.I. named Russ who knocked her up during WWII. The news throws Paulie into chaos: “Who the fuck knows who this ‘Russ’ bastard is? The worst thing is I’m not who I am. It’s like my whole life is a joke, a big fuckin joke on me.” Some viewers have speculated that Paulie’s dad might be blowhard Russ Fegoli who appeared at Hugh’s birthday party in “Marco Polo” (where I believe he mentions he served in WWII). I’m not sure if we know exactly how old Paulie is, and we definitely don’t know how old Russ Fegoli is, but the actors that play them were born, respectively, in 1942 and 1928, so the math could work if we massaged Russ’ age a little bit… (I think Fegoli being Paulie’s father would be just way too much of a coincidence but I wouldn’t be surprised if Chase stuck the possibility in there as a fun little easter egg.)
Jason Barone is another unfortunate son. He has been working as a ski instructor, very far removed from his father’s sanitation/recycling business and SopranoLand affairs. He doesn’t understand why some consultant named “Anthony Soprano” should be receiving the second-highest salary in the company. (And when his eyes linger on Meadow at the hospital, I thought to myself, “He really doesn’t know who Meadow Soprano is either.” I think he would be less equipped to handle her self-deception than even poor Finn is.) Paulie smacks Jason’s knee with a pipe (a very unfortunate injury for a ski instructor) and then puts him on a long-term extortion plan for $4000/month (virtually impossible on a ski instructor’s wages). We never hear about Jason again so we don’t know if he ever paid or for how long.
Another unfortunate son is the boy who accompanies his truck-driving dad on his garbage route. The boy is here only because it’s a vacation day from school, which of course happens to be the day that Cinelli Sanitation makes its stand against Barone Sanitation. The boy screams “Papi!” and runs crying to his father after the man is beaten, kicked and left unconscious in the street.
I should also include AJ, who is the quintessential unfortunate son of The Sopranos. He doesn’t have a very hard time in this hour—but that may precisely be what makes him so unfortunate. He has gotten a new job at Blockbuster Video and is getting along with his mom, but we learn that there is peace between mother and son only because she apologized to him. We are not told exactly what the apology was for, but we can guess that it was because earlier this season Carm had screamed that he is a cross for her to bear. Of course, he is a cross for her to bear. His behavior was completely deplorable and it is really him who owed her an apology. But, following a pattern that the Soprano parents have been stuck in for years, Carmela gives her son a pass. Maybe a tougher stance by Tony and Carm over the years would have had a more fortunate effect on AJ.
Maybe I’m harping on the topic at this point, but there are two more Frolov & Schneider-scripted episodes of Northern Exposure that further illuminate our understanding of what it is that the husband-and-wife writing team brought to “The Fleshy Part of the Thigh.” John Schwinn’s physics are used here to present a relativistic view of the universe, alternate to Pastor Bob’s absolutism; similarly, in a season three episode of Northern Exposure, “Get Real,” a visitor to town mentions Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and then a bit later says, “In quantum physics, there are no absolutes.”
More relevant, perhaps, is season two’s “All is Vanity,” (an episode title, by the way, which expresses a sentiment very similar to Livia’s “It’s all a big nothing”). A stranger has died in the small Alaskan town, and Chris Stevens must deliver a eulogy for the unknown man. The opening part of his eulogy seems to prefigure Livia’s idea that “in the end, we die alone in our own arms,” but he closes with a thought that echoes the Buddhist conception of sunyata—we can take our aloneness and emptiness and use it to connect with others:
The fact that we don’t know this man isn’t important really because his experience is our experience. His fate is our fate. ‘Vanitas vanitatum, et Omnia vanitas,’ says the preacher. All is vanity. I think that’s a pretty good epitaph for all of us. When we’re stripped of all our worldly possessions and our fame and family and friends, we all face death alone. But it is that solitude in death that is our common bond in life. I know it is ironic, but that’s just the way things are. Vanitas vanitatum, et omnia vanitas. Only when we understand that all is vanity, only then it isn’t.
- I mentioned in my write-up for 6.02 that I would revisit the slap that Tony/Kevin got from a Buddhist at the OMNI hotel. Many viewers saw the OMNI as a reference to God because ‘omni’ is a common prefix to describe Him: omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent. But I think the significance of the prefix is that it may further connect the monks’ Buddhism to Schwinn’s metaphysics. “Omni” means “all” or “every,” it signifies “everything.” Everything is everything…
- Treach is great here as “Marvin,” he brings such comic relief to the hour. And Hal Holbrook is just frickin’ fantastic as “John Schwinn.”
- When Tony concedes to Phil and Johnny Sac’s demands regarding Barone Sanitation, I though I saw a look of disappointment on Phil’s face. Perhaps Tony’s placid conciliation causes Phil to lose some respect for him, which might partly explain the adversarial stance that Phil takes toward Tony throughout the rest of season 6. It’s also possible that Phil looks less-than-thrilled when they reach the agreement because Phil may not actually want peace with Tony. He is still carrying a lot of anger, as we will learn later, that Tony refused to give Blundetto up after killing Phil’s brother.
- Conservative leaders and politicians deserve credit for no longer pushing Creationism as a legitimate scientific theory on par with Evolution. Though some local school districts and State Boards of Education have kept the so-called “debate” going, it is no longer the polarizing wedge-issue it was when “Fleshy Part” first aired.
- I have a teenager’s sense of humor. I laughed when Tony described Vito’s bathroom habits: “Hour-and-a-half to take a dump, that guy. You could build a jetty with what comes out.” (It was in episode 5.06 that Vito said shitting is a source of pleasure.)
- I covered a lot of ground today: Buddhism, quantum physics, Schrodinger’s Equation, nihilism… Don’t worry, none of this stuff will be on the test. (But they will rear up again in my entry for the Series Finale.)