Paulie oversees a street fair.
Janice takes her kids on a carnival ride.
Chris and Tony help themselves to some wine.
Episode 74 – Originally Aired May 7, 2006
Written by Terry ‘Get Rich or Die Tryin’ Winter
Directed by Alan Taylor
Even after watching The Sopranos for six seasons, some people still didn’t get how David Chase operated. Many viewers hoped that this hour would provide lots of action and suspense—y’ know, get back to the dramatic, dangerous famiglia storylines after detouring to Dartford for the romantic interludes of Vito and Johnny Cakes. Many viewers felt like the series had just been treading water, not really going anywhere over the last couple of episodes—and they found this quite troubling considering that the series was soon coming to an end. The day after this episode originally aired, Tim Goodman (TV critic at the San Francisco Chronicle) expressed this viewpoint:
There are only three episodes left in this current season. That’s very worrisome. Not just because Episode 9 was one of those atypical Sopranos episodes that somehow manages to burn up 60 minutes without actually paying off directly, but because as viewers we simply can’t afford an episode like this so close to the end…It was a placeholder, a pause. That’s acceptable in Season 4, but what it might signal here is that we shouldn’t get our hopes up about any kind of major wrap-up by Episode 12. The writers still have eight more episodes after that to get out of the hat, but it’s looking more and more likely that major storylines might not get resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.
I’m a fan of Tim Goodman, but I’m extremely surprised that he would (mis)characterize this episode as “atypical.” It seemed quite typical to me that David Chase would kick around in some marginal storylines just when were expecting him to display some sense of narrative urgency. It also seemed quite typical that a Sopranos episode would attempt to be part of a larger, more comprehensive payoff rather than try to “pay off directly” after 60 minutes. And it seemed very typical of Chase to give us an episode whose primary thematic concern is the ho-hum dreariness of everyday life. Chase’s preoccupation with the inescapable banality of our existence was hinted at right from the Pilot episode, and almost every episode of the series contains some scene that touches upon the banal, boring or trivial aspects of life. But it is nevertheless difficult—particularly for a first-time viewer, as Tim Goodman was when he wrote this article—to recognize that the regularness of life could be a chief concern of a TV show (especially a TV show that is primarily perceived as a mobster saga.) And this is why I think “The Ride” is such an incredible hour—it revisits, with grace and clarity, this long-running idea of “regularness” so that we can now better appreciate and understand its importance within the series.
While the theme of “boredom” hasn’t gotten much treatment on television, it has been addressed in other mediums. In 1854, Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden, his most well-known work, that…
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation… A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind.
Throughout the hour, we see the various ways in which characters in SopranoWorld, beginning with Chris Moltisanti, try to conceal their quiet desperation with diversions and games and amusements.
The first line of the episode comes courtesy of Saw II which Chris is watching on the television: “How much more blood will you have to shed to stay alive, Michael?” The line may immediately recall Adriana, whose blood was shed so that Chris could maintain his lifestyle. A moment later, Kelli steps out of the bathroom to tell Chris that she is pregnant. He suggests that they get married. We are probably more surprised by his proposal than she is because this is the first time that we are meeting her—we didn’t even previously know that he was seeing anyone. The quick introduction and plot development deftly sets up the contrast to Christopher’s previous girlfriend: Kelli is not barren as Adriana was, and he wastes no time proposing to her.
Kelli is a beautiful girl but she doesn’t quite have the “pop” of Adriana, who strode through SopranoWorld with her big hair and sexy Jersey-chic outfits. Chris was in the midst of planning an extravagant wedding with Ade when she had to be offed. He makes no such extravagant plans for his union with Kelli: “We’ll drive to A.C., make a day of it.” But the memory of Adriana haunts Christopher and sabotages him just as his new relationship is getting off the ground. (The episode title “The Ride” most obviously refers to the carnival ride at St. Elzear’s feast, which is one example of the games and amusements that Thoreau describes, but the title may also allude to Adriana’s last car ride with Silvio because her murder is so strongly evoked in this hour.)
Chris is still carrying a lot of pain from Ade’s death, and that’s why his fall from sobriety is so easily triggered. He doesn’t refuse the glass of wine that Tony offers him (from a bottle they’ve appropriated from the Vipers). Chris and Tony get drunk and harken back to the day they betrayed Adriana. In a “flashback,” we see exactly how Chris ratted Ade out to Tony. (I put flashback in quotes because it is not exactly a traditional flashback; the scene was actually made for “Long Term Parking” but Chase shelved it after shooting it. Chase’s decision to transplant the scene into the current hour is a genius move—not only would using the scene as originally planned have diluted the suspense of “L.T.P.,” using it now increases the emotional punch of “The Ride.”)
All the way back in Season One’s “The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti,” Chris confessed that “the fuckin regularness of life is too fuckin much for me.” The young man has to contend with some serious “regularness” now, as he prepares for a life of domesticity and fatherhood. Although Chris seems excited at the prospect of giving up his bachelor pad for a nice suburban home, the joke he makes about the new house may be very revealing: he describes it as “stately Wayne manor.” Bruce Wayne, as we all know, had dark, hidden impulses that were camouflaged by his public persona. Chris, too, has dark urges that he tries to hide from his family and his famiglia. In the car with Corky Caporale, he tries to resist his urge to shoot-up. When he presents Corky with an idealized picture of domestic life, we get the sense that he is actually trying to convince himself how good it is going to be. It is a quietly intense scene in the Maserati, intensified by the close quarters and the pouring rain and the darkness around them. We realize that Corky’s spike is going to end up in Chris’ arm when we hear him admit, almost licking his lips, that that needle wets his whistle. (In one of those idiomatic mix-ups that is so common to the series, Chris says “wets my whistle” when the technically correct idiom might be “whets my appetite.”) Chris has slipped off the wagon before, but it is in this hour that he begins a backslide from which he will never fully recover. He pukes out of his car window and wanders forlorn through the streets.
Generally speaking, The Sopranos has always been straightforward in its audio-visual style, opting for simplicity and realism, but Chase and director Alan Taylor go in the opposite direction now to create a masterful impressionistic interlude that simulates Christopher’s stoned state. The shimmering guitars and drowsy vocals of Fred Neil’s “The Dolphins” combine with the blurred, refracting lights of the carnival to conjure the aural and visual landscape of a heroin trip. Wandering around alone in the night, Chris befriends a stray dog. The dog may recall Adriana’s dog Cossette, which Chris also directly caused the death of. But I think the presence of the dog mainly underscores that Chris has been a lost dog himself, without any real companionship or peace of mind in the time since he lost Adriana. His troubled thoughts are taking him to a dark place. Christopher’s impulse for self-destruction has always been a bit stronger than most people’s, and now he is beginning to truly succumb to the lure of self-obliteration. Destroying oneself can be the biggest ride of them all.
Tony flirts with self-destruction too as he tries to escape boredom—he gets into a completely unnecessary shootout with The Vipers (and is lucky to escape with only a twisted ankle). There are various moments throughout the hour in which we see Tony contend with the inevitable monotonies of life: he stands bored while his coffee brews, he can’t find anything satisfying to eat in the fridge, his conversation with Chris in the basement is full of quiet lulls, he even complains that the wine has “lost some of its pop.” Tony has been insisting that “every day is a gift” ever since surviving a gunshot to the stomach. But real-life has a way of eroding such a noble sentiment. Ton’ is coming to understand that boredom is an inescapable part of life, regardless of what we might do to stave it off. And we’re willing to do almost anything to stave it off. He seems to have some realization of this when he sees Julianna Skiff spinning round-and-round on a carnival ride at the St. Elzear street fair. Some viewers have remarked that the wistful look that Tony gets upon seeing Julianna is a reflection of his regret at passing up his opportunity to have sex with her earlier (particularly because the joyful expression she has while on the spinning ride probably looks a lot like her “O-face”). But I think Tony’s wistfulness reflects a deeper issue that is troubling him, one that bubbles up as he describes the carnival rides to Dr. Melfi:
All these people are lined up for this shit—the kids, adults, families. They pay money so they can almost puke. They scream, they yell… They’re bored… Am I bored?… You know my feelings: every day is a gift. But does it have to be a pair of socks? I’m joking. I’m JOKING. Well, whaddaya gonna do? It’s the human condition.
Melfi tries to get Tony to expound upon this thought, but Tony has neither the vocabulary nor the inclination to go into a deeper explanation. David Chase, however, does have the ability and the inclination to express this aspect of the human condition. More importantly, he—unlike most showrunners—has the balls to explore the issue of boredom. Back in “D-Girl” (2.07), Meadow quoted from Madame de Stael as she tried to explain the philosophy of Existentialism to her parents: “In life, one must choose between boredom and suffering.” And the issue of existential boredom was given a full, hour-long treatment in “House Arrest” (2.11). An unfortunate truth of life is that what we find exciting and inspiring becomes unremarkable over time, what we find beautiful eventually becomes commonplace. Ever since being discharged from the hospital, Tony has been feeling the exhilaration that accompanies surviving a battle with death, but the drudgery of the everyday is sapping the glory out of it. Tony is realizing that accepting the banalities of life is one of the existential obligations of being alive.
Paulie is in an existential frame-of-mind too because he possibly has prostate cancer. Before the doctor has even given him a diagnosis, Paulie is already freaking out that the cancer has “mastastasized.” Paulie was stressed out to begin with because of all the issues surrounding the feast of St. Elzear. The new parish priest is almost as skilled as Paulie is in the art of extortion, but old Walnuts is not willing to pay the Father’s price for the golden fedora that goes atop St. Elzear’s head. “Fuck the hat,” Paulie grumbles. (In a clever juxtaposition, the priest notes that a previous generation of parishioners had their wedding rings melted down in order to make the gold hat, and in the very next scene Chris shows off his new wedding ring.) Paulie tries to increase his profit margin on the carnival by cutting back on some safety protocols, and this infuriates Bobby Bacala after his family almost gets hurt on a ride. People in the community are talking about how cheap Paulie has been. On top of everything, Paulie is still not on speaking terms with his mother (er, aunt).
Tense and unable to sleep, Paulie watches the clock turn 3:00 in the middle of the night. (It was in “From Where to Eternity” that Mikey Palmice mentioned “3:00” in the dream/vision that Christopher had while unconscious.) Paulie’s stress, superstitions and phobias all come together now to put him in a fragile emotional state. It is while he is in this vulnerable condition that Paulie has a Marian vision—he sees the Virgin Mary at the Bada Bing. Chase takes a cue out of a horror flick now to produce the hair-raising moment, using loud, heavy music to score a quick shot of Mary hovering above the stage. It is a sudden and startling image, and many of us at home let out a gasp at the sight.
The Virgin Mary is an ambiguous apparition: is she really there or is Paulie imagining her? Many viewers have noted that we can catch a glimpse of Mary in the mirror before Paulie sees her, giving credence to the idea that she really is there and is not just something that Paulie has conjured up in his own mind. This is possible. Chase, after all, has previously dabbled in the supernatural. We caught a glimpse of Big Pussy’s ghost in a mirror in episode 3.02. And when Paulie visits a psychic in 2.09, the man gets just enough details right for us to think he might actually have a supernatural gift. Another interesting connection “The Ride” makes to the psychic in 2.09 is that the statuette that appears on the man’s curio shelf bears more than a passing resemblance to the Mary that appears now:
(Thank you Paulie G. for pointing this out to me.) Weirdly, the ambiguity and mystery that characterizes the floating Virgin Mary also characterizes the actress who portrays her: she is credited only as Tanya P. and it is difficult to dig up any further info on her. In any case, the question of whether the vision is real or not real is not as interesting to me as the issue of where the vision takes place: the stage of the Bada Bing. (I’m guessing that this is the only time a “virgin” of any sort has appeared on the Bing stage.) The location is interesting not only because there is something inherently cheeky and irreverent about seeing the mother of Christ in a north Jersey strip joint, but also because it underscores an aspect of “the regularness of life”—the most unique, miraculous or sacred of events can occur in the most familiar, even profane, of places. (The sacred and the propane, Lil Carmine might say.) As Leon Wieseltier wrote in the New Republic,
Who does not come from a place that mistakes itself for the universe? All metaphysics is local. If it is possible to have a vision of the Virgin Mary, then it is possible to have a vision of the Virgin Mary at the Bada Bing. The Sopranos locates the human lot in north Jersey, but the human lot is available everywhere or it is available nowhere…
It is quite fitting that Paulie should have a vision of this sort now. He is confronting a health scare and public opinion is turning against him right now, so he could really use the love and support of his mother. But he has distanced himself from her. It is understandable that with his mother absent, Paulie would envision the ultimate mother—the blessed mother of Christ. The apparition that appears, however, isn’t exactly a sweet, comforting vision; it seems to be more like a wake up call, a message from Above that his recent behavior toward his mom as well as toward the local parish has been selfish and despicable.
When I first saw this episode, I strongly began to feel that Chase has been purposefully loading the stage of the Bada Bing with metaphoric significance. In the closing moments of “Whoever Did This” (4.09), after murdering Ralph as revenge for possibly killing Pie-O-My (and absolutely killing young Tracee), Tony became mesmerized by the emptiness of the Bing stage. As an inheritor of Livia’s philosophy of nothingness, it is metaphorically appropriate that Tony might associate the empty stage with the emptiness of the Universe. While the spotlights highlighted “nothingness” for Tony in 4.09, they shine down on a maternal/religious symbol for Paulie now:
Paulie has always been a religious man, his Catholic faith means very much to him. It would especially mean a lot to him now, when he is feeling alone and motherless and vulnerable to a mortal illness. These two very different images of the Bing stage manage to reflect the two very different views that Tony and Paulie have of the universe.
Chase has given a long-running treatment to the opposing worldviews of Tony and Paulie within the series, but there were two episodes in particular where the differences between them were underscored. In episode 2.09 “From Where to Eternity,” Tony and Paulie argued over their contrasting conceptions of life and the afterlife. For Tony, like his mother before him, the uncertainties and ambiguities of the universe lead to a dark nihilism. (“None of this shit means a goddamn thing,” he told Paulie in that episode.) Paulie, on the other hand, revealed a much more black-and-white view of the universe: Heaven and Hell are actual physical places, and he will have access to Heaven after serving roughly 6000 years in Purgatory. (Which he believes he could do, no problemo, standing on his head.)
The difference in their personal philosophies was also starkly illustrated in episode 6.04 “The Fleshy Part of the Thigh.” In that episode, Tony still found the universe to be an ambiguous place, but instead of seeing it as a Big Nothing as his mother did, he begins to see it (under John Schwinn’s guidance) as a Big Everything. (“Everything is everything,” Schwinn asserted.) For Paulie however, the universe remained a simple, black-and-white place. He is thrown for a loop when he discovers that the woman he believed to be his mother turns out to be his aunt, but instead of going with the flow of events (which would require him to be flexible in his rigid views), he sticks to his simplistic rigidity—and completely disassociates himself from the woman that raised him.
(“The Ride” is brilliant in how it revisits and combines Paulie’s storyline from these two earlier episodes. From 2.09, we get Mikey Palmice’s “3:00” prophecy, Paulie’s brush with the supernatural, a miniature clone-image of the Virgin Mary and Paulie’s Catholic beliefs; and from 6.04 we get the plot-point of Paulie’s separation from his mother.)
Paulie goes into a reflective mood after being visited by the Madonna at the Bing. He decides to reconnect with his mom. There are no fireworks or great displays of emotion when Paulie goes to Green Grove, there is just a simple, understated reconciliation between mother and son. They sit in front of the television and watch Lawrence Welk. (We may notice that it’s an old tube TV. Paulie tossed the flat-screen out the window the last time he was here.) It is a muted, almost banal scene as they sit together in the nursing home. The camera quietly retires away from the room to the wind blowing through the trees outside. (Wind and trees again.) The serenity of the scene is broken when Chase cuts to the end credits, scored to a loud, live and raw version of Johnny Thunders’ “Pipeline.” (A snippet of the song was heard during the cannoli-eating contest earlier.) The song, of course, is one of the classics of surf-rock, evoking the sense of riding the pipeline of a wave—and thus refers back to the title and major theme of “The Ride.”
Watching the episode now, that closing song reminded me of an earlier episode in which Chase had also used a classic surf-rock track; the Beach Boys’ “Surfin USA” was heard in “Calling All Cars” (4.11). In that hour, Tony dreamt of a dark, shadowy Livia-like figure standing on a staircase. (We all remember the creepy image.) Tony had just quit therapy and was probably more susceptible than usual to the feelings of meaninglessness and depression that have long dogged him, and that’s precisely when he has this troubling dream. So: the “visions” of these two maternal figures, one standing on a staircase in episode 4.11 and one floating above a stage now, each seem to express Tony and Paulie’s respective stances toward life.
Whether you are inclined to side with Tony’s uncertain worldview or Paulie’s simplistic certainty, the prevailing sentiment of SopranoWorld is that the fucking regularness of life is the ultimate truth. I think Leon Wieseltier was right on the money when he described The Sopranos as a “devastating portrait of the dictatorship of ordinary life.” This episode is all about how we look for diversion and fun in an effort to escape that dictatorship:
Julianna gets a thrill out of getting spun on the carnival ride. And why wouldn’t she? We’re hardwired to enjoy the sensation from the time we are babies—see how little Nica loves getting spun round-and-round by her uncle. As our dopamine response to exciting things wears down over time, we might seek bigger and bigger kicks, even though they may be dangerous (like antagonizing an armed biker gang) or suicidal (like shooting smack into your arm). But most people, whether in the real world or in SopranoWorld, don’t get to chase kicks all day long. There are too many obligations to meet, too many exhausting responsibilities, and simply not enough time, not enough money, not enough energy. Alan Sepinwall says in his write-up of this episode that:
All these characters are on a ride, all right, but it’s not a roller-coaster with dips and curves and loops. It’s the baggage carousel at the airport, and they just keep going around and around in circles, seeing the same disappointed faces as they pass, waiting for someone or something to take them somewhere interesting.
The great and amusing irony of this episode is that many viewers and critics (like San Francisco Chronicle’s Tim Goodman) had hoped this hour would give them a walloping, exciting ride into the final third of season 6A. And Chase responded by saying don’t expect the show—or life—to constantly provide you with wallops and thrills; expect a fuckin’ baggage carousel.
FOOD, FAITH AND FIREARMS
This episode makes some of the strongest links between Food and Faith that we find in the entire series. The Feast of St. Elzear is literally a feast, it features a cannoli-eating contest and the streets in front of the church are lined with food-stands. Tony describes the scene as “thousands of people either praying or eating.” Paulie calls Elzear “the patron saint of zeppoles.” It was only two episodes ago in “Luxury Lounge” that Chase made a focused study of our consumerist desires. In “The Ride” now, Chase shows how religion aids and abets our lust to consume, and to continue consuming until we’re ready to burst.
It may be interesting to look at the way that Chase uses “wine” in this episode. Wine is the most sacred of substances in Catholicism. In the hands of a Priest during the rite of Communion, it becomes the incarnation of the blood of Christ. Notably, it is crates of wine that Chris and Tony rob, at gunpoint, from the Vipers. Wine may thus serve to metaphorically connect the la cosa nostra mobsters with the Church, which is particularly interesting considering that this episode features Father Jose who has all the chutzpah and oiliness of a mobster himself. (We wouldn’t be able to make this particular connection if it had been crates of bourbon, for example, that the guys had robbed.) At dinner, Christopher resists Tony’s offer of the stolen wine. But Tony pushes him, telling him that in the old country wine isn’t even considered an alcoholic beverage, it is considered food—which makes this particular wine that was stolen at gunpoint fit perfectly under my FOOD, FAITH AND FIREARMS heading.
A troubling link between Faith and Firearms is made at the Feast when Paulie shows his gratitude—just as the statue of St. Elzear is being brought out onto the street—to a young soldier who has taken up arms to do two tours of duty in Iraq. I applaud Paulie for recognizing the young man’s courage and commitment, but there is nevertheless something disturbing in the scene; it is almost as though the Saint himself looks on and legitimizes that questionable, bloody conflict. There were serious concerns at the time that the Bush administration was seeing the Iraq war not only as a war on terror but also as a Holy War, and it sort of feels like Chase was lending his support to that criticism with this scene here. But I don’t want to read this scene through too political a lens because I don’t think it is strongly warranted.
There is, however, a clear political reference later in the hour: Tony says “Heckuva job, Brownie” to Paulie when his handling of the Feast turns into a clusterfuck. In the previous year, immediately after Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana, President Bush gushed to Michael Brown (director of FEMA at the time), “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job!” Ten days after receiving the compliment, Brown resigned when his incompetence and his agency’s gross mishandling of the situation became more and more apparent and the body count in New Orleans continued to rise. “Heckuva job, Brownie” became one of the era’s most popular sarcastic memes.
Adriana’s mother makes an appearance in this hour when Carm runs into her at the Feast. Liz is convinced that Chris Moltisanti killed her daughter. When Carmela brings the topic up to Tony, he insists Liz’s theory is way off and, anyway, they should be careful not to undermine Chris who has been doing so well lately. “Let’s not sabotage him,” Tony says. The irony is that as Tony says this, he is enjoying a glass of wine—the same wine which Tony used to sabotage Christopher’s sobriety and precipitate his slip now (a slip which within a few episodes becomes a full-blown relapse [a relapse which puts Chris on a one-way path to oblivion near the end of the series]).
The last time we saw Liz LaCerva was in “Long Term Parking.” She looked Jersey-fabulous back then, with her highlighted hair and tiger-print blouse. She seems like a different woman now, depressed over the disappearance of her daughter. Carmela later expresses her surprise at how terrible she looked at the carnival. Personally, I think Liz looks fine, but I guess by the standards of Jersey-chic, she must look almost like a homeless woman to Carmela:
We’ll see Liz one more time on the series, and her deterioration will be much more evident at that time.
- Chris shares his plan to stay sober with Tony: “My son will be my strength.” But he ends up having a daughter. Hmm, is this why he doesn’t find the strength to stay clean?
- Little Details. I guess DiSorbo does give Paulie an envelope of cash to sponsor the eating contest as asked for, because we see the bakery’s T-shirts and banner at the contest later.
- Little Details. Paulie’s doctor asks if he has a history of prostate cancer—his father, maybe?—and Paulie replies “I don’t know.” Of course, Paulie doesn’t know—after the family revelation in “Fleshy Part of the Thigh,” Paulie doesn’t even know who his father is.
- We see a stronger side to Bobby in this hour as he goes after both Paulie and the carnival ride operator. We will see him assert himself more and more through Season 6B. (But Tony and Janice find ways to tear him down in the next episode “Moe ‘n’ Joe.”)
- I really like how the character of “Corky Caporale” is played on the series. Despite very little screentime, he manages to seem fishy and damaged and vulnerable and dangerous all at once. (“Heroin-chic” used to be the term for his look.) On his website, the actor that plays Corky posts The New Yorker‘s description of him: “Edoardo Ballerini has a fox’s eyes and the intense self-disposition of a ballet dancer.”
- Chase loves his classic rock. Free’s “All Right Now” is playing while Tony and Chris mug The Vipers. Later, the Allman Brothers’ “Midnight Rider” scores a shot of Tony’s Escalade barreling down the highway (the song evokes the title and major theme of “The Ride.”)
- I love how excited—and surprised—Chris is when he lands a bullet in one of the Vipers as they race away. On most crime shows, hitting the target in such a circumstance would simply be a matter of course, it wouldn’t be considered something unlikely. But verisimilitude rules in SopranoWorld.
- Tony inhales a lungful of air and tells Chris that autumn is here. One of the admirable things about this episode is how well it captures the mood and feel of the northeast in early autumn.
- No one else will be interested in this but I have to leave the note for myself: Chris tells Corky the story of a childhood friend named Ronny here, and the previous episode had a firefighter named Ron.
- “How much more blood will you have to shed to stay alive, Michael?” This first line of the hour, coming via Saw II, gets imbued with a meta-meaning when we realize it is MICHAEL Imperioli that is watching the movie. The meta-significance of the Saw films will continue into 6B, as Christopher is surely influenced by these movies when he produces Cleaver. Christopher’s movie will itself feature a character named “Michael” (but we’ll get into all that meta-fun in “Stage 5”).