Tony goes west after offing Chris.
AJ goes downhill.
Episode 83 – Originally aired May 13, 2007
Written by Matthew Weiner & David Chase
Directed by Alan Taylor
As I’ve mentioned before, I probably will never make a “Top 5” episode list. But if I ever do, this episode will be on it. “Kennedy and Heidi” is a gorgeous hour, and like all gorgeous things, it doesn’t deserve the indignity of being schematically broken down and analyzed. But I do believe there are a lot of interconnected and important ideas here—some new, some old—that require a bit of unraveling in order to be best understood. Let’s step into the labyrinth without further delay.
Although it clocks in at only 50 minutes, the episode feels epic, and that is in part due to the different contrasting elements it contains. The contrast and distance between some of these elements stretch the episode into almost epic proportions:
- Dark vs. Light elements: the scenes that make up the first 10 minutes of the hour are set at night in dark shadowy locations, in sharp contrast to some of the very bright, sun-kissed scenes later in the hour (the final scene is almost literally sun-kissed; it features a solar flare)
- East vs. West elements: the hour begins in familiar New Jersey territory but finishes out in Nevada
- Natural vs. Man-made elements: the opposition between the natural world and the man-made world is presented throughout the hour and even gets explicit treatment in AJ’s English class
- Physical vs. Transcendental elements: the physical experiences of pleasure and pain fill the hour, but the idea of transcendence is also explored (via psychotropic drugs and the natural world)
Chase also seems to reference the transcendental by making a subtle allusion to the Transcendentalist memoir Walden (which I’ll come back to later). David Chase has never hesitated to incorporate philosophical ideas right into the storylines of The Sopranos, delving into Existentialism, Buddhism and Quantum Physics in previous hours. In the remaining episodes, he throws Transcendentalism and Romanticism into the mix, creating a medley of ideas that come together very nicely to close the series, in my opinion, in a satisfying—though enigmatic—way.
This hour, despite my lengthy effort to decode it, will also remain enigmatic. “Kennedy and Heidi” is puzzled together with so many covert references, subtle callbacks, loaded images, unforeseen twists, high concepts and unanswered questions that it is guaranteed a place as one of the great enigmas of the series. Like all great enigmas, it hints that some grand truth may be hidden below its surface—and then beckons us to come search for it.
We might remember that episode 2.11 “House Arrest” opened with a sequence (scored by the Pretenders’ “Space Invader”) in which a garbage truck dumped trash in front of a convenience store. In something of a parallel, “Kennedy and Heidi” begins with a shot of construction waste being dumped out of a garbage truck. (And the use of “Space Invader” later in this hour formally connects the two episodes.) The construction debris immediately establishes this hour’s concern with the built (man-made) environment. A site supervisor comes in and demands that the workers immediately stop dumping, and then warns his son to stop eating his dinner so close to the load because it contains asbestos.
In the Pilot episode, Christopher said an almost paradoxical-sounding line: “Garbage is our bread-and-butter.” Chris was obviously referring to the central role that the waste-carting racket occupies within the mob’s business empire, but the line also made a metaphorical connection between garbage and food, underscoring our culture’s tendency to over-consume and waste the various resources that are available to us. Chase explicitly makes a connection between garbage and food again now, as the boy eats his meal in front of the toxic pile of trash. As the hour progresses, Chase will expand on his thesis that our consuming, wasteful American lifestyle is having a toxic affect on ourselves and on the natural environment.
Christopher doesn’t seem quite right when he and Tony meet with Phil and Butchie to discuss their garbage-dumping deal—he’s acting a little weird. Chris has obviously been shooting up some of the fun-stuff. As he and Tony drive back home, we get a flurry of premonitions that seem to foreshadow Christopher’s very imminent death: Chris suggests they meet Phil’s price because “life’s too short”; Chris slips the soundtrack from The Departed, of all movies, into his CD player; the two men listen to a cover of “Comfortably Numb,” perhaps denoting that Chris is too numb to drive safely. Some viewers also find it notable that Chris is wearing a hat in his final scene now, a complementary bookend to his first scene of the series. (He was wearing a black cap as he and T chased Mahaffey down in the Pilot.)
Despite these little clues, we are still shocked by what happens next. When Christopher’s truck drifts in front of an oncoming car, he overcompensates, plunging his vehicle down a steep embankment. But it’s not the crash that kills him. Tony begins to call emergency rescue, but pauses as a wicked calculation comes into his head. He shuts his flip-phone, reaches into the car and stifles Christopher’s airway. We remember the Pilot episode ended with Nick Lowe’s “The Beast in Me” over the final credits, and now we see the true extent of Tony’s beastliness. Tony has never looked more like a monster than he does here, he exudes the calm of a true sociopath. The passing headlights of cars driving along the embankment above them punctuate the darkness, but none of the vehicles stop. No one stops Tony Soprano from smothering the life out of his young cousin.
Christopher has always had bad luck with his vehicles. In the Pilot episode, his Lexus got dinged up when he drove into Mahaffey; later in the series, he was pumping gas into his Hummer H2 when he made the decision to betray Adriana; in Season 6, his Maserati was confiscated by the FBI; and now he wrecks his Escalade, and moments later is killed in it.
It’s a horrifying scene, but not one that we should be particularly surprised by. Christopher’s murder is the natural culmination of several storylines involving either himself or Tony or both of them:
- Christopher’s long-running addiction has been a source of worry for Tony for some time; Tony had previously threatened to whack Chris before the FBI could leverage his drug problems against la famiglia (some viewers believe that Chris may have already flipped, and that was the reason he was acting a little strange now)
- Chris has always been hotheaded and difficult to handle, and he sometimes behaved impetuously when he felt frustrated by the Mafia (in the previous episode, he tossed Lil Paulie out of a high window, and later sulked out of the Bing when he thought the guys were having a laugh at his expense)
- Chris may not exactly have a death wish, but he has been flirting with self-destruction for a long time by using drugs; there is not only the danger inherent in habitual drug use, but there was also the great danger of being whacked by Tony if Tony ever learned how bad his addiction has become
- Tony has treated Chris as something of a son over the years; his frustrations with his actual son AJ may have spilled over toward his surrogate famiglia son Chris now
- Tony has had murderous impulses towards members of his inner circle lately, potentially coming close to killing Bobby, Paulie and Hesh in earlier episodes this season
There may be other contributing factors, including various subconscious motivations. (In “Tony’s Vicarious Patricide,” for example, Elizabeth Lowrey argues that Tony kills Christopher because of a subconscious desire to escape the sins of his father.) But I think Chase provides some clues that the most immediate reason for his murder is the resentment that Tony has been harboring over the way Chris depicted him in the movie Cleaver. Chase, for example, provides a couple of close-up shots of Christopher’s Cleaver hat as it repeatedly draws Tony’s attention. Cleaver-imagery has been associated with Christopher from his first appearance on the series all the way to his last:
The significance of the movie Cleaver here may also be hinted at by the fact that it is in a black Cadillac Escalade that the two men roll down the embankment now; we remember that it was in a black Escalade that Tony and Adriana crashed that night three years ago, an event that substantially shaped the storyline of Christopher’s movie.
Cameron Golden, in “The Producers: The Dangers of Filmmaking in The Sopranos,” points out a scene from the Pilot episode which becomes important in the context of Christopher’s murder now. In the Pilot, Chris sulked in Tony’s backyard because he felt that his work for la famiglia was not being appreciated. Chris reminded Tony that he potentially has another way of earning a paycheck: his cousin’s girlfriend is a Hollywood producer who is interested in his story. Tony snapped upon hearing this:
(Tony gets right up in Chrissie’s grill and accuses him of wanting to “go Henry Hill on me now.” Henry Hill was, of course, the actual mobster-turned-FBI-informant whose life-story was turned into the film GoodFellas.) Chris had always wanted a more compelling and dynamic arc, and he turned to filmmaking as a way to create a more interesting storyline than the one real life was supplying him with. And if filmmaking didn’t give him enough of a kick to escape the fuckin’ regularness of life, he could always resort to drugs. Tony wasn’t a fan of Christopher’s filmmaking goals even back in the Pilot episode, and Tony never approved of his drug use. Both of these aspects of Christopher’s life surely contribute to the motive behind his murder.
And perhaps Chris asking for Tony’s Toblerone back in 5.11 “The Test Dream” also contributed to his early death. I’m not suggesting that Tony murdered his cousin as payback for grabbing his delicious candy bar two years ago. (Tony’s not that petty.) What I mean is that Tony may have suspected that Chris was jonesing for some heroin and was trying to satisfy his craving with the Toblerone instead. (It was in the episode prior to that one, “Cold Cuts,” that Tony criticized the way Chris turned to sweets as a way to keep his larger cravings at bay.)
The mob guys come to visit Tony as he recuperates at home. (Just before they enter, we hear the sound of a bird cawing outside the window, perhaps recalling the black bird that sat on the windowsill in Christopher’s induction ceremony into the Mafia years ago.) The Sopranos had previously explored the discomfort and awkwardness that sometimes follows a death—see “Proshai, Livushka” in particular—and Walden Belfiore seems to be suffering that discomfort now in Tony’s bedroom. But he tries to avoid being silent by continually mentioning that Carlo will be arriving soon. (This annoys Silvio: “What’s with you and Carlo’s fuckin’ arrival?”) Tony plays with fire a little bit in this scene: he comes close to confessing his crime when he says that he would have choked Chris if he knew Chris was high on drugs. Tony also makes a dangerous pun (of sorts) when he tells the guys that Chris choked on his own blood; in actuality, he was choked by his own blood—Tony is Christopher’s blood-relative.
Tony’s desire to confess manifests itself again in a dream in which he tells Dr. Melfi that he killed Chris. But Tony’s primary desire isn’t actually to confess his guilt; it is to confess his relief at no longer having to deal with his troublesome cousin. Tony must pretend to mourn Christopher after killing him, so he puts on an act. Chase often uses clips from TV shows and movies to underscore a point, and the little snippet from The Dick Cavett Show which plays on the Soprano television here underlines the acting job that Tony is now doing. In the snippet, Katherine Hepburn tells Cavett that she was a poor actress when younger: “I can laugh and cry and I could always get the part. Could never keep it. They got on to me after a while. I’d lose my voice, fall down, get red in the face, talk too fast and couldn’t act.”
I highlighted the part where she speaks of blushing when trying to play a part because it may be making an outright parallel to Tony Soprano now: Tony is also red in the face (due to his bruises) while he tries to sustain his act.
As everyone around him grieves, Tony keeps trying to sell them the idea that baby Caitlyn could have died if she had been in the vehicle. He seems to be trying to find some “legitimate” justification for the murder in his mind and perhaps also alleviate any bit of guilt he might be feeling for causing pain to Christopher’s loved ones. Tony keeps describing the tree branch that penetrated all the way to Caitlyn’s car seat:
Trees have long been associated with death on this series. But in the previous episode, trees were also strongly associated with family and domesticity. (Paulie put Christopher’s family in danger when he rampaged through the trees and plants of Chrissie’s suburban yard in his Cadillac; and the hour ended with Chris up-righting one of the fallen trees before entering his home.) Although it may be unlikely, there is some possibility that Chris would have found a way to beat his addiction after this accident if Tony hadn’t suffocated him. It is conceivable that seeing the branch of a tree jutting into his daughter’s car seat would have inspired Chris to be more resolved in his efforts to stay clean.
Tony’s frustration mounts as he tries to keep his charade up. When he exchanges nods at Christopher’s funeral with Daniel Baldwin, who played his alter-ego “Sally Boy” in Cleaver, we recognize the irony: Baldwin could never do as good a job acting as “Tony Soprano” as Tony himself has to do right now. Adding to Tony’s frustration level: Nucci Walnuts suddenly passes away too. Marianucci Gualtieri was one of the most naïve, sweet souls in all of SopranoWorld. But her funeral service isn’t a place of fond remembrance and contemplation for Tony, it just becomes a place where Tony has to listen to Paulie babble and moan about his various grievances. Tony decides he needs to escape from Jersey for a while, and makes a phone call to his man Alan to set up a trip to Vegas. (Note: In real life, funerals act as a transition between life and death. In this episode, funerals acts as a transitioning device within the storyline: the two funerals transition us from the scenes of death and depression in New Jersey to the more lively and energetic scenes in Nevada.)
I think we can consider this hour to be the third true “Vacation Episode” of the series. The first two Vacation Episodes featured locations that added to the specific thematic dimension of the story, and the same can be said of the current hour. In “Commendatori,” the guys went to Italy—a very fitting location, thematically, in that the Mafia, and by extension The Sopranos, would not exist if not for certain customs and ways of problem-solving that originated in that ancestral land. The second vacation episode took place in Paris, very fitting thematically in that Paris was the proving ground for Existentialism, a philosophy that I believe deeply informs that hour as well as informs the series as a whole. And now Tony is going out west to Las Vegas, very fitting thematically because of what the American West and Las Vegas each represent in our national consciousness.
The West is that region, in our national mythology, where we go to discover ourselves. “Go west, young man” was a popular phrase in the 19th century, an exhortation to young Americans to go west and merge their personal destinies with the Manifest Destiny of the country. The idea persisted well into the 20th century (and perhaps still persists), and so our history is filled with stories like that of Jim Morrison, for example, who moved from Florida to the west coast to make movies and music, and then sought spiritual self-awareness, fueled up on alcohol and drugs, in the deserts of the southwest. David Chase himself, unsure during his undergraduate years in North Carolina (Wake Forest University) and New York (NYU) whether or not he wanted to become a professional musician, eventually moved out west to California (Stanford University) to pursue his graduate film degree.
We remember that in previous episodes, it was in a western locale that Tony/Kevin Finnerty had to search for himself and find his true identity: the dreams (or whatever they were) in the early part of Season 6 were set in Costa Mesa, California. Tony now comes back west, in the flesh, to continue that search. (Matt Zoller Seitz call his trip to Vegas “a coded attempt to replay” his trip to Costa Mesa.) David Chase seems to underscore the western location through a musical selection: when Tony first arrives in Las Vegas and is being driven through the city’s streets, it is the song “Are You Alright?” off of Lucinda Williams’ album West that scores the scene.
The western city of Las Vegas also carries certain connotations in our national mythology. The place is the ultimate American example of The Fabricated City. The city did not grow as organically as most cities grow—it may be more accurate to say that Vegas was forcefully and artificially manufactured on to its site. Various 20th century Americans, including Bugsy Siegal, labored to transform the inhospitable desert location into the town we recognize today. It is a fantasyland cooked up by mobsters and Mormon banks, a vision dreamt up in the desert and extruded into a three-dimensional cityscape. The city would never have thrived if not for the massive nearby building projects of Hoover Dam and Glen Canyon Dam. The aggressiveness of the financial and engineering efforts that were needed to bring modern Las Vegas into existence probably contributed to the ersatz, kitschy, manufactured quality of the city—a quality well-documented by architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown in their book Learning from Las Vegas.
When Michael Corleone first arrived in Las Vegas in The Godfather II, Coppola shot the distinctive cityscape from within a moving car. Likewise, Chase shoots Tony’s arrival in the famed city from within a moving car. But instead of using some breezy, swinging music as Coppola does to score his scene, Chase uses Lucinda Williams’ contemplative, understated track. Additionally, Chase includes two more sequences of Tony being driven through the city. I’ve compiled the G.II sequence and the 3 clips from the Sopranos into one video to highlight the differences:
Chase’s driving-clips here are quite interesting. For one thing, some of their imagery recalls the images we see in the opening-credits sequence of every Sopranos episode. (The tunnels, in particular, feel like an analog to the Lincoln Tunnel seen in the credits.) Chase’s varied use of scoring in the driving-clips is also fascinating: clip 1 uses, as I mentioned, Williams’ contemplative song; clip 2 has only the sound of road noise and the turning signal; clip 3 is scored by the raucous, spirited sound of The Pretenders’ “The Adultress.” But perhaps the most noteworthy thing, in terms of my analysis, is that Chase’s third driving-clip underscores the ever-growing built environment of Las Vegas by including imagery of a building site, a cement truck and multiple construction cranes. There is a strong, explicit contrast made in this hour between the man-made world and the natural world, and I believe Chase utilizes the overly-manufactured setting of Las Vegas to add to this dimension of the episode.
In 2014, Dr. Martha Nochimson wrote an article for Vox magazine that received a lot of attention because David Chase (according to her recollection) told her that Tony didn’t die in the final episode. Chase’s publicist released a statement the following day saying that Nochimson’s recollection was inaccurate. Missed in all the ensuing hubbub was the fact that Nochimson’s article is actually one of the most insightful documents about Chase and The Sopranos ever written. Nochimson wrote about Chase’s deep interest in Carlos Castaneda, the anthropologist who abandoned the scholarly life after meeting a “sorcerer”—a sort of shaman/healer—named Don Juan who introduced him to drugs and spiritual enlightenment. (It was in 2.06 “The Happy Wanderer” that Melfi quoted Carlos Castandeda to Tony: “Live every moment as if it were your last dance on earth.” Tony mistook the man for a prize fighter.) Chase came of age in the 60s, the era when the recreational use of hallucinogens began to take off. Nochimson quotes Chase on why taking such drugs merely for recreation didn’t appeal to him: “Reading Carlos Castaneda convinced Chase that using drugs ‘without a whole belief system around it was really fourth rate.'” Chase came to recognize the sacramental, spiritual aspect of drug use. The drug of choice for such religious experience for Castaneda was peyote. Castaneda writes in The Teachings of Don Juan that the shaman “related the use of Lophophora williamsi [peyote] to the acquisition of wisdom, or the knowledge of the right way to live.”
THE ACQUISITION OF WISDOM
In Vegas, Tony pays a visit to Christopher’s stripper friend Sonya—a woman whose name means “wisdom.” (Notably, the working title for this episode was “Sonya.”) Tony comes to inform her of Chrissie’s death, but I think Tony’s real motivation is that Christopher’s mention of his psychedelic trips with the dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty (“like something out of Goyim,” to borrow Tony’s description of Gloria Trillo) probably aroused his curiosity about the woman and the drugs she’s holding. I believe Tony is looking to get a taste of what Christopher experienced. (In a sense, he is putting himself in Chrissie’s shoes after snuffing Chris out.) Tony was interested in seeking his true self earlier in the season (“Who am I? Where am I going?” he asked) and this quest has now led him to siren Sonya’s doorstep. Tony may feel that losing himself, at least temporarily, in a psychedelic fog will lead him to a better understanding of his place in the world. He is following that impulse that many of us feel: the impulse to lose oneself in order to find oneself. Going to an unaccustomed place to do unfamiliar things is often the first step in following such an impulse. Scott Slovic, in his extraordinary book, Seeking Awareness in American Nature Writing, quotes Henry David Thoreau’s description of this phenomenon: “…not until we are lost do we begin to realize where we are, and the infinite extent of our relations.” Slovic adds, “We need this sense of disorientation, of being in an unfamiliar place, in order to realize eventually what our true relationship with the world is.”
Tony and Sonya do peyote buttons together. He quickly gets sick. I love the little editing “tricks” Chase uses to simulate the feeling of very suddenly realizing you are going to vomit: the slow camera push-in instantly speeds up, there is a rattling sound and a flash of light, and the image cuts to Tony throwing open the bathroom door (the rattling sound that began in the previous frame was the sound of the bathroom doorknob) where he barfs into the toilet.
Tony leans back and stares up at the round, bright light fixture. In his heightened state, he can see a glow and hear a buzz emanating from it. He may very well be associating this light with the beacon he saw in Costa Mesa during his coma-dreams.
Tony takes Sonya, the girl with kaleidoscope eyes, to the casino. As they watch the ball spin round the roulette wheel (Chase subtly slows down the footage of the spinning wheel to focus our attention on it), Tony makes a beguiling statement: “It’s the same principle as the solar system.” What principle is Tony referring to here? Is he recalling a junior high science lesson on centripetal force? Is he referring to the circular orbits of celestial bodies? Or does he have something more philosophical in mind? As I re-watched this scene, the spinning wheel made me think of the Buddhist concept of enso. The enso circle can represent the zero, the void, emptiness. But the circle can also represent everything—all that exists in the universe can be encompassed by its simple brush stroke.
Tony has been primed by his nihilistic mother to see the universe as a Big Nothing. But maybe the peyote is leading Tony to fully see the interconnectedness of everything, as John Schwinn did in “The Fleshy Part of the Thigh.” The principle of the solar system is, perhaps, both “nothing” and “everything” simultaneously.
Tony has a crazy lucky streak at the roulette table. He seems to be convinced that it is because he no longer has his ball-and-chain cousin Christopher weighing him down. The Captain has jettisoned his Jonah, it will be smooth sailing ahead from now on. The thought fills him with relief and he falls laughing onto the carpet, with its pattern of connected circles:
The circle that connects each of us here on earth is the natural environment. We share the land, the air, the water. We build our towns and cities within the natural world, we draw sustenance and recreation from it. In the Pilot episode, when Melfi described Tony’s job title as “Waste Management,” he added “The environment” with a nod. In truth, Tony is about as divorced from the natural environment as a person can be. He has a wasteful and consuming lifestyle. He has very little concern for the natural world, and (other than the occasional outing aboard his gas-guzzling, wake-producing boat) has rarely derived any pleasure from nature.
Nature has been an integral, though subtle, part of The Sopranos narrative, beginning with the wild ducks that found a home in Tony’s backyard in the Pilot. New Jersey itself is called the Garden State due to its high percentage of wooded areas and green spaces, as well as the historical importance of agriculture to its economy. Martha Nochimson writes in Dying to Belong, “Juxtaposed to the dubious world of the gangster materialist is the world of nature, a more organic form of materiality in The Sopranos, which appears throughout the series with its Romantic connotations as a form of healing rapture that counterbalances the hollow world of money.” In this episode, the juxtaposition Nochimson speaks of is prominently displayed as Tony flies to Las Vegas: as he sits with wine and shrimp cocktail spread before him aboard a luxurious private jet, he looks reflectively out of the window at the green earth below him.
The “Romantic connotations” of nature that Nochimson mentions is given explicit treatment in this hour, as AJ’s English class is studying a sonnet by William Wordsworth, the poet considered to be the founder of the Romantic movement in literature. 19th century Romantics adored and idealized the natural world, finding nature to be a respite from not only the grimy industrial cities developing all around them but also from the consuming, unhealthy lifestyles that these cities produced. The first line of the sonnet is read by AJ’s English teacher, while the second line is written on the blackboard behind her:
The world is too much with us
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers
I’ll supply the next two lines because they are also important to my discussion:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
The “sordid boon” is a reference to the Industrial Revolution that was transforming society; while many people at the time welcomed the boon for bringing productivity and wealth, the Romantics condemned it as sordid and squalid. Wordsworth’s narrator goes on to say that he wished to live in ancient times because ancient pagans had a reverence for nature that is no longer felt in contemporary times. Wordsworth criticizes his contemporaries for worshipping materialism instead. I find it very notable that this scene in the English class is squeezed between two scenes depicting Tony’s materialistic, luxurious lifestyle:
Tony Soprano is both the product and the purveyor of a monstrous materialism. He is staying at Caesar’s Palace (which is now home to the almost absurd Bacchanal Buffet, with its hundreds of food items and sauces). The English teacher had asked her students “Why such strong words against the material world?” As strong as Wordsworth’s words were in 1802, we need even stronger words against the material world today. One scene in particular drives this pitiful point home:
Sitting in his hotel room in a Caesar’s bathrobe (reminding me of the time in episode 1.03 when he insinuated to Ariel the Hasid that he was the modern incarnation of the Romans), Tony tells the asbestos removal guy to leave the toxic material where it is while he works out a deal with Phil Leotardo that doesn’t hurt his bank account too much. Never mind that the probability of the asbestos leaching into the ground or floating into the air goes up the longer it sits unsecured. And never mind that it is a frickin’ middle school that the asbestos is currently sitting at. After Tony can’t reach a deal with Phil, the asbestos gets cheaply and illegally dumped into a lake. (It looks like it’s someplace out in the Meadowlands.)
Chase makes the point multiple times this hour that sacrificing the natural environment is just a normal part of doing business in the United States. At the beginning of the hour, we see Tony and Phil negotiate while the Statue of Liberty—that great symbol of the USA—looms in the background. (Phil wants an increased cut when he learns that Tony is making a killing in the asbestos business, charging customers as though he is following all the EPA regulations when he really isn’t.) Later in the hour, we see that the company that is disregarding the regulations at Tony’s behest is named “American Eagle Asbestos Abatement of New Jersey.” On the back of the man’s jacket, we clearly see the logo of the bald eagle, our National Bird and an enduring symbol of strength, freedom and the great American outdoors.
In previous episodes, we saw the the Mafia get involved with companies (both real and fictional) that had the word “American” in their names: American Biotics, American Express, American Standard. As I’ve written before, Chase is making some sort of commentary with this practice, maybe pointing to the “they are us, we are them” idea—it is not only mobsters that indulge in illegal activities, it is all of us, all of America. He could simultaneously be signalling that even though mob activities might only involve a particular company, they actually injure all of America as a whole. American Eagle Asbestos Abatement (which seems to have been a real company in New Jersey at the time in 2007) punctuates the idea once again as the series reaches its end.
Critic Tim Goodman of The San Francisco Gate made a thought-provoking connection regarding the West. He noted that Tony travels to a western land in this episode, and “Members Only” (the first episode of Season 6) included the track “Seven Souls” which featured William Burroughs speaking lines from his novel The Western Lands. Of course, the “west” that Burroughs’ novel refers to is land west of the Nile River (thought by the Ancient Egyptians to be the Land of the Dead), not American land west of the Mississippi River. Nevertheless, I think it’s legitimate to ponder whether Chase had The Western Lands in mind when he sent Tony out west in this episode, especially when we consider what Burroughs’ novel is about…
The novel argues that ecological destruction will inevitably lead to social upheaval. The character of Joe the Dead tries to disrupt and impede corporations from conducting business that would hurt the environment, and is very critical of companies like McDonalds and Coca Cola for the damage they’ve done. The Western Lands has something of an apocalyptic tone, finding little hope that mankind can reverse its ruinous mistakes.
I’ve argued in several of my write-ups for this season that a major goal for David Chase in creating Season 6 seems to have been to place The Sopranos in its American milieu. And so it seems inevitable that Chase would produce an episode like this one that pits the material world against the natural world. A little historical context for this hour may be helpful. This episode originally aired about one year after the book/film An Inconvenient Truth came out. The work made the public aware of climate change and environmental degradation in a way it never had been before, and turned Al Gore into the face of environmental activism. The oil and gas industry was naturally a primary, recurring target of Gore’s criticisms. Meanwhile, George Bush—the man who beat Al Gore for the Presidency by the skin of his nuts—had family wealth that was largely earned in the oil business; and he worked for the oil and gas exploration company Arbusto right out of college; and he also chose the CEO of oilfield services company Halliburton to be his Vice-President.
Of all of President Bush’s questionable decisions regarding the environment, perhaps none was scarier than his appointment of Gale Norton to be his Secretary of the Interior. As Sec-Int, Norton was the person tasked with the conservation and management of our federal lands and natural resources. But in actuality she was, as the Los Angeles Times described her, “the Bush Administration’s leading advocate for expanding oil and gas drilling and other industrial interests in the West.” Upon resigning her post, she worked as a lawyer for the oil behemoth Royal Dutch Shell. None of this is surprising considering that she was mentored straight out of law school by James Watt, a self-professed evangelical who employed her at his legal foundation which protected the interests of cattle, mining and oil companies. Watt himself was Secretary of the Interior under Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s. Like many evangelicals, Watt believed in the idea of “Dominion”: humans are the supreme creatures in God’s ordering of the world and thus have dominion over all the lands and animals of the earth. In several of his articles, including “Ours Is the Earth,” Watt made clear that he saw the planet as “merely a temporary way station on the road to eternal life…The earth was put here by the Lord for His people to subdue and to use for profitable purposes on their way to the hereafter.” This is a 180-degree departure from the way Romantics such as William Wordsworth viewed the earth. Romantics saw nature as itself godly, not simply as a resource given by God to man to exploit in any way he wanted. As Roderick Frazier Nash wrote in his exceptional book Wilderness and the American Mind:
Nineteenth century Romantics and Transcendentalists sensed the unity of the natural world and related it to the presence or reflection of divinity. In calling attention to the higher uses of the environment than the service of man’s material needs, they manifested a belief in the sanctity of all life.
In the final scene of the hour, we see that Tony and Sonya have made their way out to a rugged and lonesome landscape. They sit quietly, obviously still feeling the effects of the drugs, next to a big, bad, black S-class Mercedes. Tony’s attention is drawn to the sky, and then a flash of light brings him to his feet. He throws his hands up and shouts “I get it!” In the final moments of the episode, the camera pans across the scene so that the Mercedes, that symbol of gaudy materialism, slips out of the frame. Only Tony, Sonya and the natural landscape remain:
What is it exactly that Tony “gets”? Professor Dana Polan writes that the camerawork, framing and staging of this scene make it look like something out of one of those arthouse movies that are so often concerned with the meaning of life: “the art-cinema trappings of revelation are all there, but it’s worth noting that no details of that revelation are made clear to us in the moment. We don’t know what Tony gets.” Maybe Tony has finally figured out the significance of that beacon in the Costa Mesa dreams. Or it could be that he has found the answers to those questions he has been asking, “Who am I? Where am I going?” Perhaps he finally understands just what it was that Christopher was seeking through his drug use. Or maybe he is just having a false epiphany driven by the peyote. Whatever it is, the experience certainly feels transcendent to Tony.
The philosophy of Romanticism never became as popular in America as it was in Europe, but it did inspire certain prominent Americans like Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson to develop a related philosophy called Transcendentalism. The Transcendentalists found nature to be a balm and a retreat from the materialistic world too. Roderick Frazier Nash, again in Wilderness and the American Mind, writes that the Transcendentalists “thought that nature was the proper source of religion. They were even more in accord with English Romantic poets such as William Wordsworth who believed in moral ‘impulses’ emanating from fields and woods.” H.D. Thoreau was the most well-known Transcendentalist, and Walden; or, Life in the Woods was his most well-known book. In the memoir, he describes how he lived a simple, honest, clean life in the woods of Massachusetts. Professor Perry Miller, in his essay “Thoreau in the Context of International Romanticism,” described Walden as “one of the supreme achievements of the Romantic Movement—or to speak accurately, of Romantic Naturalism.”
I don’t think it is a coincidence at all that we are introduced to the character of “Walden Belfiore” in this hour. (He may possibly have appeared in an earlier episode but it is in this hour that he has his first speaking lines and gets named in the credits.) Walden’s name recalls Thoreau’s Walden. The name “Walden” is quite unusual for an Italian goombah (Paulie even questions him about the strange moniker in the final episode), but I think Chase knew exactly what he was doing when he named the character. I’ll have more to say about Walden Belfiore and Romanticism in my write-up for the final hour.
(Another point to make, parenthetically, about the early Transcendentalists is that they started a literary magazine called The Dial in 1840. It was The Dial that first published W.B. Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” a poem that lends its title and apocalyptic tone to the next Sopranos episode.)
I’ve labored pretty hard here to connect Romanticism with Transcendentalism with Environmentalism, even throwing Buddhism into the mix, but I don’t necessarily believe that Chase was conscientiously trying to connect all these various “-isms” together. Chase is an artist, and like all great artists, he creates his work intuitively and instinctively. Sure, he brings his knowledge and reading and analytical thinking to the process of creation, but I don’t think he ever makes an overly intellectual effort to checkmark all the philosophical boxes. It is the job of the critic and the viewer to label and deconstruct, not the artist. Just as Tony Soprano organically found a meaningful experience in the West by simply following his natural impulses, without going through a whole lot of intellectual rigmarole, David Chase organically finds the way to inject meaning into his work by simply going through his natural artistic process. I often think of the words of the mythologist Joseph Campbell when I think about the various ways in which we inject meaning into things, find their significance. (I look to Joseph Campbell for guidance the way Chase looks to Carlos Castaneda; not surprisingly, both men taught at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California.) According to Campbell, meaning is something that is not so much found as it is something that is experienced, naturally and organically, within the midst of life:
People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.
Amen to that.
AJ’s disturbing storyline continues here. In the previous episode, he took part in the assault on young Victor who was behind on a debt. Apparently Victor had to have some toes amputated. AJ and Jason Parisi mock and laugh at “Long John Shithead” (obviously a reference to Treasure Island’s one-legged Long John Silver) as Victor walks by on crutches. (The image of the young man on crutches reiterates the irony of the previous episode’s title: “Walk Like a Man.”)
In the current episode, AJ takes part in another assault, this time against a young Somalian student. But he doesn’t actually punch or kick the guy, he only watches with mute intensity. We’ve seen AJ have creepy responses to violence before. In his essay, “Christopher, Osama and AJ: Contemporary Narcissism and Terrorism in The Sopranos,” Jason Jacobs writes that AJ “stands on, passively watching, and we are invited to speculate on the nature of his involvement: Is he repulsed as we are or is he fascinated? The film style deliberately avoids defining his response for us.” Jacobs finds examples of AJ’s creepy responses in “All Due Respect,” “Walk Like a Man” and the current hour:
Does AJ have a dead streak (as his mother asked in 6.11 “Cold Stones”) in him? It’s very possible. He seemed to enjoy watching the fight that took place in front of him last season in “All Due Respect.” He seemed almost excited watching Victor get maimed in the previous episode. But it’s difficult to discern what’s going on in his head as watches the Somalian get attacked. In his therapist’s office later on, he doesn’t bring up the attack specifically but he does paraphrase Rodney King (another black man who was famously beaten by a group of white men): “Why can’t we all just get along?” AJ is clearly distraught in a serious way. He tells his doctor that the world is fucked up, “people walk around like this is all something” but they’re blind to the reality of things—they don’t see how screwed up and empty everything really is. AJ is sliding toward a major depressive episode.
I‘ve never studied or compared the names of Tony’s children but this might be the right place to do it. Tony’s daughter was given the lovely, pastoral name “Meadow” which recalls the natural world. (Las Vegas, interestingly, means “the meadows” in Spanish. Open green fields fed by natural artesian wells were once a distinctive feature of the area, before we turned the place into our most fabricated city.) Meadow, despite her moments of hypocrisy and self-blindness, has been developing into a thoughtful, educated woman, engaged positively with the world around her. She doesn’t suffer from the despair and hopelessness that affect her father and brother.
“Anthony, Jr.,” on the other hand, is truly becoming the junior-version of Anthony Soprano. Tony has been sliding more and more into a nihilistic mentality through the seasons (with his nihilistic monstrosity in fullest display early in this episode), and AJ too has been sinking into this debilitating mindset. AJ feels like the world is coming undone now. Like the ball that Tony and Sonya watched in the spinning roulette wheel, AJ’s world is “turning and turning in the widening gyre” until finally “things come apart, the centre cannot hold” (to quote the poem AJ reads from in the next episode). Tony’s murder of Christopher in this hour was perhaps, more than anything else, an effort to bring some order and peace to his world, but AJ’s behavior in the next hour will catapult Tony’s world into chaos.
KENNEDY AND HEIDI (TITLE SIGNIFICANCE)
Much analysis has been done over the years of the episode title. The hour is obviously named after the two girls in the oncoming car that Chris swerves to avoid. But why would such a rich and memorable episode, stuffed to the gills with surprising events, location changes, tempo shifts and thematic explorations be named after two very minor characters who are only on-screen for a total of about 5 seconds?
Some analysts find meaning in the name “Kennedy” because there have been several references to the Kennedy family on the series, including when Tony describes the stoic Kelli Moltisanti as “Jackie Kennedy” in this episode. (Some have also found a connection between this hour’s events and the Chappaquiddick incident, in which a drunken Ted Kennedy left the scene of a car accident that killed his passenger.) Others find meaning in the name “Heidi.” They believe, for example, that the name may be a reference to “the Heidi game,” a 1968 football game in which NBC cut away from the broadcast to the movie Heidi, causing some viewers to miss Oakland’s remarkable comeback in the final minute. This, they argue, foreshadows the way that Chase will unexpectedly cut away from the final scene in the final episode. Myself, I think the simplest and most powerful explanation of the title comes from Matt Zoller Seitz who argued that Kennedy and Heidi’s five minutes of screentime are among the most important minutes of the series because it crystallizes how people behave in SopranoWorld. The girls are faced with a moral test: go back to the scene of the accident and see if they can do anything to help or keep on driving as though nothing happened. Passenger Kennedy thinks they should go back but driver Heidi decides not to, because she could get in trouble for driving after dark with only a Learner’s Permit. Moral test failed.
Every hour of The Sopranos is filled with incredible shots, but there was one here in particular that I wanted to call attention to. As the friends and family gather after Chris’ death, we can see a wide range of their responses to the tragedy within the tableau shot:
Bobby and Carlo in the foreground seem more interested in the game on TV. In the midground, there is more sadness and emotion. And finally in the background, Chrissie’s mother is in complete drunken despair.
MINAS DE COBRE
The track that plays over the final credits is “Minas de Cobre” (Mines of Copper”) by Calexico. The band, named after a town on the California-Mexico border (“Calexico” is a portmanteau of “California” and “Mexico”), is a Tucson-based collective of musicians. “Minas de Cobre” is an instrumental, and so it contains no lyrics that can further clarify our understanding of the episode. But the instrumentation and melody and rhythm of this song by this southwestern band strongly contributes to the sense of place that is such an important component of this hour.
After Tony exclaims “I get it!” but before “Minas de Cobre” begins, we hear the sound of the wind blowing through the rugged landscape. Chase uses wind frequently on the series, and here it emphasizes how timeless and eternal the natural elements of the planet are. Long after you and I and Tony Soprano are gone from this earth, after all our deeds and misdeeds are forgotten, the wind will still be here.
- Just before he dies, Chris says “That’s the flying ointment” instead of that’s the fly in the ointment. He is malapropping till the very end.
- When Kelli gets the bad news about Christopher, we can see Paul Schaeffer on the TV set behind her. God, I miss The Late Show with David Letterman.
- At Chrissie’s funeral, T gets Julianna’s last name wrong (“Skiffle” instead of “Skiff”) when he introduces her to Carmela, either because he genuinely mistakes her name or because he’s trying to throw Carm off the scent of his relationship with her. (Carmela is not fooled though, she seems to suspect that either Tony or Chris slept with the attractive woman.)
- Cats. When Tony first visits Sonya’s condo, we can see the book Cat: The Complete Guide on the coffee table just as Sonya first mentions Christopher by name (“You’re a friend of Chris”). I bring this up because some viewers strongly equate Chris with the orange cat that makes a notable appearance in the final episode.
- 3 to 5 / 7 to 9. The actress Marie Donato played a character named “2 to 5 / 7 to 9” in episodes 3.02, 3.05 and 3.13 but she was never referenced this way in the episodes themselves; we only know her peculiar nickname because that’s how it was listed in the credits. In this hour, Silvio finally explains that she is called this because she never misses a wake. Her name may be particularly fitting in this episode because she has two wakes to go to, Chrissie’s and Marianucci’s. (It’s probably just a continuity error that she was “2 to 5” in previous episodes but is called “3 to 5” in this one.)
- The Pretenders’ “Space Invader” plays over the scene in which Tony lays in Sonya’s bed. In a sense, Tony is here in Las Vegas “invading a space” that was normally occupied by Christopher, not just in Sonya’s bed but also in experimenting with the hallucinogenic peyote.
- I let my “Driving through Vegas” video clip run longer than it needed to, not out of some gratuitous desire to show Sarah Shahi (Sonya) grinding in bed but just because I love the use of The Pretenders’ “The Adultress” in that scene.
- Tony Soprano could be considered a “professional environmental polluter” on the series, a fact that is highlighted in this episode, but the actor that plays him is anything but. In an Inside the Actor’s Studio appearance, James Gandolfini said he might like to have been an environmental attorney if he hadn’t become an actor. In the 1998 film A Civil Action, Gandolfini plays a waste disposal employee who turns against his company for contaminating the town water supply with carcinogens.
- Carmela has been suspecting Christopher of having something to do with Adriana’s disappearance for some time now, but she immediately reverses course when Chrissie dies, even chastising herself for ever doubting him: “Why are we so quick to blame, what is the attraction in that?” The Sopranos has always been interested in answering the inverse of Carmela’s question: why are we so quick to absolve blame? Why do we try so hard to avoid a reckoning, why do we so readily brush our guilt and suspicion and criticism under the rug to make it look like they were never even there?