Phil Leotardo reaches the end of his rope with the Soprano famiglia.
Tony comes home to find AJ at the end of his rope.
Episode 84 – Originally aired May 20, 2007
Written by Terence Winter
Directed by Tim Van Patten
It’s been a while since I’ve watched this hour, and I was very much looking forward to revisiting it. What excited me the most was the thought that maybe I would be able to see AJ more sympathetically now. During previous re-watches, this episode always put me in a predicament: I wanted to feel a greater sympathy for AJ, but the scenes that led up to his suicide attempt as well as the scenes that followed it only served to remind me what a little shit he can be. I thought this time it would be different. I’m older now, more understanding, less prone to be judgmental of others. But when I re-watched the episode prior to starting this write-up, I realized the truth once again: AJ can be a pretty crappy person.
David Chase is much more sympathetic toward AJ. In an interview with Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz, Chase wondered why so many viewers disliked AJ. He felt that he himself can personally relate to the young man: “…in the case of AJ, I think I see myself as a teenager, as kind of a bumbling person. The king of most literary teenagers is Holden Caulfield, and I see a little of him in AJ.”
I think I could have been more sympathetic to AJ if he was simply going into a tailspin after losing his first love. Many of us would be able to relate, we’ve suffered that particular crisis. But that doesn’t seem to be what’s going on with him. Sure, his depression and frustration may be rooted in his romantic disappointment with Blanca, but he seems to be using that disappointment now to justify being entitled and belligerent and emotionally indulgent (even more than he usually is). Meadow tries to engage him here like a good big-sister should. She enters his bedroom and goes to turn down the music so they can have a thoughtful discussion. But he snaps at her not to touch the sound system. (The song that’s playing is “Into the Ocean” by Blue October, a track about a depressed guy who wants to drown himself.) When Meadow asks if his behavior and depression are because of Blanca, AJ can only reply, “I don’t know anymore.” He is not able to clarify the problem, even in his own mind.
As I re-watched this episode, I found myself thinking about the 3 films that James Dean made during his short life. In each of these three films, the character that Dean plays has thoughts and feelings that are hidden or that get stifled inside of him for one reason or another. But in the third act of each film, the character’s passion and insight spills out in a compelling, poetic overflow. James Dean knew how to modulate his characters’ emotions over the course of a film, reining them in or letting them loose as the script required, and the viewer could share in the emotional journey. Dean worked hard to learn how to tap into his emotions and be more expressive: he studied the Method, took voice lessons, dance lessons…
Robert Iler is a different type of actor. He doesn’t seem to have Dean’s expressive or technical abilities. But this, if anything, makes Iler even more suited to play the thankless role of “AJ Soprano.” It seems to me that David Chase shaped the role—and guided the actor—in a particular way in order to study a specific type of character: The Passive Nihilist.
I know that I’ve touched upon Kevin Stoehr’s theory of the Passive and Active Nihilist multiple times already, but I think Stoehr’s theory is particularly illuminating for this episode. Stoehr gives the following description of the paired opposites:
- the Passive nihilist “flounders in his moral ambiguities and eventually refuses to rise above the negativity in his own life”
- the Active nihilist “gains clarity of purpose as he comes to view the presence of ambiguity or negativity as a creative challenge that may result in acts of self-overcoming”
Although AJ clearly fits the former description, he is trying now to fit into the latter; he tries to be more informed about global issues, be more conscious of the many injustices in the world, as his sister is. But he is unpracticed at this role, and his complaints about the state of the world end up sounding feeble and whiny. AJ doesn’t have the “clarity of purpose” that Stoehr requires the active nihilist to have. In fact, AJ doesn’t have very much clarity about anything. AJ’s psychiatrist suggests that he write down his thoughts because “it might help clarify your feelings.” Of course, we know that AJ is not going to make the effort to do so (just like his father never made the effort to keep a log of his thoughts and feelings as Melfi had asked him to do in Season 3). I think the reason AJ turns to W.B. Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming” with such keen interest now is because it seems to articulate ideas that he can’t express or clarify himself.
THE SECOND COMING
William Butler Yeats published “The Second Coming” in 1919, during the worst pandemic of the 20th century and not long after the end of World War I. The brutal war brought devastation to the globe on a scale that was previously unimaginable, and the ensuing years were a time of pessimism and suspicion. Even after the fighting had ended, the world remained fractured along ideological and factional lines. This dark postwar temper contributed to the apocalyptic tone of Yeats’ poem. There was a sense that the chaos and destruction that was unleashed upon the world by both the virus and the World War was still lurking around some near corner. Havoc could soon have its way again.
Perhaps we can still relate in contemporary times to that feeling. An August 2016 Wall Street Journal article, “Terror, Brexit and U.S. Election Have Made 2016 the Year of Yeats,” noted that lines and phrases from “The Second Coming” had been quoted, mentioned and referenced more times in the first seven months of 2016 than during any period in the last 30 years (according to the research tool ‘Factiva’). The WSJ article hypothesized that the nomination of Donald Trump as the Republican candidate as well as the United Kingdom’s move toward leaving the E.U. (and, of course, the factors that led to these two events) reflected a worldwide pessimism. The world is still split along factional and ideological lines, and fear and xenophobia have gripped many societies around the planet. A month before writing this paragraph, I read that the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (BAS) recently moved the hands of the so-called “Doomsday Clock” 20 seconds closer to midnight. Standing merely 100 seconds from metaphorical midnight, the clock now stands closer to Armageddon than it ever has in its 73-year history. As for the reasons behind their grim decision, BAS cites the unchecked Iranian and North Korean weapons programs, the undermining of democracy around the world, tensions between global superpowers, the rise of disruptive technologies, deteriorating environmental conditions and climate change. On top of that, we are right now contending with the deadly COVID-19 coronavirus disease along with the chaotic social and economic disruptions the pandemic is bringing. Yeats’ poem, published almost exactly 100 years ago, was filled with ominous imagery that reflected the global mood of the time. Yeats could not have guessed that his poem might be even more representative of the international mood today:
The Second Coming
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Chase gets a lot of mileage out of Yeats’ poem, he uses it to accomplish several different things here in this second part of Season 6:
- It gives form to AJ’s shapeless thoughts
- It posits AJ as a sort of “second coming” of Tony Soprano
- It gives voice to an idea that has been implicit throughout the series, the idea that Tony is a kind of unholy “rough beast”
- Its doomsday imagery intensifies the sense of impending apocalypse that colors the endgame of The Sopranos
When we heard Nick Lowe’s “The Beast in Me” close out the Pilot, 83 episodes ago, we understood that the protagonist of this TV series was going to be a more beastly character than probably any central character we’ve ever encountered on American television. I believe that David Chase has always postulated Tony Soprano to be a uniquely American beast, a creature formed of our consumeristic excess coupled with our ruthlessly capitalist values. These troubling aspects of our culture are alluded to with the opening shot of the episode:
The illegal dumping continues the previous episode’s storyline in which the mob felt zero compunction about soiling the environment in exchange for a higher profit margin. We produce an immense amount of garbage in this country, and this garbage is a money-making commodity rather than a social/community concern as it is in so many other countries. Environmental degradation is simply par for the course in a system that values profit over everything else. And Tony is a prodigy at exploiting that system. (Chase surely wants us to see the irony of that opening image: a sign instructs pet owners to pick up their relatively harmless dog-poop—but no one stops the mob from dumping a steaming pile of highly toxic trash. Chase slips in a similarly ironic image later when we see Silvio reading How to Clean Practically Anything; we know that Silvio likes to spend his downtime cleaning and fixing stuff, and therefore his participation in an organization that remorselessly fouls the commons—the air, the land, the water—is tragically contradictory.) Chase has been using his mob saga as an allegory to suggest that a culture of unbridled consumption hitched to a relatively unregulated economic system can lead to an unhealthy society with unhealthy individuals. Chase, in these two most recent episodes, emphasizes the damage that such an unhealthy system does to the natural world and everyone living within it.
Nature has long been a part of the Sopranos narrative, though usually not in very obvious ways. The natural elements of fire and water, for example, had a profound presence in the Pilot episode, though we may not have recognized their full significance at the time:
Tony’s interactions with nature’s elements are limited in the way that most suburban dads’ interactions with nature are limited: he goes for a dip in his chlorinated pool, he feeds the occasional duck, he fires up his backyard grill every now and then. Other than Tony’s encounter with the wild ducks and a potential encounter with a wild black bear, most of Tony’s interactions with animals have been with the domesticated sort: Pie-O-My the horse, a goat, various dogs. Although Tony did have some sort of intense, peyote-driven experience surrounded by the natural world in the closing moments of the previous episode, he usually wastes all his opportunities for a wilder and deeper commune with nature, like he did in the pastoral setting of upstate New York near Lake Oscawana (where he also wasted the tree he unloaded his clip into):
In his essay, “Tony Needs Nature: The Sopranos and The Wasteland of North Jersey,” Tim Wenzell argues that the residents of northern New Jersey have become reduced to a collection of drivers who must spend much of their time navigating highways, strip malls, and urban sprawl in their isolated vehicles. New Jersey, he notes, “holds the double distinction of having the most people per square mile and the most highways per square in the nation.”
Wenzell contends that the retreat of nature from daily life has had profound consequences on man: “As Philip Sutton Chard notes in The Healing Earth, ‘America is a society in decline,’ and attributes this primarily to alienation not from society or the social order or good old-fashioned values, but ‘estrangement from the natural order, the most basic of orders, the one upon which all others—social, familial, psychological and spiritual—rest. The order of the Earth.'” The separation from nature is underscored very early in The Sopranos, Wenzell goes on to argue, when Tony gets all angsty about the departure of the duck family from his backyard. Wenzell believes that Dr. Melfi made a serious mistake by misinterpreting Tony’s anxiety to be about separation from his family, rather than his separation from nature. This type of mistake is not surprising given that Melfi herself seems mostly disconnected from the natural world, and also given that she doesn’t seem to have any training in the field of eco-psychology (a discipline which seeks to treat the physical and emotional ailments that arise from the alienation between mankind and nature). I don’t completely agree with Wenzell—I don’t think that an eco-centric approach to therapy would have necessarily helped Tony or pulled him out of a life of crime. But I do agree that an eco-critical approach to understanding The Sopranos can be very eye-opening.
In his book, The Sopranos: TV Milestone Series, Gary Edgerton writes that “The cultural geography of The Sopranos often reflects a lifestyle out of balance, putting the one-time pristine natural habitat of the Meadowlands against the current logjam of polluting smokestacks, noxious landfills, and densely populated neighborhoods that comprise the omnipresent suburban sprawl of the series.” This idea of lifestyle-out-of-balance becomes more pronounced as the series reaches its close.
Architects often talk about genius loci, which can be translated literally as the Spirit of the Place. The ancient Romans who coined the term believed that each geographical place was protected by a particular divine Spirit. In our more secular era, we can translate the term to mean the soul or atmosphere of a place. Architects are concerned with genius loci because they often look to the soul of a place to inspire and shape their work; their artistic mandate is usually to create a work that fits with harmony and balance into the place in which it is located. David Chase, though not an architect, seems to have an instinctive consideration of genius loci. The opening credits of every Sopranos episode, for example, captures the atmosphere of north Jersey from the industrial wastelands right through to the manicured suburban lawns. Chase’s sense of place is also conveyed in every episode through location shooting—I don’t think there has ever been a television series that has utilized as much filming on-location as The Sopranos has. I believe that Chase has been suggesting throughout the series, particularly in the two most recent hours, that the debasement of the soul of the New Jersey landscape is linked with the debasement of the souls of his fictional characters. And by extension, the debasement of our landscape nationwide is linked to the debasement of our cultural soul.
“In the fusion of place and soul, the soul is as much a container of place as place is
a container of soul. Both are susceptible to the same forces of destruction.” (Robert Pogue Harrison)
In my writeup for “…To Save Us All From Satan’s Power” (3.10), I suggested that Tony was being presented as a sort of Satanic figure. It was a bit difficult to make that argument in Season 3, but it is easier to make now. In Season 3, we could agree (with some reservation) with Carmela’s assessment of Tony when she told her priest, “He’s a good man, basically.” Yes, Tony was a murderer and an extortionist and a thug even back then, but he wasn’t necessarily evil. He seemed more like an overgrown version of the prankish, delinquent child he had been, a man who went into a life of crime not because of some intrinsic wickedness but because his family- and social-situation pushed him into it. There was a childlike, mischievous twinkle in his eye back then. Now, however, that twinkle has been replaced by a dull, dead gaze. He has turned into something depraved and wicked. Chase specifically calls back Carmela’s Season 3 line in the current episode, when Tony tells Melfi “I’m a good guy, basically.” This is a delusion that we can no longer find tenable. Within Christian eschatology—the Christian theology regarding the “end times”—there is a belief that the second coming of Jesus Christ would be prefaced by the arrival of a false messiah sent by Satan, or perhaps even the Devil himself in disguise. Those of us who have been apologists for Tony Soprano, trying to argue that there is something redeemable in him or justifiable about his lifestyle, should have recognized our mistake by now. Tony’s example of how to live the American Dream and achieve comfort, wealth and happiness has been a false message trumpeted by a false prophet.
(Of course, when I say that Chase may be presenting Tony as a false messiah, I don’t mean it literally. There have been supernatural moments on the series that could be taken literally, like the fearsome vision of the Virgin Mary at the Bing, or the psychic that was spookily accurate, or the appearance of Pussy’s ghost in a mirror. But I don’t think Chase is saying here that Tony Soprano is the actual Anti-Christ.)
There is a juxtaposition of scenes in this hour that strongly evokes the idea of Tony as a sort of Anti-Christ. AJ lays in bed reading the last 10 ominous lines of Yeats’ poem, and then Chase cuts to Tony walking toward Agents Harris and Goddard at Satriale’s:
Tony looks like “what rough beast” as he lumbers slowly (“moving its slow thighs”) with “gaze blank and pitiless” toward the two agents. Note that the camera is pitched slightly off-kilter as it captures Tony, implying that he represents the world out-of-balance. Tony is being equated with a monstrous “second coming.” The line “somewhere in sands of the desert” seem to directly recall the image of Tony in the desert at the end of the previous episode. “A shape with lion body and the head of a man” evokes the Egyptian Sphinx, which itself recalls the Egyptian mythology that was referenced by William Burroughs’ spoken-word piece “Seven Souls” in the Season 6 opener. And “Seven Souls,” as I mentioned in the previous write-up, is derived from Burroughs’ novel The Western Lands which might be seen as a template for Tony’s trip through the western lands of America in the previous hour.
David Chase seems to be developing a SopranoWorld eschatology. Tony represents a troubling second coming of Christ, while AJ is the troubled second coming of Tony Soprano. There are a couple of moments in this hour that formally connect father and son:
- two early shots of each of them laying in bed are juxtaposed to one another
- AJ says “Why can’t I catch a fuckin’ break?” calling back Tony’s “I can’t catch a fucking break” in episode 6.01 (right before Ray Curto keeled over and died just as he was implicating Tony in a murder)
As I noted in the previous write-up, AJ’s very name signifies that he is the ‘junior’ version of his dad. (“Meadow,” on the other hand, invokes the regenerative, healing balm of nature.) Anthony Junior is the product and purveyor of a culture of degradation and callousness that his father is very guilty of producing and purveying.
The Peruvian intellectual Mario Vargas Llosa has written at length about the “the civilization of the spectacle.” The culture of modern civilization, he argues, wants more than anything else to entertain us—and the easiest, quickest, cheapest way to entertain us is through spectacle. Whether it’s clickbait headlines, ridiculous viral videos, extravagant red carpet displays, infuriating reality show personalities, there is no shortage of spectacle in popular culture. Pop culture is often heavy on shock-value and light on thoughtfulness. Such a culture routinely passes off mindless pablum as serious art. The culture of spectacle does not foster clarity or intelligent action, in fact it doesn’t even grant us the hours of peace and silence that are often needed to facilitate clear-headed action. The culture leaves us ill-equipped to address urgent issues in a truly rational way. The Culture of Spectacle, according to Llosa, is frivolous, vacuous, nihilistic, and might ultimately be destroyed by the nothingness at its own core. Now I’m not quite as hard on pop culture as old man Llosa is, but I do think that contemporary culture may be leading us to the precipice of an enormous crossroad. Our current culture has the potential to dehumanize us and turn us into silly and indifferent beings. We can already see how genuine empathy is being replaced by faux sentiment and virtue-signaling. We can see how we are becoming passive automatons, conditioned by social media and a million other influences to continuously and mindlessly search for tiny little bits of pleasure or reassurance. AJ Soprano, as we’ve known him through the years, personifies some of these ugly aspects of the Culture of Spectacle:
We are slowly being stripped of our humanity, so it is becoming natural that our response to pain and maliciousness is to laugh or look on with indifference or mute fascination. I don’t know if Mario Vargas Llosa ever watched The Sopranos, or what he might think of it. The series is very much a part of the popular culture that he criticizes, and it certainly has its moments of spectacle (including a couple of doozies in this hour). But a more signature characteristic of Chase’s TV show is how stubbornly it avoids spectacle; time and time again, viewers are led to believe that we’re headed towards some violent or mind-blowing scene, only to have Chase turn us away toward something much more mild or banal instead. In this hour, Chase generates tension and excitement in a way that is very unexpected for a TV showrunner to do (particularly the showrunner of a mobster drama): he uses a piece of literature. Yeats’ “The Second Coming” is one of the world’s most spectacular poems, filled with haunting and mystical imagery, and Chase utilizes it well.
When AJ’s English teacher reads the line, “the ceremony of innocence is drowned,” Chase cuts to the image of AJ right after the word “drowned,” foreshadowing the young man’s preferred method of self-destruction. AJ gets his chance when his mother leaves the house to go to Nordstrom. He ties a concrete block around his leg, pulls a plastic bag over his head and drops himself into the swimming pool. I think some of us were surprised to see AJ attempt suicide here (and not just because Chase cut to the scene rather abruptly). AJ just didn’t seem as depressed as he did in earlier episodes. We didn’t even see him cry in this hour (though he did have tears on his face as he readied himself on the diving board). But depression, of course, comes in many forms. I don’t think AJ was feeling the acid torment of romantic rejection or jealousy at this point; I think he was just feeling drained of all his emotions. In previous episodes, we had seen AJ grappling with the suspicion that love is a sham and life is little more than a raw deal. Twenty minutes into this hour, he is no longer grappling with that suspicion. He has succumbed to a feeling of meaninglessness, the dull blank sense that there is no major difference between being alive and being dead. For the passively nihilistic personality, like AJ’s, there may be a draw, a quiet seduction, in the idea of suicide by submersion. You just slip under the water and slip back into the Big Nothing from whence you came.
Tony arrives home and makes his way to the kitchen as we’ve seen him do many times before. We wonder: is young AJ going to asphyxiate while Tony munches on some food 50 feet away? The backyard swimming pool has been a locus for the narrative and mythology of The Sopranos going all the way back to the very first scene in the very first episode. Twitter user @RevDukeSilver noticed something that possibly highlights the pool-connection between the Pilot hour and this hour: Tony had used concrete blocks to make a ramp for the ducks, and now AJ uses a similar block to weigh himself down.
Season 6 has been undergirded by the question of karma, whether or not SopranoWorld characters will be punished in some way for their misdeeds and unethical attitudes. Christian eschatology is also concerned with notions of punishment and retribution in the context of the second coming of Christ. Now, in “The Second Coming,” Chase leads us to believe that Tony will suffer the horrific punishment of having to pull the dead body of his only begotten son out of the water.
But a funny thing happens on the way to suicide. AJ makes the rope too long and the concrete block cannot pull him down deep enough. Although AJ had decided in his mind to slip back into the sweet void of nothingness, his body now revolts; he kicks and thrashes in an effort to keep his head above water. It reminded me a bit of how Eugene Pontecorvo’s body mutinied against his brain’s decision to end it all in episode 6.01, flailing at the end of a rope in a desperate attempt to stay alive. I argued in that write-up that there was something metaphorically fitting about Eugene’s manner of death: he was caught in a noose fashioned by both the mob and the FBI, and not even a $2 million inheritance could give him the breathing room he needed. I think AJ’s botched attempt now is also metaphorically fitting. AJ has always seen the world somewhat simplistically, he never looked at his family history or his school subjects or philosophy (“Nitch”) with any real depth—and so it is quite fitting that he would now miscalculate the depth of the swimming pool. The method he devises to kill himself is almost perfect symbolically. The concrete block fettered to his ankle pulls him down just as surely as the gloom and nihilism of being a Soprano has pulled him down, while the rope he cut too long leaves him in the shallows, where he has resided his entire life. (The image of AJ struggling to breathe right at the waterline may call to mind that other shallow and unfortunate son, Jackie Jr, who once almost drowned in three inches of water at the penguin exhibit.)
Tony recognizes that something is amiss in the swimming pool but doesn’t immediately understand what is going on: “AJ, what the fuck?” He tosses aside the Lincoln Log sandwich in his hand and jumps into the water. After some fumbling, Tony hauls his son up and out of danger. AJ starts sobbing uncontrollably. In a surge of anger and frustration, Tony shakes AJ and yells, “What’s wrong with you!” But then Tony pulls his weeping child into his lap and reassures him, “C’mon baby, you’re alright. You’re alright, baby.” It is one of the most tender and poignant moments I’ve ever watched on my television.
Professor Franco Ricci, in his book The Sopranos: Born Under a Bad Sign, deconstructs the link between Tony and his boy at this moment:
Like a desperate mother, he coddles the water-soaked body of his son in an exquisitely posed pieta posture… Lovingly stroking his head in much the same manner that his imaginary mother gently stroked his own infant head in “Isabella” (1.12), both return to childhood, to a preternatural space of comfort and affection, before the trauma of growing up Soprano had become the fodder for suicide.
Back at the Bing, the guys get very quiet when Tony walks in. No one knows how to broach the subject of AJ’s suicide attempt, or even if they should. So Tony brings the subject up himself: “Ok, let’s dispense with the 500 pound elephant in the room, huh?” He’s mixing together two different idiomatic expressions with this sentence: “the 800 pound gorilla” + “the elephant in the room.” (He made the same mistake in episode 5.13 in a conversation with Johnny Sac.) It’s an innocent mix-up, and everyone knows what Tony means, but it’s an interesting jumble nonetheless. Adult elephants are actually around 12,000 pounds; they only weigh 500 pounds when they are babies. So, Tony’s malapropism manages to inadvertently reference his own “baby”: Anthony Junior. The men loosen up, and some of the fathers relate some of the difficulties their own children have had growing up. Paulie, though not a dad himself, offers his theory on why today’s youngsters have problems: “All the toxins they’re exposed to—it fucks with their brains.” (This is a profoundly ironic statement, considering that the mobsters very recently left a pile of asbestos-laden material sitting at a junior high school.)
While the mafioso try to be supportive of Tony at the Bing, the situation at home is much thornier for him. Tony understandably feels downhearted, but when he tries to elicit some sympathy from his wife, she unloads on him—and his entire family tree. Carmela even calls out Tony’s great-grandfather who drove a donkey cart off the road in Avellino (a story which may remind us of the time Tony crashed his “cart”—a Chevy Suburban—during a panic attack in episode 2.01.) Carm blames the Soprano clan for AJ’s troubled thoughts: “He didn’t get it from my family.” Carmela may have a valid point. Several of Tony’s relatives, and even he himself to a degree, are too quick to whine and complain and fall into a state of victimhood. “It’s hereditary,” T tries to convince Carm. But she’s not buying it this time. Even if some aspect of AJ’s depression is genetically inherited, he was taught how to play the depression-card by his Soprano predecessors. Habitual whiner AJ, as we saw early in the hour, sounded almost exactly like his dad when he complained that he can never catch a fucking break. (Of course, AJ catches the biggest break of his life in this episode, when his dad arrives home just in time to rescue him from drowning.) However, I think that by attacking Tony’s family, Carmela is also trying to shake off her own sense of guilt and complicity. She was unable to help her son in his time of greatest need. And she knows that she has never heeded Dr. Krakauer’s advice from years ago: “Take only the children, what’s left of them, and go.”
This entire scene in the kitchen between Tony and Carmela is shot with a shaky handheld camera, and the jittery images convey the idea that SopranoWorld is a place coming out of balance. Things fall apart, the center cannot hold. Tired of trading volleys with his wife, Tony tosses the F-bomb at her. Carmela takes off her watch and throws it at his face. Tony had given her the watch earlier in the hour with the words “You are my life” inscribed on the back (which perhaps recalls the conversation in 1.06 “Pax Soprana” when he told Carm, “You’re not just in my life, you are my life”). With a bruised ego and a smarting face, Tony hurls the watch back at her.
Carm and Tony accompany AJ to his shrink’s office. We see here how accurately Carmela’s criticism of the Soprano family lineage rings true. Tony is aggressive toward his boy, even spitting out a mocking “Poor you”—a phrase he learned from Livia—at AJ. (Tony had also said “Poor you” to Carmela earlier in the kitchen scene.) But Tony pipes down when AJ recounts how his grandmother told him “It’s all a big nothing” years ago. Tony realizes that his son is now paying for the sins of his mother, and he goes quiet. Prof. Gary Edgerton writes that:
Much of Tony’s charisma as a mob boss and empathy as a father derive in large part from James Gandolfini’s rich and generous physicality as an actor…continually touching, kissing, embracing, grabbing, shaking, pushing and sometimes even punching the people around him. As a result, Tony’s most obvious parenting skills are corporeal in nature.
In this hour, the professor notes, Tony physically pulls AJ out of the pool and then physically cradles him in his lap, but when it is time to be emotionally present and supportive, Tony is not so successful. Tony has never been a very supportive or understanding dad. He can be very dismissive, as we saw earlier in this hour. When AJ demonstrated in this episode that he is becoming more educated about the various injustices and ills of the world (many of them the result of a relentless pursuit of profit, or “the God of the Bottom Line,” as AJ put it), Tony responded dismissively: “Education is to help you get a better job.” (Tony’s response, ironically, reveals how strongly he himself worships this God of the Bottom Line.)
Tony’s failures with AJ, I believe, stem at least partly from his adherence to the ‘Strict Father’ mode of parenting (which I’ve broached in earlier write-ups so I won’t get into it too much here). The chauvinism of this parenting stance is alluded to early in this hour when Meadow explains to AJ his superior status within the family hierarchy: “You’re their son. You’ll always be more important.” The patriarchal Strict Father mindset requires male AJ to always be macho—the strong, silent type. But AJ doesn’t live up to this standard, and Tony tells Dr. Melfi it is because Carmela coddled him. He admits to Melfi that he is ashamed of his son. At the end of Season 3, Tony wanted to toughen AJ up by getting him out of the house and into a military school. Now, near the end of Season 6, Tony’s unrealistic standards have gotten AJ out of the house and into a psychiatric ward.
In the final scene of the hour, Tony arrives at the hospital ward to visit his boy. He characteristically brings a pizza to share with AJ (we’ve seen the Father, the Son and the Holy Pie make a trinity of sorts in prior episodes), but the nurse takes the food away. Yeats’ poem is once again evoked in these final moments: Tony, with slow moving thighs, shuffles down the corridor as AJ steps lazily into the frame. Two rough beasts slouching towards Bethlehem:
The image almost looks like it was shot in black-and-white, it is drained of virtually all color. Happiness and vitality too are being drained from SopranoWorld. The shot fades to black, epitomizing the shadow that is falling over all their lives. The scene is scored to “Ninna Ninna,” a lo-fi but haunting Old World song composed of just guitar and vocals, and it takes us through the end-credits. It provides a powerful end to a powerful episode.
HBO did not list very much information about the song in 2007, so fans buzzed after the episode originally aired: what was this unforgettable, eerie thing we had just listened to? A resourceful viewer figured out it was a folksong that was released through the Smithsonian’s “Folkways Records” label in 1955:
If the song itself doesn’t bring a tear to your eye, the synopsis of the track on the album’s liner notes certainly might:
Lullaby from Sardinia. The mother sings to her little boy. His father, a brigand, escaped to the mountains and is being followed. She sings “Antoneddu, little Anton, I’d rather see you dead than a bandit in the mountains.” So that she will not have to disclose her husband’s whereabouts, she too will go into the mountains. Her son sings “Mama, mama, when I live in the mountains, I won’t fall into dishonor.” In the third stanza, the ghost-like voice of the father is heard: “Sing o beautiful, sing o beautiful, all around me it’s quiet and I only hear you singing.”
With that synopsis (and maybe even without), the track makes a strong contender for Most Perfect Song Selection of the series. Carmela’s earlier reference to Tony’s great-grandfather back in Avellino almost feels like a prelude to this old-timey song from the old country. The dynamic between the song’s mother, father and son somehow feels comparable to the dynamic between Carmela, little Anthony and Tony the brigand. Perhaps most subtly, the “mountain” that is mentioned in the song has an actual SopranoWorld counterpart: AJ is staying in the ward at Mountainside Hospital. (I don’t think the hospital is mentioned by name in the episode but it is named in the credits. I’ll have more to say about this hospital in the next write-up.)
WAR WITH NEW YORK
The affairs between NJ and NY are getting uglier. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not crazy about Chase’s decision to use Phil Leotardo to bring tension to the narrative at the end of a season again. This is the third time Chase has done it (if we count 6A as its own season), and so Tony and Phil’s relationship is starting to feel something like Ross and Rachel’s on-again-off-again thing on Friends. But actor Frank Vincent does an incredible job with the storyline; in fact, some of Phil’s best, most ballsy lines are in this episode. Negotiations have broken down between the two famiglias, money is not flowing as it should, all the mob’s rules and customs are going out the window. Sal “Coco” Cogliano violates the taboo against intimidating wives and children when he harasses Meadow at a restaurant. After Meadow #MeToo’s the big thug at the family kitchen table (kudos to her), Tony gives Coco an indoor curb-stomping that neither he nor we will ever forget.
Tony needs to make amends for his bloody overreaction, so Lil Carmine works out an opportunity for the two bosses to meet. But when Tony arrives at Phil’s house, hat in hand, Phil does a 180 and turns him away most ungraciously. David Chase has very often set up the possibility of spectacular violence on The Sopranos, only to pull the narrative back to the prosaic, the mundane, the fucking regularness of life. Now, however, as the series marches to its finis, we get the sense that warfare and immense bloodletting are going to be inevitable.
“I GET IT” REVISITED
While AJ is unable to articulate his pain in this episode, Tony is unable to articulate his epiphany. He had some kind of transcendent vision in the previous episode—he saw something—but as Dana Polan writes in his book The Sopranos, “Whatever the revelation, it is negated in the context of the show.” In the backroom of Satriale’s, Tony grabs at words to describe his experience on peyote, but gives up when the words fail him. Walden Belfiore shares a little bit about his experience doing Ecstasy—he’s not quite like the other guys, none of whom seem to have any experience with psychoactive drugs. (Paulie, however, did inadverently do acid one time when a B.O.A.C. stewardess put some in his drink. And Bobby did mushrooms once—stuffed mushrooms, a whole fuckin platter.)
Tony gives it another try in Melfi’s office, but when he again struggles to explain, the good doctor suggests that maybe Tony saw “alternate universes.” When Tony realizes that she’s not being sarcastic, he responds, “Maybe.” (I think this is potentially a very momentous exchange, but I’ll get into why in the final write-up.) Tony continues, saying that “at one point” he saw that our mothers are vehicles that drop us off in the world, and we spend the rest of our lives trying to get back on the bus instead of just letting go. It’s an interesting idea, but it certainly isn’t anything mind-blowing. This probably isn’t what he “got” when he yelled “I get it!” This is just an insight he came upon “at one point” during his peyote trip.
As underwhelming as I found the ‘mothers-as-buses’ insight to be, my antenna went up when I realized that Tony used the word “vehicle” to describe the mothers in his vision. Of all the various forms of Buddhism practiced in the world today, Mahayana—or “Great Vehicle”—is the most popular. (“Maha” means great or large; “yana” means vehicle or raft. Mahayana teachings can be thought of as a raft or vehicle that help a person cross the river of suffering.) I know it’s quite a reach to suggest that Chase may be making an outright reference to Buddhism just because Tony uses the word “vehicle.” But then I also noticed that this whole scene in Melfi’s office begins with Tony referencing something from ancient Chinese philosophy:
“There’s a balance, there’s a ying and a yang,” Tony says. Now technically, there isn’t a direct connection between Buddhism and the ancient Chinese philosophy from which the yin-yang comes. But there has been overlapping influence throughout the millennia between the two schools of thought, and both emphasize that the dualisms we find in the universe are not truly dual. Instead, everything is interconnected. Or as John Schwinn put it in 6.04, “Everything is everything.” I may be reading too much into all this, but it is nevertheless interesting to think that this short scene in Tony’s psychiatrist’s office may be referencing a couple of ancient Eastern philosophies in addition to “alternate universes.” (Keep all this within easy reach because I’m going to ask you to pull it out again two episodes from now.)
Chase has always incorporated different genres into The Sopranos, but perhaps no hour blends Comedy and Tragedy (the yin and yang of storytelling) like “The Second Coming” does. This is a truly funny hour. We have the politically incorrect humor of AJ insisting that Blanca isn’t black, but then admitting “she’s pretty tan.” There is the gallows humor of Tony figuring AJ bungled his attempt at suicide because “he might just be a fuckin’ idiot—historically that’s been the case.” My internet-buddy @timeimmemorial_, in one of his typically hilarious memes, found the humor in one of the episode’s most dramatic and portentous scenes:
The funniest scene of the hour is probably when Bobby Bacala and Tony Maffei go to collect payment from asbestos abatement contractor John Stefano. Bobby is clearly anxious about being so close to the toxic material. Actor Steve Schirripa has always had a great comic delivery, going back to his first episode (2.02) when Bobby pulled a line out of his quotation book: “To the victor belong the spoils.” Schirripa’s funny bone was confirmed in Season 4, when Bobby proclaimed that “Quasimodo predicted all this” and then proceeded to go into a “Who’s-on-first?” type of routine with Tony Soprano. The whole sequence in the current hour, building up to Bobby’s punchline to John Stefano, could almost be something out of a comic strip:
But this scene also has a very serious aspect to it (and I don’t just mean in our current moment, when we’re all being very careful of who and what we touch due to COVID-19). None of the workers who are disposing of the hazardous materials are wearing hazmat suits, a fact that gets highlighted when Tony Maffei asks where their “spacesuits” are. Stefano replies that they are working outside of union regulations, because otherwise “ain’t none of us gonna make any real scratch.” Halleluha, all hail the God of the Bottom Line. The workers, or “bozos” as Bobby calls them, are mostly from Ecuador and Poland and presumably not in a position to demand higher safety standards. The mafia, who in effect function as Management in this business arrangement, care little about Labor, reflecting a situation that is all too common in the real world. There is, therefore, a great irony in Bobby asking for the payoff to be put into an envelope. The roll of cash may or may not be tainted by asbestos, but it is definitely tainted by something arguably worse: an utter disregard for the health and well-being of the men removing the dangerous material.
LINCOLN LOGS ANYONE?
I remember playing with a Lincoln Logs building set when I was a kid (invented by John Lloyd Wright, son of the celebrated architect Frank), but I’ve never even heard of Lincoln log sandwiches. Apparently they are hot dogs with cream cheese and Worcester sauce (according to Robert Iler who does a DVD commentary for this hour). The name of the dish must be a reference to Abraham Lincoln, who was born in a Kentucky log cabin. (I guess the cream cheese would look a bit like cabin chinking.)
There is, perhaps notably, another Lincoln reference in this hour; an advertisement for the insomnia medication Rozarem plays on the TV at AJ’s hospital ward, and it features a cartoonish Abe Lincoln character. The double references to Honest Abe here made me wonder if Chase was performing a double callback to the little snippet of the documentary Lincoln which we saw playing on the Soprano TV set in “Kaisha” (6.12). We heard the narrator in the snippet say that for certain people, “depression is a form of forced introversion”; the documentary makes the argument that it was from this forced introversion that President Lincoln’s courage, empathy and resilience arose. Abraham Lincoln would fit into Stoehr’s definition of the Active Nihilist, one who finds a sense of purpose in the creative challenge of overcoming all that is negative in his life. Anthony Junior, we can all agree, is no Abraham Lincoln. AJ’s depression doesn’t push him toward clarity or courage, it just pushes him over the edge. I can’t say with any real confidence that Chase was trying to make a purposeful link here to “Kaisha” with the double refs to Lincoln, but it would certainly be fitting as “Kaisha” was the episode in which AJ first met and hooked up with Blanca. In the time that has passed from that episode to this one, AJ’s heart has run the full gamut of emotions.
Meadow drops two bombs on her family this hour: 1) she has decided to go to law school instead of med school, and 2) she is dating Patrick Parisi. The two revelations are directly connected as her career choice was apparently influenced by lawyer Patrick’s inspirational discussions about justice and the law. Many viewers believe that these two developments in Meadow’s life indicate that she is squandering all the progress she has made in distancing herself from the mob (i.e. she will become a mob-lawyer with a mob-lawyer husband and they will produce little mob-lawyer babies). I’m not so critical of Meadow’s decisions here, partly because Patrick, in our quick introduction to him, seems to be a fairly mature, cultured and intelligent young man. He doesn’t seem very much at all like his younger brother Jason (who was such a bad influence on AJ earlier this season). We can’t imagine, for example, seeing Jason get excited about two front-row mezzanine theater tickets to see Grey Gardens as Patrick does. Interestingly, the stage musical that Patrick is referring to (which is based on the Maysles Brothers’ incredible documentary) was actually playing on Broadway at the time this episode originally aired. Mary Louise Wilson, who we remember from episode 2.11 “House Arrest,” won a Tony Award for her role in the musical.
An intriguing question has been circulating about Patrick Parisi: Is he the same “Patrick” that young Meadow mentioned to her mother in the Pilot episode? (Meadow mentioned the name as she tried to make an excuse for sneaking out of her bedroom window: “Patrick’s swim meet is tomorrow. He needed me!”) Knowing Chase’s interest in connectivity, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he re-purposed a name that was fleetingly mentioned in the Pilot to come back into the narrative in a significant way now. If it is indeed the same Patrick, it might be saying something not only about David Chase’s interest in making connections, but also about the two Soprano siblings’ attitudes towards connectivity. Strong, resilient, well-centered Meadow is able to make meaningful connections with people that last over the course of years, while AJ is not able to nurture such connections. He started to take his relationship with Blanca for granted over time, then became needy and desperate in a way that made a future friendship with her impossible after their breakup, and then came completely undone after losing hope that he could make such a connection with someone ever again.
Marisa Carroll, in her essay “‘When It Comes to Daughters, All Bets Are Off’: The Seductive Father-Daughter Relationship of Tony and Meadow Soprano,” makes some insightful observations regarding Tony’s reaction to learning about Mead’s new boyfriend. Tony has always been aggressive towards Meadow’s men, insulting Noah right out of the gate, assaulting Jackie Jr before having him killed, and barking at Finn when he once tried to pay for dinner. Tony, she writes, “also endangered Finn by getting him a job at a mobbed-up construction site, and the ramifications of that decision eventually lead Meadow and Finn to part.” Carroll breaks down the scene where Meadow tells Tony of how Coco harassed her. We can see Tony’s blood start to burn, but he remains fairly calm and assures his daughter that “he’ll talk to somebody” about what happened. It is only when Tony learns of Mead’s new relationship with the Parisi boy that he seems to lose his patience: it is at this revelation that he gets up and rushes away from the table.
The next time we see Tony, he has come to the restaurant to unload his anger. He growls “You motherfucker! My fucking daughter? My fucking daughter!” as he smashes Coco repeatedly in the face. Tony, of course, has cause to be angry at Coco, but it’s also possible that he’s taking out his anger/jealousy toward Patrick Parisi on the New York thug. (It reminds me a bit of when Tony snarled “She was an innocent, beautiful creature” as he pounded on Ralph Cifaretto, parlaying his anger about the death of Tracee into his anger about the death of Pie-O-My.) Tony’s fury toward Coco may indeed be amplified by a displaced psychosexual element.
This interpretation, Carroll continues, is bolstered by the appearance of Coco’s bloody tooth in Tony’s trousers cuff. The image of the tooth (simultaneously hilarious and disturbing) caused many viewers, including myself, to harken back to the scene in “The Test Dream” (5.11) in which Tony spit a bloody tooth into a dish moments after displaying another bloody tooth he had kept in his pocket. This occurred during a dinner scene with Finn and his parents—Tony’s potential in-laws. I noted in my write-up for 5.11 that dreams of teeth falling out are often understood by dream-interpreters to signify a fear of losing power. Tony’s bloody teeth may have signified his fear of losing power to Meadow’s fiancé. “A bloody tooth,” Carroll infers, “is used yet again in ‘The Second Coming’ to remind us that Tony is still haunted by Meadow’s inevitable sexual maturation.” I’ll come back to Marisa Carroll’s essay in my write-up for “Made in America,” where I’ll have more to say about Meadow’s decision to be with Patrick and what her future may hold.
MELFI in KUPFERBERG’S OFFICE
Elliot Kupferberg tells Melfi of a study by the psychiatrists Yochelson and Samenow which found that sociopathic criminals use psychotherapy to sharpen their criminal skills. (The study was done in the 1970s, so it’s a little odd that Melfi wouldn’t be familiar with it. I’ll get more into the study in the next write-up.) Melfi believes Elliot is essentially saying “I told you so,” and she accuses him of smirking at her. He denies it. Personally, I didn’t see an obvious smirk on his face. But, of course, he does often have a smug air about him, particularly when he’s sipping from his giant water bottle, as he does here. (I wish somebody would curb-stomp that water bottle of his.) Melfi’s response, short though it may be, seems to indicate that she is harboring a suspicion that she has enabled and facilitated criminal behavior. This is important to note because it helps to explain Melfi’s sudden decision to terminate Tony’s therapy later.
- This episode won the Writer’s Guild Award for ‘Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series.’
- AJ snarls about “some mall in Minnesota and these gigantic fat people buying all this stuff and eating shit.” He must be referring to the Mall of America, that majestic temple of consumerism, in Bloomington MN.
- The image of AJ with a plastic bag on his head reminded some viewers of the infamous torture photo that came out of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq a few years earlier. Chase has denied that there was any conscientious connection being made.
- Song Selection. Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds” is rather fittingly playing while Lil Carmine talks to Tony about approaching Phil Leotardo to apologize.
- The Second Coming. Yeats’ poem was previously alluded to in 5.10 “Cold Cuts” when Melfi referenced a line from it: “The center cannot hold, the falcon cannot hear the falconer.” (Tony responded, “What the fuck are you talking about?”) We might also remember that just before he died, Big Pussy described the ass of a 26-year old acupuncturist down in Puerto Rico as “the second coming.” (Hey Puss, did she even really exist?)
- We find out from the FBI agents that Ahmed and Muhammed are possibly terror financiers. Those Amex credit card numbers the mob sold to them are possibly being used to fund terror.
- Elliot tells Dr. Melfi, “My father was a rabid Untouchables fan. Make of that what you will.” David Chase has said that he watched the show with his dad as a boy.
- The Hopi Indian word koyaanisquatsi, meaning “life-out-of-balance,” could be used to describe the state of SopranoWorld as the series reaches its close. (I’m familiar with the word only because of Godfrey Reggio’s eye-catching experimental film of the same name which illustrates the overwhelming technological and industrial developments that have led to the receding of nature from human life.) While Chase makes no outright reference to the Hopi concept in this hour, some viewers believe that the title of the next episode—“The Blue Comet”—is an allusion to another concept from Hopi Indian culture…
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