AJ makes some new friends.
Chris and Paulie rage against each other
but JT Dolan gets the brunt of it.
Episode 82 – Originally aired May 6, 2007
Written by Terence Winter
Directed by Terence Winter
There are a couple of reasons why I really shouldn’t like this episode. For one thing, Christopher falls off the wagon again and this is ground that has been covered almost ad nauseum on the series. For another thing, AJ is given much of the spotlight here, and and I’m not so sure that Robert Iler was really up to the task of carrying the greatest TV show of all time on his shoulders, especially during its last hurrah.
And yet, I really like this hour. I think it works even better on re-watch because we can see how well it functions as a connecting episode, linking earlier themes and events to very significant events that are yet to come. This hour makes strong linkages to “Fortunate Son” (3.03), an episode that explored the woes of AJ and Christopher, two young men who have had the (mis)fortune of being born into mafia families. (Throughout the current hour, Chase connects AJ and Chris through various edits and matching imagery.) Chase digs deeper now into the reasons why AJ and Christopher have been caught in a state of almost perpetual woe.
At root is the question of nature vs. nurture: are we mainly products of genetics or of our environment? And how large a role does free will have in shaping our destinies, regardless of the genes we inherit or the happenstance that we’re born into. It’s a complicated issue and Tony seems to have an inconsistent view on it; he believes Christopher could beat his addictions if he just willed himself to, but he believes AJ’s depression is something genetic.
At Christopher’s housewarming, Tony ribs Chris innocently at first, making fun of the non-alcoholic beer he is drinking (“Less filling, tastes like ass”), but Tony becomes much more critical of Chris as the conversation progresses—he feels that Chris needs to “man up,” show some balls in controlling his addictions. He doesn’t buy Chris’ explanation that addiction is a disease. Tony looks on almost with disgust as Chris explains, “I inherited it. You know the problem with my mother.” But I think I can spot some sympathy in Tony’s face as well. Tony can relate because he too has inherited something very problematic from his own mother—her dark nihilism. And he, in turn, has bequeathed this deadly attitude to his son.
All evidence points to AJ being an inheritor of Livia’s nihilism. AJ is in a bad way after getting dumped by Blanca, spending much of the day vegging out on the couch and idly staring at the TV. I’ve noted that staircases are often places of menace and pain in SopranoWorld, and this seems true even in the Tom ‘n Jerry cartoon that AJ watches:
Worried about AJ’s state of mind, Carmela calls Tony to come attend to their son. Tony is chatting up a Bing stripper (that same stripper he gave a mouthful of himself to in “Cold Stones”), but quickly returns home when he hears the urgency in Carm’s voice. I don’t know if Chase is making a conscientious callback here, but Carm’s phone call now seems to evoke the urgent phone call she made to Tony about their troubled son in “The Army of One” (3.13):
It would be quite fitting for Chase to callback “The Army of One” here because the central tension of that Season 3 Finale—Carmela’s and Tony’s opposing views on how to help AJ—rears up again now. Tony’s instinct is to follow a “Strict Father” model of parenting while Carmela leans more toward the “Nurturant Parent” model. (We should note that the previous episode, “Chasing It,” was similarly about the mobsters not knowing how to deal with Little Vito—when their effort to discipline him according to the Strict Father model failed, they sent him to a Christian camp that might have better luck doing so.) Carmela wants to be empathetic and supportive, but Tony doesn’t want his son to be overly coddled. Tony seeks a manlier solution: he thinks AJ just needs to hang out with guys his age and do what boys do…
The “two Jasons” (Gervasi and Parisi) conform to Tony’s idea of masculinity better than his own son is able to. As the two young dudes eyeball the dancers at the Bing, Tony asks them how college is going, and one of them shoots back a typically goombah-fratboy answer: “Majorin’ in cash, minorin’ in ass!” If I remember correctly, it is Jason Parisi who delivers the line, but frankly it makes no difference which one of them says it. Their duplicate names, duplicate personalities and duplicate behaviors serve to doubly confirm to Tony that there is something girly and abnormal about the way his son is reacting to losing Blanca.
While sitting in front of the TV with AJ, Tony’s attention is caught by the movie Hellfighters starring John Wayne. Now there is a guy who knew how to “walk like a man.” John Wayne walked with a signature slow pace and wide-stance, like he had just gotten off a horse after riding a hundred miles of rough country. There was nothing girly or effeminate about John Wayne. Tony, literally playing the role of the Strict Father, demands that AJ go to a party with the two Jasons tomorrow night. Tony is sure that a night of beer, strippers and hanging out with the guys will pull AJ out of his dejected state. This, Tony likes to believe, is how a real man is supposed to deal with depression.
The episode title is an immediate giveaway that this hour is meant to be an exploration of certain notions of manliness. The title, of course, comes from the Four Seasons song in which a father instructs his son to get over his heartache by simply taking a more masculine posture:
Walk like a man, talk like a man
Walk like a man, my son
No woman’s worth
Crawlin’ on the earth
So walk like a man, my son
The song, first released in 1963, functions here to reiterate Tony’s midcentury notion of masculinity. We’ve known since the Pilot episode that Tony idealizes midcentury man Gary Cooper as the hero who doesn’t worry about being in touch with his feelings—he just goes out and does what needs to be done in spite of his feelings. (Nevermind that Gary Cooper’s persona is mostly a Hollywood fiction.) Tony pushes AJ to man up, ignore his pain and get back out into the world. Friends and beer, buds and suds—that’s the solution for AJ.
Perhaps Blanca also finds AJ to be insufficiently masculine. We might remember that while they were watching the Cleaver screening a couple of episodes ago, Blanca glanced at AJ immediately after Sally Boy tells Michael’s girlfriend, “What you need is a real man.” I can’t blame Blanca too much if she found AJ’s masculinity to be lacking. While I don’t think that AJ is unmanly in the sense of being effeminate, he does seem unmanly in the sense of being immature. He is basically still a kid, sheltered in the suburban home that he grew up in. In the final minutes of “The Army of One,” we saw Meadow run to her New York dorm where she was forging a life for herself, away from her parents and the mob community. We had a sense, even back then, that AJ would find it harder to break free and create an independent space for himself like his sister was doing:
In his present emotional turmoil, AJ becomes even more passive than he usually is. He is unable or unwilling to deal with his pain in any sort of constructive or proactive way. When he visits the psychiatrist’s office, he doesn’t have much of value to say to the doctor. (Some of AJ’s reticence, however, may have to do with the therapist’s tack. The psychiatrist is so somber and subdued I feel like maybe he’s been snorting some of the anti-anxiety meds he must have laying around the office.) I think there may be a bit of genius in how David Chase handles the character of “AJ” in this hour. Chase, I believe, found a way to channel some of Robert Iler’s limitations as an actor into AJ’s storyline here. Iler was never great at emoting—and AJ is turning into an emotional blank space now. Iler never seemed like a particularly cerebral actor—and AJ seems to have very little insight into his own predicament now. AJ, as played by Iler, seems to fall into a condition of passivity in the face of despair. Even at the party with the two Jasons, AJ doesn’t actively participate in the action and hilarity going on around him. He remains disengaged. When a stripper offers him a lap dance, he mumbles “Yeah, I guess” before settling into his seat with all the enthusiasm of a guy about to get a root canal.
I touched upon Kevin Stoehr’s essay (“‘Its All a Big Nothing’: The Nihilistic Vision of The Sopranos”) in my write-up for “D-Girl,” the episode in which AJ claimed that God was dead and life was meaningless. (His grandmother seconded the motion.) I’ll quickly recap the distinction that Stoehr made between the active nihilist and the passive nihilist:
- The active nihilist is able to become a life-affirming, self-possessed creator of a value-system in spite of the abyss that looms before him
- The passive nihilist is not able to find the courage or motivation to transcend a life-negating, cynical outlook, and thus everything in the universe loses value for him
AJ’s nihilistic proclamations in “D-Girl” (“Death just shows the ultimate absurdity of life,” for example) were first and foremost an attempt to deflect the anger his parents felt at him for taking the car out without permission (or a Driver’s License). But as that episode progressed, we got the sense that AJ was legitimately questioning the meaning of his life. His break-up with Blanca now brings that question of meaning back to the forefront of his thoughts. AJ’s relationship with Blanca was surely the most significant romantic relationship he has ever been in; watching it evaporate into nothing must feel like proof that “it’s all a Big Nothing” as Livia had told him years ago. When his parents try to talk to him in his bedroom, he cries out “What’s the fucking point?!” (I’ve been criticizing Robert Iler’s acting skills a little bit but he plays this scene with such convincing desperation, it puts a lump in my throat every time I watch it.) Tony and Carm walk out into the hallway where he bitterly tells her “Everything turns to shit.” (There are several connections between “Fortunate Son” and this hour, but this particular line formally connects the two episodes because Christopher said the same line in that earlier hour.)
In Dr. Melfi’s office, Tony tries to blame genetics for AJ’s crisis: “My rotten fuckin’ putrid genes have infected my kid’s soul.” (This is an almost word-for-word callback from “The Army of One” where Tony says “AJ has inherited that putrid, rotten Soprano gene” after learning that AJ also suffers panic attacks.) But is AJ truly genetically predisposed to suffer this sort of depression? Or is his current depression more a result of the environment he grew up in? David Chase has never seemed to be a big believer in “either/or” binaries, and I think he takes the position here that it could be both nature and nurture. (Episode 1.07 “Down Neck” also explored the nature vs. nurture question in regards to AJ, and Chase left it unanswered back then too.) Regardless of whether AJ learned or inherited his gloomy attitude, it is clear that his father has the same dark perspective—Tony tells Melfi now, “After all is said and done, after all the complainin’ and the cryin’ and all the fucking bullshit…is this all there is?”
AJ suffers a bout of jealousy and pain when he sees a young couple kissing at the pizzeria he manages, and he suddenly decides to quit. The whole scene takes on a humorous tone thanks to his Hispanic coworker’s befuddled responses: “What ju do?…Who?…Why ju do that?…But you’re the manayer!” It’s a funny scene, but there is something pathetic about it too. In the previous episode, AJ convinced Blanca to say ‘Yes’ (well, technically ‘Okay’) to his marriage proposal by citing how quickly he became night manager of this pizzeria, and then he strung off a list of potential future successes, culminating with an image of himself as a prosperous businessman who would provide well for his family. By quitting his job now, he breaks that potential chain of success. Without Blanca, his long-term goals are rendered meaningless. We see just how tied-in she is to his conception of his own life: his success and happiness hinge upon her. That is a lot of responsibility to dump on to your girlfriend, particularly when your girlfriend is a young mother who is already shouldering the responsibility of raising a small child. It is not very surprising at all that Blanca broke off the engagement.
It’s also not very surprising when we realize that the first link in AJ’s imagined chain of success—potentially being promoted from night manager to day manager in only a few more months—is not all that impressive, considering that this is Beansie’s pizza place (the same place where Richie smashed Beansie with a coffeepot back in Season 2). The son of a mob Boss might conceivably be made day manager of a mob-run establishment in even less time, if that son were truly competent and capable. But we’ve never known AJ to be all that competent or capable. Perhaps the pride and enchantment of being in a relationship with a woman as beautiful and sultry as Blanca stoked AJ into overestimating his own competence and capabilities. And now he’s getting a reality check. It’s quite a big bubble that burst when he lost his brown-skinned beauty.
Carmela puts down her nighttime reading material (Rebel in Chief, a book about George W. Bush) when Meadow comes into her parents’ room to warn them that AJ might be having suicidal thoughts. Carm and Tony surely know how lucky they are to have such an intelligent and perceptive daughter, but they truly don’t know what the best approach is to help their distressed son.
However, Tony’s strategy for AJ—hang out with the guys and do guy-stuff—does seem to have some positive effect. AJ stops obsessing over Blanca so much, and we even see him occasionally smile and laugh. He and the guys track down a classmate named Victor who has unpaid gambling debts to the Jasons. They drag Victor out of a party and bring him to the woods where they conduct a chemistry experiment on him: “We want to see what happens when you mix sulfuric acid with toe-jam.” (The method of torture chosen for Victor plays into the episode title; poor Vic won’t be able to “walk like a man,” perhaps even walk at all, after what the guys do to him.) AJ has clearly broken out of the almost catatonic passivity he was in earlier, he even helps to hold the victim down now. Chase does not employ slow camera zooms onto his characters’ faces very often, but the camera does pull us closer to AJ here. Though it is a quick shot, it lasts long enough for us to see the disturbing expression on AJ’s face:
It was 3.03 “Fortunate Son” that included the flashback of young Tony watching his dad chop off Mr. Satriale’s pinky finger (because of an unpaid gambling debt, just like Victor’s transgression now). Chase’s camera did a quick zoom on to young Tony’s face in that earlier scene, but young Tony did not seem anywhere near as enthralled as AJ does here by the act of grotesque violence unfolding before him.
Perhaps Tony’s strategy for AJ does help pull him out of his immediate depression, but it is also places AJ within a circle of violent, savage thugs. Tony may not be aware that he has sent his son down a potentially dangerous path—but he possibly wouldn’t mind so much even if he did know. This is the parenting strategy that Tony understands and has chosen. In the previous episode, Tony chose a similar strategy by sending Little Vito to a boot camp despite the camp’s reputation for savage, thuggish behavior. (We remember how forcefully the camp goons removed Little V from his mother’s home.) Tony is acting in accordance with a parental theory that has statistically been shown to be favored by men, particularly conservative men. Carmela’s approach to childrearing is a bit more progressive, but we nevertheless know that she is no liberal—and Chase reminds us of this with a shot of the book she is reading:
(Slate.com described the book by neo-conservative pundit and magazine editor Fred Barnes as a “love note” to President Bush.) In my write-up for 3.13 “The Army of One,” I concentrated on the different parenting theories—and different worldviews—found in George Lakoff’s book, Moral Politics: How Conservatives and Liberals Think. (Dr. Mardia Bishop was the first to apply the concepts found in the book to an analysis of The Sopranos, and I built upon her analysis.) I published my write-up for that episode years ago but I think the ideas in it are probably even more relevant today than they were then.
George Lakoff argues that conservatives instinctively identify with the Strict Father model of governance more than with the Nurturant Parent model. The Strict Father model is patriarchal and protective, with emphasis on a rigidly-defined hierarchy that often has a strong-willed, unapologetic, usually male, sometimes domineering figure at the top. Donald Trump’s personality and persona could certainly appeal to voters that prefer the Strict Father model. Trump has himself shown admiration for domineering and authoritarian ‘strongman’ leaders around the globe. Many Sopranos fans have wondered (and I’ve been asked several times) whether Tony Soprano would have voted for Mr. Trump in 2016. My first thought is that Tony probably would never give enough of a shit about politics to actually go out and vote. Beyond that, I genuinely don’t know how to answer—but it might be fun to try. We remember that Tony complained all the way back in the Pilot that he came in at the end of something. Life in America just doesn’t feel full of possibility to him as he imagines it would have felt to his father and grandfather. So I think it is very likely that Tony would have found Mr. Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan appealing and credible.
Author Miles Klee ponders the question in an article written in early 2019 for MEL magazine. He writes that “Tony fetishes a bygone America [‘Out there it’s the 1990s but in this house it’s 1954’] that never really existed, and Trump voices that chauvinistic attitude.” Klee also writes that Tony might have found a way to happily capitalize on Trump’s deregulation of various industries. It’s easy to imagine that Tony, a longtime resident of the tri-state area (and self-proclaimed ‘captain of industry’ type), may have had some prior contact directly or indirectly with Trump through a construction project or real estate deal. And Trump is rumored to have mafia ties. But, Klee notes, any dealings that Tony or his colleagues may have had with the mogul could have actually soured Tony on Trump, who has a history of stiffing and shortchanging the people he does business with. Tony, a loyal reader of the New Jersey Star-Ledger, might also be wary of Trump’s continuous cries of “Fake News.” The biggest turn-off for T, however, would probably be that the Donald doesn’t live up to Tony’s conception of “the strong, silent type” whatsoever. Whatever strength and generosity the President has is perpetually overshadowed by his constant complaining and ranting to anyone who will listen. Trump plays the eternal victim, something Tony could find very unappealing. Moreover, I don’t believe Tony would ever join that contingent of Trump supporters who feel victimized and discriminated against simply for being Caucasian. (Tony even tries to comfort AJ in this hour by reminding him that he’s white—“That’s a huge plus nowadays.”)
During a recent interview commemorating the show’s 20th anniversary, The New York Times asked David Chase what Tony would think of President Trump. Chase responded that “He would think the guy was full of shit…Tony would have thought Trump was penny-ante, in terms of his lying and presentation.” I certainly understand why Chase would reach that conclusion, but I still feel that Trump’s MAGA vision for the country would be hard for Tony to resist. It’s a vision that is arguably simplistic and outdated, but that might precisely be what Tony would find attractive about it. In an essay written years before the Trump candidacy (“The Sopranos: Gratuitous Violence or High Drama?”), Greg Desilet says that:
The despair and nihilism (“It’s all a big nothing”) Tony feels is not so much a result of a descent into moral relativism as much as it is a confrontation with the complexity of moral choice. Tony must constantly face the fact that life is much more complicated than he would like it to be. He nevertheless interprets this complication as a sign of the decay of the ‘old values’—the simplicity of melodramatic alignments and clarity of action.
Donald Trump, in my view, is not someone who frets very much over “the complexity of moral choice”—the very thing, Desilet argues, that is the source of Tony Soprano’s despair and nihilism. Therefore, I can imagine Tony readily following Trump if he came to believe, rightly or wrongly, that this red-hatted pied-piper from Manhattan could rescue him from the despair and nihilism that has always threatened him.
More difficult to guess, I think, is Carmela’s vote in 2016. It’s hard for me to imagine her ever casting a ballot for Hillary Clinton. (Carm and the other mob wives didn’t speak with much love about Hillary in episode 3.11 “Amour Fou,” although they did admire how she took hubby Bill’s philandering and “spun it into gold.”) But it’s also a little hard to imagine Carm bubbling in a vote for an unapologetic pussy-grabber. I realize that the majority of white female voters nationwide did vote for Donald, but I think as a northeastern conservative, Carmela would likely have been more immune to Mr. Trump’s particular charm. New Jersey Republicans seem more hesitant than many rural Republicans to always toe the party line, especially when it comes to certain social issues—gay rights and prayer in school, for example. The issue of abortion, however, might be the one issue that could have convinced Catholic Carmela to join Team Trump. But I think it’s also fair to say that we saw a progressive trend in some of Carmela’s attitudes over the course of time. In season 4, she told Rosalie Aprile that “Women are supposed to be partners nowadays. I’m no feminist, I’m not saying 50-50, but geez” as she tried to take more control of her financial situation, independent of her husband. And the following season, in “Sentimental Education,” she surprised Tony with her newfound interest in art, along with her more progressive view of the marriage vow and greater tolerance for homosexuality.
Also, I can imagine that liberal daughter Meadow would have more and more of Carm’s ear over time. Carmela might not have recognized or believed Mike Pence’s repeated description in early 2016 of Trump and his proposed policies as “broad-shouldered” to be a coded, sexist swipe at Hillary’s femaleness, but whip-smart Meadow might very well have convinced her mother of it. (I bring this up because using the phrase “broad-shouldered” was an almost perfect way to appeal to those voters that prefer the masculine Strict Father model of governance.) Additionally, depending on what you believe occurred at Holsten’s in The Final Scene, it’s possible for us to imagine that witnessing a radically violent event could have made Carm radically change her more traditional stances. She conceivably might have renounced every belief and value that had brought her to that point. Ultimately, though, I think Carmela’s politics are too rooted within her religiosity, lifestyle and circumstance for her to have ever sided with the Democratic candidate in 2016. My instinct is that Carmela would have gone with a conservative third-party candidate, or would have refrained from voting altogether.
In Chase’s recent interview for the New York Times, Carmela’s political leanings didn’t come up at all. But the interviewer did ask him about AJ, whether the young man might have found a place within the Trump Administration (because AJ expresses an interest, in an upcoming episode, in becoming a helicopter pilot for Trump). Chase jokingly replied that AJ “might be the new chief of staff. He’d be buddy-buddy with Stephen Miller, I know that.” (Ouch, that’s a pretty big knock—but I’m not sure who it knocks harder, AJ or the Administration…)
Here’s the thing about getting high: it feels good. I’m sure a major reason why Christopher keeps going back to using is because it feels good. There are millions of users out there who turn to drugs not because they’re trying to mask some painful trauma or because they’re grappling with deep existential issues, but simply because it’s a pleasurable thing to do. But I think Chase signals throughout the series that for Moltisanti, drugs are indeed an escape from something gnawing at his soul. He has long been dissatisfied with the “fucking regularness of life”—and his current situation with a wife and a kid and domestic responsibilities isn’t exactly a barrel of non-stop excitement. He still aches over the loss of Adriana, as we can surmise from his intimate conversation with a fellow 12-stepper after an N.A. meeting. We might figure that Chrissie the mobster wouldn’t have a whole lot in common with this new buddy at Narcotics Anonymous, who seems more like “the corporate type.” (The man works for UNICOR, the government-owned corporation that runs various programs and sells products within the Federal prison system.) But as the two men trade stories about bosses and coworkers, Chris sounds a lot like a typical disgruntled corporate employee. In a sense, that’s exactly what he is.
Chris is aggrieved not only by the Boss at the top of the NJ mob hierarchy, but also by his fellow captain Paulie Walnuts. Chrissie has suffered many small grievances by Paulie over the years, including insults to his manhood (“I guess you could call that a dick”) and improprieties toward his fiancé (“As of the wedding day, anything that touches her pussy is off-limits”). The hostility between the two men bubbled to the surface when they were lost in the Pine Barrens in Season 3, and then again outside a restaurant in Season 5. (A waiter’s seizure saved them from completely turning on each other in the latter case.) Now, business dealings involving Christopher’s father-in-law Al are pushing the two men to the brink.
Things escalate dramatically after Paulie sends his nephew Little Paulie to take advantage of an old man working at Al’s store in order to filch some Makita saws. Chris and Little Paulie are friends (we saw them hanging out along with Adriana and Tina Francesco back in Season Five’s “Rat Pack”). But their friendship doesn’t keep Chris from getting his vengeance on Little Paulie with extreme prejudice. Chris tosses the man right out a window onto the sidewalk 30 feet below. This is an incredible scene. It packs quite a wallop because, of course, it is a violent and shocking thing that happens to Little Paulie. But I want to take a closer look at how the scene’s dramatic impact also comes out of the effective and efficient use of camerawork and editing. This is a precise, powerful 40 seconds of television:
The opening shot establishes the location, but also shows the height from which Little Paulie will soon fall. Little Paulie makes a joke about toilet paper that’s so dumb, it reminds us that he is no evil criminal mastermind—he is just Paulie’s pawn and probably doesn’t deserve such horrific punishment. (Or perhaps reminds us that his sense of humor is so bad, he does deserve some kind of punishment.) A series of quick flashcuts, along with a superfast camera tilt from Christopher’s knee up through Little Paulie’s groin, emphasize the suddenness of Chrissie’s attack. We get a quick zoom onto Benny’s face, reflecting his realization that Little Paulie is about to be flung through the window. We get a few more flashcuts of the attack, and then finally Little Paulie’s fall is captured from three different angles. I think the detail I love the most is the bits of broken glass that fall onto Little Paulie as he lays on the ground. I doubt that this detail is a conscientious callback, but we have seen Little Paulie have bad luck with broken glass in previous episodes:
(Someone threw a bottle at the back of his head in 4.03 “Christopher” and Eugene Pontecorvo smashed him with a Snapple in 5.09 “Unidentified Black Males.”)
Furious about his nephew’s injuries, Paulie tears up Christopher’s front yard with his Cadillac. (An earlier scene showing Chris’ wife and daughter spending time in the front yard establishes that Paulie’s destruction of landscape was potentially life-threatening as well.) Rather than allow the feud to escalate even further, Christopher pulls back. He approaches Paulie at the Bing and apologizes. Earlier in the hour, Paulie carped at Chris when he tried to defend drinking only a club soda (“Don’t get cunty”), but now Paulie actually orders a club soda for Chris. Chris, however, decides to “man up”—he orders himself a cocktail instead. David Chase makes a clever cut here, from Chris drinking to AJ quaffing a shot with his new buddies:
The cut is perhaps a little too on-the-nose, too obviously making the point that Chris and AJ are both trying to fit in with the crowd. But the underlying point is significant: both young men are behaving passively. Chris quits his active effort at sobriety and passively has a drink instead, and AJ passively goes along with these undergrad goombahs instead of actively doing the difficult emotional and mental work that would help pull himself out of his heartache.
Chris drinks too much and starts rambling (sounding a little bit like he did after Livia’s funeral in Season 3). Paulie starts breaking his balls, much to the amusement of the other guys. Chase does a slow-motion pan of the room here, with Chris in the foreground and the other men laughing in the shot’s midground. The staging of the shot reminded me of an earlier shot in the hour which had a hurt and humiliated AJ in the foreground with some construction guys laughing in the midground:
The slow-motion pan at the Bing is a bit heavy-handed for The Sopranos, because the show rarely ever utilized slo-mo shots. But I think the shot is justified here because this is such a consequential moment: Chris is sliding down the slippery slope of substance abuse once again, and this time he will not get a chance to recover. The scene is also consequential, I believe, because it may be at this moment that JT Dolan’s fate gets sealed…
Chris is angry and hurt but he cannot lash out at his colleagues, so he storms out of the strip joint. He soon arrives at JT’s apartment. I think actor Tim Daly was phenomenal in this series, and it is a testament to his talent and presence that many viewers think of “JT Dolan” as a pretty significant character even though he only appeared in 4 total episodes. His cumulative screentime probably comes out to less than 30 minutes. His scene here is about four minutes long, and it’s a humdinger. JT looks clean and sober, he seems to have gotten his life on track. He’s working on a deadline for a Law & Order script. (We’ve known that he has wanted to work for Dick Wolf from the time we first met him, back in “In Camelot,” and it looks like that dream has come true.) Chris may view JT’s healthy mental and emotional state as a reproach to his own sad and pathetic state—JT has been able to get clean in a way that he himself has not. Chris starts spilling out details about his criminal career, things that JT knows he shouldn’t be hearing. After saying too much, Chris puts a bullet in JT’s head.
I was quite surprised by this turn of events when I first saw it, and I’m guessing most viewers felt the same. Of course, there really isn’t anything surprising about Christopher’s murder of JT, other than the suddenness with which it happens. I don’t necessarily believe that Christopher went to JT’s place with the intention of killing him, but JT’s less-than-warm reception of him (as well as the fact that Chris told him things he shouldn’t have) made it inevitable that JT would die. JT’s death was also, in a sense, thematically inevitable because he was one of the perennial victims of SopranoWorld. He suffered at Christopher’s hands for years before finally being snuffed out by Christopher.
I think another thing that motivates Chris to kill JT now is something that I touched upon in previous write-ups: Christopher’s sense of being excluded from the world of Hollywood. Film company VP Amy Safir made him feel like nothing more than a low-life goombah in “D-Girl,” and Hollywood A-Lister Ben Kingsley gave him the cold shoulder in “Luxury Lounge.” JT Dolan, unlike Chrissie, has successfully meshed himself into the world of filmmaking and television. Chris may very well be feeling some envy. When JT tells him, a minute before he dies, that “You’re in the mob, Chris,” it drives home the point: Chris is a skinny-guinea mobster through-and-through, he can never be a serious Hollywood player. It is true that Chris did get his movie made, but he did it only by turning to his fellow mafioso for financing. Now, however, even those guys seem unsupportive, turning away from him as he battles his addictions. Chris Moltisanti is a man without a home. His sense of exclusion is complete.
I think the final scene of the hour is one of the most poignant of Season 6, and much of its power comes from the song that scores it: Los Lobos’ “The Valley.” Chris gets out of his car in the dark night and walks toward his house. He stops for a moment to upright a tree sapling that was knocked down in Paulie’s rampage. (Interestingly, we hear the song lyrics “Across the land where the earth was tough as clay” just as Chris pats some earth into place around the straightened tree; and then the next line starts “Looked at their hands” just as Chris claps the dirt off his hands.)
Trees have been long-associated with mortality and death on this series. We might associate trees specifically with Adriana La Cerva ever since “Long Term Parking” when Chase’s camera tilted away from her death-scene up to the overhead canopy. And so Chris fixing the fallen tree now perhaps symbolically signifies that he is trying to get his mind right about his former fiancé. That little tree, along with the rest of the landscaping, also seems to represent domesticity and family life—and so when Chris uprights that tree, it also seems to signify that he is making a serious effort at being an upright family man. Still feeling a little drunk (and perhaps some adrenaline after committing murder), he half-staggers, half-swaggers—walks like a man?—up the steps into his house. He may be, figuratively speaking, a man without a home, but at least he has this house to come home to.
“The Valley” continues over the credits. Chris had hinted minutes earlier to JT that he is carrying some regrets about not entering the Witness Protection Program with Adriana, and the song lyrics seems to reflect this regret:
They could have gone
But instead chose to stay
To watch the clouds way up high
As they turned to gray
If Chris had cooperated with the Feds and pulled out of the mafia, JT Dolan would probably be alive right now. Some mysterious combination of the song’s elements—maybe the atmospheric instrumentation and the high-E note that rings through the chord changes and Dave Hidalgo’s plaintive singing—manages to turn “The Valley” into a lament and final goodbye to JT.
I’ve never discussed the way the end-credits are presented in The Sopranos, but this might be a good time to take a look at it. Many films/TV shows use an upward scroll (“crawl”) to go through the credits, which is all fine and good, but Chase prefers to use static placards which are arguably more effective at acknowledging and honoring the actors. Tim Daly gets the first placard all to himself here in his final episode:
Generally speaking, the actors are ranked in order (depending on their star-status and the importance of the character they play in the episode at hand) and grouped into the placards. The higher you rank in a particular episode, the fewer co-stars you have to share the screen with:
It might humbling to have to share a placard with four other actors, but I think you still stand a better chance of being recognized and noticed through this type of end-credit than through the scrolling up type. Personally, I wouldn’t mind sharing a placard with twenty other actors if it meant I got to be on The Sopranos. I’d prefer to have a 10-second cameo as a toilet-scrubber on this series than to have a lead role on virtually any other series. (Of course, I have the luxury of feeling this way because I’m not a working actor. I’m sure most actors would almost always prefer the meatier role.)
“WHAT ROUGH BEAST”
There’s a sequence here towards the end of the hour at the Soprano home that I find very interesting. It’s late at night and Tony and AJ have each just arrived home. (Tony quickly puts away his sawed-off shotgun when he realizes that it’s only his son pulling up in the driveway behind him.) Meadow is in the kitchen talking with her mom. Just as Tony and AJ go toward the front door with this kind of slouchy walk (walk like a man?), Meadow mentions something about some people “slouching up 57th Street.”
I’m probably making too much of this, but Meadow’s phrase echoes a line from W.B. Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming” (a poem which becomes significant a couple of episodes from now): “What rough beast, its hour come round at last / Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born.” Meadow’s words seem to equate Tony and AJ to Yeats’ slouching beast (something the episode “The Second Coming” will more clearly do later). Also potentially significant: Meadow’s line now replaces the “Bethlehem” in the poem with “57th Street.” Bethlehem, of course, is the birthplace of Jesus. Manhattan’s 57th Street, in contrast, is a mecca of shopping and consumerism. Several high-end retailers and boutiques including Tiffany’s, Bergdorf Goodman, Saks and Louis Vuitton sit either directly on the street or just off it on one of its cross-streets. At the time this episode originally aired, there were plans to build various ultra-luxury, super-expensive skyrise condominiums along 57th. Some of these plans came to fruition and 57th Street today is known as Billionaire’s Row. In a sense, 57th Street may be our American Bethlehem, the place that represents our true American religion: overindulgent consumption.
We might remember that “57th Street” was explicitly equated with shopping and consumerism in a previous episode. In “Luxury Lounge,” one of the Italian hitmen who came to the U.S. to carry out the hit on Rusty Millio bought a watch for his mother at one of the luxe stores on the street:
Just another (possible) example of the depth and connectivity to be found on Chase’s TV series…
- I keep referring to Little Paulie as Paulie’s “nephew” although technically—if I’m getting the family tree right—he is now Paulie’s first-cousin once-removed because of the revelation about Paulie’s birth-mother last season.
- Chase demythologizes the police a little bit in this hour. Police officers were still basking in the glow of their 9/11 heroism when this episode first aired (very justifiably), but we see cops lining up here to buy tools they must know to be ill-gotten. One of them is wearing a “9/11” sweater while he agrees to illegally squash a ticket for Al.
- Tony sings Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” as he walks down the stairs, and this song will be prominently heard in the next hour.
- We hear a couple of lines from a famous Rush song playing on Tony’s radio: “Today’s Tom Sawyer, he gets high on you / The space he invades he gets by on you.” Perhaps the subtext is that Tony and the mob invade spaces where they’re not welcome. (The next hour will have a song about invading space too…)
- Contemporary capitalists. Carlo says he is happy that Walmart exists (the stores were beginning to become ubiquitous across the American landscape around this time) because the company’s presence further opens up the ports—making it easier for the mob to do their naughty business with overseas partners.
- Pee. During an uncomfortable conversation with Patsy regarding AJ, Tony says “I gotta take a leak” and leaves the room. T was probably just trying to get out of the conversation, but in any case, all five episodes thus far in Season 6B have had characters talk about peeing.
- Tony tells AJ that the half-billion-dollar music industry relies on heartache. This line is what most obviously generates the episode title, which of course comes from a Frankie Valli song. Episode 2.05 had used another Valli song as its title: “Big Girls Don’t Cry.”
- When AJ returns home after the attack on Victor, he seems restless and tells his family “I’m wired.” He’s probably feeling some of the after-effects of an adrenaline rush, but it could also be that the Lexapro (the anti-depressant his shrink prescribed him) mixed with alcohol can cause anxiousness. Alcohol can also reduce the efficacy of the drug, something to keep in mind over the next few episodes as AJ loses all of the emotional gains he made in the latter part of this hour.
- Though we don’t know which way Tony would have voted in 2016, we have some idea which way James Gandolfini leaned politically. He told GQ prior to the 2004 election that he would be voting for John Kerry that year. The magazine noted Gandolfini’s progressive stance on several issues: “…health care, the removal of sports from many Oregon schools, corporate tax avoidance. ‘The money that goes to these islands offshore!’ he exclaims. ‘I paid more taxes than Enron one year—what the fuck is that about?'”
- After the shocking event that starts off the next episode, Tony seems like he himself will adopt the strategy that he gives to AJ here—go out and do guy-things—when he makes plans to go out to Las Vegas. That city holds a place in our cultural imagination as a sort of chauvinistic playground for the Midcentury Man, a place for gambling and whoring and physical indulgence. But in Chase’s hands, Vegas becomes a place for contemplation and self-discovery…