In the End, Will Tony Dodge the Bullet?
As has been traditional with “The Sopranos,” the latest cycle of episodes (technically not a new season but instead the second half of the sixth season, according to HBO) starts off slowly and even uneventfully. Many regulars are missing in action from tonight’s curtain raiser. Michael Imperioli, who plays Tony’s nephew and mob lieutenant Christopher, is seen for less than a minute. He makes a phone call to wish Tony a happy birthday. Tony thanks him and slams down the phone. He’s as happy about getting old as movie stars and fashion models are.
The specter of mortality isn’t something he longs to see along the road ahead, either. He’s held death at bay, if just barely, for decades. But there will come a time when that will no longer be possible. Will it come somewhere in that ninth episode? Smart money says it won’t — in part because Chase has let it be known that one thing he doesn’t like about the classic Hollywood gangster movies, most of them made at Warner Bros. in the 1930s, is that they ended with the death of the major mobster and the implicit moral that “crime doesn’t pay.”
They had to end that way because of rules in the Motion Picture Production Code, to which all the major studios subscribed.
It’s very hard to imagine James Gandolfini as Tony aping Edward G. Robinson in “Little Caesar,” lying in or near the gutter as life leaks out of his body and gasping rhetorically, “Mother of mercy — is this the end of Rico?” Or the end of Tony? Chase likes to do what the audience least expects, notes HBO vice president Quentin Schaffer, and what they expect is probably Tony expiring in the traditional hail of bullets.
No, there will be some other kind of hail.
Perhaps Tony, who’s teetered so long on the boundary between neurosis and psychosis, will finally slip over to the dark side, where the notorious Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) is already living — so senile he not only wandered off to his old neighborhood expecting it to be unchanged from his youth but also, of course, shot Tony in the stomach during a harrowing sequence of episodes last year. Among other things, the ordeal showed us explicitly what kind of damage bullets can do to a human body, even when the injury isn’t fatal.
These installments were good examples of how unpredictable “The Sopranos” could be, with Tony simultaneously lying in a hospital bed and living a strange, surreal dream life in which he was visiting a hotel in another city as a delegate to some sort of convention, imagining hostile nuns and monks threatening and thwarting him. Some viewers were irked by what they considered Chase’s self-indulgence, but others, this critic included, marveled at the daring inherent in the departure, in the unorthodox narrative construction, in the fascinating details and possible symbolism of Tony’s dream journey.
Tony has contemplative moments in tonight’s episode, when the world comes to a stop and he sits gazing out at a serene and secluded lake near the vacation home of Tony’s stocky sister Janice (Aida Turturro, formidable as ever) and her husband, Bobby “Bacala” Baccalieri (Steven R. Schirripa). Tony looks at the lake so longingly that you feel sure there’ll be a return visit, or at least a flyover, by the wayward ducks that Tony found in his swimming pool during the first episode of “The Sopranos” in 1999.
We didn’t know what we were in for then, and we don’t really know what we’re in for now. Because Chase continues work on the ninth episode (the only one he has directed, as well as written, since that first one), HBO was able to distribute only two of the new episodes to critics, not the four or six made available in past years. Chase doesn’t want episodes released even in rough-cut versions until he’s had a chance to go over them. He supervises editing and post-production on each installment. This is, indisputably, his baby, and he’s not about to let anyone else take over.
So only Episodes 78 and 79 were distributed to the press.
No. 78, airing tonight at 9, is called “Soprano Home Movies,” though we see only fleeting glimpses of the old Super 8 films that Janice has had transferred to DVDs as a birthday present for Tony. (Tony’s wife, Carmela, played impeccably by Edie Falco, earlier gave him a unique gift all her own — followed by a relatively prosaic set of golf clubs.) The group tries playing karaoke with a video game and then settles into a round of Monopoly.
It could be any family grouping, siblings and in-laws, in any American home, except that Tony cheats at Monopoly — it’s just essential to him that he win — and he and Bobby get into a ridiculous argument that turns physical and then violent, so violent that someone could conceivably end up in the hospital, or worse. Violence has naturally been part of virtually every episode of “The Sopranos,” yet it almost always startles, even if we think we know it’s coming. Skillful directors, as well as the artful scripts, have kept the violence menacing, frightening and often very sad.
“Soprano Home Movies” was directed by Tim Van Patten, who amounted to almost nothing as an actor, appeared to have little serious future in show business and then turned out to be a first-class and inventive director, as proven by “Sopranos” episodes and other TV work he has done.
Next week’s episode makes its own comment on violence; there’s a kind of fake-out in which we discover that the carnage we’re seeing is the make-believe, thrill-kill kind, a scene from “Cleaver,” the horror-slasher movie that Christopher and comrades made with mob-friendly folk from Hollywood. A more virulent killer, meanwhile, strikes a member of the mob who is vegetating in prison; the diagnosis is lung cancer and the outlook is three months. One of the trustys in the prison hospital is played by film director Sydney Pollack: “I killed my wife,” he matter-offactly explains, after he found her “cheating on me with a chiropractor.”
Geraldo Rivera and Daniel Baldwin appear as themselves, Tim Daly returns as an intimidated screenwriter, and Tony has another session with Dr. Melfi, played by Lorraine Bracco. That Tony sought help from a psychiatrist in that first episode years ago, and was able to admit he was experiencing feelings of insecurity and even regret, helps explain our lingering sympathy for him — even though he has been known to beat an innocent man to a pulp just because he felt the need to reassert his authority and his image as a thug.
“The Sopranos” has always been about much more than the mob, and as this final movement builds to a climax, the prospects and possibilities are both tantalizing and scary. Tony’s world — absurd, perverse and bestial as it is — has come to seem very real, very plausible, very American. Chase has illuminated so many dark corners already that one shudders in anticipation of those still to come.
Without question, “The Sopranos” is a landmark in television drama — one of the liveliest and deadliest landmarks ever. It will be exhilarating and depressing to see it go.
Hail, the conquering antihero: Steven Van Zandt and James Gandolfini in the acclaimed HBO series, which returns after a long hiatus.