Sunday, March 05, 2006

The Sopranos: Anticipating Season Six

A week from today, we'll at least see the season premiere of the sixth season of The Sopranos. It's been nearly two years since the last episode aired, and it's been quite a long wait, but if Chase gives us something as strong as last season, the wait will be more than worth it. Judging from The Trailer up on YouTube, it's going to be an intense season, and that's good. There's a lot of long running plot strands that can finally come to a head. Because the show will be ending, Chase is liberated to have more major changes for the characters than he might be inclined to do if he still had a bunch of seasons still to go.

Last season was really interesting for the way it showed us Tony at his best and worst. The series has always played with the dichotomy between Tony the bad gangster and Tony the good family man, but I don't think it's ever been as pronounced as in year five. At times, he seemed to take a sadistic pleasure in inflicting pain on the people around him, something that was really evident in 'Cold Cuts,' in which Janice goes through anger management counseling, and seems to be doing better. Her ability to control her anger seems to undermine Tony's excuse that his anger problems are genetic, and jealous of what she's accomplished, he goads her into a rage, the episode ending with him walking out grinning at what he's accomplished.

At the same time, Tony is never more attractive than in the brilliant "Marco Polo," where we see Tony back in his element, entertaining Carmela's father at his birthday party. When he has sex with Carmela at the end of the episode, you really want them to get back together. The man himself is a contradiction, and by exploring that, you're left in a really tough place emotionally.

What I'm really interested in seeing explored this year is Tony's relationship with his kids, particularly A.J. At the end of season five, we see A.J. saying that he may want to be a party planner, but selling admission to a keg party for 16 year olds may actually be the start of a journey into the world of his father. Tony's whole justification for his involvement in the mafia is that it's for his family, he's sacrificing his own morality so that they can get better. So, how will it make him, and Carmela, feel if A.J. gets involved? Tony will certainly be conflicted, torn between his natural reluctance to see his son engaged in something so dangerous, and a pride that he is man enough to do it.

A major theme of the series is generational transition and the conflict that comes from it. So, exploring those issues with A.J. would be a great opportunity to add another generational layer to what Tony and Junior had back in the first season. At the same time, Meadow will presumably attempt to define herself outside of the mafia life, but if she does get married, the wedding will surely be a mafia spectacle. Finn is already wary about what he's getting into after the incident with Vito in "Unidentified Black Males."

And Meadow's aspirations will also force Carmela to further examine the choices she made. In taking back Tony, is she in essence exonerating him of his philandering and immoral behavior. Seeing Meadow moving further away for the life may make her more aware of the moral compromises she's made in her own life. Her whole character is summed up in the scene in which she goes to a psychiatrist who tells her "You chose what was easy over what was right," and it's that choice that torments her. And will her easy choice end up dooming Meadow's chance of making a life on her own?

I'm really interested to see how much the death of Adrianna has affected Christopher. It's a two year gap, so it's not emotionally raw anymore, but has he tried to start another relationship, or is he playing the field and remaining primarily committed to work. Choosing to kill Adrianna would probably make him an adult in the eyes of Tony, an equal, but will what he did end up morally plauging him? I hear that Christopher gets involved with Hollywood again, his screenwriting arc was one of my favorite things on the show, so I'd love to see that return. That was critical because it was his only out, and if he's getting more entrenched in Tony's world, he may want to start finding an out.

For all of the mob characters, the arrest of Johnny Sack looms over everything they do. This is a guy they knew, with a family, and he's in prison. When Tony flees through the snow at the end of season five, it's like he's trying to outrace what will inevitably come to him, be it in the form of a bullet or jail, he will not get out of the life unscathed.

Even if Tony were to avoid death or prison, I think it would only be possible by sacrificing someone close to him. I feel like Tony dying would be too obvious for Chase, who always seems to subvert audience expectations, while going to prison may not provide enough closure. If Tony was to save himself by sacrificing someone close to him, like Christopher, it would be a fitting end for the show, whose main theme seems to be Tony's inability to form strong relationships due to his own selfishness and insecurity.

Season five was structured much like Angel's fifth season, in that the first chunk was built out of standalone episodes that all tied back to stuff from earlier in the series, focusing primarily on Tony and one other character. So, there was a lot of storytelling going on, plots moved quickly, because most issues were dealt with in one episode, and then the character wouldn't appear for a while. And then at the end everything comes together and the plots come to a head.

I think this worked because at this point the cast is so large it's impossible to have meaningful material for everyone in each episode. Instead we got these really focused substance-filled episodes. After watching each episode I was saying "That's one of the best episodes they've ever done," then the next episode would air and I'd be like "No, that is one of the best they've done." Other than 'In Camelot,' there's not one less than brilliant episode in the whole season.

That said, if they moved back to a more soap operatic style, developing plot threads model I wouldn't object. With Tony and Carmela back together, it'll be easier to deal with more characters at once, and with the loss Adrianna and Tony B, the cast is slightly more managable.

One thing I'd like to see followed up is Artie's role in Tony's dream. The dream seemed to suggest that Tony somehow holds Artie responsible for his involvement in gang life, and I'd be curious to see if that was just something they threw in there, or if it's foreshadowing of a future plot point. Artie is Tony's only friend outside of the mafia, and their relationship is very complex. There's a scene of Artie violently pulling the table cloth out from under someone's meal at his restaurant in the trailer, so we may be seeing some rage from Artie.

One of the incredible things about the show is that there's such a deep bench of interesting characters. When you can do a riveting storyline about Vito and Finn, there's pretty much no limit to what the show can pull off. It's largely because the show has this overlying question of the morality of the mob, so storylines that might be filler on other shows are instead used to explore issues that aren't directly related to Tony. Tony's wealthy and powerful, so it's worth it for him to risk jail for the mob, but if you're a low level gangster, is it worth getting your face bashed in when you're not making much more money than you could in a real job? The fundamental issue is that the mob isn't needed anymore, they were designed to help Italians get ahead, but now Italians have completely assimilated, but the mob remains, a relic of an earlier age.

That's what the whole show is about. Right from the first episode, it's established that Tony feels like he missed out on the best days and is only around for the decline. The meta interest in films like Goodfellas and The Godfather ties in with this, he's presented with images of this idealized mafia, a contrast to the rather mundane life he leads.

The Sopranos is easily the best show on TV right now, and my third favorite of all time. It's so well shot, and thematically deep it makes everyone else look like they're not even trying.

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