Monday, March 20, 2006

The Sopranos: 'Join the Club' (6x02)

SPOILERS: All of the series, including Join the Club and Six Feet Under through Ecotone

Last week's premiere was notable for being a nice return to the world of The Sopranos, with a bunch of interesting stuff going on, and a nice shocker at the end. This week's episode opens up a whole new realm of possibilities for the rest of the show's run, with the sort of complex, reality bending storylines that this show does better than any show since Twin Peaks.

Structurally, the episode reminds me a lot of Six Feet Under's Ecotone, which has the same basic setup, the main character lies between life and death, and while his family and friends worry about him, he drifts into various alternate universes, between life and death. I think the fact that Tony wasn't as likely to die meant that the episode wasn't as viscerally effecting as Ecotone, but as things unfolded, the incredible potential for future storylines became apparent.

At first, I assumed that the Tony Soprano we see at the beginning of the episode was a Tony from an alternate universe, where he hadn't joined the mob and instead taken a legitimate job. It was interesting to hear Tony without his usual accent, and the only hint that something was out of place was the glimpse of a doctor in the spotlight of the helicopter. The image of the helicopter light shining down on him effectively conveyed the feeling of something being awry in this world.

Tony loses his briefcase, and according to him, "my whole life is in that case," so Tony loses his identity, and he's reduced to the core of his self. I loved the crisis of a man who has no identification, and thus no identity. He can call his family, but otherwise, he's gradually slipping into this other identity. He begins to take on Kevin Finnerty's problems, with the Buddhist monks, and when he sees the doctor, it's an odd feeling, is it Kevin Finnerty who has the Alzheimers or is it Tony Soprano? The two are merging into one, and the longer he stays as Kevin Finnerty, the more he loses any sense of actually being anyone.

There's a clear emphasis on religious imagery, a questioning of one's actions. The monks tell 'Kevin' that he messed up their heating system, calling to mind hell. The fires raging on TV further emphasize this. At the end of the dream sequence, Tony sits on the bed, and chooses not to call his family. It's like, stranded in this hotel, he no longer feels worthy of calling them. He hasn't become someone else, he's become no one, and beyond that, he's gradually losing his mind.

I'm guessing that the Alzheimers diagnosis is a forebearer of the brain damage that will afflict real Tony. It would be a brilliant twist to have this powerful guy become dependent, and suffer from the very same problems that afflicted Junior. I would guess that when Tony finally does come back, he'll be incapciatated, and will gradually recede from the role of commander, much like Jackie Sr. back in season one. Tony will become the very thing he's complained about, someone who's completely dependent and powerless to help himself, and he'll have to face the same questions about nursing and assisted living that he'd previously held for the older generation.

The major theme of the series is the conflict between the younger generation and older generation. As Tony said when talking to the black minister back in season two, the older generation's almost gone, so his generation is becoming the elders. If AJ were to kill Uncle Junior, that would end that generation and announce the arrival of a new one. It would make Tony the old man of the family.

As I mentioned earlier, the waiting in the hospital scenes didn't have the emotional impact of the stuff in 'Ecotone,' and in some ways felt like retreading of when Christopher was shot. However, the graphic nature of Tony's wounds was pretty disturbing. Janice's overwrought reaction was great, always bringing the spotlight back to her, and all of the solliloquies directed towards Tony were great.

The rest of the episode sets up some potentially interesting dynamics. Within the mob family, Vito again is making a play for power, even as Silvio has taken over as temporary leader. They're not really facing the potential that Tony might not be able to lead, once they find out for sure what's up with him, we'll get to see the power structure sort itself out.

Crucial to that will be Christopher, who's remained something of an enigma this season. He's there to comfort Carmela, but at the same time he seems more interested in the FBI agents at Satriale's than he is with helping the mob family. Is he going to be there to make a play for power, or is what happened to Tony going to push him away from the family? And there's still the issue of how he's been dealing with Adriana's death.

With Tony's immediate family, the big issue now is what will happen to AJ. Before the season began, I was expecting that he would go through something similar to Jackie Jr.'s arc back in season three, and this episode makes that comparison explicit. If AJ stays out of school, I don't see him holding down a minimum wage job, it's much more likely that he'll get drawn into the mob world. If Tony's incapcitated, the big conflict will be between AJ and Carmela. Rosalie makes it clear that if she just lets him go, he's going to end up in trouble, and go the way of Jackie Jr. If AJ does kill Junior, he'll be crossing a line, and that'll basically put him into the mob world for life. I'm hoping that he does end up killing Junior because that will open up a ton of possibilities.

If Finn does come to Jersey, it will mean that both he and Meadow are in a sort of limbo between college and the working world. The longer they stick around the mob world in that state, the more likely they are to get drawn in. Bringing Finn back would put Vito in an awkward situation, I'm assuming that his homosexuality will eventually come out and cause problems for him.

This episode has me rethinking the entire direction of the series' close. I assumed that it was pretty much either prison or death for Tony, but this episode opens up the possibility of a slow decline. Without Tony, the mob could be thrown into disarray and it's quite possible that the entire crew could be destroyed, broken by their own jealousy and power struggles, or federal intervention.

This is an episode that's great on its own, but really powerful in the new direction that it opens for the rest of the series. The premiere made it clear that this is a great series, but this episode reminds you that this series is functioning at a whole other level than anything else of television.


gonestealth said...

Wrong on all counts.. but you aint alone.. No one was correct about how this series unfolded..

Patrick said...

I don't think I was so far off, but in terms of specifics, yeah, nobody guessed the ending.

gonestealth said...

oh dude.. i was not being a jerk because believe me i was dead wrong the whole series.. thats what made it so awesome..