Monday, March 13, 2006

The Sopranos: 'Members Only' (6x01)

SPOILERS: All of The Sopranos, if you have not seen this episode, do not read on

The season premiere is usually the toughest episode of a season to pull off, because it has the difficult task of dropping you into a world you've been gone from for a long time, and also has to fulfill the built up expectations of the time between seasons. And for no show are those expectations built up more than for The Sopranos, which hasn't aired an episode since June 2004. I've been eagerly anticipating this premiere ever since then, and it lived up to expectations as well as anything with that sort of buildup is going to.

The show usually has some kind of montage at the beginning to establish things, but never anything as odd as this. The types discussed in the spoken word piece clearly conform to the roles the characters are going to be playing this season, and it creates a very uneasy feeling, which builds to what happens later in the episode. And at the same time, it sets up the new status quo of the characters, so job well done on this.

Carmela's dream is critical to understanding where she is in the episode. She probably knows that Adrianna is dead, but either can't bring herself to acknowledge it, or is just keeping quiet, hinting around the issue with Tony, who remains noncommittal when it comes to discussing her fate. Seeing her fade out of the house was a brilliant image.

Initially, it looks like things are going well for the crew. Tony and Carmela are on good terms, and as far as we can tell, he's not even cheating on her. He's clearly aged quite a bit, gotten heavier, and generally seems more content with how things are, staying civil with Phil, even when Hesch's son in law gets attacked. I think seeing Johnny arrested has made him realize how easily everything has could be gone, and the experience with Adriana has hardened his belief that he can only trust family.

On the whole, the crew seems much more like a business. There's no sense of fun in what they're doing anymore, it's much more about staying out of jail, and making as much money as possible. Other than the scene with the sunglasses, there's none of the usual antics. Even when Tony's out on his boat, he's alone. I don't think there's been another episode with Tony alone as much.

The stuff with Carmela in this episode was fantastic, showing us everything we need to know about where she is in only a small amount of screentime. She's fully embraced Tony's world again, asking him to use his influence to get things done for her, and loving the car he gets her. The scene where she goes to Ginny's car to show off the house is very cruel, as she flaunts her material gains while Ginny is struggling with creditors.

Carmela has become much more Tony like, both in that scene and the scene with her father, where she yells at him for not performing to her satisfaction. Of course, she gets shut down at the end. She's flaunting the Porsche that Tony gave her when Angie Bompancero says she passed on that car, and instead bought herself a Corvette. She's acheived on her own what Carmela needed Tony to do, and that deflates the sense of superiority that Carmela had for most of the episode.

I loved the episode, my biggest problem was that we didn't get to spend time with all the characters, I guess after waiting two years, I don't want to wait another week to get in depth with Meadow, A.J. and Christopher. From what we've seen, it seems like Christopher has fully committed himself to work, and is clearly positioning himself as the second in command and probable heir to Tony. He's still sober, and there's no evidence that what happened with Adrianna has affected him. Though I would guess next week, when he has to deal with Tony being shot, will bring up some of those old feelings.

The other character on the move is Vito, who's not only thinner, he's positioned himself as the most powerful captain in Tony's crew. The scenes with Vito and Eugene are critical because they show that Vito has the ambition to become head of the family. Of course, we know that his sexual preference may affect that, and I could definitely see Vito getting killed if that comes out. However, for now, I would guess that Tony's injuries are going to set up a power struggle between Vito and Christopher. There's no clear second in command, and the thought that Tony could die is clearly going to create a lot of chaos in the family. Silvio would seem to be the logical person to take over, but he's never expressed a desire to be head of the family. Clearly, the shape of the family post-Tony is going to be a big issue in the next chunk of episodes.

As always, generational conflict is a major element of the show. Tony's generation is getting older, and they all seem to be settling into set routines, Artie's back with Charmaine, Tony's back with Carmela. They're getting older, and aren't prepared to face old age alone. If for no other reason than looking at Junior, it should be clear to Tony why he would want to have someone with him as he gets older. And now that he's been shot, is Carmela going to have to take care of him as he's been taking care of Junior?

The running thread through this episode is Eugene's attempt to retire from mob life and move to Florida. However, this isn't a life you can retire from, I'm sure if it was acceptable, a lot of the best guys would pack it in, but in their world it's not possible. If you have the knowledge that all of them do, it's not possible to move on.

Gene has been in a lot of episodes, but always in the background, so when it became apparent that he was getting his own storyline, I had a bad feeling about him. However, the way they depicted his decline was more powerful than I'd anticipated. This is a guy who's completely lost control of his life, his wife is against him, his boss is against him, and the feds need more from him.

As the series has progressed, the feds have increasingly controlled the way that Tony and his crew do business. This episode sees the loss of the only surviving informer we now about, Ray Curto, and the death of an informer we didn't know about, Gene. The scene where he finally hangs himself is brutal, and a striking finale to his storyline. This episode seems designed to reinforce the idea that there's only two ways out of the life, death or jail.

And that's where the ending comes in. Junior's descent into senility was one of the strongest elements of last season, and as we come in here, he's completely lost it. Tony feels guilty about what he did to his mother, so he's trying to let Junior live out his final days in his own home, and in the process, he hopes to somehow atone for what ultimately happened to his mother. However, his inability to let go of that guilt winds up getting him shot at the end of the episode.

That was a brilliant twist, and even though it's near impossible that Tony will actually end up dead, the event itself completely changes the show's status quo. The way the sequence plays out is great, I love Junior hiding in the closet, and Tony's agonizing crawl to the phone.

Right from the start, the show is messing with everything we've come to expect. I need to see the next new episode and find out how everyone deals with this, particularly how Tony ends up dealing with Junior. It's good to have this show back.


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