Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The Sopranos: 'The Fleshy Part of the Thigh' (6x04)


While this episode wasn't as conspicuously emotional or mindblowing as the last two, it does take on a structure unlike any episode the show has ever done, simultaneously functioning as a street level gangster tale and a philosophical discussion of faith, science and the nature of existence. Only one show can fit all of this into an hour.

The main plot has a lot in common with previous "Human Tragedy" episodes of the series, in which we see an innocent figure get caught up in the mob world and burned by their involvement. One of my favorite arcs that the show ever did was the David Scatino storyline back in season two, and the Jason Barone arc is a similar story of someone who's not aware of how to do business with the mob and winds up getting burned as a result.

It's not explicitly commented on in the episode, but I feel like Jason Barone's experience shows us a vision of what could happen should AJ get involved with mob life. Like Barone's parents, Tony and Carmela have tried to shield AJ from that world, and he would probably have a similarly difficult entrance should he go the gangster route. Tony does make the parallel explicit when he tells Jason that he's more whiny than his son.

And the Jason arc is a great continuation of the generational conflict that is at the heart of the series. Unlike his father, Jason does not know how to conduct business, and as a result things go to hell once the older generation is gone. Will Tony's crime family have a similar meltdown once he's gone? Even though the Barone thing is going over some territory we've seen before, it works because it's easy to empathize with this outsider who's thrown into the middle of this criminal world, with no idea of how to handle himself.

While the storyline clearly has some major implications for the NY/NJ relations, the primary emotional pull comes from how the story is played against Paulie's troubles. The brilliance of the Paulie storyline is the way that it plays our logic against our attachment to the character. In theory, Paulie should just be able to recognize that even though Nucci isn't his biological mother, she's taken care of him all his life, and the circumstances of his birth shouldn't change his affection for her.

However, so much of the mob world is based on the bond between family, and the loss of his throws Paulie into chaos. The justification that a lot of the mobsters use for their actions is that they're just doing it to provide for their families. Tony said this to Melfi on multiple occasions, and for Paulie, he could justify anything by saying that he's doing to provide for his mother, and make up for what he put her through when he was younger. And, in theory, there's no reason for that to change.

However, Paulie is also a guileless business man, and the idea that he's spending $4,000 a month to put someone who's not his mother in a nursing home doesn't work. He seems to feel that he's been scammed into providing for her, and all the luxuries in her room are a mockery of the life he's leading. I think Paulie always felt superior to Tony in that he respected his mother and was able to provide for her, and now he finds that completely shattered.

So, when he sees Mrs. Barone's outpouring of love for her son, it doesn't make him realize that Nucci has that same feeling for him, instead it makes him want to destroy that love. Occasionally the show goes out of its way to remind you that these are bad people, and the episode's finale was certainly an example of that.

The other major thing going on here was Tony's intellectual exploration. I thought this storyline was brilliant, a wonderful followup to the Kevin Finnerty stuff. Tony has always been way beyond his fellow mobsters intellectually, something that's rarely been more apparent than in this episode.

It's still early to speculate on how much Tony has been changed by the coma experience, but if this episode is any indication, he seems to have become a bit more understanding when it comes to dealing with others. His encounter with mortality has put him above the fray, able to see the consequences of his actions rather than just the emotion of the moment. This is what separates him from Paulie, who does something that could get him in huge trouble with Tony just to satisfy his emotional need for revenge.

I saw two scenes as really critical to the episode. One was the scene with Hesch, Chris and Pastor Bob. First off, it was hilarious to see Aaron back. I was seriously not expecting that and his Terri Schaivo Vigil t-shirt was hilarious. It's astonishing the way the show is able to weave really hilarious bits of comedy into all the darkness. This scene was interesting because Tony doesn't outright dismiss Bob's offer of prayer.

Tony's experience in the Kevin Finnerty world seems to have opened up to the idea that there's more to life than just the physical world we live in. As the scene opens, Tony is talking about the insignificance of humanity in the overall lifecycle of Earth, and Christopher responds "I don't feel that way." We still haven't gotten that much insight into where Christopher is this season, clearly he's got some major issues still lingering from the death of Adrianna. And that comment would indicate that he sees a significance to what we're doing, he's not ready to write off his existence as merely a drop in the ocean of existence.

Later in the scene, Pastor Bob is talking about faith, and Tony says "Must be nice to have something to hold onto." We cut to Christopher who looks really uneasy. He's got a lot of ill feeling towards Tony because Tony took away the one thing that he did have to hold onto, Adrianna. I'm really interested to see where Christopher goes, and just from his demeanor this season, it's clear that he's a bit darker, more mature, but also sadder.

Speaking with Pastor Bob, Tony seems genuinely interested and open to his message. Before the coma, Tony would not have been willing to flatter this guy, he was never one to put up with religious figures. In some ways, the scene is undercut by the extreme ridiculousness of Bob's idea that the dinosaurs were on Earth the same time as Adam and Eve. Considering how well Bob was selling things before, it's clear that he took too big a leap in telling Tony that, and undermined his sales pitch.

My favorite scene of the episode was the Da Lux's room scene. There's so many layers here, on the one hand you've got Paulie's sullenness, and inability to even contemplate any of the ideas that Schwinn is talking about. He's completely set in his ways, choosing to bask in his own problems rather than overcome them. This ties into the Ojibwe quote that Tony continually mentions throughout the episode.

But the really interesting thing is what Schwinn is talking about Tony's reaction. Schwinn brings out the quantum mechanics idea that on a base level, we're all just a collection of particles, and there are no boundaries between an individual and the world around him/her. It's like air, some may be moving quickly, some moving slowly, but it's all part of the same thing. This is a favorite idea of mine, one discussed a lot in Grant Morrison's work, with his idea that human beings are basically cells within a larger organism and once we get beyond our petty differences and recognize the unity, we'll cohere and form a larger mind, like the individual cells within our bodies become something greater than the sum of their parts when they work together.

So, Tony entertains this idea as part of his spiritual journey. He's aware that he was in touch with something larger during the Finnerty sequences, and he's not sure whether it's Schwinn's scientific view of a unified plane or the Pastor's Christian idea of God's hand at work. These two conceptions are not mutually exclusive.

When Tony gets out of the hospital, he seems genuinely thankful to be alive, and even says "Every day after this is a gift," a sentiment that he would surely have ridiculed had he heard it before being shot. It's interesting that he says to Janice, someone who used to be really interested in this sort of spiritual exploration, but now seems to have become completely bogged down in her own issues as a mother. She's become strictly of the physical world, as nearly all of Tony's circle is.

I'm really interested to see Tony back at therapy with Melfi because we haven't gotten a full idea of what this experience has meant to him. The scenes with Schwinn give us some idea, but only in the Melfi sequences can we get a relatively unfiltered view of his mental state. If Tony really is changed, how long can this new attitude last in the business he works in. Dealing with Johnny Sack is going to cause him a lot of trouble and I don't see his zen management style helping his crew in the long run.

The close of the episode was fantastic, with the seamless intercutting of Tony's bliss just observing and Paulie's utter selfishness in attacking Barone. At this point, Tony would rather just be sitting outside, appreciating the day, than having to deal with the turmoils of everyday life.

This was largely a two character episode, but we do get some interesting bits along the way. AJ's part time job at Blockbuster is clearly not a career, and it'll also be tough for him to adjust to actually working after a life of basically being served. And if things go south at Blockbuster is he going to seek out another real job, or perhaps look to his father for some connections? I still feel like we're headed down that road with AJ, it's just a question of how soon we'll get there.

Despite barely appearing in the episode, there was a lot of interesting stuff going on with Carmela. In the hospital, she warns Tony about Vito, the first time we've seen her give him guidance on his business. It's notable that during this scene she's wearing a business suit and her hair is tied back. It's a much more authoratative, business look than we're used to seeing from her, and I'll be interested to see if this is indicative of a major role change from her. Is she going to move from trying to distance herself from the mob completely to becoming Tony's second in command?

This episode also gives us our first glimpse of Tony's feelings about Junior. It's astonishing how much power single lines can have in this show. Tony's authoratative claim that he never wants to see Junior again has deep power. If Tony doesn't want to see Junior, is he basically gone from the show? If Junior were to be released from prison, that could put a further divide between Tony and Bobby. I'm guessing that Junior will be released fairly soon, so that we can see some follow up on AJ's promise to kill him.

On the whole, it's a fascinating episode, full of a lot of really interesting concepts and ideas. The stuff with Tony and Schwinn was a highlight, forcing Tony to examine his existence in ways that he never has before gave us a lot of strong material and much to ponder for the future. This is our first glimpse of the new status quo for the rest of the series, but next episode should really let us know just how changed Tony is, and how those around him react to his return.

1 comment: said...

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