Tuesday, May 02, 2006

The Sopranos: 'Johnny Cakes' (6x08)

The first episode of this season was fall of action and change, and since then there's been no major events on the scale of the shooting. However, there's been a lot of character changes and this episode shows us a lot of new things. For me, the most interesting plot threads this season have been Tony's new outlook on life, Vito's struggles, and Tony's relationship to his kids, and this episode develops all those plot threads.

Ever since he's emerged from the coma, Tony has been involved in this moral journey, struggling to reconcile his new outlook on life with the necessary posturing of being a mob boss. In this episode, Tony returns to sexual activity, and his old ways don't match too well with his new morality. I loved the way the scenes with Julianna played, Tony's always been attracted to independent businesswomen, from Melfi to the Italian mob boss to Gloria Trillo. Carmela is very much a domestic woman, someone who's wholly dependent on him to support her. She nags him because she relies on him, the idea of an equal woman who can support herself and match him intellectually is clearly attractive to Tony. The attitude difference was summed up in the scene where Gloria drives Carmela home from the BWM dealership and basically points out her total dependence on Tony for survival.

Julianna is another woman in this mold. When Tony was at her apartment, and we were led to believe he was going to sleep with her, I thought that this would be the most painful betrayal of Carmela because Julianna is in a lot of ways, the woman that Carmela wants to be. She works in real estate and is able to support herself in a man's world. However, Tony's inaction is hindering her from acheiving her goal of financial independence.

Julianna is someone who knew how to play to Tony on his own terms, I loved the way that she walked into the Bing and conducted a business meeting without acknowledging the stripper behind her. The scene in which Carmela buttons his shirt so he can go out and see Julianna is wonderful because we can sense Tony's tension. He feels obligated to Carmela because she cared for him during her illness, and even now we get that dynamic, when she buttons his shirt and says, "My handsome man," she's acting more like his mother than his wife.

I was disappointed in Tony when it looked like he was going to go through with the affair, then the moment when he stopped her was a huge surprise for me. In terms of the overall season arc, it's a great choice because it shows us just how much Tony has changed. He's gotten exactly what he wanted and now he passes on it. The lingering question after this scene is did Tony stop because of his conscious and the recognition that what he was about to do was wrong, or is it guilt about betraying Carmela after she cared for him?

In the Melfi scene, he says "You can't blame a guy for seeking an extracurricular outlet," but that sounds more like he's trying to justify it to himself than an actual moral judgment. In light of the final scene, it seems like Tony is frustrated by having a conscious. He can no longer go out and sleep with someone, then come home like nothing happened, and adjusting to that is a big thing for him. He's angry that he feels guilty about hurting Carm, and he turns that anger onto her with the comment about the smoked turkey.

At the same time as his conscious is hindering him at home, it's causing major issues in his business. Everyone is on him about killing Vito, it's only Tony who's providing a dissenting voice. Because this is being dwelled on so much, I'm assuming we're building to a moment where Tony has to choose whether to give the go ahead on a Vito hit. That's another situation that will test his morality, clearly he wants to just let Vito go do his own thing, but is he willing to risk his leadership position to do so?

At this point, Tony is the only member of his crew who is able to move beyond the traditional mobster mentality. This is emphasized by the bookend scenes with Patsy, showing that traditional shakedowns don't work so well in a chainstore world. He's being left behind, and Tony seems to be the only one equipped to make this jump. At first, he waxes nostalgic about the old neighborhood, speaking about character and tradition. However, when he does encounter that character it's in the form of an old woman spouting racist rhetoric. Is this the kind of person that is worth keeping around?

When Tony decides to sell the store, I think it's largely influenced by the realization that sometimes things changed for a reason. He waves to the old woman right before he makes the call to sell her out, and if he chooses Vito over the rest of the crew, he's basically making the same choice, choosing someone who can change with the times over people who are on the way out. The whole narrative of the show is about the fact that the mob is basically unnecessary, the golden age is past, and the people who are left are no longer about trying to help the community, they're just exploiting it.

In Tony's talk with AJ, he explicitly punctures this romantic view of the mob, and the old neighborhood when he tells AJ "It's just a movie." He's spent his whole life trying to live up to this myth of The Godfather and now he's recognizing the falseness of that myth.

Of course, no matter how much Tony grows as a person, he's still on shaky moral ground as long as he remains a mob boss. This is why he's trying to keep his son out of the mob world, he knows that it would turn a "nice guy" like AJ into someone like Benny. Going back to last season's "The Test Dream," it's clear that Tony feels he disappointed Coach Molinaro by entering the mafia. In that episode, Molinaro tells him he could have been a leader on the field, a coach rather than a captain. The dream represents his guilt about the path he chose in life, and this is a recurring dream.

In some respects, I feel like I'm giving Tony too much credit, but looking at the arc since he's been out of the coma supports the idea that he's become enlightened. He hasn't done anything violent, other than the carefully chosen decision to beat up his bodyguard to assert his control, he's defended Vito to his crew, and here he's unable to cheat on Carmela. It's a revisitation of the original Gloria Trillo scenario, and this time he chooses a different path.

So, at the same time we see Tony becoming increasingly distant from the mob world, we're watching AJ get drawn further into it. AJ has always been an essentially weak willed kid, with no drive or ambition. So, when he starts hanging out with Anand, it's probably because Anand sees his name as a way of getting them access to exclusive nightclubs. As he moves through these circles, people are only attracted to AJ because of his name, and every conversation seems to end with AJ being asked to talk to his dad about something. At first, he exploits the family connection as a way of meeting girls and gaining power, but as the episode moves on, he becomes aware of how much he's being used.

This is partially a result of his parents lecturing him about his lack of ambition. I loved that there was another callback to the event planning line from the end of season five, though that moment of humor didn't puncture the harshness of their conversations. In some respects, it's clear that AJ is just trying to cover up for the fact that he's involved in drug dealing, but at the same time, I felt sorry for him, he's getting no support from his parents. Clearly, he feels entitled. If they have so much money, they should set him up with something. Tony would probably attribute this to the change in parenting styles, his parents were harsh and forced him to be independent, whereas Tony and Carmela provide him with all the basic necessities, meaning he never really fails. As long as he can withstand their criticism, he knows he'll always have food and a place to live.

When he's talking to the girl massaging him, AJ comes up with some macho talk about how his father will probably rely on him to kill Junior. This is a great contrast to the scene on the Stugots where Tony says there's no reason to do anything to Junior, he's already gone. Yet, AJ decides he must live up to his image as a gangster's son, and decides to go to attack Junior. This is a completely illogical decision, because if he did succeed, he'd have killed Junior in a federal mental institution, and he'd obviously be caught. But, he's thinking in old school terms, that the wrong against his father must be avenged.

In classic AJ fashion, the attempted hit quickly fails. The buildup to this scene was quite sad, Junior's lost control of his mental reflexes, and doesn't even seem to remember shooting Tony, and that shooting has left him totally alone. His happiness when AJ enters is quickly undercut by the dropped knife and the quick subduing of AJ. Chase always builds up our expectations for a major confrontation, only to undercut them and this is a great example of that. This confrontation has been brewing since episode two, and when it finally happens, AJ drops the knife.

The subsequent scene in the parking lot tells us a lot about AJ's sense of obligation. As a Soprano, he feels like he has to live up to this mythical image of the gangster, when in fact, his father wants the complete opposite. I think old Tony was sort of conflicted on whether he wanted AJ to follow him into the business, however post coma Tony realizes that the mob world is no place for AJ. He's always justified his dirtier deeds by claiming that they were done to help his kids, it's something of a martyr complex, that he's sacrifiicing his morality for the next generation. So, if AJ were to go into the world, it would make all his work for naught.

The scene is notable for being the first time that Tony really tells AJ that he does not want him to follow his path. Following this scene, AJ becomes more aware of the fact that people are just using him to get to Tony, and this fear about his station in life leads to a panic attack. I feel like AJ always sort of assumed that he'd wind up in the mob, and the idea that his father doesn't want him to forces him to contemplate a new future.

And apart from all this, up in New Hampshire, we've got the continuing saga of Vito. Fate seems to have intervened to land Vito in the perfect town for him, a place where everyone accepts homosexuals, and he's able to find an ideal mate. In some respects, it feels a bit contrived, but I think it works primarily as a contrast to the world in Jersey. Vito clearly still has some self loathing issues, and I was really glad when Jim kicked the tire iron out of Vito's hand. The way things played out was much more interesting, as Vito finally seems to accept the truth about himself and engage in a relationship that's about more than just sex. I think he could accept the idea of sexual attraction to men, but he didn't see himself as gay. That's the lingering effect of mob morality. Once he thinks things over, he recognizes that he's got the chance for a real relationship here and pursues it.

I loved the fact that Vito stole a cellphone to call home. There's still some of the old mobster left. And clearly there's still a lot of unresolved business in Jersey, it may be his attachment to his wife that eventually leads Phil and the crew to New Hampshire. I'd love to see a showdown between the mob crew and the gay firemen. So far, Vito is the only person who seems to have found genuine happiness over the course of the series, the only one who's been able to even temporarily escape from the mob world.

And I'm assuming that that happiness will at least be in jeopardy as the season progresses. I thought this episode was one of the best of the season, a really layered and thematically rich piece, that was also a lot of fun. I've mentioned it before, but I've got to stress again that the overall development with Tony this season has been phenomenal, it's rare to see a character go through this kind of moral exploration and so far, it's been a really rewarding journey.

Related Posts
The Sopranos: 'Luxury Lounge' (6x07) (4/25/2006)
The Sopranos: 'Live Free or Die' (6x06) (4/18/2006)
Mr. and Mrs. Sacrimoni Request...' (6x05) (4/11/2006)


Will said...

This has really been an interesting season - a lot more humor than I'm used to with this show. I think the character development with Vito has been very interesting. I thought they might knock him off a couple of episodes back, but instead they are really delving into it.

I feel like something huge is about to happen ... with somebody.

Patrick said...

I'm loving this stuff with Vito, it's totally new territory for the show. And I'd agree that something big is probably going to happen in the next couple of episodes, there's only four left in the season. I'm guessing that someone's going to find Vito, and the debate over whether to kill him will put Tony's leadership in question.

But if there's one thing that's true about Chase, it's that he never gives you the expected payoff.