Friday, March 24, 2006

Battlestar Galactica: 2x01-1x03

After the incredible highs of the first season finale, the first chunk of season two is a bit of a downturn, as the show has to deal with a ton of fallout from the first season finale. Unfortunately, this means that some of the most interesting plot strands don't get much screentime, most notably the humanoid cylons, who are all but absent from this run of episodes.

The primary arc running through these episodes is Colonel Tigh's struggle to deal with his role as ship commander. The first episode features a few flashbacks to his early days with Adama, these work okay, but considering how much is going on, it doesn't feel worthwhile to spend a bunch of time on stuff that happened in the past. In some respects, it's a shortcut out of character development, but it does give you a sense of his emotional situation at this point, unsure how to act without Adama's guidance.

I'm usually not as interested in the military side of things, so the issue with Galactica jumping away from the fleet wasn't that exciting. It's an artificially imposed plot development, and while it could become an ongoing arc, as done here, it felt pretty clear that they'd find their way back for a triumphant end of the episode. In a lot of respects, it was a retread of the emotional territory of '33.'

The stuff with the cylon attack on the ship's interior in episode two was entertaining, but didn't have that much substance. It was another example of a plotline that just happened, it didn't evolve out of anything or lead anywhere. I guess I'm not particularly interested in the robot cylons, they lack the moral complexity of relationships with the humanoid cylons. I'd guess that the intention here was to establish the potent killing power of the robots, and also to provide an action sequence uncomplicated by the issue of shooting these humanoids.

The more interesting parts of these episodes were going on with the stranded crew. The stuff with Starbuck and Helo was unquestionably the highlight of each episode. I was surprised when Sharon took the ship, because she had previously been on the run from the cylons. I'm figuring that she saw Starbuck as a threat, and knew that if they were to make it back to the ship, she probably wouldn't live for long after she gave birth. So, with the chance of making a life with Helo gone, she left.

The second episode scene with Starbuck and Helo in her apartment is one of the best from the entire series. It captures the alien feeling that she must have upon returning to this place where she used to live, but now feels alien, from a completely different time. The music here was phenomenal, and build up such a strong atmosphere that just watching them sit and talk was an emotional experience.

The other cool storyline was the stranded on Kobol stuff. This sequence also establishes how dangerous the mechanical cylons are. The most notable development is that Gaius and Six apparently have their own child. I assumed she was talking about being the father to the Helo/Sharon child, but apparently she is pregnant as well. I'm still not sure what the deal is with all the Sixes, the physical body that he slept with was presumably destroyed when Caprica was nuked, so did they harvest his sperm, or does the pregnancy transfer to different bodies as well? I suppose she could just be messing with him, but that'd be a pretty lame plot point.

I do like how Gaius now sincerely believes that he is an instrument of God, between him and Roslin, God is apparently taking a big role in the cabinet. Six does seem to be continually aiding Gaius, she is the one who inspires him to act to save Cally. So, he seems to be stepping it up and getting things together.

"Fragged" also saw some really interesting developments back on Galactica. Tigh pushes things too far, and brings about a potential civil war between the people who believe Roslin, and people who support the military. There's a lot of potential with this storyline, focusing on the issue of logic vs. faith. I'm really interested to see how the cylons factor into this, because they would seem to be more aligned with Roslin. How do they feel about this prophecy, and are their goals in line with what Roslin is trying to do? They seem to believe in a cyclical view of history, so they would likely believe in the prophecies.

And on the political side, there's the issue of how Zarek fits into all this, would he want a civil war to clear the way for his ascent to power, and is he still connected with Ellen Tigh?

There's clearly a lot of interesting stuff going on, but right now I'm missing the cylons. Sharon's barely been on, and Six has only appeared in Gaius' head. I'm hoping that like season one, the focus will increasingly be on the cylons as the season progress, and not the metal cylons either, the humanoid ones.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Tori Amos: Fade To Red

I've really enjoyed the Directors Label music video compilations, and while I'm waiting for the next series of those, I decided to pick up Tori Amos' video compilation DVD, Fade to Red. It's a really different experience watching the videos from an artist perspective rather than a director one, for one, I like pretty much all the songs, but at the same time, you don't get as consistently interesting videos as you would from a Gondry or Jonze.

However, there's still a strong sense of authorship, even if she doesn't come up with the concept for the video, it's clear that Tori has a lot of themes she's interesting in exploring, and on the whole, this is a great bunch of videos. One complaint about the DVD is that the videos seem to be placed in a completely random order, but I'll talk about them in chronlogy.

The videos for Little Earthquakes are not too good. I'm not sure if it's the DVD or the videos themselves, but they all seem to be shot on third generation VHS, really grainy, especially on the movement. 'Crucify' is a great song, but the video is very pedestrian, just a bunch of images with nothing in particular connecting them. I do like the stuff with the bathtub and her medieval dress, but the stuff at the end with the cheerleaders is just goofy and doesn't work.

'Silent all these Years' and 'Winter' are similar to 'Crucify,' same white background, bunch of random stuff, no cohesion to the video. I guess they're designed to showcase Tori's performance, but we don't need to see her play the piano to know that she's a good musician. There's some good images in here, but they don't really go anywhere. 'China' is a bit different, but equally goofy. Here, Tori wears a jumpsuit that looks like rocks and she sits on a beach. It's a bit goofy looking and doesn't work so well.

From these inauspicious beginnings, she moved on to more ambitious and interesting videos for Under the Pink. The video for 'God' doesn't quite cohere together, but it's got enough really interesting parts to be a success. I love the image of Tori with all the rats running over, and the finale with the religious ecstascy and the snakes is fantastic. The slo mo shot of that woman hitting the tambourine is a highlight. It reminds me of an X-Files episode, which also focused on evangelicals and snakes.

'Cornflake Girl' is one of my favorite Tori songs, and it gets two videos. Both are good, but I think it's tough for the video for a really special song to live up to the song itself. It reminds of Anton Corbjin's video for U2's 'One,' a good video, but one that doesn't quite capture the grandeur of the song.

The UK version of Cornflake girl has some nice black and white photography and a bunch of crazy images. I love the houses and people twisting through the void of the starfield, spinning out of control. The thing this video really made me aware of is Tori's huge vocal range, to see her go from the high "You bet your life" part to the really low "Man with the golden gun" section is incredible. It's a crazy song, and this video captures some of that.

The US version is a better video, focusing on the thematic content of the song, infighting between women. This video has a lot of stuff going on, but it doesn't always come together. I really like the synthetic Western landscape where the video is set, and the guy in the pot surrounded by the dancing women is a really strong visual. Clearly, there's some phallic symbolism going on there, with the guy cutting up a carrot while the women pull out their lipstick to fight him. The end of the video, where Tori is playing the piano on herself is a bit goofy, but on the whole I liked this one.

'Pretty Good Year' is a bit of a step back, returning to the white world seen in the Little Earthquakes video. I think the dance sequence towards the end of the video works, but on the whole, there's not much notable here. 'Past the Mission' also deals with male/female conflict, here seen in the rebellion of a bunch of traditional village women. It's an effectively dramatic video, and I think the image of the priest walking over the women lying on the ground is a nice visual encapsulation of the video's theme.

Moving onto the videos for Boys for Pele, things keep getting better. 'Caught a Lite Sneeze' is like 'Cornflake Girl' (UK) in that it's basically an exercise in greenscreen, superimposing Tori onto various locations. There's some really strong moments here, like the giant bald guys rising out of the sea, but some of the CG doesn't work so well. The best stuff is the scenes in the house.

'Talula' is a video I really like because it's got a lot of the elements I really like, the scientific experimentation in particular. The primary image here, Tori trapped into the plastic box is really effective, and would be used to even better effect later in 1,000 Oceans. I really like Tori dancing in the box, and the look she has as they're examining her is priceless.

A crucial element to all these videos, the earlier ones in particular, is Tori's personality, this sort of innocent joy at playing the music and being in whatever world she is. In the early videos, it's her performance that keeps you interested, even when not much is going on. I've read that she was an inspiration for Delerium in Sandman, and in some of these videos you can see that sort of childlike playfulness.

Next up we're getting into the Golden Age of Tori videos. 'Hey Jupiter' is a simple scenario, Tori is trapped in a burning building and a little girl brings her out. What makes the video so powerful is the way it's shot, which gives an epic grandeur to everything. The whole video seems to take place in slow motion, which better allows you to take in the images. Tori's makeup here is critical to making the video work, because it sets her up as someone who's so utterly broken that she just might stay in this burning building and let herself burn with it.

However, the little girl, an angel, comes along and takes her out of the building to safety outside. I love the way the people watching the building burn are photographed, the way Tori just seems to slip by them and leave with the girl. On her commentary, Tori talks about how the little girl is meant to be an angel, and the video shows Tori moving from one realm to some kind of higher plane. You could read the building as hell and the outside as heaven, or you could look at it as a representation of her emotional state. The video works either way and that's one of its greatest strengths, it's a really simple story and you can read into it whatever you want to. You could even say that Tori died in the fire, and the little girl is taking her off to heaven, that would explain why no one seems to notice them when they exit the building.

Now we're onto the videos for 'From the Choirgirl Hotel,' which features Tori's three best videos. She was on a ridiculous roll here. The first video was for 'Spark,' and this is the primary reason I bought the DVD. I saw this online and I figured that having this video in DVD quality alone would be worth buying the disc for.

'Spark' is about a woman who's been kidnapped by some guy, and wakes up in the woods, blindfolded and bound, then struggles to free herself. This is one of those videos where image and music work perfectly together to create a really unique world. The images here are striking and powerful. I love the opening, Tori lying on the ground, blindfolded, singing in closeup. From there, we feel her struggle to escape him, running through the woods, and eventually making it to the water. The moment where she falls under, then triumphantly rises, as the song crescendoes is a highlight, and that's followed by an astonishing helicopter shot which moves through the woods, catching up with her as she's running. We're completely behind her as she tries to make her escape and that moment is exhilirating.

The end of the video throws everything into perspective, after this triumphant escape, Tori encounters two girls in a car, who drive away, leaving her in the middle of the road, still bound. It brings you out of the fantasy world of the video into harsh reality, this woman may be able to escape, but she's still an outcast in some ways.

On the commentary, Tori talks about how the video was inspired by Twin Peaks. It certainly reminds me of Ronette Pulaski, and a lot of stuff from Fire Walk With Me. Like Hey Jupiter, the video works because it takes a simple scenario that can be read literally or in a multitude of allegorical dimension. You could read it as Tori escaping the patriarchy, only to betrayed by women who hold to traditional ideas of subservient femininity, or you could see it as just an action movie type scenario. It's all about what you read into it. However, what I take away from it is the moment, Tori slipping under and the blindfold falling off, the finale with the car blowing up in time to the music and the final closeup of blood falling on a leaf, the impact of her ordeal finally coming home.

'Jackie's Strength' is another great video, a video with a narrative that loops through time in a really interesting way. The basic premise of the video is that Tori is going to get married, but decides to keep driving instead of stopping at the church, and as she drives, she sees people she knew from the past, different time periods crossing over each other. It's a video that takes a couple of viewings to get, but the primary idea seems to be showing a bunch of women at crucial moments of choice in their lives, none more so than Tori herself who has to decide whether to go back and get married or keep moving on.

The most striking thing about the video is the gorgeous black and white photography, which, combined with the vintage Kennedy footage, gives everything a very nostalgic, 60s feel. The final moment of the video when Tori encoutners her younger self is great, and uses the time disjunctions to provide a strong emotional conclusion for the video. I guess the thing I find most interesting about the video is the way that she uses all these different women to create a kind of meta-narrative of femininity in the twentieth century, contrasting the hopes and dreams of youth with the settling that inevitably happens when you get older. So, the ending is a meeting of these different periods, and by reconnecting with her younger self, old Tori will rediscover some of the fire that drove her earlier in her life.

The other video I bought this collection for is 'Raspberry Swirl.' Even though she specifically cites Spark as drawing influence from Twin Peaks, if there's one video that's pure TP on here, it's 'Swirl,' which opens on red curtains and an odd little boy who's dressed like the kid with the mask from Fire Walk With Me. This is an incredible video, both technically and content wise. The images here are very striking, I love the jump cuts from Tori standing still to Tori dancing.

The sequence with the old man and the people dancing feels very Lynch, and is simultaneously unsettling and exhilirating. The people dancing are setup almost like a museum exhibit, and the main characters seem to flash through that space thanks to the great fade to black cuts. Tori's performance here is critical, her exuberance ties the emotion of the music to the odd visuals. The conclusion with the table and the pigs is fun. I think this might be the most Lynch thing I've seen that wasn't actually directed by him. A lot of people try to imitate his style, but it's usually not captured this well, the video really seems to take place in the Twin Peaks universe. This is the rare case where the video for one of my favorite songs not only lives up to the song, but actually enhances it, a perfect visualization of what's going on in the music.

Those three videos for From the Choirgirl Hotel are unquestionably the highlight of Tori's video career. They're all quite different, but each do a brilliant job of both telling an interesting story on their own, and also matching up perfectly with the emotion and thematic content of the song.

Starting off To Venus and Back is the concert video 'Bliss.' Normally, I would slag them for making a concert video, but this one works. I think a large part of it is the energy of the song, the upbeat intensity is the perfect accompaniment to the images of adoring fans. I like the mix of black and white and color, and the video does a good job of conveying the feeling of the concert it's chronicling. I think there was a lot of potential for a different kind of video for this song, but as it was, it turned out ok.

The next video from that album was '1000 Oceans,' which again takes a very simple concept to create a strong allegorical narrative. Here, we've got Tori in a glass box on an L.A. street, looking out at life going by. The video has a phenomenal mood, this completely melancholy feeling. It reminds me a lot of 'Hey Jupiter,' in the way that slow motion is used to both spotlight the phenomenal visuals and submerge you in this atmosphere.

The way I saw it, the glass box represents the filters we put up between ourselves and the world. So, she witnesses all this trauma, but she can't put herself at risk to try and change things. The defenses we create to guard our emotions also prevent us from connecting with the world at large. So, she can't help the people who pass her. At the end of the video, she finally connects with someone emotionally, the family who looks in at her, and she's at peace. The violence could not penetrate the box, but the love and compassion of this family could. The glass box is such a strong visual metaphor, it's a fantastic video.

Next up was Scarlett's Walk, and 'A Sorta Fairytale.' This video also tells an allegorical narrative, but it doesn't really work for me. The basic premise is that Tori and Adrien Brody are just limbs without bodies and they need to get together to make each other whole. The effects are pretty good, but they still end up looking a little freaky, and that weirdness makes it difficult to respond to the video. It's well made, and definitely conveys its point, but the aesthetics undermine the mood they're going for.

And that brings us to Tori's most recent album, The Beekeeper. 'Sleeps with Butterflies' is another greenscreen extravangansa, with Tori superimposed in Japanese art environments. The first time I saw it, I wasn't that big a fan, but I watched it again and really liked the aesthetics. The look reminds me a bit of Dave McKean's stuff in Mirrormask, which isn't that suprising considering her and Neil Gaiman are tight. I suppose there's some significance to the twin imagery, but mainly this is about getting lost in the visual world, and in that respect, it's successful.

The final video unfortunately ends things on a bit of an unnotable note. 'Sweet the Sting' is another performance video, it's just Tori rehearsing with a gospel choir and hanging around. After the majesty and ambitiousness of some of her videos, it's a let down. But, it's a catchy song and the video is well shot.

Along with all the videos, you get a Tori commentary on each one. I was really struck by the way she talks, you get no idea of her speaking voice from her singing, and her style is unlike anyone I've heard. Maybe it's because I'm from New York, but Tori seems to talk very slow, and most notably, she never says "um" or "like." Your average person, even if they know what they're talking about drops a few ums, particularly in commentaries. However, rather than say um, Tori will just be silent and then continue the thought. I suppose it reflects a certain confidence, like people will wait around to hear what she has to say, the need to fill every moment with sound is indicative of the need to keep people listening. It's a unique vocal quality and I think she could do a good spoken word album, or in particular, she could do a great relaxation tape.

The other interesting thing on the commentaries was hearing her talk about "Tori" as a character. She would rarely refer to herself on screen in the first person, usually she would talk about Tori's motivation, what Tori was doing. I always find it interesting to hear commentaries and see whether an actor refers to themselves on screen as "I" or by the character's name. Here, there's no real line between the character and performer, in theory, it's supposed to be Tori herself in the video, but she creates this wall, which is probably necessary considering some of the stuff that happens to the Tori character.

Listening to all of her stuff in a row, you can clearly see her development. She started out as very piano driven, prone to hard rock outbursts. This changed with Boys For Pele, which led to an experimental, electronic period. However, with Scarlett's Walk she fled from the electronics, and by The Beekeeper, she seems to be pretty smooth, with the edges worn down. Of course, I haven't heard all of Scarlett or The Beekeeper, so I may be off with that generalization.

On the whole, it's a great video collection. About half the videos here are masterpieces, perfectly capturing the song, and all the others have at least something of merit about them. I only hope that with her next chunk of videos she gets back to the narrative style of the middle electronic era. We shall see.

Battlestar Galactica: 'Kobol's Last Gleaming' (1x12 and 1x13)

I did a post on the whole end of season one, picking up from my review of the first four episodes, but blogger was down and it was lost. So, I'm going to bring back the stuff on just the season finale, because in covering that, I can cover most of the major stuff that occurred.

Following the first four episodes, I was feeling that the series wasn't quite as strong as the miniseries that started everything off. The show was good, but it was falling a bit too much into pretty clean standalones, where the characters would go through some kind of trauma and emerge out the other side having learned a lesson or solved a problem. As the season went on, things became more complex, and the most interesting element of the show came to the fore, the cylons. There have been plenty of stories told about politics and war, but very few of those have the philosophical complexity of battling synthetic humans. The best episodes of the season were the ones that explicitly dealt with the issues surrounding the cylons.

The season finale is an episode that takes the series to a whole new level. I love the overture like opening of the two parter, which quickly throws us into a bunch of different plot lines, culminating in the wonderful moment where Starbuck calls Baltar Lee. I've grown to like the vast majority of the characters of the show, but Lee is still pretty much a non-entity, the Riley of the show, so that moment isn't that interesting from a Lee/Starbuck shipper perspective, but more from what it does to Baltar's ego.

Throughout the season, Baltar and Six's bizarre interactions have been simultaneously the funniest and most philosophically challenging aspect of the show. In this finale, we finally get the sense of Baltar's ultimate role in everything. Having stumbled into the vice presidency, he finds himself increasingly bullied by Six, who is manuvering him according to her agenda.

Once Baltar crashes on the planet, we get one of the best sequences in the show's run, in which Six shows Baltar around the temple. This sequence reminded me of classic X-Files mythology episodes, where you get the sense of something huge going down, just total awe at the proceedings. It also has the paradoxical fact that even though the moment feels relevatory, we actually don't learn that much. However, the circling shot of Baltar and Six kissing is such a fantastic visual, the emotion of the moment sells it.

From what I could tell, it seems like the cylons want Baltar to be the caretaker of their new generation of hybrid children. Presumably, he will care for the child of Sharon from the planet, should she make it back to the Galactica. Of course, it would take a lot of coincidences for the cylons to know that Baltar would come across her, however, I suppose they knew that at some point the hybrid would come about and Baltar would be the most knowledgable about things.

The other classic X-Files mythology moment was Sharon's journey into the ship. This is what I'd been waiting for all season, there's been some great work with Sharon, particularly in contrasting the two different versions of her. This was most notable in the scene where Galactica Sharon is wiping the word Cylon off a mirror, while Planet Sharon is having sex with Helo. Here, Galactica Sharon finally learns what she's apparently suspected for a while, she's a cylon. This sequence was brilliantly pulled off, because you're expecting one of two results. Either, Sharon will walk off the ship, rejoin the cylons and kill her copilot, or she'll come out a hero, keeping her cylon nature a secret.

So, I figured she would go into the new season conflicted about her cylon status, even as she continues to serve on the Galactica. But no, they dropped a ridiculous twist and had Sharon shoot Adama. This worked wonderfully because it came right at the moment where you're feeling that everything's safe, and sends you into the new season with every single plotline in chaos. Not since the first season of Twin Peaks has a series dropped this many cliffhangers.

Another arc I've been enjoying is Roslin's gradual transition into strong religious believer. This is great because it puts the conflict back into her relationship with Adama. She's aware that they don't know the way to Earth, but her faith is trumping Adama's logic. There's a basic philosophical schism between the two of them and exploiting that for story material is great. Roslin is definitely walking the line of faith and insanity in her decision to send Starbuck off to Caprica. Ever since her encounter with the cylon from her dream she's been a much more interesting character. Having her thrown in prison puts everything in chaos for the next season.

Following from that, I loved Starbuck's indignation when Adama tells her they don't know the way to Earth. That throws into question everything she'd believed, and sends her off to Caprica against orders. The fight between her and Six was great. The series seems to be drawing parallels between this civilization and the ancient Greeks, never more so than in this duel at the Delphi Museum. It looks like Starbuck may be spending at least a few more episodes on Caprica, since that Cylon ship only has room for one.

And that leads into one of my favorite plot strands from the first season, Helo's experience on Caprica. This subplot is interesting because it's where we've gotten the most insight into the cylons. Sharon seems to be a later, more developed model, and Six is clearly jealous of her ability to get Helo to love her. She seemed to have a similar relationship with Gaius, but there was always a distance between them, unlike the complete selfless devotion Helo has for Sharon.

The revelation that Sharon is pregnant raises a lot of questions about the line between cylons and humans. Clearly, their ultimate plan is to create a cylon/human hybrid race. They seem to be jealous of the humans' ability to feel emotion, feeling that it somehow makes them closer to the Gods. The cylons are motivated almost exclusively by this extreme religious fervor, and they apparently believe that the hybrid race is the ultimate destiny of their people. What's curious is why they would eradicate all of human society if they wanted to start this hybrid race. It's possible that they have some vast prison holding humans to use in the creation of the hybrids.

The pregnant Sharon would challenge the way humans perceive cylons. The definition of a species is that they can reproduce with each other and produce viable offspring, so if the cylons could reproduce with humans, the line is gone between the two species.

Even so, this leaves a lot of questions about what the cylons want. Would they want to reconcile with the humans if given the chance, or are they still committed to eradicating human society? There's certainly a lot of interesting stuff to cover in the next season, the political side of the show is becoming much more interesting, and the cylon stuff is always fascinating.

That's one of the most interesting things about the show, the sheer variety of what's going on. You've got pieces of Star Wars, The West Wing, The X-Files and Blade Runner in there, all co-existing. It's a scope that's nearly unparalleled, and the effects work on this show is better than nearly all movies, let alone TV shows. T

his is the sort of show that would traditionally be hailed for being "more like a movie than a TV show," but in actuality, it's another example of the way that longform television storytelling is redifining the craft of film itself. I'd already seen TV make mob movies irrelevant with The Sopranos, family drama movies look completely unambitious with Six Feet Under, and superhero films painfully simple with Buffy, and now's a show that makes the vast majority of science fiction movies look pathetically pedestrian.

I still love movies, but watching these grand, ambitious shows with their gradually developing character arcs and narrative revelation has made it difficult for me to even enjoy the traditional three act Hollywood film. Those characters feel so constructed and unrealistic next to the complexities of someone like Sharon here. And what this show adds is effects work that's better than nearly any film out there. I think when people look back on the late 90s and early 00s, this era of television is going to be comprable to the 1970s in film, when content restrictions were loosened, and creative people got the chance to be bold, experimental and change the nature of the medium. Let's just hope that TV keeps the doors open for auteurs well into the future.

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.