Monday, April 30, 2007

The Sopranos: 'Chasing It' (6x16)

“Chasing It” was a really odd episode of The Sopranos, both in terms of narrative and visual style. There were a lot of good elements in there, but some of the sudden jumps in character behavior were tough to take, and an indulgence in some TV clichés prevented the episode from being as emotionally powerful as it might otherwise have been. But, after some time to process, and some online reading, I’m coming around a bit on the episode. Still, it’s easily the weakest episode of this part of the season, and arguably of the season as a whole.

I criticized the first part of the season for the fact that not too much actually happened. There was a lot of setup and limp resolution, and you could argue that the episodes drifted too far into inaction. This episode goes in the opposite direction, having a whole bunch of stuff happen, but in an arbitrary way that made it difficult to connect with emotionally. The major issue is Tony’s sudden gambling addiction. Now, there is justification for it, but within the context of the series as a whole, it seems to come out of nowhere. So, regardless of how good the rest of the episode is, it’s tough to accept the apparently sudden change in the character.

The presentation of Tony’s losing streak didn’t help, bringing a whole bunch of gambling clichés to the fore. Tony’s always been a smart guy, and I couldn’t see him putting that much money on a horse when he knows that it’s not likely to win. The nadir was Tony trying to get Carmela to parlay her house money with a bet on the Jets. That scene felt ridiculous, how many gambling stories have we seen with the guy begging for money to put on some sure thing. It was a cliché, and melodramatic in a way the show very rarely is. I’d rather see the elegant minimalism of the early part of season six than the obviousness of that scene.

Now, The Sopranos is a show I like to give the benefit of the down. Amidst the clichés in this gambling story, like the Southern rock backed casino montage, there was some interesting character stuff. You could look at his behavior at out of character, or you could see it as the character changing. The gambling issue didn’t come out of nowhere, the Hesh thing was set up last episode, and hints were laid earlier. The basic idea seems to be that Tony hasn’t all of a sudden developed a gambling addiction, it’s more that he’s always had it, but it wasn’t a problem when he was earning money. As Hesh says, money had is money spent for the Sopranos, that’s not a good mentality during leaner times.

Last season, Tony told Melfi that medical bills from the shooting put him in a bad economic place. She said she always had the impression that Tony had millions of dollars, but apparently that’s not the case. Combined with the loss of Vito, this makes sense as a plot development. The issue is that we constantly see Tony making money, getting a hundred grand from Paulie and Vito after the shooting, making a lot of money selling property to Julianna. I suppose the point is that his excesses are such that he needs constant inflows of money to keep up his lifestyle.

The issue I have is that I think Tony knows better than to gamble in such a destructive way. He’s taken down people like David Scatino, and is well aware that the house always wins when it comes to betting. So, the questions arises, why is he continuing to gamble? It seems to be about getting a rush, the same reason that he makes the ultimate gamble, remaining in organized crime. Yes, he could work for money, but money won feels so much better than money earned. It’s the same hangup that prevented Vito from actually working for a living, these guys are so used to getting everything for nothing, they always look for a quick and easy solution, even if it will cause them damage in the long run.

That all makes sense, but it doesn’t change the fact that Tony comes off as irrational throughout the episode. At this point, it’s difficult to tell whether that’s poor writing, or a crucial development in the overall arc of the series. Certainly, the first part of season six plays a lot better when you know where it’s going, and how the individual episodes fit into the overall thematic picture. That part of the season was all about Tony’s malaise, the desire for thrills to spice up his increasingly depressing existence.

With the first four episodes of this season, we’ve seen Tony moving on an actively destructive path, systematically alienating everyone around him, and inciting conflict where there’s no particular reason for it. At this point, he’s pushed Bobby, Christopher, Paulie, Hesh and Carmela away, and AJ could be next, assuming he doesn’t fare so well in the fallout of the Blanca breakup. Why is Tony doing this? I think it’s that he can have pretty much everything he wants and isn’t satisfied. He came back from this shooting, and saw the world in a different way, and maybe that brief glimpse of a world alive with possibility made it even worse when things descended back to normalcy. What he once accepted as normal now feels grossly inadequate, hence the desire to punish everyone around him.

I think Chase is also actively seeking to confront the viewer with their complicity in Tony’s behavior. He frequently speaks with disdain about an audience that only wants blood, and isn’t interested in what the show is really about. These are the people who idolize Tony and his crew. This season has been about systematically demonstrating what a bastard Tony really is, and that’s tough to take. For all he’s done over the course of the series, we still sympathize with Tony. But, as his behavior becomes more and more irrational, it’s tougher to do so.

I think a part of my frustration with the episode comes from the fact that Tony is acting in a way that I don’t want him to. I know it’s stupid to bet on that race, and he probably does too, but he does it anyway because he’s a guy who can’t control his impulses. Jealous of Carmela’s success, he lashes out at her and reminds her of the ugly truth about what she’s done. He apologizes to her later, but it’s hollow, more about removing her anger than a sincere expression of feeling.

The whole Hesh storyline shows just how far he’s fallen. He pushes away the man who’s arguably his last confidant because of a really petty offense. Tony, who’s done far worse things than ask to get money back, turns on Hesh and basically ruins the relationship. If this is Hesh’s final appearance, which is quite possible, the lesson seems to be, no matter how nice they seem to be, the mob will always turn on you.

Elsewhere, we get some good stuff with Vito Jr. Last season, Tony cautioned his crew about acting rashly towards Vito, asking who would take care of Marie and the kids if Vito died. Phil killed Vito to protect Marie’s pride, but ignored her after that, as her family slips into chaos. This story makes clear the hypocrisy of trying to preserve family pride rather than trying to preserve the actual family.

Vito Jr.’s story echoes Tony’s worst fears about AJ, this is a kid who has no authority over him, and despite the hollow messages from Phil and Tony, is going to do whatever he wants. It’s an impossible situation, created by the public shaming and murder of Vito. Phil created this situation, but he won’t deal with it. Tony at least makes an effort to help, but his own selfishness prevents her from doing what she actually wants.

In an otherwise dark episode, the sight of Phil sitting with the gothy Vito Jr. provided some laughs. Vito Jr. asks them questions they can’t answer, so they resort to rote rhetoric about being a man and taking responsibility.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we see Vito Jr. spiral into awful depression right as AJ’s fantasy of a legitimate life is broken when Blanca breaks up with him. He imagined a whole future outside the mob, but it’s shattered in a moment. We’d previously seen a family member, Tony Blundetto, trying to go legit, only to fail and slip back to the family. Without Blanca, AJ will lose the drive to work, and will likely slip back into his old patterns. If Tony really is crunched for money, is he going to tolerate his son sitting around at home? Not likely.

I really feel like the show needs to give us a full accounting of Tony’s finances to give us an idea of how close to the brink he is. I could see Julianna returning to sell some more of Tony’s property in the future. We’ve already seen the mob becoming obsolete, and it could be Tony’s excess that eventually strips him of power. That would be an appropriate ending, having essentially destroyed himself through his lifestyle, the small time mob overwhelmed by corporate America.

Another part of what made this episode so jarring was the camera work. Gone was the planted, smooth camera the show has employed to date, replaced by a shaky, handheld look. It was jarring, and raised the intensity, but it took me out of the show because it’s not the visual look I associate with it. Combined with the jarring change in Tony, it was tough to take. This didn’t feel like a Sopranos episode, maybe that’s what they were going for, but I’m not sure it wholly worked.

So, this episode had a lot of interesting stuff, but I won’t be able to fully assess it until the season is up, and I see where this took us. I’m giving Chase the benefit of the doubt, but he was in dangerous territory with the fairly clichéd presentation of Tony’s gambling problem.

1 comment: said...

Little doubt, the dude is totally just.