Monday, April 16, 2007

The Sopranos: 'Stage 5' (6x14)

My favorite episode of the entire series is still season two’s ‘D-Girl,’ in which Christopher comes extremely close to leaving the family and going off to Hollywood, but eventually decides to give up his dream and focus full time on his work. This episode brings us back to that same emotional place, with Chris drifting away from Tony and his crew as he becomes aware of a life that doesn’t involve violence, substance abuse and criminal activity.

Ever since ‘Long Term Parking,’ and Christopher’s dilemma over what to do with Adrianna, the series has been obsessed with escape from mob life. There, we saw Christopher seriously considering leaving it all behind and running away with Adrianna, only to be scared off by a white trash family who lacked the luxury and style he’s so accustomed to. He chose to kill Adrianna rather than live that life, much like Vito abandoned a chance for happiness up in New Hampshire because he just couldn’t do an honest day’s work. They were both so spoiled by the system they’re a part of, exploiting other peoples’ labor rather than doing their own, that the prospect of an ordinary life is utterly repellant.

After the dim drawing back in of the first part of this season, this episode offers some hope. Now, it may very well be dashed later on, but for the first time, we’re given a character who has left the drive for power of the mob world behind and chosen to do something else, Little Carmine. The scene with him and Tony was central to Tony’s dilemma since being shot. When he first came back, he didn’t feel like the person he was, and I don’t think he wanted to be that person anymore, but he didn’t see anyway out. As we saw with Eugene back in ‘Members Only,’ there’s no retirement from the mob. Speaking with Little Carmine, Tony seems almost baffled, how could someone choose to walk away from all that power? But, the story makes it pretty clear why, as Tony himself has constantly emphasized, it’s not easy to be boss, and if Little Carmine has enough money, he’s got no reason to get back in the game.

Could Tony just walk away now? That has to be what he’s wondering, I’d argue that he couldn’t because that’s not the character we’ve seen over the course of the series. It’s been dulled as things have gone on, but I think Tony still holds a romantic image of the mob, believes that he’s doing this for a reason, and to walk away would be to admit that was all a lie.

I think a large part of Tony’s angst comes out of the fact that he saw Christopher as his successor. He’d been grooming Chris to take over since the beginning of the show, and once he realizes what the film is saying, it crushes him. If this is his legacy, what’s the point of everything he’s done?

Going along with all this, we’ve got Phil’s angst at the end of the episode. Here’s another character who’s chosen to sit out the conflict that’s got his brother and protégé killed. Looking back, he can only wish he did more to help his brother, and disregarded the code of conduct that locked him in prison for twenty years. His associate tells him it was the right thing to do, but Phil doesn’t believe that anymore. In that same scene we also get the hilarious Leotardo/Leonardo material. It was perhaps a bit broad, but it definitely worked.

On a general level, I really liked the way they presented Cleaver, giving us something that isn’t so over the top ridiculous it makes Christopher look stupid, instead it feels like a fairly typical 00s horror film. There’s a tendency in films within films to make everything extremely broad, you can’t have the film within a film more real than the film itself. Cleaver also had enough parallels to be obvious to the viewer, but it’s also plausible that Tony wouldn’t have immediately seen the connection. He’s the only one who knows for sure that he never had sex with Adrianna, so he might read that scene differently than the others. I liked Chris’s defense of the scene, saying that it couldn’t be Ade because “she’s an oriental.”

The vast majority of shows or films about movies are actually about the business surrounding films. On Entourage, we never actually see the creative process, but I think that process is some of the most fertile ground, examining where ideas come from and how they reflect the characters’ lives. I suppose that’s easier to do in a show where the characters actually have lives outside of show business. In this case, the film works almost like a dream sequence, presenting a totally subjective view of reality form Christopher’s perspective. As Carmela says, the film is a revenge fantasy, and the fact that he decides to tell this story indicates that Adrianna’s death is still a source of deep pain.

I love the fact that Chase has kept Adrianna present in the story because her death was an incredibly traumatic event. I always viewed her as the hope of the series, that one day she might be able to take Christopher out of that world and start a new life. The others were locked in, but she had a chance. I think part of the reason people were so down on the sixth season was that without her, we lost that hope, that outsider viewpoint, and are only left with a crumbling infrastructure of depressed people.

Carmela’s major arc throughout the series has been her grudging acceptance of Tony’s way of life. She has sought outs, and even separated from him, but, much like the mobsters themselves, she’s unable to function outside of their system. She is financially dependent on him and even her attempt at independence, the spec house, was only possible because of Tony’s funding and manipulation of the building commission. But, right from the first moments of the season, we’ve seen Adrianna haunting Carmela, and discovering that Tony and Chris killed her could totally shatter the justification she’s built for the life she’s leading. When she asks Chris why she hasn’t called, I have to assume she really wants to ask if Ade is dead, but can’t do that outright. I’m not sure how she would find out the truth. There’s a bunch of potentially melodramatic ways, but Chase is unlikely to go for something traditional. However, I have to believe that all this buildup is there for a reason and it will come to a head at some point later in the season.

The structuring of Christopher’s arc this season has been very unconventional. It was a bold choice to make Kelli such a non-character, to just have Christopher get married without it being a big deal, but I think it works because both he, and we, are still hung up on Adrianna. Nobody’s going to warm up to a replacement for her, so instead we get a total non-entity, someone who’s just there. That makes Christopher’s domestic life seem all the more hollow, a concession. He may be happy with her, but it’s not the same kind of love he had with Adrianna.

But, this episode indicates that he’s on a good path. He’s three months sober, having bottomed out with Julianna and gotten a new mentor. He made an admirable effort, but as long as he was in the mob culture, working out of a bar, he was never going to succeed at maintaining his sobriety. Now, he stays out of the Bing, something that clearly irks Tony. I’m uncertain how to read Tony’s reaction to Cleaver, at first I think he’s genuinely happy for Christopher, but after he finds out he was an analogue of the boss, he’s quite hurt. Now, on one level, that pain comes from the representation of him in the film. But, I think part of it is also that Christopher has had a success outside the mob world, that he’s growing beyond Tony in some ways. Previously, Tony thought it as a money making venture, after realizing it was so closely tied to Chris’s own life, he recognizes that making the film was a personal achievement. Christopher was able to realize his dream, and we know from “The Test Dream” that Tony still has deep feelings of shame about not living up to his potential.

The scene with Tony and Melfi was one of the best therapy scenes in a long time, with a devastating performance from Gandolfini. I love the moment where he acknowledges that, after spending so much time with Melfi, the construction of the film was no accident. Things end with Chris and Tony embracing, but the embrace is filled with tension, and the future for these two does not look good.

All that and I haven’t even touched on Johnny Sack. Like Phil, he’s annoyed that he played by the rules, only to wind up screwed, with cancer. His progressive slight into depression and illness is well executed, and the character gets a nice farewell. He was pretty much done in “Mr. and Mrs. Sacrimoni Request…” This episode just makes it official.

One of the things that makes The Sopranos stand out over everything else on TV is the density of the episodes. There’s so much going on here, all revolving around the same themes. There’s at least five great scenes I haven’t even mentioned, including the hilarious bit with Peter Bogdonavich and the jarring murder of the Hairdo. Again, I hesitate to predict what Chase will do, but it looks like things are revving up for something big, and with only seven episodes to go, things should start happening fairly soon. Last week’s episode was a fine way to ease back into the story, this episode starts to set things off. It’s been a really strong start to the season, and I can’t wait to see where things go next week.

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