Monday, May 28, 2007

The Sopranos: 'The Second Coming' (6x19)

I’m running a bit behind with this review, but that’s in no way a comment on the episode’s quality. This was another amazing episode, each week I feel privileged to have work of this quality. I don’t think there’s been a run this good since Six Feet Under post Nate’s death. In each case, the death of a major character has forced the others to reevaluate their attitudes towards life. This week was just an incredible hour, as the series narrows its thematic focus for this final run.

I take issue with people who have nothing but bad things to say about the show’s last season. There were some issues with the first half of season six, but the Kevin Finnerty episodes were among the most imaginative and challenging things the show has done. After that, there was a somewhat meandering narrative, but once you’re aware of what Chase is trying to do on a thematic level, it makes a lot more sense. The entire season is about addiction, not so much to drugs, though that does figure in, rather to the lifestyle that has all these people hooked on an easy life outside the bounds of traditional work.

It’s difficult to watch the show sometimes because the characters constantly make inexplicable choices, the first time through the Vito arc, I was so frustrated when he abandoned his life up in New Hampshire to go back to Jersey. On some level, he knew he was going to be killed, but he’d rather take that fate than actually do a day’s labor. The sequence where he tries to work and gives up by 10:30 AM is both funny and deeply sad, the best demonstration of what failures these people are at working within the rules. They cannot escape this life, even if they want to, largely because everyone around them are enablers. That’s what we saw made literal in Christopher’s arc, he was unable to break out of the addiction cycle because the world he lived in required the use of substance. Yes, it’s something of a narrative dead end to show a character try to quit then relapse again and again, but it’s also realistic.

This last season has been all about puncturing the fantasies that the show unconsciously perpetuated during the earlier seasons. Much could be written about the relationship between Chase and his audience, a relationship in which each side frequently seems to hate the other, but they’re still caught up in a cycle of dependence. There’s so many attacks on the fanbase, or at least one segment of it, within the show, and Chase’s comments in the media add more. The show began as kind of a fantasy for middle aged men, that you could have a loving wife and great kids, yet still be able to sleep with anyone you want, hurt people who disagree with you and work out of a strip club. I think Chase began to recognize that people were identifying too strongly with the characters, looking at them as role models, and put a series of increasingly violent incidents in to try to break the fantasy. A notable example of this is Ralphie killing Tracee in “University.” Paulie killing Min Matrone in season four is another example, but nothing he did could break the fact that people still admired these characters.

So, he spent the first half of the season trying to show the ways their world is losing the allure it once had, as boredom sets in around Tony. This year, he’s been bringing to the fore Tony’s total lack of morality, creating a really interesting juxtaposition between our lingering affection for the character and the fact that he’s doing really awful stuff. For the first time, people really seem to be recognizing just how much of a bastard he is.

Yet, the brilliance of the show is that we always understand why he does what he does, and are still able to remain sympathetic. I generally prefer characters who are fascinating to ones who are likable in traditional ways, characters like Spike or Magneto, and Tony is one of the greatest antiheroes ever created, a mess of contradictions and lax morality.

Anyway, this episode sees Tony struggling with the aftermath of his peyote trip, and his son’s suicide trip. The first four episodes of this season were strong, but starting with “Walk Like a Man,” there’s been an intense focus on very specific themes, and it’s produced one of the best runs of the entire series. The focus has been on Tony and his two sons, AJ, his real son, and Christopher, the man he’s treated as a son and who was groomed to be his successor. Last week saw the end of Christopher’s journey, as Tony killed him. Tony remained completely unrepentant about what he did this week, enraptured more with what was going on back at home.

I love the scene where Tony talks about taking peyote with his crew. He’s always had more intelligence and intellectual curiosity than any of them. They joke about it, but don’t understand how deeply meaningful the experience was for him.

But, the core of the episode’s first half was the final steps in AJ’s descent into depression. AJ has deep issues with the world he comes from, unable to deal with all his privilege after being made aware of just how poor other people are. A lot of this ties in to what happened with Blanca, but it’s also symptomatic of the expansion of his worldview. He doesn’t fit in anywhere, making his suicide feel inevitable.

Yet, it’s still surprising. If you’d told me that Tony would kill Christopher one week and AJ would try to kill himself the next, I wouldn’t have believed you because it sounds like the kind of over the top melodramatic storytelling Chase usually avoids. However, he does it in such a way that it feels totally organic to the universe. AJ’s suicide is played cold, you observe it and can do nothing. His inability to actually do the deed is both a relief and darkly funny. Tony rescues him in a gutwrenching scene that lets us see Tony totally unguarded for perhaps the first time in the series. In this moment, he just wants AJ to live and it almost feels like we shouldn’t be watching this, it’s too intimate a moment.

The cut from the pool to AJ in the wheelchair, looking completely braindead, is one of the most powerful in the entire series. That jump tells us everything we need to know. Robert Iler has kicked up his game this season, having become essentially the second lead of the series. While the lengthy hiatuses between seasons may have hurt the series in some respects, it did give us the opportunity to see AJ go through this, he’s been brought to an age when he can have a legitimate crossroads in his life, and that’s riveting to watch.

There is no escape from the family, and AJ is the only character who seems to have faced up to the morality of what they’re doing. Meadow always seemed to be the smarter one, but in this episode we see her slipping back, dating Patrick Parisi, who may be a lawyer, but is still part of the world she belongs to. We haven’t seen much of her this season, but this development was a great way of subtly drawing her back in. We’ve always seen that she has a deep love for her family and places that above any objective moral judgments of what they do.

AJ’s suicide attempt brings up a lot of bad feelings. Tony, on some level, hates his son and feels that Carmela is the one who messed him up, made him soft. We see that come out in the Melfi scene, which also features Tony’s revelation about what he realized on the peyote, that our mothers are the bus drivers and we spend all our lives trying to get back on the bus. This is an interesting tie in to what Janice said back in “Soprano Home Movies,” that their mother was unable to accept the fact that her children were growing up and away from her. It’s a mess of trouble that is a perfect conundrum for Tony. He simultaneously hated what his mother was and hates Carmela for not being like her with AJ. And, with all his repeating of “poor you,” he’s becoming Livia.

This episode was really intense, and emotionally wrenching. The show is so tightly focused, pondering Tony’s legacy as he ends his reign. Things seem to be going to hell all around, Phil is out to get him, AJ is not doing well and Tony himself continues to burn his bridges. Two episodes out, I still have no idea how it’s going to end. Will AJ be Tony’s salvation, or just another failure? Will they actually war with New York or will it be averted yet again? Only one more week to get some answers.

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