Monday, May 07, 2007

The Sopranos: 'Walk Like a Man' (6x17)

After last week’s odd, substandard episode, the show roars back to full strength with the fantastic ‘Walk Like a Man.’ This episode continues the season’s focus on Tony’s two sons, AJ and surrogate Christopher, as each struggles to live with the legacy of Tony, in the same way that Tony struggles to live with the legacy of his predecessors. This entire season has been obsessed with legacy, and fathers and sons, something that’s been present in the series since the first episode. The mob is on the decline, so many of the characters feel that it is impossible to live up to the people who came before them. With each generation in decline, where will things bottom out?

This episode, much like ‘Stage 5’ was notable for the sheer amount of events that happened in the episode. While I get what they were doing with last year’s season, I think the show is stronger in this more compressed mode. The writers have the uncanny ability to express complex ideas and developments in a very concise way. There’s more to analyze from single scenes of The Sopranos than from entire episodes of other shows. I think the show’s best season was five, in which they focused primarily on standalone stories that all tied into the show’s mythology.

So, one week you follow Uncle Junior and have a story that sends the character through an entire arc, letting him recede into the background later in the season. But, none of these episodes are forgotten, for example, ‘Irregular Around the Margins,’ in which Tony and Adrianna nearly have sex, has cast a shadow over this entire season, laying the groundwork for the tension between Christopher and Tony. Things have never been since that episode, and it’s critical to understanding the way Christopher behaves here. He’s always looked up to Tony, and Tony has spent the entire series grooming Chris to be his successor. However, Christopher has never been certain about his role within the family, and that uncertainty crops up in this episode, where he feels nothing but disdain for the world around him.

Part of the reason people have trouble with the sixth season is the loss of Adrianna. She was the only character who wasn’t corrupted through her association with this world, and as a result, she offered hope that perhaps she and Christopher could leave this life behind and live a better way. After her death, the show returned with characters resigned to their world. Much of last year was focused on showing that these characters can never escape their imprisonment in this world, both because of outside forces and their own dependence.

Part of what’s been exciting about this year’s Christopher arc has been the return of hope, that maybe he’ll see the light and leave this world behind. I think the essential tension of the show is our hope that the characters will act better, even as we know that they won’t. I am hoping that maybe Christopher will get out, but that’s likely just a false hope. As the scene with JT shows, he’s not equipped to deal with people in the way that ordinary people do.

This episode is filled with images of generational transition, in the images of Chris and AJ, we can see Tony’s own evolution. Christopher is at the grill, his house now the site for family barbecues. Tony looks over him, offering suggestions about how to prepare the steak, but it’s clear that Christopher is taking on Tony’s role. Tony previously expressed concern about how with all the old people dying off, he is now becoming the old generation. Junior looks pretty out of it, and Tony is now the elder man at the barbecue.

It’s tough to watch Christopher continually get heckled for his sobriety, though I’ll make a quick note of the well placed use of Crazy P’s “Lady T” in the scene with Chris and Paulie at the Bing. As Christopher says at the AA meeting, Tony is the worst kind of enabler, something we’ve seen since season five’s “Cold Cuts.” The AA meeting scene doesn’t articulate anything we haven’t heard before, but it gives us a good insight into how Christopher is feeling right now. The scene on the stairwell was also deeply uncomfortable, but incredibly revealing. Christopher has not gotten over Adrianna’s death, his depression a worse version of what AJ is going through in the present. He is deeply resentful of Tony, something that’s been building since last year. Christopher keeps up the façade of a happily married man, but $40,000 of landscaping can’t cover up the troubles within.

The scene at the Bing is deliberately tied to a similar moment in season five’s “All Happy Families,” in which a slow motion shot of everyone laughing was used to show that Tony isn’t a beloved boss, they laugh out of fear. Here, Christopher attempts to say something meaningful, but no one will listen to him, and after Paulie’s joke crosses the line, he sees that none of them really care about him.

Christopher is caught in an unfortunate bind. He gets no sympathy from the people in the mob, who have no interest in understanding what he’s going through. However, when he goes to JT, he’s rejected because he’s in the mafia, in one of the rare moments where a character actually acknowledges what these people do, and the way that prevents them from making any real moral change in their lives. The scene with JT is full of tension, and split sympathy. Christopher is really in pain, and just wants someone to talk to. JT takes the by the book hard line the program encourages, but what Christopher really wants is just someone to talk to. I think back to Christopher’s acting class in season two’s “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” when he cries while acting next to someone playing his father. Here, he reaches out for a father figure, but finds nothing, betrayed by Tony and his other father.

During his ranting, he mentions a lot of things that are still in play, Ralph Cifaretto, Adrianna’s death, and the possibility of going into witness protection. He’s never been someone who’s deeply committed to the life, but could Chris really sell out the others like that? I think he’s at the point where he would, but I don’t think Chase would let him escape like that. Of course, it would be the ultimate betrayal to Tony, and even if Tony himself isn’t arrested, it could rip his crime family apart.

The death of JT was shocking, as was Christopher’s assault on Little Paulie. Clearly, we’re being set up with the idea that he’s unhinged and could do anything. There’s a lot of potential directions for this story to go, and even though Christopher props up that tree at the end, it’s clear that things aren’t all good with him.

Concurrent with this, we’ve got AJ’s story, which in the end brings him to a place where he could enter Tony’s world. That’s always been the great question mark of the series, what would become of AJ? Blanca gave him the drive to work hard and attempt a legitimate life, with her gone, he reverts to his malaise. In season three’s finale “An Army of One,” Tony asked Melfi, “What are we gonna’ do with this kid,” and it’s a question that’s echoed ever since. In season four and five, he was on the periphery, now he’s moved to the center.

The major issue for Tony is that he doesn’t know how to relate to people outside the world of the mob. He can’t help AJ with any suggestion but to numb his pain with strippers, drinking and anti-depressants. I love the scene where Tony cries at therapy, thinking about the legacy he’s passed on to his son. More than ever in this episode, we see AJ as the echo of Tony, getting drawn into the crime world of his father. Tony must have known what he was doing when he sent AJ to hang out with the two Jasons. Isn’t this the same kind of behavior that Tony resented when his father sent out to do his first hit? I think this episode makes clear why so much time was spent on Tony’s early mob experience in “Remember When.”

Seeing AJ involved in low level gangster violence was an odd experience. It’s been a possibility since the series’ beginning, but I was never sure if it would come to fruition. The question now is, is AJ going to continue to move in this world, and how will Tony react when he finds out what’s really going on? Seeing the gang of young guys beating up their debtor made the generational transition clear. Tony is on the way out, these guys are on the way up.

Tony is torn with his two sons, one moving closer to his world, the other further away. How will he deal with all this, and what will Christopher do? I’m eager to find out, and if nothing else, this episode makes clear that things are happening, the world is changing, and Tony’s generation will soon come to a close.

With such focus on Tony’s sons, there’s still one great enigma, and that’s Meadow. She’s back at home, hanging out with Carmela. That moment was the first time we’ve seen the family together, just the four of them, in a long, long time, I liked the silent look between Tony and Carmela, how happy they were to be united in that way. Meadow went on a “mystery date,” but we really don’t know much about what’s up with her. I don’t think she’ll play a huge role in the end of the series, but I feel like she deserves at least one more big storyline before the end of the show.

Still, even though there’s a lot of loose ends, I do feel like the show will be able to give us a satisfying conclusion in the remaining four episodes. Because Chase can compress such complex ideas into a brief amount of screentime, it won’t be a problem. This episode has me really excited to see where things go, and if nothing else, this season has reasserted the show’s position as indisputably the best thing on television.

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