Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Family Reunion

A late eulogy for the “The Sopranos”

The boxes, you, me, we’re all part of the same quantum field…the fact is, nothing is separate, everything is connected…The universe is just a big soup of molecules bumping up against one another, the shapes we see exist only in our own consciousness.

          —A rocket scientist Tony Soprano meets in the hospital while recovering from a gunshot wound inflicted by his uncle, regarding the boxing match they’re watching together

1. Postmortem

People die in The Sopranos. All the time they die. Important people and people you met less than ten seconds ago but felt like you really got a sense of for those seconds you knew them. Some people die that you just couldn’t imagine the show continuing without (and then it does and makes perfect sense). Others who you never gave much thought are killed, and you wonder what the point of that person dying was, at all.

There are an astounding number of suicide attempts, murders and unintended casualties of all sorts in the last half-season of The Sopranos, as if the show’s self-terminating process is leaking into the minds of the characters. That makes more sense for this show than it might for any other, though; there’s always been a hypersensitive quality to The Sopranos, something that links the narrative of its structure to the narratives the characters are writing for themselves, otherwise known as their lives.  

By the last episode of the show, every word uttered cuts, bitter and ironic.  The FBI agents are dissatisfied, the mobsters are dissatisfied, the urbane, intellectual psychoanalysts are at a low point as well. If the show presents a picture of life—and for as long as you were watching it that’s exactly what you found most special—its end is very clearly death. That’s what The Sopranos is able to do.

2. Made in America

When Tony walks into his back-of-the-meat-shop office for the last time, his right hand man Silvio is reading a book called “How to Clean Practically Anything.” Sil runs the Bada Bing! strip club, in which these men spend an equal portion of their time. It’s never clear what exactly he’s planning on cleaning. The possibilities are endless, tantalizing in fact. Whatever it is, the book probably has the answer; it does say “practically anything.”

There's nothing sublime about shots like the one above. Instead, they're focused on the minutest details, approaching life as it’s lived and hiding nothing—especially the things we usually forget about while watching life’s TV facsimiles. The more time we spend with these people, the more we know about them. And suddenly, their perspective makes perfect sense. Just as much as anyone else’s, really.
They were born into this family and its requirements, that we know for sure by the end; and yet when they begin to feel trapped by it, or view their situation from the outside in, their shame and powerlessness becomes oppressive. The characters who even begin to feel the hypocrisy of their existenceand no one on this show is safe from having their ugliness exposed—these are the ones who are not likely to survive.

Watching this show, we see the life of Tony Sopranobegin at times to feel trapped by it in the same way he doesbut we also see what lies on the periphery. The garbage man whose son watched him get shot in the head by a gangster who needed to vent on take-your-kid-to-work-day; the African boy whose bike ran into the door of a gangster-in-training getting out of his car and was beat severely for causing such an inconvenience; these are the victims of the Sopranos. These are the people you can unequivocally cry for without worrying about your own hypocrisy. The characters we know, on the other hand, do not afford this clarity.

The whole show seems to be echoing a sentiment valid to all: what about my pain? Look at me and feel for me. This is certainly Tony’s line as he unravels, waiting for the triumph of being satisfied with his life. By the last season, Tony’s dissatisfaction has made him unpleasant, volatile, approaching evil. When he sees himself mirrored in another, his self-pitying son, or decides that someone represents his disillusionment—this season is also the one in which all of Tony’s idols become almost less than human, his childhood emptied of the little happiness and hope he felt—he beats up or kills that person. Leaving therapy behind, perhaps the worse for having become aware of his dissatisfaction, he chooses death over healing. But always the death of others.

Watching The Sopranos has always been an exercise in simultaneously asking “How could this happen?” and understanding exactly how, but not wanting to believe it.

3. Group Portrait

As the last episodes roll out, the question of inheritance is asked by all in the self-conscious way this show is so fond of.

Tony’s son AJ seems the most distraught at the end, we’re suddenly more interested in him than ever before. Feeling the pressure and also a recent break up, AJ begins to talk futility, injustice, suicide. 
At one point, while complaining in his childhood room about his inconsequence, his sister Meadow cannot take it any longer. “We’re Italian and you’re their son. Do you have any idea what that means? It means you’re always going to be more important to them.”

Over the course of the last few episodes, Tony’s children become increasingly interested in pursuing social justice. Yet, even while they’re the children of a mob boss and that direction might seem appropriate, the show doesn’t let them off the hook so easy. There’s hypocrisy everywhere, the camera reminds us as it frames the irony; sometimes you don’t even have to look so hard to find it.

“Actually, this is good. It will force me to take the bus,” AJ says, when he accidentally blows up the thirty thousand dollar SUV his parents bought him, “We have to break our dependence on foreign oil.”

We’ve seen his self-righteous, overachieving sister Meadow like this ever since she left for college: trying out new ideas in order to escape the obvious flaws of their parents lifestyle. Still, its not clear whose side we’re on as his parents step back and stare, dumbfounded, laughing helplessly at what they’ve created. The show is very aware of what it has created, what it knows about people, in moments like this. It is speaking to us through the characters, showing us how wrong people can be, and how they can hardly help it.

In hours AJ has decided he wants to go into the army. Our country is in a dire situation. Plus, I’ll get my pilot’s license so I can fly Trump around in his jet. His parents don’t think this is such a good idea.

            So, again, he compromises.

Instead of the army, he settles for a position at his cousin’s production company, making a new movie—a recent development in the family business. Oh, and about the car. A black BMW ends up looking great with his new leather jacket and goatee.

            We all have to compromise sometimes.

At times it seems like Carmella Soprano, the matron whose entire life is, perhaps, a compromise, is the biggest enigma. Her surface level is wide-eyes, increasingly surprised or hurt by those around her. Sometimes they just bulge ambiguously, as if she has short wired at last. Underneath, its hard to say how much she feels, how aware she is. Ocassionally she feels like our closest ally, repressed understandably by her role in life. but still seeing through all the bullshit. Most of the time, though, we don’t know what she wants, and most likely she doesn’t either.

Then there’s Tony’s toxic mother, the one who perhaps made it so hard for him to be satisfied, and the root of all evil in this bitter show. Her death early on was brilliant; when she died, discontent became harder to trace. She seemed eternal, and in a way she lived on. Her poison spread through Tony, his sister, their kids, so that when they’re at their worst we know what they’re up against, and what they might become if they close themselves off entirely. 

Uncle Junior is the last character we follow through to the end. He tried to kill Tony at multiple times over the course of this show, indirectly. Not alone, Tony’s mother helped, of course. The thing with Junior has always been his memory. He’s older and wilier than anyone else, and the only card he has left is his age and the leniency that comes with it. After being almost killed by his uncle multiple times, and swearing him off for the duration of the show, Tony goes to visit him in the final episode. Tony is always as unsettled by Junior Soprano as we are; he seems to get the eeriness of a man who most of the time doesn’t seem to have a firm grasp on anything, and at other times knows exactly what he’s doing. Junior doesn’t recognize, or pretends not to recognize Tony; seconds later he’s still somehow sharp enough to strike his nephew down at every turn, and make him feel a deep, ambiguous guilt he doesn’t quite understand. Tony sits down for an intimate moment and tells him, “You and my dad, you two ran North Jersey.” “We did,” Junior’s eyes don’t let on much of anything below his surface. “Yeah.” “Hm,” Junior smiles, “Well that’s nice.” Junior looks over at something else, a spot on the wall that equally holds his attention. It’s seems he’s really gone for good, now. Tony walks out of the psych ward as quickly as he can.

All of his idols, even the ones he didn’t know he still had, seem to have fallen. The world of the Sopranos is disillusionment and distraction, poignantly conveyed to an audience who cannot get enough. It’s a confusing world.

4. The Human Condition

In the final season of the Sopranos, Tony almost dies. Multiple times. The bodies pile up around him, his life is threatened, and yet he gets away with scars. His unlikely survival is what seems to unravel him in this final season—more than ever before, Tony becomes mean. It seems he might just be the ruthless, raging gangster and the sociopath you were hoping he was not. He believes something else should happen besides his survival, the anticipation and resulting disappointment almost kill him.

            “Every day is a gift,” he tells his therapist of seven years. “I just wish it wasn’t socks.”
He chuckled. She stares at him blankly, as befits their final dynamic of stale potency, when he tries to blow off his feelings. “But you know, such is the human condition.” “What is?” she asks, always quick to make him dig deeper than he wants to. Silence.

            “I don’t know.”

Tony, comes back into focus the last half season to remind us how the show started: what might happen the day mob boss decides to go into therapy? At the end, we find out that perhaps therapy wasn’t helping him after all. A study recently came out that proves that therapy simply heightens the acumen of a sociopath, so that the therapy becomes yet another avenue of criminal enterprise, an opportunity to revise and perfect the story they’re telling. Ohhhh, we realize along with her, that just makes too much sense.

His therapist, a minor but crucial character who had been explored in greater depth earlier in the series and now seems resigned and complacent, is filled with self-doubt and a fair bit of loathing as she contemplates whether this therapy hasn’t all been for her. Is she helping him? He’s been so fascinating a case study, maybe it’s understandable that I didn’t notice his delusion was thickening.

While he might be a sociopath, Tony Soprano can make friends with anybody. After surviving an attempt on his life, and a coma that presented as a self-exploratory dream sequence (considering how much the literary world despises dream sequences, I’ve come to think of the good ones as underdogs and can’t help enjoying what this one offers of the man’s subconscious more than another might), he ends up bored in the hospital for a few days. He makes friends with a physicist and a rapper, who seem equally respectful of him. The rapper is in the hospital because, like Tony, he has recently almost been clipped. Carted down the hall surrounded by his entourage, the stone-cold rapper nods reverentially at Tony, who bulges out of his hospital gown, and invites him to a party later in his room. Tony nods in a way that indicates that the invitation is expected. We’re the same, you and me; all part of the job.
An accomplished physicist is also at the party, in a matching dress and robe, and seems to speak for a few minutes about the show that we’re watching. Tony becomes intrigued by the big-picture wisdom that this old, knowing man offers. His cosmic perspective is a different line than the evangelists who have been visiting Tony’s room offering him forgiveness in his second coming. Tony begins searching the physicist for the answers he’s looking for, telling him that while he was in a coma Carmella told him that he woke up for a second to ask, “Who am I? Where’m I goin’?” Tony laughs as he always does at the most important things, “Well…Makes you wonder. About heaven…hell?” The man answers with the voice of the show, “That presupposes a duality of good and evil, gets us back to the idea of separate, opposing entities. You know where I go with that.”

Tony replies, “Well this bible guy I know says you’re going to hell.” The scientist explains that perhaps he’s right, after all he himself just received word that his cancer is progressively worse. He asks, jokingly, if Tony would just go ahead and whack him. Tony looks disappointed, as he always is when people on the outside reduce him to his public persona.

5. Bringing it All Back Home

I’m inclined to think Bob Dylan has a lot to say about anything, and yet I still didn’t imagine that it would be his music to set the tone in the final episode. The last season focuses more on music than any that preceded it, setting an almost heavy-handed nostalgic mood through the soundtrack that anticipates an end we can feel approaching.

In the final episode, Dylan’s “Bringing It All Back Home” is Anthony Junior’s newly discovered anthem. He’s still stupid, not capable of much of anything, yet somehow the message he has embraced leaks into the construction of the show. As the CD plays, the car pulled off the road catches on fire, and young Anthony Soprano Junior and his girlfriend throw themselves out. Anthony Junior had been contemplating suicide for a while, making one botched attempt at drowning himself in his pool so ill-conceived that it had been quickly labeled a “cry for help,” yet when he notices the smoke and sees the flames, he can’t get out of the car fast enough. His instincts kick in. From a safe distance he says, “Aww man. I parked illegally” and watches as the flames engulf his car.

Dylan’s song follows them, emanating from the forest instead of the stereo as the CD player melts into the dashboard. Then, suddenly, the music begins to melt away as well, slowing down and decomposing along with the car in that stretching-sound way that these things have—not the zippery sudden stop of a track being cut short. Dylan’s reedy voice grows deep and lugubrious, then cuts out entirely.  
The last scene of the show is brilliant in a vast, inclusive way that I did not expect (and I was prepared to discuss the limitations of however the show ended). It’s amazing that even while I feel I know this show so well, it’s still able to surprise me. The Sopranos is like a person in that way, a love interest; always less known than you think. In its final sequence, the show flexes its muscles one last time. As all momentous finales should, it takes place in a cheesy diner we’ve never seen before. Tony has just left his uncle in oblivion and walks into the restaurant, choosing an empty table and fiddling with the miniature jukebox on his table. We watch him consider, and as his wife comes in his choice begins to play. “Don’t Stop Believin’” The all-American lyrics ring through the final conversation. “It goes on, and on, and on and ooon.” Carmella asks her son about his new job, and when he complains his father teases him, “Buck up.”

            “Right, Focus on the good times,” AJ says, with his characteristic innocence that everyone misunderstands as a front for an ironic depth he doesn’t have.

             “Don’t be sarcastic,” Tony replies.

            AJ looks confused, a little disillusioned himself, “Isn’t that what you said one time, try and remember the times that were good?”

            “I did?...Well it’s true I guess.”

A man who walked in right before AJ has been looking sinister for a few minutes. He gets up to go to the bathroom, walking past the Sopranos table. We have been prepared, somehow, since this man walked in for him to attempt an assassination of Tony. In another movie, we are reminded as he enters the men’s restroom, the gun would be behind the toilet.

Meadow Soprano tries to parallel park three times, pulling in and out of a spot so close to the car in front of her that we know we’ll hear metal on metal any second. But she tried three times, doesn’t hit the car, and suddenly she’s parked. She jumps out of her car and runs through the street, a car whizzing past so fast we’re sure she’s about to get run over like everyone else in the last episode. Inside, onion rings are delivered—Tony: I ordered some for the table”—Maybe this was just about a family after all? Does all that really have to be at stake?—the bell of the door rings, Tony looks up, the song cuts off more abruptly than anything I’ve ever seen on television, “Don’t stop—” and the screen is black. We’ve been cut off. Ten seconds of black, so that we can hardly believe it—it seems more likely that the internet/cable/power source/life cut out than that that just happened. Endless possibilities.

            After enough time that no one would blame you if you’ve walked away from the screen,  credits roll into the silence. It has been a long time since this show was silent.       

            It’s almost a relief.

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