Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Will the real Tony Soprano please step forward

What to make of this week’s episode of “The Sopranos”? I thought it was an excellent episode, much better than the season premier, which I found to be somewhat disjointed. Sunday’s show featured a David Lynch-esque fantasy in which a comatose Tony imagines he is an ordinary businessman, lost in California when he loses his wallet during a business trip. One of the most entertaining aspects was hearing James Gandolfini pare down the New Jersey accent and jettison the wiseguy dialect.

The alternate Tony storyline was loaded with symbolism and foreboding. The idea of an ordinary life—a typical, humdrum, middle class existence—is an integral part of the mythology of mob drama, including those stories that happen to be true. It is a life that silver-screen and small-screen mobsters alike despise. At the end of “Goodfellas” Henry Hill bemoans having to wait in line like everyone else. On “The Sopranos”, it is his vision of an ordinary life, formed while watching some poor schlub pack his wife and kids into a beat-up car at a gas station, that leads Christopher to betray Adrianna to Tony.

Yet an ordinary life is something to be envied as well. Vito Corleone tells his son that he never wanted to be a pawn of powerful men, but he also admits that he never wanted his son to share his life. Much of “The Sopranos” has revolved around Tony and Carmella trying to keep A.J. out of Tony’s mob world. That’s what makes A.J. pledge of revenge as he stands over Tony’s hospital bed—not unlike the scene in “The Godfather” in which Michael tells his father, “I’m with you now, Pop,”—as ominous as it was laughable. (Laughable, because, while A.J. may share his father’s murderous hate, he has none of his apparent guile and cunning.)

On “The Sopranos”, the ordinary life is represented by Artie Bucco and his wife, Charmaine, which is why I tend to agree with those who think the voice of the alternate Tony Soprano’s wife—never named—was Charmaine’s. Artie and Charmaine represent the lives that the other characters on the show would have had they never entered the Mafia. Think of Artie, trying to turn an honest buck at his restaurant, henpecked by a wife his mobster friends wouldn’t tolerate for two minutes. In an early episode, tired of Carmella’s patronizing, Charmaine reveals that she and Tony once dated, years before, and that “I made my choice, and I’m fine with it.” One can’t help but think that Carmella and her friends secretly resent Charmaine, because they know that despite her lack of creature comforts, she has it better than they do. I mean, can you imagine Artie with a mistress?

At this point it’s worth mentioning that one theory circulating online is that the coma-fantasy Tony, the one who can’t figure out how to leave California, the one diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s, is the real Tony Soprano, and that the mob life will be revealed to be a dementia-induced fantasy. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to discount that idea. It just seems too hokey and clichéd, and we seem to have had no forewarning that this is the case. “The Sopranos” has never been predictable, but on the other hand, David Chase has always dropped enough clues to allow us to figure out what is going on.

But there is plenty in the Tony’s mob life that we can see bleeding over into the fantasy. Alzheimer’s and dementia loom large for Tony—indeed, Uncle Junior’s dementia is the reason Tony lies in a coma with an open gunshot wound. And Alzheimer’s is hardly the way a guy like Tony would want to go out. That’s how ordinary men die, not in a hail of bullets. The disease also forms a nice parallel with the permanent brain damage that the doctors have told Carmella likely awaits Tony should he survive. In his dream, Tony tells the emergency room doctor “I’m lost” and indeed, so is the real Tony. Even before he was shot, Tony lorded over an empire in peril, some fault lines apparent, others hidden. What awaits Tony? As he once told Dr. Melfi, there are only two ways out for a guy like him—prison, or the morgue.

And so he lies there, while the bonds that hold both his crime family and his real family together begin to slip. Near the end of the episode, the ordinary Tony looks out his hotel room and sees, as he did at the episode’s opening, the faint glow of California forest fires on the horizon. He picks up the phone, apparently to call his wife, and then lowers the receiver, thinking the better of it. He’ll take refuge a bit longer in this sanctuary, just like the real Tony, who we can imagine would be in no hurry to confront the chaos his absence has unleashed.

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26 Comments:

Blogger Sean McDaniel said...

Okay, now something I can really sink my teeth into..

First of all, I agree about the Alzheimer's Tony not being the real deal living out the gangster fantasy in his head. St. Elsewhere ended that way...with an autistic kid peering into a snowglobe with a hospital in it named St. Elsewhere.

The Sopranos have never been a been there done that kind of show. So we should all agree that a Dallas ripoff isn't going to happen. Besides, the show's writers always tie up loose ends or at least take steps to ensure the plot action makes sense. There's never been the slightest hint that gangster Tony is a fantasy. Now that I said that, the skin cancer incident from season 5 is still out there as a wild card. Wouldn't it be something if Tony survives the gunshot to die of melanoma? Take about "normal."

I love watching each show a second time (Comcast On Demand is great). There are plenty of details you just can't pick up in one viewing. As I mentioned last week, the Wm Burroughs poem might just describe the future of some of the main players, such as A.J. referred to as the double and Meadow as the guardian angel.

But even this week, there were some great visual clues about why this is just a dream. For instance, if you can, check Tony's salesman clothes. They just don't fit the way his mob duds do. Let's just say that even in his dreams, he knows he's ill-suited for "normal" life.

Also, one of the songs in the show is called "There Will Never Be Another You" and a muzak version of the 1970s Badfinger hit "Day after Day" (Looking out from my lonely room, day after day. Bring it home, maybe someday soon) is playing when he returns to the hotel just before the show ends. Of course, the lyrics of the Moby song, When It's Cold I'd Like to Die, over the closing credits could speak volumes:

Where were you when I was lonesome?
Locked away with freezing cold
Someone flying only stolen
I can't tell this light so old

[Refrain:]
I don't want to swim the ocean
I don't want to fight the tide
I don't want to swim forever
When it's cold I'd like to die

What was that my sweet sweet nothing?
I can't hear you through the fog
If I holler let me go
If I falter let me know

[Refrain]

I don't want to swim forever
I don't want to fight the tide
I don't want to swim the ocean
When it's cold I'd like to die

Analyze this? You bet. All week long. And I haven't watched the episode a second time.

One more thing, that light out the window at the beginning and end is an airport light...a distant beacon, perhaps? Remember, he's lost, doesn't know where he's going. Take another look. It revolves with a regular pattern. It doesn't flash and flare as a fire would (I like my unintentioanl pun!)

Finally, as much as I despise Carmella, Edie Falco made me shiver during her hospital scenes. Nobody does it better.

12:47 AM

 
Blogger Sean McDaniel said...

one other thing about the coma/Alzheimer's plot possibility...if my memory is working (not a given) I seem to recall that all Tony's previous dreams include his presence in every scene or at least being within viewing distance of the action (which is the case with all the coma dreams this week). If all this is happening within the coma or Alzheimer's, then it breaks a long established pattern in the show, and it also means he's been having dreams within dreams...

Now this...don't know about anyone else...but in my dreams I'm always center stage or enjoying a front row view. Nothing ever happens in my dreams that I'm not directly connected to...even when others seem to be the focus of attention.

by the way, of course i can imagine artie with a mistress...stuff like that happens every day...even in real life. he's the owner of a fabulous restaurant, and women love men who can cook. His problem is that he either tries to make it with a mob babe (adriana) or someone who's taking advantage of him (the french girl whose brother borrowed $50K to import absinithe). He a doofus, for sure. But lots bigger asses end up with mistresses.

1:07 AM

 
Blogger Sean McDaniel said...

One other neat detail about episode two, the asian doctor treating Tony in the ICU looks as though he could be a Buddhist monk (he's not one of them)

...what happened Patsy/Phil? Two funerals so far and he's a no show.

...and maybe it's just a coincidence, but AJ with long hair looks a lot like the young Tony who appears in flashbacks.

8:51 AM

 
Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

A guy like Artie could have a mistress--but not Artie. He's too afraid of his wife, even in divorce. He never even wanted to get divorced--it was a bluff, and she called it.

8:56 AM

 
Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

Other people see the light as an airport beacon, and that may be correct.

9:20 AM

 
Blogger Maria said...

Haven't all of Tony's dreams featured some pretty surreal moments? This one doesn't. It's the most undreamlike dream sequence. The only jarring moments are the other women's voice for his wife. She does say things exactly like Carmella would -- including using the same nickname for Tony -- but it's obviously not Carmella speaking.

Does he see that light in the distance from more than one location?

1:40 PM

 
Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

My wife read to me from an interview David Chase gave to the Newark Star-Ledger. Indeed, the writer noted that this was a much more linear "dream." It told a literal story, even if replete with symbolism.

He sees the light from two different hotel rooms--the one he woke up in, and the one he stays in under Kevin Finnerty's name.

1:43 PM

 
Blogger Sean McDaniel said...

The light in the distance shows up in the first bar scene, too. But it's the same hotel that he's staying at.

Interesting thought on the unlike dream nature of the other Tony. The action is linear, while dream scene often have no linkage. Still, the hospital scenes (the exam lights) do intrude in businessman Tony's reality.

Honestly, the coma stuff continues this week, with the alternate Tony visiting the monks at their temple. While the meek Tony is interesting, it seems that if this goes on it would be similar to going to a Rolling Stones concert and listening to Mick Jaggar sing Mr. Rogers's songs in a cardigan...and just imagine Keith Richard as Mr. McFeely.

1:51 PM

 
Blogger Amos_thePokerCat said...

The Chase interview at the start of the season in NJ SL.
A sitdown with Tony's bosses: 'Sopranos' creator and producer answer some puzzling questions

Tony checks into the Hotel California

IT'S NOT a dream. It's Purgatory.
...
Here Tony's stuck in Orange County, quite possibly the most personality-free corner of the world, with no way to leave (a k a Purgatory). On one end of town is a shining beacon (Heaven), on the other, a raging forest fire (Hell). ...


Some other random notes:
...
The voice of Purgatory Tony's wife wasn't played by Annabella Sciorra, or any other actress who's been on the show before; she's just a generic non-Carmela female voice.

11:39 PM

 
Blogger Sean McDaniel said...

Thanks for the links cat. The hotel california reference is cool (but you can never leave). As the Star Ledger guy says, nothing in the show is ever just filler, even what seems like incidental background music. As I've said here before, the show bears a second (or third) viewing if you have any kind of On Demand cable feature, with close captioning. This stuff is rich, satisfying and fun.

9:30 AM

 
Blogger Maria said...

Purgatory makes more sense than a dream.

10:32 AM

 
Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

As a Protestant, I've always been a little unclear on this whole Purgatory thing, despite reading my Dante in high school. Don't you have to be dead to go there? And whose sins are so great that they go straight to Hell, as opposed to having the chance to work things off in Purgatory?

Remember Paulie's calculation about how long you have to spend in Purgatory, in the episode in which Christopher has a near-death experience while recovering from a gunshot wound?

11:32 AM

 
Blogger Sean McDaniel said...

Maybe it's limbo. where you go before the higher authorities figure out whether heaven or hell is the final destination. remember, carmela tells him that he's not going to hell. though, if that's true, hell must be a pretty sparsely populated place.

11:38 AM

 
Blogger Maria said...

I believe that Limbo has been booted out of the catechism -- and I thought that was only for unbaptized babies any way.

Yes, you would need to be dead to go to purgatory, BUT if, say, his heart stopped or something and he is "dead" even for a few moments, whose to say that he could not wind up in purgatory for a few minutes...which might seem like hours or days or an entire lifetime?

12:46 PM

 
Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

Once again referring to Dante, I recall that Limbo was where he encountered the righteous souls who had the misfortune of being born before Christ. That was why Virgil could not accompany him into paradise.

1:45 PM

 
Blogger Maria said...

Dante Schmante -- the Catholic Church has revised Limbo a few times since then. I mean, I bet Dante encountered a few poor souls who ended up in Hell for eating meat on a Friday.

It's all a matter of timing when it comes to sin in The Church. ;-)

There was even a time when abortion wasn't a sin...

3:25 PM

 
Blogger Sean McDaniel said...

Okay, Limbo's gone. And the strict defininitions are true. But Limbo for most Catholics was a holding tank for the unbaptized of all non-Catholics. A guy like Tony would believe in that.

Besides, if he's in purgatory, there's no getting back to terra firma. Period. Even the loosest Catholic interpretation would include that point.

And remember, the Ron Liebman doctor (who showed a perfectly reasonable amount of disdain and short patience for the mob family) said the coma was induced...so Tony has been put on hold, in a suspended state, until fate/God/doctors send him off to the netherworld or allow him to get back to business in New Jersey.

I love all this speculation.

3:37 PM

 
Blogger Maria said...

Since Tony is Catholic, I refer now to the "Catechism of the Catholic Church" (1994 edition). This is a book which was given to me as a present which I originally thought that I wouldn't have a ghost (Holy Spirit?) of a chance of ever using but which I have often found myself referring to in arguments.

Purgatory is also known as "The Final Purification":
1030
All who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.

This differs from Hell:
1033
To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God's merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice.

3:57 PM

 
Blogger Maria said...

It doesn't even have a listing for Limbo in the subject index.

3:58 PM

 
Blogger Sean McDaniel said...

Oh, Tony's religious beliefs would have been firmly entrenched before 1994. Besides, I don't think he's the type to go to the book on that kind of stuff. If the nun's at the school he attended taught him about Limbo, it's still there for him. Even when Catholics stop following the religion, those beliefs and teachings still influence their lives. I'm one of them.

11:08 PM

 
Blogger Amos_thePokerCat said...

Oh, this is funny. I guess nobody read the NJ Star Ledger "Hotel Soprano" article? The NJ-ST's Sepinwall saw the first 5 or 6 episode, and then was able to interview David Chase. Sepinwall is fascinated by what he thinks is the "bi-polar" makeup of the Soprano audience, the "Whack-em" hard core mafia fans, vs. the art theater dream sequence types.

I cut and pasted the first paragraph, and the fourth one because I thought they were the most interesting. Here are 2nd and 3rd.

When I had my annual summit with "Sopranos" creator David Chase a few weeks ago, I complimented him on having the onions to put a major dream sequence like this so early in the season, considering how many fans complain about the dreams.

"I, frankly, would not call those (episode two scenes) dreams," he said, which sent me scurrying back to watch my DVD over and over again, until (with some help from my wife) I got it.


So.

This is definately a dream sequence. Tony make be dreaming he is in Purgatory.

Second two. Don't have the dvds.

12:39 AM

 
Blogger Amos_thePokerCat said...

Make that Season two.

12:39 AM

 
Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

I read the article. I just wanted to see how much other Catholic arcana would be discussed on this blog before it exploded.

I don't have the DVDs, but I just watched season 2 on On Demand weeks ago. Damn it.

9:03 AM

 
Blogger Sean McDaniel said...

Okay, here's a good link to fuel some more speculation:

www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2006/03/24/DDGR9HSGFB1.DTL

and to bear out those thoughts on limbo

2:02 PM

 
Blogger Amos_thePokerCat said...

From the SFGatge article:

"Around here, it's dead," says the bartender.

HA!

And another Season Two reference.

-- That's not the first time "Smoke On the Water" has played on this show. Early in the second season, too. ...

9:42 PM

 
Blogger bernie said...

The Lodge filled with white light comes off to me as am illusion of Heaven- "Everyone is in there"- surely if his "family" and the bad guys are all in there it can't be Heaven. Plus he's really being sold on going in.
Can anyone get the symbolism of the red roses inside the doorway- surrounding what looks to be a clock- like on a mantle- Tony stares at it, twice I believe. Mentions he's scared etc...
Those red roses seem important- anyone?
Thanks-
Bernie

11:54 PM

 

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