Monday, April 16, 2007

The road not taken

Regret has always been at the heart of “The Sopranos.” One of the memories that Tony extracted from his childhood during his sessions with Dr. Melfi was that his father had once been given an opportunity to go into a legitimate business, but because it meant moving the family west Tony’s mother wouldn’t allow it. How might his life had turned out differently, Tony wondered, if his father had escaped the mob? During a later episode, Tony tells his dementia-afflicted uncle to take his medicine to help him remember, and Junior responds, “There are some things I would like to forget.”

Regret is an inevitable part of life, but the characters on “The Sopranos” have far more to regret than the rest of us. That was brought into relief with this week’s episode, which made up for in poignancy what it lacked in subtlety. The episode seemed to fall prey to the loose storytelling that plagued much of last season (or the first part of this season, however you want to look at it), but “The Sopranos” has always been character-driven, not plot-driven, much to the occasional consternation of its fans. (We must all make peace with the fact that we will never know what happened to the Russian.)

Each episode is a series of portraits of people moving from one stage of their lives to the next, making choices that, like ours, all lead to the same place—the grave. It should not surprise us that, despite their grievous acts, we can on occassion muster sympathy for these characters. Like Johnny Sack, who doesn’t know whether to regret the lifetime of smoking that gave him cancer or the few months of clean living that failed to stop it. Like Phil Leotardo, whose loyalty to his associates cost him 20 years in prison, and returned nothing but a dead brother. And like Tony, who can’t understand where he went wrong with his nephew Christopher, who he wanted to raise like a son but who is angry at him for something that he didn’t even do.

But it is Christopher who, for all his stupidity and cruelty, understands more than anyone what his choices have cost him, and if he has anyone to blame other than himself for the path his life has taken, it is Tony—“the man I’m going to Hell for”, as he once told Adriana. Christopher’s dream of making movies might have been laughable but it was far more noble than following in Tony’s footsteps, and it was Tony who quashed it the first time around. That Christopher pursued this dream again only when Tony was in a coma is surely not lost on Tony, who may be wondering whether Christopher—as well as others—secretly hoped he might not recover.

It’s not just that Christopher is angry because he thinks Tony slept with Adriana. He no doubt blames Tony for Adriana’s death, despite his own responsibility for it. Who knows but that were it not for Tony’s influence, Christopher might never have ended up in the Mafia at all. Tony has tried to keep his own son, A.J., out of the mob; perhaps had Christopher’s father lived, he would have steered his son in another direction.

So Christopher, still wary of Tony’s wrath, plots his escape. And he’s not alone. Little Carmine refuses Tony’s entreaties to take over the New York family. Phil no longer seems to have the stomach for the mob life. (Though his comments in the bar were hard to decipher. It’s possible that, freed from his promise to Johnny Sack, he will now pursue his revenge against Tony.) And Johnny Sack is dead of cancer, an apt metaphor for the rot that has been eating away at the Soprano crew since first we met them.

That leaves Tony, moving toward his final reckoning, as always, alone.

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