I can’t think of another television show like “The Sopranos” that is so full of portents that ultimately, to borrow a phrase from Shakespeare, signify nothing. The show seems willful in its refusal to tie up loose ends, which is its strength—real lives do not follow three-act story arcs—but also a source of endless frustration to its fans. It’s why it is so hard to predict the show’s ultimate outcome. Will there be some kind of reckoning, or will life, such as it is, go on as always?
The audience doesn’t know what will happen to Tony Soprano and neither does he—and that is what haunts him. Tony never knows when his past will catch up with him, or for which crime he will be called to account. In this week’s episode, Tony and Paulie must head south when the FBI digs up the remains of a man they murdered 25 years earlier—Tony’s first hit, it turns out. As they drive to Florida, Tony is subjected to Paulie’s ceaseless chatter, and he begins to wonder whether Paulie can be trusted to keep his mouth shut when it really matters.
It doesn’t help that all Paulie wants to talk about are the good old days with Tony’s father, when Paulie was Tony’s mentor and not his underling. (As unworthy as these characters are of sympathy, it’s hard not to feel sorry for Paulie, who, despite his past disloyalty, seems to have genuine affection for Tony, and only gets cruelty in return.) We’ve seen Tony grow increasingly uneasy discussing his past, and he looks pained when he recalls that he was 22 when his father first sent him out to kill a man. We can never absolve Tony of his sins, but occasionally we remember that he didn’t have the greatest role models.
That idea is played out as farce in the mental hospital where Junior is being confined since he shot Tony. Junior, having regained at least partial control of his faculties, is running an illicit poker game with the help of Carter Chong, a young patient who appears to idolize him. This episode features some of the show's most humorous moments yet with Dominic Chianese, like when Junior dictates a letter to send to Dick Cheney, who Junior thinks will sympathize with his plight because of the vice president’s infamous hunting accident.
We don’t know why Carter has been institutionalized, but during a terse visit with his mother we learn that he has some serious daddy issues and presumably imprints on any strong male who crosses his wake. Like most of the characters on “The Sopranos”, Carter sours on his mentor, savagely beating Junior when the older man becomes docile after agreeing to take new medication—because it controls his incontinence. The last time we see Junior, he is hunched in a wheelchair, his arm in a cast.
Meanwhile, Tony learns that the murder in New Jersey has been pinned on the late Jackie Aprile, and to celebrate he invites Paulie on a deep sea fishing trip before they head back to Jersey. Paulie appears unsettled as he steps on the boat, and for good reason. It was on a fishing boat where Paulie, Tony and Silvio killed Big Pussy, and the scene flashes through Paulie’s head as he comes aboard.
Tony is tempted to kill Paulie on the boat but balks, and the two men return home. Nonetheless, death looms even larger than usual in this episode, which also witnesses Phil Leotardo overcoming his existential crisis to orchestrate the murder of his family's new boss. We see Pussy in the aforementioned flashback and in a dream, and there are references made to Johnny Sack and Ralph in addition to Jackie Aprile. The visit with Beansie brings to mind Richie Aprile, who put Beansie in his wheelchair. When Paulie dreams about Pussy, he asks him “When my time comes, tell me, will I stand up?”
Paulie knows it’s a question of when, not if. He can die in a hail of bullets like Pussy, or broken and alone, the way Junior appears to be going out. Say what you will about “The Sopranos”, you'll never convince me that it glorifies the Mafia—or anything else, for that matter.