Monday, May 07, 2007

A man had two sons...

We often see the characters on “The Sopranos” engaged in the kind of prosaic activities that mark our own lives—enjoying a family barbecue, drinking coffee over the morning paper, or clipping coupons. But these people are not like us. They do horrible, evil things, and they are doomed in a way that the rest of us are not. Even now, as the show comes to its end, the writers still need to remind us of this on occasion.

So it was that, during this week’s episode, just as I was feeling sad for Christopher that he fell off the wagon—again—he murders in cold blood the hapless TV writer J.T. Dolan. This episode found Christopher struggling with his sobriety and his decision to spend less time with the guys at their favorite haunts, which helps to fuel a conflict with Paulie over bootleg power tools being sold by Christopher’s father-in-law.

Christopher seeks solace at his AA meetings, where he relates to a salesman who complains that his co-workers are angry that he never shows up at the company golf outings anymore. But when Christopher tells his own tale of woe, he has to speak in euphemisms. Adriana becomes a fellow employee, fired after Christopher sides with his boss in a dispute. This suggests that in his own mind, Christopher is denying his more affirmative role in bringing about Adriana’s demise.

The insights Christopher gleans from his recovery do seem to be heightening his self-awareness, which Tony—his surrogate father—could tell him is more a curse than a gift. Both men are smart enough to see the folly of their lives, but they lack the will to do anything about it. During a party at the Bing, Christopher can’t resist a drink even after Paulie graciously orders him a club soda. When he drunkenly tries to explain the joys of fatherhood to Paulie—to Paulie, for God’s sake!—, Paulie cracks a joke, and Christopher looks around the room at the laughing faces of his associates.

We see the scene in slow motion, reminiscent of the poker game in season five when Tony realizes it is fear and not affection that binds his friends to him. In that scene, slow motion had the effect of exaggerating the dopy faces of the mobsters as they laughed at Tony’s stupid joke. This time, the faces looked menacing in their laughter, monstrous even, with Tony in their midst, cigar smoke pouring out of his mouth, making him seem like a fire-breathing dragon. Christopher stumbles out of the room in a near panic and heads to Dolan’s apartment.

Every time Dolan appears on screen, I brace myself for the coming train wreck, and this week my fears were never more justified. Christopher thinks he’ll find a sympathetic ear in his fellow addict, and he starts talking about how he could bring down Tony and everyone else by going to the feds. He begins to describe his crimes, but Dolan will have none of it. He knows that Christopher’s impromptu confession endangers both their lives. Christopher appeals to their common affliction, to which Dolan replies, “You’re in the Mafia.”

As if to punctuate the point, Christopher turns before leaving and fires his gun at Dolan, killing him. When he returns home, Christopher rights a sapling that had been knocked over when Paulie had turfed his lawn earlier in the episode. We are left to wonder whether this is symbolic of Christopher’s decision to start anew, or just another meaningless gesture in a wasted life.

Tony, meanwhile, has his hands full with A.J., who is growing increasingly despondent over his break-up with Blanca. Tony laments to Dr. Melfi that he’s passed on his own morose personality to his son. It’s a typical moment of self-pity and denial on the part of Tony, who ignores the fact that his actions in raising A.J. have probably done as much damage as his DNA.

Tony’s solution to his son’s depression is to send him headlong into the world that he’s shielded A.J. from for so long. He encourages A.J. to go to a fraternity party with the sons of Carlo and Patsy. These kids aren’t just boorish frat boys (having been a boorish frat boy myself, I can say that), they’re mobsters in the making. They run a campus gambling ring, and at one point they use A.J. to intimidate a fellow student who owes them money. Later, when A.J. helps them hold down the student while they pour acid on his toes, we see a look of excitement cross his face. Well done, Tony.

(One might view Tony as having betrayed his son’s future to ease his guilt over A.J.’s depression. In the same way Tony may have inadvertently sold out Christopher by giving the FBI agents information about the Arabs who used to frequent the Bing, a move that seemed to have been born partly out of self-interest, partly out of some latent sense of patriotism.)

A.J. comes home, where he joins his parents and sister at the kitchen table for a late-night meal, a deceptively bucolic scene. Earlier, when A.J. pulls into the driveway, he momentarily startles Tony, who is sitting in his SUV, having just come back from the Bing. He pulls a gun and walks to the front of his car, only to recognize A.J.’s own SUV. He quickly puts the gun away and greets his son.

It’s hard not to interpret that as a harbinger of awful things to come. The show has signaled from the beginning that the doom Tony has long awaited will come to, or come from, someone he loves dearly. Maybe that’s why, to me, the Soprano family’s midnight snack had the feel of a last supper.

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