Saturday, April 28, 2007

History lessons

In lamenting that the late Boris Yeltsin failed to create a truly democratic government in post-Soviet Russia, I wonder if it occurs to Charles Krauthammer--a vigorous defender of going to war in Iraq--that Russia's experience should have provided a lesson for the Bush administration as it prepared to topple Saddam Hussein. Building democracy in a place where it had never existed is not easy. Imposing it from the outside, through force of arms, may be damn near impossible.

Perhaps a more capable leader could have guided Russia from totalitarianism to democracy. And perhaps a more capable leader could have brought democracy to Iraq. But to paraphrase a great man, you go to war with the president you have, not the president you want to have.

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The art of the deal

NBC’s aging workhorse “Law & Order” is formulaic by design, and often plagued by leaden dialogue and mediocre acting (Sam Waterston as Executive Assistant District Attorney Jack McCoy appears to be on the verge of tears in every scene.). Nonetheless, even in its sunset years, it can occasionally hit the mark, particularly when it addresses one of its most recurrent themes: the tension between the law and politics, which is at the heart of the scandal du jour in Washington, D.C., over the firing of eight U.S. attorneys.

Take an episode in which a man suspected of kidnapping a young girl—who he has proven is alive—will not reveal her location unless he is promised that he won’t have to serve any jail time. McCoy agrees to make the deal, but his boss, District Attorney Arthur Branch (Fred Thompson), won’t allow it. It would set a nasty precedent and damage his office politically. McCoy risks his job by making the deal anyway, but Branch has outflanked him: He meets with the defendant-friendly judge hearing the case and convinces her to reject the plea agreement, which she does after the girl has been safely recovered.

Although the judge pointed out to Branch that she was appointed and has no plans to run for re-election, Branch reminds her, “The man who appointed you does.” Branch decides not to fire McCoy, who refuses to apologize. “You’re a great prosecutor, Jack. But you’ll never be a district attorney,” Branch says.

Arthur Branch is the latest in a succession of DAs to remind McCoy (and before him, Ben Stone, played by Michael Moriarty) that district attorney is an elected position. The prosecutors frequently debate the political ramifications of the case before them, with McCoy and his assistant DA often offended that such base considerations should influence the execution of justice. This seems rather naïve for high-level prosecutors, except when you view McCoy and his assistant—portrayed the last several years by attractive but increasingly interchangeable actresses—as surrogates for the audience.

Most of us, whether we are card-carrying members of the ACLU or the NRA, would like to think that justice is carried out without regard to the political consequences. It’s the rule of law vs. the rule of men. It’s why the most noxious act of the Nixon administration was not the dirty tricks that culminated in the Watergate break-in but Nixon’s attempt to subvert the FBI investigation, and why the Bush administration’s firing of the U.S. attorney seems so ominous.

But as “Law & Order” reminds us, politics and justice are forever intertwined, and in some ways that’s exactly as it should be. L & O definitely offers a right-ward tilted view of the criminal justice system. The rights of the accused are technicalities that protect the guilty, and defense attorneys come off as shamelessly opportunistic by pursuing outlandish defense strategies in order to make a political statement.

Yet the show offers one of the more honest accounts of the legal system in demonstrating the constraints that shape the pursuit of justice. McCoy may hate cutting deals, but there isn’t enough time and resources to send every defendant to trial. (And besides, sometimes his case isn't strong enough to prevail at trial.) One imagines that real-life prosecutors hate, for example, letting mobsters serve minimal jail sentences then live out their lives in the witness protection program, but their testimony may be the only thing that brings down a criminal organization.

In other words, the legal system entails choices and compromises, and many of those choices have to be made within the political system. Notice that none of the Democrats leading the charge against the Bush administration have suggested that U.S. attorneys shouldn’t serve at the pleasure of the president, or that they should be appointed to fixed terms, like the FBI director. Perhaps one president wants to make a priority out of prosecuting public corruption, while his or her successor wants to pursue more drug convictions.

Scarce resources demand that we set priorities, which is best done by people most directly accountable to the public--elected officials. Still, it’s nice to think that maybe there really are people out there like Jack McCoy to keep them honest.

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Monday, April 23, 2007

Role models

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.

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Sunday, April 22, 2007

Vote for Rick

I didn't even know Dan Onorato had opposition in the spring primary until he decided to--unsuccessfully--challenge his opponent's nominating papers. But now that I know Rick Swartz is running, I have a reason to drag myself to the polls come Election Day.

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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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Friday, April 13, 2007


I find an excuse to talk about sprawl over at my book blog.

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Monday, April 09, 2007

Last man standing

If any character on “The Sopranos” comes close to being lovable—or even likeable—it would have to be Bobby “Bacala” Baccalieri. Ever since he first waddled across our television screens, we’ve been left to wonder how this teddy bear of a man could possibly be a cold-blooded gangster like Tony. It was impossible to imagine the man who buried a birthday cake at his wife’s grave, or stood in his garage over his model railroad while wearing a train conductor’s hat, firing a couple of bullets into someone’s brain. Tony thought so little of Bobby that he didn’t bother killing him when he wiped out the rest of his Uncle Junior’s crew, and he gave his future brother-in-law the unenviable task of caring for Junior. Bobby took to the job with his usual fidelity.

The show addressed this mystery with this week’s episode, in which it was revealed that Bobby had never killed anyone. The topic came up while Bobby and Tony sat on a boat on the lake near Bobby’s cottage, where he, Tony, Carmella and Janice were celebrating Tony’s 47th birthday. Tony alluded to his displeasure with Christopher—who he did not name—and suggested that he may give Christopher's priviliged position to Bobby. Tony has rarely treated Bobby with respect but he has occasionally shown him affection, and Tony no doubt knows that Bobby is unfailingly loyal—whether to his first wife, or to Junior, or now to Tony’s sister.

It seemed a particularly cruel twist, even for “The Sopranos”, that Bobby should have ended up falling victim to Janice’s machinations. Janice's first relationship with one of Tony's associates, Richie Aprile, ended when she shot him to death after he hit her across the face. Knowing what we know about Janice, it’s hard not to think that Richie was better off being put out of his misery right then and there. (Never mind that he faced the same fate at the hands of Tony.)

Bobby, of course, would never hit Janice. Instead, he hit Tony, in what has to be one of the show’s most stunning moments. I can’t recall anyone ever assaulting Tony unprovoked. The fact that Bobby would do it was shocking; that it was done to defend Janice’s honor was pathetic. The drunken brawl that ensued provided some of the show’s most charged moments since the bloody melee between Tony and Ralph in season four. (And we all know how that ended.) I was hoping that Tony would come out on top, because I feared the consequences should Bobby get the best of him. No doubt Carmela and Janice had the same fears when they watched, with apprehension, the two men drive off to do business with a pair of Canadians under the guise of going to play golf.

But one can think of any number of reasons why Tony wouldn’t kill Bobby. Besides, Tony is adept at identifying a person’s weaknesses, and understands full well there are plenty of ways to inflict injury short of physical violence. When Tony agrees to have a man killed on behalf of the Canadians, he quickly passes the job off to Bobby, knowing that it will sit heavy on Bobby's conscience. What makes the hit even more odious is that the victim did nothing more than get involved in a child-custody dispute with the sister of one of the Canadians.

When Bobby tracks the young man down in an apartment complex laundry room, he hesitates long enough that I found myself hoping that he wouldn’t be able to do it. Alas, Bobby once again proved himself the good soldier. He returns to the lakefront cottage, where he is warmly greeted by his wife and young daughter, who leaps into his arms. Bobby holds the girl tightly to his chest, staring over the placid water of the lake, the joy extinguished from his eyes.

Thinking back over this episode, I recalled an episode in which Tony and his lieutenants are discussing what to do with the outed Vito. While debate rages over whether to whack the gay mobster, Bobby blurts out “We can’t let him hang out in our clubhouse anymore.” It was a comical remark, but it makes me wonder if Bobby, despite being raised in the Mafia, failed to appreciate the depravity that surrounds him.

If that was the case, then perhaps Bobby—though certainly not his victim—is now better off. It may just be that in the world of “The Sopranos”, naivety is the biggest sin of all.

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Thursday, April 05, 2007

Woke up this morning

One of my favorite blogs, The House Next Door, published a post I wrote about "The Sopranos", here.

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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Tie a yellow ribbon

Doonesbury examines the "support the troops" paradox. (Thanks to Jason.)

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