Written by: Lance Carmichael, CC2K Staff Writer
Epidsode #79: "Stage 5"
Before we get on to dissecting the second episode of the Sopranos Farewell Tour, let me just take a second to welcome Sydney Pollack to the cast of the Sopranos. Pollack shows up in this episode as an inmate working in the prison infirmary where Johnny Sack is dying of cancer. He’s got a great character, although by the end of the episode (spoiler ahead), we realize we’ll never see him again on the show (Johnny Sack dies). Pollack plays a former oncologist who’s been put in prison for killing his wife, her lover, and the mailman who showed up at the wrong time. Pollack now does menial labor in the infirmary, but knows more about medicine than the licensed doctors there (I’m not sure exactly how the medical hierarchy works, but I think it’s safe to assume that prison doctors didn’t graduate at the top of their med school classes). But he’s a convicted murderer, so the real doctors constantly browbeat him for trying to pretend he’s still a doctor.
What a great character! You could build an entire TV series around this guy. Of course, it would be a fairly crappy TV series, but no worse than 80% of the doctor shows out there. Right now, I’m told, there’s a doctor show on TNT called Heartland about a doctor who can see and interact with the ghosts of organ donors (!).
But that’s the Sopranos for you: an embarrassment of riches. The series is full of subplots that could sustain TV series all on their own. Take the making of Cleaver, the mob horror movie we’ve watched Christopher and Little Carmine take from “development” all the way to its premier. Its full of insider humor networks like HBO love, it’s got the comedy of watching wiseguy’s muscle their way into Hollywood (last season, Christopher showed up in the middle of a Writer’s Guild workshop a former AA friend who owed him money was putting on and whacked him in the head in front of his students before asking him to write a script for him), tons of cameos (Ben Kingsley, Lauren Bacall, Daniel Baldwin), and can wallow in the delightful sleaze of straight-to-DVD crappy movies. There’s a whole series right there, easily better than Entourage. Yet the Sopranos is so rich it can afford to sprinkle one or two scenes from this subplot into every other episode, and deepen the comedy with the way these shenanigans affect the more tragic characters. Like Tony: in this episode, Carmela points out to Tony that the portrayal of a mob boss in Christopher’s movie ain’t exactly an affectionate one, and Tony’s slow-building realization of this boils to a simmer by episode’s end, further affecting his relationship with Christopher. Nice.
Back to Pollack: I have to admit that I squirm with delight anytime he turns up in an acting role. Pollack’s had one of the great all-time careers in Hollywood. He’s regarded as a very intelligent–though not genius–director who’s made his share of classics (Three Days of the Condor), decent flicks (The Firm), and stinkers (Random Hearts). And he can afford to just take the odd acting job whenever he feels like it–like a Sopranos one-off. He’s got this great upper-middle class persona that oozes equal parts paternal warmth and venal corruption. This was put to greatest use in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, where he was superb even in a exposition-heavy dud of a scene that tarnished the rest of the movie by taking away a lot of the mystery. Though this was a fairly small (though pivotal) part in Eyes Wide Shut, since it’s in a Kubrick movie, this is probably what Pollack will be remembered for in the end–that and Three Days of the Condor.
But even though I loved the character he plays in this episode and I always welcome his presence on-screen, and even though he’s a perfect fit for the part, I still think it’s questionable casting. Why? Because the Sopranos doesn’t need celebrity cameos, even if they’re ones only really Industry-savvy people will get (like Peter Bogdonavich). The entire main cast is made up of either unknowns or actors from Goodfellas. The universe of the show feels so deep and real. Recognizable actors–even recognizable character actors–takes you out of that world and makes you realize you’re just watching another TV show.
The Sydney Pollack slip-up is minor, but it reminds me of a much more major one: Steve Buscemi’s role in Season 5. Obviously, I love Steve Buscemi, like everyone else in the world. But he was just way too recognizable, way too Steve Buscemi, to be really believable as Tony’s long-lost cousin Tony Blundetto in Season 5, freshly-released from prison. This character–which served as the main impetus for the drama that season–was strong in some respects, but weak in others. It was strong in that it showed us a wiseguy trying (and failing) to go straight, which is something we hadn’t really seen before in the Sopranos and the greater mafia genre. It brought up some interesting deep-seated feelings of guilt in Tony (the Gandolfini Tony, Big Tony), thus deepening an already oceans-deep character (Buscemi Tony went to jail for a robbery Gandolfini called in sick for because of a panic attack, and Gandolfini went on to become the boss of New Jersey, very rich, and blessed with a loving family while Little Tony went to jail for nearly twenty years).
But it was weak for three reasons: 1) As the character evolved, he fell into a character role we’d already seen twice before: the guy who Tony has reasons to protect but who has to be taken out in order to make peace with other powerful people he pissed off. It happened in Season 2 with Richie Aprille. It happened in Season 3 and 4 with Ralphie. And it happened again in Season 5 with Buscemi. Thrice was once too often. Another reason I felt this character was weak was 2) he was played by Buscemi. Not because Buscemi didn’t turn in an (as always) great performance, but because Buscemi’s too recognizable outside the Sopranos universe. Of course, I realize that you could also argue that Joe Pantoliano, who played Ralphie in Season 3 and 4, was also too recognizable from his many film and TV roles (e.g. The Matrix, just for starters) for the Sopranos, but I don’t think Joe Pants was a problem. Joe Pants was born to play Ralph Ciffereto. Anyone else would have been unthinkable. Also, they gave him a red wig. And 3) they just didn’t set up the whole Buscemi Tony subplot in any of the previous seasons, and it felt a little bit out of left field. I can kind of forgive this because Chase and Co. didn’t fully plot out the entire series, but it felt weird that someone who was supposedly Tony Soprano’s closest and best friend in the world and who was languishing in prison during the first four seasons was never mentioned once. Again, you could also argue this was a problem with Ralphie: he was one of Tony’s “top earners,” and presumably working for Tony during seasons 1 and 2, and yet his name or likeness never came up until Season 3. But I guess it’s just a TV show and we have to suspend a little disbelief.
So anyway, the main theme of Episode #79 is Tony grappling with how it’s all going to end. The show gives him three models to see and react against: Johnny Sack, who is going to die (and in fact does die) in prison; Phil Leotardo, laid low by a heart attack and seemingly resigned (until the end of the episode) to just give up and try to die peacefully; and Little Carmine, who walked away from the chance to be the New York Boss because he “didn’t want his wife to be the world’s richest widow” (and also because he is far too stupid to last very long as the boss). Tony becomes depressed once again, because none of these options look good. Each of them clash in some way with what he thinks being a man is all about. To Tony, his colleagues Johnny, Phil, and Carmine all gave up in a different way. Tony can’t take any of these ways out and reconcile himself with his overriding philosophy of life: Suck It Up and Be A Man. A philosophy he sometimes lives by, sometimes doesn’t, and often uses to rationalize the awful things he does to people. Of course, there is a fourth option that’s shown in the episode: getting whacked by other ambitious mobsters. This happens to a random higher-up New York guy (the New York mafia does seem to have a much higher fatality rate than the New Jersey mafia) who’s one of the contenders for the late Johnny Sack’s throne. Tony’s said it before: historically speaking, guys like him either end up dead or in jail. This, of course, serves to throw Tony into even deeper despair, although he doesn’t (and can’t) express it to his colleagues, since he has to Be A Man in front of them. Thank god for Dr. Melfi, once again proving to be the true masterstroke of the show in that she provides the place where a guy like Tony–who because of the world he lives in has to externalize all his fears and worries–can externalize them both for himself and us rapt viewers.
The really good news is that episode ends with the pieces being put into place for some real ultra-violence, although we don’t know exactly from where. The rift between Tony and Christopher ever widens; the guys in New York’s distaste for Tony and boldness about taking him out grows; and Phil Leotardo’s semi-retirement has caused him to brood on the death of his brother, a death which he considers unavenged until he can make Tony pay.
What will happen next?! Tune in next week! Plus! Is Meadow single again? If so, will she start dating? And if so, is there any chance we’ll finally get an HBO-patented Meadow nude scene now that she’s all grown up and all?! Only one way to find out!