Written by: Lance Carmichael, CC2K Staff Writer
Episode #78 “Soprano Home Movies”
I always pay strictest attention to how the Sopranos starts a new season (fyi, despite David Chase’s wishes for us all to consider this the continuation of Season 6, I defy the man and will refer to it as The Sopranos Farewell Tour so readers aren’t confused). They usually rock, because it allows Chase and Co. to do three things: 1) catch us up-to-date on what has happened to the characters in the time that’s elapsed between this season and the last, 2) allow a neat little hint of the overriding theme of the new season to be teased at and shown in mini-form, and 3) break out of the standard template of how scenes are strung together since we can accept this as an introduction that doesn’t need to conform to the show's normal template. What I mean by this third thing is that really good shows find their pace and stick with it, only deviating once in a while for a damn good reason.
A lot of shows use musical montages nowadays–wordless stretches that string together vignettes of the characters doing stuff. A lot of shows open and close seasons with these montages. Some use them on just about every episode. It's pretty much been proven by The Sopranos and The Wire that things musical montages can be very effective AS LONG AS they’re meted out with extreme miserliness–which makes audiences grateful for the way they tie everything together rather than feeling like the themes are being shoved down their throats every week (I’m looking at you, Lost and Gray’s Anatomy.) The best Sopranos opener that I can remember is the one that kicked off (I think) Season 2: a musical montage set to Sinatra singing that “When I Was Seventeen” song that showed all of the big characters doing what they do and getting older. The best part of it all was a quick shot of Paulie Walnuts wearing a T-shirt, suspenders, and pants while grimly fucking a stripper (still wearing her high heels) on top of a table. It’s not TV; it’s HBO.
Anyways, there's no musical montage to kick off the Farwell Tour. Instead, we get a flashback. And ladies and gentlemen, it’s a little disconcerting to find out that The Sopranos Farewell Tour begins with a flashback. A title card says “2004.” We’re flashed back to a scene we saw at the end of Season 5: Tony making peace outside Johnny Sacks’ house, then turning tail and running through the snow when he spots the Feds coming in to arrest John. The scene runs exactly as we saw it before, using the same footage, until we get an insert shot of Tony dropping a gun in the snow and a neighbor boy spotting it. We then see the neighbor boy creep out into the snow at night and pick up the gun.
The next scene starts with a shot of a newspaper with the word “2007” printed very conspicuously on the front, and we know we’re into the Sopranos Farewell Tour proper. A knock on the door by the local police wakes Tony, Carmela, and the kids up, and Tony is arrested for some Mickey Mouse bullshit charge involving this kid being found with this gun and telling them he found it with hollow point bullets inside (which I guess is illegal–although I’ve never had a problem packing hollow points).
The whole flashback thing to 2004…I don’t like it. It just screams of sloppiness. If they had shown the cutaway to the kid at the window, watching Tony drop the gun in the snow in the original version back in Season 5, then it would have been great. It would have shown the kind of long-term planning and way-down-the-road payoff that the whole Sopranos/HBO revolution brought to TV. But it wasn’t. They have to embellish the scene in order to make it fit into the new plot developments ahead of us. I feel like they shouldn’t have gone there. The Wire–which, again, is The Sopranos only true competition for “Greatest TV Series of All Time” (more on this later)(ever notice how people who love The Wire can't help but bring up how it's one of the greatest shows of all time every time the show comes up? I guess we feel like we've got our backs to the wall since only 113 people watch it)–would have thought to include this cutaway in the original episode, because, even more than The Sopranos, this is what The Wire does. With The Wire, you get the feeling that the entire (now four season) series was all planned and written out beforehand, and creator David Simon says that it loosely has. Just about every season, David Chase says he wants to end the show, and then gets enticed to do another season when he comes up with “new ideas” (and HBO comes up with more millions of dollars…not that I begrudge Chase for keeping the series going: thank the lord he’s caved in, taken the money, and kept the juggernaut running). Although The Sopranos is very good at these kinds of long-term planning and delayed payoffs, they’re not The Wire. David Chase did not think three or four seasons ahead in any great detail. And this flashback–placed prominently at the beginning of the Farewell Tour–reminds us of this.
(Let me just stop right here and say that all of the hair-splitting and close reading of the Sopranos Farewell Tour is like criticizing a few errant brushstrokes on Picasso’s Guernica. Nothing’s perfect, but both are still masterpieces.)
Season 6 (the previous season) has been criticized as the weakest yet. I’m still on the fence about this, leaning towards “it’s just as good as 4 and 5, but isn’t as mind-blowing and revelatory as 1, 2 and 3.” But one thing that I intensely disliked about Season 6 was a greater reliance on just such flashbacks….for two reasons. The first I outlined above–it reminds me that David Chase and Co. are humans and didn’t create the entire Sopranos epic in fully-finished form back on Day 1 in the writers’ room. The second has to do with it taking me out of the story. The Sopranos is above all one of the greatest pieces of existential art ever made. I’ll get into this in more detail as this blog progresses, but what I mean by this is that what makes The Sopranos so good in the end is its unflinching materialist portrayal of Tony. All of the shorthands of film and television involving static character traits and “Happily (or sadly) Ever After” endings are taken down with extreme prejudice here (partly, of course, since it doesn't have to end after two hours). Tony goes from happiness to depression to resignation with a fluidity that all of us can recognize from our own lives. It’s so arresting to watch because we barely get to see it outside the complexities and depths of The Sopranos. The 70+ hour movie that’s been made about this guy has painted what is almost indisputably the most complete, complex, “three dimensional” fictional character ever captured on film, the novel’s much more shallow younger brother. So when Chase and Co. (hereby abbreviated to “Chase,” even though I know this shortchanges all the other writers, directors and actors who have poured their talents into the show) cut out of the unending present of existential existence with a flashback…it’s incredibly jarring. We empathize with the incredibly real-feeling Tony in a way we normally don’t with fictional characters. We know that in our real lives, there are no flashbacks, there is just the eternal present. So when Tony leaves this eternal present…it almost physically hurts.
This is not to say that The Sopranos should never use flashback. But I would argue that it should do so very, very sparingly, and only in the context of Dr. Melfi’s office. Dr. Melfi’s office–the psychoanalyst’s office, where the past is uncovered, discovered, and analyzed–is the space Chase has set up for Tony to reflect on his actions and his experiences. This makes it feel acceptable and appropriate to actually cut away from the filmic eternal present and see some repressed memory from Tony’s distant, buried past (as long as it’s done sparingly–there’s only so many shattering, repressed memories one regular guy can dig up). In the early seasons of the series, this is exactly how they used it. The most memorable was a flashback to Tony’s boyhood where he witnessed his idealized father commit some very violent acts, then come home to Tony’s mom, give her some meat, and turn her on sexually. All sorts of complex associations ripped straight of the Freudian method adding more layers of complexity onto the Tony character. Great.
But Season 6 started flashing back to things that had happened during the time the show is set in. The weirdest and most unnecessary was a Season 6 flashback to Christopher telling Tony in his basement that he had just found out that Adriana was an FBI informant. The impetus for this flashback was to remind us of deep greviances tormenting Christopher’s soul and the deeply ambivalent bond between Christopher and Tony (Tony rescued Christopher from this danger, but he also put him in that danger in the first place). But did we really need to see this flashback to understand this? For whatever reason, they chose to omit this scene when these events were unfolding in Real Show Time. That was their chance to show this. They didn't do it, and that's fine; we know Christopher and Tony more than well enough to know what’s going on between the two of them. We know what Adriana meant to both of them. The flashback just felt gratuitous, jarring. It broke the constant flow of the present that is the Sopranos. There were a couple other flashbacks in Season 6 (including one where we flash back to see how Christopher met and seduced Tony’s pseudo-former lover, played by Julianna Margulies. Why didn’t they show this when it was happening? And if they didn’t, why do we really need to see it?), and that, at least for me, is why the season felt a bit weak.
So what does this flashback to 2004 mean for how the Farewell Tour (and the series itself!) will end? How can we possibly know? Chase has been a master of setting our expectations up one way and then taking us in a different direction. Surely he’s doing the same here. To speculate on how it will end will almost certainly only make me look stupid in the end.
Ah, fuck it. Here’s my best theory: The flashback to the kid finding the gun and the cops getting ahold of illegal hollow point bullets sets up one of those pesky little pieces of evidence that can open a criminal case up–kind of like if Brian de Palma had started The Untouchables with an anonymous file clerk at the IRS filing away tax forms and happening to notice a space where “Alfonso Capone” should be. I suspect that the Feds are finally going to start mounting a good case against Tony. His family will be rocked. Both of them. Tony will get bail while the case and the trial get going–as a character, he has to have the mobility to interact with the show’s characters, right? The New York guys will get nervous about Tony wimping out like John did under pressure. It’ll look like he might get whacked. He’ll be tempted to save his family through the escape hatch of the Witness Protection Program. His case will start looking worse and worse. Tony’s lieutenants will jockey with each other for power. War will break out betwixt them. Smelling blood, the New York mob will swoop in and try to grab the pie for itself. And then?
Well, guessing whether Tony gets hit, goes into witness protection, goes to jail, or reasserts authority is truly unknowable based on the info we have. It’s a roll of the dice. But I gave you everything else!
And if none of that does end up happening, you can come back and read this and wish that it happened. Because that whole scenario would be awesome. In fact, that should have been a two season arc. David Chase, I’m available to help you flesh this out.
Damn, I’ve been waylaid by all this talk about flashbacks from getting past the first scene of this episode. Sorry. Um…by flashing back to talking about Season 6, I was strengthening my point about flashbacks being annoying. Yeah, that’s it.
So let’s flash forward to the meat of the first episode: Tony, Carmella, Bobby, and Janice. The bulk of the episode is devoted to the four of them “relaxing” up at Bob and Jan’s lake house. A scene that is no doubt familiar to millions of financially successful Baby Boomers slowing down to enjoy the successes of their lives. Only in the Sopranos version, you get a knock-down, drag-out fight between two heavyweights.
This whole extended sequence is a tour de force of what makes The Sopranos so great. Beginning with the writing. Janice’s passive aggressive cheerfulness (“We’re really getting along much better lately, younger brother. And the credit goes to you. You’ve really changed.”) is so subtly drawn by the writers and captured by Aida Turturro. We know Tony so well that we know an explosion is coming even while we hope it’s not–everyone’s having a great time, smiling and laughing a lot more than we normally see, that we hope that once, just once, Tony and Janice can get along and grow a little closer as siblings.
But the past inevitably rears its ugly head–as it always does in The Sopranos–and we get what we really came to for: the old ultra-violence.
Coming next week: Much-needed critical commentary on A.J.’s Backstreet Boys beard!! Plus, expert analysis of an all-new Sopranos! Only seven left!!!!!!