May 21, 2007

Notes in preparation for a second viewing of last night's "Sopranos." [With second-viewing additions scattered throughout.]

Speaking of Amba, she already has a lot to say about last night's "Sopranos." Lots of spoilers over there. Me, I can't write about a "Sopranos" episode until I see it twice. The first time, I'm just getting used to it, seeing the lay of the land. I only really get it the second time around. But I will say a couple things. Spoilers here now.

Two days ago, I spent 5 hours writing about the previous episode, "Kennedy and Heidi," exploring a theory that turned out to be wrong. So I have some resistance to this new episode, "The Second Coming." All that weird stuff in Las Vegas turned out to just be an actual trip to Las Vegas. The peyote revelations evaporate into nothing.
TONY: "Sun came up."

SIL: "Oh yeah?"
Just like the day after any given idiot's psychedelic trip.

Much as I love "The Sopranos," I often get the feeling that the shows are parceled out as separate units, assigned to writers who work out a story arc for that episode. There are threads that go through the whole season (and the whole series), but there are a lot of things that seem to be there for the sake of the story within a single hour. The "Kennedy and Heidi" story had a big ending, but last night didn't take it from there.

Now, again, I'm bad at appreciating the show after only one viewing. The first time I saw "Kennedy and Heidi," I was disappointed. I thought: So, they needed something for Tony to do and they dragged in another beautiful woman character for him to have sex with. She means absolutely nothing to us. And because we've seen so many scenes of Tony having sex -- ugh! -- they threw in some drugs for a little variation, and it was like the big cliché that was in seemingly every movie circa 1970s. A guy takes drugs and sees things a different way. Big deal. But looking at last night's episode, it's like my attitude after the first viewing was right. "Sun came up." "Oh yeah?"

But this is what I'm saying about "The Second Coming" after the first viewing. [ADDED: And now I've watched it a second time, so I'm just going through and putting additions like this in. Actually, writing these notes brought together a lot of my thoughts, causing the second viewing to be less revelatory than I had thought it would be.]

Now, there were lots of things that drew me in and made me excited about getting to my second viewing so I can see what's really there. The title comes is the title of the poem by William Butler Yeats. A.J.'s lovely teacher read us the first verse in class:
TURNING and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity
A.J., in bed, reads us the second verse:
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
[ADDED: Actually, they didn't read the whole text of the poem. More like about half.]

You need to study the poem as you rewatch the episode. It's not enought to say "Things fall apart... Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world," so there's going to be an all-out war between Tony and Phil. Or "somewhere in sands of the desert... what rough beast... Slouches towards Bethlehem," so all that talk about the Mideast and terrorism is going to have to be part of the series dénouement. There must be endless depths there. You're just getting started.

Perhaps Tony will find his humanity (or is he the "rough beast"?). He gives an expensive watch to Carmela, which is typical for him, but what was that inscription? He tries to connect with the guys talking about his peyote visions, but he fails. He tells Phil he wants to talk to him "on a human level." Which also fails. He saves his son from drowning. ("blood-dimmed tide... innocence is drowned.") The water imagery from last week. He cradles the son he saves. Mother imagery from last week. He starts saying "poor you," the way his own mother Livia did. More mother references. Before saving his son from drowning, he eats the "Lincoln log" food Carmela made to try cheer up A.J. Imagery carried over from last week: mother, phallus, assassinated President.

Speaking of Presidents and the Middle East, A.J. is worried about Bush bombing Iran, and he's taken to reading al Jazeera. (Is he in on the terrorism plot that better be cooking up after all the references?)

Carmela kills me. Her son is completely depressed, and she makes him Lincoln logs. That's like saying "You need to grow a dick." Then she announces inanely, "I'm going to Nordstrom's." After his suicide attempt, she says, "He was always so happy. He was our happy little boy." Edie Falco is a brilliant actress to be able to fascinate us with a character whose primary trait is utter blindness. She makes emptiness seem so full. She does throw the watch though. Is she going to find her humanity?

Then there's the conversation between Dr. Melfi and her therapist, who tells her -- in one of the least ambiguous things ever said in the series -- that talk therapy validates sociopaths, that they learn how to shape their souls. [ADDED: I misread my handwriting. It wasn't "shape their souls," but "sharpen their skills."] But how does that fit with Tony's grasping after humanity? Considering that Tony -- along the way -- tries to be a good father to Meadow by smashing a guy's teeth out and sits through his son's therapy session with one of the bloody teeth stuck to his pantleg, I'm guessing that he's shaping his soul in preparation for some big sociopathic adventures.

I scrawled notes in the dark, and some of them I can't quite place: "It's all a big nothing." Did someone say that? [ADDED: A.J. repeats this as something Livia once said to him.] "You're at the precipice of an enormous crossroads." Someone said that. But who? [ADDED: Carmine says it to Tony.]

And some of those notes... well, can you read them?

handwritten notes

Click here to enlarge the notes. I will enlarge on these thoughts after a second viewing.

PRIMARY NEW OBSERVATION ON SECOND VIEWING: The biggest mystery is what was wrong with the FBI agent who showed Tony the photographs of the suspected terrorists. He was having stomach trouble and referred to a "microbe." I'm going to guess that the terrorism is a kind of bioterrorism and -- going out on a limb here -- it involves tainted meat. There are references to meat: the steak pizzaiola and the Lincoln logs, A.J.'s little speech about meat sprayed with virus, the FBI agent's refusal of meat in a scene at the meat store. There are references to bad chemicals: the asbestos, A.J.'s "self-medicating," Sil's diagnosis of A.J. as having a "chemical imbalance." Admittedly, all this imagery of meat and taintedness suits the general theme of the show -- death, evil, decay, corruption. But I can't get over all the references to terrorism all season and the ominous "microbe."

In the comments, some people wondered that I thought A.J. would be involved in the terrorist plot. (Some people seemed oddly outraged as if this wasn't fiction and I was violating his rights by accusing him without the evidence.) I sort of see the point. He's very depressed and inert, and now he's hospitalized. With only 2 episodes to go, you may think this character has had his big episode, and now he's over. But his story has been linked thematically to the terrorist story over and over. I find it hard to believe that won't pan out in some way. And it should be noted that the black bicyclist who got beaten up in the "Kennedy and Heidi" episode was Somalian. It's possible he'll get together with A.J. inside the hospital. Hospitals have provided the setting for some important doings over the years on this series, you know.


Zeb Quinn said...

Anybody know the recipe for Lincoln Log sandwiches?

George said...

That thing with the tooth in the pants' cuff...

That happened to me, too, except it was a nose.

amba said...

The reaction to what the shrink's shrink (Bogdanovich's character) says has got to be, "It's not that simple." There may be textbook sociopaths, but Tony is more complicated than that. That's only one aspect of him. He is not confined within his sociopathy. He moves in and out of it, ducking back in out of greed, fear of vulnerability, or what-the-hell despair.

The one who said "It's all a big nothing" was Livia, reported by A.J.

Ann Althouse said...

Zeb: I actually looked for a recipe when I was writing a post. I couldn't find anything called that. If I had to guess what it might be, I'd say this.

sembolina pilchard said...

I really enjoyed your analysis of the last episode even if it was completely off-base. Maybe it will not have been that off-base in the end. None of it really matters any way, does it? It's like "Lost" or listening to the Beatles, it's escapist fun that helps you learn something about yourself and about life without having to go through the effort of actually interacting with anyone else for the time you are enjoying it.

Nice handwriting. You could write prescriptions. Here are my guesses on your handwritten first note: Tony, in addressing his "I get it!" from the week before said: "I saw that this is not all there is."

Your second handwritten note: ??"our mothers are the bus drivers. They are the ones we keep trying..." I have no idea really.

Carmine told Tony: "You're at the precipice of an enormous crossroads."

I have to now stop this, and get a life.

Triangle Man said...

Ann, the second quote resembles Tony's insight about mothers from his peyote trip:

"I saw some things. I saw at one point that our mothers are the bus drivers; they are the bus. See, they're the vehicle that gets us here. They drop us off and go on their way. They continue on their journey, and the problem is that we keep trying to get back on the bus instead of just letting it go."

Joan said...

That therapy session with Vogel, AJ, Carmella, and Tony about killed me. (That's the scene where AJ recounts Livia's death-bed insights -- "This is all nothing...We die in our own arms.") Carmella blames Tony for AJ's depression -- how vicious to say he "played the depression card"! -- but then in that session, all we hear is AJ whining about truly inconsequential stuff, and Carmella bleating, "What kind of poem is that to teach college kids?"

And there it is: they're not kids. When Carmella was AJ's age, I'll bet she was already married to Tony and pregnant with or mothering Meadow. Carmella refuses to let AJ grow up.

The Lincoln logs recipe: it looked like cream cheese on hot dogs to me. How bizarre!

Little Carmine usually just cracks me up with his malapropisms, but for the first time last night he impressed me with the fear in his eyes. He knows if Tony and Phil don't settle this, very bad things will happen. Phil has gone 'round the bend, not playing by the rules, and even though Tony has reached out, Phil's still slapping his hand away and saying no.

Fantastic episode, for me. The scene between AJ and Tony at the pool was some amazing acting. Robert Iler has really come a long, long way.

Triangle Man said...

joan: The family therapy session was a hoot. It reminded me a bit of Christopher's "intervention" in Season 4, in which Tony ended up saying something like "you're lucky you didn't get a f*cking intervention right through the back of your head."

Zeb Quinn said...

"I was self-medicating." Classic.

joe said...

When Tony found the bloody tooth in his pants cuff, all I could think about was the unspoken "500 lb. gorilla" in the room - Tony's life is based on unspeakable violence. As if the tooth is trying to surface, to make this known, as perhaps a cause of AJ's depression - that he is not tough and can never live up to his father's standard.

Irene Done said...

Does Meadow scare anyone? She kinda instigated the two pivotal scenes in last night's episode -- she tells AJ to set goals for himself (very next thing: suicide attempt) and tells Tony about Coco's insult (next thing: flying teeth). She may not have intended for AJ to try to kill himself but when she tells him "you're their son, we're Italian," she seems resentful of his status. When she recounts the scene with Coco, I believe she does know what the result will be -- she HAS to know. Before it aired, this episode was described in the guide as involving an affront to Meadow. Who caused it -- both AJ and Coco?

ricpic said...

Oy vey, the vulgarity of referencing Yeats' Second Coming in order to add class to a piece of perfectly fine as-is entertainment.

PatCA said...

Chase is going to bring together two threads here, I think. Again we see the FBI following up on Tony's terrorism lead--and I don't think the two guys in the IDs were even the guys who came into his bar but to Tony any Arab will do. AJ, with his sexual and romantic frustration, his profound sense of personal failure (shared by his father), and his newfound idealism make him a classic jihadi-in-the-making. AJ will find his bliss in some kind of action that brings in all together.

Luckyoldson said...

Wouldn't Tony's behavior be more pathological, than sociopathic?

Luckyoldson said...

I think you're on the right track. There's no reason for the sidebar with the Feds...unless they fit into Tony's final act.

Maybe they'll save his ass...creating the final irony.

John Stodder said...

I keep remembering something David Chase once said in an interview: That all of his characters are basically saying the same thing all the time: "Oh, so now you think it's my fault!"

Last night's episode was a good example of that tendency, especially in Tony and Carmela.

Livia's presence hasn't been this strong in an episode for years. But there seems to be a duality here: Livia's "it's all a big nothing" is in direct opposition to Tony's peyote revelation that what we see "is not all there is."

Another direct connection between last week and this week: Last week, Tony could have saved his "surrogate" son, but instead hastened his death, and later tells people Chrissy "died almost in my arms." This week, Tony actually does save his real son, cradles him in his arms like a baby, but later tells people AJ is an idiot and a coward.

The pool, which Tony opened to the family of ducks he was trying to protect in the first episode, is now a cold, deadly place. It's up to Tony himself to keep his family safe, because there is no safe place. This episode shows him doing it two ways: Compassionately, with AJ; and violently, with Meadow. That's the dichtomy in his personality. Sometimes he's principled and caring, sometimes he's evil and unfeeling -- he's half a sociopath, half a "good guy, basically." Which half has Dr. Melfi been enabling?

Shan said...

You and Jonah Goldberg have both alluded to AJ maybe being a Jihadi. Why is that...remember, he referred to "those f***ing mujahideen" to his therapist.

I assume it's because he looks up Al-Jazeera on the web. What an odd connection to make.

LoafingOaf said...

I don't know anything about The Sopranos (only saw one first season episode and didn't like it), but man, watching this show sounds like more work than law school. Or is this just how law profs normally watch TV?

Luckyoldson said...

I couldn't help but notice The Godfather being one of your favorite films...and you wonder why people watch The Sopranos??

As far as TV versus Film in MY opinion), the Sopranos would probably rank in the top 25 shows ever produced.

*I also put Six Feet UNder in the same category...but you had to watch it from the start...especially the very last episode, which was a real mind-bender.

Luckyoldson said...

What could possibly make you think AJ is in on a terrorist plot????

Are we watching the same show??

Ann Althouse said...

"What could possibly make you think AJ is in on a terrorist plot????"

It's not about how I think of him as a character, but how I read the clues. They've been signaling this story line all season. It needs to amount to something, so I'm looking to see where they put it. AJ keeps talking about the Middle East, so that makes me think, that's a possibility. They'll try to put it there. I'm just looking for clues that they intend to make that the story, not saying it fits him well.

Cream City said...

John -- oh, so now you think it's Dr. Melfi's fault? (I did wonder if that's what that scene was telling us?)

Irene, my husband said some weeks ago that are we seeing a setup for (a) Tony getting whacked, and (b) since AJ is not up to the toughness needed, either Carmela or Meadow! taking over the mob!

Luckyoldson said...


AJ isn't smart enough to be a terrorist.

It's taken him years to discover the internet.

And when you say: "AJ keeps talking about the Middle East" mean last week???

The show's been on since...2001?


Luckyoldson said...

Notice how Ann never responds to logic?

Luckyoldson said...

Where are you?????

Taking pics of really neat cars?

Seven Machos said...

Lucky -- You are new here. The host doesn't respond in comments much. Get used to it.

Luckyoldson said...

Hail the host.

Luckyoldson said...

Uh, how long have YOU been here?

James said...

patca - I'm pretty sure those were the same guys (One looked different, but the other one was definitely one of them).

Ann - The microbe talk was a reference to last season, where the agent gets back and is puking his guts out all the time because of a virus or parasite he picked up in the middle east.

Luckyoldson said...

They wouldn't be there if they weren't important to the storyline.

Irene Done said...

cream city -- Meadow taking over would be awesome. She'd be like Michael Corleone, back from college, back from the service and emerging as the only offspring smart enough (not self-destructive and emotional like Sonny or Christopher) and strong enough (not weak like Fredo or AJ) to head up the family.

Maybe this is why she's giving up studying medicine to focus on law -- legal expertise would serve her and the family so much more, wouldn't it?

Joan said...

I can see, thematically, how AJ might become an American jihadi, given his depression and nihilism. He has already acted on his feeling that nothing is worth anything, although he did back out of that suicide attempt at the last minute. No one's saying much about that, either. Yes, he attempted suicide, but he changed his mind. Does that mean he's a coward, or an incompetent, or does that mean he's not as depressed as he's letting on? I'm going with not as depressed as he's letting on, because if he really wanted to die, he still could have. Then again, he could just be a coward.

Becoming a jihadi would ostensibly put him in a peer group to give him some courage and help him follow through with his destructive impulses.

The BIG problem with this ever actually happening, of course, is opportunity. AJ isn't just in a hospital, he's in a psychiatric ward under observation. The Somali, if he were even hospitalized, wouldn't end up any where near AJ. And didn't the bicyclist insist he wasn't a terrorist? That he was a student, and working? Perhaps he didn't have time to protest the terrorist label, since that's when the beat-down started.

Personally, I think Meadow's going to get whacked. The scene with Patrick, Meadow, and Coco had me on the edge of my seat, I was waiting for it to explode into violence, with either Meadow or Patrick the victim. AJ is safe now; something's coming for Meadow.

Revenant said...

Notice how Ann never responds to logic?

Were you planning to offer some up? I don't think "Oh PLEASE" qualifies, and the other four claims you made (regarding when AJ's obsession first appeared, when the show started, how long he's been on the net, and the intelligence requirements for terrorism) are wrong.

I think Ann's probably wrong, but your tactic of mixing bad information with sneering condescension doesn't make for a convincing case.

Lisa said...

I loved Carmell's total denial of everything. He was such a happy boy. I screamed at the TV when she said that. Maybe I am tired of her denial. Tony brining AJ pizza, he did this in a previous season, when he said he was ashamed of AJ (AJ was heating up more food to eat). The pizza was a peace offering. He is still ashamed of AJ, more because of the suicide attempt, and he still is brining Pizza. I don't think AJ will join a terriost orgnization, but something definitely happens to him. I find myself more interested in what will happen with AJ than Tony. His character has definitely come into play this final season.

Luckyoldson said...

Well, excuuuuuuuuuuuuuuse me...for offending you with my comment to Ann regarding A.J. possibly being a terrorist.

Personally, I find even the insinuation that that little putz is some sort of terrorist or even remotely linked to any terrorist or that it fits the Soprano's overall storyline in any way, shape or form...laughable at best.

James said...

Luckyoldson said...

They wouldn't be there if they weren't important to the storyline.

Well, I don't know which part you mean by "they" - the terrorists or Agent Harris' virus/parasite, but I think your statement is a little oversimplified. David Chase has said that not all loose ends will be tied, every problem won't be solved, because that's the way life works a lot of the time. If you think every event and every line of dialogue is going to have some big significance on the ending, what significance does Vito Jr. crapping in the shower have? Is he going to bust out of his Idaho camp and kill Tony for sending him there? I'm not saying the terrorists won't have something to do with the ending, but it definitely wouldn't surprise me if it's just another red herring to throw us off what will happen. Chase is normally not so predictable (though the A.J getting dumped by Blanca and attempting suicide was, admittedly, quite obvious).

Ann Althouse said...

James, I think the loose ends will be tied up roughly in proportion to the significance of the character. Little Vito had his episode. He was too insignificant to need more. A.J. is an important character. It is possible that this episode was the final statement about him, though, because it was so big, and because he ended it immobilized.

James said...

I understand, I just feel that what Chase was trying to do with much of this last season (parts 1 and 2) is provide us with so many ways we think it could end. Nearly every character had an episode, and nearly everyone has a (at least perceived) reason to kill Tony. Think Artie, Paulie, Bobby, Chris, Phil, etc. etc. I think he's just trying to get us to think of as many crazy ways it's going to end, then pull a fast one on all of us.

Barry said...

You need to get together with Tony Kornheiser (from ESPN.) I listen to his podcast from washingtonpost radio and he has the same obsessions as you: Sopranos and Idol. You and he should do a wrap-up on his radio show.

PETelenovela said...

I'm so happy to have finally found someone with my same terrorism theory. I'm sure that the final episode will involve an act of terrorism. (Watch the promo again and it makes much sense if you factor in some sort of black cloud rather than a bad guy approaching with a gun). Too bad I can't find a Vegas oddsmaker with that option. Oh well, we'll just have to bask in the glory of getting it right without the financial reward.