Thursday, May 17, 2007
Tony Gets His Button
I feel compelled to say three things about The Sopranos:
1. It really is a Greco-Roman myth. The characters embody attributes of human consciousness that are universal, undeniable, horrifying, touching, and self-revealing, which is why they stick with you and make you wonder about them, as if they existed not just in your imagination but in life. They feel more real than many people you actually meet. I never dreamed I’d say that about a TV show.
2. It still has the capacity to shock, after seven seasons of brutality and venality. Anyone who watched the last episode knows what I mean. The big event, only seven minutes in, makes you catch your breath, even though it feels inevitable. In this sense, it’s more real than the news. The Virginia Tech murders were horrible, and I’m not trying to diminish their importance or impact. But my gut response to that carnage was somewhere between knee-jerk revulsion and “ain’t that America,” followed by muted empathy (and then, as media vultures made a mockery of it all, disgust and ennui). We look at the absurd images of the killer and can only wonder why so little was done, how the same society that denied him decent mental health care could so blithely supply him with guns and armor-piercing bullets. It happened out there, and we’re still safe here. But we see in Tony Soprano the primal, practical, dead-eyed sociopath we all could be, if the circumstances of his life had been handed down to us. What a shock, as he knocks out the window of a wrecked car, decides not to call 911, and finishes off a piece of grim business. And it is business. But it’s also personal. It’s revenge. It’s defiance of fate. It’s mythic, a god eating his children. And it’s hands-on. The violence isn’t shied away from, but it isn’t glorified, either. At rock-bottom, the show is deeply moral. It never flinches.
3. The freedom of its storytelling is astounding. Nobody (not even David Chase) could have predicted, back when the show was in its infancy, that its final season would find Tony in the Nevada desert, high on peyote and having a laughing, crying epiphany as he stares into the sun. “I get it!” he cries. I don’t, exactly (is he still lit up by his roulette experience?—“same principle as the solar system”—or has he just grokked the whole Christopher situation in some druggie way?), but I feel the evanescence of his exultation. Drugs have done pretty well by Tony, but he’s still “Comfortably Numb,” as the brilliant music cues have suggested. And we know no epiphany of his will lead to model citizenry or a happy ending. Even as the show takes a breath, with all that slow, expansive quiet stretching off under the desert sky, we can feel the story closing in, ratcheting down, closing off all heroic possibilities.
Plus, Sarah Shahi. Oh, my word. Chalk another one up for the dark, diminutive deities of drama. If this doesn’t launch her out of TV into movie stardom, I don’t know what will. When she brought out the peyote buttons, I could see some of what was coming: Tony would puke, and then have the eyes of his eyes briefly opened. But man, how beautifully the actors played it. Watching her watch the roulette wheel brought the whole stoner phase of my life back like the smell of an old girlfriend’s hair. If you’ve ever done psychotropics, you know how true to life that whole sequence was. And if you haven’t, I bet you still know, which is all the more amazing.
When they first drift into the casino and Tony stares at that slot-machine image of the devil, I had a thought. It’s way too cheap an idea for this show, but not for me, Alice In Wonderlandkind that I am:
What if Tony actually did die last season, and this whole season is him in Hell? So Hell is just being comfortably numb, killing your friends, cheating on your wife, going to funerals, hanging out in casinos, and still having to deal with the mundane details of your job—dumping asbestos in a pristine marshland, for instance, and haggling over a rival boss’s percentage. Hell is just life, except you don’t get out.
OK, they won’t pull that on us. What’s the end? I told Bighead Needleman that the father-son arc must be fulfilled, so A.J. either dies, does something that causes Tony’s death, or somehow gets drawn into the life, becoming the new Christopher. If A.J. kills Tony and ends up blind, we’ll know which myth we’re in. Otherwise, we should probably retreat to Goldfinch’s and look up Zeus and Hera. Somewhere in the stories about them is the story of Tony and Carmela. This one can't possibly end well. Predictions?
Thank heavens for smart, creative, thought-provoking entertainment. Without Jon Stewart and Tony Soprano, how would I have survived these ghastly first few years of the new millennium? Lame as it sounds, and essentially lucky as I know myself to be, sometimes I think they’re all that’s kept me sane.