The Sopranos, Season Six, Episode 14: “Stage 5”
An utterly unnerving night with the Sopranos, if you ask me: one of those expert straddlings of the line between the broad and the sober that’s been the show’s stock in trade for quite a few years now. Even as the episode opened on a seemingly fairly innocuous note, with hyper-gory footage from Christopher’s indie horror-crap “Cleaver” encompassing the screen as it’s being digitally tweaked in the editing room, “Stage 5” moved on to deeper reflections, climaxing with what might have been the series’ most fully realized evocation of its “sympathy for the devil” leanings. But, first, to the get the “Cleaver” stuff out of the way (which is exactly what David Chase, brilliantly, did): How refreshing (and what a relief) that Christopher’s long-gestating mob-horror hybrid (Goodfellas meets Saw, natch) finally premiered and rather than provide either climax or catharsis, it was merely a plot device to both deepen the festering rot of Tony and Christopher’s father-son bond, as well as create new reservoirs of anger and resentment between Carmela and Christopher. The “Cleaver” screening itself was a predictable chuckle-fest, reminiscent of nothing less than the meta madness of The Muppet Movie (Steven Van Zandt looked especially Dr. Teeth-like as he chortled and nodded with approval) or, as when Paulie loudly answers his cell mid-movie, one of those pre-show movie theater politeness ads. But then a quick, expertly timed glance from Rosalie Aprile to Carmela when “Cleaver”’s mob boss (clearly modeled after Tony, and played by Daniel Baldwin with prime Baldwin doofiness) seduces his protégé’s fiancée, and the floodgates of recognition open.
Later on, not only does Carmela further turn her husband against Christopher by emphasizing the similarities between him and his onscreen version, she confronts the little rat-face herself at her home, memorably with his newborn baby in her arms. As with all essential Sopranos exchanges, the conversation was brief, yet cutting; blink and miss the portending wrath to come. Segueing from concerns over “Cleaver”’s proximity to her husband’s extramarital dalliances, she moves into darker territory—quick and without warning. Carmela first speaking of Adriana directly to Christopher, and voicing her concerns that she might be dead (!), seemed like a true breakthrough; furthermore she insinuates that she was better off without him. Christopher’s relationship with Tony already shaky, he certainly doesn’t need Carmela to turn against him, too.
And something is terribly amiss with Christopher: he’s too sober. After last season’s (or the first half of the season, depending on how you want to look at it) downward spiral into addiction (again), everything seems too rosy: wife, house, baby. And what was that business with the feds outside the diner, laughed off as if old school chums? And what of Christopher’s final look of hollowed (dare I say “Pussy-like”?) guilt at his baby’s baptism, the end of the episode and already the second Godfather reference just two weeks into the season?
If my suspicions of Christopher come true, then it would be in perfectly keeping with David Chase’s horrific sense of irony. Paralleling all this meaty family intrigue was the further humiliation of Johnny Sack, not only facing the daily grind of prison life but also discovering that he’s in the final stages of lung cancer (just another of what will be many of this season’s “chicken’s home to roost” nuggets: Johnny was rarely seen without an elegantly curling waft of cigarette smoke by his side). Perhaps by virtue of his soothing control and comparatively gentlemanlike manner, Vincent Curatola’s Johnny Sack always came across as one of the series’ most valuable, even likable players, eminently measured, as much a murderous scoundrel as anyone else yet so utterly convincing in his self-assurance and unwavering in his own ethical standards that he made for an appealing counterpoint to Tony. Johnny’s slow death, mouth agape, with his beloved wife and daughter at his side, leaves something of a gaping hole in the morally relative Sopranos world.
Picking up where Hal Holbrook brilliantly left off in last season’s “The Fleshy Part of the Thigh,” Sydney Pollack was on hand to deliver one of his best performances, and one surprisingly free of the harried neuroses of his greatest onscreen roles, as a convicted wife-killing doctor, working in the prison hospital and giving Johnny some hope in his dying days. Never sentimentalized, their relationship remains as no-nonsense and unerringly masculine as any in the show’s history. Unlike Holbrook’s hospital companion to Tony, Pollack isn’t here to give spiritual advice or philosophical wisdom, rather to provide Johnny with (ultimately futile) hope; thus the paralleling between Tony and Johnny was reinforced—and put to sleep. Tony’s second chance at life versus Johnny’s hopeless fade; Tony’s been aided along the way by road markers, beacons, and guardians, while Johnny had everything taken away from him piece by mortifying piece. In the show’s reliance on binaries, the Tony/Johnny trajectory may be the second most heartbreaking behind Carmela and Rosalie Aprile (who’s already lost everything that Carmela holds dear); and it’s doubtful that Tony and Carmela will remain so comparatively untouched for much longer.