Season Six, Episode 13: "Soprano Home Movies"
“Soprano Home Movies,” the first episode of The Sopranos to air in the better part of a year, actually begins with an old scene from the end of the fifth season’s finale (“All Due Respect”), dating back to 2004: Johnny Sack, the boss of New York, was arrested in the backyard of his home, and Tony fled through the snow, tossing his gun. Tony’s casual mistake—tossing the firearm in plain view of a spectator—comes back to haunt him when he’s arrested on a gun charge in the present day. David Chase and his writers seem to be setting up a major story arc around Tony’s precarious relationship with the legal powers-that-be, but until that’s played out, that potential plot advancement may be the least interesting thing about the use of that footage from “All Due Respect.”
The recycled scene sets the tone for this elegant and surprisingly stripped-down episode, which is loaded with echoes of the past. Carmela waxes sentimental about that house on the shore she and Tony nearly bought before she threw him out of the house in “Whitecaps” (the finale of season four). Tony tries to insulate himself by using a family member, his brother-in-law Bobby, as a buffer, then later asserts his authority by coaxing Bobby into killing a man, as he did with Christopher in “For All Debts Public and Private” (the season four premiere). Tony tries pinning Bobby to the wall in a balls-out fight that looks an awful lot like the scuffle that cost Ralph Cifaretto his life in “Whoever Did This.” Janice tells Carmela about the boyfriend who once hit her (dearly departed Richie Aprile), neglecting to tell Carm that she responded by shooting him dead in “Knight in White Satin Armor,” way back in season two. There’s just no escaping the past, it seems; these characters are doomed to remember and relive past mistakes, indiscretions, and half-baked schemes. And while we could speculate what this means for the eight remaining episodes, it’s enough for now to take it as an apt enough distillation of “Soprano Home Movies,” an episode that, to a surprising degree, privileged family melodrama above mob drama.
By my watch, over 30 minutes of the episode’s running time were devoted to Tony and Carm’s trip up to the Adirondacks to celebrate Tony’s birthday with Bobby and Janice. In slow, quiet scenes, Tony makes real headway in his relationship with his sister and brother-in-law, and Janice even tries to compliment him, to tell him he’s changed since being shot last year. Tony takes offense at what he sees as a thinly veiled attack, and what starts as validation of Tony’s “every day is a gift” transformation from a year ago actually sets off the quick slide back to the default hostility between Tony and his sister, culminating brilliantly in an explosive and violent game of Monopoly. At the end of the episode, Tony watches the home movies from his childhood that Janice has had transferred to DVD. Little Janice sprays little Tony with a hose, and he chases after her. It’s as though they were doomed to this vicious cycle of aggression and resentment from the time they were half-formed.
Providing the psychological templates for both brother and sister are, of course, Tony’s mother and father, who loom large over the episode, and though Tony and Janice fancy themselves more like the latter, they each have plenty of Livia Soprano within themselves to inspire each other’s (self) loathing—Tony in his insatiable need for his sister’s gratitude for the things he has done for her, Janice in her erratic parenting skills. The point is simple and profound, subtly rendered but crystal clear: Our families are larger than ourselves, and one way or another, they make us who we are. To return to something I wrote last week about the previous episodes of Season Six, this takes the show back to this thorny issue of whether or not people are capable of real change, whether it’s possible to escape the things that have formed us. To The Sopranos’ credit, though, however close the show comes to implying that everyone is caught inescapably within institutions and relationships that make them who they are, that never means they get a free pass morally. Tony, Janice, and Bobby all come out of their boozy, brutal weekend together worse for the wear, a little more compromised and further away from realizing whatever hopes they have for redemption. As for Carmela, well, she may get off the easiest this week, but her passivity, on full display here, has always been her greatest sin. In “Soprano Home Movies,” she is more chorus than anything to else—in this case literally, in one glorious moment of drunken karaoke, singing “Love Hurts.” If she meant the love of family, well, I’ll drink to that.