On April 8, HBO’s landmark original series The Sopranos begins a stretch of nine final original episodes, officially the second half of the series’ much-maligned sixth season. For some of us at Reverse Shot, the end of The Sopranos is a pretty big deal. How better to tackle the end of the series and to pay tribute to a masterpiece of American popular culture than with a bit of ongoing dialogue, Reverse Shot style? So I’m happy to inaugurate an ongoing discussion on Reverse Blog about The Sopranos, Season Six, Part Two. Of course, we’re not the only game in town, and I do encourage anyone and everyone to check out the Sopranos coverage from our friends at the House Next Door. But with a text (film, television series, or otherwise) this rich, there’s plenty more to be said, and a multiplicity of voices is always a good thing. So, without further ado…
When last we saw Tony and friends, New York and New Jersey were on the verge of war (again); Christopher was fighting a drug habit and pining for a career in the movies (again); and Carmela was selling her soul for a sweet real estate venture (again). The series sixth and final season began with a shattering event. Tony was shot by his Uncle Junior and slipped into a coma, barely clinging to life. He escaped purgatory (quite literally) to find he had a new lease on life; he would treat each day as a gift. This setup established the central theme of the season: how much can we really change, and can we will ourselves to be different than—or better than—whatever it is we’ve become? At least four major character arcs in the season came back repeatedly to this theme: Tony’s last shot at redemption, Christopher’s repeated slide into addiction, Carmela’s perennial abdication of moral responsibility for material comfort, and, most prominently, Vito’s ill-fated attempt to flee New Jersey and the mob and to live as a gay man. The results were predictably bleak. If the season seems to have asked if redemption is possible for any of these characters, it’s fair to say that David Chase and his writers came down with a hard negative assessment. So season six set up a serious of false starts and dead ends, leaving everyone, in the end, pretty much where it found them, and pissing off fickle Sopranos fans across the country (let’s just be honest, if you watch Sopranos for climax—and you probably shouldn’t—David Chase is an incredibly big tease). While it may not have been conventionally satisfying in a straightforward (read: boring) way, though, there was something incendiary and brilliant about how Chase and his writers set up such clear moral tests for each of these characters and then let them all fail at them systematically and nearly without exception.
This all came to a non-climax in the midseason finale, an episode called “Kaisha.” The title refers to a lie Christopher tells Tony about the woman he’s seeing: she’s black, he says, and so he can’t bring her around; in fact, her name isn’t Kaisha—it’s Julianna—and he can’t bring her around because she had an aborted fling with Tony. So Kaisha is really a non-person, an absence, the lie we tell to make everything seem okay. There are plenty of these lies to go around. As the episode ends, the Soprano family gathers for Christmas, and Tony and Carmela’s daughter Meadow calls home from California. “Everybody’s here”, they tell her, which is a lie. Meadow’s not there, for one, but also, the camera lingers on Christopher’s new wife and we realize that Christopher’s dead fiancé Adriana, murdered by Silvio with Tony and Christopher’s blessing, is also the hidden lack, her absence concealed by a lie that no one believes, a lie that explains her away without expunging her from memory.
These characters are ill equipped to deal with relationships; they’re constantly lying to themselves and to one another. “Kaisha” ends chillingly, as A.J.’s new girlfriend tells Carmela, “You have a beautiful home.” Carmela smiles, “Yes, we do.” There you have it, one sad moment of truth, as Carmela, perhaps the show’s last best hope at redemption, takes pathetic joy in her stuff, pretending that everything is okay, and that having a beautiful home is the same thing as having a beautiful family. These people have all chosen things above people; they don’t even know how to do otherwise and can’t do otherwise, even when they try. I have no thoughts about where these final episodes are headed, and I don’t care to speculate about the finale that the series is or isn’t building to, but I am sure that Chase and his writers will come back to these themes, and I fear that the outlook for these characters is bleak. And still, I’m so excited to see what they do that I can hardly stand it…
And it’s funny how in the months proceeding, when I recalled the title of the final episode, I always just assumed that it referred to the character of A.J.’s new girlfriend. Rewatching it, I was taken aback by my presumptions, racist or otherwise. In a sense, this episode reminded me very much of the fifth season’s “Unidentified Black Males,” in which the show prominently took itself to task for all of its intentionally race-baiting subplots in the past, climaxing with the revelation that Tony had not, in fact, been assaulted by random black guys on his way to meet his doomed cousin Tony B (Steve Buscemi) on that failed mission that got Tony B put in jail for years, but that he had an embarrassing fainting spell brought on by (what else?) mother troubles. So then, Kaisha is an Unidentified Black Female, another, as you put it, “absence” and a “lie.” Sopranos has always trafficked in the ways in which ethnicity is wielded as both a scapegoat and self-definition, yet this was perhaps its most subtle use. And most telling: A.J.’s Puerto Rican (“Maybe Dominican,” Tony reasons…hopefully?) girlfriend, named, actually, Blanca, is suddenly part of the family; almost welcome, even, at their Christmas gathering.
This is a stunning turnabout not only because of the fact that A.J. has suddenly become something bordering on responsible (not adult yet, I dare say) but also because his sister Meadow was certainly not allowed the “privilege” of an interracial romance back in season three, when her Jewish/African-American paramour seemed lucky to have escaped the Soprano home with his life (and pretentious rectitude) intact. So what does this mean? Is Tony “evolving”? Did his near-death experience truly force him to turn over a new leaf and cherish every day as if it was his last? Doubtful if David Chase has anything to say about it, but it was a remarkably subdued ending to an emotionally volatile season (just one week prior, we saw Vito get the Joe Pesci-in-Casino treatment, that guy Fat Dom get sliced up like raw fish, and, most disturbingly, Adriana come back in a possibly prophetic dream Carmela had during her Paris sojourn), and pointed towards so many explosions they would be impossible to numerate and a fool’s errand to predict.
But since I am a bit of a fool, I will make a prediction about the Final 9: that Carmela’s growing suspicions about Adriana’s disappearance will be further investigated (spec house distractions be damned) and her discoveries will explode into a full-fledged moral meltdown (which, paralleling Tony’s psychiatric self-evaluation, has been simmering since season one’s “College”). Tony and Carmela’s relationship is the center here, everything else just satellites orbiting them; as Season Four’s “Whitecaps” proved, the dissolution of their marriage could carry a dramatic sting far greater than any baseball bat knock to the head.
Robbie, I don’t think you’re a fool. Adriana’s ghost hovered over season six in more ways than one, and cnw’s description of her as a kind of structuring absence in the brilliant final scene of “Kaisha” is right on the money. I also saw her in the character of Julianna—curly hair, big chest, dark features, and prone to lounging around in a stupor with Chrissy. Surely you both caught the musical cue when the pair went out to the movies: Bernard Herrmann’s swooning Vertigo theme.
More to the point: Adriana is the only major character whose murder was not shown to us. Yes, we saw Sil stalking after her in the woods (very Miller’s Crossing) and heard the fatal shots. I am not suggesting that Ade is still alive, and that the big revelation this season will be that Sil is a treasonous softie. But after the clinical depictions of Tony & Co.’s “waste management” skills re: Richie Aprile, Ralphie Ciffaretto, and Big Pussy, it’s unlikely that the writers simply neglected to show us Ade’s corpse being hacked and packed out of squeamishness. Yes, we saw Ade’s car being checked into “long term parking” (also the episode’s retroactively affecting title) and yes, Chris threw some suitcases into the tall grass, but my feeling is that if Carm calls the private investigator, and if Adriana’s body is found, it’s going to be because of ineptitude/laziness on Sil’s part.
One of my constant Sopranos companions (full disclosure: my mum, the loudest member of our six-strong weekly viewing party) has suggested that if Carmela discovers what happened to Ade, the Big Lie of the series—the uneasy complicity of the female characters in their partners’ boys-will-be-boys misadventures—would be exposed. Not because Carmela is a paragon of virtue—she’s made her king-size bed and lies in it fine—but because this particular can of worms is plenty deep. Consider the ramifications of Meadow finding out what “really happened” to Jackie Jr: for all her bleeding-heart hypocrisy (which the writers, mostly in the voice of Finn, have routinely called her on), this revelation might be too much for her to bear. People have been wondering in print for the better part of a decade about what would be an appropriate fate for Tony, and I think this could be it: estranged from the person he loves most unequivocally. AJ, being a boy, is a different story—i.e. Tony lets him bring a Puerto Rican girl home. (At least she’s Catholic.) And I think AJ is a dead issue at this point: the old-world traditions of idealizing daughters and then objectifying/abusing them if they belong to someone else are what Chase is after here.
So I’m moved to think of the one female character who, even more than Ade, stands in as the series most innocent (and unmourned) victim: Tracee, the stripper unceremoniously beaten to death by Ralphie in Season Three. The not-unsubtle graphic matches between her and Meadow in that fateful episode hinted that Tony saw them existing on the same continuum. When he mauled Ralphie, screaming, “She was a beautiful creature! She never hurt anybody!” I don’t really think he meant his horse. His cries also foreshadow Adriana’s demise—another innocent, beautiful creature, empathetic to the point that she admired the drug dealer who committed a murder in her nightclub because he sent money home to his family. Adriana, Tracee, and the thrice-burned shell that is Rosalie Aprile, whose unimaginable suffering is once again contrasted with Carmela’s relatively smooth ride during their tetchy trip to Paris (during which Carm may have literally and figuratively seen the light —a beacon atop the Eiffel tower that perfectly mirrored the portentous blip glimpsed by Tony during his near-death stint as Kevin Finnerty (infinity?) are the real victims of the “things” that Tony and his colleagues do.
Whatever “direction” the series is heading, I can’t imagine that a reckoning around these issues isn’t on the horizon. Especially considering that Tony’s teetering psychological architecture—the focus of the series—owes its rotten construction in large part to the I-married-a-mobster coping mechanisms of a very important lady. Recall the amazing house-of-the-dead dream sequence in last season’s second and best episode, and the shadow in the doorway whose mere presence convinced Tony it was best to retreat to the land of the living. Given your Poltergeist-derived moniker, Robbie, you’ll appreciate this: she’s (sort of) ba-ack…