“Kaisha” (season 6, episode 12; originally aired 6/4/2006)
In which war is averted…
In the final act of the play Our Town, Emily Gibbs arrives in the afterlife after dying in childbirth. She’s joined by others who have died in the intermission between second and third acts, those older than Emily or just struck by ill fate as she was. The Stage Manager, a kind of narrator/god for this little world, joins the other dead in telling Emily that she would do best to simply forget about her life and move on. She refuses, however, and asks to be taken back to one day of her life, to re-experience it. As one of the dead, she has that right, and she chooses to relive her 12th birthday. As the day ticks on, though, she’s struck by how much of it she had forgotten, by how many simple little things she’ll never get to experience again. Every moment that passes—every little thing that happens, from a simple breath to the clink of the milkman’s bottles on the front step—becomes another death, another passing away that cannot be undone. And she forgot all of this. She didn’t remember because it’s simply impossible to do so. Everything fades, and we skip over both good parts and bad, living in a moment that seems eternal but isn’t.
I was not a big fan of “Kaisha”—or the first half of this season of The Sopranos—when both aired the first time around, but I’ve become much more charitable toward them in this go-round. As I rewatched “Kaisha,” though, I couldn’t help but think of Our Town, or of Richard Yates’ great novel The Easter Parade, where whole years are handled in the space of a paragraph or two. When looking at this episode for character arcs or plot momentum or forward motion, it’s possible to find them, sure, but it’s also possible to wonder why the show is repeating itself so much, why it seems stuck in the same gear, endlessly spinning its wheels. But then look at what doesn’t get shown, and a whole world opens up to you.
Narratives, of course, are selectively edited. They’re supposed to choose the “interesting” parts. Intellectually, we know that Tony Soprano does a bunch of other stuff in between the scenes of “Kaisha.” We know that he sleeps six to 10 hours per night. We know that he uses the restroom or eats breakfast or sits at stoplights, irritated by traffic. We know he does all of the same stuff we do, but we also know that the show’s writers and directors are going to cut around that. We’re not going to have to watch it, because that’s not what’s unusual or interesting about his life. We get enough of that in our day-to-day existences. We don’t need to see a fictional surrogate dealing with it. All narratives—even non-traditional ones found in artsier stories and films—cut out the truly boring stuff. Or, at least, I’m certainly unaware of a film that’s just footage of somebody sleeping for eight hours.
Yet “Kaisha” verges very closely to being just boring stuff. It takes place over a month of time, starting just before Thanksgiving and ending at Christmas, and in that space of time, all the characters do is work, fuck, get high, and waste time. They keep crawling one step closer to their own demise, as we see from the way Junior, alone and all but forgotten, has deteriorated, but they do everything they can to not think about it. New York threatens to launch an attack against New Jersey, and it feels oddly lifeless, like Paulie could be killed and it would be as if the characters were simply going through the motions. They’re back in their ruts, in their evolutionary niches, and even when Phil has a heart attack that averts all-out war, it’s not like anything changes. Everything just gets put off a little longer. The end is still coming. Just not right now.
What strikes me even more in this go-round with this season of The Sopranos is just how much gets left out. David Chase and his creative team gladly cut past whole days of time and sometimes whole weeks. We don’t see Thanksgiving at all. We just see Carmela getting ready for it. Liz La Cerva tries to commit suicide off-screen, and it doesn’t come up again, because Tony will probably only remember it as the catalyst to finally have Sil lean on the housing inspector, so Carmela’s spec house can proceed again, thus distracting her from trying to track down Adriana. AJ and Blanca’s relationship, as well as Phil’s heart attack and recovery, mostly happen off-screen as well, boiled down into a few choice moments.
And this happens all season long. Outside of Tony’s time in the coma, we cut freely across time, whole periods simply being erased by the process of living life. Good moments and bad fall down the memory hole, and the characters don’t even seem to notice. All seasons of The Sopranos take place across great periods of time, but no previous season occurs over more time than this one does. Months pass in between certain episodes, and seemingly important stories like Tony’s physical recovery from being shot mostly happen out of view. The mob stuff seems even more beside the point and useless than in any season before. Indeed, the major money-making scheme the gangsters come up with involves vitamins. Everything is circling the drain, and the characters are increasingly stuck in cycles of apathy and disinterest. But they keep waking up every morning, and they keep getting out of bed. Life has a way of going on and dragging you with it.
Look back at Emily at the end of Our Town and think about this season of television. More than any other season of TV I can think of, this sixth season mimics the way memory works, the way that big, important moments stand out, while we simply forget the others, because that’s how it must be. A whole month of time passes here, and the characters remember a few moments from the start of a promising new relationship or that first Christmas without one of the kids at home, only able to attend via a phone call. Phil’s heart attack is boiled down to something that happens—and something the doctors initially miss (which will likely become a story he tells, disgruntled, in the years to come)—and then its aftermath. The most important thing that rises out of it is Tony telling Phil about what little he remembers of his coma experience and how family is what really matters. After Tony emerged from his coma, he told Melfi that every day was a gift. He later amended that to ask why it so often had to be a pair of socks. But now, whole chunks of time pass by without comment.
The coma was a black hole, something with such immensity and gravity that everybody couldn’t help but remember every moment even tangentially connected to it. But the further all of the characters get from it, the more time disappears down the memory hole. Every day is a gift until you start to take them for granted again. Tony’s life nearly ended, and he realized just how good he had it. But now, he’s inexorably drawn back to the ways of old, to the ways that things used to irritate him and get him worked up. Melfi tells him in their one session this episode that he doesn’t have to have every piece of pasta, that he doesn’t have to fuck every woman. And, to be sure, when he tells Phil that there’s enough to go around, he seems to have embraced this lesson to some degree. But we know this guy too well, now. We know exactly where all of this is headed, and we know he’s not going to remember a damn thing Melfi tells him. She, too, increasingly disappears down the memory hole.
“Kaisha” is far from the perfect episode of television this series is capable of. It’s much more unsatisfying to portray a dramatic void than it is to portray something actually happening, and I’ve made my feelings on seeing Chris fall off the wagon over and over again clear in the past few weeks. “Kaisha” is still an episode where not a lot happens, and it counts on us to grasp that what we’re not seeing is as important at what we are, which is one of those things that’s always hard to ask of an audience. (See also: the final season of The Wire.) The show’s love of anticlimax was well-established by this point, but this episode is even more ridiculous than usual in that regard. War almost breaks out, and then it doesn’t. Chris and Tony almost come to blows, and then they don’t. Carmela almost looks into Adriana’s disappearance, and then she doesn’t. The can keeps getting kicked down the road. When you’re watching on DVD and can just skip to “Sopranos Home Movies,” one of the best episodes the series ever did, then, yeah, “Kaisha” is easier to view more charitably. But when it’s supposed to stand in as a season finale, it becomes more problematic.
It’s easy to say, then, that this isn’t meant to be a finale, that it’s supposed to be a comma between two groups of episodes that tell full, well-developed stories. Here is the tiny pause that reminds us of just how much these characters had and how much they stand to lose if war really does break out. (“You have a lovely home,” Blanca, who has nothing, says to Carmela. “Yes. We do,” says Carmela, and she says it so mindlessly you know she simply has no idea how much she has to lose.) I used to imagine this portrayed the “last good moment” before the dark plunge of the final nine, but I’m not sure that’s so true. Yes, the Christmas party is mostly a positive occasion—despite Meadow’s absence—and yes, the characters seem at ease and at peace in a way they haven’t since the start of “Members Only.” But if you watch the whole episode, it’s much more about the way that life reasserts itself, about how the act of getting out of that bed inevitably drags you a little further down into the muck, a little closer to death. Which, of course: We all understand each day brings us ever closer to the day we die. But to think about that is to be unable to live, so we keep getting up, and we keep going along, and we keep fucking around. Until we die.
The camera pulls back from the little gathering of Soprano family members and friends, and the Rolling Stones’ “Moonlight Mile,” used so evocatively as Fat Dom’s body is disposed of in the early moments of the episode, rises on the soundtrack. It’s a song about loneliness and alienation, playing over a moment when the characters seem to be anything but. The gathering is peaceful and beautiful, but it sits perched on the edge of a vast chasm no one wants to really think about. Or, think of it another way. “Kaisha” is the name Christopher gives to his imaginary African-American girlfriend, the one he invents so Tony won’t know he’s sleeping with Julianna, whom Tony “planted his flag” upon. (She’s not a piece of real estate, she says, but she clearly doesn’t know these guys.) She’s a convenient lie, an invention designed to paper over something that would be too painful to both parties if it were revealed. We keep coming up with these convenient lies, and sometimes, we all but forget the truth, because they’re so much better than dealing with the pain and alienation that might result if the bandage were ripped off. You need to forget and you need to ignore and you need to lie because the alternative is a life lived in every moment, knowing that it could all stop at any second. The wounds don’t properly heal, but you’re better able to function. Until there’s nothing, and you’re longing for the moments you forgot, the time that slipped between the cracks.
- I mentioned above my love of the use of “Moonlight Mile” in this episode, but I seriously think it might be one of the top 10 musical moments on the show, period. The way it accentuates the loneliness of the opening moments is terrific.
- Wikipedia tells me that Chris’ former heroin dealer had a girlfriend named Kaisha. I assume that’s where he got the name, and I like the idea of this half-remembered person becoming his convenient lie.
- The relationship between Julianna and Chris is treated as a sort of doomed, tragic romance here, but I’m not sure the show earns the weight it wants to give the coupling. It’s kept as a secret from us for so long, then treated as a major reveal, and I mostly just find myself shrugging about it every time I watch the episode.
- I love how the episode treats A.J.’s gradual maturation into manhood, and how his parents stand in the way of it, even if they don’t say anything. To truly become a man, A.J. will have to give away childish things like that bike, sure, but let’s not forget that bike was given to him by his parents. Also, Carmela’s none too pleased with his choice of girlfriend.
- Little Bobby flips past A Christmas Carol and Casablanca on the TV in the final scene. The former makes sense, since the whole season is about a guy who has a near-death experience and proclaims to be a changed man, then slips back into his old ways, but I’m having trouble figuring out just what the season is trying to say with the frequent references to the latter film (outside of how Blanca’s name is present in it).
- Seeing the strippers all in Santa hats was my biggest laugh of the episode. I like to imagine that Sil went and found just the right hat for the girls.
- Tony draws a link between Melfi, Gloria, and Julianna in his session, wondering why he always gets so interested in the intelligent, dark-haired beauty who remains just a little at arm’s length. Aside from the fact that the answer to this question is fairly obvious (because you can never have her, Tony!), I like to imagine Melfi’s inner reaction at being compared to Gloria and Julianna.
- The Daily Show’s Aasif Mandvi turns up in the ER, which is apparently a role he also played in Analyze This, a film which drew frequent comparisons to The Sopranos, for obvious reasons.
- The beret Tony wears that Carmela got him in Paris should have been worn in every episode until the series finale.
- A nice thing in the final sequence that the show does not explicitly comment on: Carmela and her dad have patched things up.
- A subtle, uncommented-upon theme in the episode (and series) is the main characters’ basic lack of understanding about racial politics and the like. Imaginary African-Americans are always convenient scapegoats (see also: “Unidentified Black Males”), but they also make for an easy way for Christopher to avoid telling the whole truth about his new relationship. Carmela’s main objections to Blanca include that she’s Puerto Rican, and when Chris has to make up a gift to give to Kaisha for Christmas, he says Luther Vandross CDs. The characters are rarely able to see beyond their own perceptions of the surface, and this dooms them.
Speaking With The Fishes (spoilers):
- The warehouse that Tony and Julianna are going to flip doesn’t return, to my knowledge, nor does Julianna. This isn’t the worst thing in the world, since Julianna’s kind of a cipher of a character, but it does seem like we’re being set up for a storyline that just doesn’t happen.
- Julianna’s sponsor says the word “sociopath,” and it’s the first time it’s been mentioned in a handful of episodes. That word will become more and more important in the back half of the season, until it’s finally the reason Melfi stops treating Tony.
- Blanca and A.J.’s relationship, surprisingly, does continue into the back half of the season, and their breakup precipitates his harrowing suicide attempt.
Next time: I’m back to the Carnivàle beat next week, and I’ll likely take a few weeks off in the middle of that run for various reasons. As such, look for reviews of the final nine episodes to begin sometime in mid-to-late October, most likely on the 24th, though it could be the 17th or 31st.