“Live Free Or Die” (season 6, episode 6; originally aired 4/16/2006)
In which Vito escapes into Gilmore Girls
In 1809, John Stark, who had been the foremost soldier from New Hampshire in the American Revolution, was forced by his poor health to decline an invitation to celebrate the anniversary of the Battle of Bennington, at which he had been one of the foremost heroes. He had been asked to go to the battle site in New York to deliver a toast, and he sent his toast via a letter instead. In full, it read: “Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils.” In the 1940s, the New Hampshire state legislature adopted the first half of the quote as the state’s motto, and it is now perhaps the most famous state motto, encapsulating as it does that uniquely American attitude: If I can’t be free to live as I want to live, then I’d rather be dead.
“Live Free Or Die” is the title of this episode of The Sopranos on a plot level because when Vito makes his escape from the mob life, he ends up in a small town in New Hampshire. Yet it also serves as a clarion call for all of the characters, who are mired in prisons of their own making. Tony Soprano and his family may not see the lifestyle they lead as a prison, but it’s what keeps Tony from making the true change he would need to become a better, healthier person. Meadow may complain about the treatment her family suffers at the hands of the government, but she shies away from discussing what will happen if her father’s friends catch up to Vito again. Carmela likes having a husband who can go and put a little pressure on the building inspector (when he gets around to it), but she ignores the rot that underlies her whole life willfully. (That house built with shoddy materials that will not last—contrast with the church Tony’s grandfather built—isn’t the most subtle symbol ever, but it gets the job done.)
But again and again, we come back to whether the characters would even want to change if they could, if the world opened up and gave them the perfect opportunity. Arguably, it already has for Tony, but he’s also someone who finds himself trapped by the circumstances of his life and the petty bullshit he has to go through. His rage at the air conditioner opens the episode, and he expresses this anger at all of the little stuff that goes wrong in his session with Melfi. (One thing I like about the sessions with Melfi in this season is how rarely the show portrays the two actors in the same frame. The gulf between them is widening, even if they don’t know it yet. They’re in the same room, but in different worlds.) Change is never easy. It requires constant work and constant surveillance of the self. For Tony Soprano, it might just be easier to give in and be the man leering in the mirror from last week’s episode.
But Tony’s also the one person in the family—in both senses—who seems to think that Vito should get a second chance, even if he’s gay. At first, he just says this in his therapy session, after saying all the sorts of homophobic things we’d expect him to say, but he’s eventually suggesting to Carlo, the guy who will take over Vito’s construction business, that there have been other gay mobsters—they both know that—and that Vito’s shame shouldn’t be enough to bring down the whole family’s honor. Who would honestly think that? (Left unsaid, of course, is that these are men who regularly traffic in crime. Tony may be a strict Catholic when it comes to homosexuality, but he’s willing to look the other way when it comes to just about everything else.) Tony’s struggle parallels the struggle of plenty of people of his generation to accept something that had been labeled a perversion when they were growing up but soon became evident as just the way some people were. His daughter and her fiancé dismiss it with a shrug. He’s not quite there, but his opinion is shifting. Why not live and let live? The difference for Tony from, say, my parents is that the stakes for Vito are literally life and death.
Let’s get to the big problem with this episode: The small town that Vito stumbles into is portrayed in an almost comically positive light. It’s like he left New Jersey and wandered into an episode of Gilmore Girls. The diner is run by a friendly Morgan Spurlock lookalike who seems to be checking him out. Everyone is warm and welcoming, and the proprietor of the local bed and breakfast is only too happy to let him in in the middle of the night and give him a room. Why, she’ll even let her stepson know about his car, broken down on the side of the highway, so it can go to the shop to be fixed! And when he sits in that diner, eating his johnnycakes, he sees a gay couple who seem to be accepted by everybody around. At the end, he goes to a store to scope out antiques—one of those pursuits that’s coded as gay in our culture—and the owner of the shop is all too happy to help him learn what he needs to pick up. Vito has wandered into some sort of utopia, a place of utter tolerance that will let him be himself and live openly and proudly as a gay man.
On its face, it’s a goofy notion. Not necessarily that there would be a small town that would be welcoming to gay people—especially in New England—but that Vito would keep seeing all of the ways that this place seems to be made for him. It’s like he’s having his own coma dream, but he gets to go to Heaven for some reason, and whoever’s directing the dream keeps showing him in increasing detail just how welcome he would be here. The sixth season of The Sopranos is full of characters who get stuck in some place—sometimes from their own doing and sometimes wholly accidentally—then often choose to stay there because of how much it seems to be made for them (see also: the characters’ situations generally, Tony’s purgatory). It takes a real act of will to leave one of these places, but the town Vito stumbles upon is so idyllic that you wonder why on Earth he’d ever even be tempted to leave. The conflict of the Vito storyline has always been that his true self conflicts with his occupation, yet here’s a place where none of that matters. It’s the opposite of dramatic. (I’ll also reiterate my complaints from last week about Joseph R. Gannascoli not quite being up to the task of selling the tragedy of this whole scenario. It’s an inherently interesting story, but Gannascoli drags it down a bit.)
Yet there’s something that works about it, all the same, especially in this episode. Vito lumbering into the town after having shed his phone and all other connections to his old identity (again, possessions are the only thing linking someone to who they were) is a beautiful image, particularly with the rain coming down, with him in his red poncho. The scenes where the character explores and slowly realizes that, yes, people live like this have their moments, and while this can all be a little heavy-handed—live free, Vito! Don’t die!—the whole thing also has an air of sweetness and vulnerability to it. Here’s a guy who’s only known one way of life and realizes that there are other ways to live. If the show had simply left the Vito storyline here, it would have made a certain amount of sense. The show didn’t go in for happy endings for its supporting characters—well, it didn’t go in for endings, period—but Vito wasn’t trying anyone’s patience like Ralphie or Tony Blundetto. He just had to die because of who he was.
But don’t all of these people have to die because of who they are? Don’t all of us, period? We’re all humans, and we’re all going to die. The whole “living free” thing is really about maximizing the time we have here on Earth, not about finding a way to live forever or anything like that. And though Vito is at the center of the episode and most of its plotlines, there’s other stuff going on. Look, for instance, at Angie Bonpensiero, one of Carmela’s old friends, who had to reinvent herself as a businesswoman in the wake of her husband’s death. Where the Angie we knew in the series’ early days was nowhere near this confident or assured, this Angie is someone who runs a successful business and has so much going on that she doesn’t have time for lunch with her old friends. If you put in one of the episodes from season two where she was arguing with her husband, then look at this character, it’s like they’re two different people. She’s changed, even if everybody around her hasn’t. She’s lived free, because she knew what the alternative was.
The uniting principle between the people on The Sopranos who change is that they’re all pushed into it. Vito escapes because he has to. Angie becomes successful because she doesn’t have another way to provide for herself. Back in season five, Tony Blundetto made a serious effort at change after his stint in prison, because he had no desire to go back. And now, Tony himself has been scared in a way he perhaps doesn’t quite understand by what he saw in his coma, scared to a point where he’s increasingly willing to turn a blind eye and give people second chances, at least until he finds himself fighting back the man he was before (or perhaps giving in to that figure). Living free is great in theory, but it proves awfully hard to do in practice.
That’s where much of the episode’s criticism of the political climate of the mid-2000s in America comes from. Meadow rails against the George W. Bush administration’s treatment of people who were not terrorists, people who were hounded simply for their race or nationality. Carmela shrugs it off by saying she voted for Bush. Tony tells her she needs to not care about this stuff so much. Yet the point is implicit: If the things Meadow is saying are true, then they should be the only thing American citizens care about, because they’d be a gross perversion of what we’re supposed to stand for, the exact opposite of that state motto that seems to express who we are. Yet nobody cares as much as they should. Hell, I agree with Meadow entirely, but I didn’t do anything to fix those sorts of problems beyond voting against Bush at the ballot box. Caring this much about something—and trying to change it—is exhausting. It eventually wears you down to the point where you stop caring, particularly if you’re in a position where you don’t have to worry about such things all of the time. Or, put another way: Just how long did it take you to realize Meadow was speaking about Hurricane Katrina when she accused her parents of not being able to sympathize with black people clinging to driftwood?
“Live free or die” is a nice motto, but it also carries an emptiness. No one is actually going to die if they can’t live free—or only a very few of us would. We let our freedoms—politically, personally, culturally—be taken away from us bit by bit, because the world keeps throwing petty annoyances in our way. Maybe we care about something for a little while. Maybe we try to change—be it by dieting or trying to stop a bad habit or just trying to be a better person. Maybe we give people a second chance we’re not sure they’ve earned. But always, things keep chipping away at that resolve. We eventually get worn down by outrage fatigue, or we would really like to have a brownie, or we always hold that person in suspicion, until they inevitably screw up again (because they’re human). But there’s another half to Stark’s quote: “Death is not the worst of evils.” Stark, of course, was talking about a life under the tyranny of the British monarchy as that evil worse than death. But maybe the worse evil is an unexamined life that slips by us, bit by bit, until we’re consumed by petty hatreds and little things that shouldn’t matter and air conditioners that drive us nuts. We can die swallowed up by all this pointless bullshit, or we can live free and then die. If we’re lucky.
- Reportedly, this is the first episode produced after David Chase and company had realized they would be filling another nine episodes of television. (Remember: The initial order for season six was just for 12 final episodes.) There’s definitely a dividing line after the end of episode five—where it seems like we’re headed into Tony’s change arc taking a darker turn—and the rest of this half-season. While I wouldn’t trade any of the episodes in season 6B for a condensed arc (especially considering that we’d have to get to the rest of the Vito storyline somehow, too), there is some obvious padding in the rest of 6A.
- This is the last episode written by Robin Green and Mitchell Burgess, whose influence on the show is only behind that of Chase himself and Terrence Winter. Wikipedia says they left to work on another HBO project that never panned out, and that’s what I’ll choose to believe.
- One other reason Vito is marked for death if he ever comes back to Jersey: His wife is Phil’s cousin, and Phil considers this a distinct dishonor. (Phil considers everything a dishonor.)
- I like that the episode keeps surrounding Vito with images of femininity that he rejects, everything from his beautiful girlfriend to his long-suffering wife to the nubile babysitter lounging on the couch. He doesn’t want anything to do with them.
- Tony’s mention of “Senator Sanitorium” came up again as a YouTube clip this winter during Rick Santorum’s improbably long run for the Republican nomination for president. (I also like Tony summing up his views as, “Pretty soon, we’ll be fucking dogs!”)
- Tony’s session with Melfi is a real highlight of this episode, particularly when he concedes that the lesbian show with Jennifer Beals is “okay.”
- The never-ending travails of Finn continue, as he’s forced to enter the back room of Satriale’s to confess to what he saw at the construction site (in a scene staged like the painting of the Last Supper), then can’t get much—if any—sympathy from Meadow.
- Even Carmela’s father is an opportunist, stripping the job site for materials when the building inspector won’t relent.
- The use of “4th Of July” by X is one of my favorite song choices in the show (perhaps because the song is amazing).
Speaking With The Fishes (spoilers):
- The Vito arc doesn’t get much better from here—though I think there is good stuff in “Johnny Cakes” that would have been amazing with stronger actors—but “Cold Stones,” which sees his death at the hands of Phil is a season highlight.
- Just as last week we saw the seeds sewn for Meadow leaving behind her pursuit of medicine to go after a career in law—which will bind her ever closer to her father’s life—we see the seeds for her breakup with Finn sewn here as well.
- Here’s this week’s challenge: Assuming you have to condense roughly the events of the last 16 episodes (this episode, the remaining six in 6A, and the nine in 6B) into the final seven, what do you keep, and what do you cut? I fear we’d lose the Johnny Sack death arc, which I really like. I just don’t see a way to keep it. (In general, I think the split season worked artistically, even if there were some odd padding issues in the back half of this season.)
Next week: We’re headed back to Hollywood in one of the show’s lesser hours, “Luxury Lounge.”