“Marco Polo” (season 5, episode 8; originally aired 4/25/2004)
In which Hugh De Angelis turns 75 years old
The game of Marco Polo, like a lot of childhood games, is both about finding a home and about catching prey. Really, the two are all bound up in each other in any good kids game. The predator seeks his prey; the prey longs to return home to a safe spot where it can’t be gobbled up. It’s not like anybody thinks about this consciously when playing “Hide And Seek” or “Tag” or “Sharks And Minnows,” but it’s there all the same—the idea that right up against having a home is that once you leave that home, you’re subject to the dangers of the world.
Fittingly, in the game of Marco Polo that comes toward the end of the episode of the same name, we see Tony Soprano taking part as one of those hiding from Artie, the blind man trying to find his prey. Tony, like the one who’s “it” in the game, is both seeking his home—and his throne—all over again, but he’s also chasing down prey. It’s tempting to read this episode, just from seeing, say, the Wikipedia plot description of it, as a basically warm one where Tony regains his place of eminence. And while our relationship with Tony is a complicated one, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to see a good television character back in the place where he’s liable to create the most interesting stories. But in the way the episode actually plays out, there’s a subtle malevolence to everything that happens, a malevolence that finally boils over when Tony finally hooks up with Carmela after the game in the corner of the pool. Sure, she’s receptive—eventually—but the whole thing is tinged with menace. He has her now.
It’s tempting to say that not a lot happens in “Marco Polo” until the very end—when Tony B. takes a major step and Tony and Carm have sex—but this is an episode tinged with meaning and a weird sense of poignancy throughout. Tony is not a good husband. He’s not a good man. He’s, at best, a half-assed father (and even that seems like too generous of a description). But if he’s good at something, it’s getting what he wants, and this is an episode where the universe mostly conspires to give him everything, then all he has to do is take the final step offered to him, pulling his wife close in the pool, letting her decide to give in to what’s been building ever since her father fell off her roof. Carmela has every chance in this episode to make the break from Tony truly permanent. Instead, she lets him back into her life, mostly because it feels right, and he expands to fill the space he’s in, like a gas. If you give Tony Soprano anything, he’ll take anything. We’ve always known this. But here, we see that it applies just as well to his personal and family lives.
Once you marry someone, of course, you’re linked to them forever, even if you get a quickie divorce. (This is doubly true if you have kids with them.) The marriage of Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries was probably—almost certainly!—mostly about the money and not about the two people really thinking about what they wanted out of life. And yet for the rest of their lives, they’ll have a memory of 72 days marked by being yoked to somebody else. (Thus ends any mention I will ever make of a Kardashian in these articles.) You can’t just invite someone into your life and expect them not to mix some of their DNA in with yours, in either good or bad ways. And it’s that much more difficult for those in truly long-term relationships, as Tony and Carmela were. Carmela’s strength ultimately falters because her dad wants Tony present at his party—and, hey, he’s the one who was injured and the one celebrating his birthday—but there’s also a little part of her that just likes having him there, having him at the center of everything. It’s easier. It’s safer. It’s the way it always was.
That’s the idea we keep coming back to, isn’t it? Stasis has a kind of gravity, and sometimes, you just don’t have the necessary energy to escape its pull, no matter how much you want to change. And someone like Tony Soprano—or any one of his associates—is all too happy to take advantage of that fact, to keep pushing and keep wearing you down until you don’t know what you’re doing and you’re back in bed with him (either literally or figuratively). Tony says all of the right things when Carmela comes over to tell him that he won’t be attending her father’s party, and he even puts on just the right wounded face. And, yes, if Hugh hadn’t wanted Tony there, I don’t know that Tony would have come to the party, and these events would have proceeded differently. But when you’re Tony Soprano, you don’t really need to push too hard for what you want. The cosmos has a way of serving it right up to you.
But this episode presents an alternate-universe Tony, a Tony who could have dropped in from the world next door. (It’s only now that I realize that Tony B.’s usual nomenclature just might be a sick joke about how alt-universes are often classified with letters, beginning with “B,” to distinguish them from our own universe in science-fiction stories.) Tony Blundetto was the guy who went to jail, the one whose fate Tony Soprano could have easily copied. And now he’s the guy who’s presented, at first, a study of what might have happened if one of these guys tried to go straight, something that becomes an exercise in futility. Once you’re in, you’re in for life, simply because the grip of getting everything you want, fairly easily, becomes too hard to break. And now, we’re seeing an alternate version of Tony Soprano that went to jail and didn’t get all of his wonderful toys, as the saying goes. Tony Blundetto is a study in a life gone awry, sure, but he’s also a study in envy and frustration.
There’s nowhere this is more evident than in the final few scenes of the episode. Tony B., who’s spent much of the day running small errands for Carmela (who always shouts out his name like she’s talking to hired help), finally snaps as Carmela asks him to help get a drunken Hugh out to his car. He says he’s being treated like a “fucking slave,” to which Tony can only say, “Ho!” (I love the way James Gandolfini says this one syllable every time he does.) But then he goes home and sees that his kids have dug out a souvenir from A.J.’s closet, a reminder of the time he went to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta that’s stuffed way in the back, so far that A.J. would never miss it. And as his son spits out how he wishes he could live at the Soprano house, how it’s fun there, how A.J. has all this cool stuff, you can see something snap in Tony Blundetto’s eyes. Steve Buscemi, who always underplayed his moments on this show, beautifully conveys the moment as Tony B. realizes everything he hasn’t got that his cousin has, all of the things that he lost simply because he went to jail. Is there a world where Carmela (or a Carmela figure) orders Tony Soprano around? Is there a world where A.J. goes scrounging in Tony B.’s kids’ closet for cool stuff? Is there a world where he’s not beholden to this man whom he both loves and hates?
Sadly for Tony B., there’s no way to get over to Earth-B. So he’s got to make do with what he’s got. And that means taking the order from Angelo and Rusty to kill Joey Peeps, embroiling New Jersey in the midst of the New York mob civil war. (In case you missed who’s affiliated with whom, Angelo is on the side of Little Carmine, while Joey Peeps works with Johnny Sack. Tony B. got to know Angelo in prison, and his killing of Joey Peeps places him on the side of Little Carmine, which is somewhat opposed to Tony Soprano, who’s kind of, sort of on the side of Johnny Sack, though reluctant to declare allegiance. That’s all you really need to know.) Tony B. hasn’t declared open war on his cousin or anything, but he’s more than willing to cut a bloody swath through the New York underworld to get to a place where he’s got what his cousin has, and if that takes him through friends—like Tony Soprano or like Johnny Sack—so be it. Nobody on this show will ever be accused of taking the path of least expedience.
But there’s something tragic about this moment all the same. Yes, when Tony B. got back into the mob life in “Sentimental Education,” it was painted as a turning point moment, but this is the moment when he really can’t turn back. Whatever dreams he might have harbored of opening that massage parlor are gone forever now; in a very real way, unless Little Carmine prevails in the war, Tony B. is a dead man. And even if Little Carmine prevails, it’s not like he’ll be able to escape then. The episode hammers home just how much Tony B. is meant to be in a cautionary tale throughout, showing him being a mostly good dad to his kids and letting him debate—largely intelligently—the problems with the U.S. penal system with Meadow, who’s got an interest in this sort of thing. (Meadow’s been sitting the season out to a real degree, but this episode returns her to her usual place of representing all of her father’s greatest hopes and fears.) Most of the gangsters on The Sopranos could be portrayed as real idiots who fell into the business because it wasn’t like they had a lot of other options. But the show also gives us figures like both Tonys or like Johnny Sack or like Christopher, men who might have had other options in other lives but were trapped in spaces where the gravity well was just too deep to escape from.
But Tony B.’s not meant to be a cynical tale of the way that change is always impossible, that escape from stasis must always be foiled. In this very episode, we see another tale that suggests the exact opposite in Angie Bonpensiero. It’s not as though the woman is thriving—indeed, she looks run down and haggard and she still has to deal with Tony Soprano—but she is someone who’s finally carving her own path. Like Tony B., she had to rely on Tony S. to get her feet under her at first, but she’s slowly starting to figure out a way forward, lighting out into unexplored, uncharted territory (just like a certain explorer a certain pool game is named for) that just might carry her into a new life where the mob is a presence but, hopefully, minimized. Just as Carmela’s always going to be bound to Tony, Angie will always be bound to Pussy and the life that he lived and work that he did, but she can, with time, find a way to minimize that influence in her life. The past always leaves its marks on the present—no show understands that more than The Sopranos—but the future is a place where those black marks can be diminished.
But at the same time, it’s possible to wonder if the only reason Angie escaped is because Pussy’s death forced her to. When you’re flying away from a black hole—or an alternate universe—you often need that extra little kick, that extra burst of fuel. You can’t rely solely on your own power supply and your wits and hope that will be enough. Sure, sometimes, people are able to change by summoning up their very own strength of character, but more often than not, when you find yourself out there in the middle of the dark, blinded, and you’re being stalked by something terrifying, all you want to do is get back home, get back to what you’ve always known. And sometimes that might just be the same thing as what you’re running from, but in the dark of night, with your eyes closed, it all starts to feel the same.
- I love the hazy feel of the Hugh birthday party in this episode. It feels like it takes up half the episode (though, honestly, it’s probably closer to a quarter, though the entire back half is devoted to the build-up to the party, at least). It really does seem like one of those long summer parties that doesn’t end until late, where the adults end up acting just as goofy as the kids and your dad’s friend crashes on the couch and doesn’t wake up until the next morning. (Nice touch: Artie’s slight sunburn.) It also really hammers home just how alluring this life is, just how easy it is for Tony and Carmela to fall back into its patterns, even when they say they won’t.
- The show’s usual interest in how certain people will never be accepting of Tony Soprano—and, honestly, for good reason—just because of who he is and what he does returns, as Mary De Angelis and her friends mock Tony, even after he presents Hugh with a Beretta. (The best Berettas all stay in Italy, don’t you know?)
- Junior, who spills the beans on the surprise party to Hugh, watches La Dolce Vita in this episode and (tellingly, I think) can’t make heads or tails of it, even with the subtitles and a fairly good grasp of Italian. You can just tell that the Jesus dangling from the helicopter in the famous opening shot is a dummy, he says.
- Alan Sepinwall says Edie Falco’s reading of “Marco… ” is the greatest line reading of her entire career. I am not inclined to disagree. Alternate candidates? Please don’t say anything from Nurse Jackie.
- I am reminded, again, of just how little I like Finn, who is kind of a boring lump. I know that’s the point. But still. I don’t know that we see A.J.’s girlfriend again, but she’s cute for an extra.
- It’d also be worth speculating about how Artie’s the one initially leading the game of Marco Polo. If anybody on the show is searching for a happy home…
- In retrospect, the scene where Johnny Sack brags about his new car is foreshadowing for Tony B. entering the war at the episode’s end. Johnny’s spending like he’s already boss because, in his mind, he is. Sure, he’s had a good year, but you only make a purchase like that if you expect to have an even better one very soon. But Tony B. destabilizes everything and throws what Johnny expects to happen into disarray.
- I am told—returning to the opening paragraph here—not everybody calls it “Sharks And Minnows.” I’m speaking of the game where everyone lines up along one side of the pool, and then a player who is “it” treads water in the center, waiting to tag the various other players as they swim to the other side. Those tagged then become new “sharks,” and the last “minnow” standing is the one to win.
- Great musical choices in this episode, but I think the Faces song that closes out the episode is probably the best of them.
Speaking With The Fishes (spoilers):
- Meadow’s interest in the legal field foreshadows her eventual choice of becoming a lawyer, something that will suck her right back into her father’s orbit, come the end of season six.
- It’s significant that Tony Soprano talks to Johnny Sack in this episode, as Tony B. casts his lot with Little Carmine, as Tony S. will kill Tony B. as a part of this ongoing conflict in the season finale.
- Possible fodder for the “Tony’s dead” theorists: Angie’s only able to chart her own course—only “unblinded,” if you will—after Pussy’s death. And Carmela’s the one forced into the role of “Marco” as the game begins anew, perhaps indicating that her journey can only really begin once Tony dies. This is a pretty big stretch, but, hey, this is the place for big stretches.
Next week: Tony finds out something he doesn’t want to know in “Unidentified Black Males.”