“Soprano Home Movies” (season 6, episode 13; originally aired 4/8/2007)
In which things are rotten
Johnny Boy and Livia Soprano are the twin Big Bads of The Sopranos, the missing pieces that fill in whatever puzzle you want to construct of their children. No matter what you think of Tony or Janice, the things that are screwed up in their heads stem back to their parents, but Tony’s refusal to consider them as human beings, with failings and good points like anyone else, has a tendency to bite him in the ass. Usually, when a family member who’s caused strain to everyone else in the family dies, there’s a sense of sadness and loss, yes, but also a certain sense of relief. No more tiptoeing on eggshells around that person or making sure everything is just right for them. Without that difficult person around, maybe everyone can start to live the lives they’ve always wanted to. Except the difficult person never really leaves because the tendrils they left in their family’s psyche take root, dig in deeper. The ghosts are always present.
This is especially true of Livia Soprano. She’s been dead and gone for four seasons now, her last appearance as a weird CGI monstrosity in early season three. Yet her presence haunts the series in a way no other dead character does. It’s hard to imagine Tony getting so upset about Janice telling a funny—if mildly insulting—story about Big Pussy or Ralphie. Yet when Janice launches into a story about the time that her parents were coming back from the Copa and her father fired a bullet right through her mother’s massive beehive hairdo, Tony starts to rankle. James Gandolfini has lived in this role for so long at this point that viewers can literally see the insult to Tony’s mother start to chew away at him. So he insults Janice, says she used to suck cocks under the boardwalk. And when Bobby tells him he’s being rude, Tony fake apologizes, then needles even further. There’s a fight. Bobby gets the better of him. Later, Tony sends Bobby off to kill a guy because he wants to get back at his brother-in-law. This man shouldn’t die (his only crime is wanting to take his kid away from his ex-wife), yet he will, in part because Tony’s ego was wounded.
The Sopranos is so good at tracing these little moments back to the seeds that gave birth to them that it sometimes makes all of life seem like a series of elaborate psychological cause-and-effect problems. In many stories, this approach can feel too simplistic or cloying, but it never really does on The Sopranos. Perhaps this is because the show tempers this psychological fatalism with a grim insistence that the characters could change if they wanted to, but they just don’t want to. Or perhaps it’s because the things that drive the characters are at once perfectly understandable, nicely consistent, and weirdly novel. (Tony’s devotion to his mother, for instance, is all three things: It makes sense why he does it, he’s always trying to defend her honor, and he really probably shouldn’t, since she made his life miserable and has long since passed on.)
But I suspect the real reason this works is because every time The Sopranos traces something that happens back to its root cause, it finds the start of another chain. Remember that time Tony talked about how he feared some long-ago relative in the old country who died because of the “rotten Soprano gene”? The show always offers that sense of tugging at the strings that connect the present to the past, then going ever deeper. A man ends up dead in a Laundromat because Bobby got the better of Tony in a fight. Tony and Bobby got in the fight because Tony couldn’t leave his sister alone. He couldn’t leave his sister alone because of his nearly codependent relationship with his mother. His mother—Janice suggests—couldn’t let her babies go when they started to grow up, smothered them with a love that curdled into rage. Yet she remains somewhat of a mystery, a monster that, nevertheless, would have been completely understandable if we just knew what to look for (and if Tony gave a damn). And if we knew the answers about her, we’d dig even further back into the past.
One of the last things we see in this episode is Tony watching those Soprano home movies, watching the past come back to life in front of him. He doesn’t seem especially moved or impressed, but it’s clear the scene is supposed to mean something, and it’s there in “This Magic Moment,” the song that pops up a couple of times in the episode, including when it closes on that lovely image of Bobby, having made his first kill, clutches his daughter tightly and looks out over the lake. Time passes so quickly, and moments are so fleeting, that it becomes impossible to hang onto them. Instead, you can get a moment you always remember, or you can get a window into the past, or you can briefly realize how transient it all is, how you never hear it coming when death whirls in. But that’s it. There’s not room for much more.
“Soprano Home Movies” is about as loose and freewheeling as this show can get, yet it stands among the series’ very best episodes. The way that the weekend with the two couples slowly devolves into that increasingly drunken Monopoly game is expertly handled, and the episode also builds so skillfully to the fight. Bobby’s at sea because the Sopranos don’t play according to the rules—one of those little bits of motivation that could feel overdone but just doesn’t—and his increased confusion drives the anger he starts to feel toward Tony. Without that and without the alcohol, I suspect he would have simply laughed off the jokes about Janice. Instead, he gets touchy, defensive, and when he sucker punches Tony, it’s a fantastic moment, an abrupt visitation of violence into an everyday context. (What could be more everyday than playing Monopoly?)
Even better is the way Tony can’t let this go, not with Bobby, not with Carmela, not with anybody. He keeps talking about how if he was in his prime condition or if he hadn’t been shot the year before, he’d be able to take Bobby down. Everyone’s perfectly happy to concede this point to him, but he can’t let it go. His pride and ego have been wounded, and he needs to find a suitable vessel to pour them into. That vessel becomes the way he constantly picks at family unity, until it’s a scab just waiting to be tossed aside. If Tony can get through the easy jocularity and relaxed nature of the weekend, can pierce the vacation armor, so to speak, then he can drag everybody else down to his own miserable level, which sounds quite a bit like a certain woman whose presence was much more prominent when the series began.
It’s this refocusing on Livia that marks this episode as the start of the series’ final stretch. To this point, since “Proshai, Livushka,” The Sopranos had used Livia in a very tactical manner. She was someone haunting the edges of the series, but not someone whose death prompted much contemplation of who she was or what she would have wanted. Instead, the characters seemed to breathe that sigh of relief and move on, even as the psychological damage she’d visited on her children hangs with Tony and Janice more and more with every passing year. To be sure, “Soprano Home Movies” only mentions Livia a few times in passing, but she’s there as directly as she has been since she died. When the series began, the conflict between Tony and Livia was the conflict driving the series. But now, it’s this withered husk. She’s just one of the people he’s outlived, just one of the people he doesn’t consciously think about who’s always there, rattling around in his sub-conscious. Yet all it takes are a few stray words, and she’s right back, right there in the room, right there where he needs to defend her.
The final nine episodes of The Sopranos do as good of a job at wrapping up a series as any I’ve seen, yet they remain unmistakably episodes of this show. They get distracted by things only the writers might be interested in. They wander off the plot trail entirely, promising to catch up at some point down the line. They indulge in anti-climax and the unexpected. Yet these episodes are also unmistakably the “final” episodes, in a way that even the first half of the season wouldn’t suggest. (I know the way most people watch this season now is all as one big chunk, and while I can respect that, I do think the gap between halves of the season is a necessary break in the storytelling rhythm. They also set apart the nine final episodes in a way that suggests how they’re related to the first part of the season but still very much their own thing.) And, of course, if you want to deal with The Sopranos as a whole, you have to deal with Livia at some point.
Very few characters other than the four at the lake house turn up in “Soprano Home Movies.” Tony’s lawyer is here and there, and Phil gets a brief scene. Christopher calls in to wish Tony a happy birthday and is immediately dismissed. Meadow and A.J. get a couple of scenes a piece, mostly just to let us know they’re roughly where they were when we left them last. Instead of the sprawling approach the series often takes—where we check in on nearly every one of the series regulars—this episode takes a deeply intimate approach. The time spent at the lake house eventually becomes almost claustrophobic, and the intimacy of the conversation among the four people staying there grows more and more pointed. This is, in some ways, an ongoing battle none of them are going to win, but since they’re family, they’ll grudgingly resolve to simply wait it out.
All of this brings us to Bobby, the episode’s sweet soul. Here’s a man who became part of a life his father never wanted for him, a man who very well could be a grown-up A.J. who fell in with the mob. He’s a little soft, a little sweet, a little slow. He’s a good man on some level, or at least the closest thing the show has to that in the regular cast at this point. He gets worried about kids being taken from their mothers, and he sticks to an older code of honor, even as Tony runs roughshod over it. He’s a man driven as much by the past as any of these characters, but his past remains a little more mysterious to us. Yet we know just enough to know that when Tony orders him to carry out the hit and he does, something inside of him is hurt very deeply by what he’s had to do. He’ll get over it, to be sure, and he’ll carry out Tony’s orders again. But he never wanted to be the guy who kills the other guy in the laundry room so Tony can get a better deal on some pills. He never wanted to be the guy who killed somebody, period. And now he is. So he clutches at his daughter and looks out over the water—which always, always represents eternity on this show—and hopes she might do better, might never fall into this life.
I always say that one of the themes of the show is that there’s no escaping “the life,” and while that’s mostly true, these final episodes posit an even more vicious corollary: There’s no escaping the Sopranos. A while back, two people who weren’t very good for each other had three kids. One of the daughters managed to escape, but the other daughter and the son were warped and changed by the ways their parents did and didn’t love each other. The whole family became a crucible, a place where nobody ever knew to not push too far (as Bobby alleges during the game). And if you couldn’t keep up, tough. That’s just the way it was. There’s a rot at the center of this family, and it’s a rot that’s come to poison everything else in the show. And yet if you go looking for the root causes, all you’ll find is a system that travels back in time, to a point so far off you cannot see it. The cancer took hold long ago. Perhaps it’s better just to amputate.
- Welcome to the back half of season six of The Sopranos. I promise not to bite. This has been a fun journey so far, and I have very much enjoyed taking it with all of you. I can’t wait for us to watch these remaining eight episodes together. And if you want more Sopranos stuff to read, I've got a TV Club 10 on the show that went live today.
- Another callback to the show’s earliest days: The song Nica’s nanny sings with her is about ducks. Tony watches with interest for a while. We all know how he feels about ducks.
- And another connection between past and present: The guy that Tony dropped back in “All Due Respect” turns up in the possession of a kid who’s arrested for cocaine possession. The cops find the gun, he says it’s Tony Soprano’s, and Tony’s brought in on a weapons charge. It’s a nice bit of tension hanging over the episode, and I like how the storyline also shows just how much closer to the nest Meadow has become.
- Things Tony receives for his 47th birthday: the Soprano home movies DVD from Janice, golf clubs from Carmela, a beating from Bobby, a blow job from Carmela.
- The use of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” makes that Monopoly scene even more tense, and it’s the perfect musical counterpart to the chaos of the fight that erupts. Brubeck is all controlled playing and tightly constructed music. The Soprano family knows nothing about such things.
- A.J. is still dating Blanca. His parents are still pretty sure he’s a worthless little shit. He grabbed Carmela the wrong outfit out of the dry cleaning bag, for God’s sake!
- Carmela is still doing the real-estate thing, but it’s yet to reap any real rewards. She’s frequently stymied in her attempts to get it off the ground in this episode alone (and there’s a housing crash right around the corner for her to live through).
- The scene where Christopher calls to wish Tony a belated happy birthday is hilarious. Tony simply hanging up on him is a perfect moment.
- The show had pared its writing staff down to just five writers at this point in time, and four of them are credited on this episode. Only Terence Winter isn’t on the script, though he surely contributed something or other in the process. This is also the final credit for Diane Frolov and Andrew Schneider. The remaining eight episodes would all be credited to some combination of Winter, Matthew Weiner, and David Chase.
- Great image: The little house from the Monopoly game, specks of Tony’s blood on it, lying on its side on the floor of the lake house. It conveys in one image everything the series has said about this toxic, poisonous family.
Speaking With The Fishes (spoilers):
- I was actually going to cut this section, because I didn’t figure there was too much left to spoil, but then I remembered Bobby’s big “You never hear it coming” speech, which is meant to foreshadow all manner of deaths this half season. Bobby’s death, of course, is something he absolutely hears coming. But we’ll get to that.
- Meadow sure seems to have chosen a legal path, which is one of the things that will tie her more closely to her family when the series ends.
- The first of many, many references to the Iraq War this half season comes when the radio produces news about more Americans being killed there. The characters don’t care. They never do.
Two weeks from now: I’m taking next week off. (I know the timing could be better.) But I’ll be back in two weeks to find out just what happens at “Stage 5.”