“The Ride” (season 6, episode 9; originally aired 5/7/2006)
In which it’s a pair of socks
You get on the ride. It spins you around a number of times. Each time, you might see something different out on the periphery. But you’re just going through the same loops, over and over again, making the same voyage with slightly different vantage points. You get dizzy. You get nauseous. After a while, maybe, you get bored. Then the ride slows, comes to a stop. You stand from the little car you’re in, legs unsteady beneath you, and disembark. Maybe you throw up. Maybe you need a second to collect yourself. Do you get back in line to do it all over again? It seems likely you might. It is, after all, something to cut through the tedium. Just another thing that never changes.
“The Ride” is such a shambling episode of The Sopranos that it’s easy to miss what it’s all about. On a surface level, not much seems to happen. Paulie cheaps out on a popular street festival for the local Catholic church, and that has somewhat dire consequences. Christopher falls off the wagon again—I guess his drug use in California doesn’t “count”—and he befriends a stray dog while the song “Dolphins” plays. Carmela finds out from Adriana’s mother that she believes Adriana was killed by Christopher. Paulie berates his adoptive mother, then makes up with her. He has a biopsy, which he continues to mispronounce. Janice is on a ride when it breaks down, and she makes a big deal out of it, to the point where Bobby has to go and threaten the owner of the carnival, until he confesses that Paulie skimped on what he paid, the better to line his own pockets. That’s pretty much it. Even by the standards of filler episodes of The Sopranos, it’s not a lot.
Every time I’m not sure what to make of an episode of this show, though, I look to the title. That, at least, highlights what David Chase and company thought important to highlight in the episode. Here, the most obvious candidate is that carnival ride, the one Tony says people get on because they’re bored with their lives. It’s a cheap bit of excitement designed to provide a brief punctuation mark in the midst of a mundane existence. You get your adrenaline going, and you briefly feel more alive because you fool your body into thinking your life is in danger. You’re not, of course, and even when the teacup ride breaks down, all that happens is some people are bloodied, and a kid loses a couple of teeth. But what else are you going to do? The ride, at least, distracts from all of the real problems and all of the ways that your life just refuses to match up to anything exciting you might see on TV or in the movies. For a second, everything opens up, becomes more intense.
Isn’t that the reason Tony and Christopher break up the liquor-store robbery those bikers are undertaking as well? They’re on a humdrum ride to take care of some business in Pennsylvania, and when they pull over so Tony can use the restroom, they see the two biker types lugging out case after case of wine. There is absolutely no good reason for them to carry out this crime, one that ends with the two of them getting shot at. They do it simply for the cheap thrills. The wine they steal is good, but not that good. It, too, will fade after a time, the “pop” from it losing its luster as the events of that night fade into memory. As the episode ends, Tony tries to recreate the night for Christopher, and the two laugh over their memory of the bikers looking scared at Chris’ gun, but there’s less immediacy to it. It’s just two guys making a story out of something because that makes it seem more important than it was.
“The Ride” could also refer to this late night trip Tony and Christopher take. Their journey becomes one into their shared past, as Christopher becomes nostalgic, and Tony indulges him for a little while. Christopher’s got a son on the way, and he’s just gotten back from Atlantic City, where he married his girlfriend, Kelli, whom we meet for the first time here. Of course, the first thing he says when he finds out she’s pregnant is about how Adriana couldn’t have kids. She’s still there, just over his shoulder, haunting him as surely as she haunts Carmela or Liz. He’s happy, yes, but he’s also wounded, and the bandages over the wound aren’t doing the job of keeping out the rot.
This makes the sequence of events on the Pennsylvania trip all the more important. Tony and Christopher hijack the robbery in progress. Christopher shoots one of the two guys and looks so alive, hanging out of the car window to do so. The two amble into the restaurant, wine bottles in hand, and they share a meal together. Then Tony does what Tony always does. He takes a good thing and turns it to ashes, in the space of about five seconds. Tony doesn’t know about Chris’ relapses in California. All he knows is that his nephew misses wine. Go ahead, Tony says. Drink. At least toast your wedding. It’s just a moment, but it convinces Christopher, who takes the first sip of many, the one that will lead him back into the life he left behind, with help from his now-dead fiancée. Then, he brings up that fateful day, when he went to tell Tony what Adriana had been doing, and a bunch of stuff clicks into place for the audience—as well as for Christopher, I would hope.
Christopher loved Adriana, but he chose Tony. The excised scene from “Long Term Parking” could have been pointless padding or even an unnecessary moment that cheapened one of the series’ best episodes. We certainly didn’t “need” to see this happen. Yet look at how everything in Chris’ arc in this episode—or the series, if you’ve seen that much—hinges on this moment, this moment where he realizes that he chose Tony over Adriana, he chose the enabler of his worst impulses over the woman who legitimately tried to help him better his life, in her own clumsy way. Adriana was no saint, and her relationship with Christopher was exactly as rough as Tony describes it as. But she was good for him. She was a light in his life, and now she’s gone. And without her, what reason does he have to stay sober? A wife and unborn child? Please. I’m not a big fan of Christopher’s relapse as storytelling—it’s revisiting yet another place we’ve been, seemingly to kill time—but the way that the series drops us back into his head space when he does is terrific. (Also: Notice how he’s talking about children again when he decides to have a “toot” of heroin. Another Adriana callback.)
Adriana’s ghost hangs heavily over this whole episode—particularly in that scene where Carmela walks right up to the edge of suggesting that maybe Christopher really did have something to do with Adriana’s death, and Liz isn’t so crazy to think so—but it’s another episode in this half-season very much concerned with the mystical forces behind everything, the great winds that are carrying every one of us along, even if we purposefully ignore them. That’s another kind of ride, hitching a trip on the back of one of these all-powerful currents, and it’s one that Paulie’s wrapped up in. Late in the episode, the guy has a vision of the Virgin Mary at the Bada Bing, where he’s gone to pass the night when he can’t sleep over fear of his biopsy results. (I love that viewers can just barely see Mary in the mirror behind Paulie before the episode cuts to a full-shot of her.) Paulie’s been so caught up in trying to wring whatever profit he can from this street festival that the triple-shot of seeing his adoptive mother again, the bad diagnosis, and the way that bad luck seems to follow him around really does damage to him. He seems shaken throughout much of the episode’s second half.
Paulie has a wonderfully childlike quality about him. When he’s angry, it manifests itself as a kind of stubborn rage, but when he’s not, he feels almost like the series’ version of a holy fool. Tony reminds us that Paulie can be a little superstitious, that he’s been taken in by psychics (who may or may not have been speaking the truth) and other strange beliefs. Yet Paulie’s also the character who’s most likely to embrace the notion that the carnival might be cursed because St. Elzéar doesn’t have his little gold hat, or to see the Virgin Mary on a stage at a strip club, or to let even the possibility of cancer turn him into a complete and nervous wreck. The other characters on the show are a little more callous. Paulie’s a violent, awful person, but he’s also got this other side that is capable of something more. The episode ends, pointedly, with Paulie forgiving Nucci for her deception without a single word, other than talk about the Lawrence Welk episode she’s watching. He walks in and sits down, and she sits beside him. He looks out the window, to see the autumn leaves rustling in the wind (perhaps the one that carried him here), and for an instant, his face almost looks like he understands. And then he goes back to watching Bobby and Cissy dance.
If there’s a theme to this half-season, it’s that idea that life wears you down, that it can be easy to let the good things you have slip away from you because you’re too caught up in the things that don’t work like you’d like them to. Paulie very nearly let Nucci go, but he returns to her at episode’s end, and it’s a very sweet and genuine moment. Christopher actually did let Adriana go, and now, he’s lost and without purpose, adrift because the man he chose over her is someone who would never choose him. Tony goes to Melfi, tells her that, yeah, he knows every day is a gift, but does it have to be a pair of socks? And that’s just it, isn’t it? Some days, it’s something great, something wonderful. But most days, it’s socks, socks, socks, socks all the way down. You keep opening the packages, hoping to find something more, but you’re always bogged down by all the stuff you don’t want. That makes it all the harder to appreciate it when you do have something. Eventually, even a gift isn’t a gift anymore. It’s just a thing you open, a mechanical part of doing whatever it is you do.
“The Ride” isn’t just a carnival ride or a midnight car trip or some strange current bearing us all along. It’s not even the figurative “ride” Paulie takes the priest and the other parishioners on when he refuses to pay up to keep the feast the way it was before. No, the ride is that swirling thing that occasionally seems exciting, but mostly starts to blend together after long enough on it. The ride is life, and it’s a constant collection of the same faces dancing past you as the cars on the track whirl round and round and round. When it all finally stops, when you stagger for the exit, is there any pleasure derived from having ridden it? Or is it just something you did to have something to do? You can’t change the ride. It’s always on the same track. You can’t change your life either, not really, not unless you have the sheer fortitude to make that happen.
Of course, for these characters, the idea that the ride is life is an even more disquieting one. They’ve seen what happens when you get enough go-rounds on the track, what happens when things start to break down and short out. We only get so many spins, and eventually, everything has to stop. But this particular ride is breaking down, throwing off sparks in every direction. Metal grinds against pavement, and everything comes to a lurching stop. These characters think they have control over their own destinies and over what happens next. But they’re at the mercy of the gods as much as any of us are, and they seem blithely unconcerned. Yet now the ride has started to wobble, and the orange sparks are scattering from the metal frame. It’s all about to end, and nobody much cares.
- I’m not the biggest fan of the “Chris shoots heroin” montage, but I love that shot captured above, where he’s drugged-out, face hanging down before the carnival rides shutting off their lights behind him. This is a guy who’s stayed out past his prime, and there’s no way he can go much further.
- There are some great music choices in this episode, particularly “All Right Now” during the robbery.
- I love the scene between Carmela and Tony, which almost plays out like a ritual. She makes a suggestion of something awful that happened. He does the bare minimum of telling her it didn’t happen, with some fake indignation. She goes right back to her life of leisure, where she’s able to pray for her husband’s recovery. (That moment with Liz is haunting too.)
- We’re up to September of whatever year this is set in. (I’ve always sort of assumed 2005, although not all of the evidence checks out. It would roughly track with the Soprano parents defending George W. Bush early in the season, then Tony playing into the spirit of mocking the guy—with that “Heckuva job, Brownie” joke—here. Tony and Carmela strike me as political barometers, voting whichever way they feel their neighbors are. That is, if they vote.)
- Chris is really doing his homework, watching that Saw movie when the episode begins.
- I didn’t realize that Mad Men’s Dr. Faye Miller is one and the same with Kelli Moltisanti. She looks very different here than she did on that other show.
- That split-second shot of Julianna Skiff is great.
- What the hell kind of street festival is this St. Elzéar thing? They cover the statue in money? What?
- This is another episode that gives us a sense of a local culture that’s being lost to the face of homogenization. The street festival isn’t what it was, and the market forces that allowed for it are now squeezing it out. Will it still exist in 10 years? Twenty? I’d suspect not.
- For a New York crew, Phil and his guys sure spend a lot of time hanging out at New Jersey street fairs.
Speaking With The Fishes (spoilers):
- A rather light episode in terms of foreshadowing, outside of Christopher’s tumble off the wagon, which rather neatly sets up the fact that most of the second half of the season will be a dull build to that moment where Tony chokes his nephew to death.
- For a character who first appears in this episode, Kelli sure turns up in a lot of future episodes. She even outlives her husband!
- This effectively puts a button on Paulie’s story for the series. He’s got more stuff to do (and a few very memorable scenes and stories coming up), but his choice to go back to his “ma” marks him as one of the few gangsters who chooses to do the right thing at some point this season. Probably not coincidentally, he’s also the only one left alive in “Made In America,” as the rest of Tony’s crew is either dead or in a coma.
Next week: Dissatisfaction starts creeping in all over in “Moe N’ Joe.”