“Cold Stones” (season 6, episode 11; originally aired 5/21/2006)
In which Vito returns and Carmela goes to Paris
It will all be washed away. The backyard and the boulevard and the soccer field and the Home Depot. Everyone you’ve ever known or will know will die, and eventually, you will be forgotten. The place where you’re sitting, reading this, that will go away, too, with time. If nothing else, the Earth will eventually be reduced to a cinder, orbiting a dead star, what reminders of life were once on it long ago burned away. You know this. I know this. But to carry on in our day to day lives is to ignore this fact, over and over, to keep consuming and keep moving and stop thinking about the darkness up ahead, the one that could be just a few feet from here or several hundred miles.
The time we have is so short. We’re on this planet for maybe a century, and more likely three-quarters of one. The things we do most likely won’t be noted by historians or scholars, and it’s unlikely we’ll create anything that gets revisited and analyzed centuries from now. How many people still read Baudelaire? (And he’s a genuinely important writer!) The people who last are the people who change the face of the Earth, and you’re lucky if you get two or three of them a century. Not everybody can be Shakespeare or the Beatles or Albert Einstein or Gandhi. Most of us will fade away, a dim silhouette on a wall marked with the passage of time. There won’t even be a dot on the map to say we were here.
The moment you realize all of this is the moment you chase it all away, because serious contemplation of it is depressing at best and suicide-inducing at worst. The truth often functions in that way. It can be a bracing slap to the face, a call to arms. But more likely than not, it will terrify us. Everybody on The Sopranos has been confronted at one time or another with these very thoughts, and they’ve constantly backed away from them. Carmela goes to Paris in “Cold Stones,” and she realizes that her time is so short, that she’s unlikely to last as long as the cold, stone faces of the statues she stares into. When she breaks down to Rosalie in the ruins of an old bathhouse, she says the words that start this piece, then says she spends so much time in worry, when that’s the least helpful thing she could be doing. But what else can she do? It’s a rigged game either way. When she gets home, it’s as if the epiphany—or the one she has telling her Adriana died—didn’t even exist. She slips back into her life like a comfortable old shoe.
The first half of the final season of The Sopranos involves David Chase grabbing his characters by the shoulders and screaming, “Wake the fuck up! This is all going to be over soon!” “The Ride,” “Moe ’N Joe,” and “Cold Stones” are the solemn bookend to the exciting possibilities raised by “Join The Club” and “Mayham,” the idea that these people could change if they wanted to enough. Every moment in “Cold Stones” is marked by people rejecting the stabs at change they made earlier in the season, and the only character who steps up to the edge of revelation—Carmela—steps back just as quickly. Tony gives an order to kill Vito and falls back into his old patterns in therapy. Vito tries to return to a life that no longer wants him. Phil remains imprisoned by his own anger, bitterness, and bile. The guys on Tony’s crew can’t handle someone even joking about them being gay.
It’s a dark, despairing chapter of the show, but it’s also not the way the series chose to go out. We’ll get to “Kaisha” in two weeks, but where that episode offers some glimmers of hope, some sense that things could still improve, “Cold Stones” seems like the show’s definitive statement that they probably won’t. It’s easy to see why so many viewers have found this section of episodes dramatically uninteresting, but on this rewatch, I’ve come to think of it much more charitably. Granted, the idea of depicting how leading such comfortable lives makes change all but impossible doesn’t immediately suggest riveting drama, and the season is full of patches where what’s going on is more intellectually fascinating than it is emotionally investing. But the way that Chase and his collaborators depict just how insidious and dangerous that comfort is creates a series of episodes that invite both the characters and the audience to fall back into their old ruts, to welcome the return to business as usual, even though we were warned long ago that business as usual is dangerous for the soul.
Part of the problem with this is going to be that your appreciation of this theme as it relates to you as a viewer, personally, will have a lot to do with how you felt about the Vito storyline. Did you really want to see Vito and Jim make a go of it in small town New Hampshire? Did you really buy for a second that this mobster could stumble into his own version of Gilmore Girls? The season’s entire structure hinges on the idea that Vito would have paradise, then rejects it because of the way he was built to lead his old life. When Tony gets a vision of the afterlife, then rejects it, we accept that because, hey, who wouldn’t question something they saw in a coma? But the Vito storyline requires viewers to swallow a lot of implausible things, often delivered by an actor who’s just not up to the challenge, and if you don’t go with even one of those things, it very nearly hurts the power of “Cold Stones” as an episode. (I, for the record, mostly went with it.)
For the whole half-season to work, though, viewers really have to feel that if Vito dies, it will be a tragedy. I don’t know that the show earns that tragic sense in the way it did with other, prior deaths (particularly Adriana’s). He’s still a bad guy, and he’s never going to be innocent. But the reason he dies is supposed to make us recoil in horror, wishing he had just stayed up in New Hampshire with Jim. At the same time, the audience is meant to be cheering for something—anything—to happen, since the season has been so ruminative so far. The lack of action makes us want action, but the only action that could be realistically carried out is going to kill off the most sympathetically drawn character of the last several episodes, a man who’s done awful things but has also had a glimpse of a life he could have led if not for the way his previous life poisoned him. In that tension—between wanting action and wanting Vito to live—the series is trying to pull off a metatextual version of the arc every single character goes through in these episodes. Everybody takes a stab at changing, but when they get down to it, they want the same old things.
One of the things Sopranos did so very well was depict the way all of these characters grew to fill their evolutionary niches, so to speak. A life in the mob—or a life as the relative of a mob member—provided only so many different spaces to occupy, but once you found the space you fit, it was as hard to escape it as it would have been for a fish to take those first steps on land. The world of the mob has food chains and power structures and whole ecosystems, and it richly rewards those who stay within their niches, just as surely as evolution rewards creatures that figure out ways to game the natural world. Yet as we watch “Cold Stones” play out, it’s ever more obvious that this whole way of life is heading the way of the dinosaurs. The squabbles are more petty. The corporate interests that are squeezing out smaller businesses are making it harder to grab money. The big shipment Phil and Tony fight over is one of vitamins, for God’s sake.
Evolution provides rich spaces for those who act fast, but it also guarantees that things keep moving forward, that someday, humanity will be replaced by something else, no matter how much we might crow about being able to “beat” the system. The mob once served a function in these communities, yet now, these communities no longer need it as they once did. As Tony and Phil struggle to get hold of the scraps, they fall back on the sorts of things they think their fathers might have done. Tony expresses to Melfi that he wants to beat his son. (She points out—rightly—that he married a woman who does for his son what he always wished his mother had done for him: keep that son’s father from hurting him.) Phil kills Vito for the mere fact of who he is, for disrespecting his family’s “honor” in nebulous ways. The whole system whirls and whirls around, but it increasingly breaks down, like that clunky old carnival ride from two episodes ago.
That’s why those epiphanies are so important. It can be easy to miss what the series is doing sending Carmela to Paris, since it occasionally seems as though the writers have just done it to get a free trip to the City of Light. The whole story is meant to be conveyed almost entirely via Edie Falco’s face, and though it’s a remarkably expressive face, there are only so many ways you can shoot “Carmela Soprano stares at a statue and contemplates existence” before it starts to feel a little hackneyed. But take note of how the episode cuts between the action back in Jersey and what’s going on with Carmela in Paris. Back in Jersey, things have finally settled back into business as usual, with Tony getting blow jobs from strippers and A.J. dicking around on the Internet all day and Silvio ordering the guy cleaning the Bada Bing!’s sign to make sure he gets the dirt off the sign’s tit. (Only Meadow seems capable of escape, still, as she plans to head for California with Finn. And, predictably, Carmela complains about her choice, even saying that Meadow is just following a man, which is rich.) In Paris, Carmela has a moment when she very briefly understands what’s coming, when she “gets it,” but even as her vision of Adriana and Cosette seems to drive that home, it’s gone as soon as she has to do laundry back home. She tries to broach the subject with Rosalie, by talking about Jackie Jr.’s death, and, sure, Carmela’s timing is awkward, but Rosalie’s refusal to talk is even more telling. Carmela is trying to stumble her way toward an answer; Rosalie wants to continue to live in deep denial.
Don’t think about it. If you do, you might start to realize how meaningless it all is, how the whole of life goes round and round, keeping you from really grasping anything beyond what’s right in front of you. (Hey, I review television for a living. There’s no way for me to live without grasping at those carrots.) “Cold Stones” takes place in late autumn, as the first snows are starting to fall and the skies of Paris are gloomy and grey. It’s a time when everything seems doomed, but it’s also a time when people try their best to not think about that doom. All of these characters are going to be punished for their complacency, “Cold Stones” argues, even if only Vito is punished immediately by taking a massive chance that he can get back into the game without repercussions. The punishment won’t come immediately, and it won’t come easily, and it won’t come when we’re watching the show, necessarily, but it will come. We’ve seen too many examples of that in these 11 episodes to not realize how little these people can see what’s coming, no matter how much we might jump and shout. It will all be washed away.
- Tony Soprano, film critic: When Carmela asks if he knows what she discovered when she went to rent Cinderella Man at Blockbuster, he says, “It was still a classic?”
- For the life of me, I can’t figure out what the movie with the enthusiastic conductor Tony and the guys are watching in the back room of Satriale’s is supposed to be. Help?
- Random possible link between Jersey and Paris: Vito wears a University of Notre Dame sweatshirt; Carmela stops when lost and realizes she is near the cathedral of the same name. (Possibly a link between the epiphanies the two have had in recent episodes? This is me reaching.)
- The tops of trees—always a picture of connection between people or this world and the next on this show—return, and we cut down from them to see Adriana strolling along on the streets of Paris. Trees ushered her out of the world, at least in terms of cinematography, and they bring her back in.
- Granted, my parents are not exactly “hash things out in the middle of the night” kind of people, but I still don’t think I’d wander in to talk with them at 1:30 a.m. like Meadow does here.
- Vito’s kids finding out their dad wasn’t a spy ties into another theme of the season: Once you’re involved in this life, you can never protect the people you love, not entirely.
- This is the episode where Phil went from necessary plot-device character to one I found genuinely fascinating. The small peek we get into his marriage is illuminating, even if his wife is painted a little too much as someone who’s hysterical about homosexuality.
- The character had moments when he did more damage, but Tony bashing in the windshield of A.J.’s car is one of his scariest, hands down.
- I love the way the ghost of Johnny Boy hangs over every single episode of this show, even when he’s never mentioned. That makes moments like the one in which Tony and Melfi talk about him—or talk around talking about him—in therapy that much more powerful. Tony will always forgive his father and blame his mother, and that’s a big root of his condition.
- Hey, in case you were wondering what the whole Vito storyline is about, Phil literally comes out of the closet when his men kill Vito. (The death of Fat Dom later is one of the series’ most visually inventive kill sequences, but it’s hard to care too much about it.)
- Do you have any darks? Carmela is putting a load in the wash.
Speaking to the Fishes (spoilers):
- My memory insists that this is the last time Tony talks about Johnny Boy in therapy in the whole series, which is fitting, since more accurately remembering the past is one of the things he’d have to do to get “better.” But I could be wrong. I know the guy comes up in “Remember When,” but maybe not in the therapy context. (Then again, I’ve always thought shifting Melfi’s story arc to 6A might have made that story more powerful. If she was absent from the final nine, it might have felt more haunting.)
- Do we find out Chris is actually skipping out on his AA meetings in the next episode? I think we do.
- I will say this: I really hated “Kaisha” the first (and only) time I saw it, but the more I think about it now, the more charitably disposed toward it and its “last good time” aesthetic I am. We’ll see if this holds up next time.
In two weeks: We’re taking Independence Day off (go blow some things up), but I’ll be back on July 11 with “Kaisha.” Then, Carnivàle, and then the final nine. The series finale review should go up the last Wednesday before Christmas. Happy holidays to people who like arguing everywhere!