"From Where to Eternity" (season 2, episode 9)
Most TV shows can pull of a sudden, unexpected tragedy. Very few of them can pull off the aftermath of that unexpected tragedy and make it carry any weight. "From Where to Eternity," which feels in some ways like a dry run for a lot of things that the show would try in future seasons, is one of the better examples of this kind of episode out there. It maintains its tension throughout, but it also finds a way to show how these characters behave in the face of their own mortalities. It's an exceptionally smart episode, and it's an exceptionally Catholic episode. It's also the first script for the series by star Michael Imperioli, who ended up writing several episodes. Not every one of his scripts would work, but this is an auspicious debut.
The common knock against Imperioli scripts is that they tend to be way too Christopher heavy, that he takes a guy who's more interesting as one of many supporting players in an elaborate series tapestry and makes him a co-lead for an episode at a time, mostly because he's the one playing him. The problem with this is that it isn't always true. There are numerous episodes before Imperioli starts writing for the show where Christopher is essentially a co-lead (The Sopranos was always good at spreading around little stories to keep the supporting cast happy), particularly season one's "The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti," and even if Imperioli tends to write the strongest material for his own character, so what? Christopher is revealing himself to be one of the series' more tragic figures at this juncture, a man who was seemingly gunned down because he chose his boss over his own dreams, the surrogate son that Tony often just doesn't know what to do with.
Anyway, the knock against Imperioli's scripts probably didn't settle in until his later episodes because "From Where to Eternity," while Christopher-heavy, is mostly Christopher-heavy because of his absence. He spends a good deal of time in a hospital bed, and much of that time is spent with him unconscious and the other characters wandering the hospital, worrying for Chris' health but also transparently worrying about their own lives, their own afterlife destinations. "From Where to Eternity" is a surprisingly spooky episode, suggesting to viewers for the first time in a while that the world of The Sopranos has an afterlife with clearly defined rules and once Tony gets there, he may not like what he finds.
The central event of the episode comes when Christopher wakes, finally, after hours of worry and at least one risky surgery. The first people he asks to see are not his fiancee or friends. He asks to see Tony and Paulie. Because he has a message for them from beyond the grave. He was in hell, a club with lots of Irish gamblers and several men he recognized, including his friend Brendan, Mikey Palmice, and his father. This is a patently ridiculous notion for a show like The Sopranos to just drop in there, and I'm sure it rubs plenty of viewers the wrong way. One would expect the show to start undercutting it right away, and while there's some of this, there's also a sense that the series is doubling down on this moral certitude.
There are few other series in The Sopranos' general quality bracket that would do a scene as potentially alienating and outright bizarre as the scene where Paulie goes to see the psychic and learns he's haunted by the ghosts of the many men he's killed. And, again, where you'd expect the show to start undercutting this, to have a scene where we learn that the psychic recognized Paulie and could connect him to crimes he'd been accused of or something, the show just keeps piling on the notion that these ghosts are really present in the room, waiting to drag Paulie down into hellfire like Ebenezer Scrooge. It's a ridiculous notion, and since it involves Paulie, it's often played for laughs, but there's an eerie sense of purpose to it that I really like. The show rarely comes out and preaches about it, but The Sopranos occupies a moral universe, where wrong things eventually get punished (even if it's in the afterlife), and this is our first real indication that the supernatural intrudes on these people like a chill wind.
Even though the show plays Paulie's worry for laughs, mainly, it also seems to suggest that he's doing the right thing by trying to puzzle out the message of "Three o'clock" (about which more in Speaking with the Fishes). He keeps waking up at 3 a.m. awash in fear, in the bed of his girlfriend (played by Judy Reyes, who would later go on to be better known as Carla from Scrubs), and he seeks out the psychic. He even goes to a priest to find out just why he hasn't been spared all of these ghosts haunting him because of his sizable donations to the church. Yet, when he talks with Tony about all of this, Tony who also received the message from Christopher, Tony scoffs at him.
I think the reason The Sopranos' use of supernatural motifs works is because the viewer never has to accept these supernatural motifs to buy the rest of the series. If you want to reject everything that happens to Paulie, you're free to do so, and Tony gives you plenty of reasons how the psychic could be pulling a fast one on him (though the poison ivy comment is hard to write off). At the same time, the sense of the scenes with the psychic and Paulie at the church suggest that Paulie is reading the signs he's been given all wrong - or missing them completely. He's more concerned about prosaic things like not being haunted or figuring out a way to scam his way into Purgatory than he is the sorts of life-altering actions that might save his eternal soul in the long run.
At the same time, Tony's ignoring a pretty big sign himself, and it's the kind of sign you don't need to be a Catholic to interpret. His beloved nephew, the guy he's training up in the way he should go, is lying in a hospital bed after very nearly dying. Yet, he spends most of the episode making excuses. Christopher was a soldier. God won't care about that because soldiers kill as a part of their line of work. If he can just find and kill the guy who shot Christopher, this whole line of concern will be over. No one else will be coming for him in the long run. He just needs to get rid of Matthew. Obviously, a guy like Tony knows from the life he leads that all of these things are necessary lies he tells himself to keep functioning, but his action is more or less the same as Paulie's: He's pushing the prosaic to the forefront because he can't bear to think about the kinds of change that would actually make it so his life wasn't in constant danger.
There's another gangster who spends the episode focused on short-term concerns instead of looking at long-term signs, and that's Pussy, who's trying to find a way to make Tony love him again (in the oh-so-inelegant words of Skip). Pussy's been wracked by indecision all season, knowing what he has to do to keep from going to jail but eaten up by guilt at the betrayal of his best friend. And here, instead of simply finding a way to get the evidence he needs so he can get on to his life in witness protection, he finds Tony Matthew and serves him up like something of a sacrificial lamb, without even mentioning it to Skip. The Pussy storyline is perhaps the most successful thing in season two (and that's saying something), especially as it plays expertly with our own feelings of right and wrong and our own sympathies as viewers. We don't want Pussy to betray Tony because we know how important the relationship is to both men, but we also don't want to be robbed of more of Tony's adventures. At the same time, we don't want Tony to find out about Pussy because we know what would happen then, and we like spending time with Pussy. And above all of this, we're maybe thinking that there's no way for Pussy to escape this, that the best possible thing he could do is get the evidence and get out. Tony belongs behind bars anyway, right?
The overriding arc of The Sopranos as a series (and I swear to you newbies that this is not a major spoiler) is the idea of exits on a long highway. Most of the time, you're riding along the highway and not really paying attention to the scenery, but every so often, life presents you with a series of options and forces you to make a choice. Do you stay on the highway as you have been and keep heading along? Or do you exit and take a new highway or unmarked road, trying to change your route? You end up in the same place anyway, since we all die, but there are multiple routes to take there, and sometimes, the one you're on isn't the best. Every so often, The Sopranos places an exit sign in front of its characters, letting them know that this is an optimal time to change things up. And each time, they make the choice to take that exit or ignore it and blow on by.
In "From Where to Eternity," the signs are all over the place, but the characters are too used to the way things have always been, too in love with their own excuses, to get off the highway. There's no better sense of this than in the therapy scene between Melfi and Tony, where she begins to prod him toward admitting that the psychological burden of what he does may be as much of a contributing factor to his distress as anything else, and he wards off her queries with any number of excuses and pre-prepared bullshit. Melfi, throughout the series, is essentially an exit sign turned into a character. Of all of the characters, she struggles most with the right thing to do and seems frustrated when the other people in her life don't struggle with this question as well (especially Tony). Her tearful sessions with Kupferberg are so infuriating because she's the series' moral compass, the one person we have keeping us tethered to the reality we know we exist in, keeping us from floating off into a sense that what Tony does is somehow righteous. And here he is dismissing her. No matter how right he is, it feels wrong.
"From Where to Eternity" perfectly captures that helpless feeling you have when you're in the hospital in the dark of night and you simply do not know how things will turn out. When Carmela enters an empty room and prays to Jesus to help open Christopher's eyes and send him on the right path, you could make an argument that Jesus, indeed, answers her prayer with Christopher's vision. And yet even Carmela seems taken away from the weighty sense of eternal damnation by more earthly concerns, like whether Tony will get a vasectomy or not. At the center of "From Where to Eternity" is a beautiful story about how little we think about the fact that the bad things we do reverberate beyond us. That the show figures out a way to tell that story in both religious and areligious terms makes it even better.
Where it all ends up is in the middle of nowhere, in an abandoned snack shack where Tony and Pussy tie up Matthew. It's clear that this guy is going to end up dead, and there's a big part of us that wants him to be. He shot Chris, after all, and he's been kind of an annoying character. But in the middle of this scene, Imperioli, David Chase, and the other writers find a way to humanize Matt as a guy beyond someone who wanted to impress Tony. He has a mother, after all (and don't we all), but he also wants a diet soda, not one full of sugar. And he's someone who will beg and plead. He still wants to live. The signs are there, for Tony and Pussy and Paulie and even us, if we're looking hard enough. And then the guns start to blaze.
- The Carmela storyline is actually really well done. It's one of the better examinations of the Soprano marriage in the early days of the show, and it gives a sense of just what she's willing to put up with, even though she'd rather not do so. In a real way, season two is about how much you're willing to put up with and what it might take to change your path or get you to demand what you've always wanted.
- A.J. is increasingly turning into a figure of comic relief. Witness how he breaks the dish of food and how Tony talks about him as his "only male heir."
- I like the lie Tony tells Carmela about Christopher's near-death experience, which kind of boils down to the end of Wizard of Oz. "And Jesus was there! And your father!"
- A nicely chilling scene given all of the talk of the supernatural in the episode: Tony and Pussy at the steakhouse, talking about whether or not they believe in God.
- Absolutely wonderful use of the Otis Redding song throughout the episode.
- I like the fact that only Hesh seems to know what to do when the doctor comes up to talk about Chris' condition.
- Matthew Belivaqua is the latest in our death count. Also, we get to see him die on screen, so it definitely counts.
- "Hey. You gotta pray." "We are. Jesus."
- "Hey, I had her tested for AIDS. Who do you think I am?"
- "That's what this is, you know. Satanic black magic. Sick shit."
- "I'm not in India. Why do I give a fuck?"
Speaking with the Fishes:
- Three o'clock. It's an important hour in Sopranos-land, and it comes up again and again. You can point out your favorite references below, I'm sure, but some of my favorites are that Tony comes out of his season six coma at 3 p.m., and his final session with Dr. Melfi is scheduled for that time (I haven't been able to verify either). Also, there's an argument that when Tony is killed in the finale (if you believe that to be what happens to him), he's shot from the position of 3 o'clock.
- If I'm remembering correctly, Chris' vision comes into play at other times in the series as well, but I can't point to any in specific.
- That final scene in the steakhouse is positively glowing with foreshadowing that Pussy is about to die, and his paranoia that Tony knows that he's snitching may be him picking up on subconscious signals Tony doesn't even know about (in that Tony subconsciously knows Pussy's a snitch but has yet to really admit it to himself).
"Bust Out" (season 2, episode 10)
"Bust Out" is one of my favorite Sopranos episodes. I love episodes that revolve around a common theme, and everybody in "Bust Out" is trapped in one way or another and trying to figure out a way out of their circumstances. Those prisons from earlier in the season have only gotten more and more confining. One of the other things I like best about the episode is that it shows a new side of Tony Soprano: It shows him scared. It shows him borderline terrified. It shows him considering the idea that he might have to give up everything he's ever known to run away (and surely the phrase "like a coward" is attached to that sentence in his head). That is, he'll have to give it all up if he can get away before law enforcement inevitably pounces. And he has no real idea when that will come. He just knows it's coming.
The terrible event that doesn't arrive but could arrive at any given moment in the future is one of the things The Sopranos thrives off of. It's roughly believable that at any moment - in the midst of a family gathering, even - armed men could charge through the door and take down any number of the regular characters. It's also roughly believable that any of them could be taken by law enforcement and locked away for the length of the series. Obviously, we have some idea that Tony Soprano will be around until the end of the show because, well, his name's in the title, and we've watched TV before, but the show is unusually brutal with everybody else. Remember how "Full Leather Jacket" ended with that unexpected attempted hit on Christopher? The Sopranos thrives most when it seems like something like that could happen to just about anyone.
The thing is, The Sopranos is so good at depicting its early 2000s milieu, its sense of a normal life lived in America, that there are points when it flirts with making it easy to forget who these people are and what threats they face. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. I'm not one of those that needs constant bloodshed to remind me of the stakes of the show or keep me involved and interested. But it does seem like the show goes up to a new level of drama every time there's the existential threat of death or imprisonment hanging over it. When the characters get too comfortable, get too relaxed, it's easier to feel the show's leisurely pace. When the tension hangs over it, the leisurely pace starts to feel almost menacing, and that works in the show's favor. (Though, paradoxically, when characters get too comfortable on the show, that's when the show will abruptly ramp up that tension out of nowhere, so it's not like this is a huge complaint or anything.)
The central plot of "Bust Out" is one that should annoy. Out of nowhere, we learn that there was a witness to the killing of Matthew Bevilaqua. Nowadays, we'd get a quick shot of someone watching Tony and Pussy flee the scene or something, but here, we just drop in to the police precinct, where the witness is identifying Tony as definitely the man he saw at the scene of the Bevilaqua murder. It's here that the show seems to bump up against another implausibility: When the police show the witness a book filled with photos of mostly Italian men, why does he immediately trust them when they imply it was a killing that was part of the drug world, since he's clearly terrified of it being a mob figure (for obvious reasons). And, furthermore, when it seemed like everyone in the upper echelons of society spent last season knowing exactly who Tony Soprano was, why does he have absolutely no clue when looking at his photo? It's possible for one person to not know anything, but the mention of the Soprano family later on by his wife indicates he's got at least some idea. Obviously, this is the sort of thing anyone can excuse in their own way, and it doesn't ruin the episode, but this sort of thing feels like a device designed to start the episode.
And that's, more or less, what it is. "Bust Out" gives us a chance to see what happens when Tony Soprano thinks he could very well lose everything, and it needs that opening scene to indicate just what's happening. At first, we're the only ones who know about it, and we wonder when the arrest is coming or, at the very least, when he'll be coming down to the station for questioning. Instead, his friends from the FBI pop in to give him a friendly head's up and suggest he get out ahead of it. I've seen some complaining about this, that it suggests these guys have built a sort of friendly adversarial relationship that seems too abruptly created, but I think it's more likely that the FBI agents are trying, as Tony's lawyer suggests, to get Tony locked into a story they can poke holes into and that their tactic is a sort of hail Mary pass. It won't work, probably, but if it does, the payoff will be substantial.
Meanwhile, Pussy, David Scatino, and Carmela are trapped in situations of their own. Tony and his friends are running the sporting goods store into the ground, using its line of credit to buy any number of things. Those items float throughout the episode, like constant evidence of wrongdoing (a more obvious example of the way the show usually uses all of the nice things that Tony and Carmela own and don't comment on) and, ironically, the expensive water the guys buy and then sell to Artie Bucco turns up at the table when Carmela and Scatino's wife go out to Vesuvio, and Carmela tries to give David's brother-in-law a cooler that Tony bought with the store's money. It could feel strange to have Scatino pop in suddenly, but instead, it fits in with the series' broader "collection of short stories" aesthetic, as though there were a handful of Scatino stories that pop in in the midst of everything else. (Also, in mob parlance, apparently, a "bust out" is using a proper business establishment's lines of credit to buy a bunch of shit and then run the business into the ground, giving the episode title yet another reading.) David's looking for an escape from this situation, but one is not forthcoming. It's to the episode's credit that when he lays down on the pool table and puts a gun to his head - this when we're just getting to know him again - it feels completely earned.
Pussy, at the same time, is dealing with the fact that Skip can essentially infer that Pussy was the other guy with Tony at the scene of the killing, this after he'd been telling Pussy to keep his nose clean. The show has mostly been suggesting that Skip and the other guys at the FBI have been keeping Pussy in line through threats of jail time, and while that remains the case, the episode also gives a chance to show that Skip can be threatening in his own way, when he treats Pussy to an outburst that ends with him getting a solemn promise that Pussy will obtain a confession from Tony on tape, that everyone will be able to understand Tony saying, "I killed Matthew Bevilaqua," and there will be no other sounds covering that confession up.
Carmela, for her part, knows nothing about what's awaiting her husband, since A.J. is atypically able to keep his mouth shut about the investigators who came to see his father. She's spending her time contemplating a romance with David's brother-in-law, Victor Musto, even going so far as to kiss him frantically when she invites him into a spare room to get his opinion on how she should fix it up. This is the first episode since the departure of Father Phil where the show has taken seriously the idea that Carmela might sleep with someone else, that she, too, may not be getting everything she wants out of her marriage. The show has been building this theme slowly throughout the season (usually whenever it trots out that Andrea Bocelli song), but this is the first episode where we see her flirt seriously with another man, and the first episode where we see her actually take that first step and kiss someone else. The two quickly back away from what they're doing, but the seeds have been planted in Carmela, more or less. (Victor's also the latest example of a basically good person who wanders into the Sopranos' orbit for one reason or another and doesn't succumb to temptation, though he is sorely tempted.)
All of this seems to be building to something in particular: Tony's going to be arrested in the season finale, and we'll spend the entire next season watching him on trial, wondering if he's going to cut a deal to enter witness protection, wondering if he'll get Pussy back for betraying him and so on and so on. And, honestly, though that would be a cliche storyline, it wouldn't be a bad one. Watching Pussy try to trap Tony and Tony continually evading him would be a fun way to play out the final three episodes. Watching Carmela contemplate an affair as her husband is increasingly close to being hauled away would feature some nice dramatic irony. And seeing Tony trying to make what he can right while he waits for everything to go to Hell would also be compelling, perhaps giving us that one great Tony and Livia scene the season has been lacking (though this episode has a Livia moment so great, I can only imagine it would have become an animated .GIF if the show were airing now - it's the one where she descends the stairs on her chair lift).
But none of this happens. The witness finds out that he spotted Tony Soprano. He calls the cops to retract his story. Abruptly, Tony is freed from his fear and able to take his son out on the water in the boat. They plunge, full-speed ahead, capsizing a tiny boat in their wake. It's kind of an obvious visual metaphor, but it works in the moment, a moment that feels triumphant both for Tony and for us, who want him to remain free and doing everything he does. The guys on the canoe who capsize are David Chase's little reminder to us of who this guy is. Chase's relationship with the audience was troubled at best, but it was at its finest in scenes like this where he was able to tell the audience just what he thought of his characters without preaching about it.
Before that abrupt ending, though, we get an episode of a normally fearless man in fear. It's not immediately obvious that this is what it is, at least, it's not until Melfi points it out to him in his session with her (and she has some small sense of satisfaction at seeing he can express this emotion). He's a man whose quest to spend more time with his son - initially expressed before he knows anything about the witness - takes on a sort of desperation. He's a man who's constantly glancing around, waiting for the walls to close in. He's a man who sits alone in the dark and tries to talk to his daughter about how much he loves her but is somehow unable to convey that to a level which she will believe. Maybe, he thinks, she'll know what he meant when he's hauled off. This is a Tony who's like the Tony we know but just off enough that we don't know him as well as we thought we did. It's one of James Gandolfini's finest episodes, performance-wise, in the series' run, and it showed that he knew his character so well that he could play pretty much any facet of him.
"Bust Out" doesn't often turn up on fans' lists of the best episodes of the series (which is why I was so surprised - and pleased - to see that Noel Murray picked it for his excellent Very Special Episode column on The Sopranos last month - and I thank that article for the screencap). But it's a perfect example of a kind of episode, an episode where it seems like things could change at any moment, but, for now, they're doing OK, an episode where there is no big event but, rather, a long series of small events that could add up to a big event given time or, more likely, slowly fizzle away into nothing. Not everything has a big ending. Sometimes - most of the time - the bad guys win, and the rest of us are left dunked in the ocean.
- More A.J. as goofy comic relief: Kid won't even kill a spider. C'mon, A.J., I was killing spiders from an early age! (Granted, this is meant to show us how sheltered A.J. is and how little like his father he is, but it's still funny to see.)
- I just realized I didn't talk about Richie at all in either of these write-ups, and that's a problem, especially considering "Full Leather Jacket" left us believing that payback from Tony would be forthcoming any minute now. In a way, Richie performs his own bust out in these two episodes, as the death of Matthew basically leaves him freed from concern, free to have sex with Janice from behind and point a gun to her head, even if it's not as successful as either of them would like. (And, honestly, that's one of the most horrifying sex scenes in the history of television.)
- Uncle Junior, who seems like he's been sitting the show out for many episodes now, also turns up, sitting at home and commenting loudly on Passions (hilarious). But his advice to Richie about Janice is advice he should probably take.
- Richie would also like to take out Tony. Haven't we been to this well before? Oh, yes, we have, and Richie reminds us we have.
- "Wheel in the Sky" is, obviously, the best Journey super-hit, and the use of it in this episode is terrific. Similarly, I like the continuing use of sappy, shitty music to convey that Carmela's in a romantic mood. This episode, we get Shania Twain.
- That scene between Tony and Meadow may be Jamie-Lynn Sigler's best moment in the entire series, even though all she does is react to her father in shadow.
- In The Sopranos' world, upper-class people always sit around listening to experimental classical compositions while reading the newspaper and/or works of political philosophy.
- This is the first episode filmed after the Italian visit episode, and even though that episode technically airs fourth, Furio is the only lasting evidence of it, so far. Here, we get another reference to it, as Tony compares Melfi to the female boss he met in Italy. I wonder how much of that episode they had planned in advance, since it seems like the events over in Italy would hang more heavily over the rest of the season.
- My wife points out that at this point, Robert Patrick was still best known for Terminator 2 (he probably still is), and The Sopranos just brought him on the show to cry. (I don't mind. I like Patrick, and I'm always happy to see him turn up on one of my favorite shows.)
- Carmela is still reading Memoirs of a Geisha.
- Oh, hey, I didn't talk about that big fight between Tony and Carmela either. Honestly, I don't know what else there is to say about it other than to bring it up. It's an important turning point in how we view Tony, though, I think.
- "Listen to her. Like Rose Kennedy! With all our money to throw around."
- "That's kind of a cliche, isn't it?" "Well, you had to be there."
Speaking with the Fishes:
- Journey, of course, will play over another, very different scene of The Sopranos, though that scene is so famous that I almost thought I could talk about it above without spoiling anyone.
- Carmela's flirtations with other men will only intensify in the next few seasons, culminating in the Furio arc that leads directly into her split with Tony.
- Tony tells Scatino he let Scatino get so in over his head because he saw an opportunity for profit. When Artie Bucco accuses him of something similar later on, Tony reacts angrily, asking how he could think such a thing.
- There was quite a bit of disagreement with me over the quality of "Full Leather Jacket." Those of you who liked it tended to think it was one of the funnier episodes of the show and didn't have a problem with the contrivance of Richie seeing his jacket on Tony's cleaning woman's husband. It's entirely possible I'd feel the same way if I rewatched the episode in a few years, but I still think the episode felt extremely choppy and oddly edited.
- Eponymous suggests that Adriana's sudden turn toward anger at Christopher in regards to his Hollywood career is a shift that makes no sense, in terms of who her character has been. I'd say that it does, simply because Chris doesn't invite her along on any of his Hollywood adventures. (Man, I forgot how Chris-heavy season two was.)
- And I like this Pancakes for One comment because it uses the word "synecdoche": " It seems like every other storyline can be a synecdoche for something bigger in American culture or even [adopts pretentious tone] The Human Condition. BUT I have no idea what the Hollywood storyline is trying to say by the end of season 2. It seemed masturbatory and lame, like the writers were saying "It doesn't look as fun as you thought it was does it!" over and over."
Next time on The Sopranos: I'm taking next week off for a vacation, but we'll be back the next two weeks after that to finish out the season. The next time we meet, we'll be talking about "House Arrest," perhaps the epitome of the "nothing happens!" episode, but a very good one, and "The Knight in White Satin Armor," a key turning point.