“In Camelot” (season 5, episode 7; originally aired April 19, 2004)
In which many acquaintances are made
It can be hard to hit adolescence and gradually realize that your parents are just people, like you. As kids, our parents seem perfect and inhuman, almost, always there with the answers we need or the Band-Aids for our scrapes or the hugs for when we’re feeling bad. But somewhere in the second decade of your life, depending on how good of parents you had, you start to realize that it’s all bullshit, that they’re running just as scared as you are of the fact that they don’t know everything. You start to realize that they’re ruled by petty things and hard-to-control emotions, just like you. You start to realize that they’re locked into a relationship that may not be mutually satisfactory to both of them, mostly because they had kids at some point. And you start to realize that just as surely as they don’t know everything about you, you don’t know everything about them, and you never will. Like any other person, they’re mysteries, and the more you seek to “solve” them, the further they slip away.
A couple of weeks ago, I posited that Tony Soprano’s mother is the cause of most of his suffering, and a few of you took issue with that reading of the series, based primarily on this episode. (At the time, I was trying to keep to Tony’s point-of-view—which remains mostly consistent by the end of this episode: Livia was the cause of his suffering, and his dad was a good-time guy. It doesn’t matter how true that is; it’s what he believes.) And if nothing else, this episode finally starts to get Tony—who’s sort of an overgrown adolescent—to confront the fact that where his mother may have been a miserable, hellish woman, dragging her kids down into the darkness with her, his father was no peach either. Indeed, much of what made Livia Livia was driven by the fact that she was married to Johnny Soprano, just as much of what made Johnny Johnny was driven by being married to Livia. Like many long-term marriages—like Tony and Carmela’s marriage—the two had developed a nasty duality, a co-dependence that required both of them to remain mired in resentment and hate to make it all work out.
“In Camelot” has its detractors, who think the episode is fairly boring and relies too heavily on Polly Bergen’s slightly hammy performance as Johnny’s mistress, Fran, but I side with the fans and think it’s one of season five’s finest achievements. There’s lots of stuff in here that’s key to unlocking the character of Tony as we head into the series’ end game, and the episode also digs into the way that these people can never really have relationships that aren’t intimately tied up in everything they do. Junior, suffering from dementia, keeps getting excused by the government to attend funerals, but eventually, it takes its toll, even if his mourning is faked most of the time. Christopher hangs out with his friend from rehab, J.T., but, as it must, the relationship shifts so that J.T. is turning to Christopher to get him a piece of the gambling action. And Tony tries to make things right with Fran, but it’s impossible for him to truly appreciate who she is—either the good or the bad—instead seeing her as a symbol of all of the sexy fun times his dad had when he was away from Tony’s mom.
At one point, toward the end of the episode, Christopher tells J.T. that there’s “no chemical solution to his spiritual problem.” Christopher says it completely devoid of irony, as he doesn’t realize just how thoroughly what he’s done has pushed J.T. back off the wagon and back to using heroin. Christopher has devoured J.T.’s life whole, and he apparently doesn’t think anything of it, as he drives off in J.T.’s BMW (which will only cover $17,000 of the $57,000 J.T. owes) and sends J.T. back off to rehab. But Christopher might as well be addressing the show in general. The Sopranos is a series full of people looking for easy fixes to avoid taking serious stock of the moral rot at the center of their lives. There’s no chemical solution for the spiritual problem these people have, but there’s also no solution to be found in mistresses or midget races or even psychotherapy. The only solution would come from confronting the serious issues head-on, and the world the guys are in prevents that. This is a world of quick fixes and brief jolts, not one of serious contemplation.
There’s another moment here that I really like, during the final sequence. Tony, having walked right up to realizing that his father was as much the cause of Livia’s woes as the reverse, has comfortably returned to a world where he can tell people that Fran was JFK’s girlfriend for, like, three years. Fran, of course, had only a brief fling with the former president, and though it’s one that marks her life, it marks it in the same way every other story marks her life: as a thing that happened to her once that’s slipping ever more into the past. But Tony can’t resist embellishing. And as he continues, the camera cuts from him talking to the strippers dancing, topless. Tony’s only got a few boxes he’s comfortable putting women in, and if Fran can’t be a Madonna—for all the twisted associations Tony has with the idea of mother figures—well, then, she’s got to be a whore, right? To admit otherwise would be to admit that his father and mother don’t fit comfortably inside of the boxes he’s placed them in either.
To her credit, Melfi really tries to push him here. There’s a great scene where Tony is abruptly remembering something from when he was 16, a night when his mother lost the baby she was carrying to a miscarriage, a miscarriage that could have killed her. Tony, the responsible kid, has to call around to find his father, but he’s unable to. When Johnny finally calls him, he’s obviously at Fran’s place, and when Tony drops the news on him, he eventually decides just to stay there. The next day, he brings Tony to the hospital and coerces him into a lie designed to cover up where he was, and in a brief instant, we see just how much bitterness flowed both ways in the Johnny and Livia marriage, just how much her anger and fear were well-earned, by a life of living with a guy who wouldn’t even rush to her side in a life-threatening situation that took away what would have been their child. It’s a surprisingly powerful scene, particularly as we see young Tony eventually give in and agree with the lie. It’s always tempting to say that Tony made his own bed, and he should suffer because of it. And while that’s true, it’s easy to forget that other people were there, helping him smooth the sheets.
It’s notable, I think, that Tony’s first outburst at Fran comes when the dog that he loved as a kid—Tippy—is revealed to have been given to Fran’s son as a gift from Johnny. Tony’s always had his strongest emotional connections to animals, and in this episode, his relationship to Tippy is almost like a boy talking about his beloved dog. (In some cases, this is unrealistically so. It’s funny that Tony didn’t realize that Tippy didn’t actually go to the farm, but I’m not sure I buy that he’d never have figured out what “went to the farm” actually meant.) And throughout the episode, Tony’s reactions to Fran make sense logically—he’s mad when she doesn’t use the money he gave her to pay the phone bill or when she reveals she was still smoking while his father suffered from emphysema—but the anger that accompanies them is that of a teenager just realizing that, hey, his parents aren’t being fair, and it’s totally uncool. There’s something juvenile about Tony’s outbursts in this episode, something that marks him as a boy who never quite learned to deal with the fact that people don’t easily fit in those boxes.
“In Camelot” is largely comedic; even as we get insight into Tony’s past, the moments with Fran have David Chase and company’s goofy love of weird old people bubbling along throughout. (Character actress Bergen also gives Fran just the right level of “grande dame” personality to seem believable but also sort of amusing.) And while the Christopher and J.T. storyline also has its share of drama, it’s also a chance for the show to take whacks at television writers and the Emmys, as J.T. tries to pawn his Emmy Award and is told that he won’t even be able to get $20 for it. (At the time, the show had yet to win a Best Drama Series Emmy, running up against The Practice and The West Wing. That would be corrected when the series won for this season that summer.) But there’s also a story that starts out comedic—with Junior figuring out funerals to attend so he can leave the house—and abruptly turns dark and cold and pessimistic.
The Sopranos has always been a show ruled by funerals. Most mob stories are. But “In Camelot” works its way through a bunch of them. (This is fitting, perhaps, since the ghosts of Johnny and Livia haunt the proceedings.) And something that starts out as another riff on how Junior’s losing his mind, and while that’s sad, it’s also kind of funny, turns into a story where Junior increasingly can’t see how out of place he is at these events, as he sits at the funeral of a child and talks about how tasty the chicken is. And at the funeral of a relative who died shortly after his wife—whose funeral opened the episode—Junior starts to break down in tears. (Janice, ever tactful, tells him to quiet down.) Soon, he’s telling the others how all he has left is death, how he’s surrounded by it, how it fills his every waking moment.
But that’s just it: All any of these guys have is death. Or maybe all any of us has is death. What they sell and peddle is designed to make the trip here a little easier—that is, until we get in too deeply with them and they start breaking limbs—but death’s going to come for all of us sooner or later. The best thing we can do, I think the show would suggest, or at least Melfi would suggest, is be honest with ourselves and with each other. When we refuse to consider that people are more complex than we want them to be, then we do them a real disservice. In its own way, a funeral is a way of writing a better draft for someone who’s recently passed on, of talking about somebody as if they were only their good qualities or their bad qualities (if we didn’t particularly like them). But people aren’t just a sum total of particular things. We can’t always understand them; hell, we can’t always understand ourselves.
And the funerals Junior attends are sort of like the way Tony keeps slotting his parents (and now Fran) into the roles he’s comfortable placing them in. Now that Johnny and Livia are dead, he doesn’t have to think for too long about who they really were. He’s got his comforting ghost versions of them, ghosts that fill the exact place he needs them to fill, ghosts who’ll go away until he needs them again. So long as he doesn’t think too hard or question too much, he doesn’t have to break down the walls to the boxes that keep his parents right where he wants them to be. And so long as the walls stay up, so long as everybody slots neatly into the boxes he’s placed them in, he also doesn’t have to consider himself all that much. Fran Felstein is a symbol to Tony, first of the woman that his father had good times with, then increasingly of the woman that Johnny gave his life away to when he might have been better served staying at home. And the more he tries to consider both of those images, the more she threatens to become a real person. Better, then, to lie about who she was and protect the façade. Someday, we’ll all die, and we’d want people to tell good stories about us, too.
- Just as Tony frequently uses his psychotherapy to come up with better ways to run his organization, Christopher apparently uses his AA knowledge to wear down J.T.
- I very much enjoy Tim Daly’s work as J.T. It’s a funny performance, and it’s one that plays well off the guy’s natural smarm without ever becoming smarmy.
- Fran’s “Happy birthday, Mr. President” routine might be one of the more horrifying things the show ever did. The hat doesn’t help matters much either.
- Carmela’s pretty much a non-presence in this one. She turns up at some of the funerals, but does she have any lines at all? It’s kind of a nice reminder of where she fits into Tony’s life right now.
- Speaking of which, Tony’s sexual escapades with Valentina go poorly because she’s got one of those William Wegman photos of the dogs hanging on her wall. A great, dumb moment that lets us see just how preoccupied Tony is with something that really shouldn’t matter.
- That’s Cannon Tony’s watching on TV, which starred William Conrad, who’s perhaps most famous to members of my generation as the star of Jake And The Fatman, though he also provided the voice of the narrator for Rocky And Bullwinkle, something that never fails to amuse me.
- Wikipedia informs me that this episode contains the most deaths of any in the series, though not a single one was a murder (or of a character we’d met before this episode).
- Chris, in case you were wondering, is still mad at Jon Favreau.
- The show that J.T. references working on is That’s Life, disparaged by Chris as a bunch of fake Italian stereotypes (in another moment of the show poking fun at itself). The series was actually a fairly enjoyable dramedy, notable mostly for giving the world creator Diane Ruggiero, who would go on to write many of the best episodes of Veronica Mars.
Speaking With The Fishes (Spoilers):
- I’ve never realized just how much maneuvering this episode—and the one before it, honestly—do to get Tony and Carmela back in position to get back together in the very next episode. It’s subtle, but the two essentially run out of other options that aren’t each other.
- J.T. will return in season six as a guy working with Chris to turn one of Chris’ many screenplay ideas into an actual movie. (And I had forgotten until I embarked on this project just how long we go between when Chris gives up on his dreams and when he takes them up again.)
- Tony and Phil’s squabble over Fran’s money is just the first significant battle between the two in a cold war that will threaten to spill over into violence many, many times.
Next week: Tony and Carmela go swimming in “Marco Polo.”