“Johnny Cakes” (season 6, episode 8; originally aired 4/30/2006)
In which Vito falls in love
Two ways out: You go to jail, or you die.
Just the fact that we see Vito again in this episode is a harbinger of doom for the man. “Live Free Or Die” gave the guy a good grace note to end on, offered up the fantasy that he could really run away to a tiny town in New Hampshire and find something like peace, love, and understanding. The more I look at the New Hampshire idyll this time around, the more I feel like its sheer implausibility within the show’s universe is supposed to mark it as just that: a fantasy. We should have known it was too good to last. When the camera turns toward Vito again, we know that the story is going to end the same way it does for everybody else, with one of the two choices from above.
“Johnny Cakes” is often held up by fans as an awful episode of The Sopranos, ostensibly because it spends so much time on Vito and his new boyfriend Jim falling in love. Yet in rewatching it, I was struck by how much it embraces the possibility of something new, even if that something new is tentative. Vito first lashes out at Jim when Jim comes on to him, then apologizes for doing so and is able to find something like puppy love. Tony and Julianna very nearly have sex, but he backs off, recommitting to his wife. A.J. tries to avenge his father’s injury, but he so botches the attempt that his dad has to come rescue him from the police, and in the conversation following, the two have what amounts to a real breakthrough, a chance to set things straight between them. The Godfather is just a movie, Tony tells his boy. This is real life, and what we do matters.
Even as there’s that possibility for something new, though, the past is always waiting to ensnare us again. Tony takes out his sexual frustration on his wife, yelling at her for not having any smoked turkey in the house, something she couldn’t possibly have imagined would set him off. A.J. is held down by that Soprano tendency toward panic attacks, as he collapses into the throes of one in the club. And if we want to think that Vito has managed to overcome his own reticence to finally let himself be true to who he is, we should know what show we’re watching. The life that Vito, Tony, A.J. come out of is intoxicating. It’s always there, waiting to reach its claws around your foot when you’re not looking. Vito’s life might be a happy one right now, but there’s always something else coming. You can’t outrun your own worst self forever.
I suspect a lot of the fan anger toward “Johnny Cakes” comes from the fact that it asks us to invest in the romantic travails of a third-string character who’s escaped into an entirely different series, one that doesn’t seem to have much to do with anything going on in New Jersey and one that has its plausibility problems. At the time this episode first aired, that must have seemed like an affront to everything that fans knew about the show: There are only a handful of episodes left, and we’re going to focus on this? Seen now, knowing what comes next, the episode stands out to me as one of the emotional high points of this half-season, as a really strong episode that’s been unfairly denigrated by the very human impulse to want plot momentum or answers. But if we sit there and ask this show for that at this point in its run, what show have we thought we were watching all this time? David Chase was never going to give us the simple climax we longed for, but he’d already told us what to expect. Vito’s storyline is so tragic because it’s meant to be so very happy. There’s a black hole at the center of everything, even his Douglas Sirk-esque moments of romantic love, and what we know about black holes is that they devour everything.
The thing is, even if you think the Vito storyline is complete hogwash—and I can see that point-of-view—it’s a surprisingly small portion of the episode. He’s settling into New Hampshire and flirting with Jim. He steals a cell phone to call his wife and realizes he can never return to his old life. Jim invites him over at the local bar, then comes on to him when the two are admiring Jim’s bike. It turns into a fight, complete with Vito trying to grab a weapon to bash Jim with, only to have Jim kick it away and accuse Vito of being a “dirty fighter.” Vito apologizes, and the two become a couple. They have sex while on a picnic. That’s it, really. Particularly when compared to the story of A.J., it’s a footnote in the episode.
While I’ve had my issues with Joseph R. Gannascoli’s performance in weeks before—and find some of his work here unconvincing—I do think he sells the episode’s emotional touchstone very well. When he puts his hand on Jim’s and says that sometimes you tell a lie for so long that you eventually stop realizing it’s a lie, it’s a very moving and tender moment. So much of what comes after hinges on that moment—we have to believe Jim would forgive Vito, for one—and Gannascoli does very well with it. These characters are not very good at showing the deepest wounds at the pits of their souls, but Vito is forced to do so here, and Gannascoli gives him a tremendous vulnerability.
It’s that vulnerability that colors the rest of the episode. Kupferberg turns up for a scene that’s barely a scene, mostly there to question Melfi about Tony and let us realize just how little help he is to Melfi at this point in her journey. Yet he says something interesting when Melfi says that Tony still isn’t dealing with the psychological strain of his uncle nearly killing him: Has Tony cried? Melfi says she doesn’t think so and that if Tony doesn’t deal with the ramifications of what’s happened, he could “decompensate”—fall back into his old, bad habits. Kupferberg nods, and the scene ends, seemingly more about how the two colleagues have a Tony-shaped wedge being driven between them.
Near the episode’s end, though, there’s an interesting scene where Tony has gotten A.J. out of police custody, thanks to his connections in the government. A.J.’s walking to the car, whining about how his stomach hurts, and Tony slams him against the car, asking him what he was thinking. The two fight, with Tony insisting that A.J. doesn’t have it in him to be a murderer or to do time in prison, because he’s a “nice guy.” He seems extremely volatile and vulnerable, as if he might snap his son’s neck or dissolve into tears. When A.J. starts to cry and Tony admonishes him not to, again and again, it’s yet another glimpse into the hyper-masculine culture both men have grown up in, but it also seems like Tony is directing those words at himself as much as at his son. He’s got to keep all of this stuff pinned down because of who he is. Remember Johnny Sack at his daughter’s wedding? An instant of vulnerability in this business could mean death, and even if A.J.’s not in this business, he’s still in the life, as surely as his father doesn’t want him to be.
Vulnerability is the thread that runs through all of these storylines. Yet despite the scenes I’ve outlined above, vulnerability isn’t always a good thing. Tony is vulnerable to the stirrings of his sexuality again, and that very nearly gets him into a bad situation with Julianna Skiff. The small businesses that are run out of town by larger corporations are vulnerable, simply because they’re the weaker parties in an ongoing, never-ending war to make everything look the same, as Tony puts it. Junior is all alone in a mental ward, completely vulnerable and completely destroyed, so happy to see A.J. when he arrives that A.J. drops his knife and is unable to complete what he went to the hospital to do. (I do find it a bit odd that no one notices him holding his hand inside his sweatshirt like that when he enters the room.) A.J.’s friends take advantage of him by exploiting his ability to pay for things and trying to get him to have his dad lean into people to help them out. Being vulnerable opens you up to truth—to the kind of emotional clarity that can really allow you to dig in and start to change your life. But it also opens you up to weakness. (Remember A.J. and his friend playing out how to gain the position of maximum advantage in a knife fight?) When you’re in a position that’s below someone else, the only thing keeping them from taking advantage of you is whatever basic human decency they possess. In the world of The Sopranos, basic human decency isn’t often in stock.
Everybody can change, but people rarely do. Why this happens is something the show has struggled with from its very first season onward, but season six’s first half is presenting the best argument it has for the reasons behind this. When something happens to you to make you want to change your life, it’s easy for the first few days or weeks to stand tall and present a new edifice to the world: This is who I am, and this is who I will be from now on. But an edifice requires constant maintenance, lest it be worn away by the elements and turned into a pile of dust. Erosion is an inevitability, unless you’re willing to do the work that’s needed to keep things up. People on this show are rarely willing to do hard work in the physical realm, so it makes sense that they’d be unwilling to do hard work in the psychological realm as well. Tony says he’s a new man, but the second temptations start calling again, he backslides. Not all at once at first—he stops himself, of course—but that’s how erosion happens, bit by painstaking bit, until there’s nothing left. As much as we’d like to think he might really have turned the corner, we know the man too well. This is just the first bit of sand chipping away at the statue. It’ll all be gone in time.
That’s why the Vito and Jamba Juice storylines—presented as colorful C-stories to back up the more prominent stories of Tony’s dealings with A.J. and Julianna—are necessary. The latter sets up a world where what was once interesting and unique about a place is worn away by something homogenous and corporate, a grey monster that can’t be stopped. This is largely played for laughs—I love the coffee-shop manager telling Patsy and Burt how little anybody at corporate is going to care if the store is vandalized, compared to how much they’ll care if the take is short—but there’s something chilling to it nonetheless. The neighborhoods are safer, and everybody likes a drink from Jamba Juice or Starbucks now and then. But is paving over all of that history, that continuity with a place that’s existed for a century, really worth it? The episode doesn’t say directly, but it certainly suggests what to think.
Which leaves Vito, the guy whose change really has stuck by the episode’s end. That’s mostly because of circumstance. If he goes back, Phil is going to kill him, and he must know that on some level. He rejects his wife’s notion that Phil would be forgiving as the insanity it is. Yes, his old life calls to him—he can’t stand hearing the voice of his son while knowing he’ll never see the kid again—but he’s in a place where he has to live this new life or die. That means he has to change, to fit into the place he finds himself. He has to become a new person, both metaphorically and literally, as he takes on the identity of a writer named Vince. The episode leaves us thinking that Vito has been the one person to escape, the one man who didn’t make his exit in a coffin or a jail cell, because he finally opened himself up and let himself be honest. Yet we have everything else in the episode—and everything else in the whole series—to let us know this can’t be the end. There are no happy endings, only slight pauses on the road toward where everybody ends up.
- Alan Sepinwall first made the connection between the Vito storyline and Douglas Sirk, and I think it’s a good one, so I’ve stolen it.
- So why the A-? I initially thought this episode was an A—an unfairly maligned classic—but the more I think about it, the less I buy that Julianna Skiff would be so interested in Tony. It’s less a problem of writing and more the fact that I just don’t think Julianna Margulies sells the attraction as well as she might. (And I generally like Margulies.) Since so much of the episode hinges on that idea, it drags things down just a tiny bit.
- I love A.J.’s lazy afternoons, which are basically a long middle finger extended in his parents’ general direction. He watches Aqua Teen Hunger Force and sells his drums and just generally behaves like a little shit. By the time Tony slams him up against the side of the car, everybody in the audience has to think A.J. had it coming just a little bit.
- The New Hampshire town continues to be slightly (and intentionally) ridiculous. The volunteer fire department’s earnest discussion of “Yma Sumac screams” while out for a few brews down at the local bar is pretty hilarious, though.
- I have never once had johnnycakes, nor do I terribly want to, but Jim’s recipe looks like it could be pretty good. (In general, I am a pancake purist.)
- The episode even makes the connections between Vito and Tony—two men who will walk right up to the edge of vulnerability, then take very different paths—explicit in the opening scene, where we cross-cut between Tony and Carmela making love to Vito tossing and turning alone. Vito will end the episode with someone he loves; Tony will end the episode scowling and shouting at his wife.
- Okay, one more nitpick: I’m not a big fan of the little old lady that Tony stoops to talk to out on the street. It’s one beat too many of the show saying, “Look at what is lost when we gentrify!”
Speaking With The Fishes (spoilers):
- Though A.J.’s journey has been mildly important to this season so far, it’s this episode that really raises it to the prominence it will have throughout the rest of the season. This all culminates in his suicide attempt in “The Second Coming,” one of those episodes I can’t wait to write about.
- Rhiannon, the girl at the club, will become a weird catalyst for the final two episodes. She’s the girl A.J is having sex with when his new car starts on fire.
- The writers are already pushing Melfi toward her “sociopath” realization from later in the season. It’s a revelation I’m not sure I completely buy, but we’ll deal with that when we get to “The Blue Comet.”
Next week: A local festival provides plenty of opportunities for the characters to enjoy “The Ride.”