“Join The Club” (season 6, episode 2; originally aired 3/19/2006)
In which Tony Soprano is mistaken for another man
Mob stories seem to be disproportionately obsessed with death—which makes sense—and disproportionately steeped in Catholicism. The latter’s a little harder to figure out, until you consider that the Italian culture that gave birth to the mafia (and most of its great cinematic chroniclers) is also disproportionately Catholic, and there’s always that strain of guilt running through these stories. Yes, we’re having fun watching Vito Corleone or Henry Hill or Tony Soprano run their crime empires, but somewhere deep down, we’re waiting for them to pay the price, even if that bill doesn’t come due until after their deaths. The wages of sin is death, says Christianity. But, no, Internet writer Chris Stangl would say in two of the best responses to the series finale I’ve read (so, spoilers), the wages of life is death. We all get buried someday. Where we go after that is either beside the point or the entire point.
Tony Soprano was shot in the gut last week by his uncle Junior, who’s suffering from dementia. He managed to dial 911, which means the paramedics took him to the hospital—a top-notch trauma center (another lucky break). He’s struggling to hold onto his life, and his family and friends have gathered around, waiting to see if this is it, trying to decide how to respond to the tragedy. At the same time, Tony wakes up from the coma in California. He’s in a hotel room, a strange beacon on the horizon. News reports say there are wildfires nearby. It’s almost as if he’s trapped between the glowing light and the burning embers, and when he asks the bartender at the hotel bar what to do in Costa Mesa, the man just shrugs. “Around here? It’s pretty much dead.”
Yes, this is another symbol-laden journey through Tony Soprano’s subconscious, only this episode sets the stakes for the entire season: Tony can change his act—by consulting with his “doctors back home”—or he can end up here again, in a place that is a nowhere, a land of bland hotels and long roads that seem to pass only non-descript office parks. He’s stuck in a great middle, in a place that mostly grew so quickly because it was sandwiched between two other, larger cities. And off to one side, he’s got the brilliant light, while on the other side, he’s got the fires. It’s not like The Sopranos to lay it on this thick, but the show almost has to at this point: Tony Soprano isn’t having another dream; he’s ended up in the afterlife.
Okay, I suppose you could argue that this is his brain trying to make sense of the coma he’s in, that his invention of, say, the alternate Kevin Finnerty identity is a way for him to explore a life where he’s mostly faithful to his wife, where his success comes not from being a mob boss but from being a terrific salesman. That’s certainly part of the appeal of the episode, which delves into questions of who Tony Soprano would have been if he hadn’t pursued a life of crime. These are questions that have hung over the show for most of its run, but they seem to get only more intense when the series sends him off into a dream-space. (Remember how “The Test Dream” featured that scene where his high school coach tried to tell him what a good coach he would make?) Here’s a safe space to explore alternate realities and other points-of-view on the man and what could have happened to him.
“Join The Club” and its sequel are fairly polarizing episodes in Sopranos fandom. Most critics seem to like them a lot, but when the episodes come up to fans, there’s always a vocal contingent that doesn’t understand why there had to be two whole episodes devoted to telling us things we already know, particularly in such a ponderous way. I’ve been thinking a lot about how The Sopranos increasingly didn’t have readily obvious conflicts as it got into its later seasons. Where most serialized dramas pile on more and more complications as the years go on, The Sopranos actually seemed to lessen Tony’s load just a bit. He was still dealing with all of the problems that go hand in hand with being a mob boss or with being a husband and father, but he no longer had his mother and uncle plotting to take his life. He was the king, and being the king carries with it a certain set of privileges.
No, the question so many later Sopranos episodes wants us to ask is: What’s happening here, and when is something big going to happen? David Chase and his writers had always been fond of anticlimax, but they had all but turned that into one of the big reasons for the show’s existence by the time these episodes popped up. Junior shoots Tony, and we get a weird coma journey through Purgatory? What happened to more traditional dramatic elements? Weirdly, this made the series even more tense. All of the assumptions we had about the things Tony was going to have to pay for started swirling around in the show’s general atmosphere, turning into dark clouds that threatened to burst but never did. Yet we were always looking up, watching them get darker and darker, and hoping the rain would come before it was such a downpour that it washed everything away.
“Join The Club” is mostly remembered for the journey through Purgatory, but nearly half of it is set in the hospital where Tony is recuperating, dealing with his family’s emotions surrounding what happened. Carmela is distraught, unwilling to leave the hospital. Meadow is asserting her independence, asking the questions of the doctor that her mother doesn’t know to ask. A.J. doesn’t want to visit his dad in the hospital and keeps referring to him as “Anthony Soprano.” Janice properly grieves her brother’s injuries, but she has a way of making it seem all about her, just the same. These are the people allowed into the inner sanctum, the room where Tony’s rehabilitating. At the same time, the mob crew waits out in the waiting area, hoping for word and also planning how to deal with such things as who’s going to take care of Carmela and what should be done with Junior. (He’s certainly not going to be anywhere near the boss of the family. That’s for sure.)
It’s striking how much of the show’s history is bound up in these hospital segments. I said last week that the show was increasingly playing off of that sense of tragedy and despair that hangs over it at all times to suggest that we’re really coming up the end. Death is practically a supporting character in this season; even if his shrouded form only shows up every so often, he always seems to be just off-camera. There’s the constant sense that if Tony turns the closet mirror just the right way, you might just see the Grim Reaper standing there, like Pussy back in “Proshai, Livushka.” Yet these hospital segments accomplish the same thing with the show’s own past, bringing in story elements it would be easy to assume the show had forgotten all about, like Carmela telling Tony he would go to Hell in the pilot (one of the few notes I don’t like in that pilot) or Tony’s troubled relationship with his uncle, which extended to the way that no one in his immediate family had much to do with the old man again. Death doesn’t just come in a hail of gunfire; it also comes as a man who keeps getting older and older and weaker and weaker, his brain deteriorating, as we’re reminded when we see the cops attempting to prove that Junior was addled and not thinking correctly when he shot his own nephew. We get older and less healthy, and then we die. But we try not to focus on this. The Sopranos wants to rub it in our faces.
But as good as the hospital scenes are—and lest we forget about it, let’s remember Carmela’s fantastic breakdown as she tries talking to her comatose husband for the first time, which is one of Edie Falco’s greatest acting moments in the series—it’s the Purgatory stuff that really makes this one work. It’s the show playing off of the “What the fuck is happening?!” question as fully as possible. Why is Tony abruptly in California? Why is he being confused with a man named Kevin Finnerty? Why is he not who he seems to be? Even when the show confirms that this is, at the least, a weird near-death experience, it still seems bizarre for him to be here, playing out all the conflicts he typically would, but on the reverse side. Here, his kids are still young, and he’s faithful to his wife. Here, he’s a man who makes an honest living, and Kevin Finnerty (who cheated a couple of monks) is the one who’s the villain. Yet he’s a phantom, someone Tony can never catch up to, the dark side of himself that maybe he’s finally ready to let go of.
The Purgatory section first establishes to us exactly where we are, letting us know that even if this is a mere dream Tony is having, he’s set up a metaphysical test for himself in it. But after that, the test gets harder and harder, confronting Tony with his many sins. He isn’t as faithful to his wife (or as purely in love with her) as this shadow Tony Soprano. He isn’t as good of a father as this man. When he gives in and adopts the Finnerty identity to get a hotel room, he’s immediately accosted by the monks, who smack him and tell him to lose his arrogance. And when he slips and falls in a stairwell, he’s brought to a doctor who points out the dark spots on his brain—spots that could mean Alzheimer’s. It’s at once a reminder of Junior, Tony’s blood relation, who is sinking into a pit of his own confused thoughts, and the state of Tony Soprano’s soul, which is covered in black spots that will be hard to so easily clean. Can the “doctors back home” line mean anything other than that Tony can only get through this with the help of Dr. Melfi? Is that why we saw in the premiere that their therapy sessions had stagnated?
Becoming a better person requires risk. It requires opening yourself up to the idea that you might not be as good as you think you are, that you actually have something worth improving. That’s a scary idea for a lot of people. It requires a loss of arrogance, a kind of humility that often requires a seismic event shaking one’s life. An alcoholic may only reform once he’s severely hurt someone he cares about, just as a liar might only start to tell the truth once his lies destroy someone’s ability to trust in him. The greatest leveler of them all, the thing that most easily provokes the idea that, yes, we might need to change our lives, is death. It’s the ultimate removal of arrogance, the ultimate restorer of humility. Every single person on this Earth will die, no matter how powerful or rich or good they are. Life can be extended, but death can’t be prevented. It’s always there, just off-camera.
“Join The Club” works as wonderfully as it does because it brings death into the center of the frame, but shows just how hard it is to pin down, all the same. We’d like to say we’re ready for death, that we’re not scared of it. But every single one of us is on some level, because we don’t really know what’s on the other side, no matter how much faith we have that we’ll be greeted by winged angels or a big, black nothing. “Who am I?” and “Where am I going?” are the questions Tony Soprano asks when he’s briefly roused to consciousness early in the episode. He doesn’t know. I don’t either, really, about either him or my own self. And if you don’t know either, well, join the club.
- I was surprised that Edie Falco didn’t win an Emmy for her performance in this episode, until I went and looked this season up and realized it was the weird year when the Emmys had blue ribbon panels decide who the nominees would be and, subsequently, didn’t nominate Falco at all. Boo!
- I like that the show gets the Kevin Finnerty/Infinity pun out of the way right up top. It would have been sort of annoying if the show had thought that was supremely clever.
- I like that the Sopranos afterlife appears to be somewhat open to all faiths. There’s a mention of Jesus on the TV ad asking if death and disease are really real, but Tony also gets spiritual guidance from a couple of Buddhists.
- That said, I find I have weird, practicality questions about the whole thing. Are all of the people Tony shares this Purgatory with people who are also hovering between life and death, Heaven and Hell? Because as much as I like that idea, I’m pretty sure they’re just here to provide local color for Tony’s death march. Oh, and to tempt him.
- To my knowledge, the actress who voices Tony’s wife has never been identified. I’ve always thought she sounds just a bit like Drea de Matteo, but I’m also pretty sure it’s not her.
- Newbies: Pay attention to the fact that alt-Meadow is quite a bit younger. It’s going to be important next week.
- The scene set at Eugene’s funeral is ghoulishly fun. I like when Vito blatantly ignores Silvio’s request and goes right ahead with a personal request.
- As a current resident of the Golden State, I am not sure how I feel about the show constantly equating us with, oh, bland malaise and Purgatory.
- Possible plot thread being tossed to a very confused audience: A.J. swears he will get revenge in his father's name by taking out Junior. Hmmm...
Speaking With The Fishes (Spoilers):
- So since I linked to the Stangl piece, which strikes me as one of the best arguments for the idea that Tony Soprano doesn’t die, I may as well say that I read the entirety of the Master Of Sopranos blog between last week’s review and now. I’d already read the central argument a few years ago—when what I believe to be a draft version of it was shopped to a blog I wrote for at the time—but I’d never read all of the other stuff. I’ll say this: I think the central argument is pretty interesting, and I could be convinced by it. However, a lot of the addenda strike me as the author grasping at straws to prove his point, and the longer it goes on, the more reaching the author does (and, consequently, the less convinced I am). That said, the core argument (basically everything on page one of the blog) is very strong.
- Well, we already knew Vito was gay, but his suggestion that maybe Eugene was too is obviously there to remind us of this fact, so when he embarks on his New Hampshire adventure in a few weeks, it feels less abrupt.
- The Beacon, of course, points the way to the Inn at the Oaks and one of my favorite scenes of the whole series, which we’ll see…
Next week: Tony slips deeper into his coma, while everybody else wonders what to do next in “Mayham.”