“Kennedy And Heidi” (season 6, episode 18; originally aired 5/13/2007)
In which Tony gets it…
Christopher Moltisanti dies 10 minutes into the 50-minute running time of “Kennedy And Heidi.” For the next 20 minutes, the episode deals with his death. For the 20 minutes after that, Tony bugs out of New Jersey, unable to deal with the fact that he murdered his nephew, heading to Las Vegas to find someone who will feel even the vaguest sense of his relief at Chris’ death. In that fashion, “Kennedy And Heidi” is one of the most literary Sopranos episodes, its rather neat structure buckling back in on itself and on the season as a whole—that burst of light Tony sees in the sun at episode’s end calls all the way back to the beacon he saw in his coma dream in the season’s second and third episodes.
But its sense of literary ambition extends beyond even the structure. Dense with allusion and symbolism and filled with subtext it never once bothers to explain, it’s about as close as The Sopranos comes to truly equaling the power of a great short story. Or, look at it this way: Both the crow that heralded Chris’ death back in “Fortunate Son” and the ducks that have represented Tony’s family since the series began turn up in this episode, but they’re never seen. Instead, the show relies on the viewer to remember what these birds mean to the overall story and identify them merely through their cawing and quacking. What this episode suggests, more than anything, is that Tony, whose refusal to do anything about the asbestos-dumping problem leads to the poison being dumped into the river, where it will surely kill the ducks we hear, has become the devil he sees in the casino, the monster who poisons everything he touches and destroys even the good things in his life.
Is this what Tony “gets” in what might be the most famous closing scene in non-finale Sopranos history? High on peyote and hanging out with Sonya, Chris’ Vegas stripper fling, Tony heads out to the desert to watch the sun rise. While there, he stares in stoned anticipation before he sees the sun flash like the heavenly beacon he saw in Purgatory. He gets to his feet and mumbles, “I get it,” as director Alan Taylor’s camera carefully follows. He belts it out to the sky. He gets it! James Gandolfini raises his arms to the sky in triumph as Tony’s revelation—whatever it might be—sinks in. The episode cuts suddenly to black, and we’re left with that looming question: Just what was it that Tony Soprano “got”?
In true Sopranos fashion, we’re left with lots and lots of possible answers, and I’m sure you’ve thought of more than I did. The conclusion I came to after watching the scenes preceding Tony’s desert revelation led me to think that he’s realized he’s like the two teenage girls the episode is named after, whom Tony will never know and has no way of knowing. Kennedy and Heidi are two girls out joyriding after dark, even though Heidi only has her learners’ permit. Rather than going to help Tony and Christopher, which would have prevented Chris’ death at the hands of Tony, they continue on into the dark. They’re not, technically, at fault. Chris was drifting out of his lane, and he was high on cocaine. But the right thing to do is to go back and make sure everything’s okay. Like so many characters in the run of this series, however, Kennedy and Heidi choose to do what’s easy, what’s expedient, rather than what’s right. The easy choice is what gets these characters in trouble. It’s what gets human beings in trouble.
Tony, too, takes the easy, expedient choice when he kills Christopher. His relationship with his nephew has decayed substantially, as the series examined expertly in “Walk Like A Man.” The two aren’t enemies, exactly, but they are potential enemies, and now that Chris is using again, Tony sees himself as having only one choice. (Never mind the fact that Tony and Paulie were the ones who pushed Chris back off the wagon.) What’s great is the way that Taylor places us so perfectly within Tony’s head as he shuffles over to the drivers’ side to kill Chris. He sees Caitlin’s baby seat, crushed by a tree branch. He hears Chris’ pleas that he’ll never pass the drug test, that he can’t be loaded into an ambulance, even though he’s clearly too injured to survive the taxi ride he wants to take. He looks down at his phone as he considers dialing 911. He gets two digits in, and he makes his choice, plugging Chris’ nose and letting the man choke on his own blood. He steps away, looking up to the road to see the headlights of a car far above (another beacon flashing by), and he calls for help.
The hard choice—the right choice—would have been to repair this broken relationship, for both men to talk honestly about what had happened when Chris told Tony Adriana was informing to the FBI. Instead, Tony makes the easy choice and eliminates an obstacle. Then, on some level, he expects everybody else to fall in line with what he’s done. In his dreams, he expresses his relief to Melfi that Chris is dead. He tries to cajole Carmela into expressing her own relief at Chris’ death, when the only relief he might have detected from her in that awful late-night phone call was that Tony had survived where Chris had perished. He tells Carmela, then a wake attendee, about the crushed baby seat. He tries to get the real Melfi to sign on to his anger and frustration at the way everyone else is ready to make Chris a saint. Hell, even Paulie (whose own mother dies in this episode) seems to have the distance to realize that his ball-busting drove Chris back to drinking and may have played a small role in his death.
But Tony can never see that clearly. He actually killed Christopher after the accident, but he also killed Christopher via a million cuts over the years. He dragged him more and more deeply into a life that Christopher clearly wanted to escape on some level. He quashed Chris’ dreams of movie-making, until the only thing Chris could put together was a direct-to-DVD slasher film. He very nearly slept with Chris’ fiancée, then had her killed when he found out (from Chris) that she was informing. He ridiculed Chris’ attempts to get his addictions under control, then pushed him steadily back off the wagon, time after time. Christopher gave Tony what loyalty he had, and all it got him was a life that got steadily worse. The closer Chris became to Tony Soprano, the more his life went off the tracks, until he simply didn’t have a life left.
This is why the shots within Caesars Palace are so important. In the first, we watch as Tony stumbles toward a slot machine themed on Pompeii, traditionally seen as a hive of decadence that was then wiped out by nature’s (or God’s) wrath. (If that seems like a stretch, notice how this section of the episode cuts away from Tony only to spend time with A.J., who’s having a completely hypocritical break with the material world, which he seems to believe may be behind his increasing depression. As always, it has more to do with the violence that surrounds him.) After staring at the Pompeii machine, Tony looks up toward another slot machine and sees a tiny devil’s face. Recognition seems to flicker across his face, and he wanders toward a game of roulette, placing bets on the numbers 24 and 20, the ages of his children, I believe. He wins and wins and wins, and he has another small realization. “He’s dead,” he says. Sonya can’t hear him, so she leans in, only to have him start laughing, collapsing on the floor in relief and anguish and joy. His unlucky streak is over, and all it took was killing someone who was like a son to him.
It’s possible, in many ways, to view this episode as a sequel to “Irregular Around The Margins,” the episode in which Christopher goes away, and Tony and Adriana nearly hook up. In that episode, a car accident keeps Tony and Adriana from scoring drugs and having sex, and Christopher’s return puts the ultimate pin in whatever that relationship might have been. In Las Vegas, Tony comes on to another of Chris’ conquests that he’s never had sex with, and he manages to close the deal, so to speak. He’s already had the car accident, so now he’s free to enjoy the company of Chris’ girlfriend and the drugs she scores. There are also shades of Julianna Skiff here, who turns up at the funeral. She’s another woman Chris slept with that Tony was unable to seduce. What’s interesting about the hookup with Sonya is that it arrives almost out of nowhere. Tony tells her Chris has died and leaves her apartment. Stefano calls him to ask about the asbestos, and after a check-in with A.J., the very next thing we see is Tony having sex with Sonya. We don’t see the phone call that led to this hookup or anything like that. Indeed, it’s as if the universe is paying out to Tony now that Chris is dead, as if he’s finally removed all impediments to being the hedonist he always was at heart.
What’s the last thing we see before Tony “gets it”? It’s that truck pouring its poisonous chemicals into the water that contains the ducks. Tony poisons everything, just in case this season hasn’t made that clear already. And now, he understands his place in the universe. He’s that devil, that monster, that force of destruction that comes over and bashes in the car window to get at his nephew. He’s the one who means to help but almost always ends up hurting. And he’s the one who seems to absorb the lives and pleasures of those around them when they pass away, who skates through life without a scratch on him while everyone around him is devastated and left out in the cold. He can’t stand to see anyone weep for Christopher not just because he’s relieved about his nephew’s death, and not just because he killed the guy, and not just because he ultimately doesn’t think Christopher is worthy of all that mourning. No, he can’t stand to see the weeping because he, himself, is incapable of that depth of feeling. Indeed, he thinks he did the right thing, and his world refuses to confirm that suspicion. Instead of being hailed as a hero—even indirectly—he’s being forced to see the fruits of his handiwork up close. And what he sees is that he takes the easy choice at every opportunity and never makes the right one.
The easy choices haunt this episode and this season and this series. After Christopher’s death, those around him look back at all of the times they might have been unfair to the man. Some of these people, like Paulie, are right to feel regrets and guilt. Some of them, like Carmela, aren’t, exactly. But they’re all trying to take stock of a life that was cut short too early. Not Tony Soprano, though. He doesn’t look back at the wreckage he caused. He moves forward, ignoring the very real toll that springs up in his wake. And that’s what links him to the two girls in the show’s title. I suppose it’s possible that later on in their lives, Kennedy and Heidi will remember the night they didn’t stop to help the people in the car after that accident, but it will probably be later on in life, when they’ve had some time to come to the emotional and moral maturity to realize that the choice they made was the wrong one. It would require a certain emotional intelligence, an insight into themselves that could only be hard won after lots and lots of introspection. But Tony Soprano will never do any of that because he can’t afford to. He keeps his eyes on the road, and he never calls for help.
- There’s some more great silent acting from Tony Sirico in the scene where he sits at his mother’s wake and silently fumes about how everybody’s skipping it for the Christopher wake. (I had honestly forgotten his mother died, which seems to be intentional on the part of the show.)
- I love the way the series uses A.J. as a moral conscience—that Wordsworth quote in the class he attends hangs over everything else in the episode—but also points out just how hypocritical it is for him to be feeling this way. There’s a tenderness to A.J. (as seen when he watches his friends beat up the poor Somalian immigrant), but he’s also not smart enough to grasp the whole picture and get the fuck out.
- Two great therapy scenes in this episode. Granted, one is dreamed, but Lorraine Bracco does her typically excellent work in both, and even subtly suggests how dream Melfi is more approving of Tony’s relief.
- I’m pretty sure Bobby is wearing a shirt Tony wore frequently in the first season of this show in the scenes at Chris’ wake. No, I have no idea what that could mean.
- Wikipedia informs me that when we first meet Chris and when we see him just before he dies, he’s wearing a baseball cap and driving Tony around. It also informs me that Michael Imperioli says he has no idea if this is a coincidence. I somehow doubt it is.
- James Gandolfini really makes the most of being an absolute asshole in this episode. His “Yeah,” when Carmela asks, again, “He’s dead?” during the hospital phone call conveys so much awful stuff. I love it.
- That’s Sarah Shahi, perhaps better known now for her work on NBC’s Life and USA’s Fairly Legal, as Sonya. I think it’s fair to say she’s not the best actress when it comes to playing that her character’s on drugs.
- After all of the Goodfellas references, it only makes sense that the guys would be into The Departed, which was still a fairly new movie when this episode aired. “Comfortably Numb” is a great musical moment, too, with the lyrics pointing to Chris without the show having to have a big flashing arrow suggesting so.
- Cara Buono mostly cries hysterically in this episode, but, hey, she does a really good job of it.
- Taylor won the series’ only directing Emmy for this episode, and that seems like a good call on the part of the Academy. (Seriously? Only one directing Emmy?)
Speaking with the Fishes (spoilers):
- I think there’s something to the fact that Melfi can’t realize that Tony’s incapable of being treated until he, himself, realizes it in that scene in the desert. She’s going to “get it,” too, before too long.
- A.J. mentions the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, presaging his growing interest in the world outside of his immediate sphere.
- Man, the show has really back-burnered the war between New Jersey and New York at this point, hasn’t it? It’ll progress in fits and starts, but if I were to tell you that everybody but Paulie was about to die, it’d seem very weird based on just this episode.
Next week: We all get to learn what “The Second Coming” is in one of my favorite episodes of the series.