“Luxury Lounge” (season 6, episode 7; originally aired 4/23/2006)
In which Chris punches Lauren Bacall in the face
I don’t know a way to say this other than bluntly: “Luxury Lounge” is one of my least favorite episodes of The Sopranos. There’s good stuff in it, and I don’t think everything it tries is a failure or anything. But it’s unusually direct for the show, and it’s part of the show’s occasional dips into Hollywood satire, a subject I don’t know that the show ever handled very well. The series had a real nastiness toward Hollywood, and while that’s all fine and dandy, it also had a tendency to go for the easiest possible jokes about the place. Celebrities are a bunch of whores hungry for the stuff that’s waved in their face over and over? You don’t say, The Sopranos! Chris hitting Laren Bacall in the face is probably one of the show’s signature moments of physical comedy, just for how ridiculous and unexpected it is, but would we remember it as fondly if it wasn’t surrounded by a desert of a storyline?
This is too bad because “Luxury Lounge” really does feature what might be the series’ best Artie Bucco storyline. By the latter half of the show’s run, Artie was a character in a very strange position. He continued to be mostly useful as Tony’s one friend who wasn’t in the business and as the proprietor of the restaurant where Tony did most of his dining out. But he was never so prominent that the series could do major story arcs centered on him or anything like that. He was that weird thing that serialized dramas accumulate if they run long enough: a character too important to the proceedings to be merely written out but also one who probably would be if the writers could figure out a way to do so. Nearly every serialized drama has at least one character like this by its fifth or sixth season, and though John Ventimiglia was always game, Artie remained a character the show’s writers would toss a storyline to every couple of seasons or so, and those storylines would usually be greeted with a shrug by the audience. Why didn’t everybody get to the good stuff?
But The Sopranos is so good because it built an entire world around its central character, not just the single mob world we’d expect. That world, by necessity, has to contain remnants of versions of the show that were and had been, versions of the show that it was actively evolving away from as early as the first season. (Arguably, Melfi herself is a vestigial organ of an earlier version of the show.) Television shows are evolving organisms, in some ways, but they also contain lots and lots of junk DNA, and seeing that junk DNA get “turned on” from time to time can be fun. From that point-of-view, “Luxury Lounge” is one of the last chances the show had to indulge in a couple of pieces of its former self that it hadn’t visited in a while, both in the Artie storyline and in the Hollywood subplot. Part of the reason we love the show is because it can be a lumpy mess, and lumpy messes tend to have episodes like this one.
The Artie storyline is the last major one for the character. (I’m technically spoiling the series for you with that admission, but if you really thought much of the final run of episodes was going to hinge on what Artie did, well… you probably haven’t watched a lot of television before, huh?) Artie storylines tend to fall along a fairly predictable line: Artie will be tempted by Tony Soprano, and then he will choose, in the end, to not be like Tony Soprano. Being in Tony’s circle has cost Artie dearly—though it’s also made him some amount of money (depending on how much of his tab Tony ever pays off)—but he also can’t seem to extricate himself from the situation. This is one of his oldest friends, after all, no matter what circles he runs in now. And, hey, when you’ve got someone who brings this much business to your restaurant, you can’t turn him away completely.
To that end, you’d expect the final Artie storyline to finally say whether Artie goes all in with Tony or draws the line between him and his friend conclusively. The episode doesn’t really do that, but it does do something similar, at least obliquely. Nuovo Vesuvio is in dire financial straits. A new restaurant has opened that’s stealing a lot of the place’s thunder, and a visit from the credit card inspectors reveals that someone’s been stealing the information of customers and using it to ring up false charges that are then pocketed by whoever is doing it. (It turns out to be the hostess, Martina, who’s an Albanian immigrant who’s having an affair with Benny. Yeah, this episode is really clearing off the supporting character bench.) Tony’s advice is to do some coupons, some two-for-one deals, but Artie reacts to that about as well as he reacts to everything else in this episode, exploding that he’ll let the bank have the restaurant before he caters to the blue-hair crowd. (This being The Sopranos, he’ll be doing so by the episode’s end, of course.) Much as the problems with the restaurant come from outside, though, they’re also coming from Artie himself. His patter with customers feels increasingly lame and desperate. His interactions with the staff are strained. He refuses to change anything, from the décor to the menu, and he blames just about everybody but him for all of these things.
The Sopranos was always a show interested in masculinity and the changing ideals we have for what a man is supposed to be. Tony is a relic of an earlier time in some ways, but he’s also a guy who’s trying to feel out living in a more modern, more sensitive age. This was such a cliché setup for a TV series—even at the time the show debuted—that the series rarely commented on it (except in the advertising campaigns promoting the early seasons), but the relationship between Tony and Artie grew out of that in some ways. Artie is meant to resemble the audience, I sometimes think, the working stiffs who can never seem to get ahead and internalize all of their anger until it comes out in terrifying rages (and, hey, we’ve all been there). He’s the guy who does everything right—who works hard and works well—but also the guy who can never get ahead, the world grinding him down at every turn. The girl laughs in his face at the suggestion he would fuck her. His wife is always on his case. His business gets him down. His employees have no respect for him. His best friend gets to do anything he wants and never suffers the consequences. It’s perhaps the best thing I can say about the character to say that it’s not unimaginable to picture a series told from his point-of-view as a mid-90s sitcom on ABC. Artie’s trapped in a very “TV” situation, but the show treats it with soul, humor, and pathos.
Throughout this episode, Artie finds himself in traditionally masculine situations. He laments his father and grandfather, who said that hard work would get him where he needed to be, and longs for the code they stood for. He shoots a rabbit that’s eating up the garden. He beats the shit out of Benny, then taunts him when he comes in to eat at the restaurant with his wife and parents. But at all times, there’s that extra twist: He laments to Tony, who’s browbeating him, then collapses into tears. He shoots the rabbit because it’s eating his special arugula he brought over from Italy. Benny comes into the kitchen and returns the favor by shoving Artie’s hand into his bubbling sauce. Artie tries to take control, but at all turns, he remains Artie Bucco, the guy who will never get ahead, the guy who will always live in his friend’s shadow, the guy nobody wants to hear from when they’re just trying to have a nice dinner.
It’s wonderful, then, that the episode ends with Artie re-committing to being that man, even if it’s going to keep costing him dearly. Instead of ever begging Tony for money or collapsing entirely into self-pity (the bit where Tony tries to get Artie to see Melfi is hilarious), Artie doubles down on being himself, the mostly good man who will always be frustrated but also won’t be corrupted. He looks out and sees the young couple his wife has seated near closing time, the young couple he might have bothered with that dumb line about needing a high chair, and he decides he’ll serve them. The cooking scenes here are luscious and beautiful, and we really get to see what it is about this restaurant that makes Artie love it so much. He takes the rabbit he shot out of the fridge and pulls down his grandfather’s old recipes, flipping through them with love and care. And he begins to cook. Hard work may not always pay off. It might never pay off. But Artie got on that horse, and he’s going to ride it to his grave. In “Luxury Lounge,” he isn’t tempted by Tony Soprano so much as he’s tempted by the idea of being like Tony Soprano. Yet he realizes the only thing he can be is Artie Bucco, and when he makes his stand by cooking that rabbit, it’s a beautiful moment.
It’s too bad, then, that the rest of the episode can’t live up to the quiet, lovely moments of the climax. The Chris scenes are loud and crass in a way the show could never really pull off, and they’re filled with jokes that make the most obvious and dull points about the Hollywood machine. The luxury lounge of the title is the big deal here, as Christopher and Little Carmine’s trip to Los Angeles to talk with Sir Ben Kingsley about starring in Cleaver gets diverted into one as Kingsley would really rather not talk to the two of them. (He first tries to escape them by going to talk to Lauren Bacall, but the two don’t realize when they’re being politely ditched by a celebrity, the sort of reflex anyone who spends any time near the entertainment industry develops almost instantly.) The luxury lounge stuff is just dumb. It’s easy to see what the show is going for, with its attempts to play up all of the free swag thrust at celebrities in the hopes they’ll be seen with it in the press, then compare that to the sort of business that Chris and Carmine engage in. But the show’s attempts to draw lines between the mob and Hollywood always felt half-baked, and it doesn’t get any real mileage out of Kingsley, who almost seems like the Hollywood equivalent of Artie here: a well-meaning, polite man who mostly just wants to be left alone by these weirdo hangers-on he seems to have acquired.
The real thing we’re meant to take from this is that Chris is off the wagon again. Late in the episode, Tony asks him how often he’s going to play the Adriana card, and it’s to Michael Imperioli’s credit that he’s been building the character’s grief mostly in the background this season. But the scenes where the character snorts cocaine or guzzles from a wine bottle feel like the show dropping in a big revelation just to drop one in. It knows that it needs to fill out a little more time, and there are worse ways to do so than having Chris fall back off the wagon. (Where most fans deride the Vito storyline for dragging out the back half of this stretch of episodes, I’m much less tolerant of the Chris storyline, which is a literal repetition of things we’ve seen before.) And dropping it directly into the middle of this episode makes that storyline all the weaker, because it seems to arrive so abruptly (complete with a line where Carmine reminds us that Chris is clean and sober). There’s an interesting story here about how Artie being true to himself doesn’t compare to how Chris is fracturing under the strain of the single biggest lie he’ll ever tell, but it gets lost in the midst of easy jokes and abrupt plot points. Ah, well. At least when Ben Kingsley says, “Fuck,” on the plane, it’s hilarious.
- I do love the use of “Recuerdos De La Alhambra” over the final scenes of the episode. It has that appropriately Old World feel to go along with Artie embracing his roots and the two Italian hitmen returning to their homeland, wearing the watch Chris stole from Bacall.
- The way that the hit on Rusty has played out over the course of a handful of episodes, only getting a cursory scene or two, is like the ultimate example of how the show’s writers just didn’t care at all about the mob plots by this point of the show (or, rather, were keeping them deeply buried so they could arise again when they were needed). It’s the most predictable, most tertiary storyline, yet we see all the beats of it, stretched over several weeks.
- Phil’s really not happy about this Vito thing. That he keeps bringing it up should have been the first indication we got that the whole story was far from over.’
- Hey, True Crime: New York City! I remember that game! I also remember it being pretty bad!
- The episode prominently credits Wilmer Valderrama, but if you blink, you’ll miss him.
- Chris’ appreciation of Lindsay Lohan as a “nice piece of ass” may be one of the things about the series that feels most dated, given Lohan’s very public spiral since the show went off the air.
- I like the little bits of continuity here and there, like how Carmela and her father are still fighting, even if it’s almost completely happening off-screen.
- I love when Artie chases after Martina and tries to threaten her with, “We lead the world in computerized data collection!”
- That rabbit looks delicious. Anybody got any good recipes?
- If you’re watching this on DVD, go ahead and pause it at the Lauren Bacall Variety item that Chris reads. It’s not immediately hilarious or anything, but it really captures the tone of one of the trades, and there’s a sentence in it about Bacall struggling valiantly with her attackers that makes me laugh.
- I feel like the grade doesn’t really accurately reflect my feelings on the episode. I really do love the Artie stuff, and it’s probably about a B+, but the Hollywood stuff sinks down to the level of a C- or so. And the episode is evenly split between them, which hurts it even more.
Speaking To The Fishes (spoilers):
- Chris’ slide back off the wagon will be one of the major contributors to Tony finally losing his patience with his protégé and killing him in the second part of the season. I seem to recall it’s also quite prominent in “Kaisha,” but I don’t remember that episode terribly well (outside of its moodily brilliant use of “Moonlight Mile”).
- Man, I said above that this is the last significant Artie storyline, but it’s really the last significant Artie storyline, huh? I just checked IMDB, and he’s only in four more episodes, including just two in the final nine. He’s one of the many series regulars to sit out the series finale.
- I don’t remember this: Which episode contains the flashback to when Chris told Tony about Adriana? Is that “The Ride”?
Next week: Journey with Vito Spatafore to beautiful small-town New Hampshire and have some “Johnny Cakes.”