“Members Only” (season 6, episode 1; originally aired 3/12/2006)
In which there are only two ways... make that one way out
Tony Soprano said it best: There are only two ways out of the business he’s in. You either die, or you end up in the can. The première of the show’s sixth season is all about how much that life—or maybe any life—swallows you whole, trapping you, until death or the can… they start to seem like pretty good options. It’s an episode where a number of characters—including two long-time recurring players—die, but nobody is taken down in a hail of gunfire. The only person who gets shot is the protagonist, and that’s by a feeble old man who seems intent on avoiding the “death or the can” business simply by completely losing his mind. This isn’t an especially hopeful episode of television, is all I’m saying.
The episode is famous for its climactic moments, which are both brutal and shocking. Anyone who was watched this episode live will remember exactly what their thought processes were when Junior gunned down Tony, when they realized that David Chase really was going to play for keeps in this final season. Would Chase actually kill Tony in the first episode of his final year on the air? As always, he gave no real indication one way or the other. Tony, bleeding out on the floor, manages to get 911 on the line, after dragging himself to the kitchen, but he doesn’t say anything into the phone. His only hope is that the dispatcher finds the whole thing odd enough that she sends someone over to the house, or that Janice and Bobby stop by for no particular reason. (This doesn’t seem especially likely.)
Yet for as much as those final moments overwhelm the rest of the episode in the memory, it’s easy to forget just how many incredible things happen in this episode. There’s the opening montage, which drops us right into the midst of the year-plus that’s gone by since we last saw these characters, all set to William S. Burroughs reading gnomic pronouncements about ancient Egyptian beliefs about death. There’s the sad story of Eugene Pontecorvo’s attempts to retire from the mob. There’s the great cut from Ray Curto slipping into a stroke in the car with Agent Sanseverino, to Curto’s funeral, where the mobsters have gathered to pay their respects to someone they didn’t know was ratting them out. There’s Tony and Carmela’s constant visits to a new favorite sushi restaurant, as their marriage has already fallen back into comfortable patterns, retreating from passion. (Tony seems far more passionate about the sushi than he does his wife in this episode; he even makes a joke about it.) And there’s Uncle Junior’s obsession with finding the $40,000 he says he buried in the backyard, as well as his desire to get even with Pussy Malanga, who’s long dead.
What I like about this episode is its sense of finality. Naturally, of course, everyone who worked on the series knew they were headed into the final batch of episodes (though they didn’t know as production commenced exactly how many episodes the final season would consist of), but there’s a creeping sense of dread underlying all the business as usual. Final seasons of TV shows are often about allowing changes that would have been unthinkable in prior seasons. TV series are so often about upholding the status quo from season to season that once things start to change—really change—viewers can sense that the end is nigh.
To be fair, The Sopranos was a series that indulged in change on a somewhat consistent basis. Characters were killed off, and Tony and Carmela’s marriage disintegrated, and people entered into new relationships and rekindled old ones. But the show had a way of letting us know these people were still who they’d always been, that their changing circumstances couldn’t change who they were at their core. And, furthermore, things had a way of righting themselves. No one who died was implausibly resurrected, sure, but Tony and Carm’s marriage reassembled itself in time. Relationships took root, and it wasn’t as if being married changed either Janice or Bobby all that much. They just sunk a little bit more into the rut of who they’d always been (as we see in this episode, where Janice isn’t any more warm and caring with a new baby, and Bobby is already finding non-confrontational ways to avoid her).
But some things are beyond your control. Tony can pull his marriage back together, but he can’t reassemble Uncle Junior’s mind. He can rewrite history so he was never trying to smother his mother with a pillow or so that she was in a “nursing home” instead of a “retirement community,” but his attempts to let his uncle stay out of an assisted living center only end up with him shot and bleeding on the floor. The episode opens with Agent Harris throwing up from a hastily parked car (after his partner says—in a bit of meta-commentary—“Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public”), and that’s because Harris has moved on from the mob beat. The FBI needs his services more to stop terrorism now, and he and Tony can approach each other almost as wary former colleagues when they bump into one another outside of Satriale’s. The world is changing, and whatever motivated the good old days has almost entirely leaked out of it.
It’s that grey, funereal atmosphere that most gives the episode the sense that we’re building toward a final confrontation. This is something I’m sure we’ll talk about throughout this final season, but every episode nicely conveys the sensation that something apocalyptic is just around the corner—even if nothing at all is happening. There’s always the feeling that Phil Leotardo could kick down the door and start shooting everybody, or that some dumb slip-up by one of Tony’s men will lead to a situation from which none of them can escape. What works best about “Members Only” is that it posits that Tony continues to get a bunch of lucky breaks—the deaths of Ray and Eugene remove two FBI informants from his payroll, even if he’ll never know—but those lucky breaks hinge on everybody else’s misfortune, to an almost cosmic degree. And then, of course, he gets his comeuppance, as he’s unable to cheat death for too long. (I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Tony doesn’t die—I can’t imagine anybody thinking he would back in 2006, even—but this is certainly the most serious injury he’s faced.) The price is coming due for everyone, sooner or later.
If there’s a plotline in this episode that frequently draws criticism, it’s the story of the final days of Eugene, who inherits a fair sum of money, and longs to leave the mob life behind. Instead, he’s told no both by Tony and by his FBI handlers. He’s in too deep for both organizations to ever leave New Jersey. This is his life. The only ways out are death or the can; being an informant isn’t a way out because the FBI will never have enough. How long have they been waging this investigation? And how much have they gotten on Tony?
So Eugene chooses death.
The sequence where Eugene goes from looking at photos of his son—who now has a drug problem that’s intensified Eugene’s wife’s desire to move to Florida and leave mob life behind entirely—to picking up a seashell presumably obtained on the beaches of Florida to hanging himself, all in a series of swift cuts, is both masterful and incredibly poignant. I can’t say I cared about Eugene much one way or another before this sequence, but by the end of it, it’s clear he doesn’t believe he has any other options left, at least if he wants to find a way for his family to be safe and financially secure. There’s a grim, almost undeniable logic to his choices here, and Chase, episode writer Terence Winter (who won an Emmy for this script), and director Tim Van Patten guide us through it in a succession of three shots that occupy under a minute of screentime. It feels inevitable. It almost feels right.
Death hangs all over the episode, though, and not just in the moments where the characters actually die. The opening montage—one of my favorite things the show has ever done—is scored by a William S. Burroughs reading of a prose piece about the seven souls of Egyptian mythology, listing the order in which they leave the body as they die. The episode uses the soundtrack to allow for the usual ironic juxtapositions, and while some are obvious (there’s no question why the camera focuses on Ray when Burroughs mentions “treachery”), there are others that require slightly more thought. Why, for instance, is Janice shown as “the Director,” unless we’re meant to take the sight of her nursing her baby as a reminder of how poisonous motherhood can be in the Soprano family? It’s a brilliant sequence, sure, but it also marks all of these people for death, even if we don’t get to see them die. And what will happen then?
“What happens then?” is the big question for any final season, of course. But there’s a tendency to want to rush through the answers all the same, to want to see where the story ends up, instead of pondering everything that got us here. Despite its shocking climax, “Members Only” all but insists that we contemplate the journeys these characters have taken over the past five seasons and once again reminds us—with Eugene’s photos and the money Junior has Tony dig for—that their shared histories go well beyond the beginning of the show. The Sopranos was fond of big, season-opening montages and moments, episodes that were intended to let us know where everybody had been in the time since we’d last seen them. The show had been off the air for an astonishing 21 months at that point, so it was only natural to assume it would begin with an episode that let us back into the world and showed us that, say, Vito had lost a lot of weight or that Carmela’s house wasn’t coming along as well as it might have. But at the same time, the show wanted us to know that, say, the good times that opened season two were far, far behind. We’re in the end times now, and death is all around, ready to take any and all.
Is it any wonder, then, that the show can put the one character we know won’t die in mortal jeopardy and still make it feel like an effective cliffhanger? We know Tony’s going to live, but the episode primes us to wonder just what state his soul—and the souls of the other characters—will be in when he does survive. The Burroughs piece suggests that every individual has seven souls, yet the editing aligns the characters with each of those seven souls, as if they all, as a collective, make up one dysfunctional individual body that has grown sluggish (check out the camera dwelling on Tony’s weight gain throughout).The Sopranos never once suggested that its characters were part of some larger body working together toward some greater purpose. Indeed, its mob politics were usually full of (often hilarious) sniping and back-biting. But here, we’re led to believe that if any one of these people—Ray or Eugene, even—dies, some part of the whole dies, too. The world is lesser, and the ghosts are rushing in. Everybody’s doomed. And what happens then?
- Welcome to season six of The Sopranos! I’ve been enjoying my time over in Carnivàle land, but I’ve been itching to get back here all the same, and if the constant queries on my Twitter feed and in my e-mail are any indication, many of you have felt the same way. We’ll be tackling the episodes in two separate chunks, which means we’ll be tackling the series finale sometime in late November or December. (If I didn’t take any breaks, “Made In America” would post the day before Thanksgiving, but I don’t think even I am that sadistic, so December seems more likely.) I’ve gone back to grading the episodes, because why not? This is the only season of the show I haven’t seen more than once, so it’ll be interesting to see how my opinion shifts as we watch.
- Perhaps the biggest surprise in this episode—outside of Eugene and Ray’s deaths and the shooting of Tony—is that Adriana shows up to talk to Carmela in her dream. It’s a nicely eerie moment, and it’s a reminder that the dead can visit the living on this show, even if it’s only in dreams.
- I like the way the show indicates that Tony’s sessions with Melfi have stagnated and become largely unhelpful. They’re still going over the same old ground, and Tony’s still just as unwilling to have any breakthroughs. Melfi has the dignified air of a dentist who refuses to pull any more teeth if the patient won’t stop eating gooey candy.
- This episode’s fairly light on the Soprano family, with Carmela popping up a few times, and Meadow mostly hanging around to let us know she’s still headed down the path to goodness and light (though the fact that Tony’s lawyer got her the internship she’s landed suggests the path is far more corrupted than it’s ever been before).
- I love the way this episode evokes the mid-2000s, when everything was great, and the real estate boom was carrying everybody along on its back. Yet the gloomy color palate suggests the wisdom of our current selves, looking back and knowing what’s coming. It’s an instant period piece.
- We’re shown A.J. as Burroughs intones about the devil and adolescence, and he makes a face into his cell phone in the middle of a college class. Never change, A.J.
- Our mob plot of the week involves the tensions between New York and New Jersey remaining, well, tense. Johnny Sack’s trying to broker some sort of détente, but he’s stuck in jail, though at least he’s got Ginny. That woman’s been a rock.
- I like how ridiculous Silvio looks in those sunglasses as he preens.
- The DVDs for the show open up with this trailer for HBO’s then-current offerings. What’s more, the network had just gotten done with Six Feet Under and Carnivàle, and it was about to launch Big Love and Flight Of The Conchords. Has there ever been a streak like this in American television? Even the “bad” series were so ambitious and fascinating as to put 95 percent of other television to shame. Will there ever be another streak like this again? Even HBO’s not HBO anymore, despite my love for several of the current network’s programs.
Speaking with the fishes (spoilers):
- This thing’s just crammed with symbolism and foreshadowing. The most obvious one, however, is that the title of the episode reflects a certain character who will turn up in the series finale and be the subject of intense discussion on this here Internet.
- I’ve been waiting to write about the Tony in Purgatory arc since this whole thing started, since I really do think those two episodes are terrific. I like how this episode primes you for this sort of metaphysical questioning to come.
- Bobby’s interest in model trains just might prove deadly. We’ll see.
Next week: Tony takes a trip to the West Coast in “Join The Club.”