“Moe N’ Joe” (season 6, episode 10; originally aired 5/14/2006)
In which you work until you die
“Nobody knows what goes on inside of my head,” Janice says at the end of “Moe N’ Joe.” She’s trying to thank Tony for getting her and Bobby the house that once belonged to Johnny Sack, who’s pled guilty and headed off for 15 years in prison. In order to keep his family afloat, Johnny needs the money he poured into a New Orleans firm, one of whose partners was in deep to him on gambling debts. Tony works the deal to his advantage, until he’s gotten the house for his sister. In an episode filled with moments when Tony is a vindictive prick—using passive-aggression to get back at people who have no idea why he’s lashing out—the way he robs from Johnny to pay Janice (someone who’s been stirring his anger for decades now) is one of the worst. The house is small potatoes when it comes to everything else Johnny could be asked to fork over, but it’s also symbolic of his kingdom in ruin. A man’s home is his castle, and Tony spends plenty of time razing castles in this episode.
But I think what Janice says is even more important to understanding this episode—and to understanding this show as a whole. The Sopranos has as one of its central ideas the thought that if we sat in a room with someone who was trained to listen to us talk, they might help us get to better understand our own thoughts. But that’s an impossible notion. Tony’s been going to see Melfi for years, and she still doesn’t understand things he thinks would be basic. Jim tells Vito he loves him, and Vito reciprocates, but after just a few days, Vito’s gone again. Meadow can’t figure out what’s up with Finn, why he seems to be pulling away from her. The answers are all right there for anyone who wants to pay attention—and we in the audience have nothing to do but pay attention—but they’re also all too easily ignored. You can never know someone. You can never understand what goes on inside of their head. The psyche is a scary place, and it’s all you can do to emerge from your own alive.
Several of you convincingly argued in comments last week that “The Ride” is an episode that brings a bunch of thematic strands for the season together and begins the process of paying them off. If that’s the case, then “Moe N’ Joe” does that, with an added dose of getting the plot where it needs to be for the final two episodes of this half-season. Johnny Sack heads to jail, while Vito heads back to New Jersey. Carmela’s spec-house dream seemingly dies, while Tony brokers a sort of peace with Janice. We’re heading into stuff that will take us right up to the end game here, and it’s thrilling to watch the show get its pieces in place, even if some of the moves made by the writers are too obviously those of people who need to get their characters into certain places just in time.
The episode’s title refers to a kind of model train car that features two miniature figures that unload boards from the car. They’re known as the “Moe and Joe” figures, and as Bobby’s setting up his model railroad in the garage, he asks his son if he wants to watch a little “Moe and Joe action.” (His son not-so-politely declines.) This episode is filled with images of people working to make an honest living, be they Vito taking a job as a handyman and proving to be an abject failure at it, or Angie spending the entirety of Ginny’s 50th birthday party on the phone with her garage. The characters on the show so often get what they want without working for it that the notion of doing something like real work almost never occurs to them. Tony tells Carmela that he couldn’t get the building inspector to give her a pass on the spec home, and even though he’s lying, it’s telling that her and her father’s approach to the whole thing has involved shoddy craftsmanship designed just to get the thing up and standing. At no point did anyone consider making this a good home. Cutting corners works, particularly if you want maximum profit.
The episode does a good job of depicting both the arduous nature of most 9-to-5 jobs and the way that a job well done can be its own kind of satisfaction. Watching Vito attempt to be a handyman is excruciating, particularly when he’s insisting to himself that the time must be much later than it actually is (and convincing himself not to look at his watch, since it will be all the sweeter when he finally does look and it’s lunchtime). Vito’s job looks rather idyllic, all things considered. He’s doing manual labor, yes, but it’s all being carried out in a picturesque setting, and the jobs he’s doing aren’t incredibly difficult. Yet the episode captures the way that having a job like this can make an hour stretch out into eternity. Lunch is the only good thing on Vito’s horizon, and once that’s over, all he’ll have to look forward to is the rest of the day heading downhill. Instead, a morning that seems to get longer and longer traps him.
These people wouldn’t know how to do an honest day’s work if they were forced to by the federal government. As if to drive this point home, the episode also brings in Sal Vitro, the landscaper whose life was ruined by coming into proximity with Tony and the gang last season. Sal is a great, ghoulish background joke, what with the way he hangs around the edges of scenes and continually asks if maybe, just maybe, he could stop taking care of the Sacrimoni house now that Johnny Sack is guilty. (He’s not guilty, Tony says. He just pled guilty. Maybe the government tortured him!) Carmela sees him and says, “What a mope!” and, yeah, he’s kind of mopey. Yet the character is also desperately sad: His life—and the life of his son—has been ruined, and the people who ruined it don’t seem to realize this. Instead, they see him as just another cog in the machine that keeps their lives comfortable. The smile on his face when Tony finally acquiesces to him no longer having to do the Sacrimoni house is pitch-perfect. Seeing how happy it makes him ends up driving home just how desperate he’s been all this time. The few people in this world who try to make an honest living get beaten down and beaten down and beaten down by the crooks around them.
The series has always been great about depicting the ways that Tony Soprano’s passive-aggression lashes out in unexpected ways, yet most of this half-season has kept that passive-aggression in check. There have been moments when it threatened to boil over or when the character seemed on the edge of backsliding, but he’s largely managed to stay on some sort of path away from the man he used to be. After “The Ride,” though, he’s headed downhill again. The thing you need to understand about Tony is that he’ll always believe that he’s had it the roughest, that his pain is unique and unlike anybody else’s. When Melfi finally gets to the root of why he’s so upset with Janice—because of how she left him to deal with their mother—his pain is palpable. James Gandolfini plays so much of this episode as a wheeze that when his voice rises here, it feels like something might explode.
And so Tony’s passive-aggression returns in force. He takes out his anger at Janice on Bobby, for no real good reason. When Carmela’s too busy to deal with, say, Meadow’s concerns about her relationship with Finn, he simply cancels Sil going to lean on the building inspector. He turns on Johnny Sack after the man pleads guilty, and he lashes out in the way that will most hurt his former friend—by depriving his wife of the home she was meant to live in until she died. All of these decisions spiral outward, until it seems everybody’s touched by the toxicity in one way or another. Janice interprets him giving her the house as an act of kindness, and it is on one level. But on another level, it’s just a way for him to get back at a man he no longer respects in the cheapest way possible. If Tony had a chance at redemption, it’s officially gone now. He’s returned to the spiteful man he was in past seasons, the man who has no time for anyone but himself. (Hell, even Meadow, to whom he was always willing to talk in the past, is an inconvenience for him here. He just wants to have his breakfast, dammit!)
As the season has frequently done, Tony’s progress, or lack thereof, is contrasted with Vito’s up in New Hampshire. Vito’s finally honest with Jim about what he’s doing in that little town. He’s not a writer. He’s from New Jersey, and some bad shit went down, and now, he’s on the run, hiding out. (Of course, he doesn’t tell Jim the truth about what he did for a living.) For a while, it seems like Vito’s ability to express his vulnerability might save him again—that moment where both he and Jim confess their love for each other is unexpectedly tender and moving—but soon enough, he’s on the way out. He just can’t abide a life where he doesn’t get things the easy way. He can’t abide a life where the fun ends before midnight because everybody’s got work in the morning.
The life Tony and Vito are trapped in is as addicting as any substance that reels Chris in. Look at Vito driving home to Jersey from New Hampshire, tears streaking his cheeks, bottle of vodka at his lips. He fails to see a man parked in the road, getting his mail, and he slams into the guy’s car. The man is like the Platonic ideal of Sopranos guest characters who end up in very bad places for just happening to have their lives intersect with those of this crime family, and, of course, he ends up with a bullet in his head, collapsed in the white snow. (It’s a beautiful shot.) What’s fascinating here is that this doesn’t have to happen like this. That guy could still have his life. Vito could still be with Jim. Everything could end up in a “better” fashion, so long as Vito just does the right thing, instead of the easy thing. Yet the easy thing is so, so easy. Why deal with the police and with insurance and with people who will just alert everyone that you’ve come back when you could simply make the problem go away?
The Sopranos has always carried within it not-so-veiled critiques of American society, comparing and contrasting the world of Tony and his fellow gang members with the world of the average American in the late 1990s and 2000s. That critique has grown all the more explicit in this final season. References to Katrina, Dick Cheney, and government corruption are plentiful, and the show is all too happy to drop in venal and corrupt fellow Americans who don’t break any laws but share some of the same philosophies as Tony. The men who make an honest living are the ones who are constantly trod upon by Tony and his fellow men of power, and there’s less and less room for someone to break out of this stranglehold. You play along, or you lose everything.
Yet that critique of America as a whole has grown incredibly damning in “Moe N’ Joe.” This isn’t one of the series’ very best episodes, but it’s one that leaves a bruise, and the more you look at it, the more obvious it is that it implicates each and every one of us. Nobody really tries to understand those around us who are hurting, tries to figure out what’s going on inside of their heads. Nobody alive always does the right thing instead of the easy thing. Being a human is all too often about finding comfortable spots and then settling into them for the long haul, regardless of whom that leaves out in the cold. When this series began, the idea that viewers would identify with Tony Soprano was treated as a surprising act by the audience on the part of some critics, yet the longer the show ran, the more David Chase made explicit that each and every person watching had at least a little Tony Soprano in them. You’re not evil, and you’re not an enabler of evil, almost certainly, but you’ve probably been petty and selfish and passive-aggressive and destructive. And at every turn, that man is there, huffing and wheezing and grinning like the devil himself.
- This series is so good at portraying changes in mood through very small things like costuming and set decoration. Look at the women greeting Ginny Sack for the birthday party and see just how thoroughly the series’ production designers let you know that Ginny is not doing well at all entirely through visual elements.
- I love Sil hanging up the porn poster in the back office, then turning to Tony to ask just why he’ll be visiting the building inspector. (I believe the line is, “To what end,” which always cracks me up.)
- Vincent Curatola was always one of the less heralded members of the show’s ensemble, but he was really fantastic in this episode, particularly in the moment when he confesses to being a member of the mafia, which ostracizes him forever from everybody else.
- Wikipedia informs me the family is watching Canadian football at the end. I have no idea why this would be the case.
- I liked Vito’s moment of triumph, but I don’t entirely get why Jim would be so upset about what happened. It all seemed pretty safe to me.
- I always like seeing Barbara, the Soprano child who escaped. When the show was running, I always wanted an episode about her, but I don’t know that such a thing would have worked. She’s better with a little mystery.
- More consequences spiraling outward unexpectedly: Chris’ car is seized by the feds in the wake of the Johnny Sack deal, because he bought it from Ginny when she wasn’t supposed to be selling it.
Speaking With The Fishes (spoilers):
- I believe that’s the last time we ever see Finn, that tiny, little glimpse of the character in the family dinner scene. I don’t think he turns up in “Cold Stones” or “Kaisha,” and I know he’s not in the final nine.
- It seems to me like Frank Vincent is doing an excellent job of building toward Phil’s heart attack this time through. Now that I know it’s coming, I can see his stress level increasing by the episode.
- “Blue Comet” foreshadowing: Bobby plays with his trains (which are used symbolically, to depict Vito and Jim’s coupling), and the final song that plays over the end credits is all about a train bearing down on someone working on a railroad track.
Next week: Vito’s back in town, and that’s almost certainly not going to go well in “Cold Stones.”