“Mr. & Mrs. John Sacrimoni Request…” (season 6, episode 5; originally aired 4/9/2006)
In which there is a wedding, and the show circles back to its roots
When The Sopranos began, it was a show about a man who did not want his secret getting out so he would appear weak to his co-workers. That secret was that he was seeing a therapist, and his co-workers were mobsters, but it was a very basic, masculine impulse he had, and it was very relatable. Few men want to appear weak. Most men at least want to appear to be somewhere in the primate power rankings, even if they know they’re in the middle somewhere. Nobody wants to be the guy at the bottom, and fantasies about being the guy at the top are common. Tony Soprano actually was the guy at the top, except when his uncle and mother got in his way, and he cut through the obstacles they set in front of him with a directness and a viciousness that made him both a little frightening and oddly alluring. You didn’t think you wanted to be Tony Soprano, but deep down, the idea of being him was incredibly exciting.
It’s that idea of weakness that the show has circled back around to in its final season. Yet that “weakness” isn’t anything that the men who express it have chosen. You could make a roundabout argument in season one that Tony should have repressed all of his anger and issues, the better to make him more like Gary Cooper (and the better to drive him to more and more panic attacks), but you can’t make the argument here that he shouldn’t be suffering so from his gunshot wound. Getting shot in the gut is something that takes time to recuperate from, and Tony’s fears that his crew will look for a way to undermine his authority seem a little paranoid until you realize that, well, it’s these guys. Similarly, Vito’s weakness is his homosexuality, and that’s something he can’t exactly wish away. (You have to assume he’s tried.) Johnny Sack’s weakness is his love for his daughter, his wish to spend just a little more time out of jail with his family. That weakness manifests as tears, and Phil scoffs that his respect for the man has plummeted. But can John help the way he feels about his daughter? Tony, at least, seems skeptical.
“Mr & Mrs. John Sacrimoni Request” so gradually works around to its point that you don’t really see it coming the first time you watch. Tony spends a lot of the hour in pain, moving slowly as he returns to work after six weeks of recuperation. He nearly passes out when he has to remove his shoes for the metal detector at the wedding, and he spends time just taking others in, sizing them up to see what they’re all about. (He spends a lot of time looking at his new musclebound driver’s arms early in the hour, and he later looks over the physique of nearly every guy on his crew.) But when Melfi suggests to him that he needs to act like nothing’s changed if he wants his crew to treat him like nothing’s changed, it becomes clear what’s going to happen: Tony, who’s been something of a pacifist for these last two episodes, is going to pick a fight to prove he’s still on top.
The fight he picks is quick and brutal and out of nowhere. It’s not really a fair fight because the man he beats down—that driver—knows he can’t really fight back. If he did, he could seriously injure Tony, and if he did, he’d be handing the family boss a walloping. So there’s some element here of him taking the beating for the good of his continued employment (and survival). But there’s also the element of ugliness that the best fights on this show have, the sense that this violence has simply erupted out of nowhere, a terrifying punctuation mark that these guys live with day in and day out. Tony wheezes his way through the fight, but he’s the victor. Then he steps into the bathroom and vomits blood. He looks into the mirror and lets a terrifying smile cross his face. Then he vomits again.
Which of these is the “true” Tony Soprano? Is it the gentle father who has apparently been needling his wife about their daughter’s wedding plans? Or is it the man who beats on an underling just to prove that he’s still the boss of the family? When the series began, it was suggested that the man could contain both, that a caring family man could occupy the same body as a bad husband, a criminal, and a murderer. Tony Soprano could infect the groundwater of everything around him, so even people who had only incidental contact with him were soon wishing they’d never met him or his crew. But he could also be a doting father to his daughter, someone who saw something of her in other young women around him and wasn’t sure how to cut them the breaks that Meadow had received.
As the series reaches its conclusion, however, we’re seeing more and more a struggle between the two sides of Tony. It’s nothing so simple as some sort of Jekyll and Hyde scenario, but there is the sense that this man has a switch he’s had mostly flipped off since he emerged from his coma that he’s now flipped on again. When he smiles into the mirror, is that the face of the true self, returning to the surface after being buried away for a couple of months? Or is the true self the man who has to immediately vomit into the toilet, the man who’s just a man and not the force of nature he’d rather be? Most critics—including me, I guess—read this season of The Sopranos as a question of whether Tony can change, whether he can make a turn toward redemption after a life of terrible deeds. But there’s another big question at work here for all of the characters: Just how much do you embrace your true self? And just how much do you try to keep that true self buried if what you find is a devil leering back at you in your reflection?
The easiest places to turn in this regard are Vito and John, who both find themselves “found out” as soft as the episode comes to its conclusion. Most of us would see John’s outburst as the perfectly normal reaction of a man who’s already missing his family and his short burst of happiness. Yet Phil sees it as something disgusting, something to be shunned at all costs. Tony might say that he’s seen tougher guys have more emotional moments at weddings, but Phil’s laying down the stakes that much of the rest of the season will play out with: To show any sign of weakness is to show your ultimate weakness, and Phil refuses to put up with that. Tony, who spends much of the hour alleviating conflict and attempting to avoid carrying out the hit on Rusty, is up against someone who will all but force him to be ruthless if he’s going to stay alive and in a position of power. On some level, he realizes this, which is why he brings it up to Melfi. But he doesn’t really realize it until he’s in that back room with the rest of his crew, trying to get back on his feet after his injury knocked him down. The more sentimental and approachable John, who could be appealed to on the level of pure emotion, is out of the picture. Phil’s in charge now, and to beat him, you have to join him in his own ruthless game.
Vito, meanwhile, sits at the wedding, looking unfulfilled. He collects his wife and kids and heads home, before heading out for the evening to dance at a leather bar with fellow gay men. What he doesn’t know is that the bar is on the rounds of two of his associates from New York, nor does he know that this is their night to make collections. When he runs into them, he simply turns tail and heads out of town, telling his wife everything will be all right as he packs a bag and calling Silvio from a hotel to figure out how much of a head start he has. (Sil’s consternation at being awakened at 3 a.m. in this scene is great.) The price of John’s weakness is simply the loss of esteem, but he’s already in jail. There’s not much that will change for him because of it. The price of Tony’s weakness is the potential loss of authority, but he’s in a position to do something about that. The price of Vito’s weakness, simply, is death. There might have been room for a mobster who attended therapy at one time, but there’s not going to be room for a gay mobster. And so he runs.
The Vito storyline that kicks off in this episode is one of the more controversial aspects of season six (right up there with the coma dream). Much of this stems from the fact that it asks us to invest a lot of concern into the emotions of a character who’s been, at best, on the periphery up until this point. While the idea of a gay mobster being found out is an interesting one to build an arc around, theoretically, Vito being given such a place of prominence feels off, as if the show were promoting an extra to a starring role to kill some time while it figured out where to end the story. (There’s also a fair amount of homophobia in the response to this storyline—at least when it originally aired—but I don’t think we’ll have any of that here.) Yet I rather like most aspects of the Vito storyline—I’m not sure Joseph Gannascoli’s performance is up to the level required, and if it were, I think there’d be less consternation about the storyline in general—but for very different reasons than I meant to, I suspect.
Look at how many characters in this season are trapped from the simple pleasures of life by either literal prisons or prisons of their own making. The major setpiece of this episode is a lengthy wedding for an extremely ancillary character we’ve never been asked to care for before, the daughter of a man whose life has always been paralleled to Tony but who hasn’t been even in the top 10 of the show’s most important characters. Or, put another way, look at how many characters this season are rotting away from death or disease, how the episode breaks in the middle of the wedding sequence to show us a Junior who’s scared and alone and not sure just how he ended up in this psychological ward. Why would he fire on his nephew? The gun must have malfunctioned! We’ve also got John’s father, a man riddled with disease who doesn’t understand what Tony and John are talking about, thus making the perfect smokescreen.
You only get so many chances in life to seize the kind of life you want to lead. On some level, you probably know what would make you happy, but going after that happiness will often destroy everything you have built up. John’s not in a place to escape his prison, because there are men with guns who make sure he returns to it. Vito is, but he also doesn’t know any other way to live his life than in suspicion and fear of what might be around the corner. Junior’s brain has become his own prison, and he’s frustrated and afraid by the fact that he increasingly can’t escape its bars. These sorts of traps are set up and set off for nearly every single character throughout this final season, but we’re already being asked what cost this life has had for many of these men, or if maybe they wouldn’t have been happier just leaving it completely behind.
And then there’s Tony, where we don’t know what the prison is, exactly. Is the prison the fact that he’s constantly required to show his authority, to be the tough, violent man who can respond to any threat? Or is the prison in the fact that his injury gives him an excuse to not be that guy? When you look at the world from Tony Soprano’s point of view, is the greater monster the softly smiling guy who talks his driver out of beating up the two kids who cause him offense, or the wickedly smiling man in the mirror? He talks a lot about how every day now is a gift, and he seems to mean it. Yet he gets just as much pleasure out of beating up his underling as he does laying quietly in bed with his wife. It’s just a different kind of pleasure. Can Tony Soprano change? Sure. But does he want to?
- The movie Marie is watching when Vito heads out is Imitation Of Life, directed by Douglas Sirk. Sirk’s sumptuous images and melodramatic plots made him a favorite of gay filmmaker Todd Haynes, who frequently deals in LGBT themes, and he made a Sirk tribute called Far From Heaven in 2002, which was essentially a spin on Sirk’s usual themes involving gay men in the ‘50s (among other things). It’s well worth a look, if it sounds at all appealing.
- Weird things: Cristin Milioti, who plays Catherine Sacrimoni (the daughter who doesn’t want to talk about food all of the time) was just nominated for a Tony Award a couple of weeks ago for her role in Once: The Musical.
- The casting department did great work finding that wedding band. They really do sound like they’ve played every reception up and down Long Island.
- I like that small scene of Tony just hanging out with Carmela as she gets everything ready for their wedding gift. Meadow looking on, as if realizing that, yeah, marriage really is that boring, is a nice touch.
- Tony watching A.J.’s date take a puff on a cigarette after she says she won’t ingest the toxins in fish always makes me laugh. James Gandolfini’s expression is wonderfully deadpan.
- I like Rick’s hesitation to call Johnny Sack “dad.” This show was always great at casting guest stars who suggested that if it suddenly decided to do a whole episode about that particular character, it would be a worthwhile experience. And who wouldn’t want to see an episode about that guy?
- I love Christopher’s confusion about what Allegra meaning happy in Italian has to do with cold medicine and Allegra telling Ginny, “You came this close to almost making your goal!”
Speaking With The Fishes (spoilers):
- I feel like Meadow’s arc that will lead her away from Finn and toward becoming the sort of lawyer who will keep men like her father out of prison really begins here, where she is incensed at the way the government makes Johnny Sack pay for all of the additional security.
- I had forgotten how much the show plays a fake-out game with the two guys who seem like they could be terrorists. Wait! They need firearms?! But why?
- This week’s death omen: That damn song about the chapel in the valley ostensibly is meant to suggest that the final verse, which never plays and is about the main character’s death, points toward Tony’s death, because there are bells that ring for him as well in Holstein’s. I dunno. That one seems like a big stretch to me.
Next week: News of Vito’s night out spreads throughout the two families, and he’s forced to “Live Free Or Die.”