“Stage 5” (season 6, episode 14; originally aired 4/15/2007)
In which, sooner or later, everything ends…
There is no Stage Five. Stage Five is death.
That’s what John Sacrimoni concludes after hearing he has Stage IV cancer. It’s spread from his lungs all over his body, including to his brain. (“That would explain the headaches,” he says.) His doctor, a Dr. Rosen from Cleveland, says he’s got maybe three months to live. His wife and daughter are called in. The death sentence seems the final indignity to him, the final punishment heaped upon a life that was once so richly rewarded. He started eating healthily, stopped smoking. And for what? To be taken before his time by a disease that devours him whole? The guard that accompanies him on his doctor visit says that what he did was still the right thing, but that’s cold comfort now, now that everything is falling apart. The death sentence also, weirdly, frees him. He takes up smoking again. He seems to be disintegrating.
Has there been another major television series as obsessed with death as The Sopranos? The obvious answer, of course, is Six Feet Under, which was about a family that worked in a funeral parlor; but I’d say that show, marked by the end though it was, was much more about life, about the ways that we try to make a mark before the inevitable comes for us. The Sopranos, on the other hand, was increasingly about how death is on its way for us all, but still we merrily skip past that fact, trying to ignore it, because most of us are going to waste our lives anyway. Tony and the gang stand a better shot at having their lives cut unexpectedly short than most of us do, and they seem to do nothing with that knowledge. They spend their lives getting caught up in trivialities and bullshit, until something happens, and they figure out what’s going on after the person they’re dining with has been shot.
“Stage 5” is a grim episode, but it’s also a necessary one for this point in the show. Much of its running time is taken up by watching Johnny Sack slowly fall apart, until we’re there as his family attends his passing. What isn’t taken up by that is filled with other hints that death will come for all of these guys sooner or later, from the dinner Silvio attends at which Gerry Torciano is killed, to the very fact that Christopher’s movie is a slasher film. In medieval cultures, a work of art meant to make people contemplate their own mortality was called a memento mori, which roughly translates as “remember that you will die.” These usually took the form of paintings of skulls or other human remains, and they were meant to create a certain soberness among those who looked upon them. This tradition has evolved and mutated into all sorts of weird directions (including, arguably, horror films), but the more the guys of The Sopranos are forced to stare at memento mori, the more they seem to shrug their shoulders and move onto something else. They have other stuff to do. Better not to think about the end, lest it overwhelm everything else.
The meta-level of this narrative, of course, is that The Sopranos was a show forced to contemplate its own end at this point in its run. With only seven episodes left after this, the series didn’t have very much room to maneuver, and it spends “Stage 5” setting up prospective final season plotlines as assuredly as “Soprano Home Movies” avoided them. We get the sense that the long-threatened, never-carried-out war between New York and New Jersey is going to move forward (along with, perhaps, some civil warring among the various New York factions), and the slow death of Johnny Sack is a reminder of just one possible end for Tony—dying in prison, both he and his family shells of what they were. One of the canny things about the final nine episodes of The Sopranos is the way they suggest possible endings for the characters, leaving the show room to let life continue on its merry way. The hit that takes out Gerry, for instance, perfectly suggests how a hit like it could bump off Tony Soprano, just as Johnny Sack’s condition suggests how he could die of disease in prison. The characters are all marked by mortality, by injury, by infirmity—but they mostly don’t care. The audience is invited to care very much, because the audience is actively trying to figure out how this is all going to fit together into a satisfying ending.
Another thing that marks this as a final-season episode is the way that it begins to pay off some of the relationships that the series has been building all of this time. It’s a bit of a shock to realize we haven’t seen Dr. Melfi once until she appears late in the episode, but there she is, trying to help Tony work through his complicated feelings about Christopher. Christopher’s film, Cleaver, is a revenge fantasy (Carmela’s term) about a mobster whose boss sleeps with his fiancée. The mobster then returns from beyond the grave—meat cleaver for a hand—to wreak his vengeance upon those who wronged him. At the film’s end—which we see at the beginning of the episode, a neat way to suggest the episode’s preoccupation with the end of all things—the mobster finally has his revenge against his boss, hacking him to death in a garage. Cut to two trinkets dangling from the rearview mirror, a crucifix and an Italian good luck charm. (Or, as Little Carmine would have it, “the sacred and the propane.”)
Tony doesn’t really give a shit about the way the boss is portrayed at first, even though he recognizes that, hey, a bigger guy who wanders around, ranting in his basement, wearing a bathrobe, just might have a real-world inspiration. (Also, it takes Carmela pointing out the similarities to even start him on this path.) What’s fascinating about all of this is that Tony is certainly savvy. He’s smart enough to realize that when J.T. Dolan comes in to explain how he took the relationship between the boss and the mobster’s fiancée from the movie Born Yesterday, that’s probably a sign that Chris sent J.T. in to deflect attention from himself. The revelation sends him spiraling in therapy, offering one of the first times we’ve seen him cry in a while. He raised Christopher almost like a son, and he remembers the way that Christopher’s own father was a mentor figure—more than a mentor figure—to a young Tony. There should be so much love between those two, but there just isn’t.
But if Tony is savvy about what Chris is up to, he’s also not terribly self-aware. It takes a long, long time for him to finally see that the story of Cleaver is an act of fictional retribution, a younger man lashing out at his father figure via on-screen counterparts. It’s just a movie, he says. It’s fictional! But the more he realizes that other people saw so much of him in the mob boss, the more he understands that even if no one else in the world will look at Daniel Baldwin in that movie and see Tony Soprano, his closest friends and associates will. And there’s nothing he can really do about that. Chris has plausible deniability, and even if he didn’t, Chris has proved to be one of Tony’s great weak spots, someone he can’t punish even when he probably should. Cleaver is designed as a way for Chris to attempt to snipe back over perceived wounds from things that didn’t even happen, but would have had a car accident not stopped them. It’s a very, very small way for Chris to lash out at his boss, a man who takes and takes and takes and doesn’t understand when that doesn’t work for everybody.
I’ve compared Tony to a cancer a number of times in these reviews, and the Cleaver storyline is yet another example of how the emotional scars from things he did in the past continue to haunt those who have to live with them in the present. (I’m always amazed by how skillfully the final nine episodes use the idea of Adriana’s death hanging over everything that happens, even though Drea de Matteo is long gone, off to do Joey.) Like cancer, Tony’s never really gone from the system, even if he seems to be. You can isolate yourself—as Chris does by trying his best to not hang around the places he used to go, the better to preserve his sobriety. You can try to limit the influence he has over your life. But he’s always going to be there, a constant, lurking presence that could reach up and destroy you at any time.
It’s fitting, then, that Johnny Sack, who’s always been a funhouse mirror version of Tony, should be killed by the very disease Tony seems to embody. This episode is simply brutal in depicting the way the cancer destroys Johnny from the inside out, and the final scenes, when he’s gasping in his hospital bed and seeing the image of his deceased mother, seemingly beckoning him toward the afterlife, are as hard-hitting as anything else the series had done. This is the first time we’ve seen Vincent Curatola since the first half of the season, and he’s a shell of who he was: hair gone, skin sallow, face gaunt. Much of this is probably makeup, but Curatola has also seemingly shrunk up inside himself, showing how the disease has ravaged him.
The most intriguing part of this storyline is Warren, a friend Johnny makes while wasting away, played by Sydney Pollack. Like the character played by Hal Holbrook did for Tony, Warren gives Johnny Sack something to think about, something to hope for, something to puzzle over. He’s also mostly peddling hope he can’t really give Johnny Sack. Dr. Rosen gives John three months, but Warren, consulting his chart, is certain that he could have a year, maybe even three years. Warren, see, used to be a top oncologist, before he shot his wife and her aunt after suspecting his wife was cheating her. (He was also high on cocaine at the time, he says.) But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have the knowledge, as Johnny Sack keeps alleging.
But Warren’s wrong. Maybe he would have been right with another man, with another instance of the disease. In Johnny Sack’s case, though, the cancer is too aggressive. Though the episode seems to take place only over the course of a couple of weeks, that’s all it takes for him to be utterly reduced. He says his good-byes to his family. He has a few chats with Warren. He dies. And once he passes, no one really seems to care. His brother-in-law brings the news of his passing to the Soprano crew, and the moment is marked with a toast, one that Paulie mostly makes about how he beat cancer. It’s just another passing, another indignity. And the roster of characters hanging onto their grudges grows longer and longer, to the point where Phil—who has placed pictures of Carmine, Johnny Sack, and his brother atop the mantle at a favorite bar—traces his own grudges all the way back to the mopes at Ellis Island who took the name “Leonardo” and made it “Leotardo.” Even in the immediate wake of a major, major death, these people can’t see past their own minor preoccupations.
As the rhythmic thump of “Evidently Chickentown” (one of the great, unexpected song choices in TV history) kicks in, the scene cuts to the Soprano family at the christening of Chris and Kelli’s baby. For a moment, all is well enough for Tony to hug his nephew, but we know how the past continues to drive these characters, how their deeply held grudges will never be let go. Everybody on the show is being eaten alive from the inside. Johnny Sack, at least, was eaten by a disease, one that eventually killed him. The others are being destroyed by bitterness and bile and the inability to see what’s coming. Even when Tony and Chris hug, they’re as far apart as they’ve ever been, and the gulf just keeps getting wider.
- Another Sacrimoni/Soprano connection: John’s family is a sort of mirror version of Tony’s family, minus Tony. His two daughters fit fairly neatly in comparison to Barbara and Janice, though Allegra doesn’t seem to have any of Janice’s many issues. Catherine, however, with her attempts to basically purge her family out of her life, lines up very neatly with Barbara.
- Daniel Baldwin is quite a bit of fun in one of the better celebrity cameos the show did. He struts around like he’s trying to make everybody think he owns the place, even if he knows he doesn’t.
- Another gag I like: The director of the film doesn’t get to speak at the screening, instead being cut off after speeches from Chris and Little Carmine.
- If “Soprano Home Movies” was fairly small-scale, this one is a big sprawling episode, but the series works just as effectively in that fashion. Every series regular—save Dominic Chianese—is in the episode in one place or another, and the vast cast of recurring characters is well-represented, too, right down to the return of Matt Weiner as the mob expert.
- I will never tire of Kupferberg’s fascination with the mob, nor with Chris heaping abuse upon J.T. Dolan.
- The FBI extends to Tony the same offer it extended to Chris: If any of his people see something odd with Middle Easterners, he should tell them about it. Harris even offers the chilling thought that Meadow takes the tunnel into the city, and maybe Tony should worry about that, in terms of terrorism. Tony, for his part, rages about how “unsafe” it is for him to be picking up his newspaper. (Edie Falco’s responses in this scene are great.)
- A.J. and Blanca are having a fight of some sort, but we never get to hear what it’s all about. We do get confirmation that Meadow and Finn’s engagement is over.
Speaking With The Fishes (spoilers):
- The scene in which Silvio is present for the death of Gerry is a fairly major piece of the case for Tony dying in the final scene of the series. That said, I don’t see the shot-matching between this sequence and the one in the finale that some do. I do think it’s a pretty impressive thematic extension of the idea that you don’t really see death coming in circumstances like that, as opposed to Johnny Sack, who definitely sees it coming.
- The episode exploits the growing rift between Tony and Chris, a rift that would result in Tony killing Chris in the wake of their car accident in “Kennedy And Heidi.” Much of this season seems to be about building rifts between Tony and long-time loyalists.
- A.J. still isn’t quite the would-be moralist he becomes later in the season. We have to wait for Blanca to dump him for that to happen.
Next week: We learn that “Remember When” is the lowest form of conversation.