“The Blue Comet” (season 6, episode 20; originally aired 6/3/2007)
In which Bobby actually does see it coming
The Sopranos gained a reputation for loading up its penultimate episodes with action almost by accident. After all, there’s a damn big moment in the first season finale—when Tony tries to kill his mother—and in almost every other finale thereafter. (The exception is “Kaisha,” which was never meant to bear the burden of a season finale anyway.) No, what the penultimate episodes of the show’s seasons did was manage to surprise us with big moments we didn’t always see coming. Janice kills her abusive boyfriend and cleans up something Tony has been needing to take care of. Christopher finds out Adriana’s been informing the feds, finally, and it proceeds exactly as you might expect, after a brief tease of hope for the doomed woman. Vito comes back to Jersey and wanders right into the dragon’s den. These storylines, by and large, bring some of the most important thematic storylines of their respective seasons to a point of closure, and that makes them feel like the real climax, leaving the season finale to mop up what’s left behind.
In keeping with this tradition, “The Blue Comet” is a barnburner of an episode. After seven straight episodes of mostly allusive passages, of episodes that don’t always seem to have concrete meaning and invite the audience to interpret what they could possibly have to do with anything, “The Blue Comet” is much more straightforward and plot-heavy. This is not to say that it doesn’t contain its own passages of stark beauty and thematic heft—the scene in the train shop, for instance—but it’s primarily concerned with ushering Bobby Baccalieri out of this world, putting Silvio Dante into a coma, and showing how the Soprano crew allowed itself to get outplayed by Phil, who lives to fight another day. The last 10 minutes almost feel like David Chase thumbing his nose at the section of the audience that wanted a more straightforward mob drama by saying, hey, I could have made something like that, and it would have kicked ass. Those final scenes are rife with tension, and when Tony beds down in his mother’s old house, assault rifle in his hands, it’s very easy to believe the next episode might open with a giant gun battle on the Jersey streets.
Yet, for as much death as this episode has and for as much as it has in the way of moving the seasonal plot forward—indeed, it might have something like 95 percent of the season’s plot movement on the mob-storyline front—the truly devastating moment here is when Dr. Melfi finally has enough of her most famous patient and kicks him out of her office once and for all. As the series has gone on, fewer and fewer people have been willing to stand up to Tony Soprano, but now that he’s in a place where he might genuinely be able to do with some sage counsel and hard-headed advice, he no longer has the one woman who was anything like a moral compass around. The scene where she kicks Tony out of therapy might be the most significant in the whole run of the series, actually, because it finally argues that there’s no helping Tony Soprano. And maybe that makes Melfi a chump, and maybe it tries too hard to turn Tony into a monster, but it gets at something very important to the show’s overall message: You can’t change unless you want to.
Tony, of course, doesn’t want to. Why would he? Changing would ultimately mean that he’d have to leave behind his line of work, which has been very good to him. Changing would mean he’d have to embark on a sort of moral-accountability tour, and he most certainly doesn’t want to think about all of the people he’s ruined or killed. Changing would mean owning up to all of the awful poison he spreads around him and having some empathy for the many, many people he’s hurt over the course of the series, including those closest to him. To do any of these things would stop the perpetual motion that is Tony Soprano, would cause him to freeze in his tracks and look back, and that’s something he simply can’t afford to do. The only way to survive in the modern mafia The Sopranos depicts is to mercilessly keep moving forward, to keep selling vitamin pills and power drills, if you want to make any money at all. And that might make Tony a more effective mobster, but it also makes him, effectively, untreatable.
I’ll be honest: I find the whole “Tony is a sociopath, and he probably can’t be treated, and Melfi realizes this and kicks him out of therapy” storyline a little abrupt. I like the heft it has within the episode, where Tony needs something stable to latch onto, and Melfi refuses to offer it to him. And I like the way that it once again situates her as the one moral person in the show’s universe. But it’s also something that rises up out of nowhere and doesn’t seem to have a lot of grounding in the story of the characters’ relationship, even if we view it solely through the prism of this half-season. Yes, Tony has been skipping out on sessions, and yes, Melfi might look at that and realize he’s a man who cares only for himself, but it also feels incredibly heavy-handed, particularly when Melfi is reading the study in bed, and the show is helpfully highlighting particular passages for us.
That almost doesn’t matter, though, because the scene where Melfi finally kicks him out of therapy is one of the strongest for both James Gandolfini and Lorraine Bracco in the whole series. Here’s the one person who holds any real power over Tony, the one person who knows what goes on inside his head, and she’s telling him he’ll never get better. She stops short of telling him just why he’ll probably never get better, but she doesn’t waver from her course. Once she sees him ripping that page out of the magazine in her waiting room, she’s done. Here’s a man who just doesn’t give a shit, and never will give a shit. That makes him someone she can’t treat. She’s trying to give a new limb to an emotional amputee. It’ll never work. The final shot of this dazzling sequence, where the two never really yell at each other, yet spit some of the harshest things they’ll ever say at each other in friendly tones, purposefully apes the final shot of The Godfather. Only instead of Michael shutting Kay out of his man’s world, his world of violence and bravado and unchecked machismo, Melfi is shutting Tony out of her world, a world of healing and culture and moving forward. Tony could have been a part of that world. Hell, maybe there’s a chance he still could be. But she won’t be his fellow passenger. In both cases, that door slamming shut is meant to be a tragedy, but for very different reasons.
I don’t think it’s a mistake that the barely restrained chaos that’s threatened to rain down around Tony all season finally begins to in earnest once Melfi decides to stop treating him. The hit on Phil goes south when the Italian assassins kill his mistress and her father (also possessed of a shock of bright white hair) instead, and Tony is forced to suffer through a dinner where he realizes that the Buccos—or, rather, Charmaine Bucco—finally have the slightest of slight things to hold over Tony and Carmela’s heads, as they must know how unhappy the two are about Meadow dating Patrick and going to law school. (This is the first appearance by the Buccos in this half-season, and I love the look of smug self-satisfaction Charmaine wears throughout.)
Then, everything explodes. Having learned that the assassins botched the hit, Tony orders everyone in his organization to go to ground. The order gets out too late to save everyone. Bobby misses the call because his phone is in the pocket of his jacket when he goes shopping for a new expensive toy train (after Janice complains about how the couple doesn’t have the money to properly care for Junior). Silvio is just too late, as he and Patsy are waylaid by other gunmen and drawn into a gun battle. Patrons and strippers from the Bing watch the fight, who gasp in titillation and horror at the gunshots, then at the would-be killers peeling out of the parking lot and causing a hapless motorcycle rider to swerve and fall off his bike. Yet nobody does anything to help. It’s tempting to read this as Chase’s swipe at the portion of his audience that just wanted unending mob violence—and plenty of critics have—but I see it as just another expression of his cynicism about human nature. We all love the blood and guts until it’s we who are spilling them.
The Bobby scene is particularly notable for what his mind is on when the hit men come to whack him. He’s thinking about his completely innocent hobby, the thing he’d rather be doing than just about anything else nowadays, according to Janice way back in “Members Only.” The train shop proprietor, after reminding Bobby of the price, is pleased to hear he’s going to buy the Blue Comet, telling him that his son will enjoy it as well. “He don’t care,” says Bobby, the last words he’ll ever say, and there’s real heartbreak there. If the first season of this show was about mothers and sons, maybe the last season of this show is about fathers and their sons, the unbridgeable gulf that inevitably opens up between them, especially in cultures where it’s impossible to really express emotion and affection. Bobby looks at the Blue Comet, dreaming of all it represents. It’s a better time, when classy ladies and gentlemen traveled in style between New York and Atlantic City. It’s the kind of innocence he’s always seemed to possess, despite his line of work. It’s the hope for a son that might reach out to him again. It’s the man he, and so many like him on this show, might have been.
It’s also, quite literally, the train barreling down the tracks, the one he should see coming but doesn’t until it’s too late. The final scene of the episode briefly flashes back to the moment when Bobby tells Tony that he bets you don’t even see death coming, and it seems odd, because Bobby really does see his death coming, in the form of two gunmen who close in on him. Yet, at the same time, he doesn’t, at least not until it’s too late. He’s so lost in his reverie, his thoughts about that other life and that other Bobby, that he doesn’t even bother to do anything to avoid the gunmen. They shoot him, and the episode cuts between the very real violence and the pretend mayhem of the train set. A bloodied Bobby crashes through the table, trains and figures going everywhere, and that’s the end of that. His life ends, but so does whatever hope he had for anything else.
That’s the worst thing death does: It freezes you. Until you die, you are someone who has the potential for change, the potential for betterment, the potential to get even worse. Until you die, you are a person living in a present tense, capable of motion and not stasis. Yet all death is is stasis. Throughout its final season, The Sopranos argues that to get stuck, to not realize the daily gifts you receive just from being alive, is to be metaphorically dead, to be someone who’s consigned to the past tense and doesn’t even know it. And in some ways, that’s even worse than getting gunned down in a model-train shop, or being put into a coma in a gun battle, or being knocked off your motorcycle in the middle of oncoming traffic, because nobody can help death. It’s coming for all of us. But change is growth. Growth is life. To stop improving, to get stuck in your own rut and not battle back when you must (as Melfi does) is to be dead before the gunmen get to you. And not one of us will ever see it coming.
- I searched and searched for an organic way to work this into the above, but there just isn’t one. The photos that Carmela and Rosalie—another reminder of death in this episode—look over are from their Paris trip back in “Cold Stones.” And remember what Carmela realized there? That it’s not worth it to spend your life in worry, because it will all be washed away. Just as quickly, she forgot it, and those Paris photos are a happy memory of a good time now and nothing else.
- The final shot of this episode might be the most haunting of the whole series. Tony, back in the home of his childhood, clutching a gun, certain death is about to come.
- Of all of the people who suffer awful fates in this episode, perhaps none suffer a worse fate than Bobby’s kids, who now get to spend their lives with Janice as a mother through no fault of their own.
- A.J.’s already out of the hospital and watching Frontline. While there, he bumped into Rhiannon, from earlier in the series, and the two are tentatively flirting, though A.J.’s still worked up about all of the sick rot in the world he sees around him. As if underlining the point about how bad of a mouthpiece he is for these ideals, the scene where Tony yanks him out of his bed to get him out of the house (for his own protection) involves the expensive items in his room getting trashed in the ensuing struggle. He’s another spoiled child of privilege, playing at a social conscience until he remembers his toys.
- Even though Kupferberg puts her up to it, I find the way that Melfi’s colleague brings up the study on sociopaths at dinner hilarious. “Say, my daughter is dating a criminal, and I’m really worried about her, so I’ve started reading up on sociopaths!” (Also, Kupferberg revealing that Melfi’s treating Tony is the greatest dick move by a character known for being a giant dick.)
- Paulie blithely remarking about how great it must be to be young while watching A.J. flirt with Rhiannon—in the wake of Bobby’s death and Sil’s coma, no less—is one of his greatest oblivious moments. When Tony has to bed down with what’s left of his crew at the end, and Paulie is the most senior member, it’s a sorry sight.
- I searched and searched for a site that might tell me what happened to Artie and Charmaine’s daughter who played soccer with Meadow, but I don’t seem to see one. (I know what happened to Meadow’s other friend Hunter, who pops up in the next episode—spoiler alert!) Do the Buccos have any reason to seem so self-satisfied?
Speaking With The Fishes (spoilers):
- I really do love the way that the terrorism angle, which has been dangled all season, fizzles out into nothing. Tony’s information is the reason Agent Harris tells him about the coming war, but it also ends up being completely unhelpful in almost every way, and there’s never a terrorist strike.
- I remember reading an interview with Chase around the time of the final episode when he said that he’d finished production on the show, then realized he wanted one last Tony and Melfi scene for the finale, so he went back and shot that. I have no idea if that’s true, or if I misread something that was meant to pertain to this episode, or what, but I continue to be sad this is the last we’ll ever see of Lorraine Bracco (who submitted this episode to the Emmys but lost to Katherine Heigl, of all people).
- I believe the state mental ward that Janice tells Tony about is where he visits Junior in “Made In America.” I realize this is grasping at straws, but we’re pretty much out of spoilers at this point.
Next week: Tony Soprano: “Made In America.”