“The Fleshy Part Of The Thigh” (season 6, episode 4; originally aired 4/2/2006)
In which everything is everything
Tony Soprano seems… better. It’s not just the fact that he’s gotten physically better, that he’s woken up from his coma and makes the long road back to being able to go home from the hospital. No. He’s sympathetic when he finds out Paulie’s aunt has died. He backs down in his negotiations with Phil and takes a compromise deal, in a way that suggests he’s fine with the compromise, instead of pissy about it. He tells Janice every day is a gift. He sits out back by the pool and just watches the trees wave in the wind. He even smiles about it a little bit. In every way, Tony seems like he’s realized that he has a new lease on life, and he’s going to do what he can with it.
The Sopranos was always in an elaborate game of chicken with its audience. It knew that the audience didn’t want the characters to change—because that would take away the mob stories that were the engine of the show. Yet it also knew that it had to offer the illusion of change to make it seem like the show wasn’t endlessly repeating itself. That the show was able to find five different variations on fairly standard mob storylines for its first five seasons was remarkable enough; that it decided to take its sixth season as an opportunity to dangle in front of us the idea of a Tony who’s no longer so concerned with wealth, power, or social standing is even more impressive. The Tony we see here seems almost humbled by the experience of nearly dying, and though he has a few moments where his anger gets the better of him, he usually reins it back in. Indeed, one time, when he gets particularly angry, he spits up a nasty looking bit of phlegm, as if his body is letting him know his anger is a toxin he needs to get rid of. It’ll kill him before long.
The problem with all of this, of course, is that being a good person isn’t particularly interesting from a story point-of-view, and it would especially seem to be the death knell for a mob drama. The series may have started out with the basic suggestion that Tony Soprano was just like you, only he killed people, but as time went on, he became less and less of an everyman and more and more of a unique cancer on his society. He was the man who ruined everything that came into even slight proximity with him, and he was the man who didn’t think twice about the life he led and how it might destroy those around him. One of the abiding themes of the show was that people would only change after great duress, and Tony Soprano’s life was set up to keep him in a state of constant comfort. Why would he change when he had things so good?
Well, he might change if he got nervous about the state of his soul or, more practically, realized the legacy he would leave behind if he died. “The Fleshy Part Of The Thigh” is a particularly ruminative and philosophical episode of The Sopranos, because that’s just the place Tony Soprano’s in when this episode takes place. He’s particularly open to ideas like John Schwinn’s insistence that everybody is connected to everybody else, because we’re all just a giant bunch of molecules that only perceive our separateness. Tony spends a lot of the episode reading a book about dinosaurs (or having it read to him), and the dinosaurs were forced to evolve into another lifeform entirely, lest they become extinct. When you think of dinosaurs, of course, you think of those awesome, toothed beasts in the image Tony looks at in the book. You don’t think of birds, but they’re still the same thing. Everything is everything.
In practical terms, I like the way that the episode establishes the world of the hospital so succinctly. We’ve spent two episodes there already, but due to Tony’s condition, we haven’t really gotten to know it. Now that he’s starting to slowly get better, we have time to go with him and meet some of the other people there and find out that his insurance meant he was able to go to this world-class hospital, instead of the county one. His insurance might have very well saved his life, just another lucky break in the long life of Tony Soprano (and just another moment where he’s saved, unwittingly, by his wife, who presses the new insurance card on him in the first episode of the season). Predictably, he responds to this news by calling the woman designed to smooth things over between the hospital and insurance company a “cunt” and demanding the paramedic who performed the “wallet biopsy” on him pay him back the $2,000 he claims to have had in his wallet. He might be briefly glimpsing that he needs to change, but he’s still a long way from doing so.
The episode expertly captures the rhythms of a long hospital stay. Tony and his friends and family become casual acquaintances with Da Lux, the rapper down the hall, and John Schwinn, the old man next door, played by the great Hal Holbrook. My favorite scene in the episode is the long one in Da Lux’s room, in which Tony, the rappers, and John discuss the nature of reality. This final season of the show is very interested in perception, in the way that your view of things changes when you try to see it from someone else’s point-of-view, or when you have a life-changing experience. It’s arguable that this conversation with John Schwinn about how everything is a part of the same continuum has more of an effect on Tony than his actual coma journey does. He’s irascible and cranky before it, but after, he begins to make his journey toward that man who can sit in his backyard and smile at the tops of the trees. Later in the season, we’ll hear an echo for Da Lux’s “I dig that” in response to John’s little explanation of the nature of things when Tony cries, “I get it!” Already, we’re being set up for the idea that our human senses are too limited to see the truth.
Schwinn isn’t the only person in the hospital trying to get Tony to contemplate the eternal. The Christian minister—accompanied by Aaron!—isn’t my favorite character of the episode, but he’s there to return us to the iconography of last week’s episode—at least in our heads—and to make us think about whether evolution and change is even possible. Fundamentalist Christianity presupposes that God is all-powerful and all-knowing, and that He’s the creator of the universe. But it also suggests that we have free will to choose or reject salvation. However, if God knew every single person who would reject salvation when creating the universe, He was damning them just by setting the whole thing in motion. (Martin Luther wrote about this much more eloquently than I ever could.) The point is: If it’s all pre-destined and if there’s no way to change, then you can sort of let yourself off the hook for the evil things that you do. Suggesting there’s only one path to salvation and that it’s already been chosen for you (or, worse, that you can get away with just about anything if you simply pull the big “SALVATION” lever at some point during your life) takes the question of taking responsibility for your own personal growth entirely out of the equation.
And yet Tony mocks this guy. There’s a nice moment where he lets Pastor Bob pray for him, but for the most part, the early scene with Bob is all about Tony needling him and Bob knowing he’s being needled but not really knowing how to get out of the situation. (This also makes us question our sympathies, since for all his buffoonery, Tom’s a nice guy, and he doesn’t deserve Tony’s sniping.) The whole exchange about whether the church would ever try to get Viagra banned is very funny, but I think there’s even more underpinning the Christians than first meets the eye. Tony, literally, has a choice between evolution or original sin. He can realize that people can become new versions of themselves, or he can just accept that he will always be who he is and that there’s no way off the path he’s on. At some point, his journey is going to make him confront the way he makes his living, and this is already preparing us for that.
There are other changes and evolutions going on in the episode. The most obvious one comes from Paulie, who gets the news that the literal origin of Paulie isn’t what he thought it was. As it turns out, his aunt Dottie—a nun—is his actual mother. She was swept off her feet by a handsome soldier, and after a night of passion, she became pregnant. She left her child with her sister, and Paulie grew up thinking that his aunt was his mother. Paulie stories have a tendency to be comedic, since he’s a fairly broad character, but this one has comedic moments mixed into what’s ultimately a pretty dark stew. It dovetails with the conflict between New York and New Jersey over the Barone garbage business and what Tony’s cut should be when the son sells the business, but where Tony takes his life-altering realization as a chance to smooth things over with Phil, just a little bit, Paulie takes his life-altering revelation as a chance to turn that bitterness outward. The scene where he clubs the son in the knees and tells him that he’ll be tuning over $4,000 a month—exactly what he needs to keep his “ma” in the retirement community—is a nasty one, and it nicely lays out the moral stakes for this season: These are still vicious, violent people, and they don’t even realize that.
I’ll freely admit I don’t know what to make of the Bobby storyline here. I suspect it plays into Bobby’s overall arc for the season—which I obviously won’t spoil here—but it mostly seems to be there to be a quick, goofy distraction from the headier themes in the episode. The idea of Bobby hanging out with a wannabe rap star who’s not sure how to get more popular isn’t bad, and I like the moment where Bobby is impressed by the song-writing process. (“I always wondered how they did that!” he marvels.) But the rest of the business with the rapper contracting out a hit on himself for Bobby to put a bullet in the fleshy part of his thigh (to gain street cred) is just kind of odd. It’s Bobby’s idea, ultimately, and it definitely feels like an idea he would have, but I’m flummoxed as to how it ties into the episode’s larger ideas and points. Maybe it’s just there to be some comic relief from an episode that’s pretty dark at times, but that’s not really the series m.o.
Or maybe it ties into the idea that violence can be avoided, that if we just approach each other with something like trust and honesty, much of the horror and violence and pain can be avoided. Tony and Phil work out their differences over the garbage contract, and that removes the problem of the imminent violence between the two families (and the two groups of garbagemen). Dottie is finally honest with Paulie, but it might have gone better if she’d just talked to him long ago. Bobby tries to help the rapper find a way to get around the need to be shot, like so many of the other rappers he’s known to get popular, but that also seems like a patch over the real wound. You can try to take aim at the part that will hurt the least, but you’re inevitably going to just make things worse, unless you can really find a way to change your behavior. And even then, it might not be enough. The garbage feud isn’t over because of Paulie. Changing sometimes requires everyone being on the same page as you.
- I love that when Tony turns on the radio to talk to Phil, Boston is playing. It’s such a perfect Tony Soprano choice (even though I assume it’s just the local radio station within the show’s fiction).
- “Truth be told, there’s enough garbage for everybody” could probably have been one of this show’s advertising slogans.
- Telling: John Schwinn loses his voice. Tony can literally no longer hear him.
- The Terri Schiavo reference on Aaron’s shirt is both a reminder of what an odd time (and major national scandal!) that was and perhaps an oblique reference to the fact that Tony’s life is being going via artificial means. He really should be dead, but he’s not, thanks to medicine.
- Paulie’s angry outburst to Father Phil is just note perfect.
- Johnny Sack seems a lot angrier than he used to in jail, doesn’t he? Sure, he’d have outbursts, but they were rarely this vituperative.
- I like Tony’s doctor. His crack about finding Jimmy Hoffa in Tony’s abdomen was the perfect brand of asshole doctor humor.
Speaking to the fishes (spoilers):
- The “I get it” utterance occurs in the latter half’s “Kennedy And Heidi,” one of the series’ most brilliantly elliptical hours, and the one that ushers Christopher from the planet.
- This is the final appearance for Aaron, which is too bad, as he was always my favorite throwaway character. I like that he had a catchphrase.
- Remind me on this: What comes of Paulie’s newly revealed parentage? It’s something I don’t quite recall.
Next week: It’s time for a wedding on “Mr. And Mrs. John Sacrimoni Request…”