“Walk Like A Man” (season 6, episode 17; originally aired 5/6/2007)
In which Tony has problems with all of his sons
The final nine episodes of The Sopranos focus heavily on fathers and sons—both biological sons and surrogate ones. Tony steadily realizes that every father figure he’s had in his life has been shit, but seems also capable of keeping this information from his conscious mind, while both his real son and his “work” son slowly collapse under the strain of their lives. Ideas of masculinity, of living up to some impossible male code, hang lowly over the bulk of the series, but they never seem so prominent as they do now, when the characters try like hell to find a way out of the traps set for them by generations past, only to stumble blearily right back into them. “Walk Like A Man” can be a bit too neat, in that Sopranos way where the show occasionally becomes too enamored of its thematic parallelism, but when it comes to the ways that A.J., Christopher, and, yes, Tony can never escape the quicksand they’re mired in, it’s a powerful hour of television indeed.
Perhaps the most consistent throughline of the entire series has been the relationship between Tony and Christopher. Really, only the Soprano marriage even comes close to the level of detail and shading that’s devoted to Tony’s connection with his “nephew,” the man who was supposed to succeed him someday but has only managed to piss Tony off and strain the two’s relationship to the point of breaking. What’s doubly sad about this is that a major contributing factor is that every time Chris tries to better himself, or tries to prove his loyalty to Tony, he gets mired more deeply in the situation, unable to escape from the man who increasingly views everybody in his circle as his subject. Chris can’t drop by the Bing anymore, because he needs to stay away from places where people are drinking. Yet Tony conducts so much of his business at the Bing that he considers it Chris’ fault that their relationship is deteriorating. If he were being honest with himself, Tony would find somewhere else to talk to Chris. Instead, he insists on luring him into his lair. (Fittingly, in a late-episode moment, Chris sees Tony laughing in slow-motion, wreathed by cigar smoke. He looks like the devil.)
But, of course, the real rift between the men has nothing whatsoever to do with Chris’ inability to be around alcohol. No, the real rift between the men stems from the fact that Adriana told Chris she was an informant for the FBI, and when the chips were down, he chose Tony over Ade. He figures that would have bought him some loyalty, or at least the benefit of the doubt. Instead, it seems to have made things worse, created an open wound that bleeds too profusely to ever heal. In their own ways, both men loved Adriana, and she was able to create a kind of bridge between them, even if that bridge was threatened by Tony’s lustful desires. Without her there—and with both men knowing they’re responsible for her death—there’s no common ground, no demilitarized zone anymore. The water that should have gone under the bridge has gotten dammed up, even if the only way either of the men can talk about what happened is through the most extreme of allusions to the situation.
Meanwhile, Tony’s also trying to solve the problems of his biological son, who’s reeling from his breakup with Blanca. A.J. spends his days sacked out on the couch or lying in bed. He quits his job at the pizzeria, and when he says things to Meadow that remind her of a girl she knew who committed suicide, she sends up the alarm. A.J.’s never had to deal with something like this. His whole life, he’s had things handed to him, and he doesn’t know what real loss is like. (Perhaps he’s remembering those times his grandmother told him we all die alone, in our own arms.) In his own fumbling way, he was trying to break with the toxic past of his family by being in a relationship with Blanca. But now that he’s back in the lap of luxury, everything feels wrong. He can’t move past what happened with Blanca, and it’s not just because he was in love with her. He also can’t move past what she represented, the life he might have had where he was a free man. (Live free or die, as the episode title goes…)
At the backyard barbecue Christopher holds for his family and friends, he tells Tony that because of his therapy, Tony understands “the human condition.” And maybe that’s true. Maybe some part of Tony is better equipped to deal with this stuff than he would have been before the series began, before he met Dr. Melfi. Yet he sure seems as baffled by all of this as he ever was, tentative and uncertain around his son and angry and vituperative around Chris. His prescription for A.J.’s depression involves having Carmela find him a psychiatrist via his pediatrician (in a great laugh line), as well as going out to strip clubs to party with kids his own age. If pressed, his prescription for Chris’ faults would probably involve wiping the man from the face of the Earth. If he’s not going to stay in the fold and reverential of his father figure, better to have no Chris at all, perhaps. Tony might understand the “human condition” better than, say, Paulie, but he’s still a terrible student of it, unable to see beyond his myopia.
The final episodes of the series seem resolute on proving that Tony’s a sociopath at times, trying to reveal all of the ways he’s slowly eroded every relationship he’s had and turned them into purely functionary exercises in power imbalances. Yet these episodes also return us to the Tony who cries at times, who worries about the future, who, in particular, has hopes for his kids that might never be met. Meadow and A.J. have always been Tony’s best shot at escaping the life that’s dragged his soul into the muck. There’s no way he can get out of the mob at this point, but there’s a chance his kids can find a way to have nothing to do with it. Yet he’s so unused to anything but the life he leads—and perhaps not consciously aware this is what he wants—that he can’t comprehend A.J.’s depression. In a moment that’s at once incredibly touching and incredibly narcissistic, Tony brings everything back to himself. It’s his fault, he tells Melfi, that A.J. is so sad. It’s his rotten, messed-up genetic code that causes the boy to feel so bad.
Who knows? Maybe it is Tony’s genetic code that dooms A.J. On The Sopranos, people get trapped in endless cycles that spiral ever downward, and their best hope to change in the future is to change via their children. (David Chase has singled out this idea of generational evolution as a way that the series disproves the popular thesis that it’s all about how people can’t change.) Yet the flipside of that is that once a child knows a certain way of life, it becomes much harder to leave that behind. A.J.’s best shot might have been Blanca. By the end of this episode, after he’s gone out partying with his friends and helped them hurt someone who’s welching on a gambling debt by pouring sulfuric acid on his foot, it’s not hard to look at the boy and see someone who will follow in the footsteps of his father, as surely as Tony was eventually unable to avoid the magnetic tug of his own father’s way of life.
Is it possible to escape? Of course it is. There’s a good reason that Barbara—the Soprano daughter who made it out—makes one of her extremely rare appearances in this episode. But cycles become self-perpetuating, and sometimes, the only way out of them is straight down, into the maw of whatever it is that’s sucking you under. This seems to apply to Chris, who ends the hour in a pitiful place. Throughout the episode, it’s become evident that Tony simply doesn’t care anymore about Chris, especially in the scenes where Chris tries to get Tony to do something about how Paulie’s masterminding a scheme to rip off Chris’ father-in-law. Instead, Tony issues some platitudes about how he’ll have a talk with Paulie, but Chris really just needs to let go of this, even as Paulie keeps escalating things. The cage Chris is in here has never been more apparent, and there are numerous shots of him staring wild-eyed into the distance, as if realizing that the last exit off this particular highway was long, long ago. He should have taken Adriana’s deal. He should have informed. (Notice how he brings up all the stuff he knows to J.T.) But now he’s trapped, and he’ll forever be haunted by what might have been.
So what then? If he’s trapped, why not stop self-improvement altogether? Chris falls off the wagon again, and while this could feel repetitive, there’s a weight and tragedy to it that his benders in the first part of the season were missing. What’s most impressive about this is that he’s just having a drink with his old friend Paulie, but it feels like he’s signing his own death certificate. There’s an inevitability to this, a kind of surrender that has a certain horrific touch to it. Everything Chris has done throughout the series has been about keeping one eye on his exit strategy, but now, after all this time, he’s got nowhere else to go and nothing else to do. He has a drink. He gets drunk. And when he starts rambling about babies, about how they represent something new, something better, something perfect, everybody just laughs at Paulie’s jokes at Chris’ expense. The camera slowly drifts around Chris, suggesting he’s unmoored, lost. And he looks out at the laughing hyenas, sees how they’ll never respect him, and he heads out into the night.
This was always where he was going to end up. There was no way to escape it. The best he can hope for now is that his daughter might be so lucky as to have something better. But he’s seen the way the mafia takes hold of people even tangentially connected to it and squeezes them for everything they’re worth. As if proving this point to himself, he goes to see J.T. Dolan, one of those people who thought they could get involved with the mafia only slightly and found himself dragged under. The conversation with J.T. is a touchstone for this whole season and maybe this whole series. It dances around things that Chris can never talk about, and finally, J.T. tries honest. “You are in the mafia,” he tells Chris, the sort of brutal thing you can only say to someone you think you’re close to when they’re drunk and you just need to cut through the bullshit. Chris, of course, shoots him in the head.
Because it’s honesty that’s the true villain here, right? If any of these people sat down and were honest with themselves about their lives and what they’ve wrought, the only response would be death, either their own or others. They sow destruction everywhere they go, and when it comes time to try to put things right, they don’t know how. Tony can’t help his son get better, because he, himself, isn’t interested in getting better. So he comes up with bullshit solutions that will patch over the pain for a while but will never fill the void at the center of A.J.’s soul. It’s that void none of these characters will ever know how to fill, the same void their fathers and father figures filled by constantly feeding their own appetites, until that, too, lost its luster. The episode ends with Chris pulling up outside his house, drunkenly staggering toward a tree that Paulie destroyed when he made his angry ride around Chris’ lawn. He sets it right again. He pats the soil down. It looks good enough for now, but there’s no fixing what’s wrong. The roots no longer have hold, and everything’s adrift.
- Paulie’s grim expression when he drives over to Chris’ house to tear up his lawn with his car is absolutely hilarious. Some excellent, wordless acting from Tony Sirico.
- Why the minus? Well, A.J.’s moping wore a little less well with me this time around. I understand just why it’s necessary, and I like where it’s all headed, but to a degree, it’s hard not to want the kid to just get up off his ass and realize there are other fish in the sea. (My God. I’m as bad as Tony!)
- When Little Paulie cons his way past Mike, the employee at Al’s store, there’s a casual malevolence to it that I really like. He’s not all that great at this, but he’s confident enough to pull it off.
- Meadow pops up mostly to worry about A.J. and to have a mystery date. And I love that final scene with the family at the kitchen table, when it really does seem as if everything is getting back to normal.
- If it didn’t have a naked breast in it, I would have made the expression on Robert Iler’s face when the stripper is grinding against him the screencap for this episode. It so perfectly expresses the ennui roiling inside of this hour.
- Some great malapropisms in this hour, but I think my favorite is when Chris says something about getting your teeth wet.
- Tony reports the Arab guys to the FBI, complete with cell phone number and names garnered from a quick call to Chris. He also tells Carmela that, hey, it could be worse. A.J. could be in Iraq. I love how mid-00s foreign policy hangs so heavily over this season.
- “Last time, you started crying and had to leave the Starbucks!” Blanca feels bad for A.J., but not that bad.
- “That’s a huge plus nowadays!” Tony Soprano, on being white.
- “Babies. They’re the future.” The continued philosophical musings of Christopher Moltisanti.
Speaking with the Fishes (spoilers):
- Knowing that the next episode contains Chris’ death, it’s impressive to me just how thoroughly this episode sets his character arc for that to happen without actually suggesting he’s about to die in any way.
- Meadow’s mystery date is with Patsy Parisi’s son, Patrick, who will become her paramour as the show ends, signifying how she’s gotten roped into her father’s orbit all over again. (This is probably why we hear about Finn for the first time in ages as well.)
- The show’s also laying the groundwork for Tony and Melfi’s ultimate split in this episode.
Next week: Tony and Christopher have a run-in with “Kennedy And Heidi.”