One week a month, Watch This offers television recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: In honor of the series finale of AMC’s Hell On Wheels, our favorite episodes about trains.
The Blue Comet was a real train that carried passengers from the New York metropolitan area to Atlantic City and back, but service had been discontinued for more than 60 years by the time The Sopranos aired its penultimate episode in June 2007. As was the case so often on the series, however, that didn’t stop one of the characters from waxing nostalgic about a time he never knew. Model railroad enthusiast Bobby “Bacala” Baccalieri (Steven R. Schirripa) was so focused on an imagined past he couldn’t see the future barreling down the tracks toward him.
Bobby was always the closest thing to an innocent in the Soprano crew: sweet-natured, patient to a fault (this is the man who spent years caring for crusty Uncle Junior before marrying Tony Soprano’s volcanic sister Janice), and the one guy who never cheated on his wife or “popped his cherry” in the murderous sense. That changed in the series’ final season, after a friendly game of Monopoly devolved into a slug-fest when Tony insulted his sister one time too many in Bobby’s presence. His body and pride bruised the next morning, Tony inflicted the deepest hurt possible on his brother-in-law, ordering him to carry out a hit that snuffs Bobby’s innocence in the process.
Still, despite all the chaos swirling around the Soprano family, Bobby could always take solace in his toy choo-choos (though he’d bristle at that characterization of his meticulously crafted model train sets). “The Blue Comet” finds the New Jersey mobsters in a particularly precarious position, as the long-simmering war with the New York family now headed by Phil Leotardo (Frank Vincent) finally boils over. “We decapitate and do business with whatever’s left,” Phil orders his underlings, and indeed, the body count is high by Sopranos standards, with even stalwart Silvio (Steven Van Zandt) ending up comatose after being riddled with bullets. Tony is tipped off in time to go to the mattresses, but the warning comes too late for Bobby, who leaves his cell phone in his car when making a stop at his favorite model train shop.
“You never see a Blue Comet in that condition,” the proprietor assures Bobby as he inspects the $8,000 model. When Bobby fantasizes about riding in the club car and sipping a Negroni, a scene from much earlier in the series comes to mind: Tony describing his favorite scene from The Godfather as a quiet moment in Italy with “the crickets, the great old house.” Their romanticized ideal of the gangster past is rooted in an imagined serenity, a classy hideaway from the chaos of modern life. The world evoked by the Blue Comet holds no appeal for younger people like Bobby’s son (“He don’t care,” Bacala tells the shopkeeper, in what turn out to be his final words) or even Tony’s nephew Christopher (Michael Imperioli), whose idea of mob nostalgia is “Scarface, final scene, say hello to my little friend!”
There’s some irony, then, in the way Bobby gets the most operatic death scene in the series after Christopher has already been pathetically snuffed out by Tony while on the nod. Would-be auteur Christopher had surely envisioned a more cinematic ending for himself, but it was Bobby who said, “You probably don’t even hear it when it happens, right?” His murder is staged and stylized as a grand tragedy, gunshots and bullet hits interspersed with shots of a model train derailing in slow-motion and close-ups of passenger figurines waiting at the station, their expressions of surprise and delight transformed into masks of horror. As he collapses onto the platform and breathes his last, it’s almost too grandiose a fate for a character who had so often served as comic relief. Then again, maybe it’s fitting that the Godfather-style demise is reserved for the character who never could have imagined it for himself.
Availability: “The Blue Comet” is available for streaming on Amazon Prime.