“The Second Coming” (season 6, episode 19; originally aired 5/20/2007)
In which surely some revelation is at hand
“Why does everything have to have a purpose? The world is a jungle, and if you want my advice, Anthony, don’t expect happiness. You won’t get it. People let you down, and I’m not naming any names, but in the end, you die in your own arms. … It’s all a big nothing. What makes you think you’re so special?”—Livia Soprano, “D-Girl”
“You’re okay, baby.”—Tony Soprano, “The Second Coming”
To be alive is to be a part of a system: a great, grinding series of gears that chews everybody up and spits them out the other side, torn to bits and unrecognizable. The odds are pretty good that if you’re reading this, you’re reading it in the West, in the luxury of a comfortable home, on an expensive machine, in a place where you don’t really need to worry about where your next meal is coming from or whether you’ll be killed by an exploding rocket on your way home from the supermarket. Yet to be alive in the West, to be alive in modern society, is to win a massive lottery you didn’t even know you’d entered. Every day, billions of the world’s citizens live in the middle of the uncertainty of their very survival, and the comfort of our own existence involves turning a blind eye to this—the better to make sure we don’t confront the weird luck we’ve all had to be born in this moment, in this place, in this life. We’re born owing such an incredible karmic debt to all of those who are disadvantaged so that we might be advantaged, that to even consider it could shut a person down. So we don’t think about it. This isn’t a condemnation. I do it. You do it. Everybody does it. It’s how we live.
There’s a trick in fiction that almost never works. That trick is for the author to pull back and try to catch a glimpse of that system, of the way that the world turns us all into grist for the mill, perhaps by pointing out all of the problems in the world the characters are ignoring, or by having some pompous windbag lecture everybody on what they should care about. To my mind, however, The Sopranos neatly manages the trick of pulling back far enough to show the audience all of the awfulness in the world through an unlikely method: It puts these thoughts in the mouth of a hypocritical young dumbass who’s severely depressed. We’re trained to write him off in almost every way, yet everything he says is completely the truth. (Well, he didn’t turn out to be right about that “Bush bombs Iran” thing.) He’s a paranoid nutball, who’s also got his eyes on the things nobody dares speak of, from the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, to the futility of religious wars. A.J. Soprano functions almost as a weird moral conscience in the early portions of this episode, except for the fact that the show knows putting these words in his mouth will make him easy to write off.
And then he tries to kill himself.
The near suicide of A.J. is perhaps the show’s most harrowing sequence, shot by Tim Van Patten in an alternating series of wide shots of the swimming pool where he tries to drown himself and close-ups of A.J.’s terrified face as he realizes he doesn’t want to die. His frustrated fumbling in the pool, trying against all odds to drag himself to safety even as a cement block keeps trying to drag him under, is the stuff nightmares are made of, particularly once Tony looks out at the pool and sees his son clinging to the diving board for dear life, fingers threatening to slip off at any moment. James Gandolfini and Robert Iler’s work in this sequence is magnificent, as Tony pitches himself into the pool to drag his son to the side, then pull him out of the frigid water. He pulls his son into his arms and tells him it’s going to be okay, after briefly berating him. Behind them, the pool, ostensibly covered for the autumn, sits quietly, this symbol of Tony’s potentially rich family life having narrowly averted becoming a death trap.
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What’s remarkable about this sequence is how it suggests both the grinding system keeping these people in place and the fact that change—at least on a generational scale—is possible. The specter of Livia looms over this episode like no other in the final stretch of the series, and it’s for good reason: She wouldn’t have cradled Tony in her arms after he tried to kill himself. While Tony might snap at Carmela for making her son a mama’s boy, he’s there when his son needs him. His angry snaps turn to anguished cries as surely as A.J.’s own mouth opens to let out horrified, grateful yelps. It’s going to be okay, he says, and from this rare moment of father-son tenderness, this rare moment of an unguarded Tony Soprano letting all his feelings out, we cut to a drugged A.J. in a hospital wheelchair, being wheeled into a psychiatric ward. Tony’s face has regained the glassy indifference it’s worn ever since this half-season began. He gathers his wife and daughter into his arms because he must. But whatever emotion he felt in the moment his son nearly died has been shoved way, way back beneath the surface.
So, of course, when both Carmela and A.J. try to weasel out of their own responsibilities in the matter of A.J.’s near-death, Tony breaks out the greatest weapon he knows: “Poor you.” He’s become his mother, a bitter, empty vessel that doesn’t know how to reach out to the others around him and instead stews in his own vituperative juices. A.J. brings up his grandmother in his joint therapy session with his parents, and for a moment, her words (quoted at the beginning of this piece) seem prophetic: A.J. really would have died in his own arms. His father was there to save him, so he lived. But in the moments when A.J. might have most needed his father to let him be emotionally vulnerable, Tony slammed the door shut again, back to being the man who poisons everything. After all, what opens this episode? A shot of asbestos-ridden rubble, chemicals floating into the air.
“The Second Coming” is easy to boil down entirely to A.J.’s suicide attempt. It’s certainly one of the most visceral sequences in the history of the show, and the work from Van Patten, the actors, and episode-writer Terence Winter is superb. Yet there’s the rest of the episode that depicts the way that Tony’s family life once again intersects with his professional life in unexpected and potentially damaging ways. That’s been the story for the run of this series, but now that Tony seems to have kicked off a war between New Jersey and New York, all because of awful insults Coco hurled at his daughter at a time when Tony was already emotionally fragile, it really does seem like this will spell whatever end is coming for these characters.
It would be one thing if Tony did this with a season left. With just two episodes left, however, it becomes a much weightier thing. The late scene where Tony and Little Carmine go to see Phil and can’t even get close to him and instead listen to him berate them from the gloom of an upstairs window, is a mirror of the one where Tony went to see Phil back in “Kaisha” and came to an unusual truce with the man. This time, however, no peace will be brokered. The line has been crossed, and if there’s a part of Tony that wants to pull back from it, it’s a very small one. There was a time when these two men had hovered close enough to death to know that the best way to leave this earth is by settling your accounts with those you love. But that’s in the past now. Time has a way of dulling even the sharpest revelations.
Or, as Tony puts it in one of his two sessions with Dr. Melfi in this episode, sometimes you almost grab hold of a thought, and then it flies away from you just as quickly. It’s something he brings up when talking about his sunrise epiphany at the end of “Kennedy And Heidi,” the moment when he “got it.” He’s cagey about what “it” was, perhaps because he himself doesn’t know. But he’s able to share with Melfi that there are worlds beyond this one—“Alternate universes?” she asks, and he finally nods after giving her a hard time, perhaps pointing toward Kevin Finnerty—and that he’s come to see mothers as the bus that delivers us to this world and then leaves us behind. We keep trying to get back on the bus, he says. We keep trying to get back to that place where we were safe and warm and all of our concerns were cared for. But we grow up and get older. We begin to talk and walk, and that bond starts to fray. And then we’re on our own, waiting at the bus stop well past midnight for something that’s not coming.
“The Second Coming” is very interested in process. Really, this whole season is. It’s all building to a series of moments—A.J.’s suicide attempt is one of them—and it’s very careful to direct our attention to the smaller moments that add up to these larger ones. If there’s war between New Jersey and New York, it will be started because of Tony curb-stomping Coco, but he did that because Coco harassed Meadow (and because he was in a rotten state of mind from all of the guilt he was carrying around about how his rotten genes might have contributed to his son’s depression), and Coco did that because… and on and on. You can go back. You can make a case for determinism. You can suggest that A.J. tried to kill himself because he inherited a rotten gene that no one has figured out what to do with. You can make depression into the monster in this particular story, the lurking shadow that hovers over everything, the tarp over the pool.
Or you can accept that depression is there and move on with your life. Granted, this is hard to do. If the monster’s always there; if the depths are always waiting to swallow you beneath the thin haze of medication or therapy or exercise that stands in the gap between your soul and their blackness; it can be hard to ignore. But you start to make choices, and you accept responsibility for those choices, and you try to get better. And maybe it takes a lifetime, and maybe it takes one week. But you find your way toward a kind of compassion and a kind of understanding. You claw your way out of the blackness. You understand that you don’t have to die alone. You can be a better person. You can hold onto the things that matter. You can take responsibility for your own actions. A man drove a donkey cart off the road, but it’s not his fault that A.J. dove into that pool. Tony takes a stab at this, at owning up to what he did to Coco, but Phil won’t hear of it because he’s too enraptured by his own petty bitterness. If these people finally untied the stones pulling them to the bottom, finally embraced the freedom that comes from accepting that you and only you can guide yourself home, they might realize the rope had been long enough to swim all along.
You can understand, Melfi says to Tony. You can understand what it’s like to want to kill yourself, to be depressed. In that moment, Tony can and he can’t. He can remember that moment on the side of the pool and know what his son was going through, what was causing him to ache. But he also can’t, because to do that would open up doors inside of Tony he’d never dare step through. The system holds us rigidly in place. It keeps us in our comfort zone and rarely beckons us out of it. A.J. asks what he can possibly do to change the world, even at the level of stopping his friends beating up the Somali boy. He’s just one individual, right?
Yet just one individual can accomplish something if he or she steps back far enough to see the whole picture. It doesn’t mean everything will be better. It doesn’t mean you’ll ever get back on the bus. But it does mean you’ll finally be an adult, washed out of the cocoon and ready to own up to your choices. It does mean you’ll have some measure of empathy and grace for your fellow human beings. And it does mean you might start to understand how to operate within the system that pins you down, might start to understand how change occurs on a geological time scale, but does occur. Like the dinosaurs in Tony’s hospital picture book, we evolve or we go extinct. We understand that everything is a part of the same series of particles and waves, as Tony’s hospital friend Mr. Schwinn would say, or we die.
“The Second Coming,” both in poem and episode form, is about a great and terrible death that never quite arrives. Why, then, does this episode seem tinged with the slightest color of hope, if only we were brave enough to turn and look at it?
- Adriana alert: I love the way this season subtly weaves Adriana’s ghost throughout the proceedings of nearly every episode. Here, it’s extremely subtle, but I can’t imagine it’s an accident: The TV in A.J.’s psychiatric ward is playing Joey, the series Drea de Matteo went to after her character was written off this show.
- Look. The food on this show often looks delicious and incredible, but Lincoln Log sandwiches? No. Those look like the most disgusting things ever.
- The scene where Tony broaches the subject of A.J.’s suicide attempt with the guys in the back room at the Bing is at once a fine example of how far these characters have come in appreciating mental-health issues and a very sly piece of comedy. I love Paulie saying it’s a wonder kids aren’t jumping off bridges every day and Tony’s weighted glance at that thought.
- Christopher’s death continues to haunt Tony. Now, a picture of him is hung up in the back room, and Carmela continues to take care of Kelli in her time of grieving. (Tony also bestows upon Carmela a gift from his time in Vegas, another penance gift for what he did while he was there, though neither will acknowledge this.)
- This episode is just filled with powerful scenes, but my favorite dialogue scene is probably that fight between Tony and Carmela. I love how every fight they have in this series feels like it’s been building for 20 years, because it probably has.
- Meadow’s mystery boyfriend turns out to be Patrick Parisi. Carmela seems terrified both by the notion of this and by the notion of Meadow going into law. Tony and Carmela had really hoped that by marrying Finn and going into medicine, Meadow might escape the Mafia. Instead, she’s steering right back toward it. The apple never falls far from the tree.
- Kupferberg tells Melfi all about a study that suggested sociopaths don’t benefit from talk therapy and, indeed, use talk therapy to better their own lives. Once again, a character is confronted with an important revelation, and it’s left to them to consider whether to make the necessary decision to act or sink back into their life of comfort. I’ll leave you to see how this plays out, though if you’ve been watching the series this long, you’ll know. (I will say I find it a little strange that Melfi wouldn’t have heard of this study, but, hey, I’ll go with it.) Also, the perfect punctuation to this scene: Kupferberg takes a swig out of that stupid water bottle.
- It shouldn’t make me laugh, but the sight of A.J. moping while Chamillionaire sings about “ridin’ dirty” always makes me giggle.
- It’s very weird to me to see that advertising campaign for the insomnia medication again. It seems like something that aired very recently, but it’s obviously more than five years old at this point. It’s the perfect symbol of the haze that seems to be enveloping A.J., too.
- That’s a beautiful final shot of Tony, whose face looks wracked with emotion after his confrontation with Phil, walking into the psychiatric ward, not even attempting to get the contraband pizza inside, finally gathering his son into a hug. Nice work, Van Patten.
Speaking With The Fishes (spoilers):
- This is probably the last week we’ll do this section. I will say this: As a continuing “Tony dies” agnostic, I find it very interesting that the two episodes leading up to the finale both have characters looking at the thing that’s about to kill them and cutting from the shot of their look to a POV shot. Here, it’s A.J. looking out at the pool, which we then see.
- My continuing theory that Melfi can only cut Tony loose as a patient because he’s realized he’s beyond help is bolstered here, as she pushes him to empathize with his son, and he just can’t make the leap. I still wish the show had worked in a scene for her in “Made In America,” though, even if it was without Tony.
- The picture of Chris is the one the Adriana cat stares at in the series finale.
Next week: All aboard “The Blue Comet,” the penultimate episode of the whole series.