Posted by Alan Sepinwall
April 30, 2007 4:24AM
The Newark Star-Ledger
Categories: The Sopranos
WARNING: This column contains major plot spoilers for last night's "Sopranos" episode.
And the inner circle draws tighter.
Each episode of this season has seen Tony driving a wedge between himself and a trusted ally -- first Bacala, then Chris, then Paulie and now Hesh, whose friendly $200,000 bridge loan last week turned ugly once Tony realized Hesh actually expected him to repay it.
We've had hints in recent episodes that Tony was gambling too much, but episode four, "Chasing It," has him in full-on Davey Scatino mode, losing big at every game he tries: horses, roulette, blackjack, football, everything short of jai alai or an Oscar pool.
Carmela finally sells the spec house (to cousin Brian, a sign the house wasn't a hot attraction) and Tony immediately wants to put a chunk of the profit on a Jets-Chargers game. When she refuses and Tony wins less than he otherwise might have, he explodes, laying hands on Carm for the first time since "Whitecaps" and dismissing her familiar fears about financial security by screaming, "When I'm gone, you can live in a (bleepin') dumpster for all I care!"
This is dangerous behavior by Tony, who has historically resisted most of the vices available to him. He doesn't use drugs like Chris or Ralphie, and he had nothing but contempt for Davey when Davey lost his business. Now he's paying a vig to Hesh? What's happening?
For the answer, you may have to look to the scene after Hesh rejects Tony's boat show invitation. Carlo, in Tony's doghouse for his failure to run the Family construction business as profitably as Vito, mentions an old "Twilight Zone" episode featuring a thug named Valentine.
Tony cuts him off, but Carlo's apparently referring to "A Nice Place to Visit," an episode about Rocky Valentine, who dies during a robbery and wakes up in an afterlife where his every wish is granted. Every woman wants him, everybody thinks he's wonderful and every bet he makes is a winner. Eventually, Rocky grows so tired of what he assumes to be Heaven that he asks to go to "the other place," only to be told, "This is the other place."
Tony's existence isn't quite Rocky Valentine's, but it's close. He's been boss of North Jersey for nearly a decade, can do whatever he wants or order someone to do it for him -- and still he's not happy. So he's sabotaging himself, just to make something different happen.
He's looking for disaster around every corner, maybe even expecting it. He won't get The Star-Ledger from the driveway out of some paranoid fantasy, assumes all his confidants are out to get him and, after years of living slightly beyond his means, is simply throwing money away on gambling.
Several times, we see Tony win big, then immediately lose it all on another bet. Making up with Carmela after their fight, he notes that the odds on surviving Junior's gunshot were so lousy that, "If you look at it big picture-wise, I'm up. Way up." And he'll squander that advantage too if he can. He can't help himself, maybe doesn't even want, deep down, to enjoy his victories. He's trying to get to the other place, see if that's more satisfying.
Years ago, he described Davey Scatino as "the happy wanderer," envied how Davey could always have a smile on his face even when he was losing. Where Davey's default expression was a slightly bewildered grin, more and more, Tony is scowling. He's either killed or alienated all of his real friends, and even his relationship with Melfi is in danger. She's finally recognized that, with the panic attacks gone, he doesn't view this as therapy so much as "an oasis in my week," and she won't stand for that.
As Tony tries to see if misery will make him happier, other characters suffer without even working at it. Hesh's younger girlfriend Renata dies unexpectedly in her sleep -- which ironically saves Hesh's life, since Tony takes pity on him and pays off the debt. Vito's widow Marie tries to get 100 grand from Tony to move troubled son Vito Jr. -- who, like A.J., gets expelled from school for relieving himself in something other than a toilet -- to a new home in Maine, but Tony blows the money on another football bet and instead forces Marie to send Vito Jr. to a boot camp. (Tony doesn't care about Marie's concerns about corporal punishment, so long as the price tag is smaller.)
I should make some mention of the cameo appearances by Bing customers Muhammed and Ahmed. For a long time, I've been dismissing their presence, and Agent Harris' attempts to turn Chris or Tony into anti-terrorism deputies, as one final tease by David Chase, something to spin the audience's wheels without taking them anywhere. But the fact that the show keeps coming back to them -- this time, Tony is uncomfortable seeing them in the presence of so many Arab-American men in more traditional dress, rather than just as two lowlifes who frequent the Bing -- makes me wonder if I'm underthinking this.
A key theme of this season has been the unintended consequences of seemingly minor events. Who even remembered that Tony dropped a gun in the snow when he was running from Johnny Sack's house, let alone imagined that he'd be arrested for it? Who still cared about the money Carm stole out of the duck feed, or the HUD scam that cousin Brian gave to Tony and Ralphie?
I'm not expecting The Russian to come back (even though Tony's still laundering money through Russian mob boss Slava) or Melfi's rapist. But, as Chris so aptly put it while discussing Vito's death, actions these characters take are "Like a pebble in a lake. Even the fish feel it." If Tony's going to have a downfall brought on by external forces, maybe it'll be a ripple from obscure characters like Muhammed and Ahmed, or this truck-hijacking deal with the Cubans from Miami, or, hell, the HMO hustle Tony tried way back in the pilot.
All I knows is that it feels like the giant piano Carmela talked about isn't just hanging over Tony's head, but everyone's. There may not be a lot of carnage (outside of Renata's peaceful passing, this was a completely bloodless hour), but doom is coming.
Some other thoughts on "Chasing It":
-A question that's come up several times in e-mails and chats: Is Blanca pregnant? It would explain both her moodiness at the "Cleaver" premiere and those odd looks she kept flashing at the news that cousin Brian is having a baby. But if so, why would she give back the engagement ring? If there is a baby, maybe it isn't A.J.'s?
-Is it just me, or is Bacala a changed man since the Canadian hit in the premiere? For the first time, he seems like an unapologetic tough guy, particularly when he encouraged Tony to ignore the debt to Hesh.
-The more screen time Marie gets, the more distracting it is that she's played by Lorraine Bracco's sister.
-In one scene, Sil is gluing together a busted lamp in the Satriale's office, and a few minutes later we see why, when Tony trashes the Bing office after losing a big football bet. When you work for Tony, furniture repair is a mandatory skill.
-So Frank Sinatra Jr. played in the Executive Game against Davey, and now Nancy Sinatra serenades Phil at his coronation dinner (with, appropriately, "Bossman"). Is it too late for a Tina cameo?
-Due to outside circumstances, next week's Sopranos Rewind may not get done in time for the Monday print edition, online, or both. If that's the case, we'll put a notation in both the paper and the Sopranos blog explaining exactly when and where you'll be able to find it. Sorry for the potential inconvenience, but as Nancy's old man said, that's life.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com