Thursday, April 26, 2007
Sopranos Rewind: Remember When
by Alan Sepinwall
The Newark Star-Ledger
April 23, 2007 3:45AM
WARNING: This column contains major plot spoilers for last night's "Sopranos" episode.
"Things are going great, finally," says Tony Soprano. "Maybe I'm just waiting for the other shoe to drop."
So are we, Tony.
As this final season has gone on, fans have been waiting to see who will die, who will wind up in jail, who will rat. If a sad, moving episode like last night's "Remember When" is any indication, the wait might not end -- and that might be okay.
"Remember When," is an entire hour of shoe-levitation. The FBI digs up the body of Willie Overalls, the first man Tony ever killed. Tony and corpse-disposal accomplice Paulie drive down to Miami to lay low, but everything's fine after incarcerated capo Larry Boy Barese pins the murder on the late Jackie Aprile.
On the road trip, Tony's first prolonged exposure in years to Paulie's verbal diarrhea makes him wonder if Paulie can keep his lips zipped in front of the feds should it come to that. On a celebratory fishing trip in the Atlantic, we're cued to believe that Tony is on the verge of sending Paulie to sleep with Pussy, but at the last minute, he backs off, not ready to kill Paulie for something he only might do.
There's a murder, as Phil Leotardo's guys give the food-poaching Doc Santoro a Moe Greene Special, but the biggest explosion of violence is perpetrated on Uncle Junior, who takes a nasty beating from his mental hospital protege Carter Chong (guest star Ken Leung).
I expect more misdirection like this as the season goes on. Thus far, the murders have involved minor characters like Doc and Gerry The Hairdo, while Johnny Sack had a non-homicidal passing. David Chase and company (in this case, writer Terence Winter) have never liked to do what the audience is predicting. I think we're going to see a lot of characters suffer a fate worse than jail or even death: being forced to confront who they really are.
In episode one, it was Bacala who had to abandon the pretense that he could be a made man without blood on his hands. Last week, Tony saw how much Christopher resented him, while Phil and Johnny Sack questioned how they had lived their lives. Here, Junior and Paulie -- Tony's biological uncle and his unofficial one -- come to terms with their decay into lonely, pathetic old men, not useful for much besides dirty jokes and stories about the good old days.
Characters have been telling old stories all season, often about the resentment that grows between fathers and sons, or between mentors and proteges. Here, Junior recalls the day his father (Tony's grandfather) made him walk home 11 miles for turning down a 25-cent tip from a rich woman. Carter loses his temper recounting the time his father dismissed a 96 score on a third grade spelling test because it wasn't a 100. Paulie notes that Johnny Boy Soprano gave Tony the Willie Overalls hit when Tony was 24, but Tony quickly and forcefully says that he was 22.
It's those details they don't forget. Even in the grips of dementia, Junior knows he walked 11 miles. Carter remembers the exact grade on the test. Tony remembers how old he was when his father made him into a killer (which he in turn would do to Christopher and Bacala).
Earlier in that conversation, Tony suggests that Johnny Boy never believed in him. Paulie counters that Johnny trusted him with the hit, after all, but Tony clearly resents that Johnny didn't believe he could become anything but a thug, condemning him to this life.
Tony's always been one to dwell on the past, but spending so much time with blabbermouth Paulie takes away his taste for it. Annoyed by Paulie's endless stories -- including one, uttered in front of civilians, about an apparent murder at a Jersey shore house -- he excuses himself from the table "because 'remember when' is the lowest form of conversation."
At least Tony still has a present to hold onto. Junior and, to a lesser extent, Paulie don't.
Junior tries to recreate the past in the hospital, enlisting Carter to help him run a funhouse mirror version of his old Executive Game, with the patients playing for buttons and non-diet sodas. But he's not as strong as he once was, and faced with the threat of being transferred to a less cushy facility, he consents to a new drug regimen that leaves him a blurry, sleepy shell of himself.
Carter, bitter at the perceived betrayal by another father figure -- and perhaps having read "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" too many times -- gives Junior a beatdown. Our final glimpse (ever?) of the official boss of New Jersey shows him sitting in a wheelchair, a cast on his arm, a blank, depressed look on his face, and a cat from pet therapy as his only companion. (Can Dominic Chianese and Vince Curatola share the Emmy? Damn.)
Midway through their fugitive vacation, Tony and Paulie are shown a black and white photo of Paulie in his '60s heyday, flexing a bicep for the camera. What we realize instantly is that Paulie is trying to preserve that image all these decades later. He still pounds the dumbbells, even though the skin sags around his muscles. He still wears the same hairdo, even though the hair is grey and thin. He lives alone, has no real friends, is the least-productive, least-respected captain in the Family and he can't stop talking. The only real difference is the amount of TV he watches; in the '60s, he didn't know who Barney Fife was, while today he cackles hysterically at a "Three's Company" rerun.
Paulie's just self-aware enough to know that Tony's displeased with him. He has a flashback to Pussy's oceanic murder as he and Tony cast off in their fishing boat, is terrified throughout the voyage and later has a dream (very literal by "Sopranos" standards) where he confronts Pussy the rat to ask, "When my time comes, tell me: will I stand up?"
Paulie hasn't had to make that choice yet. None of the major surviving characters have. Right now, Paulie's punishment is simply having to be Paulie Walnuts, just as Tony's punishment is to be the boss of a decaying empire, and having to work with guys like Paulie. Will that be enough for the fans?
Some other thoughts on "Remember When":
-More foreshadowing that Tony was going to murder Paulie: the three men who took Tony out for a celebratory dinner after the Willie Overalls hit were Pussy (killed by Tony), Ralphie (ibid), and Paulie.
-Art inadvertently, awkwardly imitating life: days after the Virginia Tech tragedy, we have an episode (shot months ago) featuring a violent, emotionally disturbed young Asian American man, as well as talk of on-campus violence (another patient at the hospital is a Rutgers professor who stabbed his dean and then slit his wrists in the faculty lounge).
-Know your Family: The two gentlemen volunteering to spring Junior were Uncle Pat Blundetto, whose upstate New York farm featured its own buried corpses in season five's "Cold Cuts," and Beppy Scerbo, a member of Junior's old crew. Beansie Gaeta, Tony and Paulie's Miami host, is the pizzeria owner paralyzed by a Richie Aprile hit-and-run in season two.
-Not since Junior confused himself and Bacala with characters from "Curb Your Enthusiasm" has there been as hilarious a Junior parallel as him writing to Vice-President Cheney to note that they're both "powerful (men) all too familiar with accidental gunplay."
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org