If you're one of those people who think The Sopranos is boring if somebody doesn't get whacked every half hour, Sunday's episode certainly had the requisite number of corpses. John Sack's captain Gerry Torciano was gunned down by a rival as the struggle for control of the New York family turned violent. And a fictional (doubly fictional, I guess) version of Tony wound up with a literally splitting headache in Christopher Moltisanti's long-awaited gangster/slasher/zombie flick, Cleaver, which finally debuted to mixed reviews -- more on that in a minute.
More importantly, though, the stage was set for what looks like some fearsome violence to come. The simmering estrangement between Tony and his erratic protege Christopher reached a low boil; Sack's underboss Phil Leotardo confessed that his thirst for revenge against Tony is unslaked; and, perhaps most significantly, Sopranos producer David Chase signaled unmistakeably that his characters have no hope of redemption, that they decided their own fates long ago, and that they might as well go out with a bang (or at least a cleaver in the head) as a whimper.
The redemption theme came up twice. The first was in the demise of Sack, who for years looked like a prime candidate for a whacking by Tony but instead died quietly in a prison bed night Sunday night of lung cancer. Sack reflects that changing his evil (health) ways didn't do him any good: In prison he quit smoking, exercised and ate a balanced diet. ‘‘For what?" he says bitterly.
After being told in the episode's opening moments that he has only a couple of months to live, Sack is given some false hope by a former oncologist -- played by Sydney Pollack, the director of Out of Africa and Tootsie -- working as an orderly in the prison hospital after being convicted of three murders. (He shot his unfaithful wife, then her aunt who accidentally witnessed the murder, and then a mailman on principle: "At that point I had to fully commit.") But it's soon apparent that only a miracle would save him, and Sack says miracles don't happen -- "not to this family." Or any other on The Sopranos, he
could have added.
The ineffectuality of expiation is also on the mind of Sack's underboss, Leotardo. His ambition withered by heart surgery, Leotardo stands by in disinterested contempt as other Sack lieutenants jockey for control of the now decapitated family. (One of them, Torciano, is memorably assassinated while dining in an upscale restaurant with Tony's startled consigliore Silvio Dante.) "I'd like to do it over, boy, let me tell you," he broods to another mobster. "I [bleeping] compromised everything." But it's clear Leotardo is not expressing a wish he'd become a neurosurgeon or a dot-com entrepreneur; what he regrets is
going through life taking guff from lesser men, starting with the immigration officer at Ellis Island who changed the family name from Leonardo to "a ballet costume'' and ending with Tony Soprano, whose cousin murdered Phil's brother back in Season 5. "No more," Leotardo mutters grimly.
Whatever Leotardo is planning for Tony will be hard to top what happened to his fictional counterpart in Christopher's movie Cleaver. At the movie's premiere screening, it doesn't take long before much of the audience -- including Carmela, Silvio, Paulie Walnuts and Tony himself -- to figure out who Sal, the portly mob boss strutting around in his undershirt throwing flowerpots and ranting threats, was based on. But unlike everybody else, Tony is slow to pick up on the roman-a-clef implications: You don't have to be Pauline Kael to figure out that when the Sal character sleeps with the girlfriend of his young protege, we're really talking about Christopher and Adriana, and you don't have to be Sigmund Freud to see the blade embedded Sal's head by the protege as more than a plot device. (As Freud might have said, sometimes a meat cleaver in the head is just a meat cleaver in the head.) "It's a revenge fantasy," the furious Carmela tells Tony.
Tony won't buy it at first, but when Christopher sends his screenwriter pal J.T. around to take the blame for the romantic-triangle plot line (J.T. hilariously claims to have stolen it from Born Yesterday, in which Broderick Crawford and Judy Holiday do indeed resemble caricatured versions of Tony and Adriana) Tony sees through it immediately. ‘‘This is the image of me he leaves to the world," Tony tells his shrink, Dr. Melfi. ‘‘All I am to him is some [bleephole] bully...All I did for this [bleepin'] kid and he
[bleepin'] hates me so much."
Melfi replies with a shot at deconstructionism -- "Is it possible on some level you're reading into all this?" -- that gave me a critical epiphany: The Sopranos will end with Christopher hunting down and killing all the critics who pan it. Hey, Christopher, I've got Rene Rodriguez's address right here.
Final scorecard: One fictional murder, one real murder, one cancer death, and one brutal sucker punch, delivered by Christopher to J.T. in an effort to persuade him to take the rap for the Tony-boinked-Adriana stuff. For the second straight week a suggestive allusion to The Godfather. The final scene of Sunday's episode showed Christopher and Tony embracing at the christening of Christopher's daughter, each wearing a grimace unseen to the other. Were the characters themselves thinking of the christening scene that climaxes The Godfather, where Michael Corleone hitmen settle a host of scores with family enemies as a priest blesses his new baby? And also, a couple of stray plot lines bobbed up again: The FBI once more asked Tony for help in sniffing out Middle Eastern terrorists moving money or weapons through New York, and Carmen wondered aloud to Christopher if Adriana might be dead.
Sunday night's biggest winner: George Cukor. I'll bet Netflix and Blockbuster can't keep Born Yesterday in stock this week.
Sunday night's biggest loser: The English language. When Carmela mused that Adriana might be dead, Christopher furiously replied, "I don't like what you're inferring." He meant implying. Or was it interring?