If you're one of those people who gets bored with The Sopranos when 30 minutes go by without a decapitation or disembowelment, then Sunday night's episode was an hour in hell. But if you're interested in character development or understand that stories advance in stages, rather than hopscotching between murders, then it was a satisfying night.
The episode's main theme and major revelation are established in the opening scene in a casino, where Tony has just a roulette number straight up and won a small fortune. He lets his chips ride on the number for another spin, and of course loses everything. That same scene is played out several times over the course of the episode, with Tony losing huge bets on horse races, harness races and football games. How huge? It turns out gambling debts have forced Tony to borrow $200,000 from his own loanshark, Hesh, at an interest rate (1.5 percent a week) that would make Alan Greenspan drool. Even paying the $3,000 a week vig is a strain on Tony's finances.
The debt has not only strained his relations with Hesh, who has grown frankly fearful at Tony's testiness over the payments (‘‘Get them cornered," he observes of his Mafia pals, "you're getting nothing more than an animal... At what point is it cheaper for him to settle it another way?") but complicates other business, both Family and family.
Some of it is poignant, or at least as poignant as anything ever gets in the wolfish world of The Sopranos. Last season's homophobic murder of uncloseted Soprano captain Vito Spatafore has unhinged his young son Vito Jr., who learned that his father was not a heroic spy as family legend had it but a gay mobster instead. Now a goth kid whose hobbies are toppling tombstones and crucifying cats, Vito Jr. has his mother at wit's end, and she asks Tony for $100,000 to relocate the family and start over.
Tony, deeply touched "Apparently Vito Jr.'s a wack job," he tells his consigliore Silvio). tries to dodge the request by passing it along to New York boss Phil Leotardo, who not is related to Vito's widow Marie but is also the one who had him killed. Phil instead offers his inimitable services as a counselor. Meeting Vito Jr., who's in full goth uniform -- black clothing, black mascara, black fingernail polish and black lipstick -- Phil starts the conversation by noting that "You look like a Puerto Rican whore." It's all downhill from there.
Tony's attempt to get through to Vito Jr. by mentioning his dad is no more successful. ‘‘We were friends, you know?" Tony says. "Butt buddies?" shoots back Vito Jr., striking home by unknowingly aping the homophobic jeers that Tony and his own men privately threw around about Vito Sr. It's a pyrrhic victory: Tony, lowballing Marie Spatafore's request, puts up $18,000 to send Vito Jr. to one of those boot camps for delinquents in Idaho. (Cheer up, kid, it could have been worse: You might have wound up in Bay County.)
If the episode with Vito Jr. is a snapshot that offers a glimpse of Tony's reptilian heart, the argument that follows between Tony and Carmela is an X-ray of his soul. Carmela has finally sold the house she remodeled, to a young couple expecting their first child. By cutting costs on construction materials and bribing her way through the permit process, she's turned a cool $600,000 profit.
Tony wants to bet the money on a football game. When Carmela objects, Tony offers an amendment: "Just my half." To Tony, even his own family is an engine for economic exploitation, foot soldiers who owe him a taste. Carmela's protest that the house deal was all hers enrages him. Shaking her like one of his punks at the Bing, he shouts: "The fact is you're a [bleepy] businesswoman who built a piece of [bleep] house that's gonna cave in and kill that [bleepin'] unborn baby any day." Carmela's riposte -- hitting him with a ceramic gimcrack -- doesn't bely the essential truth of what he's said. Tony and Carmela are two sides of the same coin, and as The Sopranos moves into its end game, the naked
greed at their core is burning through everything else.
Final scorecard: No killings and no fistfights; one revenge defecation. That stray plot line about Islamic terrorism bobbed up again, with Tony staring intently as his driver takes him through a Muslim neighborhood, his gaze intense but unreadable. And if there was any doubt that Tony and Phil Leotardo are on a collision course, Tony's anger about the Spatafore situation -- a problem, as far as he's concerned, that Phil created and now will not help solve -- should lay it to rest.
Sunday night's biggest winner: Vito Jr., who sent a pack of bullies fleeing from his school locker room with his own personal WMD.
Sunday night's biggest loser: Jay Feely. Tony lost a $100,000 football bet when a Dolphin kicker got off his sick bed to win the game.
Honorable mention winner: A.J., who persuaded his Dominican sweetie to marry him with a giant pear-shaped diamond.
Honorable mention loser: A.J, who got dumped by his Dominican sweetie a few days later while taking her kid to a Latin Pride parade. Man, neither money nor multiculturalism nor male sensitivity worked. What do women want?