It's getting ugly on The Sopranos. The dread seeps everywhere.
This week, it was a hissy-fit between Chris and Paulie as the centerpiece of the episode. In the past, they've given us some of the best moments of the show, and what still stands as possibly the best episode ever, "Pine Barrens." The contempt they have for each other these days makes me wonder how Chris ever considered getting wings in his hair.
This week, the rage on Paulie's face as he ripped his Caddy across Chris's lawn was one for the ages. But even while that crazy scene was going on, the dread for the ultimate payback was mounting. Both Chris and Paulie love and worship Tony to a fault, which is exactly why Tony always disappoints them and hurts them so severely. They are, to him, "family," but he, to them, is family. Particularly, he's the larger-than-life general-patriarch, and one who has too little compassion and too much discipline for their tastes.
Normally, when I see Tim Daly appear onscreen as JT, I get a little tickle of delight. I'm at first stunned and then I sadistically giggle as Christophah verbally knocks him down, screws him over, and then slaps him around. But in this latest episode, "Walk Like a Man," written by Terrence Winter, JT hears a late night knock on his door and gets up and hovers for a second before opening it.
And I knew. And I thought, "Oh Tim. Don't open that door." Because, yes, I can separate fictional characters from the actors that play them, but sometimes choose not to. And even though I know Tim is going to be just fine, because I've already watched him in that new Grey's spinoff, and even though I've laughed at JT's writerly indignities, I didn't want major damage to happen to him. But Tim/JT did open the door and let Christophah into his apartment. Liquored up and irate about the recent kerfuffle with Paulie, Chris started spouting off really terrible things. Talking about going to the Feds and looking for sympathy. JT tried to shut him up and didn't offer enough pity. So Chris shot him in the head.
It was dark and ugly, one of Chris's worst moments in an already perfectly vicious existence, and an action that both drew startling parallels and highlighted a key difference between he and Tony.
Of course, nasty as that cold-blooded murder was, it was still touched with a little tongue-in-cheek humor, as JT had just told Chris that he was up late working on a script for Law & Order, which is a show that Michael Imperioli frequently guest stars on. So in the meta-world, if JT was writing an episode that featured Detective Nick Falco, Christopher just committed the ultimate act of career suicide.
But my point is really this. Chris behaved so much like Tony did in the previous episode it was almost spooky. Spooky because the writers so perfectly capture the restless frustration and inappropriate venting that even us non-sociopathic personalities can relate to. When Tony's deep in a funk in his own self-loathing and pissed off about other people he owes money to, he goes into a cruel rage against Carmela. And when Paulie tripped Chris's triggers, Chris turned around and lashed out at JT. They know who the beta dogs to them are, and they immediately seek out confrontation with them and then punish them.
Even more eerie and appropriate, they both blame their genetics for it all. Christopher laments his addict tendencies to Tony, telling him it's in his blood. Because although Chris's father Dickie is Tony's hero, he was also a junkie. Tony, of course, tells Chris this is bullshit and he just needs self control. But then he turns around and sits in Melfi's office and gives her nearly the same speech he had back in the first season. Back then, he told her that his business and his lifestyle was in his blood, that he was born to it. This episode, though, he's talking about his son AJ's disposition and is disgusted because he passed along his shitty genes to AJ which make him prone to depression and general misery.
But just to pile on the human irony, though Tony despises himself and despises seeing his worst traits in AJ, the other half of him also can't stand to see weakness in his son. Tony puts it mildly to Melfi, telling her that at least he can handle his gloomy outlook, but AJ probably can't. So he "fixes" the situation and remedies AJ's depression the only way he knows how: He hooks AJ up with another wiseguy's son to go out to a party. But we all know that it was more than just a twinkle of jealousy in Tony's eye as he listened to his paison talk about his son and boast about how well his bookmaking business was going. So even though Tony will swear he never intended to get AJ into "the family business," it certainly wasn't a random act on Tony's part that set AJ out that night to hold down another college student who'd welshed on his loan as the bookie dumped sulfuric acid on his foot.
But there comes another key difference between the three men: Chris, Tony, and AJ. While Chris is prone to outbursts of violence and is generally vicious and cruel in his selfish myopia, and while he never even registers a ping of regret about his own actions (other than to blame Tony for his choice about Adriana), it's also never really seemed as though Chris took a perverse pleasure in the violence. For him, it was just accepted as his way of dealing with things. Both he and his often-nemesis Paulie sometimes take boyish, mischievous glee in the hell they wreck, and they arrogantly delight in their own power, but that's where it ends. (the dead waiter comes to mind here.)
In contrast, Tony lives for his power and ability to dominate, but when it comes to the really grisly shit, he not only doesn't take delight in it, he wrestles with it to an antagonizing degree. Nightmares about Big Pussy, feeling an inner victory when he didn't kill the child-molesting soccer coach, the disgust he cultivated toward Ralphie and his violence to women and animals. For as ugly as Tony gets with Carmela, he's never been able to physically attack her yet. Tony would rather kill than be killed, but he always does it with a heavy heart.
And now we have AJ. AJ sat in therapy just like his dad and started taking medication just like his dad, and we already know he's prone to passing out just like his dad. But though there was some of Tony's trademark reluctance when it was first suggested to AJ that he come along to rough up the welsher, he took to it as quickly as Chris would have. But then, wasn't there something a little beyond Chris's twisted sense of humor as AJ watched them pour acid on the kid's foot? Didn't AJ look, well, excited by it all?
Normally, after a particularly rough episode, Tony would slog home and settle himself at the kitchen table and Carmela would hand him a plate of ziti. It wouldn't be much, but it'd at least be enough. Tony would catch his breath and things would calm. This week, for the first time, both Meadow and AJ joined them for the late-night private soiree. And while Carmela looked content and Tony sighed at his children, there was no relief. Earlier, deep in the throes of his existential angst, he'd asked Melfi "Is this all there is?"
Sitting at his table, surrounded by his family, Tony should be comforted by his loyal daughter's presence and his rapidly maturing son's rebound from depression and his wife's continued support. If this was all there is, he would probably be a very thankful man. But he's now put AJ squarely in the middle of the landscape where he never wanted him. And Chris and Paulie are fuming, both of them potential rats. The Feds creep closer. In New York, the danger heats up as Phil Leotardo is still simmering and wanting a piece of Tony's blood in revenge for his brother's murder.
Poor Tony. Unfortunately for him, this most certainly is not all there is.