IV. Early Season 6, Part 2: Tony’s Paternal Rage Intensifies
Soprano Home Movies
The first 5 episodes of season 6, part 2, establish a parabolic crescendo of subplots dealing with violent fathers and sons – real and surrogate -- and the repression of guilt, hatred, and rage between them. Soprano Home Movies
starts things off when Tony asks Bobby if he ever “popped his cherry” (killed anyone). “Nah,” Bobby replies. This puzzles Tony since Bobby got made anyway and had a notorious mob hitman for a father. “I come close. I done other shit, but no. . . . My pop never wanted it for me.
” (emphasis added) Bobby goes on to observe that modern DNA and other evidence make legal complications for murder much more problematic than in years past.
Tony salutes him for having avoided the act. “It’s a big, fat pain in the balls.” His tone of voice and introspective expression betray that his statement has little to do with the legal complications of murder and everything to do with the psychological complications.
His choice of words also suggests an important association in Tony’s subconscious: murder is a pain literally in the source of his masculinity, a pain resulting from his effort to fulfill his father’s expectations and ideas of manhood. (If this association isn’t clear from Soprano Home Movies
alone, it becomes abundantly clear in Remember When
two episodes later.)
As is typical in the Sopranos, and in life, events rarely have one cause. The monopoly fight in this episode is a good example. Contributory causes included inebriation and a dispute over the free parking rule. But the biggest impetus came when Janice told the story of Johnny Boy shooting a hole through Livia’s hairdo, despite Tony’s vociferous objection. Tony’s vindictiveness immediately kicked in, and things went precipitously downhill afterward.
Similar to the finger chopping incident, the hair story was so shameful to Tony that he never even told Carmela, a fact that shocks her because of the ostensible hilarity of a bullet hole in the middle of a beehive bun. While everyone else laughs, he seems ashamed not only because the act is blatantly violent but because the victim was a spouse, not some loanshark debtor. He growls at Janice, “It makes us look like a fuckin’ dysfunctional family,” then warns Carmela, “Don’t you ever tell the kids that about their grandfather.” He still protects Johnny to the core because his maternal blame/paternal hero worship is his defense mechanism to personal responsibility and regret for his lifestyle.
However losing the fight to Bobby on the heels of the discussion about murder stirred a cauldron of unconscious hatred in Tony towards the father whose example and imparted value system factored indirectly into both the fight and Tony’s severe humiliation at defeat as well as into his envy for a peer whose father loved him enough to shield him from the ultimate crime. I could rarely ever predict what was about to happen on The Sopranos, but as soon as I saw Tony brooding with his black eye and swollen jaw by that lake, I felt he would be shortly ordering Bobby to perform his first hit. It was perfect, hideous retribution for someone who has often sought to sabotage another’s personal growth, stability, happiness, or moral superiority, especially when he’s feeling the narrow limits of his own.
When Bobby returns home to the strains of “This Magic Moment” after committing his first murder, the subtext is clear. He has lost forever what modicum of innocence he could claim as a made guy. He will never be the same again, his psyche irrevocably scarred in a way that Tony understands all too well since, as we soon learn, he committed his first murder at age 22 . . . on orders of his own father.
There are a few other notable scenes in Soprano Home Movies
. The first occurs by the lake when Tony urges Carmela to share the story of the three year-old that was left with severe brain damage after nearly drowning in a swimming pool amid a party full of adults. Tony doesn’t know why but proclaims, “I can’t get that story out of my mind.”
In a scene after the fight, he hones in on the nanny singing the nursery song “Five Little Ducks” with toddler Domenica. The first stanza of that song goes:
Five little ducks
Went out one day
Over the hill and far away
Mother duck said
"Quack, quack, quack, quack."
But only four little ducks came back.
The remaining stanzas build in a pattern on this one, each time with one fewer ducks going out and one fewer returning. The excerpt in the episode is edited so that it abruptly cuts off after the nanny and child sing “Mother duck”, leaving those words most prominent.
These two anecdotes speak in concert to the issue of parental (and especially maternal) neglect, of a mother not properly protecting or keeping account of her children in view of the risks around them. They are especially apposite as Sopranos subtext because Tony’s subconscious, and the show as a whole, have used ducks and pools as symbols for Tony’s own family and sense of homelife throughout. Moreover Tony’s admitted fixation on the toddler drowning story reinforces the vicarious insight Melfi was trying to get Tony to absorb two episodes earlier, that part of his unrelenting grudge against Livia owes to her failure to protect him from his father.
The whole theme is poignantly symbolized near the episode’s close as Tony watches the old 8mm film transfers of him and Janice, around ages 4-6, respectively. They were “two little ducks” playing with a hose on the sidewalk, an inflatable pool nearby. They are strikingly alone in the film. There is no sign of Livia, or any other adult in front of the camera, only the prominence of their father’s black, 1959 Cadillac, symbolically equivalent, as we know, to the gangster lifestyle of Johnny Soprano.
The upshot of these “Soprano home movies” is that the children were left prey to the dangers of a gangster father by a self-absorbed, unloving mother. Yet that’s a source of anger he can’t possibly confront and safely discharge because he still can’t confront the bigger truth that his father was the kind of man from whom he needed protection.
Cleaver Forces Tony to Confront Christopher's “Paternal” Hatred
Chris' secret hatred towards Tony is expressed in his Cleaver
horror movie via its parallel tale of a mid-40s mob boss named "Sally Boy" and his mob protégé, Michael. Like Tony, Sally Boy is ill-tempered, physically imposing, foul-mouthed, and wears a white robe while conducting important business in his basement. Like Chris, Michael is 30-something and described in the movie as being “like a son” to Sally Boy.
In the key plot points, Sally Boy incorrectly concludes Michael is a rat and whacks him. Later he seduces Michael's fiancé in clear reflection of Chris’ persistent belief – shared by many others – that Tony seduced and had sex with Adriana. Michael's dismembered body somehow reassembles, but with a cleaver in place of one of his missing hands. He exacts his murderous revenge on Sally Boy by repeatedly slamming the cleaver through Sally Boy's skull.
What remains undepicted in the movie, for obvious reasons, is the crucial element of the real story, that after learning of Adriana’s cooperation with the FBI, Chris came to Tony rather than flip and apparently maintained some very faint hope that his loyalty would spare her life. When that didn’t happen, his hatred towards Tony was surely cemented, even though it took the next 18 episodes for it to fully manifest.
During the movie’s premiere, Silvio, Ro, and Carmela, among others, all recognize that Sally Boy is based on Tony. Carmela even whispers to him in the theatre, “That’s you,” as Sally Boy, played by Daniel Baldwin, angrily smashes a jar in the basement clad in his boxers, wife beater T-shirt, and white robe. “No,” Tony smiles, oblivious at first to the obvious parallels. By the end, however, he sees the truth of it and is, incredibly, quite pleased.
Tony pours his coffee the next morning into a mug conspicuously shown in closeup emblazoned with the word “CLEAVER” and the movie’s logo: a meat cleaver dripping with blood. Carmela confronts him with her concerns about the depiction of Sally Boy. “Imitation’s a form of flattery,” he chirps. “You think that was flattering?” she asks incredulously. “It was okay,” he replies defensively. “He’s a tough prick, that Baldwin.”
When Carm mentions “the girlfriend” and “the cleaver guy’s entire motive for revenge,” Tony is genuinely ignorant. “I don’t know. You lost me Carm.” “Sally Boy, the boss, he fucked the guy’s fiancé,” she exclaims. Only then does the Ade parallel even occur to him. He reminds Carm that he never had sex with Ade. “Apparently your nephew feels otherwise,” she explains. “Ro pointed it out to me, but if she saw it, that means other people did.” “It’s a movie; it’s fictional,” he notes, dismissing the coincidence. Carmela has to spoon feed him the truth: “It’s a revenge fantasy, Tony, which ends with the boss’ head split open by a meat cleaver.”
Finally her words appear to make an impression. Silvio’s reaction to pointed questions by Tony a short time later, as well as JT Dolan’s transparently coerced effort to take credit for originating the movie’s plot, support her theory.
In therapy, Tony tearfully admits to Melfi the truth that the film reveals: Christopher hates him with a passion and would like to see him dead. He revisits with Melfi the origins of his paternal feelings towards Chris, holding him as an infant and riding him around in the basket of his bicycle a few years later. He painfully recounts that Christopher’s father had been for him what he hoped to be for Chris, not just a mentor but “a friend, a fuckin’ guy you could look up to” and that he hoped to “pass that shit down, the respect and the love.”
Melfi asks Tony if it’s at all possible that he is reading too much into Chris’ feelings from the Cleaver
story, prompting a reply that would be purely hilarious if Tony weren’t so sincere. “I’ve been coming here for years,” he replies. “I know too much about the subconscious now.”
That is a big, huge, wildly waving red flag to the audience, one of those moments where we are to appreciate that the real truth is the exact opposite of what we just heard. Tony’s entire reaction at the screening and in the kitchen with Carmela the next morning shows just how incredibly, unusually oblivious he is to the subconscious.
He is especially oblivious to his own. For that reason, Cleaver’s
subtle symbols and parallels to Tony’s life, along with its story of a son’s hatred and revenge against his “father”, could heat Tony’s repressed paternal hatred to magma and still leave him completely unaware of the pre-volcanic processes inside him. And I believe that’s exactly what happened.
The Importance of the Cleaver Symbolism
The first and most important of the Cleaver
symbols is the cleaver itself. As previously noted, a bloody meat cleaver is the emblem for Tony’s lost childhood innocence, a symbol of the epoch most influential in shaping him into the kind of man his father wanted and expected him to be. Accordingly, it carries tremendous psychological weight with Tony, even if that weight is deeply submerged in his consciousness.
In contrast, a cleaver has no particular significance for Christopher, a point subtly made in a scene with his AA sponsor when he reports that the “inspiration” for the cleaver idea came when he was watching Edward Scissorhands and suddenly imagined his screen alter ego wielding a cleaverhand in place of the scissorhand. He then immediately corrects himself, saying he first imagined a ball peen hammer but then decided a cleaver was better. Scissors, a hammer, a cleaver, it’s six of one, half a dozen of the other to Chris. None of them means anything in particular to him, but the cleaver means everything in particular to Tony.
Another important parallel is the name of the Tony character in the movie. Yes, he dresses like, talks like, and acts like Tony, but his name bears a striking resemblance to the name “Johnny Boy”. Obviously that gives Cleaver
the potential to subtextually evoke Johnny Boy as the object of a son’s murderous rage and to stir latent feelings of paternal hatred in Tony’s subconscious. In effect the movie serves as a transgenerational mirror for paternal hatred, from Tony towards Johnny reflected in Christopher’s hatred towards Tony.
“Much like a child, a film has many parents.”
That line was spoken by Little Carmine in Stage 5
when he addressed the audience at the Cleaver
premiere. But it highlights an obvious truth fundamental to all this talk of father figures and surrogate sons, namely that significantly older persons who are close to a child in daily life can wield a parental-like influence on their values and behavior, particularly if the child perceives a vacuum of love or support from his actual parents. That truth is explored in two parallel storylines in the episode Remember When.
The principle story begins with Tony and Paulie on an extended road trip as they await the outcome of a new and sudden murder investigation into the 1982 killing of a bookie named Willie Overall. Overall was Tony’s first murder, assigned to him by his father, and Paulie was the man at the scene to literally coach and encourage Tony through his own “magic moment”.
The event is obviously indelible in Tony’s memory. He remembers his exact age at the time; remembers that Meadow was born only a week later; remembers the bright light overhead in the room where it happened; remembers the moment he hesitated with the gun aimed at his victim, who was on the ground, bleeding from a beating and attempting to shield himself from the expected gunfire with his outstretched hands. He remembers Paulie urging him to pull the trigger: “Come on, kid, do it.” Tony remembers pulling the trigger twice, though he apparently – and curiously – doesn’t remember seeing Overall’s flesh splintered by the bullets. His recall jumps from pulling the trigger to shoveling dirt over the victim’s crumpled body.
As Tony relives those fleeting moments in flashback, Paulie observes, “You made your bones with that prick, eh?” “Yeah,” Tony replies in somber voice, clearly reliving not only the event but his inner emotional conflict at the time. Paulie continues, “You were shaky a little, but you did good. I remember tellin’ your old man.”
Paulie continues his insouciant nostalgia about the killing as they are driving to Florida. “Remember we took you to Luger’s after? Me, Puss, Ralphie?” He laughs his double laugh as though recalling a great camping trip.
Without either of them realizing it, by mentioning Ralph, Paulie provides Tony’s conscious mind with a much-needed release valve for the rage quietly building inside him over the way that Paulie and his father teamed up to help him become a murderer. A few minutes after Paulie drops Ralph’s name, Tony exhumes out of the blue a presumed act of betrayal almost as archaic as the bones of Willie Overall, the fact that someone in Tony’s crew must have told Johnny Sac about Ralph’s “95-pound mole” joke regarding Ginny Sac. All of a sudden, after all these years, after Ralph and Johnny Sac are both 6 feet under, and while knowing that Paulie was in prison at the time the joke was told, Tony wonders who would have told Johnny Sac that joke. “How should I know,” Paulie replies defensively. But it’s only the beginning of Tony’s escalating effort in the episode to make Paulie admit he was the traitor.
Over drinks in a hotel bar that evening, Paulie’s nostalgia begins again, all of it centered around Johnny Boy. He recalls the trips he and Johnny used to make to Florida related to some of their criminal enterprises. He specifically mentions traveling in Johnny’s black 1959 Cadillac Eldorado. “The Biarritz,” Tony replies with a smile. “He used to let me steer.” Clearly that car is a metaphor that just keeps on giving.
After a few more Johnny Boy anecdotes, Paulie turns more serious. “He loved you my friend. I remember the night you were born. Only time I ever saw him cry.” There’s a mix of emotions on Tony’s face as he hears this. “It’s funny, you know, I . . . never knew where I stood with him. Like he didn’t believe in me or somethin’.” Paulie tries to squelch Tony’s doubts. “Fuckin’ kiddin’? He trusted you enough to give you the Willie Overall thing, and you were, what, twenty-four?” “Twenty-two,” Tony quietly corrects him. “So there you go, then,” Paulie argues. The thought that his capacity to commit murder was apparently a metric by which his father judged his stature and worth is clearly too much for Tony to contemplate in that moment, and he immediately gets up and leaves the table.
Throughout the trip, Tony becomes increasingly irritated at Paulie’s glibness, the degree to which he readily shares details about his life and his past with total strangers in an effort to entertain and enjoy a laugh. It’s not new behavior, of course. It’s Paulie. But like the suddenly revived Ginny Sac matter, Tony’s conscious mind is now seeking outlets for the violent rage building within him, and Paulie’s loose lips are a rational reason for concern in the context of an ongoing FBI investigation into a murder they committed together.
They meet up with Beansie in south Florida, and Tony gifts him with a Cleaver
baseball cap, prominently emblazoned with the trademark blood-drenched meat cleaver. Beansie wonders why there’s no DVD, and Tony lies and says it never occurred to him. Perhaps he didn’t lie since he would never have thought to purvey to his friends what he perceives to be an epistle of Chris’ personal hatred towards him. But the continuing symbolic propagation of the bloody cleaver is what’s important here. Each time it’s renewed in Tony’s consciousness, it stokes the coals burning in his unconscious.
Beansie breaks out some old photos he recently found, one of which depicts a 20-something Paulie wearing a wide leather wristband and very revealing shirt while flexing his prized biceps. Tony comments that he and his friends all went out and got leather wristbands like Paulie’s because they wanted to be a “tough guy”, like him. It’s a thoroughly unsubtle anecdote, but it underscores the degree to which children shape their values and goals by imitating those who, by design or default, function as their role models.
The next picture depicts Johnny Boy and Junior standing by the 1959 Eldorado in front of Satriale’s. The photo looks to have been from the 1960s, roughly contemporaneous with the finger-chopping incident. (There’s some inconsistency regarding the color of Johnny’s car in the early season flashbacks. But from season 4 onward, his signature automobile during Tony’s childhood is understood to be the black Cadillac Eldorado.) Tony’s expression changes upon viewing this photo. Whatever good-natured nostalgia could be derived from seeing a youthful, muscle-bound Paulie dissipated for Tony upon seeing the uncle that tried to kill him twice and the father that used a bloody meat cleaver, inside that very same pork store, to demonstrate what it meant to be a man, the father who taught him to drive that 1959 Eldorado, literally and metaphorically. The triggers are conscious (Junior) and unconscious (everything else in the photo, plus the Cleaver hat given to Beansie), but they cooperate to continue to stir Tony’s paternal rage.
Later that evening, Tony’s “escort” comments that she initially thought Paulie was Tony’s dad. “There was a time when I wished he was,” Tony replies. Along with his unusually strong attachment to Junior and his persistent doubt about “where he stood” with his father, this anecdote from Tony’s early life further suggests he never received sufficient love or approval from Johnny, creating a paternal vacuum that Tony looked elsewhere to fulfill.
Near the episode’s end, Larry Barese tells the FBI that Jackie Aprile perpetrated the Overall murder, getting Tony and Paulie off the hook. This should have been a huge relief to Tony, but even as Sil gives him the news, Tony can’t help but feel there is “another shoe” waiting to be dropped. He’s in a clear state of agitation and unrest, even though he doesn’t really know why.
Instead of sharing the good news right away with Paulie, Tony stands on his hotel balcony glaring at him in the next room through an adjacent balcony window, downing small bottles of liquor in disgust as Paulie laughs at a harmless sitcom. Tony’s conscious mind is clearly frustrated at no longer having an urgent, rational basis for pursuing the rage he is feeling towards Paulie (and towards his father and uncle). So his annoyances mount over trivial and long-standing personal traits.
Tony takes a reluctant Paulie on an impromptu fishing trip the next day that is highly reminiscent of the trip they took Pussy on before whacking him and throwing him in the ocean. Onboard, Tony insults and mocks Paulie over the way he laughs. “You ever have yourself checked for Turret’s? . . . Seriously. ‘Eh heh, Eh heh.’ Maybe you got a tick or somethin’.” He wastes no time dredging up the Ginny Sac joke again, lying through his teeth to put Paulie at ease in hopes of eliciting a confession that will “justify” his murderous impulses. “Come on, you told John about that joke, right?” Meanwhile he eyes a hatchet hanging on the boat that looks eerily similar to – you guessed it – a meat cleaver. Had Paulie made the mistake of believing Tony, that it was “no big deal” to admit he told Johnny about the joke, that hatchet would surely have been planted in his skull in a virtual re-enactment of the end of Cleaver. As it was, Tony came within a hair’s breadth of jamming a fishing knife into Paulie’s gut instead of a promised beer.
In the parallel storyline of the episode, Junior befriends a fellow patient in the mental hospital named Carter Chong, a young Asian man from a rich family with an unspecified embarrassing secret involving the father, who is apparently deceased. Carter seems genuinely fond of Junior, gladly helping him organize an asylum version of the executive poker game and pleased when Junior shows him favorable treatment by inviting him into his room for tea and Kit Kat bars at night and by giving him his “taste” of the poker profits. Carter is especially impressed with Junior’s take-no-bullshit-from-anyone assertiveness and roots him on in various hostile encounters with staff and fellow patients.
We glimpse the roots of some of Carter’s emotional issues when he relates his father’s response long ago to Carter receiving a 96 -- highest grade in his class -- on a third grade spelling exam. “What happened to the other four points,” his father had asked. Carter’s repressed rage over this ostensibly patterned inability to please his father is glimpsed in the next moment when he screams “Fuck you!” twice and violently punches his open palm several times with his other, clenched fist. Even Junior is stunned at the explosion.
More insight is provided when Carter’s mother visits. “Dr. Mendel says you’ve been acting aggressively towards other patients,” she reveals. “Now apparently you are becoming a bully. Dr. Mendel feels you’re modeling your actions on the wrong people.” “Really? Like who,” Carter sarcastically asks. “You know who. That gangster,” his mother replies. Betraying his fundamental perception that he can never please his parents, no matter what he does, Carter responds, “It’s never enough, is it? My whole time at MIT, you told me ‘get out and make friends.’ Now I finally do, learn to assert myself a little, suddenly that’s a negative.” He storms off.
Clearly Junior has come to fill a parental/paternal void in Carter’s life, giving Junior a degree of influence over Carter’s personality and behavior that would likely not exist in the absence of that void. But things turn sour between them when the hospital staff learn that Junior has been deliberately skipping his medications. Threatened with the prospect of being transferred to a state facility if he doesn’t resume the prescribed meds, Junior gives in, much to Carter’s hurt and chagrin since Carter has taken the daily risk of distracting the staff everyday when Junior was supposed to be swallowing his pills. Realizing that Junior doesn’t even care about that, and resenting even more that Junior is not in fact the indomitable “lion” that Carter believed him to be, Carter attacks him at episode’s end in a violent fit of rage.
So the two threads in Remember When
are very similar. In the Junior/Carter thread, a role model for violent aggression suddenly catches a boomerang when a disillusioned surrogate son with father issues releases his own rage and turns that aggression back on the surrogate father. The Paulie/Tony thread is very similar to the Junior/Carter thread, differing critically only in that Tony ultimately stifles the impulse to act out violently towards Paulie. But a volcanic rage towards fathers is the theme in both threads.
Tony Defies His Father’s Life Lessons
Season 6, part 2, depicted Tony as a heavy gambler, one who risked far more money more often than had ever been suggested before. While he always profited significantly from bookmaking and loansharking enterprises (his own and those of his crew), his personal wagering was limited and low-key in the first five and a half seasons, consisting mostly of casual card games or the odd day at a casino or racetrack. He certainly had never been depicted as the kind of man who gambled enough to endanger his liquidity or to necessitate six-figure loans just to stay even with his bookies, which describes the state of affairs in the episode Chasing It
His gambling problem becomes so significant in that episode that it’s even addressed in therapy. Tony admits he’s been sending “good money after bad” but quickly defends the practice. “If you couldn’t lose, what’s the fuckin’ point, huh? See, you need the risk,” he tells Melfi. She asks, “What are you chasing? Money or a high from winning?” His shake of the head indicates that he doesn’t really know the answer to her question.
Many viewers couldn’t provide an answer either and felt this sudden gambling crisis reflected a writing failure, an attempt to manufacture drama by imposing unnatural or contradictory behavior on a well-established character. I felt a bit that way myself until I began to consider the gambling in light of Tony’s contemporaneous, burgeoning, and subconscious anger towards his father at that point in the series. In that context, the gambling began to make perfect sense, and, once again, it all goes back to the night of the incident involving the cleaver.
That was the night when Johnny emphatically imparted to Tony the lessons that gamblers are scum and that gamblers who borrow money and fail to make timely repayment are even bigger scum. If, in the last half of season 6, Tony’s subconscious was stuck on the cleaver incident as the true genesis for his life trajectory and was subtly pushing him to rebel against his father 35 years after-the-fact, then borrowing huge sums of money, gambling it all away, and shirking the responsibility to repay the loans would be a natural, safe course for that rebellion to take. Making Hesh the victim of his irresponsible borrowing would be a bonus, since Hesh’s age and relationship to Johnny and to Tony himself make him another natural father figure.
Of course this is exactly what happens in Chasing It
. Having already borrowed 200K from Hesh in the prior episode, Tony visits his home one night. In a near-replay of his gift to Beansie, he brings Hesh a Cleaver
hat while expressly denouncing the movie itself as unfit for viewing, a blatant self-contradiction reconciled only in that it signals Tony’s ongoing subconscious preoccupation with the movie’s cleaver logo and themes of violent retribution against a father figure. In any case, Tony shares gossip about Phil’s “boss” party from which he’s just returned and offers an almost stunning sentiment when Hesh questions why he left the party and the company of his crew so early. “I look at my key guys . . . what’s number one on their agenda, you know? They’re all fuckin’ murderers for Christ’s sakes,” Tony jokes, only you get the feeling he’s more serious than not. “What I’m tryin’ to say is, it’s nice bein’ here.” “Here” of course meant in the company of a guy who he fancies is able to put friendship above business, who makes his living under the auspices and protection of the mob but without directly participating in its violent aspects.
The warm fuzzy feelings disappear pretty quickly, however, when Hesh reminds Tony of the outstanding loan. Even though Hesh makes clear he is only wondering about repayment of the principal and is not looking for a “vig”,” Tony unreasonably seizes on this debt reminder as grounds for judging Hesh to be a stereotypical, money-grubbing Jew. He insists on paying Hesh a vig anyway and rubs two quarters together in derision when Hesh stops by the pork store the following week. Suddenly Tony is offended at the notion of folks collecting debts and profiting from gambling loans, something he’s unapologetically done himself directly or indirectly all his adult life. Then again, his subconscious is in a different place than it’s ever been before, fixated on the pivotal events and people in his past that contributed to him becoming what he is instead of what he’d like to have been.
The always-prescient Hesh ominously notes that this is not the usual Tony. “He’s all worked up, or something. I don’t like the way he talks. Hostile remarks. It’s not like him. Makes me worry.”
A secondary thread in this episode deals with Vito Jr. experiencing behavioral and social problems in the wake of Vito’s death. He dresses full tilt “gothic” with black lipstick, overturns headstones for fun, kills a neighbor’s cat, bullies a handicapped girl at school, and craps in the gym shower as revenge on hateful peers who tease him because his father was gay and notoriously died with a pool cue rammed up his butt.
Marie Spatafore asks Tony for $100K to move far away where Vito Jr. can start with a clean slate. Reluctant to give her that kind of money, Tony tries first to make Phil, as Marie’s cousin and Vito’s executioner, assume financial and quasi-paternal responsibility, with predictably bad results. Underscoring yet again the father/son/surrogate theme of season 6, part 2, Tony tells Marie, “It’s not easy to substitute for a dad. I know. But maybe I can fill in here.”
Tony does talk to Vito Jr., employing a tact reminiscent of his intervention with AJ in Johnny Cakes
and polar opposite of the one his father undertook with him after Satriale’s. He tries to plant or reinforce in Little Vito’s own mind a fundamentally good self-image by praising that he’s always been a “good kid.” Vito rejects Tony’s presumptuousness, noting that Tony is such a stranger to their family that he often mistakenly calls him “Carlos, Jr.” instead of “Vito Jr.” Still Tony tries to accentuate the positive. “Look, all I know is I couldn’t shut your dad up about what a good kid you were,” he scolds. “We were friends you know.” “But buddies?” Vito asks sarcastically. After excusing the zinger, Tony offers some genuine compassion for what it’s like to lose a father you loved and yet who caused you shame or disappointment at the same time. “I’m sure you miss him . . . a lot . . . whatever he was.”
Obviously this encounter is included in the story for what it says about Tony, not for what it says about Vito Jr., an inconsequential character in the overall scheme of the show. Tony’s counsel reveals his own latent conflicts, that despite what Johnny Boy was, and what Junior was, they were his father and uncle, the most important men in his life, the men who were around him throughout his formative years and who provided what measure of paternal love he knew. Not all of it was bad. Very much like what Tony recounts regarding Christopher’s childhood -- holding him as an infant and riding him around on his butcher bike -- there were endearing memories and experiences, enough that he could still love these men despite all the harm they caused him.
Little Vito is correct that Tony has no idea whether he (Vito) is an intrinsically “good kid”, and we have no idea whether Vito Sr. ever said or harped on that fact to Tony (probably not). But it doesn’t really matter whether either is true. Tony says these things because he intuitively recognizes how damaging it was to his own psyche and self image as a kid to hear his father euphemistically tell him after the cleaver incident that he innately possessed the sadistic, evil, or predatory nature to do what he witnessed in Satriale’s. He knows at a core, unconscious level that living up to his father’s concept of him was more important than living up to his fledgling concept of himself, a self-concept which, stripped of his father’s corruption, is revealed in all its relative innocence and idealism in Join the Club
. That Tony is a mild-mannered salesman, loves his wife and kids so much that he sabotages his one chance at an illicit affair with an attractive woman, is naturally uncomfortable with minor credit card fraud, and is positively stunned at a level of violence in which another person merely slaps his face. So his effort to make Vito Jr. think of himself as a “good kid” and to internalize his father’s ostensible view of him as the same is Tony’s effort to help Vito Jr. avert the self-doubt and sense of innate moral inferiority that paved his own path to a life of crime.
Though I don’t think Chasing It
asks us to make this juxtaposition, I can’t help but recall another, early episode featuring Hesh, Denial, Anger, Acceptance
. There the Hasidic motel owner tells Tony he is a “golem”, a “monster, Frankenstien”, prompting Melfi’s question near the end of the episode, “Do you feel like Frankenstein . . . a thing, lacking humanity, lacking human feelings?” We don’t hear Tony’s answer in the therapy room, but it’s provided years later in his Test Dream
when Tony the “mobster” (“monster” minus an “n” plus a “b”) runs from a torch-bearing, lederhosen-clad mob. Yes, he feels like Frankenstein, a monster, albeit one created by other people, against whom we can presume he bears a serious grudge.
Chris’ Displaced, Murderous Rage as a Precursor to Tony’s
In Walk Like a Man
, Chris finds himself “ostrafied” by his mob cohorts because, in his effort to stay sober, he spends very little time with them at the Bing. When he does see them, he is ridiculed for drinking non alcoholic beverages and witnesses his once-favored status and earning opportunities in Tony’s crew being usurped by Bobby Bacala. Chris seeks Tony’s understanding for the fact that he inherited alcoholism from his mother, making sobriety especially difficult for him to maintain. But Tony doesn’t buy this “excuse”.
Tony: I know a crutch when I see it.
Chris: So my dad? You obviously musta knew he had a crutch.
Tony: What the fuck are you talkin’ about?
Chris: Com’e on, Tone, huh? Between the coke, the vodka, whatever the fuck else he was squirtin’ up his arm. Let’s be honest about the great Dickie Moltisanti, my dad, your hero. He wasn’t much more than a fuckin’ junky.
Tony is speechless. He doesn’t know what to think or say in the face of a son calmly debunking a lifetime of false paternal myth and hero worship and replacing it with naked, unvarnished, and unflattering truth. He is undoubtedly also disturbed to see the pedestal he built under another of his own father figures crash to the ground so suddenly and emphatically.
Elsewhere in the episode, Paulie provokes a squabble with Chris over stolen power tools that ultimately results in Chris beating and throwing Little Paulie out of a second story window and Paulie driving his car like a high-speed plow over the expensive new landscaping at Chris’ home while Kelly watches in terror. Tony forces a truce, which Chris seals with a drink to placate Paulie. This sacrifice and effort to fit in is rewarded when Paulie mocks Christopher’s drunken soliloquy about his daughter and makes her the butt of two cruel jokes in front of the crew. As Chris’ “friends” convulse in laughter, and especially as he absorbs the depths of betrayal written in the broad smiles of his “father figures”, Paulie and Tony, Chris storms out of the Bing and to the home of JT Dolan.
There’s a natural symmetry to him showing up in that moment at the home of the screenwriter who helped him express his covert hatred of Tony Soprano in a movie script. But on this night, the hatred spurting out of him is far more urgent and tangible. He threatens to “bring everybody down” by revealing sensitive secrets, like the truth behind the murders of Ralph and Adriana, and notes the rewards of the Witness Protection Program. He even mentions that Sammy “The Bull” Gravano is “living large” in the program in Arizona, a remark with some portent for the next episode.
JT repeatedly warns that he doesn’t want to hear these things that could get him killed and is unmoved by Chris’ plea for sympathy. “You know my father abandoned me,” Chris cries. “I thought you said he was shot,” JT fires back coldly before trying to shock Chris back to the realities of the life he chose: “Chris, you’re in the Mafia!”
Clearly Chris doesn’t subscribe to the “don’t shoot the messenger” theory. He impulsively draws his gun and blows a hole through JT’s head, but driving the action is the anger accompanying his sense of paternal betrayal and abandonment. It’s a transparently displaced act of rage reminiscent of the beatings Tony administered to Georgie through the years when the motivating anger was actually aimed at others or at himself.
A Reprise of Tony’s Paternal Guilt
Just as Christopher’s paternal hatred was exploding, Tony’s was imploding. And, once again, the explicitly acknowledged guilt Tony feels as a father and the unacknowledged blame he dispenses as a son are part of the same, swift current.
In Walk Like a Man
, Tony has decided to quit therapy once and for all following Melfi’s demand that he honestly assess its value to him and whether he is serious about continuing. But before he can share his decision with her, Blanca ends her engagement to AJ, plunging the younger Soprano into a deep, suicidal depression.
When AJ cries that Blanca was “the best thing that ever happened” to him, Tony makes his most concerted effort of the series to boost AJ’s self-esteem and convince him of his intrinsic worth, telling AJ that plenty of girls would love to have a guy like him. AJ tearfully scoffs.
AJ: Yeah, right. Like I’m so special.
Tony: [earnestly] You’re damn right you are. You’re handsome and smart . . . a hard worker. And, let’s be honest, white.
I guess Tony had limited raw material to work with, but he did his best to sell all points.
AJ’s crisis causes a reversal in Tony’s decision to quit therapy, making his position in his next session paradoxical. On one hand he declares that therapy has been one big “jerk off” but allows that he is now “trapped [there] forever”.
The immediately striking aspect of this scene is that Tony is intellectually aware of the reasons for AJ’s depression: painful, personal rejection and the demise of his first, serious romantic relationship. That could happen to any young person in any walk of life with any kind of father or background and produce serious depression. But Tony’s awareness of this fact doesn’t stop him from feeling he is to blame for AJ’s plight.
Tony: Obviously I’m prone to depression . . . a certain bleak attitude about the world. But I know I can handle it. Your kids, though.
[His watery eyes and frangible voice betray the sincerity of his emotions as he continues.]
Tony: It’s like when they’re little and they get sick. You’d give anything in the world to trade places with them so they don’t have to suffer. And then to think you’re the cause of it.
Melfi: How are you the cause of it?
Tony: It’s in his blood, this miserable fuckin’ existence. My rotten fuckin’ putrid genes have infected my kid’s soul! That’s my gift to my son.
A long pause ensues as Melfi absorbs the importance of the moment. These words are almost a verbatim echo of Tony’s emotional outpouring years before in Army of One,
the only time he came really close to condemning his gangster way of life and particularly its harmful effects on his son. His verbiage here is even stronger in that he speaks of having “infected [AJ’s] soul”, a metaphor with considerably greater moral and spiritual weight than implied by the innocent, biological conveyance of a defective gene for regulating serotonin uptake.
So, as before, this confession of guilt and sorrow is clearly about more than genes. It’s about more than Tony wanting to save AJ from romantic heartbreak. This is about Tony feeling an inexorable corruption of his own humanity and sense of worth by the influence and value system of his violent father. And it’s about his concomitant guilt for fearing that, as a man like his father, he has done the same thing to AJ.
Just as in Army of One
, Melfi’s gentle tone of voice signals how much she’s pulling Tony to make these realizations while his angry tears show how much he’s pushing to resist them.
Melfi: I know this is difficult. But I’m very glad we’re having this discussion.
Tony: Really? Really? ‘Cause I gotta be honest. I think it fuckin’ sucks.
Melfi: What does?
Tony: [yelling] Therapy! This! I hate this fuckin’ shit!
And there, in a nutshell, is the problem. He can’t stand to feel sorrow or indulge the pain of deep introspection, a theme recurrent through the series and explored openly in House Arrest
and The Ride
It’s no coincidence that Walk Like a Man
and a number of other episodes from the final nine essentially begin by showing Tony soundly asleep in his bed (which DH explores in this excellent thread
.) It’s also no coincidence that, after waking in Walk Like a Man
, he plods downstairs while singing a verse from the Pink Floyd classic “Comfortably Numb”, a song which also features prominently in the following, culminating episode. Remaining numb to his deeper feelings of conscience and humanity is both the secret to Tony’s success as a gangster and the reason why some of his most personal, tactile acts of violence have followed moments of great sorrow (e.g., belt-whipping Zellman, killing Ralph, viciously beating a drugged-out Christopher after the Adriana hit.) Psychological distraction and extreme sensory manipulation are the keys, whether achieved by adrenaline-inducing violence, compulsive sex, compulsive eating, compulsive spending/material acquisition, or compulsive sleeping. The objective in all cases remains to either feel anything but pain or to feel nothing at all.
Walk Like a Man
brings these deeply repressed feelings close enough to the surface that Tony glimpses the price of dredging them all the way up. And it’s not a price he’s willing to pay.
He knows that in order to “grow”, to truly progress in Melfi’s office, he has to be willing to essentially condemn an entire lifetime of immoral choices and acts that inflicted immense suffering on other people. He has to be willing to experience the guilt and remorse associated with that process. He has to be willing not only to smash the pedestal he erected under his father and denounce his way of life and his example but to own the fact that he willingly followed in his footsteps as an adult, compromising the potential of his children and especially of his son. In short, he has to do what the monks in his coma dream were suing to make him do: take personal responsibility for his life and actions.
No more blaming Livia consciously or Johnny Boy unconsciously. No more blaming Junior or Paulie or Dickie because they were equally poor surrogate fathers. No more “going about in pity for himself” because of his upbringing.
All of this is why the explicit admission never comes, the breakthrough never truly occurs. It’s too hard. It opens him up to too much sadness and regret and sense of waste and failure in his life. As hard as it is at times for him to live with the repression of those feelings, repression is easier than confrontation and all its consequences.
Of course the very fact that Tony has such feelings to repress has always been paramount for me. Though his actions grew increasingly dark over the course of the series, he always betrayed evidence of some conscience, some capacity for love, some capacity for sorrow and moral conflict, without which I can’t imagine that I would ever have been as obsessed with this show as I became. I cared about him and devoted so much passionate energy to trying to understand him only because his vulnerability and shreds of goodness made him, in my judgment, worthy of caring and understanding.
The humanity was often microscopic, but it was there, even in relation to some of the darkest deeds on the show: the way he was haunted briefly after killing Matt Bevalaqua, who he recognized was barely more than a “kid”; his reaction to the way Richie Aprile maimed Beansie; his long resistance to the idea that Pussy was a rat that had to be killed as well the way the murder troubled him well afterward; the way he uniquely (among the crew) was saddened by and took moral issue with what Ralph did to Tracee. We glimpsed his humanity in his red, grief-swollen face and defeated voice in All Due Respect
when he instructed Chris where to find and bury the body of Tony B. We even saw it after he coldly ordered Adriana’s execution, both in the angry beating he administered to Chris (classic distraction from sorrow and punishment of Chris for having “created” the whole situation to begin with) and in his lumbering, emotionally oppressed frame and countenance in the closing scene of Long Term Parking
So by the time of Kennedy and Heidi
, even though there was nothing new about Tony killing people for whom he felt some form of affection, there was something entirely new about him killing a loved one without any trace of regret, sadness, or moral conflict. That’s why his seemingly remorseless, defiantly triumphant murder of the young man he thought of as a surrogate son forever changed the way I view Tony Soprano. Or at least I thought it did.