Tony’s Vicarious Patricide

Tony's Vicarious Patricide

I. Introduction
Shortly after Kennedy and Heidi first aired, I proffered a theory that garnered some initial support in these parts but increasing disagreement since. The theory, of course, is that Christopher’s murder was primarily motivated by Tony’s repressed, displaced rage at his own Mafia “fathers”, real and surrogate, and, in that sense, can be seen as a symbolic or vicarious act of patricide. Obviously the murder was also Tony’s pre-emptive strike at a resentful mob protégé whose drug addiction and disaffection made him a prime candidate to flip. But despite that conscious, rational, and contributory motive, I believe the much more potent and important motive was the subconscious one, both for Tony and for the audience in terms of understanding a long and vital story arc in the series.

A subconscious behavioral motive is inherently one of which the actor is unaware. In a drama, that means the character undertaking the behavior can’t articulate the motive for the audience. And if the behavior itself is secret, unknown by any (living) person besides the character performing it (Tony pinching Chris’ nose to ensure his death), then no other character can possibly articulate the hidden motive for the audience either. That insight must be conveyed via much more subtle and abstract means, making audience sensitivity to symbolism, subtext, allusion, foreshadowing, and parallel especially important.

Since I’m firmly convinced that the proposed view of Christopher’s murder conforms to at least Chase’s broad intentions, and since I feel it ties together so many strands of the series going back to the very first episode, this article is my comprehensive effort to pull those strands together. I hope the length of these posts won’t be too off-putting, but I’m going all out here to make my case to the many skeptics. I will undoubtedly repeat things I’ve said in other threads while also offering a lot of new analysis. Hopefully all the bits will coalesce here in a more cogent way than in previous presentations.

To avoid post length limitations, each major section of the treatise is presented as a separate reply.
Tony, his spirits crushed after b-lining to the fridge first thing in the morning: "Who ate the last piece of cake?"

II. Early Evidence of Tony’s Unconscious Rage Towards His Fa

II. Early Evidence of Tony’s Unconscious Rage Towards His Father(s)
Throughout the earliest part of the series, Livia was the parent tagged with being the real failure and psychological detriment to Tony. When talking to Melfi about his father, Tony often smiled and described him as a “good guy” that everybody liked. In contrast, Livia’s pathological anxieties, prickly demeanor, relentless criticism of others, and insatiable appetite for attention made her a psychotherapist’s dream. Those qualities also undoubtedly made her seem less loving (and loveable) than Johnny to their children. Recall that when Carm first hears Tony is seeing a therapist, she wonders if he’s talked about his father but underscores that his mother is the real problem.

Though Tony shared some unflattering Livia anecdotes with Melfi from the get-go, he initially bristled at even the suggestion that he might harbor repressed hatred towards her. The end of 46 Long, when Tony viciously beats Georgie over the head with a phone, is meant to illustrate the consequences of that unacknowledged, displaced rage at his mother.

Tony’s capacity to confront those feelings evolved considerably, however, after Livia’s deliberate manipulation led to Junior’s assassination attempt on Tony in Isabella. By the time Livia died in early season 3, Tony was certainly able to verbalize – to Melfi, at least – his darkest feelings about his mother. In Proshai, Livushka, he spoke of being glad she died, of having actually wished for it, and called her a “demented old bat” and “fucking selfish miserable cunt”. In other words, he was reasonably conscious of his ill feelings towards his mother and the reasons for them and was presumably, therefore, less apt to displace the associated rage onto others.

The early scrutiny on Livia meant that Junior’s determinative role in the assassination attempt was comparatively minimized, both inside therapy and out. That’s especially significant since Tony viewed Junior as a second father (a fairly obvious point that is treated in more detail later in this article.)

Then, in the season 2 finale, Melfi finally began to suggest that Tony scrutinize his father, not for his father’s own actions (which were still largely unexplored) but for some of the psychic injuries inflicted by his mother. She noted that Tony’s representation of Johnny as a “tough guy” but also as a “good guy” who loved his kids did not square with an often absentee father who would not intervene on his children’s behalf to stop their emotional abuse at the hands of a borderline mother. Tony appeared to receive this insight like a brick wall at the time.

A Meat “Cleaver” as Symbol of Tony’s Lost Innocence

In season 3, attention turned for essentially the first time to the effect of Johnny Boy’s own actions on Tony’s psychological development in the ironically-titled episode, Fortunate Son. It’s highly likely that witnessing his father viciously chop off Satriale’s finger with a meat cleaver did more to put Tony on a path of gangsterism than any other single event in his life. It was also unquestionably the moment when, despite some previous heavy life experiences, he lost all vestiges of childhood innocence. As I summarized in another thread:
When 11 year-old Tony approached his father that evening with an obvious mix of fear and awe, his dad scolded him for disobeying orders to stay in the car but immediately expressed pride in Tony's stoic and "manly" reaction to the brutality ("most boys your age would have run like a little girl"). He then defended the violence because Satriale was a degenerate gambler that owed him money and because "that's how [he] put food on the table". “Never gamble, Anthony.” He said it twice during the lecture and then closed with, “A man honors his debts.”

The lesson emphatically imparted was that gambling and related money-borrowing were the real crimes while hideous violence was an acceptable means of enforcing loans. Oh, and the other lesson was that you're not a "man" if you can't chop a finger off without feeling queasy, something Tony would have taken quite seriously since he was starved for parental approval and validation and, given his mother’s incapacity for love, would have been particularly driven to fulfill his father’s expectations.

Johnny’s explicit message was exacerbated moments later with a much subtler one, when Tony noticed Livia's unusually good mood and receptivity to Johnny's sexual innuendo as she tended the same meat that Satriale offered in part payment of the obligation that cost him a pinky. Tony tells Melfi that Livia always seemed in the best moods when she took delivery of meat from Satriale's and vegetables from another vendor (who also presumably owed Johnny money). In other words, she seemed most pleased in life when she was receiving the direct fruits of Johnny's criminal acts. For a son who would spend much of his life on a futile quest to please his mother and try to win her affection, this was the worst possible thing for him to witness.
Signs of the psychological damage wrought by this epoch were evident immediately when Tony passed out from his first panic attack as his father carved the Satriale roast. Meat notably continued to serve as a trigger for Tony’s panic attacks even into his middle age, with the last known instance occurring as late as season 3. That fact alone indicates the persistence and profundity in his subconscious of the finger-chopping incident. It also shows why a meat cleaver would have particular significance to Tony’s unconscious mind.

Tony’s Guilt as the Fingerprint of Unconscious Blame

Though it only happened twice in the first four seasons, Tony’s damnation of himself for AJ’s increasingly mischievous behavior is important. We first see it in Season 1’s Down Neck, where Tony worries that his life example and genes alone will seal AJ’s fate as a criminal. “My son is doomed, right? . . . You are what you are. You’re born to this shit. . . . How come I’m not making pots in Peru?”

Melfi touts the importance of free will while noting that, if Tony blames himself for dooming AJ’s future, he might also blame his father for his own life path. That connection is logically warranted since Tony has clearly been a better father to AJ than his father had been to him and since Tony at least made an effort to instill in his children -- by word, incentives, and punishment -- the mainstream moral values which his conduct regularly subverted. Tony’s father, particularly after the cleaver incident, did largely the opposite.

The same theme appears even more strongly in the season 3 finale Army of One after AJ caps a resume of scholastic offenses by cheating on an exam, resulting in his permanent expulsion. Terrified that AJ is on line to become the next Jackie Jr. tragedy, Tony pursues the extreme course of enrolling him in a military academy. This opens a therapy discussion about the degree to which Tony would accept his children pursuing a future connected to organized crime.
Melfi: You know, we never discussed exactly what you want for your children.

Tony: I don’t want ‘em to end up in Boonton with their face blown off.

Melfi: You followed your father into his business.

Tony: I didn’t have a choice. I try to make sure my kids have every opportunity. (emphasis added) Meadow’s going to Columbia, for Christ sakes. . . . She mentioned being a pediatrician once.

Melfi: You’d like that?

Tony: Yeah, I would. I would like somethin’ like that. But the important thing is that she get far away from me. [long pause] I mean, she could live close . . .

Melfi: I think I understand. And your son?

Tony: AJ? In my business? He’d never make it.
Here Tony expressly confirms what is implied from so much else in the series, that he believes the vocation of “gangster” was forced upon him by virtue of his upbringing and parenting and that he had no other option in life. So, to the extent that he is dissatisfied with that life or subconsciously regrets pursuing it, it’s safe to assume he also harbors subconscious blame towards those who he feels forced the life upon him.

Later in the episode, AJ’s panic attacks surface and thwart the military school plan, prompting Tony’s tearful, near-confession to Melfi of his own culpability for AJ’s plight. He speaks of passing his son the “putrid rotten fuckin’ Soprano gene” for panic attacks that his father (and father before him) handed down. Melfi explains that “when you blame your genes, you’re really blaming yourself, and that’s what we should be talking about.”

She uncharacteristically sits on the edge of her seat, leaning forward in her chair throughout this scene as if to physically reach out and pull Tony towards the breakthrough she sees hovering in plain view. Though the tenets of her profession keep her from articulating the admission she wants him to achieve, she uses everything else in her power to elicit it, most notably a soft, compassionate, downright pleading tone of voice.
Melfi: Anthony?

Tony: [shaking his head] You don’t understand.

Melfi: Make me understand.

Tony: We can’t send him to that school.

Melif: Yes?

Tony: How are we going to save this kid?
The scene ends there and we realize that she could not bring him any closer to grasping – or admitting -- the reason for his tears and guilt, for his desperate desire to surround AJ with strikingly different male role models and a culture that emphasizes discipline and respect for authority. That is, he would not ultimately acknowledge that his gangster lifestyle makes him a dangerous and unacceptable example for his son, just as his father and uncle had been harmful role models for him. As will prove to be the case over and over, his self-protective mechanisms triumph. He will not confront and truly condemn his way of life and consequently will not fully confront his guilt for how his behavior affects his son nor his blame for how his father’s behavior affected him.

Where’s Johnny?

The title of this early season 5 episode owes to Junior aimlessly wandering around town in his pajamas asking for his younger brother while suffering severe, acute dementia from a series of ministrokes. As is virtually always the case with episode titles, however, this one has a subtler and more significant meaning.

Signs of Junior’s dementia emerge when he keeps repeating that Tony “doesn’t have the makings of a varsity athlete”. He originally issued this insult in Tony’s adolescent years, and it was hurtful enough to Tony that he mentions it in the pilot episode. “Frankly it severely damaged my self esteem,” he tells Melfi.

Tony’s reaction to Junior’s repeated revival of the insult 30 years later is extreme. He swears he is through with Junior for all time, that Junior is “dead” to him, a reaction not even Junior’s botched hit attempt had managed to provoke. Janice openly wonders how Tony can be so fragile. Only when he realizes that a genuine medical problem was causing the behavior does Tony relent.

After medication has improved Junior’s condition, Tony visits him but still wonders ruefully why the thing Junior repeated over and over couldn’t have been something nice, why it had to be something “mean”. On the verge of tears he asks, “I mean, don’t you love me?”

The whole affair suggests that Tony feels a special attachment and sensitivity to Junior beyond that typical of most nephew/uncle relationships. That his self esteem could be so wrapped up in an unflattering remark about his athleticism says something not only about what athletics meant to Tony as a teenager (which the Test Dream and All Due Respect explore) but that he was enormously dependent upon Junior for his self esteem, period.

It’s fair to ask why Junior should hold such extreme power with Tony. Was Johnny so unavailable as a source of paternal support or encouragement that Tony actually came to depend upon Junior more for those things? There’s an interesting side note in this episode when Junior is elaborating on Tony’s athletic shortcomings. “Small hands. That was his problem.” Janice laughs derisively, “Yeah, that’s what daddy always said.” Tony looks at her a beat, clearly absorbing the subtext and what it conveyed about Johnny’s appraisal of his son’s masculinity.

I’m also reminded of a superficially casual detail from Down Neck in season 1. When Melfi asks Tony to talk about his father, he instead smiles and immediately flashes back to Junior throwing him a ball when he was a youngster, a subtle identity confusion that Melfi notices. Tony paints Johnny as ever the tough hero in that episode but also admits he “wasn’t around much”, underscoring why Junior might have been as significant a father figure to Tony as Johnny ever was.

The question of “where Johnny” was during Tony’s childhood is reflected most vividly in the vitriolic exchange between Janice and Tony near the episode’s end, which exposes the real basis for Tony’s intense resentment of his sister: she “shirked her duties” by running away to California at 18, leaving Tony at 16 “to cope with [their] head case of a mother.” While he was “mired in [Livia’s] bullshit”, Janice was out “dropping acid and blowing roadies” (an all-time great line, btw.) A physical altercation ensues with Tony screaming at her, “You’re just like your mother, huh? Now you can do to him [Bobby] what she did to daddy.”

This is Tony’s subconscious defense mechanism at its most vigorous: keep Johnny’s hands clean at all costs; blame his defects or problems on Livia so as not to disturb Tony’s heroic image of him, an image that helps Tony avoid personal responsibility for his life’s direction.

However that defense can’t hide what’s going on in the first part of his diatribe. It clearly shows that Tony felt abandoned to Livia’s “bullshit”, that he feels someone “shirked their duties” by not doing their part to intervene. He makes Janice the culprit, even though that’s a completely unfair and irrational position. She was only two years older, was herself an equal victim of Livia’s abuse, and she was his sister, not his parent. Clearly this is Tony venting onto Janice, Livia’s modern-day surrogate, his unconscious anger at Johnny for abandoning him to Livia’s mistreatment.

In Camelot: Origins of the "Kennedy" in Kennedy and Heidi

The false mythology Tony erected around his father is explored in the mid season 5 episode In Camelot. The title refers to another false mythology, the one developed around the John F. Kennedy presidency and epitomized by the widespread metaphorical reference to the Kennedy White House as “Camelot” in further evocation of the nobility, chivalry, and idealism of medieval Arthurian legend.

JFK as an elevated parallel to a Soprano mobster had seeds in the very first episode of the series. Recall that Tony was proud owner of a captain’s hat allegedly once-owned by Kennedy and that he chased his naked goomar down on the deck of the Stugots to make sure she was handling it with proper care. In season 3, Junior displays a true case of JFK hero worship by viewing his arrogant, negligent oncologist as an infallible miracle-worker largely because he shared the president’s name.

In Camelot introduces Tony to his father’s old goomar, Fran, who first impresses Tony as a classy woman that must have provided his father with love and support sorely lacking in his marital relationship. Tony gradually realizes, however, that she is a vacuous, glorified whore, unalterably intoxicated by money and material things and by the whiff of powerful men; unable, even with the ravages of age, to quell her vanity. Her selfishness manifests in several ways throughout the episode, none more telling than the fact that she had continued to smoke around Johnny even when emphysema was starving his lungs for oxygen. She glories in reliving past sexual conquests, the greatest of which was JFK, who bedded her and countless other women while president and while simultaneously enjoying the carefully cultivated public image of a devoted husband and family man.

If her status as a shared mistress weren’t enough, Fran puts the finishing touches on the Johnny Boy/JFK parallel by sharing her big-game trolling secrets (“when you’re with a powerful man, you better damn well make him feel like a powerful man”) and by donning Tony’s JFK captain’s hat and singing “Happy Birthday” in Tony’s face in a creepy re-enactment of Marilyn Monroe’s famously lascivious rendition to JFK (which seemed even more tawdry after it became known that Monroe was one of his many mistresses.)

While much of In Camelot spoke to Fran’s character, much of it also spoke very poorly of Johnny’s. First, he had given Fran’s son a beautiful Golden Retriever that belonged to the Soprano kids, ostensibly because Livia bitched incessantly about the dog’s fleas. He told Tony that the dog had retired to a farm but neglected also to mention that, when Fran’s son left home a few years later, Fran had the dog “put to sleep” (obviously with no intervention from Johnny) because she simply didn’t want to be bothered caring for it.

By the end of the episode, Tony was clearly disturbed that his father’s idea of a goomar was considerably different from his own, noting that Johnny even left a pair of slippers at Fran’s apartment (symbolic of the idea that this was really his father’s second home and a place where he gave much of his divided loyalties.) Feeling for the first time a tiny fraction of the betrayal that his mother must have felt, Tony recalled a particularly ugly instance of that betrayal, the time Livia was hospitalized for a miscarriage with heavy bleeding that could have taken her life. When Johnny finally made contact in response to urgent efforts to reach him, he sounded more put upon than concerned and didn’t go to the hospital until the next day, preferring to finish his dinner and roll in the sack with Fran and to get a good night’s rest. What’s more, when Livia accused him of having been with his goomar the night before, he said he’d spent the night at a cousin’s house and pressured Tony into repeating that lie to Livia.

Nearing tears and for the first time exhibiting not only some compassion for his mother but some fledgling appreciation for his father’s many faults, Melfi made her most direct effort yet to get him to confront and articulate those feelings. “Was there any blame for this man you emulate? The lies, the betrayals with other women? . . . Your mother had her faults, but, after all this time, what should we do with the old woman? Burn her at the stake? You need to forgive her and move on.”

It didn’t take long for him to recoil into a familiar pattern. “Fuck her. My dad gave my dog away. Big deal. If it was up to her, she would have had it killed.” Of course Tony conveniently forgets here that it was his father’s “classy” goomar -- and, by extension, his father -- who actually killed the dog.

Tony’s Depression as “Rage Turned Inward”

Three episodes later (Cold Cuts), and while discussing the recent return of Tony’s panic attacks and depression, Melfi seizes the opportunity to discuss rage. Tony wonders why. “Because depression is rage turned inward,” she replies. There’s a pregnant pause and a closeup of each of them for emphasis (and Melfi even recites the line a second time at the end of the scene.)

She asks where the Soprano temper comes from. He assumes she’s going right back to Livia again, but she stops him cold. “What about your father? You never saw [your mother] chop off someone’s finger.”

The regret of having shared that anecdote is all over Tony’s face and in his words:
Tony: I told you about that, didn’t I?

Melfi: Yes.

Tony: Jesus, I wish I hadn’t.

Melfi: Why?

Tony: I mean I dress up nice and everything when I come here . . .
Unfortunately she cuts him off there to stay on the topic of rage, but this scene is an important clue to his deepest feelings about that finger-chopping incident.

First recall that season 5 began with Tony separated from Carmela, the person who, by virtue of her “respectable” background and persona, came closest to providing him with some semblance of mainstream moral acceptability, not just in terms of public image but in terms of self image. The loss of that support certainly factored into his romantic pursuit of Melfi, a pursuit almost as relentless as it was futile. When Melfi points out that there are plenty of other women available to him, the crux of his fixation on her at that particular time of crisis emerges: she’s “different from what’s out there,” at least from what would be available to a man like Tony. A personal relationship with her could validate, in a measure extending well beyond that ever obtained through marriage to Carmela, his sense that he possesses innate goodness or respectability.

However even in the early stage of his courting efforts, he intuitively understands the real barrier to any relationship when he volunteers, “Forget about how Tony Soprano makes his way in the world. That’s just to feed his children.” He eventually forces Melfi to articulate why she won’t even consider dating him, and she euphemistically tells him that she couldn’t date a man who steals from, kills, and maims others and treats women like whores. In other words, she couldn’t date a gangster.

Though Livia indirectly contributed to that destiny for Tony, his father was clearly the driving influence, at least in Tony’s unconscious mind, which is why the two most important pure dream sequences in the series (Calling All Cars and Test Dream) have Tony riding in his father's 1959 black Cadillac, accompanied by copious symbols of the doom and detritus of gangster life.

So this is the context of rejection in which Tony is reminded of having once willingly shared with Melfi the cleaver story. His regret for that prior openness betrays how personally soiled he now feels by the incident in her eyes, soiled in a way that nice clothes and a respectable appearance can’t cover.

Why the change? Why in the world would he only now feel so ashamed of something he didn’t do himself, something he only witnessed? Why would he only now fear that this very bright, compassionate, fair-minded doctor -- who makes her living exploring the troubled backgrounds of patients – might impute to an 11 year-old bystander all the malice of another adult’s brutal actions?

The answer, it seems to me, is that Tony must subconsciously recognize the chopped finger epoch as the turning point in his evolution into the kind of man his father would respect as opposed to the kind that Melfi would respect. He himself feels inexorably stained by the experience and, having forced Melfi to burst the cocoon of complete non-judgment in the therapist’s office, is now projecting that perception of stain onto her.

Recall further that in this very same discussion, Melfi invokes the lines, “The center cannot hold. The falcon cannot hear the falconer.” I think it entirely not coincidental that the revival of the cleaver incident occurs (after laying dormant for two and a half seasons) in an episode soon after the first cracks in Tony’s idolatry of his father have been exposed (In Camelot); where Melfi describes depression as “rage turned inward,” suggesting an unconscious, unacknowledged source of rage in Tony’s psyche; and where she further introduces the Yeats poem “The Second Coming” that resonates so symbolically with Christopher’s murder and for which the episode following Kennedy and Heidi is named.

The Test Dream: Tony Is Unprepared . . . to “Kill” his Father

Test Dream was certainly prompted in large measure by Tony’s anxiety at the emerging prospect of having to kill his cousin. But the dream has many fascinating layers or subplots, and, as far as I can tell, they all suggest a subconscious lust on Tony’s part for respectability, both in terms of his occupation, his marriage, and his upbringing. I hope to get away without thoroughly arguing these points here, as I’ve offered lengthy treatments of Test Dream before.

I do want to hilight the Johnny Boy/JFK connection that arises again briefly in the dream. It’s prefaced by the voice of “God”/David Chase telling Tony over the phone that “our friend” has to go. In Mafia circles, “our friend” is widely understood code for “made guy”, which indicates Tony’s real dream mission is not the obvious one of killing Tony Blundetto (who, as the audience was pointedly reminded that season, was not made.) Rather the “two Tonys” theme of season 5 plays out on the street when the black man asks if Tony B was actually “the” Tony that he (Tony Soprano) was supposed to cap. “I guess not,” an unarmed-Tony replies, clearly realizing in that moment that his mission from “God” is to kill that other Tony, the made Tony. In other words, he is to kill himself, or at least the gangster part of himself.

That mission resonates perfectly with the imagery ending the season’s first episode, Two Tonys, when Tony literally takes up arms against the bear in his own back yard – his inner thug – shortly after provoking his therapist into admitting that his inner thug is precisely the reason he’s unfit for a personal relationship with her. Additionally, the three people in the dream that seem to be offering Tony advice or guidance on what he is to do – Artie, Gloria, and Vin Makazian – are all people who either tried or succeeded in committing suicide.

Once the Tony of the Test Dream grasps his true mission, he literally flees “the mob” of people around him. During that flight, a man resembling Johnny Boy shoots at Tony with a scoped rifle from a school book depository-looking building in evocation of the JFK assassination. Tony follows a gesturing Artie to safety in his father’s car, driven for the first time in the dream not by Johnny Boy but by Artie. Inside the car, the necktie around Tony’s neck that had been full length just moments before is now cut very short.

To me, this part of the dream indicates that Tony subconsciously wishes to leave or “cut ties” with the mob and wishes that he’d had a father like Artie. That in itself virtually guarantees that Tony also unconsciously harbors some degree of resentment, blame, disaffection, or even rage towards his father.

The allusion to the JFK assassination is susceptible to several interpretations, including an obvious one: a certain hit on him if he left the mob, especially by flipping (a strategy suggested in the dream by The Valachi Papers reference and by an image that is suddenly “flipped” 180 degrees). Inhabiting a JFK role in the dream could also indicate an inflated self-concept on Tony’s part. But in the full context of longing to “go straight”, and especially considering the explicit parallel between JFK and Johnny Boy made just a few episodes before this, the more compelling interpretation to me is that Tony is repressing a murderous rage towards his own father with the roles being reversed and disguised by his subconscious: a vague Johnny look-alike as Oswald and Tony as JFK.

First articulated by Freud, “reversal into the opposite” is a concept with obvious relevance to this thesis. From
The expression ‘reversal into the opposite’ refers to the transformation of an idea, a representation, a logical figure, a dream image, a symptom, an affect, or the like into its opposite. It is a process that affects the fate of the instincts, notably in the transformation of love into hate . . .

Freud first described this type of transformation with regard to dream images. Such reversals are used to create the disguises that enable the translation of latent thoughts into acceptable thoughts (which are thus able to cross the barrier of censorship). He gave numerous examples of this in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900). This process can affect characteristics of objects or people; thus, a small object can appear to be very large in a dream; someone whose intelligence is envied appears stupid in the dream, and so forth. Often a reversal of actions into their opposite is involved: Climbing a staircase expresses the idea of descending or falling; . . .

Reversals of the dream protagonists' roles may occur, such as the hare chasing the hunter, or the dreamer punishing his father.
(emphasis added)
The idea of this kind of disguise explains very well another aspect of the dream that never made complete sense to me before. Coach Molinaro was unquestionably a “good” role model in Tony’s life and apparently the one who did the most to build his self esteem and guide him toward a legitimate vocation. Yet he had a disturbing duality in the dream. He was in a nasty, damp, dark, color-less locker room that looked something like a dungeon. The monochrome environment was starkly broken by his bright red jacket and hat and by the red jerseys he was putting into lockers, making for devilish overtones.

He said some things that actually or superficially comported with his real identity and with things Tony revealed about him in waking conversations. For example, he tells Tony, “You had brains, leadership skills, all the prerequisites to lead young men onto the field of sport.” Other things he said are the very opposite of what he would have presumably thought or said.

At one point in the dream the coach scolds, “How many times did I tell you to cleave yourself away from those bums you hung with?” (“Cleave” is certainly an interesting word choice for the idea of “separation” here, given the significance of a meat cleaver in Tony’s psyche.) Yet when Tony throws back at him that Artie is a great success as owner of a restaurant, his reply is puzzling. “Bucco? He was the worst of the bunch.”

Why in the world would a guy like Coach Molinaro, who was trying to steer Tony away from the bad influences around him, have felt Artie was the “worst of the bunch”? That bunch presumably included the likes of Dickie Moltisanti, Tony Blundetto, and “Uncle” Paulie. Artie was a 3rd generation chef and, by all indications, from a good family. He would have been the very kind of kid that the coach would have been glad to see Tony hang with in high school. Johnny, on the other hand, would likely have thought of Artie as – forgive me – a “pussy” or as something affirmatively less manly than the likes of Paulie and Dickie.

There are other examples of these puzzling dichotomies. When Tony first approaches, the coach laughingly gestures to Tony’s pistol and asks, “What you got there? A bigger dingus than the one God gave you?” Tony responds by warning that he’s “not some kid anymore” and deserves respect. Now is the coach here sarcastically decrying the notion that true manhood derives from wielding a deadly weapon, or is it Johnny Boy making another “small hands”/inadequate manhood joke at Tony’s expense? In other words, is this Tony projecting his doubt that he ever lived up to Coach Molinaro’s idea of manhood or doubt that he ever lived up to his father’s?

Shortly afterward, the coach says it’s a “damn shame” that Tony is in therapy, not something you’d associate with a man that had Tony’s best interests at heart but which would very accurately reflect Johnny’s opinion had he lived to see the day. The coach disapprovingly offers, “I bet you blame everything on your father.” When Tony corrects him, “No, more my mother,” the coach smiles an ambiguous smile. “Even better,” he replies. In context, you’re not sure whether this is derisive reproach for Tony failing to take personal responsibility for his life choices (presumably consistent with the coach’s identity) or actual approval that Tony is shifting blame away from Johnny onto Livia (presumably consistent with Johnny’s identity).

The reversal concept again seems relevant in deciphering the coach’s dual identity, per the following excerpt from the previously cited treatise:
Certain logical relationships can also be expressed in this way. Contradiction, for example, may lead in a dream to a condensation in which opposites are blended together in a depiction marked by a sense of absurdity.
By this mechanism, people who the dreamer perceives as polar opposites can form one composite individual in the dream, or the patent identity of one can conceal the latent identity of the other.

It’s vital, of course, to remember what Tony is doing in the Molinaro part of the dream. He is hunting the coach down with the aim of killing, or at least silencing, him. He aims a handgun, conspicuously fitted with a big silencer, and pulls the trigger, but his bullets literally disintegrate into shit. At that moment, the coach says, “You’re unprepared. You’ll never shut me up.”

I read this as Tony acknowledging the deeply buried part of himself that knows he chose the wrong path in life, that regrets he didn’t model himself on the football coach who tried to intervene in his life instead of on the gangsters that lived in and around his home. I also read it as indicating a latent, murderous rage by Tony against his father that his subconscious censored and fashioned into acceptable dream imagery by giving Johnny the guise of Tony’s “anti” Johnny, his old football coach.
Tony, his spirits crushed after b-lining to the fridge first thing in the morning: "Who ate the last piece of cake?"

III. Season 6, Part 1: Junior Ignites Tony’s Paternal Rage

III. Season 6, Part 1: Junior Ignites Tony’s Paternal Rage
The sixth and final season of the Sopranos was originally tabbed to last 12 episodes. Eventually it was expanded into one mammoth, 21-episode season separated into two parts. That’s of some significance since seasons have always had some degree of internal, thematic cohesion and we could therefore expect episodes in the second part to thematically relate to episodes in the first part.

The seismic event starting season six was a quasi-demented Junior shooting Tony out of the blue. Even without viewing any episode after that, one could safely assume that the culmination of season six, and therefore the series, would in some way have to account for the natural shock wave of that quake. And in case we couldn’t figure that out, Melfi tells us as much.

Melfi Warns of Tony’s Inevitable “Decompensation”

In his very first therapy session after the event, Tony informs Melfi that he has cut off all contact with Junior, will not discuss him or the shooting, and claims his only feelings are of gratitude. “Every day is a gift,” he tells her. Yet when Melfi probes to see if he’s experiencing night terrors or is having trouble sleeping – symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder – his answer is an indirect “yes” to both. Even his refusal to talk about the trauma is itself a symptom of PTSD.

By the 8th episode of season 6, Johnny Cakes, Melfi expresses concern over this repression to Elliot, who attributes it to “omerta”. “This isn’t omerta. It’s something else,” she replies, with absolute self-assurance. Elliot asks if Tony has cried or reported crying. “No,” she disappointedly answers, adding that she believes it’s only a matter of time before Tony “totally decompensates.”

In psychiatric vernacular, “decompensation” describes:
the emotional and behavioral backlash that occurs when an individual stops consciously or unconsciously 'holding themselves together.' Usually occurs either after the person has passed the limit of their mental strength or has reached surroundings and/or company where the 'stiff upper lip' is no longer required.
Another source describes it as “the deterioration of existing defenses, leading to an exacerbation of pathologic behavior.”

We see nothing from Tony in season 6, part 1, that fulfills Melfi’s prediction. On the contrary, Tony gives signs, for a short period, that he might be seriously readjusting his values. However there are two episodes concerning Tony’s experiences as a father that notably contrast with his experiences as a son and help frame the parameters of the displaced paternal hatred that explodes in the second set of season 6 episodes.

A Tale of Two Interventions

In Johnny Cakes, Tony continues to utilize most of his therapy time to talk about AJ: his flunking out of college; his general irresponsibility and questionable choice of friends; his habit of staying out late at expensive New York night clubs, sleeping until noon, and working a couple of token hours a day at Blockbuster. Melfi asks if Tony can empathize with what AJ might be experiencing as a 19 year-old, then argues that the incessant informational bombardment of young people in modern times has caused a delay in the attainment of adulthood. “Sociologists say that 26 is in fact the new 21,” she reports.

While acknowledging that he had his own problems in school, Tony adds that he didn’t just “vegetate”, like AJ, and that, if he had, his father would have “kicked [his] lazy ass out of the house.” “Really?” Melfi asks. He responds, “It’s the chopping off of the guy’s finger, right? I never should have told you cause that’s all you fixate on with him.”

Tony’s non sequitir response is a humorous, perhaps even accurate, assessment of the learned doctor by her unlearned patient. But more importantly, it also depicts Tony’s own psychological projection, the degree to which that event imprinted him. The topic of the chopped finger had been raised by Melfi exactly once since the story was first shared, and that was in the context of the Cold Cuts discussion about Tony’s “rage turned inward” and what the origins of that rage might be. One mention in five years hardly justifies that she is the one fixated on the incident.

It’s no coincidence that this particular episode resurrects the cleaver history or that it features Melfi essentially placing AJ’s developmental/psychological age at around 14. That’s because Johnny Cakes places Tony and AJ in roughly analogous positions to those occupied by Johnny and Tony all those years before in the Fortunate Son flashbacks. Indeed, as Sopranos titles almost always have at least a double meaning, I think “Johnny Cakes” is less about the overt but comparatively unimportant Vito storyline and much more about a subtle evocation of the “Johnny"/Tony/AJ parallel.

The dominant action of the episode occurs when AJ, moved by what he believes to be his duty as a son and by the expectations of his shallow, infantile “friends”, acts out on a half-hearted plot to kill Junior in retribution for Tony’s shooting. At the moment of truth, as the doddering old man approaches him expecting a warm embrace, AJ drops the large knife he’d intended to stick in Junior’s gut and flees in terror before being caught and subdued by hospital staff.

After using his connections to ensure that AJ would not be charged with a crime, Tony confronts him outside the police station and performs an “intervention” that is very different from the one Johnny performed with him when he was 11. It is the only moment of profound moral triumph for Tony in the entire series.

He’s livid that AJ would involve himself in something that could have cost him his freedom or even his life had he succeeded. But he also expresses something far more meaningful: that murdering Junior is flat out “wrong” and that he is grateful AJ doesn’t have what it takes to be a killer. There’s a brief moment of mixed signals when Tony mocks AJ’s failed revenge as “nothing, a big fat zero,” betraying that Tony’s ego wishes for a son that’s exactly like him even as his heart is grateful he has a son who is not. But the overwhelming message he delivers that night is that he is glad AJ is innately, naturally a “good guy”, striking also because it betrays that Tony feels he himself is innately not a good guy.

Tony also tells him it’s time to “grow up”, a prospect that has frightened AJ because of what he came to believe it entails: fulfilling Tony’s example of manhood. AJ’s fear manifests in many ways, from the dry-heaving immediately after Tony says the words to his prolonged adolescent behavior to his fainting panic attack in the nightclub when his “friends” tell him “You the man!” in deference to the power they impute to him as, presumably, a man made in his father’s image. Though 8 years older than Tony was after the cleaver incident, AJ’s stress reaction to the thought of Soprano manhood is the same.

Cold Stones is the companion episode to Johnny Cakes. In it, Tony completes his intervention by crashing AJ’s fraternity of spoiled, rich brats and his cycle of irresponsible partying and demands that he report early the next morning for an honest construction job procured on his behalf . . . or else. He smashes AJ’s windshield in a thinly veiled gesture of what he’d like to do to AJ’s face, something he reminds AJ would have happened long ago had Carmela not prevented it all these years. (Carmela’s protection of AJ from Tony’s violent side is beautifully symbolized in Two Tonys when she uses the quintessential tools of a housewife – pots and pans taken from a dishwasher – to scare the bear away from AJ.)

Though Tony clearly has AJ’s best interests at heart in threatening to cut him off financially if he doesn’t report for work, he is startlingly frank with Melfi about his other, contradictory feelings, namely that he “hates his son.” The exchange that follows that admission is one of the more important therapy scenes in the entire series and merits a full transcription:
Tony: I come home and he’s sittin’ on his computer in his fuckin’ underwear, wasting his time in some chit chat room, goin’ back and forth with some other fuckin’ jerk off, giggling like a little school girl. I wanna fuckin’ smash his fuckin’ face in . . . my “son” . . . whadaya think about that?

Melfi: Anthony, I think your anger towards AJ has been building for some time. We have to deal with this.

Tony: All I know is it’s a good thing my father’s not alive, cause let me tell ya he’d find this fuckin’ hilarious.

Melfi: Find what hilarious?

Tony: The kind of son I produced.

Melfi: You mean because Anthony doesn’t conform to your father’s idea of what a man should be?

Tony: His, mine, or anybody’s. Let me tell ya, if Carmela had let me kick AJ’s ass like my father kicked my ass, he might have grown up with some balls.

Melfi: Like you.

Tony: Yeah, like me.

Melfi: He might have also grown up taking out his anger at his father’s brutality towards him on others. He might have grown up with a desperate need to dominate and control. (emphasis added) Anthony we’ve been dancing around this for years . . . how you live. What is it you want from your life?

Tony: (pause) I couldn’t even hit him if I wanted to he’s so fuckin’ little. It’s Carmela’s side of the family. They’re small people. Her father, you could knock him over with a fuckin’ feather.

Melfi: Okay. But I have to point out, what you resent Carmela doing for AJ – protecting him from his father – is the very thing you had often wished your mother had done for you.
This passage bears obvious relevance to the issue of Tony harboring unconscious rage against his father and displacing it onto others, especially because Melfi is uncharacteristically articulating the insight for Tony rather than gently nudging him to make it on his own. That indicates the urgency she attaches to it as well as the importance the audience should attach to it.

Melfi’s last statement also inverts an idea that she first tried to impress upon Tony in season 2, that his father bore some responsibility for the psychological damage wrought by Livia because he failed to intervene in her treatment of the children. All these years later, Melfi is trying to make Tony see that part of his hatred towards his mother owed to her corollary failure to intervene in Johnny’s brutal inculcation of Tony into Soprano-style “manhood.”

This marks a 180-degree shift in the background focus of Tony’s therapy: from Livia to Johnny for action and from Johnny to Livia for inaction.
Tony, his spirits crushed after b-lining to the fridge first thing in the morning: "Who ate the last piece of cake?"

IV. Early Season 6, Part 2: Tony’s Paternal Rage Intensifie

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.

Remember When

“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.:icon_biggrin:

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.
Tony, his spirits crushed after b-lining to the fridge first thing in the morning: "Who ate the last piece of cake?"

V. Kennedy and Heidi: Vicarious Patricide as Tony’s Decompe

V. Kennedy and Heidi: Vicarious Patricide as Tony’s Decompensation

At the risk of needless redundancy, I think it’s helpful to summarize Tony’s state of mind going into the episode Kennedy and Heidi. His consciousness is teeming with ancient but recently-agitated memories showcasing his father’s violence and toxic influence, like Johnny shooting a hole through Livia’s hairdo and baptizing him in the act of murder. He’s unable to shake stories of parental neglect leading to tragic outcomes for children. He’s painfully aware of Christopher’s hatred of him and desire for murderous revenge, feelings ultimately rooted in the fact that Tony guided him into the same corrupt existence into which he himself had been led by Johnny, Junior, and company, suggesting a reciprocal, if unconscious, rage by Tony towards those men. His subconscious mind is under constant assault from hats and movie posters and coffee mugs bearing the image of a bloody meat cleaver, an emblem of his own lost childhood innocence and inculcation by his father into his brutal, ugly vocation. He is racked with acute but intense guilt over the role he thinks his life’s example has played in shaping his son’s values and poor sense of self-worth. And he is still repressing a mountain of hurt over the fact that his uncle and second father tried not once but twice to kill him, a repression Melfi warned would someday result in a total collapse of his defense mechanisms, that is, a collapse of his paternal hero-worship and related quest for the macho validation that has prevented him from critically examining his father, uncle, and the men upon whom he modeled his life.

Now consider the circumstances immediately before the crash. Tony and Chris are on a routine drive back from business in Christopher’s new black Cadillac SUV (the first Cadillac Chris has ever owned, incidentally.) The conversation turns to life priorities. Chris, conspicuously clad in a Cleaver hat, specifically mentions how Kaitlyn has changed his priorities, and Tony mentions the “shit with Junior”. So the context is immediately pregnant with the fact that Junior shot and nearly killed Tony within the past year and with the fact that Chris is in a new place of responsibility, a position where he is, for the first time, truly the custodian and trustee for another life.

In a perfectly-timed illustration of just how ill-equipped Chris is to live up to those responsibilities, he nervously and repeatedly fiddles with the car stereo, fidgets, and widens his eyes, telegraphing to Tony that he is high as a kite on drugs. “Comfortably Numb” swells on the sound system as Tony stares at him, the lyrics underscoring that, in that moment, he does not see Chris as a youngster, as the “adorable kid” he once road around in the basket of his bicycle, but as a grown man:
When I was a child I caught a fleeting glimpse
Out of the corner of my eye
I turned to look but it was gone
I cannot put my finger on it now
The child is grown, the dream is gone
Chris swerves, and the crash happens seconds later.

Tony as the Child in the Carseat

It’s critical to note that Tony initially manifests every intention of helping Chris, even as he’s fighting his own injuries. “I’m comin’,” he says as Chris asks for help. His expression and demeanor only change when he realizes what Chris means by “help”. “I’ll never pass a drug test,” Chris moans. “What?” Tony asks incredulously as Chris is inhaling his own blood. Almost simultaneously, Tony turns towards the back and sees that a tree limb has penetrated the passenger compartment, lodging in Kaitlyn’s car seat like a spear. While Tony would somewhat exaggerate the size of the branch in later narrations of the event, there’s no question that it was large enough to have impaled or seriously injured an infant.

Even after this warning shot over the bow, Tony apparently intends to help Chris, coming over to the driver’s side and breaking the window when he couldn’t get the door open. He draws his cell phone to call for help but stops when Chris again mentions being doped up, which suggests that Chris is more concerned about the legal consequences of his intoxication than about the fact that he is drowning in his own blood, completely belying his claim to a life newly ordered around the lofty priority of fatherhood.

That’s the moment when Tony forms a genuine murderous intent, an intent that has little to do with Christopher’s animosity towards him or the danger that he might flip. Those are conscious, background motives that help Tony rationalize and make sense of his actions later. But the factor impelling him to end Christopher’s life is his own, fundamental identification with the child who might just as easily have been killed or seriously harmed in that carseat.

To objectify this point, there is a slow pan of the limb sticking through the seat as Tony performs the suffocation, clearly not a shot representing Tony’s vision or gaze at that moment but objectively corroborating the earlier angle when Tony glances back and we see the seat from his point of view. The juxtaposition of these shots – subjective and objective – tells me the carseat is not just a convenient excuse for Tony. This is what he’s really feeling. In this moment, he is the phantom child in that carseat, a child whose safety and well-being come second to his father’s corrupt values and reckless self-indulgence, a child whose soul and humanity are metaphorically impaled by riding in and being taught to drive his father’s black Cadillac.

The exclamation point on the symbolism is provided by Christopher’s hat. Incredibly, it remains on his head throughout the crash and suffocation, its bloody cleaver logo pointing towards Tony when the car comes to rest. As Tony acts consciously on behalf of an innocent child, the symbol of his own lost childhood innocence is directly before him. And, for good measure, the cap and logo stare back at him in the hospital from the gurney laden with Christopher’s bloody clothing and the black bag containing his dead body. (The logo antagonizes Tony a final time from his coffee mug the next morning before he angrily tosses the mug into his backyard woods.)

Several points about the suffocation itself are remarkable. First was the look of absolute depravity on Tony’s face as he watched Christopher struggle to breathe. This look was unlike any ever seen on Tony’s face at any other moment in the series. Even when committing other personal and deadly acts of violence, his face and demeanor had always betrayed a commensurate level of animus, an active, passionate intent. In contrast, he reached through the window and pinched Christopher’s nose – and maintained that hold – with remarkable calm. His face and eyes throughout the suffocation were paradoxically both incredibly intense and completely devoid of human emotion, a look far more disturbing than any look of mere rage he’d ever worn before.

Second, although this act was, in my judgment, clearly about the release of Tony’s pent up rage towards his father figures, the method of killing evokes Livia. Besides her conspiracy with Junior to kill Tony (which she rationalized was for his own good) and general obsession with stories of child deaths, she had once threatened to “smother [her children] with a pillow” to save them from a fate she deemed even worse. Tony grabbed a pillow intending to smother her in the season one finale before nursing home personnel intervened. In Members Only, Tony spoke of being smothered with a pillow as a suitable form of euthanasia. Its functional equivalent at the scene of the crash had a definite vibe of putting Chris out of his own – and everyone’s – misery. So, in killing his “father”, Tony was also paradoxically suffocating his “son”, thereby channeling Livia’s filicidal urges and concept of mercy killing.

The most spine-tingling resonance with the scene comes from two season four episodes where Tony’s deep identification with “innocents” – be they children or animals – once again comes to the fore, as does his appreciation for the consequences of Chris continuing to use drugs. In Whoever Did This, Tony warns Christopher that he “can’t be high on heroine and raise kids.” And in The Strong, Silent Type, after learning that a doped-up Chris accidentally smothered and suffocated Adriana’s dog, Tony ominously snaps, “You suffocated little Cossette? I oughta suffocate you, you prick!” It’s such perfect foreshadowing that the earlier episodes seem to have been written with the outcome of Kennedy and Heidi in mind.

Righteous Retribution as the Explanation for Tony’s Lack of Sorrow

As previously noted, the most troubling aspect of the episode from the standpoint of character consistency and plausibility was not the fact that Tony murdered Chris. It was his vacuous expression during the killing and the fact that he never betrayed a moment’s genuine sorrow or regret afterwards. He remained, in fact, defiantly happy and unconflicted about it, especially to Melfi, and was sincerely troubled that neither she nor anyone else could see how Christopher’s death rescued Kaitlyn from a lifetime of risks and harm that she would naturally suffer as the daughter of a drug addict (and mob captain).

In his therapy scenes with Melfi, real and dream, Tony even makes the very contrast I raise, noting that he’s never felt this way after murdering any other person close to him. He alludes to his sorrow over Pussy and specifically allows that murdering Tony B left him “prostate [sic] with grief.” In effect, Tony himself is revealing that this killing feels righteous and justified to him on an instinctive level and is therefore not one about which he can feel guilt or sorrow.

That sentiment makes no sense if his dominant motives were those he talked about in therapy: Christopher’s animosity and resentment towards him after the Adriana hit and his drug-use and consequent risk to flip. Whatever weight those factors carry in justifying murder in the corrupt “ethics” of the mob (which, in any case, is less than the weight of the transgressions by Pussy and Tony B), they carry absolutely no legitimate moral weight outside it and could not sustain in Tony the sense of just triumph that he felt in response to Christopher’s death. What could inspire that sense of triumph is the perceived liberation of a child from a dangerous and toxic father, experienced subconsciously as vicarious retribution for the abuse and harm he himself suffered at the hands of his own father and uncle.

Significance of the Names “Kennedy” and “Heidi”

“Kennedy” and “Heidi” are the names of the young passenger and driver, respectively, in the car that sideswipes Christopher’s SUV before the fateful crash. The girls are barely onscreen a few seconds, just long enough to (somewhat artificially) learn their names in the following exchange:
Kennedy: Maybe we should go back, Heidi!
Heidi: Kennedy, I’m on my learner’s permit after dark!
Much forum debate after the first airing of the episode centered around the significance, if any, of these names. I propose a related but even more basic question: why are the girls present in the scene at all?

Tony’s windfall opportunity to murder Chris and pass it off as death from accidental injury was entirely dependent upon being unobserved by others after the crash. Given Christopher’s intoxicated state and inattention to the curvy road while he fiddled with radio controls, a mere swerve and over-correction or swerve to avoid an animal (Tony’s crash with Adriana, anyone?) would have easily sufficed to trigger the accident but without the problematic involvement of another car, the driver of which would have to be made to flee the scene illegally and in contravention of the ethics and instincts of at least 95% of the motorists on the road. So the very fact that another car is involved, complicating both the story and the filming, suggests some symbolic or subtextual design to the involvement related specifically to the momentous event occurring right after the crash.

One aspect of that design is revealed and amplified when a grieving Kelly shows up at Christopher’s wake with dark hair framing her face and large, dark sunglasses covering her eyes. A member of the crew remarks, “Look at her. Like a movie star.” An odd look immediately crosses Tony’s face as he spontaneously responds, “Jackie Kennedy”, noting Kelly’s resemblance to the widow of John F. Kennedy.

In my mind, this striking moment in the episode can have only one purpose, and that’s to evoke Johnny Boy in relation to Christopher via a kind of symbolic math. If Kelly = Jackie Kennedy, then Chris = JFK = Johnny Boy since JFK was the explicit parallel figure for Johnny in In Camelot, the first episode of the series depicting cracks in the foundation of Tony’s paternal hero worship. When that foundation completely crumbles inside Tony’s subconscious a season and a half later, it’s entirely fitting that the JFK/Johnny parallel is renewed.

As for the name “Heidi”, most folks around these parts felt it was meant to evoke the idea of “orphan” because of the famous Swiss orphan tale of the same name and because Kaitlyn (and Paulie) both lost parents in the episode. That’s an entirely plausible analysis that requires no expansion, although I’m inclined to think there’s more to it than that, starting with the analogy of Tony himself to “Heidi”. No, Tony was never technically orphaned, though he arguably suffered more as the son of Johnny and Livia than if he had been. He was certainly deprived of real parental love and guidance, on both sides, and that roughly equates to the definition of “orphan”.

Before discussing this episode for the first time, I never knew that Heidi was the story of an orphan, only that it was some kind of tale for children. And I knew that only because of the epic 1968 football game between Joe Namath’s Jets and the Oakland Raiders, the climactic ending of which (an improbable comeback by the Raiders) was cut off abruptly for television viewers at the end of its scheduled broadcast slot so that a movie version of Heidi could begin airing on time. I was only four at the time of this debacle but recall my parents talking about it – and the considerable chaos it caused at NBC and at telephone switchboards around the country – for years afterwards.

It wouldn’t become clear until the end of Made In America, but there’s an obvious parallel to the Heidi phenomenon in the wind-up of The Sopranos. Consider that, like the Heidi Game broadcast, Made in America featured an abrupt, unexpected termination of excruciatingly tense action at a penultimate moment, pre-empting audience experience of what appeared to be an imminent and momentous climax. The Sopranos ending may not have disabled an entire telephone network, but it certainly generated an enormous amount of controversy that, for better or worse, persists to this day.

Beyond that, there were enough other football references in the final Sopranos episodes, and especially Jets references, to warrant further consideration of this football connotation for “Heidi”. In Remember When, Tony’s betting losses on Jets football games prompt his call to Hesh for a bridge loan. Later that same episode, Paulie annoys Tony and company with yet another old tale, this one relating how, after witnessing Joe Namath stagger drunk into a bar the night before a game, he bet a load of cash the following day on the Jets’ opponent. In Chasing It, Tony gets inside information on a Jets football game and is irate when Carmela refuses to bet money on it. The episode features a closeup of a large newspaper headline, “Jets Bomb Chargers”.

In Blue Comet, then-current coach of the Jets, Eric Mangini, makes a cameo appearance in Vesuvio, with Artie informing a suitably-impressed Tony so the two can go over and shake hands. News articles at the time clarified that the cameo wasn’t Mangini’s idea but the idea of Sopranos producers, who contacted him months in advance and made accommodations in the shooting schedule around his availability. So this seemed more than a casual desire to have some generic celebrity show up.

That especially seems true considering Mangini was given no dialog and that his meeting with Tony and Artie was only depicted in the silent background of a conversation between Charmaine and Carmela. Mangini’s only purpose on set was apparently to show his face briefly and to have the fact of his identity (Tony has to tell a bewildered Carm that Mangini is the head coach of the Jets) permeate the minds of the audience and the subtext of the scene, which is ultimately about chickens coming home to roost on Tony and Carmela because of the lives they chose.

As alter egos for Tony and Carmela throughout the series, folks who took the proverbial “other path” in life, Artie and (especially) Charmaine engage in subtle gloating in the scene. Football coaching was firmly established as Tony’s “road not taken” in Test Dream, so having an actual football coach present in the episode where the unsavory and downright deadly consequences of his chosen vocation are crashing in all around him provides dramatic ballast. All the better to have the coach in the scene be the coach of the team involved in the Heidi game in view of the ending planned for the following episode.

And speaking again of that ending, the wall behind Tony in Holsten’s is consumed with four large murals specifically brought in by the production crew for the shoot. The largest and most centered depicts a huge, light-colored building with lots of windows, somewhat reminiscent of the Inn at the Oaks in Tony’s coma dream. It’s apparently a high school, however, as it is flanked on either side by images of football players in full uniform with what appear to be names and year of graduation engraved at the bottom. To the side and extreme left is a mural of a tiger and the caption “Class of 1973” at the bottom. The tiger is presumably the mascot for the team and school represented in the other murals. So there is a strong symbolic presence of “football” in the last scene of the series, particularly of high school football from roughly the era when Tony would have entered high school.

Finally, though it may be completely insignificant, when Tony tells Carm about the accident from his hospital stretcher in Kennedy and Heidi, he mentions that he re-injured his knee, “the one from high school.” That certainly sounds like a reference to an old high school football injury.

If these loose strands from multiple episodes are indeed intended to connote football in relation to the name “Heidi”, what does that actually mean in the context of the episode Kennedy and Heidi? What does football have to do with Tony killing Chris or, more precisely, with him killing his father in the guise of Chris?

The linchpin in that symbolism, it seems to me, is Tony’s old high school football coach, the guy who would have been his coach when he originally injured his knee, the guy Tony dreamt repeatedly of trying to silence or kill, the guy whose puzzling duality in Test Dream suddenly makes sense when he’s viewed as a classic, Freudian composite of opposites, specifically a composite of Tony’s opposing father figures with Johnny dressed in the physiognomy of Coach Molinaro by Tony’s subconscious in order to render acceptable imagery of his latent, patricidal feelings.

If you further allow, as I do, that the Johnny look-alike shooting at Tony with a scoped rifle (ala Oswald/”Kennedy”) in that same dream is yet another Freudian “reversal into the opposite” by Tony’s subconscious to disguise his repressed paternal rage, then the Kennedy/Heidi connection is pretty clear. The names are presented proximate to the crash to connote that, in killing Chris, Tony has finally acted out the Test Dream imagery that haunted him for years: he has (symbolically) killed his father, the “Kennedy” and “Heidi” of his dream.

“He’s Dead”

In my judgment, this explains Tony’s otherwise puzzling, peyote-induced insight when he proclaims, “He’s dead,” after winning at roulette on 3 successive spins, prompting him to fall to the floor in spectacular and uncontrollable laughter. What other, real death could have inspired such a euphoric and epiphanic reaction? What real death could Tony only have appreciated while in a drug-induced, altered state of consciousness?

Many felt the line referred to Christopher because he’d just died, obviously, and because Tony’s gambling luck suddenly changed afterward. That analysis never made sense to me.

First, Tony plays roulette at the casino while sober when he first arrives in Vegas and loses every round. Chris was already dead at that time, as Tony well knew and accepted. Indeed, Tony was never in any state of denial about Christopher’s death (or about having killed him.) He embraced it, both consciously and in his dream therapy session with Melfi after the crash.

The “he’s dead” insight occurs only after Tony takes peyote and notices a sudden and complete about-face in gambling luck. Why would he need psychedelic drugs to suddenly realize what he already knew and accepted about Chris? And why would Christopher’s death be tied in his mind to his own gambling luck anyway? No prior connection between those two things had ever been suggested.

On the other hand, Tony’s sudden escalation in gambling, which coincided with the agitation and intensification of his latent rage towards his father(s), could easily be seen as a subconscious rebellion against the stern, anti-gambling lecture Johnny imparted the night Tony witnessed the cleaver incident. To the extent that the rebellion results in huge financial losses and self destruction, it obviously fails. His father retains ultimate power and authority. To the extent the rebellion results in huge winnings, it succeeds, and Tony vanquishes his father.

That conquest was the ineffable and elusive “high” that Tony was subconsciously pursuing in Chasing It but which he could not articulate to Melfi. Thus the sudden change in gambling fortune on his Vegas trip is easily tied in Tony’s drug-altered psyche to a euphoric realization that he has conquered or symbolically killed his father, none of which Tony could appreciate without a vastly altered state of consciousness.

And that leads to why he went to Vegas in the first place. He asks that question out loud to the Vegas prostitute, Sonia, immediately before admitting that Christopher once mentioned taking peyote with her. Tony then confesses to having always wanted to try the drug.

Clearly, then, he didn’t just happen to pick Vegas and didn’t just happen to make contact with this girl. His subconscious was pushing him to that venue because he craved the enlightenment of a peyote experience. So while Tony’s real motives for the murder, and for his otherwise inexplicable jubilance afterward, were completely closed off to his conscious mind, somehow he sensed their existence and yearned to unlock and understand them. However his peyote revelations didn’t stop with simply understanding why he killed Chris.

“I Get It. I Get It!”

Tony’s desert epiphany is a bookend to his near-death coma experience and, I believe, can only be fully understood in relation to it. Yet exploring that relationship is a journey all unto itself, calling not only for consideration of the coma episodes and Kennedy and Heidi but the meaning of the cut to black that ends the series. While exploring the religious and spiritual underpinnings of those episodes is of even more weight and interest to me personally than the issue of Tony’s motives in killing Christopher, it deserves and demands its own, dedicated discussion. For now, I’d simply like to posit what I strongly believe Tony’s epiphany to have been with only minimal argumentation as to why I hold that belief.

The epiphany is presaged when Tony enters the casino on his peyote trip and notes that the roulette wheel is built on the same principle as the solar system. The ball spins round and round the center or “sun” of the wheel because of two delicately-balanced but largely opposing phenomena: the momentum of the ball (which, without the wheel, would carry the ball away in a straight line) and the centripetal force of the wheel (applied by the rim, which continuously pulls the ball towards the center even as the ball’s momentum continuously pulls it on a path perpendicular to the centripetal force.) The antagonism (or cooperation, if you prefer) of the forces gives rise to a unified system: an orbit.

If this sounds a bit like the Bell Labs scientist’s explanation of how two tornadoes are in fact just facets of one, unified system of wind, it’s likely no mere coincidence. As Hal Holbrook’s character argued, separateness is a mirage. The universe, and everything in it, is one big soup of molecules interacting in cause/effect fashion according to laws, making it one whole, not a bunch of discrete parts. “Everything is everything,” as the black rapper reduced it.

That was the philosophy that really made an impression on Tony in the days and weeks following his coma. The principles of quantum physics articulated by Holbrook’s character are likely as close as you can get to a scientific codification of Bhuddism and therefore reinforced much of what the Bhuddist monks conveyed to Tony in his coma. The monks laughed when Tony claimed he wasn’t Finnerty and explained that there really is no “you” and “me, that death would bring an obliteration of individuality. Separate consciousness – and the consciousness of separateness – is an illusion of the living.

So all this laid the philosophical groundwork for Tony’s Las Vegas trip. In that trip, Tony seeks out a girl with whom Chris had slept, then sleeps with her himself. He mentions having refrained from a longstanding desire to try peyote because he always felt the weight of his responsibilities, an implied contrast to Christopher, who always indulged in drugs despite his responsibilities. The idea that Tony was seeking to almost live life in Christopher’s skin in the Las Vegas portion of the episode was something several posters mentioned in first discussions after Kennedy and Heidi aired. Even the girl, Sonia, remarks how similar Tony and Chris are, a somewhat dubious observation that somehow offends Tony but which also helps define his impending epiphany.

That epiphany is spurred when the rising sun flares at him over the desert mountain vista. This recalls Tony’s earlier comparison of the roulette wheel to the solar system. It also resonates completely with the fact that Kevin Finnerty was a solar heating salesman from Kingman, Arizona, a town which, not coincidentally, lies 95 miles southeast of Las Vegas and shares the same desert landscape. Also not coincidental, IMO, is the fact that in the prior episode, Christopher spoke of the perks of joining witness protection and of “living large” in Arizona.

So I believe that, in that desert sunrise on the cusp of Arizona, in fulfillment of his identity as Kevin Finnerty, solar heating salesman, Tony saw his “son” – Christopher – “rise” and realized that, in murdering him days before, he (Tony) was really “rising” as a “son” against Johnny Boy. And in that linkage, he suddenly realized that “everything is [indeed] everything.” He is both Chris and Johnny Boy, both abused and misguided son and abusing, misguiding father. He is murdering uncle and would-be murdered nephew. He is both the mother that sees suffocation as mercy killing and the son who is suffocated. Christopher is both his son and his father. Johnny Boy is Coach Molinaro. “Kennedy” is “Heidi”. Opposites are really two sides of the same coin. In that fleeting moment of insight, Tony was truly feeling “one” with the universe.

The Second Coming

The episode following Kennedy and Heidi is titled The Second Coming after the Yeats poem that grips AJ in the English lit class he’s auditing. While the poem speaks to the bleakness of his depression and outlook on life at that particular time, there’s little doubt that – like everything of substantial weight in the Sopranos universe – it ultimately relates, first and foremost, to Tony. First referenced in the Cold Cuts therapy session dealing with pent-up rage where Tony’s deep shame from the cleaver incident is finally revealed, the poem seems the veritable inspiration for the storyline (as interpreted in this article) that culminates in Christopher’s murder:
The Second Coming
By William Butler Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight; somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
The widening gyre, the orbit that breaks down when the center can no longer hold, is clearly a parallel to the decompensation of which Melfi warned, the point at which Tony’s defenses after Junior’s second murder attempt could no longer hold and the underlying pathological rage at his fathers would take over. True to the poem, a “blood-dimmed tide was loosed”, inspired by a perverse compassion for the “innocent”. While “the best” all mourned Christopher and thought his death a tragedy, Tony, “the worst”, was full of passionate intensity and could not understand why no one else saw the greater good in Christopher’s death.

The “revelation” occurs in a “waste of desert sand”, imagery easily compatible with Tony’s “I get it” moment in the Nevada/Arizona desert. The uniquely depraved look on his face as he suffocated Christopher is evoked by the line describing a “gaze as blank and pitiless as the sun”. “Twenty years of stony sleep” refers to the decades of denial Tony maintained, the defense mechanisms that kept him all his life from confronting and admitting that, in some very real ways, he hated his father. It’s a figurative sleep that was suggested literally in the noted fact that so many episodes in season 6B started with Tony in a deep sleep. Somnolence was suggested even in the choice of the song “Comfortably Numb” as soundtrack in the moments immediately preceding the crash, the moments right before the hour of the “rough beast” finally arrived. Even the incidentals are perfect allusions, as with the image of “stony sleep” being turned into a nightmare by a “rocking cradle”, or, in this case, by a car seat with a branch sticking through it.

I’m intrigued by the line describing the emerging beast as having “lion body”. It may mean absolutely nothing. But among the story points worth considering in relation to it are the tiger on the wall in Holsten’s and the enigmatic cat in Made In America.

More obscure is the fact that in Remember When, the single episode most explicitly dealing with the violent release of stifled paternal rage, Carter Chong described his grandfather as a “lion” and noted that his father owned “Grumman” stock. (Grumman manufactured a number of high-profile fighter military aircraft, most of them named for some kind of cat, e.g., Panther, Jaguar, Tomcat, Tigercat.) Carter was reviewing these facts to himself in the scene immediately preceding his vicious attack on Junior, suggesting that, in acting out on his stifled paternal hatred, he was adopting the predatory, aggressive characteristics of a wild cat. Notably, when Junior, the paternal surrogate who modeled this kind of aggressive behavior to Carter, was seen at the end of that episode bruised and literally defanged, his sunken mouth void of false teeth, he was stroking a harmless little housecat on his lap. Once a lion, the former mob boss was a lion no more.

Asbestos Dumping as a Metaphor for Tony’s Toxic Spill of Rage

Kennedy and Heidi opens with a controversy between Tony and Phil Leotardo over asbestos disposal. One of Tony’s contractors was removing asbestos from old buildings, while following none of the strict (and expensive) asbestos-handling laws regulating worker and public safety, and was seeking to dump completely uncontained truck-fulls at waste stations controlled by Phil. Phil’s guys were denying the trucks the right to dump. As a consequence, huge, openly-smoking asbestos mounds were building up at job sites.

After Christopher’s death, Tony was doing little to find a solution, skipping town to gamble, get laid, and get high and leaving the contractor high and dry. Finally, near the very end of the episode, the contractor dumps heaps of asbestos at dawn in an open marsh area resembling the New Jersey Meadowlands.

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that gained widespread use in the 19th and 20th centuries as an ingredient in various building industry materials – including wall compounds, insulation, and roofing materials – primarily because of its extreme insulative properties and resistance to heat and fire. In the last 40 years, it’s become better-known for its cancer-causing and toxic effects on those mining and working with it in manufacturing, demolition/remodeling, or other “raw” environments.

Both the heat resistance and toxicity of asbestos make the shoddy removal/dumping storyline a compelling metaphor for Tony’s equally shoddy “dumping” in Kennedy and Heidi. The smoldering heat and flames from his hatred towards his father and uncle were contained beneath his consciousness by an insulating firewall of denial and repression. In essence, this denial and repression was Tony’s psychological asbestos, and it (more or less) contained the heat and fire within him for 47 years.

But it finally broke down, allowing the flames to rage and do damage and necessitating a messy disposal. Unfortunately the breakdown didn’t happen where it should have, in his therapist’s office as the result of honest introspection and dialog about little things like his uncle trying to kill him twice and his father indoctrinating him to murder at 22. That would have been the equivalent of careful, legally-compliant asbestos removal. Instead the breakdown occurred in a roadside ravine and the resulting “waste [in the] desert sand” was every bit as toxic as the smoking piles illegally dumped in the Meadowlands immediately before the desert epiphany and which we saw reprised in the very first shot of the following episode.

Think about that for a moment. Tony’s “I get it” moment was literally sandwiched between shots of noxious mounds of asbestos blowing in the New Jersey wind, a significant clue that some other kind of perversely cathartic disposal was in the middle of that sandwich.
Tony, his spirits crushed after b-lining to the fridge first thing in the morning: "Who ate the last piece of cake?"

VI. The Orbit of the ‘Blue Comet’: Long Journey to Nowhere

VI. The Orbit of the ‘Blue Comet’: Long Journey to Nowhere
It’s fair to ask: if the broad strokes of my interpretation are valid, what impact did the epiphany have on Tony going forward? After the drugs wore off, did he actually retain any specific understanding of his subconscious motives for killing Chris? Was he left only with the impression that he had enjoyed a very brief moment of enlightenment but without intellectual distillation of the enlightenment itself?

Because the insight was founded upon the secret that he had murdered Chris, even if Tony had retained it, he couldn’t overtly share it with anyone. Still, I lean toward the interpretation that the specifics (at least the ones I proffered) were lost to him when the altered state of consciousness ceased. When he tried to describe the magic of what he experienced in the desert to his crew, he could only come up with the most mundane, inadequate words: “The sun . . . came up.” They all looked at him like he was half retarded.

He was slightly more specific with Melfi, offering that he saw “for pretty certain” that this reality is not all there is. He couldn’t define the alternative but was still convinced there was “something else”.

He did speak in therapy of appreciating a balance and unity in opposites that he hadn’t appreciated before, a “ying” [sic] and “yang”. And he offered that “mothers are like buses . . . the vehicle that gets us here,” but that, once here, we are all on our own, individual journeys (mothers included.) So, to the extent his epiphany comported with what he revealed in therapy, it seems to have had little to do with fathers and with Christopher’s murder and more to do with letting go (finally) of some of his issues with his mother.

But perhaps the best clue to his residual state of understanding came when he indicated that some of what he thought he had grasped in the desert now eluded him. “You think you know, you think you learn something . . . like when I got shot,” he begins. Then, speaking specifically about the peyote experience, he reports that the insight gained is “kinda hard to describe. . . . You know, you have these thoughts, and you almost grab it . . . and then . . . ftt.” He flicks his fingers away from his chin as if to indicate “nothing”. So, to paraphrase Edna St. Vincent Millay, a fragment of what he knew remains, but, apparently, the best is lost.

It wouldn’t take long for all of it to be lost. By the time Tony sits with AJ’s female therapist in Made In America, “going about in pity” for himself because of who his mother was, he has come full circle, essentially back to where he was to start the series. Like a “blue comet”, his orbit was highly elliptical, if not erratic, and carried with it the potential of veering off into deep space or crashing into the sun. But despite killing his own nephew, having a near-death experience himself, and saving his son from an act of suicide, the orbit held. The sober breakthrough never came. The repudiation of his father and of his way of life never took hold in his consciousness. And so, by series’ end, we, like Tony, were exhausted from a long journey that ultimately took us nowhere.
Tony, his spirits crushed after b-lining to the fridge first thing in the morning: "Who ate the last piece of cake?"

Re: Tony’s Vicarious Patricide

WHew! What a grand effort! i can only start with each article one at a time to properly attempt to offer some responses.

First of all, the entire concept was, and still is, a great one, a true one, and worthy of real exploration. From the get go, your introduction is making me think of how in general, Chase expresses himself mostly thru his main character, Tony, and to some lesser extent, thru the other characters. And we know that in real life, its common knowledge that Livia's character was based on Chase's own battle-axe of a mother.

But we don't hear too much about Chase's real-life relationship with his Dad. This whole show could be one gigantic effort for Chase himself to explore that whole theme that you address whereby Tony is suppressed and pissed off that his Dad left him and his siblings home alone with a disturbed woman to fend for themselves. By Chase having Tony commit this sort of patricide in multiple ways throughout the series of episodes, Chase himself can come to terms with his own need to metaphorically 'kill off' his own Dad- meaning of course- to face his deep feelings about his own tortured childhood and whatever role his own father played in it. Its certainly a theme that has been played out historically for centuries in the great works of art and literature. And this patricide theme- i do think its portrayed very subtly in a way. Obscure because its most likely obscure to Chase's own awareness of himself- or maybe too tender an issue to bear the full light of day. ("Bare" the light of day? As in exposed to us and himself?)

However, i realize that very scene where Tony kills Christopher was repugnant to you, Fly, and to most others. A true turning point in acknowledging Tony's deepest evil and darkness. i was horrified on one level, but mostly saw a sort of justice in it, as i have posted on elsewhere. This of course exposes a sort of embarrassing level of "un-evolvement" on my part. Maybe i should have felt more able to really cut Tony off for good and quit trying to find some good in him after that choice he made. Still, as i've said before, i still see that the overall result is that Tony acted on behalf of the good of the order- the overall benefit of his community- sparing the former occupant of the prominently-featured carseat a future death by a neglectful father. He did to Christopher what someone should have done to Tony's father long ago if they were looking out for Tony when Tony was a little child of car-seat age. This does not justify his actions. imo, it just adds to an understanding of them, and him (Tony), to me. ANd the result is, i cannot throw the baby out with the bathwater- i cannot fully reject Tony as a result of this patricidal action. If the camera had not shown us the carseat, i might have a different response. That empty car seat is like its own little character- the only true witness to the crime besides God and us, the audience.

Re: Tony’s Vicarious Patricide

I have read a little bit of this thesis and would like the opportunity to discuss it and if I have the time I will read it more closely.

On the surface though I always viewed Tony killing Christopher as filicide or something as close to that as one can get. The baby's seat seemed to me as an attempt in Tony's mind to morally justify what he had done. But I think his real motive was a little more sinister. And in some respects it was practical well.

The movie Cleaver did reveal to Tony what Christopher thought of him. He came to realise that his protege was a threat. Furthermore in his drug-addled state Christopher was becoming less reliable as a captain and a liability to the business.

In a way I think it is the sins of the father that are visited on the sons. Symbolically and otherwise it was Johnny Boy who was responsible for his son's fate. In turn, intentionally or not, Tony was responsible for both his sons as well.

Re: Tony’s Vicarious Patricide

I am utterly speechless Fly. I am not only blown away yet again by the complexity and intelligence of The Sopranos and the genius of David Chase. I am also blown away by your profound ability to beautifully articulate and illustrate your thoughts on this subject. Colour me impressed. I think you should write a book, I know I would buy it:icon_biggrin: . Thank you for the huge amount of effort put into this thesis.

Do I agree with your thesis? regarding the relationship between Tony and his many fathers and sons? I most certainly do. I think you have tapped into the main strand of this complex fabric. Phew! Let me take a breather. Ill post my thoughts soon.

Thanks again FLY.


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