“Remember When,” much like the series as a whole, deals with people who are past their prime, and the generational conflict between emulating and denigrating one's elders. It’s an intense hour, with a lot of strong material, but it’s also a weaker episode than the two that opened the season. But, I don’t think there’s ever been a bad Sopranos episode, and the only frustrating thing about this one is that it means we’ve got to wait a week to see the next one.
I’ve been re-watching the first half of the season on DVD, and I think a large part of what gave it its bad reputation is the fact that it was just so frustrating to have to wait a week between episodes. Watched all in a row, they flow really well, and quite a lot happens. But, particularly with the season finale, I think people just needed more to carry them over the year hiatus. The season, particularly the second half, was a lot tighter than I remembered it, and stands with anything else the series has produced.
As for this episode, much like “Soprano Home Movies,” it begins with something from the past coming back to haunt Tony, in this case, his first kill. The shadow of past events has hung heavy over this entire season, each episode featuring an obsessive rehashing of past traumas that the characters just won’t let go. Ever since the first episode, Tony has talked about how he got into something that was on the way down, and more than ever, the glamour of mob life is disappearing. Tony’s major concern about Paulie is that he doesn’t have a legitimate source of income; would Johnny Boy Soprano have thought about that? Maybe, but Tony would have never seen that side. All that’s left to him is the cool guy standing in front of a cool car.
The series’ initial hook was that Tony was just like you — he had a wife, kids, suburban house, only he was in the mob. With this season in particular, we’ve seen the mob as just like any other business, struggling with corporate expansion, and reduced to increasingly pathetic jobs, like stealing plumbing fixtures in this episode. They’re putting in so many hours, are they getting something they wouldn’t get from working regular jobs? I think part of it is that they’re all addicted to the danger. When Tony and Christopher stole the wine back in “The Ride,” it wasn’t for money, it was because they were bored. In theory, couldn’t Tony legitimately buy plumbing fixtures and resell them?
The reason he doesn’t do that is partly because of family tradition. He’s been raised with certain values, inherited something from his parents, and couldn’t think of any other way of making a living. Also, he does get some benefits — lots of gifts and the luxury of not reporting to a regular office. He does get to make his own rules, and be his own boss. These people have been immersed in a system where all they do is take for so long they can’t do any real work. Taking someone else’s money is still a lot of effort, but it’s somehow more satisfying than real labor.
This need to hustle lingers in Junior, even when he’s in prison. The poker game is simultaneously really sad and a bit inspirational. Junior is making the best of his situation, and for the first time since “Members Only,” he has some agency, even taking on an apprentice to help him. The Junior plot was good, but depressing. It’s not a fun world to spend time in, and watching Carter’s attachment to Junior turn violent was tough.
When I first saw that we were spending so much time with a new character, I wasn’t too happy, but the plot justified its time. With only six episodes left, it’s starting to get to that point where digressions are tough to take. The fewer number of episodes left, the stronger they have to be to justify their presence in the series at this point. A lot of people are speculating this is the last we’ll see of Junior, and if so, it’s a sad but appropriate end. He’s finally been numbed, all his rage gone, accepting of his fate. The critical moment for me was when he called Carter Anthony, indicating that he does think of Tony as a son, and even though he’s asking for an apology earlier in the episode, it’s primarily because he just wants to see him again. I would like to see him and Tony have one more scene together. I’m not sure why it would happen, but it’d be nice.
Speaking of sadness, we went deep into Paulie’s world in this episode, and found nothing but loneliness and memories. He tells stories about the past compulsively because he doesn’t have any attachments in the present. The scene with Beansie and Tony was the highlight of the episode for me, as Tony realizes that Paulie loves him because Tony is all he has. I don’t think Tony has looked up to Paulie for a long time, but it’s only now that he realizes how far past him he’s gone. It’s hard to see a former mentor like that, and recognizing just how pathetic Paulie really is is what drives Tony to contemplate killing him on the boat.
Now, it’s unclear whether he is thinking about it, or just wants Paulie to think he’s thinking about it. I’d argue that he wouldn’t do Paulie like that, and it was more a scare tactic. He was testing him with the 90-pound mole joke discussion, and when Paulie wouldn’t talk, his confidence was reassured. It’s odd that he’ll openly talk about killing people, but won’t admit to telling Johnny Sack about the joke. I suppose only one of those acts is a violation of the mob code.
At the end of the episode, Tony tells Carmela that guys like Paulie are the reason they can live in luxury. He works and sends his money up to Tony, and that’s what buys them their stuff. I also think Tony is a bit defensive because he recognizes just how little Paulie has. I’m not sure if what happened strengthened their relationship, or left Tony disgusted by just how far his former idol has fallen.
So far this season, the FBI has been a constant presence, and there’s constantly increasing pressure on Tony. Back in season one, he seemed to be having a lot of fun, now, it’s all work. Even when he’s sleeping with the girl, he’s worried about what she knows about him. He’s forced to borrow money from Hesch, and with New York in turmoil, things will not likely improve.
So, this episode wasn’t the series’ strongest. I’d have loved to check in with Christopher, but I liked the way the two stories complemented each other, and it closed on a sad, haunting note. A lot has been set up; I’m just left wondering if it will ever really pay off. I think it will be impossible to really judge this season until it’s finished. Are all these occurrences building to something, or are they just haphazard events that will lead to a stopping point rather than a climax? I don’t want to see Tony arrested or die, but I do hope that we get a definitive narrative conclusion, some kind of payoff after all this.