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TV Review: The Sopranos – “Soprano Home Movies”

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After reading advance reviews of the first couple of episodes of the season, I was prepared for a premiere that doesn’t exactly propel things forward. “Soprano Home Movies” is a pretty unconventional episode, keeping the focus almost exclusively on the events at Bobby’s country house. At this point in the series’ run, the characters are so well developed that they basically write themselves, and I’d imagine once they came up with the idea of putting Janice, Tony, Bobby and Carmela in a confined space, everything that happened pretty much flowed from there. I thought this was a masterfully executed episode, and a return to a more focused, probing style after the drift of last year’s final run.

The thing that frustrated me about the end of last season wasn’t so much that nothing of significance happened with the plot, it was that not much changed for the characters. Even though the New York/New Jersey conflict has been in a perpetual loop, it never felt so teasing as at the end of last year. But, that wouldn’t even matter if the characters were vital. The major events that did happen seemed to occur in passing, we weren’t placed in the characters’ heads, but here, we’re totally immersed in where these people are at the moment, and allowed to feel everything they feel.

For me, everything in this episode took place in the shadow of the scene at the end of season five’s “Cold Cuts,” in which Janice talks about her success with anger management. Tony, jealous of her progress, taunts her until she snaps, then he walks out of the house, satisfied with himself. It’s one of the many low ebbs for the character, a moment in which his pettiness comes to the fore.

As the weekend begins, Janice notes the way that the relationship between her and Tony has improved. However, when she discusses the way he’s changed since being shot, he starts to get defensive. I would argue the reason he keeps pushing to insult her during the game of monopoly is precisely because he wants to show that he’s still the same. But, when we see him sitting in the chair, staring out at the water, or mentioning after how he’s on the downhill part of life, it’s clear that he’s still feeling the effects of the shooting. It’s particularly notable that Bobby is the one to instigate the attack, not understanding the dynamic Tony and Janice share. Clearly he’s still got some major rage issues, but I would argue that the insulting of Janice is more a nostalgic revisiting of their old dynamic than a genuine expression of malice.

The whole episode had a really overbearing atmosphere, the feel of many years lived, many shared experiences. While the show gets most of its attention for the big violence, it’s the way that they are able to give mundane, everyday happenings grandeur and significance that makes the show so strong. No show is able to provide as much subtext as this one. The characters’ fully developed backstories allow for a shorthand. In this episode, Livia hung over all the events, and in Janice’s treatment of her daughter, we can see a repetition of the exact treatment she was decrying her mother for. She won’t let her daughter go into the water without her, and she’s not likely to deal any better with separation in the future. Janice claims that she inherited more of her father’s traits, but it’s clear there’s a lot of her mother there too.

A lot of writing on the show claims that Livia was the axis around which everything revolved, and there’s been a general lack of purpose since her departure. I’d argue that’s true of the first season, but I think by the end of year two, they’d pretty much outgrown her, and there was nowhere left for her story to go. Even if the actress hadn’t died, I think it would have been wise to remove her in the third season, and develop story lines centered around other things. That said, I like that this episode brought her back to the fore, and showed the way that these characters are largely defined in relation to Livia. I think that’s a central tenet of Chase’s worldview, present right from the first episode when Tony claims that he got in too late, and will never be able to live up to the idealized world of mafia past.

That’s what makes AJ’s story interesting. He’s rejected the fancy world of Tony and Carmela to go live with Blanca, a social regression. Tony justifies everything he did as service to his family, ensuring that they can go to the best schools and have an easier life than he did. However, AJ has jumped back to poverty, and is doing things on his own. I think the character’s transition happened a bit quick, from wayward Blockbuster employee to stepfather, but it works well on a thematic level. I would assume that later in the season, AJ and Blanca will face some real troubles, and then he’ll have to decide whether to run back home, or fully embrace his new life. That would be the logical trajectory of this storyline, but Chase rarely goes for the obvious stories.

But, that’s more about the future. I really admire the decision to do a bottle episode, trap us in the growing awkwardness between the two couples. With no escape, how can they deal with the tension that arises? Basically, they say that it’s okay, but the issues simmer underneath. Tony’s pride suffers, and Janice takes some kind of joy from the knowledge that her husband can beat up Tony. I really loved just spending time with these people again, seeing how they’ve changed and behave in this situation. There were so many wonderful, small moments that only this show can do.

We eventually do get some action, when Bobby ‘pops his cherry,’ by killing the drummer. This scene was really well executed, with the ominous clunking of the shoes in the washing machine. Things wrap up with the astonishing “This Magic Moment” sequence. This was a perfect fusion of moment and visual, with Bobby walking in to a kind of dreamscape, this perfect moment of happiness. He may have killed a man, but his daughter still loves him, and as he looks out at the lake, it feels like everything will be okay. That final image was powerfully iconic, one of the best episode closings in a long time.

While I still liked the back half of season six, I had some issues, and I think this episode resolves most of them. We’re much more in the characters’ lives, things feel more emotional and events feel more important. It’s not a conventional opener, and I think it’s going to draw a lot of ire, but it’s a great episode, and I’m thrilled they chose to open the season this way. It’s the characters that interest me, not necessarily the mob stuff, and this is a rich character study.

And it does leave us with a lot of issues looking ahead. One is Tony’s mental state. All last season, he struggled to define who he was post shooting. Is he still changed, or has he slipped back to the old ways? His relationship with Christopher is clearly on the edge, and how will Chris deal with being replaced by Bobby as Tony’s right hand man. Plus, we’ve got the federal investigation into Tony’s doings, which seems to be heating up. It’s a lot to look forward to, and if the writing remains as strong as this episode, it’s going to be a great conclusion.

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