Monday, June 05, 2006

'Sopranos' shoot 'im up

"The Sopranos" episode 12 review:
Don't think of it as a season finale. You might feel happier that way.

HBO has been careful to call January's final eight shows "bonus episodes" for this season. At first, I assumed that was just clever language to avoid having to negotiate a new season's salary for the actors. But the only way to rationalize last night's meandering, closure-light episode is if you believe that David Chase considers all 20 episodes to be of a piece.

But fact is, this is the last episode we'll get for seven months. An eyeblink compared to the last hiatus, but season five closed with the double-barreled power of "Long-Term Parking" and "All Due Respect," and "Kaisha" wasn't nearly in that class. And by opening the hour with a dedication to the late John Patterson, who had directed all the previous season finales, Chase and company were calling this a finale of some kind.

I've heard all the complaints about this season, but this was the first time all year where I felt genuinely unsatisfied. I know I've been writing for weeks that we were heading towards an implosion, and that I didn't think much would be resolved before January. But it's one thing to predict it and another thing to experience it.

Chase has always had a fondness for zagging when the audience expects him to zig, and sometimes it feels like he goes zagging off just because he can. He wants to wean viewers off of all the TV narrative traditions they've been suckling since birth, but some of those traditions are there for a reason, and have been long before TV existed. Steven Bochco didn't say that if you show a gun in the first act, you have to fire it by the third; Anton Chekhov did.

I'm not insisting we needed all-out war between Phil and Tony, or Carmela to visit the FBI offices in search of Adriana, or Paulie to die of cancer. But we needed something interesting to happen in one of the arcs, rather than the crude jokes Chase and company tried to disguise as resolutions, like Carmela abandoning the Ade search as soon as Tony revived the spec house, or Phil's heart attack tabling the war.
To read the rest, click here, then come back to comment. I should note that, in the light of the morning, I realize I neglected to say much about the Tony/Phil hospital scene, which was really very good. But we can talk more about that in the comments. What did everybody else think?


bill komissaroff said...

I really liked the A.J. stuff, and Tony never looked scarier to me as when Christopher was telling him about Julianna.

I thought the hospital scene was as powerful as it gets. Was it me or was that the exact same room Tony was in after he was shot?

bill komissaroff said...

PS-Really looking forward to Deadwood next week!

Eric said...

I've got a feeling that Phil isn't going to respond that positively to Tony's advice. He needs to remain unchanged by his heart attack and stand as a contrast to Tony.

Which means Bad Things for Christopher.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Bill, it was a different hospital altogether; Phil even makes a joke about finally getting Tony to come to Brooklyn.

Phil did start crying at the end of Tony's spiel, but if he comes out of this ordeal relatively okay, he could turn back into the Shah again.

K J Gillenwater said...

Disappointment. Big time. Overall, the episode stirred up the pot a bit, but couldn't there have been one small peek of what was to come? Anything.

The final scene was pretty much saying, "see this warm, happy family picture? It's all going to get blown to s*** before the end." But I wanted just a little bit of a window into what that might be.

Sigh. I think HBO is going to see an even larger viewership drop next season. I will be watching, but many will not. I think this season 'finale' probably annoyed a lot of people. Especially those that like the show for the pure mob violence moments.

Daniel said...

For most of the season, I was very patient with David Chase and co.'s puerile humor and stubborn resistance to give viewers what they really wanted, but last night's episode -- a collection of nice moments without any narrative progression -- was genuinely frustrating. The frustration wasn't that nobody got killed and that none of the plotlines set up throughout the season got resolved. It was frustrating because Chase and co. kept hinting that something was going to happen and you could almost hear them laughing behind-the-scenes as the episode ended with an out-of-season holiday dinner. There were the cuts from Phil's crew advocating whacking somebody to Christopher, editing choices that seemed to scream "Christopher's a Goner!" There were the attempts to turn AJ into a responsible and sympathetic character just one episode after showing him at his most pathetic and sloth-like, attempts that seemed to scream "Maybe if Christopher's not a goner, AJ is!"

But instead? Yet another Christopher drug relapse. Do Chase and co. really think that plotline is endlessly interesting?

As much as I liked the first four or five episodes of the season, too many of the last block of episodes felt like filler, as if Chase really DIDN'T have 20 new episodes worth of ideas for this last two-part season, but took HBO's extra money anyway.

What do you figure was the response on HBO's side when they saw that last night's episode was the "cliffhanger" they got to steer viewers into next spring's season?


Alan Sepinwall said...

You're right that the expansion to 20 episodes is the real problem, Dan. The first half of the season -- the better, more consistent half -- was written and at least partially produced back when the operating assumption was that these would be the final 13 episodes. I don't know exactly when in the writing process David agreed to the "bonus" episodes, but there was definitely some narrative stretching going on in the back half. (If Chase doesn't extend the season, no way does Artie get his own episode, and I kinda liked the Artie episode.)

You also hit the nail on the head about the teasing. I remember seeing the Middle Eastern guys say hi to Tony at the Bing and thinking that moment was like a raised middle finger at all the people who had spent so much time speculating about what, if anything, those two were up to.

Anonymous said...

Weak. Real weak.

For the past few episodes, I've been feeling that Chase doesn't appreciate one of the fundamentals of storytelling... forward momentum, the sense of building to a crescendo... escalating tension. I didn't have the sense, before the finale, that we had been delivered masterfully to the doorstep of a Satisfying Payoff. (As with the Blundetto arc.) And sure enough, we hadn't been.

It's got me looking back with dissatisfaction on the whole season. Really... subtract Gay Vito, and the last two-thirds of this season have been a nothingburger, apart from a handful of well-done moments. (The Gay Vito story was fabulous in every way.) And it's got me lowering my expectations big-time for the series finale.

Does anybody honestly expect the final eight eps will drive and build with the force of a snowball rolling downhill, leaving us worn out and satisfied at the end of it all? Or will it meander along like the previous eight?

Last night... the AJ romance came out of nowhere, and I felt nothing for it. Alan said all there is to say about the uselessness of the Christopher story. What a waste.

Anonymous said...

And what was with the confusing out-of-order scene where Chris and Margolies meet for the first time? I'm not even inclined to use the term "flashback", because it was completely un-flagged, leading the audience (well, me) to spend time trying to think around Chase's structure. Like Alan said, we have (in this case) narrative grammar for a reason.

Edward Copeland said...

This was the 2nd episode in a row to reference Casablanca, as Dooley Wilson singing "As Time Goes By" played over the credits of Episode 11. It was a disappointment, but with the exception of Whitecaps, it's always seems like the show puts all its main plot developments in the penultimate episode and then serves up an anticlimactic finale. Since we've seen other scenes of Phil restless in his bed, are we to take Tony as some kind of savior figure for him and Phil is going to recover with a similar "every day is a gift" mentality?

Anonymous said...

I thought Phil's tears were of frustrated anger, not enlightenment. He's probably pissed because he couldn't muster the strength to cuss Tony out and threaten him while Tony was giving his sage advice about the afterlife. I think Eric's right that Phil will remain unchanged, which is good because he's such a great hard-ass.

As for the last scene, I didn't see it as a "warm, happy family picture," but more as a picture of a bunch of deceivers (either self-deceivers, like Carm, or outright deceivers, like Christopher). Carm cared about Ade until she got her spec house back, and then Ade got back-burnered; Carm won't revisit Ade until there's something else she needs from Tony, probably. Christopher is playing the happy family man, but he's really thinking about Juliana and his next fix. I don't know what the hell Tony's thinking, except that he seems to be okay with AJ growing a pair and taking his job seriously. And Bobby Jr. and Sophia are probably thinking about the time when they can pop a cap in Janice. They're almost to a man & woman hypocrites. How is that warm & happy?

Alan Sepinwall said...

A reader pointed out something to me that was so blindingly obvious I slapped my forehead out of frustration for having missed it:

In episode five, Phil's the one who starts the dogpile about Johnny's crying at the end of the wedding, saying that's the ultimate sign of weakness. Now he's been reduced to the point where he's crying himself. Whether they're tears of anger, as Dez suggests, or fear or enlightenment or whatever, he's been pushed to a place where he's committing the same sin.

Anonymous said...

life is cheap in north jersey yo...the season was flipped these 1st 4 eps were all brilliant...if the season ended with tony recovering from his wounds we would all be saying this is the best season ever...I was kinda mad that they didnt have Chris do more this season, so it was good to see him get his due in the last ep. As Alan said this is the last happy the last show who will be left alive???
they will all get theirs in the end..maybe Tony will make it out alive...cutting a deal of some kind like Rick did in Casablanca.. hes not good at being Noble...but who knows in the end...Alan thanks so much for the great show reviews they were as the Brits say Spot-on

hope ya write about Deadwood also...

Cagey (Kelli Oliver George) said...

I was not disappointed in Sunday's episode. It seems, with every season of the Sopranos, the last episode is not the one to go out with a bang. It is usually the next to last episode instead. For example, in which episodes were Jackie Jr., and Adriana snuffed?

I still think this season was a "builder" season for the last episodes coming. Or, perhaps, I am just an eternal optimistic.

Alan Sepinwall said...

"For example, in which episodes were Jackie Jr., and Adriana snuffed?"

Adriana died in the penultimate episode of season five, but Jackie Jr. died in the season three finale. You're right that the penultimate episodes are usually more action-packed than the finales, but there's always been something interesting in each finale. In order:

-In season one, Tony has his guys take out all of Junior's henchmen, Junior goes to jail and Tony attempts to smother Livia with a pillow.

-In season two, Tony, Sil and Paulie execute Big Pussy.

-In season three, Jackie Jr. dies (this was actually the least dramatic of the finales).

-In season four, Carmela throws Tony out of the house

-In season five, Tony kills Tony B. and the feds arrest Johnny Sack.

Anonymous said...

Rarely have I seen so many TV viewers tripped up by their own expectations! (and Alan, this only partly applies to you)

Guy, this week's episode was not a finale, it's still the middle of the current season. True, we have to wait till January to get to the other half, but six months is nothing in Sopranos time. (We have to wait longer than that to find out how Jack Bauer is going to get out of going to Shanghai.) And I found this episode in particular pleasing as a deliberately understated snapshot of the Sopranos' lives as of this moment.

Yes, I find Christopher's renewed descent into addiction compelling -- because he's finally found the perfect companion with which to make that descent. In fact, I would call the reveal on Chris/Juliana's relationship as the real juice in this "finale", and the two of them are so "right" for each other that it's literally frightening. In a mutually enabling sense, they make a better pair than Chris/Adrianna, Tony/Julianna, Tony/Carmela and pretty much any other pairing this show has ever depicted. And Christopher's personal story is close to the show's narrative spine since he is Tony's de facto successor; anything he does at this level is going to have broader ramifications in the show's endgame, I think we can count on it.

Daniel, your attempts to read the tea-leaf intentions behind the show's screenwriters are only doomed to disappoint you, as they are doing now. The "hints" and "editing choices" you're talking about seem to be based on concepts of more traditional television. Tell me, would you really have been happier if the show had come out and stated outright that the Brooklyn boys were gunning for Christopher? That kind of storytelling is not why I turn to The Sopranos.

Alan, even viewing this last block of episodes, I can understand the desire to stretch it from 12 to 20. As 'uneventful' as this season has been to date, it has been stellar at presenting a series of spotlight moments on the various satellite characters, moments which we really do need to have in order to say goodbye to these characters. Even the Artie episode recently was essential -- it was a complicated yet loving sendoff to the tragic restauranteur without which I felt the final season would have been lacking. (And as for the Middle Eastern guys, what you say reminds me of the infamous Russian from "Pine Barrens" -- anyone who spends energy looking for every "loose end" to be tied is bound to be let down.)

Anyone who thinks A.J.'s transformation is abrupt -- did you miss the key scene last episode where Tony smashed A.J's windshield and said, "Don't test me"? That was obviously the catalyst. The mystery is, why did it take the Don of New Jersey six years to lay down the law on his only son?

I have to believe that the final eight will be more what people were expecting from this current block. I could be proven wrong and Chase could be tossing it all away, but I have more faith than that.

Anonymous said...

Scott says this episode wasn't a finale, it's still the middle of the current season.

I say: Dude, Mr. Chase realizes this is the last episode we'll see for a while. I wasn't looking for "closure"... but I was hoping for a more commandingly told story. I'm now willing to wager that the final eight eps. will end this series with a whimper, not a bang.

A question for Alan: Did Chase write and film all 20 episodes in one continuous run? Have those final eight eps. been shot? Or even written? I expect that the machine shut down after he got this season's 12 in the can. In which case, the final eight eps. should indeed be viewed as a separate season, not a continuation of this one.

Sarah D. Bunting said...

"Anyone who thinks A.J.'s transformation is abrupt -- did you miss the key scene last episode where Tony smashed A.J's windshield and said, "Don't test me"? That was obviously the catalyst."

I also saw the "key scene" where Tony slapped him around for lipping off about cereal; the "key scene" where AJ fainted while trying on his military school uniform; and about a dozen other "key scenes" in which Tony made it clear that he was the big dog -- none of which ever worked, because 1) Tony's parenting follow-through sucks, and 2) AJ isn't that bright.

I wouldn't really call this a transformation -- he's just playing at being a big boy, same as Meadow was with her dinner party, and it hasn't extended to actually treating his parents with any respect -- but I do agree with those who posit that AJ showing up with Blanca for a holiday gathering is jarringly out of character.