10 December 2011

"The Sopranos" Season Six, Part II

The Sopranos Season Six, Part II
Starring James Gandolfini, Lorraine Bracco, Edie Falco, Michael Imperioli, Dominic Chianese, Steven Van Zandt, Tony Sirico, Robert Iler, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Aida Turturro, John Ventimiglia, Steven R. Schirripa, Vincent Curatola, Frank Vincent, Ray Abruzzo
Created by David Chase
DVD Release: 23 October 2007
List Price: $49.99
Also available on Blu-ray Disc, List Price: $69.99
540 Minutes

The final nine episodes of The Sopranos are a microcosm of everything that made the series compelling. Yes, major events happen involving principal characters. But rather than merely inundate us with end-of-the-series shockers--and, to be sure, there are several--David Chase and his writers gave us some of the finest hours of the entire show here at the end. The ongoing theme of mental health has resonated with me quite intimately this time around, but few have hit me as viscerally as these. I almost had an anxiety attack watching "The Second Coming," and that is not hyperbole. I calmed myself with a Buspar.

I've shied away from dissecting the series largely because I feel after all these years, there's little left to be said. That's just as true about Season Six, Part II as the rest of the series, but I would like to note that I no longer suspect that Tony's flashback in "The Blue Comet" to discussing death with Bobby in "Soprano Home Movies" was meant to tell us how to interpret the end of "Made in America." I am now contented that it was Tony's way of reassuring himself that [the character who dies in "The Blue Comet"] died before the surprise of being attacked ever faded. It was Tony's way of comforting himself, I think. This is punctuated by him clutching the assault rifle given to him during that same previous episode; a sort of "That's that, on with me" thing. Maybe I'm wrong, but that's how I read it this time around.

It was A.J.'s arc that, of course, impacted me most clearly. His struggles with anxiety over socio-political issues, relationship angst and plunging into the depths of despair as he did all hurt to watch. I saw myself in much of it. For instance, I've internalized the increasingly vicious debates over health care in the United States of the last two years. I've felt as though I have been personally placed on the chopping block. When the audience member at this year's CNN Republican Debate encouraged Senator Ron Paul to let a hypothetical uninsured patient die, I did not consider this an abstract discussion. I took it as an indication that I, Travis McClain, could go "decrease the surplus population" and they would be all the happier for my expiration. So when I saw A.J. worked up over the possibility of then-President George W. Bush initiating war with Iran, I knew firsthand how terrifying the news can be. I've always been excitable about such things, but having felt personally affected by the outcome of such things, I could very easily understand how absurd the mundane day-in, day-out parts of life felt to A.J.

Beyond identifying with A.J. myself, I also found myself heartbroken to watch Tony and Carmela struggle to understand and help their son. Partly, this is because I've begun to have a strong sense of how upsetting I have been this past year to my wife. And, partly, it's because I have a new friend who shares this misery with me and it breaks my heart to know she's fighting this, too. It's strange to have three different perspectives on one situation.

In the final episodes, A.J. paints himself into a corner and has to confront his need for help--and his need to find something rewarding about living. I'm there now. I'm sure some people might be upset that the series ends without ever really showing how A.J. handles things. I'm not one of them. Even if I might glean some ideas from the show, it isn't a template for how to live with depression or anxiety. In that respect, then, I don't feel "cheated" out of any helpful suggestions. I know from my own experiences that it is not the kind of thing that you overcome once and for all; it's a never-ending battle. It would have been disingenuous for the series to have shown A.J. "all better."
James Gandolfini, Edie Falco & Robert Iler in "Made in America"
This leads me to the brilliance of the finale, "Made in America." Some plot threads are resolved. Some aren't. Some are actually introduced! The point of the finale was to be an anti-finale, in the sense that it does not wrap up the series. It leaves us with a sense that life goes on for these characters and their world; we're simply no longer privy to their exploits. I think of what Carmela said about visiting Paris in an episode in the first part of Season Six about how, until she and Rosalie Aprile arrived in Paris, all the people there were "imaginary." They existed only in an abstract sense, until actually seen by Carmela.

"Made in America" is very much that same concept, but in reverse; we've seen these characters and accept that they exist in their fictitious world, but now we have left it and they go on, unseen by us. The tension is of Hitchcockian proportions--even during my driver's test, parallel parking was never more nerve-wracking!--but at the very last moment, as soon as I realized what had happened, I laughed. (Seriously, you can ask my wife; she was upset at me for laughing as we watched the end credits begin to roll.) It's the greatest response to hype and expectation that I think I've ever seen, and it's the kind of boldness that made this one of the greatest triumphs of the television medium.

Regarding the DVD release, I have to say I've always resented that HBO stuck to their 4-disc format because this necessitated having a paltry two episodes on three of the discs. I would have preferred three 3-episode discs. The fact that this had the same MSRP as the other season box sets has never sat right with me, either. There are four commentary tracks, and I have to say I actually kind of liked them. Dominic Chianese's commentary for "Chasing It" includes some of the standard "Such great actors..." stuff that permeates all commentaries, but then he goes into a rumination on the nature of Oedipal storytelling that's as intriguing as any other criticism I've read or heard about the show. He's a guy who understands mythology, and I honestly enjoyed hearing his thoughts about The Sopranos.

Conversely, the commentary track on "The Blue Comet" by actors Steven Van Zandt and Arthur J. Nascerella plays like an homage to Beavis and Butt-Head. They essentially mock everything on screen and make each other laugh from start to finish. It can be off-putting to hear them disparage A.J.'s character as weak, but by the end of the hour I'd chalked up the whole thing to a display of inanity.

So, that's it. In about six weeks, I've gorged on the entirety of The Sopranos. It's been interesting and emotional for me at this point in my life, for various reasons, and I look forward to revisiting it again in a few years. By then, hopefully I'll have put quite a lot of distance between myself and the recent lows of my depression and will have a different emotional reaction.

First Season | Second Season | Third Season | Fourth Season | Fifth Season | Season Six, Part I

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