Friday, April 27, 2007

Scenic Routes on The Sopranos

Early in the history of this blog (if two months can be considered a history), I posted my book chapter on The Sopranos, which looked at the series as a whole (up to 2002) from the perspectives of cultural geography and media ecology. This year, there's been a relative paucity of Jerseyana compared to past seasons, but I do want to note the significance of the road trip that Tony and Paulie take in order to avoid the possibility of arrest in the most recent episode, "Remember When" (aired on April 22, 2007). The episode shows them leaving, then driving at night down in Virginia. Here's what it says in the official episode guide:

Paulie and T drive through the night rain reminiscing about the old days. When Paulie mentions Ralphie, Tony brings up Ralphie's off-color joke about Ginny that got him knocked off when someone told Johnny Sack . "Who the f**k would tell Johnny about that joke?" Tony asks. "How should I know?" Paulie replies defensively.
The action shifts to the subplot concerning the elderly Junior Soprano at the Wycoff Therapeutic Center (a North Jersey locale), before returning to Tony and Paulie:

Dozing off on the road, Tony recalls the dive motel they stayed in back in the day in Culpepper, Va. They head off to find the Havenaire motel, but in its place is a corporate Marriott. No steaks, no bottle of scotch available from room service. They have to settle for nachos at Buckingham's pub where Paulie reminisces about similar trips he made with Tony's father, Johnny Boy. The next morning, T chastises Paulie for being too chatty with the hotel patrons: "We're supposed to be layin' low."
The episode moves back and forth between the two plot lines, so when we return to Tony and Paulie, they're in Miami, where they remain until they've been assured that they are not in trouble back in Jersey.

What is left unexplained, and would be less than obvious to viewers unfamiliar with the region, is that they have followed one of the most common vacation driving routes since Eisenhower built the Interstate Highway System. They hopped on the New Jersey Turnpike, which in North Jersey is part of Interstate 95, and headed south. As you near Philadelphia, I-95 veers west into Pennsylvania, but New Jerseyans, and New Yorkers, stay on the New Jersey Turnpike to avoid the detour, and I-95 eventually swings back east as you cross the bridge to Delaware, which thankfully does not take long to get through. After that, it's Maryland, which is undeveloped for a little while, but then comes Baltimore, and then the long run around Washington, D.C., and you're in Virginia.

And once you get passed the suburbs of D.C., the highway becomes mind-numbingly monotonous, horrifying so as much of the time there are trees on both sides of you, so it's like you're in a long tunnel, and you don't even see the cars coming in the other direction to break up the tedium! It is the absolute worst part of the trip, so it makes perfect sense for Tony to be dozing off at this point.

As you may have gathered, I am more than a little familiar with this route. On numerous family vacations we have driven down to Walt Disney World this way, and I usually do most of the driving. I would note that we were spared the endless and also quite boring ride through the Carolinas, which is at least more open visually, but goes on forever. Georgia goes by fairly quickly, and Florida takes a long time to get through, but at least the scenery is interesting, and you know you're getting close at that point. Of course, to get to Orlando you have to make a right onto Route 4 after Daytona Beach, whereas Tony and Paulie would have stayed on I-95 all the way to the end to get to Miami (and viewers were also spared any scenes of a trip down Alligator Alley), and this was the main vacation destination back in the old days before Disney opened up shop.

So, the point I'm making here is that by going to Miami, they remained directly linked to home, able to set foot on a highway that stretches north almost directly to Tony's front door.

Aside from writing about the series as a whole, I've also made reference to a specific episode here and in a more recent post, Return of The Sopranos: A Border Dispute. But it's also possible to focus in on one single scene--quality exists across all the levels, it's a fractal kind of thing.

So, the episode that aired two Sundays ago (April 15, 2007) entitled "Stage 5" is interesting for its self-reflexive references to movie-making, not to mention Geraldo Rivera's guest appearance, but there is one scene that stands out as exceptional, although you could hardly tell from the description in the episode guide:

Silvio is at dinner with Gerry Torciano when a shooter working for Doc Santoro takes Gerry out. Sil gets out unscathed.

The scene itself is amazing. Silvio and Torciano are sitting at a table in a restaurant with two girlfriends, Silvio is talking, the camera focuses on him and Torciano is off camera to his right, and in mid-sentence we go to complete silence. Silvio is still seen talking, but we can no longer hear anything. My immediate reaction was confusion, what does this mean? Actually, I thought it might signal some kind of stroke or heart attack. But, hardly noticeable, the right side of Sil's face has been slightly splattered with blood. Everything is in slow motion, with some stop and start movement, a near-frozen moment in time, as Silvio looks up. And then it's suddenly back to normal, with sound restored and time moving normally, as we see the assassin firing his gun, and Torciano going down. What is amazing about the scene is that the shot that we hear and see comes after the moment of silence and slow motion. I'm not sure if the idea here is that we missed the first shot and are only seeing the second, or if the scene portrays the weird kind of mixed up experience in such a moment, where the perception or maybe just the memory of the event seems to lag behind the actual event, so that the effects precede the causes--this is what Aristotle referred to as formal cause, which Marshall and Eric McLuhan believed to be the basis of a media ecology perspective. But either way, this is a very effective way to convey the subjective sense of shock that even a seasoned gangster would feel when taken by surprise by a gunshot.

In this shot, and especially in the three episodes that have aired so far in this final season, but also largely throughout the series, David Chase has not, in my opinion, glamorized gangsters or the violence they're associated with. Instead, they've been portrayed as banally sociopathic, and as entropy in action--going to hell in a hand basket, as Norbert Wiener was wont to say.

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