Monday, April 9, 2007

Return of The Sopranos: A Border Dispute

Well, The Sopranos are back for their farewell tour. They opened last night with "Soprano Home Movies," an episode that had very little of the North Jersey sense of place that I wrote about in my book chapter on the The Sopranos which I reproduced on this blog in my second post, entitled appropriately enough, The Sopranos. The piece was published before the last couple of seasons, but is just as relevant today (not to mention the fact that posting the chapter was the reason I got into blogging in the first place).

So, this long-awaited new episode did not gratify us New Jersey residents with much in the way of views of our home towns, no Montclair, no Fountains of Wayne, not even a trip to the ol' Bada Bing in Lodi. Apart from some references to Essex County, and the scenes set in the Soprano's North Caldwell home, the episode mostly took place in upstate New York, up by the Canadian border, a region that is in many ways near and dear to me as well, as it was a frequent destination for family vacations when I was young. We drove to Montreal, but never to Boston or Philly, and no doubt the fact that my parents met and got married in Paris after WWII (where they were refugees and fellow Holocaust survivors) had something to do with this--I remember marveling at my father talking in French to some children in a Montreal playground when I was little.

Wow, I didn't mean to make this about my family, but that's one of the great attractions of The Sopranos, that view of family life with its mixture of melancholy for the passing of an era and of relief that we have moved on, a mixture of love and loyalty, and anger and aggression. Our generation is one of deep-seated psychological (and spiritual) conflicts, but one willing to talk about it openly, pursue psychotherapy, and really, talk ourselves to death--an underlying theme of this variation on the gangster genre. It's talk, loose lips, the lifting of repression that comes with getting drunk, the release of verbal aggression, that leads to violence between Bobby and Tony.

The contrast between the typical dysfunctions of family life and the extreme violence of Tony and crew's chosen profession is fundamental to the series. In this episode Bobby, who was the one mobster who came across as a relatively good guy in the series, is fully immersed in the context of the Soprano family. As such, he gives Tony a machine gun for his birthday, Tony talks to Bobby about moving him up in the mob since Bobby is Tony's brother-in-law, Bobby responds with violence when Tony goes too far in ribbing his sister/Bobby's wife (which could be taken as chivalrous, except that the violence has that over the top quality that is hard to identify or sympathize with) and winds up beating up Tony, and having somewhat reconciled, Tony sends Bobby on his first contract murder which he commits with only a modicum of hesitation.

The connection between Bobby and his victim is hard to ignore, as Tony offers the hit to get a more profitable deal on smuggling cheap (and expired!) prescription drugs from Canada to the U.S. The victim is a musician who is suing for custody of his daughter, the mother being the sister of one of the Canadian crooks. We can understand that the victim's only crime is being a good father, just as Bobby himself appears to be, and while Bobby is not entirely happy with the assignment, he executes the defenseless man in a laundromat, one shot to the body, then one to the head, and returns to his family and is comforted by hugging his own young daughter.

The bottom line is that these are not nice people. There is a back-and-forth in the series between easy identification with the everyday and shocking contrasts when we are reminded of their sociopathic activities. The literal border between the U.S. and Canada is symbolic, perhaps, of so much else that is borderline about these characters.

A final note, that in taking the Jersey boys out of Jersey, but not taking the Jersey out of the Jersey boys, and taking them (and us) to Bobby's vacation home located in the beautiful wilderness of lake and forest near the border between New York and Quebec, the episode's setting was reminiscent of Twin Peaks, David Lynch's brilliant television series which in many ways opened the door for The Sopranos, and which is an obvious influence on David Chase's HBO series. And this opening episode of the final run reminds us of why The Sopranos is indeed a worthy successor. And there's been lots of high quality new TV programming since David Chase's new series debuted, but this episode demonstrates that few (if any) are in the same league as The Sopranos.

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