Saturday, April 01, 2006

You're Not Dead, You're Just In Newark

The final season of The Sopranos began a few weeks ago and if previous storylines have demonstrated a knowing use of leitmotif and attention to detail that is unusual for a television production, this current batch proves that they didn’t spend that long hiatus sitting around playing checkers.

Leaving aside for the moment the memorable sequences in which James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano seems to be wandering through a purgatory of his own design as he fights for his life in a hospital bed (and that should be enough, shouldn’t it?), there’s been a luxurious unfolding of another layer of meaning that’s there if you want it, but not necessary to your enjoyment of the show.

This season opened notably with a sequence scored to William S. Burroughs reading a section of The Western Lands, a work that describes Egyptian concepts of the afterlife. With the sort of synchronicity that one usually associates with literature more than television, each of the “seven souls” described by Burroughs (accompanied by music from Bill Laswell) matches up with a character from the show. The precise similarities are astonishing and the sequence makes the most out of them.

The purpose of it, as will become clear in the weeks to come, is to point out that regardless of what ultimately happens to these characters or what justice is or isn’t meted out to them, it hardly matters. We have entered the land of the dead and, although it would appear that it’s Tony’s unconscious that’s making the journey there, the opposite is true. It’s the sphere of reality that constitutes the show’s real hell and it has been made that way by the choices of the characters. There are enough asides to the audience to make it clear that Tony would be far better off in the afterlife depicted by his feverish imaginings. It’s the real world he’d be wise to avoid.

There’s a sly thread that has been slowly and steadily reinforcing this and it appeared first couched as a very funny line from Paulie Walnuts. Charged with bringing Tony’s son A.J. home, he glares at him and his newly elongated locks and snaps, “Hey, Van Helsing! Let’s go!”

The gag, of course, is that A.J. now seems to be sporting the same hairstyle as Hugh Jackman did in that recent ill-conceived tribute to Universal’s old movie monsters. The Van Helsing in that flick (described as “subtle as a Red Bull enema” by one critic and “like celebrating James Joyce with a monster-truck rally” by another) was not only menaced by Dracula but the rest of the original menagerie, including The Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s Monster.

So A.J. has been, however humorously, identified with a monster-hunter.

Little wonder that when he’s finally alone with his father as he recovers from the gunshot wound delivered by Uncle Junior, he swears vengeance and vows to put a bullet in Junior’s “mummy head.”

This makes A.J. Van Helsing and Hamlet simultaneously. Let’s see Lost do that.

It’s movie-hound Christopher Moltisanti who then pushes hard for the business to invest in a cheap horror movie, which he describes as “Saw II meets The Godfather.” The idea is that a wiseguy gets cut up into pieces (“He’ll feel that the next day!”) but returns from the dead to wreak havoc.

It is, of course, the movie we’re watching, filled with its own assortment of creatures both dead and undead.

Tony proves by his absence that he's the engine that allows the other characters to exist. Without him “there is intrigue among the souls, and treachery,” we read elsewhere in The Western Lands. “No worse fate can befall a man than to be surrounded by traitor souls.” It's Mr. Eight-Ball, or Ego (the very thing Tony seems to be trying to lose during the confusion of his dreams), whose insistence on identity seems to causing all the trouble: “And what about Mr. Eight-Ball, who has these souls? They don't exist without him, and he gets the dirty end of every stick. Eights of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your dirty rotten vampires...”

And the greatest monster of them all?

He’s been lying on a cold slab as he always has, surrounded by all manner of scientific equipment dedicated to breathing life into his reanimated corpse.

I can’t think of a better metaphor for Tony Soprano than Frankenstein’s Monster. It doesn’t feel forced, either. In the same way it used the Burroughs piece so skillfully, the ease with which The Sopranos absorbs so many other meanings and texts makes you begin to feel as if you’re the fiction coming out of its world, and that doesn’t happen very often.


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