The ducks are gone. And as HBO’s The Sopranos begins its long-delayed fifth season, you have only to look at the new type of wildlife prowling around the Sopranos’ swimming pool to know that all is not well with everyone’s favorite capo.
You may remember (or not — it’s been 16 months since the series’s last new episode) that Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) has lost control of his family. He and Carmela (Edie Falco) are separated; she discovered that he had not, as promised, given up his mistresses. Tony has moved out of the family home, and Carmela now lives there with teenage son A.J. (Robert Iler) — daughter Meadow is off at college. And those ducks that once represented Tony’s desire to nurture family/Family ties have been replaced by a big, menacing black bear. It pads around the deck in the darkness, a reminder that the Soprano estate was built on what used to be New Jersey woodlands. Family harmony has given way to open hostility and aggression as Tony and Carmela gear up for a battle over dividing his assets. The bear is animus unleashed, claws bared.
Or maybe that bear at the swimming pool is Tony Soprano himself — lumbering and lost but still holding the threat of violence. Carmela thinks she can divorce Tony and get an equitable settlement of what she’s "entitled" to, but she’s fooling herself. He’ll always be there, marking his turf, taking what is his — by force, if necessary. It’s the same way with the Soprano family business. The Soprano-Lupertazzi alliance is shaky because of Carmine Lupertazzi’s failing health, and now New York boss Johnny Sack (Vince Curatola) is trying to muscle in on Tony’s action. There are indications that Sack views Tony as "weak." But would you want to be in Sack’s shoes if Tony decided to go on the offensive?
In the season opener this Sunday (March 7 at 9 p.m. on HBO), Tony does look more bearish than ever. His girth rivals that of the show’s legendary Bobby Baccilieri, and his weight gain is a running joke through the first couple of episodes. (Never let it be said that Gandolfini doesn’t suffer for his art.) The separation from Carmela and the pressures of running the business have taken the strangely sexy edge off of Tony’s swaggering bulk. Constantly shoveling food into his face (it’s mostly fast food now instead of home-cooked), he’s become sloppy, repulsive. Yet he wears an oddly chipper grin. He’s off his depression medication and flying high on self-delusion, a walking panic attack in the making.
In the first episode of the new season, Tony gets spiffed up in a suit, tie, and pocket hankie and goes to woo Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), his former therapist, on whom he has a crush. He looks comical, like a circus bear. He can’t hear her refusals; with a goofy, lovesick grin on his face, he tells her that there are "two Tonys," and he wants to show her the nice one, the one that she hasn’t seen before. Where once he took great pains to hide his therapy from his allies and his enemies, Tony is becoming dangerously lax about keeping the two Tonys apart. His emotional neediness is starting to bleed into his business persona. When a stroke-addled Uncle Junior, still in name the boss of the family, becomes verbally abusive to him, Tony chokes back tears and asks plaintively, "Don’t you love me?" And in a Scorsesean moment filmed in hellish close-up and slow motion, he looks around the poker table to see his wise guys laughing at his lame jokes and realizes that he has no real friends, only flunkies who fear and humor him. Madon’! What’s up with this pathetic, sensitive mook?
If there are indeed two Tonys, then this season of The Sopranos is about Tony the immature, insecure, affection-starved boy thug. This is the Tony who makes a near-fatal decision to trust an old friend. This is the Tony who proposes a peaceful "power-sharing" solution to the Soprano-Lupertazzi-Sack animosity, to which Sack sneers, "What are we now, the fuckin’ UN?" This is the Tony whose manhood has gone wandering out of its element, disoriented, a bear backed into a corner. He’s a potential liability.
In contrast to the series’s meandering previous season, the first four episodes of season five are tight and strong, blazing with purpose and tension. (There will be 13 new Sopranos episodes, followed by a final season of 10 episodes sometime in 2005.) Creator David Chase and his collaborators have figured out an ingenious way to infuse the old gang with new blood. The "Class of 2004," mobsters who were convicted under the first wave of federal RICO indictments almost 20 years ago, are getting out of prison. Some of them, like Tony’s cousin Tony Blundetto (Steve Buscemi), have seen the light; Tony B. spurns the family job Tony S. has lined up for him because he wants to start a new life as a licensed massage therapist. (Cut to a great scene of Tony B. loosening up the Soprano crew’s aching muscles in the back room of the Bing.) Other newly sprung jailbirds, like old-timer Feech La Manna (Robert Loggia), can’t wait to "earn" again. Feech is so old-school, he can’t fathom the delicate emotional ministrations required to be a successful mobster these days. He immediately gets into a beef with the ever decorous Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico) over the mob etiquette of honoring gardening contracts on Paulie’s aunt’s block. The terrifyingly hammy Loggia is a train wreck in a sleeveless undershirt; his overacting is so campy, it’ll be both a relief and a disappointment if Feech ever gets whacked.
Buscemi, on the other hand, slips so comfortably into the cast, it’s hard to believe he hasn’t been there all along. (In a way, he has been part of the Sopranos family for a while — he directed "Pine Barrens," the unforgettable Christopher-Paulie dark-night-of-the-soul episode from the third season.) Tony Soprano’s claims notwithstanding, Tony Blundetto is the true "sad clown." He’s bitterly divorced, estranged from his punky daughter, and carrying a chip on his shoulder because he suspects that he was set up to take the fall that kept Tony S. out of prison. Tony B. is the thorn in Tony S.’s side, taking out his grudge in public jabs at Tony’s weight ("Boy, are you fat," he exclaims in a bad imitation of Jackie Gleason’s Reginald Van Gleason character) until the big guy nearly busts a vein. Droll and fish-eyed, Tony B. claims to be walking the straight and narrow, but there’s an awful lot of resentment there against his cousin. I hope he’s smart enough to keep his head.
As for family matters with a small "f": Tony’s sister Janice (Aida Turturro) fancies herself the family matriarch, putting on desultory Sunday dinners of take-out pasta and canned soup (sacrilege!), then pleading Epstein-Barr syndrome when it comes to helping Tony deal with Uncle Junior. A.J. is starting to apply to colleges (with his grades, Trenton State is going to be a stretch); he’s an unpleasant, sullen lump of resentment who blames his mother for his parents’ separation. (Tony, of course, undermines Carmela’s attempts at discipline by buying A.J. a set of drums and an SUV.) Carmela still has her perfect Italian Martha Stewart mansion (for the time being), but throwing Tony out has done little to alleviate her sense of guilt and loneliness. Falco has a beautiful, revelatory moment when Carmela has lunch with A.J.’s guidance counselor (David Strathairn), who seems to be making tentative romantic overtures toward her. Carmela is so desperate for love and social stature — they’re inextricably bound for her — that she almost glows under his attentive gaze. When he tells her she should read Madame Bovary, she nervously takes out her notebook and writes down the title, promising to stop at Borders on her way home.
These morbidly funny and often moving episodes vibrate with unfulfilled longing and a sense of dreams slipping away. Almost every character reaches out to a loved one and is rebuffed. The Sopranos also seems headed for a war between the men and the women in the family. In the fourth episode, "All Happy Families" (written by Toni Kalem, the actress who plays Big Pussy’s wife, Angie), Tony ends up living in his mother’s old house in an "Odd Quartet" of cast-off men who have been deemed unfit for female society: A.J. (whom a fed-up Carmela has sent to live with Tony), Tony Blundetto, and the hapless Artie Bucco. Indeed, the most passionate, forgiving, and close "marriage" on the show continues to be between Christopher (Michael Imperioli) and Paulie. They love each other so much, they could kill each other. And they almost do.
Issue Date: March 5 - 11, 2004
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