The Sopranos, Season Six, Episode 17: “Walk Like a Man”
If entire seasons of The Sopranos have unifying themes, then season 6’s finally crystallized last night. Significantly, as opposed to earlier seasons—and specifically 1, 3, and 5—the female characters have remained greatly on the sidelines. In the first half of the season, Vito’s banishment made everyone in the Jersey fam, whether they knew it or not, reassess their definitions of masculinity, and with such major story developments involving the sight of Johnny Sack crying at his daughter’s wedding, or Tony’s need to beat the shit out of his muscle-head bodyguard, Chase seemed to be stripping the show down to its core questions about American manhood and patriarchy. Now, the second half of the season has gone even further in focusing almost exclusively on the men, whether they’re festering (Uncle Junior), rotting (Johnny Sack), simmering (Chris), retracting (Hesh), growing inconsequential (Paulie), or just emerging (AJ). Though Janice was central to the opening episode “Sopranos Home Movies,” and her Livia-like cadences were growing ever more alarming, it was brother-in-law Bobby’s finally assuming the identity of a true killer (“popping his cherry,” as it were, when assigned by Tony to a murder mission) that provided the story arc, mirrored two weeks later in “Remember When,” when the bones from Tony’s “first time” is excavated in a suburban basement. Of course, his father goaded him into doing it.
Fathers and sons—their inextricable legacies. No wonder all the Godfather references in these final episodes. As it turns out, the false paternal guidance Tony showed to Vito’s wayward son last week was merely a trial run. In last night’s “Walk Like a Man,” Tony had to contend with his two own wayward sons: his actual offspring AJ and his sort-of nephew, surrogate son, and once protégé Christopher. With that expert parallel structure that Chase & Co. have been practicing with dexterity all season long, AJ and Christopher spiraled out into different forms of dependency and mental sickness. The benefits and severe limits of therapy and self-help have always been front and center on The Sopranos, as has Tony’s interference in others’ attempts to better themselves. Much like Tony had mean-spiritedly dulled Janice’s halfhearted stabs at anger management in season 5’s “Cold Cuts,” last night the boss man’s poor guidance was put into sharp relief. AJ’s suicidal intimations and descent into depression, following Blanca’s dumping him, were treated by his dad with a strong dose of fatherly intimidation. The prescription? Underage drinking and strippers with his buddies’ frat-boy sons-cum-wannabe-thugs. Taking part in the torture of a rich white kid who owed his friends money, AJ, who was called “Tony Soprano Jr” for the first time in the series, has perhaps frighteningly found his identity. Though ignorant to the facts, Carmela was as colluding as ever, just happy that her son didn’t throw himself off of the roof of the pizza parlor.
And while Tony was busy giving his son entryway into a life he has so often expressed he didn’t want for him, he still found time to further alienate Christopher. The rift between them growing ever since Adriana’s murder, and now with “Cleaver” having cleaved them in two (thanks, AN), Tony and Christopher seem locked in an unspoken battle royale—Christopher’s denouncing of his own father as nothing more than a “fucking junkie” while flipping over steaks at he and his wife’s first BBQ in their new home didn’t further endear him to Tony, and the ever-growing mutual loathing of Paulie and Chris only serves to exacerbate this withering bond.
Everything seems to be disappearing this season: gone is Tony’s financial stability, gone is his nostalgia for the past (symbolized by his father and Hesh), and now, gone is the possibility of Chris as his successor. Though he’s been sober again for about a year, Christopher downs a scotch in a moment of weakness (or a symbol of reconciliation with Paulie). Paulie’s mockery of Chris’s moments of drunken rhapsodizing about his new baby, sanctioned by Tony’s approving laughter (caught in an expert use of slow-mo, from Chris’s POV, that made Tony’s grin look positively satanic), send him storming out of the bar. As with AJ, any headway he had made with his own mental health is dashed against the rocks. What have years and years of sitting on Dr. Melfi’s couch done for Tony but reinforce his own narcissism? Even if he has learned from introspection, and I believe he has learned much, Tony has never learned to fully empathize with others, to apply what he learns to the world at large. And his inability to do so could be his downfall.
Chris’s final actions—shooting his “Cleaver” co-screenwriter and oft-abused rehab sponsor, Tim Daly’s J.T., in the head—could be the beginning of the end of this family’s way of life (though Adriana’s death is probably the more appropriate “beginning”). If Chris is caught for J.T.’s killing, then what would stop him from spilling all the beans, especially as he no longer has any loyalty? Then again, thinking ahead has always been foolish with this series, and these five episodes have confounded my expectations again and again. Another Sopranos tactic on full display was the unceasing ebb and flow of sympathies: Michael Imperioli, who plays one of the show’s most hateful characters, gave a close-to career best performance here, time and again making me side with him—amidst his struggles in AA, his passive-aggressive brawls with Paulie, and his antagonism with Tony, Imperioli nearly makes you forget his complicity in all aspects of his own misery. Similarly, writer Terence Winter so fleetly moves AJ from angsty naval-gazing to the chalky pallor of medical depression that I felt concerned for him—though I was punished for this when he makes the final turn to twerpy punkdom. Like season 4’s “Whoever Did This,” the shocking reversals of sympathy happen quickly, mercilessly. Which begs the question: Do we care because we want to see them all taken down, or because we want to believe that their reclamation is possible?