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The Sopranos: Slouching Towards Bethlehem

The Sopranos: Slouching Towards Bethlehem

The Sopranos, Season Six, Episode 19: “The Second Coming”

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

The opening image of “The Second Coming”, the third-to-last Sopranos episode ever, is of asbestos — waste Tony’s crew has dumped on a marsh. Later in the episode, after Tony’s son unsuccessfully attempts suicide, members of the crew sympathize, commiserating and confessing the psychological struggles of their own children: there’s a pervasive sadness they see in that generation, an overwhelming sense of dysfunction. Tony insists this is a disease, something physical and chemical (never mind that Christopher’s appeal to the same logic failed to earn him a reprieve from his surrogate father; Tony’s guilty of far greater hypocrisies than this). Then Paulie speculates — maybe it’s the chemicals polluting the environment, and, as a result, our minds and bodies. So is it heredity, or is it lousy waste management that’s robbed A.J. of his will to live? Either way, I’m left thinking about the way Tony described himself back in Season One, like “King MIdas in reverse; everything [he] touch[es] turns to shit.”

Before everyone starts thinking me a complete tool, a brief clarification about the poem I’ve quoted above: “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats, gives the episode its title and is featured prominently here. A.J. studies it in class and later reads it alone in bed, as he wallows in the depression that culminates in his wrenching, devastating suicide attempt (wrapping a plastic bag around his head, tying it to a block, and dropping himself into the Soprano swimming pool). This is actually the second time (by my count), The Sopranos has alluded to this particular poem. Back in Season Five’s “Cold Cuts”, Dr. Melfi quoted it to Tony. Its recurrence is of obvious significance; so I thought it was worth quoting in full. “The Second Coming” is about a world spinning towards its own destruction, a world where tradition has given way to chaos — an apt encapsulation of the Sopranos world, by which I mean both organized crime as depicted in the series and the show’s grander subject, post-millennial America, as a milieu and a state-of-mind. This episode has a particularly timely inflection, with mentions of Iran, Bush, Israel-Palestine, and terrorism (what is up with that? Brother and Robbie — a little help please?), and there’s no denying a certain honesty and truth in A.J.’s adolescent desperation. Yes, we can agree: anarchy is loosed upon the world.

Meadow tells A.J. that you need to learn to block these things out; she seems to have done a fine job herself. Whatever her lofty ideals of the past, Meadow’s dating within the family, again, and when she’s insulted in the city by Coco, one of Phil’s men, she makes a show of reticence before telling her father everything — though let’s face it, Meadow knew full well her honesty would cost Coco some teeth (just as she was far too quick to have Finn confirm Vito’s sexual proclivities to Tony and his crew, whatever the consequences). Hers is a peculiar fall from grace. “You’ll always be more important”, she tells A.J., but Meadow’s failure to see past the consequences of her actions, her willful denial of the hypocrisy upon which her family life is built, has been one of the most heartbreaking things to watch this season.

So what is this “rough beast”, who, “somewhere in the sands of desert” (Somewhere like, say, Vegas? Okay, I’m being literal, but still) “slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” Tony has become a pitiless monster, and whatever small moments of pathos he manages are quickly obscured by his ruthless selfishness. He sees himself as the walking embodiment of the “Soprano curse”, a tendency towards depression common among Soprano men he’s inherited from his father and passed along to his son. But it’s Livia Soprano’s insatiable need and self-pity, her inability to empathize with others but her insistence that everyone else give themselves fully to her, that Tony is really aping. “Poor you”, Tony says twice — Gandolfini’s line reading eerily echoing the late, great Nancy Marchand’s. Livia is all over this episode; when A.J. tells his parents about his depression, he remembers that great moment in Season Two when his grandmother shattered his illusions of self-importance (“It’s all a big nothing; what makes you think you’re so special?”). In Tony’s therapy, he tells Melfi that our mothers are like bus drivers or buses. They bring us into the world and drop us off, and we spend the rest of our lives chasing after the bus. Livia fantasized about infanticide, even tried to have her son killed to spare herself the fate of Green Grove nursing home; last week, Tony killed his surrogate son to spare himself a different kind of prison. The second coming, indeed.

As The Sopranos has drawn towards its close, the writers have displayed a near-obsessive fixation with the past — characters have recycled lines and remembered odd moments; small events from the distant past have taken on ominous weight. This is my last time writing the lead entry here at Reverse Blog; so I feel inclined towards something summarative. It seems to me there are some steady, recurring themes this season: it’s about the things we inherit and the things we pass on, and whether real change is possible — and the consequences of that possibility, or lack thereof, on the ethical and moral world we inhabit. There’s a fiercely bleak world view on display here. But there’s perhaps one small glimmer of hope. In “Second Coming”, Tony, feeling guilty about his Vegas adventure, gives Carmela a watch, engraved to say “You are my life.” Tony said this to Carmela once before, in the “Pax Soprana” episode from Season One. When she receives the watch, Carm is won over, just as she was the first time Tony used that line. By episode’s end, she throws it at Tony, fed up with his bullshit. Once again, Carmela is confronted with her love of things — and her willingness to accept the lies that come with those things — and her compromised sense of right and wrong. Back in our first, collective entry on the show, I speculated that Carmela was “perhaps the show’s last, best hope at redemption.” I still think that’s the case, though perhaps I’m naive to hold out any sort of hope.

On a personal note, Brother and Robbie, it’s been a pleasure writing these with you over the past few weeks. I’m excited to hear what you thought of “Second Coming”. I’m not going to offer any suggested topics for conversation, just because I’d rather leave it as open-ended as possible in hopes that we can keep up some sort of dialogue to bide our time (two weeks!) until the penultimate episode…

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