SPOILER ALERT: This post reveals plot points from last night’s Sopranos, including the one you’re probably wondering about.
Nobody changes: this, if anything, is the relentless message of The Sopranos. For six seasons, the characters have conformed to their patterns, their upbringing and their form despite their best efforts: Carmela, never able to break her addiction to Tony’s money; Tony, falling back into self-pity and excuse-making after supposedly learning, from his near death, that "every day is a gift"; Vito, driving home to be bludgeoned to death in New Jersey rather than do honest work for the rest of his life.
So it was surprising to see last night’s episode focus on a way that Tony has broken out of a family cycle: by not knocking his son around the way his father did to him. Whether he’s done a good job with the sullen leech A.J. is another story, but for all his blustering to Carmela and Dr. Melfi, he couldn’t actually bring himself to give his son, just fired from Blockbuster (Blockbuster!) the back of his hand. Instead, he got his son a construction job and threatened to take away his perks, one by one, giving A.J. the down payment by smashing in the windshield of his car.
Ironically, what Tony was able to do to motivate A.J.–economic sanctions, if you will–was exactly what he was unable to do to head off the impending turf war with Philly Leotardo and his New York crew. The Sopranos has always paralleled Tony’s home and business problems, but usually Tony proves himself more effective with the Family than with the family.
Not last night: the return of gay mobster Vito Spatafore, and the implacable demand for vengeance by Philly, Vito’s brother-in-law, left Tony unable to come up with a bloodless solution. The businessman in him wants to give Vito a distant post in Atlantic City, to spare his life and let him keep bringing in dough for Tony. When that proves impossible–Philly and Tony’s own men want blood, not money–he decides to have Vito whacked.
But Philly gets to him first, brutally. (And yet not so brutally, considering the torture Philly promised to mete out to Tony B. last season, before Tony S. whacked his own cousin to spare him that fate.) It’s a serious offenseâ€”whacking a captain from another familyâ€”but Tony the businessman is loath to go to war: when guys go the the mattresses, he notes, they’re not earning. Instead, he wants to target Philly’s financial interestsâ€”exactly what he’s doing with A.J.â€”but things get complicated when his men fillet one of Philly’s with a butcher knife.
As always, this takes us back to the beginning: the famous primal scene where young Tony saw his dad hack a man with a cleaver in his therapy flashback, a few seasons ago, after his lunchmeat-induced panic attack. Tony, it seems, can’t escape his old man’s legacy after all. You can take the mob boss away from the butcher’s cleaver, but you can’t take the butchery out of the mob.