Father’s Day came early on The Sopranos last night, and, typically, it was celebrated not with cards and neckties but with fisticuffs and Oedipal showdowns, actual and remembered. There was Tony, recalling his father’s salad days with Uncle Junior and Paulie Walnuts, and his current conflicted feelings toward “Uncle Paulie”; Uncle Junior’s mental-facility protege adopting Junior as a replacement for his own, demanding father, then attacking him when Junior opted out of his rebellion plans; even Junior remembering his dad instilling a work ethic in him by giving him the back of his hand and making him walk home after refusing to take a tip on a job.
A well-written and -balanced episode all around, which combined pathos with comedy (as Uncle Junior episodes generally do), as well as looking back with moving the plot forward (economically, with a well-placed shot to Doc Santoro’s eye by one of Phil’s minions). Maybe there’s a pattern here, in which each episode of the final set, Tony will assess his relationships, first Bobby/Janice, then Christopher, now Paulie.
The one element I didn’t buy was that Tony would ever off Paulie on that sport-fishing boat, and I was surprised that he seemed to actually consider it. That doesn’t seem in his character: when Tony kills, it’s usually in a fit of passion (Ralphie) or after long deliberation, amassing of evidence and maybe some prodding (Big Pussy, Tony Blundetto). That he would take an axe or a knife to Paulie for obviously lying about blabbing about Ralph’s Ginny Sack joke–creating problems for Tony in season 4 at a time when Paulie felt overlooked by him–or even for the lapse in loyalty that the betrayal would imply doesn’t clear Tony’s usual bar for whacking someone close to him. If Tony considered killing Paulie over the simple chance that he might be vulnerable to the Feds, then Tony must be even more nervous than he lets on.
(Also–and this is just a minor quibble–Paulie’s always been a gab-happy, gossipy yenta; remember him nearly killing Tony by shooting off his mouth while Tony was in his coma in season 6. It suddenly bothers Tony now?)
Like last week was for Vincent Curatola, this was a spectacular curtain call for Dominic Chianese, who took Junior through every delightful and hateful side of his personality, playing the dapper, foul-mouthed jokester as the host of the underground poker game, attacking “the Professor” over a chess set, cannily working an angle to get out of taking his pills and, in a revealing interchange with disturbed young Carter, mistaking him for Tony. (“You’re very smart, Anthony. I’m sure you’re very good with spelling, too.”) I’m not sure which was more devastating: the final shot of him as a vacant shell, petting a cat in his lap, or the moment when, defeated, he surrenders to his doctor’s threat and takes his meds.
For all that, though, a hilarious episode too, with especially acute juxtapositions of the mob life with the outside, bourgeois world–Carter’s suburban anger for his demanding, wealthy dad; Tony and Paulie looking for a time-lost motel and a couple thick steaks and ending up with a business hotel and nachos. The awkward silence between Tony and Paulie, broken by, “Chevy Chase.” “What the f___ ever happened to him?” And, of course: “Dear Vice President Cheney. As a powerful man also involved in accidental gunplay…”
Thank God for the jokes, because it’s clear The Sopranos is in a melancholy, reflective mood, ranging deep back into its dense past and coming up with figures of regret and decay, like Beansie Gaeta, crippled by Richie Aprile, stuck in a wheelchair and relieving himself into a bag. (Although I also detect a note of genuine envy from Tony toward Beansie, who, after all, got paid and got out.) Laugh it up while you can; The Sopranos wraps up the week before Father’s Day, and from the looks of things, it’s not going to be a happy one.