Season 6 Episode 9 “The Ride” – Paulie clashes with new management at the church over the arrangements for an upcoming street festival, as the priest in charge wants fifty grand to rent out the gold hat of a saint statue for the ceremony. Paulie’s solution is smart, cognizant, and suffused with subtle eloquence: “Fuck the hat.” Paulie has other problems though: the rides are falling apart, his mother is actually his aunt, and he may have prostate cancer. We also see Chris’s relapse into heroin with a spooky sequence accompanied by the Fred Neil’s “Dolphins.” Still this is a fun episode, showing the seedier side of a typical Jersey street festival, as well as Paulie’s unique business management and grief coping skills. My favorite episode of season 6A.
Season 6 Episode 16 “Chasing It” – Season 6B, the final eight episode mini-season, feels rushed and even sloppy at times conceptually. Not to say that these episodes aren’t enjoyable, but the stylistic narrative cohesion of previous seasons is gone. In its place are episodes like this one: Tony has suddenly developed a gambling problem while young Vito is now a deviant Goth kid acting out in all sorts of ridiculous ways. The Spatafore family drama is unnecessary and clumsily rendered. The effects of father Vito’s “transgressions” were more effectively shown at the conclusion of “Cold Stones” when his two children read his obituary, with the older son realizing that Dad was not really a spy after all. It’s an affecting little scene, a cap to the tragic ending of Vito’s story that subtly hints at the troubles these kids will face in the future. In this episode the troubles of young Vito (now played by a different actor) are drawn out with all the subtlety of an after school special. Meanwhile Tony’s story is a problem of characterization and consistency: we know that he makes his money from other people’s gambling problems, not his own; we also know that he once saw his father cut off a man’s thumb for negligence on gambling debts. Now Tony is carelessly gambling all over the place – one particularly awkward scene has him begging Carmela to bet half of her spec house earnings on a football game. Since when does he care so much about betting on a silly football game like some common schmuck? He’s a boss, not a customer. And why wouldn’t he just coerce her into giving him half of the money and then covertly bet on the game? I understand that this season has to show the fall of Tony Soprano, but this feels like veering away too far from the character in order to serve the larger narrative goals.
Season 6 Episode 17 “Walk Like A Man” – On the other hand we have this episode, which is quite effective with its development of some familiar but complex character arcs. Chris has probably changed more than any other character on the show – here we see him with a new family and house in suburbia, with his burgeoning film production career in full cleaver swing. He’s not leaving the family, but he’s transitioning from a street thug to a wiseguy entrepreneur. Paulie meanwhile is a still a street thug – no transitioning there. They clash in a subplot involving Chris’s new in-laws that culminates with poor Little Paulie getting thrown from a window. But all is forgiven in the end, although that reconciliation has Chris slipping from his sobriety to share an awkward drink with the boys. This show is so good at visually inhabiting a character’s psyche, even just for a moment: we may recall Adriana imagining herself driving off alone when in reality she’s being chauffeured to her execution. Here we see Chris peering around at his friends as he babbles on awkwardly, realizing his mistake, realizing that he no longer belongs there. And in this same episode, the same technique: the always insufferable AJ’s face while he’s watching a frat kid beaten up by his friends. A character driven episode, one of the best of the final season.
Season 6 Episode 18 “Kennedy And Heidi” – Chris’s (SPOILER) death comes as a shock. We can easily find the symbolism of Tony’s fears in the scene before the crash: Chris is wearing a baseball cap, which we know from the previous season is a tool used by investigators to tape conversations, and he’s listening to the soundtrack of The Departed, Scorsese’s film about long term undercover operations within the mob. Unfortunately, the scene itself seems rushed. The feds are closing in, their friendship has been fractured, and Chris is getting high again – why couldn’t some of these underlying elements have been played out a bit more? All of these intriguing dramatic themes are abruptly swept away with the chance collision at the beginning of the episode. For what? To watch Tony brood at the funeral and then run off to Las Vegas for a strange sequence in which he takes peyote with Chris’s former gumar. Perhaps the plot of Chasing It could have occurred here, where Tony’s uncharacteristic gambling spree might have made more sense. Or perhaps the “Tony’s psychedelic adventure” subplot could have been dropped entirely, or at the very least reworked. Paulie on peyote!
Season 6 Episode 20 “The Blue Comet” – One of the finest episodes of the show’s run. The war with New York gets real, as we see the machinations (and the results) from both sides. The series’ penchant for regularly killing off characters makes the brimming conflict even more tense: Silvio survives his shooting, but Bobby isn’t so (SPOILER) lucky. Still the Bobby Bacala whacking is a neat little artistic triumph, as the tiny figures on the model train set seem to react just as the train runs off of the track and poor Bobby collapses onto the set. Meanwhile the Soprano side botches the hit on Phil, which only heightens the darkening air of desperation for the family. And Dr Melfi finally whacks her treatment of Tony, realizing – much like the audience – that the therapy portions of the show had become wheel spinning dramatic sinkholes. “The Blue Comet” evokes the edgy sort of narrative tension that this show does so well, that gritty, gripping atmosphere that keeps the audience hooked for the next week. Isn’t that the whole point?