Walk Like a (Made) Man
In the moral world of the Sopranos, fate and moral failing regularly combine to
bring about a character’s doom. Last week’s episode focused on luck –or fate –and
its fickleness. This week’s episode demonstrated how very limited the
opportunities for a good moral choice can be, even if we want to make a good
moral choice. The capacity to choose rightly is influenced, if not
entirely determined, both by genetic make-up and social circumstances.
In the world of the Sopranos, there
is room for free choice — people can be held accountable — but the possibilities for the characters making and keeping to morally sound choices are slim. They have just enough moral freedom to
bring about their own damnation. We see this in two story lines from the next generation: Tony’s son AJ’s
continuing heartbreak after his breakup, and his nephew Christopher’s struggle to stay
clean and sober despite the pressures of mob life.
AJ’ has fallen to pieces after his girlfriend Blanca refused to marry him.
He’s not working, he’s sleeping a lot, and much to the consternation of his
father, crying incessantly. His sister and his mother worry that he’s
suicidal. He’s lost all dignity; he goes to see Blanca at her job as a clerk
on a construction site, and breaks down in tears in her arms; she comforts him like a baby
as she throws an interested over his shoulder glance toward the construction workers walking by.
Prompted by Carmela, a guilt-ridden Tony tries to help. As he tells his own psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi,
he’s responsible for this defect of his son –he has given him the bad genes, the sick genes, the
genes for depression. Tondy says that he can handle things, but he worries about AJ’s
ability to take the bleakness.
So Tony gets AJ a psychiatrist, who prescribes
anti-depressants, and cajoles some young college guys with mob connections to
invite AJ to an event at the Bada Bing (a strip club) and to a college frat party. The
strategy, not entirely pleasing to Carmela, seems to be working at
first AJ is out of the house and having a good time. But soon we see the
turning point. These college guys have been acting like bookies in their frats, and
one of their clients wouldn’t pay up. So, using AJ’s car, they kidnap him, take
him into the woods, and pour sulfuric acid on his toe. AJ helps hold the
unlucky loser down for the punishment. In a perverse way, this act of violence seems to help AJ. The anger and brutality actually seem to bring
And so AJ begins to handle things too, in much the same way his father did. Tony was
right in his observation that he had passed on his physical and psychological tendencies for
depression to AJ. But he didn’t pay attention to the fact that he
had also furnished his son with the poisonous social context in which AJ would need
to grapple with these tendencies. Someone like AJ has no chance outside the
mob — he’s an employee at Pizza Hut. Inside the mob, he has no alternative but to go the same route as his father –but not as successfully.
In the end, AJ’s choice boils down to this: stay depressed, suicidal, and an
innocent child, or become angry, alive, and a guilty man.
Christopher’s options are not much better. He’s staying clean and
sober, drinking club soda and ginger ale. He’s settled down — he has a new wife,
a new baby, and most importantly, a new gas grill to host mob barbacues. Remaining
clean and sober requires him to avoid the customary haunts of Tony and the gang.
After all, Satriale’s has the beer to go with the pork sandwiches, the Bada
Bing has the booze and the cocaine to go with the girls. But this increasing
distance creates problems with the crew. In fact, as Tony tells him in this episode, it’s because he isn’t around enough that he isn’t able to nip in the bud a
controversy between Paulie’s nephew and his own wife’s father. The controversy, silly in itself, ends up causing great tension between Paulie and Christopher. In fact, one of the funniest–and scariest– scenes in the episode is Paulie driving over to Christopher’s new house to ruin the
$40,000 lawn and landscaping with his car — he looks like he’s channeling the Wicked
Witch of the West.
But disaster is averted in the nuclear Family for one more week. Unable to bear the tension, Christopher apologizes to Paulie, and vice versa. They celebrate their reunion with a drink. Christopher falls off the wagon, of
course. He ends up at the apartment of his fellow twelve-stepper JT Dolan – the guy who got
the Paulist Prize and is presently writing an episode of Law & Order. Clean
and sober, JT is not pleased to see a drunk Christopher banging on his door late at night. He’s on deadline, and
it’s 11:30 p.m. JT plays it by the AA book — encouraging Christopher to find his
sponsor and offering him coffee. He resists, however, listening to Christopher’s accountt of the gory details of his business and he clearly indicates that he doesn’t want to be a shoulder for Christopher to cry on. Christopher persists, whining that the other guys
just don’t understand how hard it is to stay sober around booze and drugs, and that Tony doesn’t
understand what a sacrifice Christopher made in turning over Adriana. JT backs away–he says he doesn’t want to hear it — it’s dangerous to hear it, since Christopher is in the Mafia. But it’s dangerous not to hear it, too. Christopher turns, in despair, to leave. Then he whirls around and shoots JT
As with Tony and AJ, anger is the flip side of depression and despair for Christopher as well. As with Tony and AJ, there is precious little room for a moral choice in the mob for Christopher
The most poignant scene in the entire episode is when Christopher returns home after killing JT. About
to enter his house in the middle of the night, he sees a little sapling that is tipped over; it has been
incompletely rescued from Paulie’s destructive car spree. Christopher reaches over, tyring to set it
more firmly upright. The sapling stays on the straight and narrow, at least for a second. But we know it’s not going to
last. Neither, alas, is Christopher.