Better Late Than Never: A Latecomer's Season by Season Look at The Sopranos
The main excitement I had going into the fifth season of The Sopranos came solely from looking ahead at the writer's who'd be running the show. Matthew Weiner was my prime choice but Terence Winter was getting some more weight to throw around as well. But most importantly of all, none of the episodes were written by Michael Imperioli who is famous as far as I'm concerned for writing the worst episodes the series has had so far. So starting with that brief but important list of good news, I headed into the fifth season with a fair amount of hope.
Oddly enough, Hope is the very thing that this season tends to be about. Not in the sense that a bunch of Italian immigrants are finally seeing the Statue of Liberty after weeks on a cramped ship, and can't wait to get off and start their new life in a golden land of opportunity. No that's not it. The hope comes from people this season who only want to better themselves, and simply can't do it. The Sopranos' writers work incredibly hard this season to reinforce a universal truth: Nobody really changes. At all. Ever.
The season uses three characters to really hammer that point home. Carmella, who begins the season on her own since kicking Tony out, Adriana who is Tony's cousin and Christopher's wife, and who is beginning what looks to be a long standing relationship as an informant for the FBI and finally Tony's cousin Tony Blundetto, who is released from prison early in the season and wants nothing more than to be a massage therapist.
Carmella finds herself trapped under Tony's weight all season. She wants only to be on her own and free of her old life, but her son AJ begins to resent her for kicking his father out, and Tony more or less always shows up at the house even when he's not wanted. In some great animal symbolism, Carmella is suddenly threatened by a bear that seems to have taken residence in The Soprano backyard. Tony is that bear. Its not very thinly masked but that's fine. Watching Carm deal with the bear is funny every single time it happens but more importantly it gives you an insight as to how the writers think of Tony. Sure he's threatening but there's more. He comes, he takes what he wants, and he'll probably leave you alone in your fear and insecurity to go off to sleep. Feel free to expand that metaphor a little bit but I think you get the idea. The point is, even though Tony is doing all of these bad things to people he can't really help it. He's an animal and he behaves almost entirely on instinct. His behavior shouldn't be condoned but it should be understood that he doesn't think like the rest of us.
Adriana's storyline is the most heart breaking the show has done so far. As a C.I. she spends most of her time in season five with FBI agents, telling them the goings on of the Soprano family (the mob one). She has no real friends because her situation has isolated her from anyone she really spent time with besides Christopher who she is obviously to afraid to tell whats going on. So she suffers in silence for the entirety of the season. Its really terrible because Drea de Matteo does some career making acting this season. The key scene I'll point to is in the season's penultimate episode. She's finally told the truth to Chris. And Chris tells Tony. So Adriana is taken for a ride. She's crying her head off but all of a sudden you see realization come across her face as to her impending death and her tears actually change to fit the new feelings. I kid you not. Its fucking incredible.
Tony Blundetto has a hard job to do. We, as an audience have never met him before but we're assured from the premiere that he's a really important guy to all the mobsters in the show. TV series pull this shit a lot and it usually goes badly because they try to cram emotional connection into some dialogue rather than letting it grow with the audience because they don't have time. Luckily casting made the right choice and got Steve Buscemi to play Tony B. Now I care and I have no idea who this guy is. Tony is actually a man who the prison system worked for. He's out and he wants to go straight. He takes a beating from everyone in his former life when he tells them is future goals but he sticks with it, admirably I might add. The trouble is that being a criminal is like being a drug addict. You're never really over it. So when a challenge comes that Tony can't seem to overcome he falls back into his old way of doing things. He rejoins the mob, and not really on Tony Soprano's side, and returns to the life he tried so desperately to escape. And almost as a lesson to viewers from the writers, Tony too is executed in the season finale. By Tony Soprano of all people. The series wants you to know that if you turn to a life of crime you have two choices. You can succeed in getting out but it will be the hardest thing you've ever done. Or you'll die. That's it.
Now Carmella is the only person who tries to change and doesn't die for it this season. Why? Because she doesn't change. She tells herself that she's changing and she definitely does make the attempt but at the end of the day, she's still comfortable living off of Tony's money. She's too comfortable with his presence to even kick him out anymore and by the end of the season she allows Tony back into her home. I don't know how other viewers of the show felt when this occurred but I'll say that I was furious. Carm is your idiot friend who's been with the same dickhead for years. They break up, they get back together, seemingly endlessly. The worst part of it all is there's potential for Carmella. If she could break the very minimal chains that are around her she could definitely get by. She just refuses to and teamed with Adriana and Tony B.'s stories they make this season the most Shakespearean of the show's arcs (at least so far).
So where does Tony enter into all this? He's everywhere actually. None of these storylines would occur without direct involvement from Tony Soprano. This season you really learn that the writers don't want anyone to like him all that much. This season you learn that Tony is a black hole. He sucks in anyone close to him and unless they're incredibly lucky they'll be trapped there. Tony's personal story takes a backseat this season to the three characters I previously mentioned but he's still got plenty of great sequences. Namely the entire episode "The Test Dream" where we spend almost an hour exclusively with Tony as he drifts in and out of some insane and incredibly telling dreams. Tony's biggest growth this season comes from him learning that his mother Livia wasn't inherently evil. She was awful for sure, but a lot of her nature came from spending time with Tony's father. The two of them wore each other down.
So late in the season, we learn that the only real way people can change comes from being married to someone. And even then the change only really occurs between the two people. Its a horrible notion but I think that they're right.
The mob story line takes a major backseat this season. Almost nothing occurs in terms of the war between New Jersey and New York. I'd be mad but honestly who gives a shit? The non mob stuff has always been the core of the series for me and in a season with so much incredible drama occurring why would I really care about some tacky ass mob violence? The war ultimately does get resolved but not at all in a climactic fashion. Johnny Sack who seemed to be the most antagonistic player in the war game is sent off to prison and that really puts an end to it.
The show has gotten increasingly prettier as its gone on. The first season is a pretty ugly show by today's standards. Luckily that changed quickly. But in the season 5 the show really got a facelift (in one episode in particular). In episode 10 "Cold Cuts" Mike Figgis comes on to direct. He leaves such a great visual stamp on the episode that despite its more standalone plot arc, its one of the best episodes of the season. I wish Sopranos employed more outside directors. HBO's team is incredible for sure but its always nice to see a new take on something.
So where does season five leave us? I'm not really sure. There's obviously more weight put on the fact that the upcoming season is the last but I think that viewers who were paying attention knew this when the show was originally airing. This was probably the best season the show has had so far. I definitely get why The Sopranos is so legendary but the legend is coming to an end. Next season is 21 episodes long so I probably won't be back for a while so I hope this was engaging.
See you around the bend.....