”The Sopranos”: AJ hits bottom
Show of hands: How many of you thought AJ’s suicide attempt was going to succeed? I did, for a few terrible moments. Given the precedent this Sopranos season has set so far — unsentimentally cleaning house as the series winds down, culminating in the shockingly abrupt and seemingly random death of Christopher last week — it was certainly possible. Whatever saved AJ — his sudden desire to live, his father’s timely arrival, or (as Tony noted) his incompetence at even this task — it wasn’t the compassion of the show’s writers.
It’s worth noting that AJ’s botched attempt occurred in the family pool, which is the symbolic womb of this series. It’s where Tony nurtured the ducks in episode 1, and it’s where Tony and Carmela ended their marital separation. What if AJ was trying not to die but to return to the safety of the womb, the maternal nurturing that’s been extended to him by Carmela, by Blanca, and even by Meadow? As Tony noted later, talking to Dr. Melfi, one thing he learned from his peyote-induced epiphany was that our mothers are bus drivers who drop us off, and we mistakenly try to catch up with them to get back on the bus when we should just let them go on their own journeys.
Implausible? Should we blame AJ’s suddenly blossoming thirst for knowledge instead? College has made him painfully aware that the world is a profoundly unfair place, from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the pounding his junior-Mafia frat-boy pals inflicted last week on that hapless Somali bicyclist. College also introduced him to Yeats’ famously ominous and apocalyptic poem ”The Second Coming” (which gave this episode its title). As Carm said, what vulnerable kid wouldn’t get depressed reading that? Still, Meadow had a similar educational awakening when she was an undergraduate and responded with volunteerism and social activism, not by shutting down.
So maybe it was the genetic legacy of depression and mental illness that Tony called ”the Soprano curse.” In a family therapy session after the suicide attempt, AJ cited Grandma Livia’s assertion that life is meaningless, that family and friends will ultimately let you down, and that we all die alone. Tony, too, quoted his late mother. Twice this episode, he uttered her dismissive catchphrase ”Poor you.”
”If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you,” said Nietzsche. If AJ is desperate to find meaning, so is Tony. He had a hard time, though, explaining his moment of desert-abyss nirvana to his pals. He had an even harder time sharing his enlightenment with Phil, despite the heart-to-heart they had had when Phil was in the hospital last summer. The stop-and-smell-the-roses attitude Tony had then (as a result of his previous out-of-body experience, during his comatose recovery from Uncle Junior’s gunshot) has ebbed over the last few episodes, as Christopher noted just before Tony snuffed his life out.
Of course, that seemed like a gentle mercy killing compared with the savage, jaw-destroying beating Tony administered to Coco. (Gotta love those gruesome details, like the stray bloody tooth Tony discovered later in his pants cuff.) Not that Tony’s rage was unjustified; Coco’s lascivious, drunken threat to Meadow crossed a line we’d never seen crossed on this show. Then again, Tony himself had tried to mix business with the personal in his plea to talk to Phil ”on a human level.” Phil is too old-school to respond to that kind of appeal, even though his refusal to compromise with Tony seems driven entirely by personal grudges — as he noted in graphic terms, he was in prison for 20 years while others were enjoying freedom, and now that he’s got power and wealth, he’s not about to share. The looming battle between Phil’s crew and Tony’s crew, then, is shaping up as a battle between the old, emotionally stunted, spiritually empty way and the new, more open-minded, struggling-for-meaning way.
Even Dr. Melfi confronted an abyss of meaninglessness, thanks to Dr. Kupferberg’s smirking citation of a study that found that talk therapy doesn’t help criminals at all, except in their efforts to become more skillful con artists. Does that mean all her years of work with Tony have been for nothing? Tony himself has suggested as much, as he keeps threatening to quit therapy because he wonders (as he asked a couple weeks ago) if this is all there is. (It’s almost the same question Jack Nicholson asked in his shrink’s lobby in a movie 10 years ago: ”What if this is as good as it gets?”) This week, however, Tony said he realized during his peyote trance that ”this…is not all there is.” So there is an answer, there is meaning, even if it’s hard to grasp. And as Sopranos viewers, maybe we have to take it wherever we can find it, whether it’s in poetic allusions, the comfort of Carmela’s cooking (”Lincoln Log sandwiches” — how terrific was that?), the hilarious mobster malapropisms (like Little Carmine’s mixed metaphor: ”You’re at the precipice of an enormous crossroads”), or the fierce and tender pietà we saw at the edge of the pool as Tony cradled the son he’d just saved.
Questions to ponder as we wait two weeks until the next (and second-to-last) episode: Will AJ shake off ”the Soprano curse”? Will Phil put out a contract on Tony? Will Meadow and Patrick Parisi get married? Will Tony’s fingering of the two Muslim men turn out to foil a terror plot? And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward North Caldwell to be born?