”The Sopranos”: Tony risks everything
Nu, so in the who’s-likely-to-die-of-unnatural-causes sweepstakes, I wouldn’t have pegged Herman ”Hesh” Rabkin as someone I’d have to worry about. The guy has been one of Tony’s wise men from way back — his rabbi, as it were, an elderly Jewish gentleman of culture, fine taste, and discernment in the purchase of racehorses who just so happens to be a fully credentialed loan shark and music-biz gangster. Compared with the rest of the key guys — ”they’re all f—in’ murderers” — Hesh is a prince. Yet there I was, watching this well-knitted episode (written by Matthew Weiner, directed by the indispensable Tim Van Patten), and I felt as tense as Carmela did before her house inspection when Tony and Bobby arrived unannounced at the elegant Rabkin door after Tony had turned on Hesh for his temerity in asking for repayment of the $200 K he had loaned T.
Would they really off the only business associate authorized to call the boss tateleh? (For non-Italians, that’s a Yiddish term of endearment usually bestowed upon a boychick.) I tried to tell myself that everyone in the old Soprano crew is getting a farewell lap in the final episodes (last week Junior and Paulie, the week before Johnny Sack and Little Carmine), and this was Hesh’s moment (and actor Jerry Adler’s well-deserved spotlight), nothing more or less. But still, I was happily caught off guard by the ignorant bigotry ready to be unleashed at the drop of the mention of a vig — you know, Tony’s ugly talk about how the Jews do things, Hesh’s comments to his son-in-law and business associate, Eli, about how the Italian Americans do things. Among the breathtaking, psychologically cruel gestures Tony has managed to devise in the course of four episodes, I’d rank his combining a condolence call following the death of Hesh’s girlfriend — always consistent in the skin color of his ladies, our Hesh — with a loan payment right up there with Tony’s deputizing Bobby to kill an unknown young Canadian man in cold blood. The man is hurting; he’s also monstrous.
We know now, of course, with acute concern, that Tony has been gambling way over his head, and he’s showing worrying signs of addiction: He may not be experiencing panic attacks since Uncle June shot him, but the Skipper hasn’t exactly attained nirvana in Dr. Melfi’s office yet, either, even if he declared that ”this is an oasis in my week.” (That distinctive, alienating shrink’s-office camera angle so often used to establish Tony’s therapy sessions has never looked so oppressive, and this time both therapist and patient were lit and shadowed in a sad palette of hopeless blue.) So, is this going to be the puny modern woe that topples the Anthony Soprano regime? Good old American debt, not to mention marital stresses. When his childhood friend David Scatino experienced similar gambling-related difficulties back in season 2, remember, Tony was ruthless in essentially destroying the guy’s life.
Or maybe, hmmm, just maybe we’ve gotten our first glimpse of how the Middle Eastern-terrorism/Agent Harris/Jersey-docks plot is going to play out. Will Tony become a paid informer to cover his bills and keep Carmela from turning into an underfunded widow like Ginny Sack? Were those men spotted heading toward a New Jersey mosque really the same guys who used to ogle strippers at the Bada Bing, or do all Muslim men simply look alike to a stressed-out mobster who just this week turned his wrath on Jews?
Two other points before I turn this over to you for closer and more erudite analysis: First of all, tormented, lipstick-wearing, shower-pooping Vito Spatafore Jr. became yet another casualty this week in the epic love-hate struggle between fathers and sons that has always been one of The Sopranos’ great themes. ”You go around in pity for yourself,” Tony told the desperately unhappy boy, summoning up the mysterious proverb that buoyed him when he came out of his coma in an attempt to shake the kid from the crazies. True, eventually Tony had Vito Jr. hauled off by representatives from a distant tough-love boarding school. (Were those guys legit, or were they actually Tony’s goons?) But there was a moment of keen identification when the poorly fathered Anthony Soprano saw, for a moment, this grieving boy’s misery, and understood completely what it felt like to crave a father’s love. (Phil, on the other hand, told the boy, ”Your family’s had enough shame.” Thank you, Dr. Phil.)
Second, Nancy Sinatra! The only thing better than being entertained by the daughter of the Chairman of the Board, long after her boots have ceased being made for walking, was being entertained by the idiotic, enthralled look on Phil Leotardo’s face as he was being serenaded at a dinner celebrating his ascension to New York boss. Cripes, the man’s a dull, dim, dangerous bozo. That’s not a question, but feel free to discuss.