Monday, April 23, 2007

HBO Sunday Night Review: The Sopranos

Episode 80: "Remember When"

Tony's pops and Uncle June; "back in the day" was the main theme of this week's show

" 'Remember when' is the lowest form of conversation"- Tony to others at his table, namely Paulie

This week's episode went back to the formula that's been applied the last couple of (disappointing) seasons: plenty of roundabout talk, not a lot of action. It's the formula that has had die hard Sopranoites, like myself, down on the show for a while, but yet in this short season you seem to get the feeling that all the small talk and loose threads are leading to something big.

While last week we saw the return of Christopher and Dr. Melfi, this week welcomed three familiar characters back to the fold: neurotic captain Paulie Walnuts, crazy Uncle Junior, and Tony's philandering libido, all falling under the umbrella theme of the week, recollecting old memories.

The ep opens with Paulie paying a visit to Tony's house early in the morning, delivering the paper and some bad news: a 25-year old murder case could come back to bite them, as Paulie tells him, Larry Barese told the Feds where to find the body of a bookie buried under a house in the old neighborhood.

As Tony and Paulie stake out the crime scene, we find out the hit was Tony's first as a member of the family; the one he "made his bones on." "What are we gonna do?" Paulie asks. "We're gonna pack our toothbrushes," Tony wearily replies.

And thus a familiar theme of this swan song season rears its head: an old, seemingly obscure crime coming back to haunt the boss, much like the 2-year-old gun charge in the first episode that caused Tony a brief case of agita.

Tony packs a bag for a trip down south to Miami to lay low for a while, a fact that Carm is none too happy about. "It's not like I won a trip to Paris" he tells a frowning Carmela. "I know, it's just that, this is what life is still like, at our ages?" she replies. That sobering thought furrows Tony's brow, and you can almost see him thinking back to last week's conversation with Little Carmine about the importance of family at this stage of their careers.

At this point we are re-introduced to an incarcerated Uncle Junior. He is in a mental health facility, but it appears that his bout of craziness that drove him to shoot his nephew may be clearing up. How can we tell this? Because he is back to being the old Uncle June, cracking dirty jokes, running an after-hours poker game and generally defying authority. This new/old behavior leads us to think one of three things is true:

  1. He was never crazy and faked it to get out of a real prison sentence.
  2. He is half-crazy and the meds are helping him regain his former self.
  3. He really is nuts.

Inside, Junior befriends Carter, an angry young Asian-American (an unfortunate choice of characters in light of recent events) who is obviously enamored with the charismatic mafioso. Junior's old cronies offer to help him escape but, after initially expressing interest, he rebuffs their offer.

This storyline really goes nowhere, other than establishing the parallel between confused Junior trying to run an empire from inside his cushy prison and the old ruthless one running the family business in his other life. The funniest part had to be how the poker game used buttons for chips and soda & candy in lieu of cash and booze. "We got Snickers, Kit Kats and Sprees" he barks at them. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

Meanwhile, Tony and Paulie head South until the smoke clears. On the drive down (how hilarious was it to see them in that cheesy old minivan?) Paulie starts relating old war stories about he & Tony's dad and other nuggets of a bygone era. After Paulie mentions Ralphie and Big Pussy, Tony casually brings up the joke that Ralphie made about an overweight Ginny Sack, and wonders aloud who would have relayed that put down to her husband, the late NY boss Johnny Sack.

"Who the fuck would tell Johnny about that joke?" Tony playfully-but-menacingly asks Paulie.

"How should I know?" a visibly worried Paulie replies; as he stares out the window, he instantly realizes that his stupid little indiscretion years ago could cost him his life.

The pair agree to stop at a quaint old hotel they used to frequent somewhere in Virginia, only to discover it's been replaced by a sterile new generic chain. At a dinner of nachos and scotch next door, they reminisce some more about the old days and Paulie tells Tony how much his Dad loved him. The story makes Tony appreciate Paulie, but when they check out the next morning and Tony learns that Paulie has been flapping his gums to a guest about where they're headed, his simmering animosity towards the blabbering buffoon causes Tony's blood to rise again.

And therein lies the central issue of this episode: can Tony trust Paulie, a lifelong friend of his father whom Tony idolized growing up, or have his loose lips, irritating personality, and hair trigger temper made him an expendable member of the family?

Upon arriving in Miami, they are wined & dined by old friend Beansie. He hooks the two up with a couple of paid escorts, a connection to a gang trafficking in stolen goods, and some old pictures of Paulie, Uncle Junior and Tony's father. ("... misty, water colored memories...") But when Paulie lets slip about about a young guy who "mysteriously drowned" at a party years back, that simmering hatred for Paulie's style boils to the surface again.

A couple of minor scenes follow, with Junior and his new cohort shaking down the inmates, Phil Leotardo being spoken to like a piece of shit by new boss Doc Santoro, and Tony back to his old tricks, banging the hot blond hooker he was set up with, who over an after-sex smoke tells Tony that she thought Paulie was his dad.

"No, but there was a time that I wished he was. He used to work for my father," he tells her.

"I know, he told me," she responds.

This all leads up to a climactic confrontation between the two lifelong friends. After Silvio gives Tony the good news that Larry told the Feds that old pal Jackie Aprile offed the bookie, Tony decides to celebrate before they leave Florida by going on a deep-sea fishing trip. "I'll rent a boat," he tells Paulie. Paulie's face sinks lower than the Titanic itself. He, we, and everyone else knows the comparisons to Big Pussy's death is inescapable, and David Chase even acknowledges such when upon entering the boat Paulie has a flashback to that day he and Tony mercilessly slaughtered their friend and dumped him in the Atlantic.

The best scene of the night follows with the two of them on the high seas, drinking and fishing, as much for marlin as for clues to Paulie's trustworthiness. As the boat, coyly named the Sea Vous Play (a.k.a 'if you please'), rocks up and down on the high surf (a very unnerving effect in HD, let me tell you), Tony goes back to the insult to Ginny Sack. After a few attempts at humor fail to incite Paulie, Tony comes right out and asks him the question:

"It was you who told him, right? It's no big deal if you did," Tony inquires with that evil, Cheshire-like smile.

Paulie refuses to give in, and for a few moments the tension is as thick as the feeling of motion sickness; Tony glimpses an axe and fillet knife that could instantly end all the doubts he has about Paulie once and for all. But just then, as he watches him looking off the end of the boat, he has a change of heart and decides, like he told Beansie, that he really does love the poor schlub, as aggravating and anal as he may be.

After that Paulie has a surreal dream of Puss cooking dinner in Paulie's kitchen, and a confused-yet-worried Paulie asks him, "When my time comes, tell me, will I stand up?" Kudos for turning to the return of Big Pussy to get the chills going down our necks again, Mr. Chase.

The ending brings us to another homage to The Godfather and the days when bloody power struggles were the norm in La Cosa Nostra: a good old-fashioned gangland slaying. Doc Santoro's brief reign comes to a bloody, bullet-riddled end on a New York street, courtesy of a ticked-off Phil Leotardo, and while a medicated Junior rocks in his chair at the hospital, bloody & beaten by Carter, who turned on him, Paulie, Chrissy, Sil and Bobby sit at the Bing and watch the news about the Santoro hit when Tony walks in.

"Looks like Phil's the main guinea over there now," Sil comments.

And as Paulie's cackling voice is heard in the background, Tony rolls his eyes and wonders if he didn't make a mistake back on the choppy waters off the coast of Miami.

The theme of this year is simple: family, loyalty, and when to get out. Tony is having mixed feelings about continuing to stay in the business, especially with the Feds breathing down his neck, his cohorts keeling over left & right, and his most trusted confidantes (Paulie, Christopher) planting doubts in his mind as to their loyalty and ability to keep the business strong.

Uncle Junior's recovery is going to play a major role in what happens down the line, and you just know that someone in the inner circle- Paulie, Chris, or even Tony- is going to bite the bullet sooner or later.

All I know is Chase is setting us up for a fantastic finale.

I just hope that he doesn't let us down like Tony's close friends have.

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