Of all the characters—and of all the actors—still around for this last season of The Sopranos, David Chase has not only chosen, but has actually succeeded in doing something with A.J. (Robert Iler).
Long the afterthought of the ensemble, A.J.’s only memorable contribution to the series was when he got his eyebrows shaved off at some party in the city, while Iler’s only memorable contribution was when he pleaded guilty to mugging two fellow teenagers and marijuana possession.
Anyway, it is really surprising that A.J. has not only become the focal point to the second half of this season, but also appears to be the key to wrapping up the entire show in a nice big bow.
A.J., as the episode title tells us, is “the second coming.” He’s Tony Soprano alright, but without any of Tony’s personality, menace or charisma.
And like the much-maligned Dominic Monaghan on Lost, Iler has actually shown himself to be quite an actor when given his chance in the spotlight. In a season filled with great performances—mostly from the usual suspects: Gandolfini, Falco, and Imperioli—Iler can stand proudly along side his cast mates.
And so tonight, we got to watch A.J. basically act like a cross between Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, Woody Allen in Hannah and Her Sisters and Steven Wright. Whether he was waking up to Chamillionaire’s smash hit Ridin’ Dirty as he tried to come to grips with his Nuevo-mafia friends’ reenactment of A Bronx Tale (last week his friends beat up an African foreign exchange student because he was in the ‘wrong place.’), telling his sister Meadow (hey, remember her? No, me neither) that the U.S. is going to bomb Iran, yelling about the chemicals that are sprayed on beef or attempting suicide in his parents pool with a cinderblock tied to his leg, A.J. was in rare, excellent and depressive form.
Speaking of that suicide attempt, it was a classic bit of Sopranos staging, jumping from shocking to anxious to hilarious to heartbreaking in the span of about two minutes. Plus, as an added bonus, it offered us one of those rare chances to see that Tony still has a heart buried deep in his bear-like body. Not only for saving his son’s life (I guess A.J. isn’t his ‘biggest mistake’ like poor Christopher was) but for comforting him. As Tony held his broken, crying son in his arms, he had a real moment of humanity. Petting his hair, telling him he was alright, even if Tony didn’t believe it, we were reminded that he wasn’t a monster all the time.
Of course, only two scenes later, the monster was back, sitting in Dr. Melfi’s office, telling his psychiatrist that his son was a “fucking idiot” and a disappointment to him. Later on, while defending his daughter’s honor (there’s that Meadow again), Tony viciously beat to near death one of Phil Leotardo’s (Frank Vincent) asshole underlings, employing the seldom used American History X “teeth on hard surface, stomp to the back of the head” technique. Meanwhile in a group therapy session with his wife and committed son, Tony sang his mother Livia’s famous refrain, “poor you,” when his son complained about his life.
Oh, and as a cherry on top, he managed to get into yet another house-shuddering screaming match with Carmela, this time about whether or not the ‘Soprano curse’ of depression is real or manufactured. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that the Tony-Carmela confrontations are the most violent parts on a show that’s filled with violence. This year, they have reached Def-Con 5 levels. When Tony said ‘fuck you’ to Carmela tonight, I felt it on my couch, as if I was hit with a sucker punch.
And so where does that leave everyone as we propel toward the final two episodes ever? After the aforementioned beating, Tony met with Little Carmine (Ray Abruzzo) to talk about settling things with Phil in a civilized manner (survey says: X). As the two talked shop, Elvis Presley so ominously sang in the background: “We’re caught in a trap, I can’t walk out…”
And that basically says it all for Tony. He’s trapped. He’s staring down the barrel of an all-out war with the perfectly quaffed Phil, he’s constantly fighting with Carmela, and he’s also faced with the fact that his son is following right along in his footsteps. The sins of the father are paid upon the son in this case, but they aren’t the sins Tony would’ve liked. Instead of being a leader of men, it appears A.J. is a reflection of Tony’s worst psychological qualities. in the end, Tony’s failure as a father might be his ultimate punishment.