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Throwback Thursday - The Sopranos - The Second Coming

On Easter Week of 1916, while the British Army was heavily engaged in the first world war, a group of Irish republicans, led by Pádraig Pearse, launched a rebellion to establish an Irish republic. While there was fighting in other parts of Ireland, most of the rebellion took place in Dublin, where the Irish Citizen Army, Cumann na mBan, and a small portion of the Irish Volunteers took over several key buildings across the city centre. The rebellion, known famously as the Rising, lasted six days.

At the time, the extreme political position of Pearse and the others was not the one commonly held by the people of Ireland, particularly in Dublin. The British had ruled here oppressively for centuries, but most favoured a more diplomatic approach to winning independence. After the Rising, that changed, as the British response, which included the executions of the leaders of the Rising as well as many reported atrocities across the country, led to a massive increase in sympathy for the rebels and their position.

The few years following the Rising saw the rise of Sinn Féin, the establishment of the first Dáil (the Irish parliament), and the outbreak of the War of Independence. It was in this turbulent (more turbulent than usual, anyway) time in Irish history that William Butler Yeats wrote his poem "The Second Coming", one of his most famous and obtuse works. An Irish nationalist himself, Yeats often wrote about Irish politics, and with "The Second Coming", seemed to be exploring the idea of an established order sinking into chaos, only for a new one to replace it, one whose shape and purpose is unknown. "And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?", so goes the poem's final lines.

Here, Yeats seems to not only be talking about the violence in Ireland at the time and the new order on its way (in the form of an Irish republic), but of the growing discontent and instability in Europe in the immediate aftermath of World War 1. There was a sense that the way things were was no longer working, and that it was about to collapse in favour of a very different way of doing things.

It's this famous poem from which the third last episode of The Sopranos took its name, and the more I think about it, the more fitting it feels.

The characters in The Sopranos have all internally agreed upon a lie, a lie that allows them to keep living their lives in such a toxic way. They ignore what got them to this place in life in favour of petty squabbles, of maintaining a certain facade. They look straight ahead at what's in front of them, because if they look at the edges or turn around, they'll see that the fragile world they've always known is so loosely constructed that a single question might knock it all down.

The series, oddly, makes the decision in its home stretch to have the fragility of the characters' lives represented by none other than AJ Soprano, the spoiled and depressed son of Tony, and perhaps the show's most irritating major character. It's easy to dismiss AJ for much of the latter portion of this series, as a yappy dog just at the edge of the frame, bemoaning the horrific state of global politics as he sits in his expensive house, in expensive clothes, watching an expensive TV. But in this episode, after reading "The Second Coming", his depression becomes more severe, and he tries to kill himself in the family pool.

As he drowns in the pool - the pool being a perfect representation of the comfortable lie Tony and others have surrounded themselves in - he realises that he doesn't really want to die, and then his father comes home and saves him. After they get out of the pool, Tony comforts his son, showing more emotion and humanity than he has in seasons - perhaps ever. It's the one moment in the series' final stretch of episodes where Tony's expression of indifference is broken, with the exception of the mysterious epiphany he received in Vegas at the end of the previous episode, "Kennedy and Heidi". But for the rest of the episode after he saves his son, Tony's expression has returned to normal, as if we imagined it all.

The rest of the episode - the parts not pertaining to AJ's suicide, are mostly concerned with the silly escalation of the tension between Tony and Phil. Phil's man Coco insulted Meadow while she was out on a date with Patrick Parisi, and so Tony curb-stompted him. When Tony goes to see Phil near the end of the episode, Phil won't engage, deciding instead to berate him from a bedroom window. These two men can't see the ropes around their necks, or the cinder-block pulling them to the bottom of the pool.

When prompted by Melfi about his epiphany, Tony instead talks about how he now sees mothers as buses, bringing us to the world and then driving away, and that we spend our whole lives trying to get back on the bus. We reach and reach and reach for the comforts she provided, and we wrap ourselves in whatever warmth we find, better to keep out the cold, such as the cold water sitting under the tarp. As we grow older we start to forget things that were once obvious to us, when we were young and brave and were willing to look where it's cold or uncomfortable. That this sentiment comes out of Tony's mouth is interesting, given that his bus journey was far from warm and safe and comfortable.

Yeats prophesied a great change arriving, it's nature unknown. And so much of The Sopranos was about change, and how hard it truly is to change, when everything about our nice lives is telling us that change isn't necessary. We are happy, and safe, and change is hard. Perhaps when Tony Soprano first went to see Dr Melfi, he really did want to change, but now he likely doesn't even remember that feeling, just like he doesn't seem to remember what it was like to be depressed. Now what does he do but talk, hoping someone will listen? The guys don't seem to care when he tells them about his time in Vegas, but when he goes to Melfi, she's always there to hear him. It's an exercise is vanity and narcissism, and perhaps it always was.

Tony started this final season coming out of his coma with a desire to change, but slowly that desire disappeared, replaced with the toxicity that is its in place for the final stretch of episodes. The episode opens with poisonous chemicals rising up into the air, and now that's maybe all Tony is - poison - because it's easy and it feels good. This episode, like almost any other of the show, has the spectre of Livia Soprano hovering over everything, and it now seems as if Tony is no different to his mother, the woman who's words started a sweet young AJ on his path back in season 2, a path that led him to jumping into that pool.

Except perhaps there is some hope. Tony's carefully constructed world is briefly shattered by the realization of his son's suicide attempt, an event that for a moment forced Tony to divert his eyes to the edges, and notice the erosion, the instability. In this moment perhaps he saw underneath the hazy excess of his life and saw the terrifying darkness waiting there, and he knew what mattered most. It's unlikely that Livia would have comforted Tony like he comforts AJ here, and so maybe change is possible, as incremental and difficult as it may be.

So what is the "rough beast"? Is it really some sort of unknowable change? In The Sopranos, change is not something that approaches, but something that one must pursue. Instead, is it something altogether more terrifying? What awaited AJ at the bottom of that pool, what every one of the show's characters sink down towards every day of their lives in which they refuse to truly see. In the end, the "rough beast" Yeats foretold was something terrible; Ireland, for a time, tore itself apart in a civil war, and not long after that the bubble most of the western world lived in was popped, as the economy collapsed and Europe was eventually engulfed in destruction and terror. All of this arrived because people were afriad to look for it. Perhaps the characters in The Sopranos can, before the doom that has always lurked just outside the frame finally arrives. Perhaps.


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