Archive for July, 2010

The Fleshy Part Of The Thigh

July 21, 2010

Paulie learns nuns' rings are only symbolic

The Fleshy Part of the Thigh

Season 6, episode 4

Written By: Diane Frolov & Andrew Schneider, Directed By: Alan Taylor

Plot:

No one is happy when it’s revealed that Barone Sanitation has been put up for sale. Paulie has a family matter that turns his world upside down. Bobby decides to help out a hopeful rapper by helping him pad his résumé. Tony ends up having a conversation with an evangelical about religion and of all things, dinosaurs.

Analysis:

Well here’s an episode of television absolutely no one’s attempted – what could almost be described as an hour of pure philosophy about life.  “The Fleshy Part of the Thigh” enters in on Tony as he’s dousing himself with morphine trying to dull his pain – his misery – and leaves him at his poolside breathing the air, believing “every day is a gift.”  What a transformation it is, but it’s also many other things – uncomfortably bleak, but sort of uplifting.  A massive indictment of what appears to be many segments of American society, yet also an affirmation of love.  It espouses any number of different codes, different philosophies, and different expositions on what makes life important, but leaves us resolutely unaware of endorsing any one position.

The plot is listed above, but I suppose there is more to say, although the stories here appear almost as sketches.  If a plot is supposed to go from point A to point B, this plot plops point B on its characters and mostly stares at them while they stay there.  Perhaps the lack of narrative direction in these plotlines is Chase, and Frolov and Schneider’s ultimate dismissal of any conclusion beyond “we’re lucky to be alive.”

But here is what happens: Tony is in the hospital recovering, and then he gets out.  Paulie goes to his aunt Dottie’s bedside, only to have her confess to him that she has been his mother all along, and his beloved Nucci was always his aunt, something he confirms, and then disavows Nucci from his life.  At the hospital, Bobby Baccala briefly meets a rapper, whom he agrees to shoot in the “fleshy part of the thigh” in order to give him some street cred, and possibly propel a “major release” for later in the year.  Meanwhile, Jason Barone, the son of the owner of Barone sanitation (Tony’s “career,” remember, is a “waste management consultant.”  We learn here, so is Johnny Sac’s, and Paulie’s), decides to sell the company after his father dies.

This does not go very well for poor Jason Barone, who really never did anything wrong besides being born into a world he didn’t know about.  Jason gets shaken down by Tony, and New York at the same time, and ultimately gets beaten by Paulie for nothing other than having a mother who loves him.  To an extent, Jason thought he was selling a legitimate business, perhaps even after a bafflingly well versed Paulie tells Jason some business nonsense, including the “amortization schedule, which gives the true picture of a business’s profitability.”  Imagine Jason’s surprise later when, telling Paulie that Barone will “honor the provisions in the contract,” Paulie retorts more characteristically: “Fuck the contract.”

The fascination of this episode is sort of at the core of that Jason Barone plotline, which seems like a strange thing on which to spend the bulk of an episode’s plotline.  I suppose the purpose was to get to the point at the end of the episode in which Tony tells Phil Leotardo, “In truth, there’s probably enough garbage for everyone.”  It has to do with what people get born into, which itself has to do with the meaning of humanity, which itself can be forgotten about rather simply when we look to the overall insignificance of human beings’ existence on the planet.

That aspect is brought into us in the episode’s constant philosophizing – from a children’s dinosaur book Carmela picks up from a candy striper.  Aaron, Janice’s narcoleptic born-again lover of Season 3’s “He Is Risen” shows up (with his same trademark opening, “Have you heard the good news?”), and this time brings a preacher who was “addicted to coke and strippers” but nearly died in a car accident.  He wants Tony to pray and find salvation.  Oh, but I’m forgetting the other forceful bit of philosophizing – an apocryphal notecard no one will claim responsibility for tacked next to Tony’s bed, first seen in the previous episode, “Mayham,” of an Ojibwe saying, “Sometimes I go about in pity for myself.  All the while a great wind carries me across the sky.”

Since Tony will continue to declare people as “going about in pity for” themselves for the rest of the entire Sopranos run, it’s worth saying I don’t fully understand that saying.  Much like a Buddhist koan, its meaning does not have to be entirely clear.  Dr. Schwinn, a rocket scientist who is in the same hospital discovering he has laryngeal cancer, tells Tony “we don’t see we’re part of a much bigger reality,” which Tony tries (poorly) to explain to Paulie, who Tony feels really shouldn’t be pitying himself that much.

But is this what that phrase means?  Director Alan Taylor follows it literally.  Tony’s reading of the dinosaur book segues from a shot of a flying dinosaur and fades into a flock of birds, emphasizing an evolution – a “wind” carrying from one type of existence to the next.  Could this phrase, like the existence of humans, be meant to emphasize insignificance?  The wind also links the final, uncomfortable cross cut between Tony, happily sitting by his pool and enjoying the wind, to Paulie, beating Jason Barone by the side of a river.  There’s a causal link too – Tony’s happiness is connected to Paulie’s brutality, and the shots are shown with a suddenness of cuts too insistent to ignore.  In one shot, Tony looks up to the trees, which turn out to be the same trees looking over Jason.

Or, when a Spanish-speaking garbage truck driver gets beaten in front of his son because of problems with the Barone Sanitation sale, the sound doesn’t even cut out completely as the scene cuts to Tony, sleeping peacefully in his hospital bed, that notecard prominently displayed over half of the frame.

Ah, but it’s not even done there.  How about the Insurance agent – ne, “Utilization Review Specialist” – whose job it is to talk to the family and get Tony home… by pressuring the hospital to kick patients out sooner.  Is she not treating Tony as he treats Jason?  When Tony questions her about it, she says Tony would’ve been “left at Martin Luther King, Jr.” if they hadn’t found his insurance card in the ambulance’s “wallet biopsy.”  And you know what they say anyway – one person’s shakedown is another’s wallet biopsy.

There is even further an additional element, that I’ve only begun to hint at too – that of what people are born into.  Tony and Paulie stare at an 8-year-old girl in a full body cast in the hospital, third degree burns covering her entire body.  I admit I’d forgotten this scene after watching the episode twice.  Since my last viewing of this episode, I’ve been in a Torts class, in which there was a case of a 7-year-old girl, burned in a building fire.  The case was about damages, and how to appropriately measure damages for pain and suffering.  It detailed the type of treatment she’d need – extensive surgeries, not to mention the painkillers for being a young girl, and having to have her scar tissue tear every time she grows.  She could never grow hair again.  The court opinion goes on to say that she will likely never get married, never have a job, never recover from the trauma of her experience.  The court, thankfully, finds very little merit to the contention of the defendant’s attorneys that damages have been calculated at much too high a cost.

Remembering this case very much colored my perception of this scene.  My thought upon reading that is how lucky I am not to have been in such an accident, to have such minor pain in my life.  Tony here has beaten the odds.  “People keep telling me how lucky I am,” Tony says, unconvinced, as the episode starts.  By the end, he’s convinced.  He wheels past Dr. Schwinn, who’s had his larynx removed.  He’s cut in via editing to that son, who watches his father being beaten on his garbage route.  He has very little sympathy for Jason Barone, who merely wants to sell his father’s business, of which he knew nothing about.  There but for the grace of god go I.

That’s what makes the episode’s titular, least important plotline such an interesting imposition.  Here is a person willing to so casually endanger his life, which is his only gift, only to find that the “fleshy part” of his thigh turns out to be his ass, which he gets shot in.  A metaphor for taking what you have for granted perhaps?  Like much of the philosophy of the episode, we’re not exactly told what position the show, Chase, or Frolov and Schneider take on this.

What we experience instead is so much greater.  We see the way actual people wrestle with important issues.  People have their philosophies in life, sure, but how do most of us think about the big issues in our ordinary life?  “The Fleshy Part of the Thigh” shows us, above all, one man’s journey to appreciating life, for a moment.  The moment here is  very real, and perhaps most realistically, as the season moves along, he gets further and further away from it.  On the flip side, one man damns his life – Paulie tells Tony the exact opposite of something he said in “Members Only,” the season premiere: “In the end, your family fucks you too.”  Tony learns to appreciate life and in the same wind, Paulie feels deadened by his.  Like the imaginary duality of good and evil Dr. Schwinn talks about, we see but one life, and varied reactions to it.

One last thought, for an episode that makes me think in virtually every way possible.  The song “The Three Bells” by The Browns.  Here, it plays as Jason Barone goes out for a ride in his beloved kayak.  In the next episode, “Mr. and Mrs. John Sacrimoni Request…,” the song plays again, as Vito Spatafore, about to be outed as gay, drives up and checks into a roadside motel.  I downloaded the song after this episode.  As Jason kayaks, the first verse sings of “Little Jimmy Brown,” and being born.  It plays over the son of a character, neither of whom have ever been seen before or will be seen afterwards.  One generation passes on to the next.  In Vito’s scene, the second verse plays, about Little Jimmy Brown’s wedding day.  We never hear the third verse in the season, but that verse sings about Jimmy Brown’s death.  Perhaps this is more indication of how David Chase wants us to approach his view of life – we were told that you’re born, you marry, and then you die.  Where does that leave a person who wants to consider his existence?  Who is that person, and where is he going?

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