Week 6: Comfortably Numb

Sopranos Final Season

Week 6: Comfortably Numb

Sopranos Final Season

Week 6: Comfortably Numb
Talking television.
May 14 2007 3:30 PM

Sopranos Final Season


Dear Jeff,

Pretty shocking development last night, eh? We'll get to that soon enough. (Reader, if you didn't watch, I advise that you not continue past my fifth paragraph.) First, let's discuss a Pink Floyd song.


I mentioned previously that I watch The Sopranos with my 14-year-old son, Will. A couple of episodes back, Will pointed out that Tony, while shambling downstairs in his bathrobe, was singing to himself "Comfortably Numb," from Pink Floyd's The Wall. Never having been a Pink Floyd fan, I didn't know the song (Will is rapidly becoming more knowledgeable than I even about music of my own era), and I shrugged off the reference.

But "Comfortably Numb" reappeared in last night's episode, sung this time by Van Morrison with Pink Floyd's Roger Waters and the Band (minus Robbie Robertson and Richard Manuel). It's a gorgeous version recorded live in Berlin in June 1990 as part of an all-star restaging of The Wall to commemorate the fall of that other wall seven months earlier. The stage was erected on Potsdamer Platz, which for 44 years prior to November 1989 had stood unoccupied as disputed territory. An account of the staging on Roger Waters' Web site relates that the West German military had to be brought in to clear the site of unexploded ordnance from World War II and that in the course of that search, the soldiers unearthed a previously undiscovered section of der Führerbunker. Martin Scorsese, who (like David Chase) has a genius for incorporating music into his narratives, used the Berlin version of "Comfortably Numb" in The Departed, in the scene where Billy (the undercover cop played by Leonardo DiCaprio) makes love to Madolyn (Vera Farmiga), his psychiatrist and, unbeknownst to him, the girlfriend of Colin (Matt Damon), the mole planted by the Irish mob in the state police.

Even before we look at the lyrics, then, this is a piece of music that's fairly bursting with associations. The numbness (not all that comfortable) of life in East Germany, where before the Communist regime's collapse the Stasi had neighbor routinely betraying neighbor (a surveillance nightmare vividly depicted in the German film The Lives of Others). A similar sense of demise and mutual betrayal pervades this season of The Sopranos. The explosive nature of buried and long-ignored debris echoes in Tony's relationships with just about everyone, most especially Carmela. Hitler's bunker represents evil in its purest form, and last night's development demonstrated that Tony is himself becoming more evil and more spookily convinced that his destiny is to triumph. The love scene from The Departed conjures Tony's sexual attraction to Dr. Melfi and, less literally, his unrequited (and completely undeserved) desire to be comforted and accepted without having to hide his darkest self.

The song itself is about the easing of pain, both in the positive sense of relief ("There is no pain you are receding") and in the negative sense of drifting away from reality ("This is not how I am/ I have become comfortably numb"). Literally, it is about taking a drug ("Just a little pinprick"). As it happens, drug-induced reality bookends this latest episode of The Sopranos ("Kennedy and Heidi").

Chris-tu-fuh is driving Tony back from a meeting with Phil Leotardo, the New York boss, who wants 25 percent of what Tony's getting to dump asbestos in the marshes of New Jersey. (I'm a little fuzzy about the basis of Phil's claim; is the asbestos from sites across the Hudson?) Christopher, having fallen off the wagon in last week's episode, is high as a kite, which Tony notices as the car weaves along the nighttime highway. Christopher pops into the CD player the soundtrack for The Departed, which, being both mobster and cinéaste, he would plausibly cherish, and cranks "Comfortably Numb." The car swerves left toward an oncoming car, then right, drives off the road, flips several times, and comes to a standstill. Tony is bruised. Christopher is more seriously injured, and he's desperate to avoid being detected because "I'll never pass a drug test." Tony eases himself out of the car, walks to the driver's side, breaks the window, and observes that Christopher is barely conscious and bleeding from the mouth. He makes an executive decision. He grabs Christopher by the nose and suffocates him.

Part of the genius of this episode, I think, is that it isn't entirely clear at first why Tony has done this. Was it an act of compassion, based on Tony's calculation that Christopher wouldn't survive his wounds and needed to be put out of his misery? No, we gradually discover. Christopher's wounds were survivable, and Tony can't stop talking about the relief he feels at being rid of his troublesome nephew. He hasn't forgotten the insult of being portrayed as a thug in Christopher's slasher movie, he still feels hurt by Christopher's growing alienation from mob life, and he still feels contempt for Christopher's addiction to drugs and alcohol. One curious omission, I think, is that we never learn whether Tony knew that Christopher shot and killed his scriptwriter friend J.T. That would cause Tony even more agita, because even though Christopher carefully wiped his prints off the doorknob, the cops would immediately identify him as the likely killer. Not a good idea to whack a civilian who is known to have one and only one friend in the Mafia.

Tony being Tony, it isn't enough that he's murdered a beloved relative; he wants to be thanked for it, too. He dreams about telling Melfi. He tries to get Carmela to say that she's relieved that Christopher is gone, which Carmela rejects with apparent sincerity. He tells anyone who'll listen that the baby car seat was destroyed in the accident, a testament to Christopher's irresponsibility, but no one shares his outrage. Even Paulie feels bad about the way he used to treat the kid (though he starts to change his tune when Christopher's wake competes with one for his own mother—or rather, the woman who raised him as his mother but was really, he discovered last season, his aunt).

Tony, who spends his life being comfortably numb about the reality of what he does for a living, can't in this instance abide the hypocrisy of pretending that Christopher died in the accident and that he's sorry Christopher is gone. He escapes to Las Vegas and looks up Sonya, an old girlfriend of Christopher's who's working her way through college as a stripper. (I assume Sonya figured in the show a few seasons back, but I don't remember her. Do you?) They have sex, and then Sonya introduces Tony to peyote. At first it makes him puke, but later they wander, high, into a casino, and Tony soon finds himself winning at the roulette wheel. His streak of bad luck is over, he realizes; killing Christopher ended it. Remember how Tony told Carmela a few episodes back that he was fated to survive Uncle Junior's shooting? The peyote deepens that delusion. The episode ends with Tony and Sonya in the desert, Tony shouting, "I get it." Mario Puzo meets Carlos Castenada.

Tony is good and comfortable with his numbness now. Drugs made Christopher weak, but they make Tony strong. Christopher was a loser, Tony is a winner. This goombah is headed for some kind of serious fall, don't you think?


Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.