First, allow me to say how honored I am to be invited back for a second stint as third wheel. I don't ever want to know who bailed on you guys to afford me this opportunity. We've now done this enough to be grizzled veterans at it—I dare say we've developed a kind of narrative muscle-memory. Since you're both print guys and are thus expected to dissect all literary references in the show, my role here has become that of scattershot observer. On personality-type testing, I score off the charts in the "sensing" category—I'm keen on observations and vacuum up details without even realizing it. My wife is quick to point out the flipside of my test score: I sometimes miss broad themes and literary references, which is why we have the two of you. To wit:
A great episode for cultural references. Paulie's BOAC story comes to mind (did you note the smirk on the face of Tony, aka Wile E. Peyote, now that we know he believes that "remember when" is the "lowest form of conversation"?) as does Meadow's two-thumbs-up review of Borat. Her effusiveness, however, gives A.J. an opening to show empathy for the unfairness "to the people involved" in the film.
Elsewhere, the Sensitive Son rails about conditions in Iraqi hospitals, and even the upper-middle-class mobster trappings in his home: the media room and the coffee maker (that Paulie again). His preoccupation with the Middle East is classic Chase—a subplot that may or may not pan out. His therapist wonders if Cheevering his rage into a short story might be one way to go, but A.J. isn't having any of it. The suicide attempt has all the classic "outs" of a cry for help: The expression "enough rope" comes to mind. Every step in his attempt is reversible—the plastic bag is removable; the rope length is far from fatal in the deep end of the pool. Dr. Goldberg is right to point out the poolside tour de force from Gandolfini, who comes close to going all Johnny Fontaine ("be a man!") on his son, and winds up rocking him, switching to the more paternal "Come on, baby ... you're all right, baby."
Product placement, meantime, goes on all around us. From Baume & Mercier (since when do they make a Speidel-style flexible band ... or was that just for easy removal for easier throwing?) to Grey Gardens to Barilla pasta, from the ubiquitous Apple laptops to the umpteenth Makita reference. In our weekly book watch: A.J. goes with the Norton Anthology while Sil prefers to curl up with a dirty copy of How To Clean Practically Anything. In malaprop watch, we savored the "500-pound elephant in the room" and Carmine's beautiful "alteration" right before his warning to Tony that he was headed to the "precipice of an enormous crossroads."
Since this is all fiction and we're among friends here: Seeing Tony with a gun was ... interesting. A kind of return to his roots—the most basic tool of the trade. Yes, he's moved on, years ago, and no longer has to carry such a coarse tool as a businessman ... but as part of a primal event (with dental ramifications) it carried great weight.
Food watch: My mom used to make Lincoln Log sandwiches, so this episode had great sentimental food value for me. Too bad the steak pizzaiola didn't rouse A.J.'s appetite as much as it did his newly found anti-FDA passions. I sensed Chase wielding a rare script sledgehammer when one of the theories voiced in the back room concerning A.J.'s illness was ... environmental toxins. At that point we were all supposed to be our own directors and flashback to the wisps of asbestos coming off the pile in the Secaucus, N.J., Meadowlands. Moral ambiguity ... cognitive dissonance ... get it?
In terms of texture, there were some fine moments. Carmela's use of rascal and, the big linguistic reach of the episode, rapscallion to describe her husband of old—that was a great moment for Carm. Susan Aston (Gandolfini's vocal coach, a constant presence in the credits) continues to be one of the unsung, hidden-hand heroes of the series: The nasal-breathing aspect of Tony's character was a big part of the sit-down scene with the belligerent Phil. After Meadow spills the details of the Coco incident, Tony's jaw muscles start clenching at the kitchen table—he's lost to his own rage until a mention of Meadow's secret beau snaps his attention back to the table.
I end on a sappy note. Meadow's scene with her brother, "I'm your sister. You HAVE to talk to me ... " and "We're Italian ... you're their son ... you'll always be more important ... " had a great ring of truth to me, as did the emotional scud of the episode, A.J.'s hospitalization. Carm is despondent, lamenting, "He was our happy little boy." Then all are in tears when Tony clutches mother and daughter tight against his ample bosom. For a moment, this is all they have, and this is all they are: a family in a world of hurt. For those of us with a son and a daughter of similar age, it genuinely hurt. With two episodes to go until the hurt is over.