Life, it’s ever so strange
It’s so full of change
Think that you’ve worked it out
Right out of the blue
Something happens to you
To throw you off course
And then you
Yeah you break down
Well don’t you break down
Listen to me
It’s just a ride, it’s just a ride
No need to run, no need to hide – Jem, The Ride.
Internal communication is de rigueur among this crew. But what about messages from the other side?
Finally, a Paulie-centric plot. He and Patsy are in charge of securing space and funds for the annual church festival to honor St. Elzéar, which he has been in charge of since the days of Johnny Boy Soprano, and don’t you forget it!
When Paulie and Patsy enter the church, Patsy is the only one who genuflects at the altar. Paulie breezes past, stopping at the statue of St. Elzéar. “Could use a coat o’ lacquer,” is all he says, before being welcomed into Father José’s office for the showdown. You’d expect a guy as prone to panic as Paulie is to be as scrupulous about his soul as he is about his health.
Surprisingly, Paulie has always been easily spooked by the paranormal. I think this goes hand-in-hand with his panic attacks, which at one point, we learn, required therapy. Paulie has a fear of the unknown, of that which is unexpected, which is about 99% of life and death. In From Where To Eternity, Christopher comes out of his coma with a message from the now-dead Mikey Palmice for Paulie: “Three o’clock.” The witching hour! Mikey is a little vague on the meaning, leaving it to the living to speculate. Tony thinks that Christopher’s dream is a byproduct of the morphine he was given in the hospital. Who should know better than Christopher what drugs can do to your mind? Even with such a rational explanation, Paulie is freaked out. While he tries to convince Chris that what he experienced was purgatory (“a stop on the way to paradise”), and not the eternal furnace, he is soon plagued by nightmares where he is being dragged to Hell. His dreams wake him at that famed hour when the veil between the living and the dead is at its thinnest, adding to his fear.
So, what does he do about this? Does he return to therapy? Beg Tony for a referral to Melfi? Start popping Prozac like it’s candy?
Nope. He goes to see a psychic! Well, actually it’s “Ted Hughes” who goes to the psychic: After all, a man with Mr. Gualtieri’s reputation can be easily scammed. It wouldn’t take a second sight to rattle off a list of details about his life. Using a pseudonym, Paulie winds up in a living-room full of believers sitting in a circle around a man who is in deep conversation with Gregory, a spirit whose son, Daniel, is a member of the group. Gregory apologizes for the fact that his son had to be the one to find his body after he killed himself. The psychic gets a suitably religious image of Daniel in the lion’s den. Anyone who finds their dead father’s body probably feels as if they themselves have been thrown into a pit of lions to die. The psychic tells Dan to move on, becoming his saving grace, as God was for the Biblical Daniel.
Stripes (that’s what I’m going to call the psychic from now on) then stands and makes his way over to Paulie, who has been watching with unusual conviction. And sympathy! He’d be biting his nails if they weren’t freshly manicured, and you know they are. Stripes addresses the wall behind Paulie (who is wearing blindingly white shoes – is it okay for a mobster to dress like Seinfeld?), comforting a spirit who is angry and afraid. Nervous, Paulie asks, “Who the fuck are you talkin’ to?”
Stripes tells him it’s Charles, and it ain’t Prince Charlie. He’s talking to Charlie “Sonny” Pagano, Paulie’s first ever victim, way back in the sixties. “He says he was your first,” Stripes intones, “but I feel there are many more.” Paulie has Stripes by the collar when he is asked to leave. In a wide shot, we see that the room is slowly emptying. One woman reluctantly makes her way toward the door, unable to tear herself away from the spectacle but unsure if she’s about to see someone cross over before her own eyes. Funny.
Paulie declares it “satanic black magic. Sick shit!” before throwing a chair and calling them “fucking queers.” I took this in the most literal sense, as witness to something strange and suspect, not as a slur, even if he is a known homophobe.
Back to The Ride.
Let’s cut to the chase. The last thing you expect to see when you enter a strip club in the middle of the night is the Virgin Mary. But at 3 A.M, all sensible bets are off.
When he finds himself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to Paulie, sans wisdom, accompanied not by an angelic choir, but by a grinding guitar that that reminds me of Helena’s theme on Orphan Black. Love that split-second squeal. That’s the metallic sound of blood running cold.
The vision is not as creepy to me as it is to others, but if I think about it happening in real life, I’d probably shit myself. A few theories surround its meaning, centered on the significance of it hanging by the stripper pole. A redditor suggests it looks like Gloria, who is literally hanging over his head, but I don’t think that’s a sound theory, even if it is fun. Why would she appear to Paulie? If she’s meant to be the archetype of all of the women who have passed through those doors and their lives, I think she’d show herself to Tony. Maybe they figured he’d been through enough with the coma dreams. Let’s give the little chooch a break.
The best interpretations draw on the Madonna-Whore complex, and the significance of Mother Mary appearing in connection with Marianucci, whom he visits at the end in an act of wordless reparation. The Madonna-whore complex boils down to women being divided into two camps: the saintly, good-girl Madonna, who is sugar and spice and everything nice, and the whore, who is someone you use once and, hopefully only figuratively, destroy.
This fits pretty well with how the men on The Sopranos view women. Paulie’s newly complicated relationship with his ma/aunt supports this. When he thought Marianucci was his ma, he worshiped the ground she walked on. Additionally, Paulie’s real mother, Dottie, was a nun, the supposed pinnacle of purity. (“How could you be a bad girl? You’re a nun.”) Finding out that she was really a “whore” who had him out of wedlock turns his world on its head. Identity is incredibly sacred to anyone; when you’re part of “this thing of ours,” it is imperative. Paulie now sees himself as yet another unknown.
Nucci tells him that all of these misfortunes have befallen him because he has sinned against God. Angered by Father José’s refusal to settle for the usual $10, 000 donation, Paulie had cursed the statue on his way out of the church after the meeting. “Fuck the hat!” he says, referring to St. Elzéar’s golden hat, made from melted-down wedding rings that belonged to the area’s Italian immigrants. On the day of the procession, Elzéar makes his trip through the streets without his famous chapeau. Paulie also cursed his real mother upon her confession. You don’t have to be a Roman Catholic to know what happens to someone who even thinks about siccing the malocchio on a nun. As he did with the psychic, Paulie outwardly dismisses this as “voodoo,” but deep down, he knows he must atone.
Every time I see the episode title, the song I quoted at the beginning runs through my head. Turns out, the lyrics sum up Paulie’s trials of late: his entire life has been thrown into question by the discovery that his mother isn’t who he thought she was. Now he may have prostate cancer. Left without a biological family or a sense of self, the news hits hard. On top of that, his frickin’ frugal (sorry, couldn’t resist a Golden Girls line) ways with the fair rides may have caused an even bigger catastrophe and resulted in death. If Janice or her kids had been killed or seriously injured, Paulie would’ve caught it in the walnuts and then some. All things considered, there is compelling evidence that he has been butted out of the line leading to the pearly gates. Such are the heavy thoughts bearing down on those little white wings.
Toward the end, Tony corners him in the bathroom at Vesuvio and tells him to settle “this shit with Bobby,” who sprang at Paulie when he found out that he was the one who caused the accident. Paulie tells him about his biopsy, understandably upset.
I love that Tony is the one who tries to calm him down. The former king of pessimism has turned over a new leaf, although this is not too far out of left field: remember how he bore his own cancer scare, pre-life-changing coma. He’s doing his duty as a long-time friend, and boss, but he’s doing it with unexpected compassion. He tells Paulie he’s too susceptible to everything. believing that danger is in everything from dirty toilet seats to psychic messages. The things that scare him the most are things that he can’t see to point his gun at, or immediately make sense of. I thought Tony was going to trot out his now-beloved Ojibwe saying about going around in great pity for oneself. Instead, he puts it more simply: “You don’t know shit yet. … Get a grip.” He even takes a holistic view, adding that stress could have brought it on. Melfi would be proud.
Slowly, oh so very slowly
There’s no getting off
So live it, just gotta go with it
Coz this ride’s, never gonna stop