mad max, the sopranos, and moralizing monsters

One night a few days ago, around 2 am, half-asleep, I became convinced that it would be intellectually fruitful to contrast Mad Max: Fury Road with the Sopranos.

Now, fully awake, I’m not sure there’s any connection between the two except that I watched them both this past week. But by looking for excuses to compare them I found a rather good one – a parallel between two scenes that seem, on the face of it, somewhat unremarkable.

mad max and moral defeat

You can glean pretty much all you need to know about Mad Max’s dusty hell-future from the preview. In Mad Max: Fury Road, a scene that stuck in my mind – and the only one that I can link tenuously at all to anything regarding the Sopranos – arrives in the first 15 minutes, even before Mad Max gets on the road. It’s an early way to show you the the twisted moral universe of the movie’s prime villain, Immortan Joe. (He’s the frighteningly pale, long-haired hulk with the breathing mask which, strangely and confusingly, features its own set of gums and chompers.)

Joe might be described as half medical nightmare, half despot. He rules over a clan of withered peasants and psychotic warrior boys, whom he’s fed a makeshift religious mythos that he’s at the center of.

Mapping the dimensions of Joe’s sadistic hold on his underlings could easily constitute its own essay, but the kind of evil that is particularly interesting to me is unique to this one scene I’m thinking of. Here’s how it unfolds: From his perch cut out high in a tower of rock, Joe grasps the lever that opens the floodgates supplying water — apparently only occasionally – to the poor bastards he rules over. He opens the gates, and for a minute a great gush of water showers the dusty crowd below, who scurry to collect what little he allows them. The water pours down for only a minute before Joe shuts off the valve; his subjects start fighting like dogs over the puddles left below. And here’s what’s got me: Immortan Joe telling the people in a grandiloquent, patronizing manner that he does not want them to grow weak from too much water, as though, like a good father, he is worried about spoiling his children.

I would say this scene is fascinating if I didn’t find it unnerving. The whole movie is a chronicle of how cruel and mad for power Joe is, but maybe this scene still stood out to me because the people under his thumb are here defeated so completely, in ways that go beyond physical harm or exploitation. They have been deprived of water, yes, but then they’ve also been told that they’re not even quite worthy of it, with the implication that their thirst is a sign that they lack discipline.

In other words, they are being defeated physically but also symbolically and psychologically, as Joe, the only one with a megaphone, is given the voice to narrate the meaning of their deprivation. Even the movie does not show us this teeming mass in any kind of detail or individuality. Joe’s word is the last, and while director George Miller plainly knows that Joe is for all intents and purposes a demon, he is a demon that gets to pronounce judgment on the rest of the world.

christopher moltisanti, bodhissatva

Then there’s the Sopranos, whose episode “In Camelot” is a perfect example of how subtle the show could be. And again, there’s a scene that shows us how moral authority can be assumed by the most unlikely of miscreants. The scene here is part of the B story of the episode, one that introduces Christopher’s friend J.T. (played by Tim Daly, the sensible brother from the cheerful ‘90s sitcom Wings). J.T. knows Chris through narcotics anonymous, and he’s clean and moving on with his life at the beginning of the episode.

J.T. quickly discovers, though, that gambling gives him the same fix that drugs used to, and finds himself tens of thousands of dollars in debt to Christopher. The two are bonded through their shared experience with addiction and recovery, but Christopher takes on J.T.’s debt with loan-shark interest rates. J.T.’s incredulous reaction when Christopher comes to collect is an object lesson in the straight world vs. the underworld: J.T. doesn’t understand that for Christopher, physical intimidation is just another business transaction. I mean, you wouldn’t take it personally if I beat you up over a few thousand dollars, would you?

The thrashing Christopher gives J.T. precipitates a downward slide that ends with J.T. strung out on heroin in an apartment stripped of electronics. Bleary-eyed, he admits to Chris that he’s back on heroin, to which Chris replies, almost incredulously, “Why the **** didn’t you call me?” Christopher doesn’t see his own responsibility, maybe precisely because he’s inured to the violence he perpetrates on others.
15-05-25_sopranos_in_camelot_JT_face_end
When J.T. finally signs over his car to Christopher just before he heads back to rehab, Christopher, in a fit of magnanimity, puts off collecting further payments until J.T. gets back from rehab. “There’s no chemical solution to a spiritual problem!” Chris reminds J.T., as though he were imparting wisdom to a lost soul. J.T. can’t rouse himself to argue. Christopher has not only cracked J.T.’s ribs and blackened his eye – in their shared narrative of “friendship,” he’s positioned himself as the wise one. He’s morally one-upped J.T. even more than he’s injured him bodily.

A final observation: Immortan Joe is a monster you can spot from a mile away. It’s the Christophers of the world you actually need to look out for. And, if you want to know, the third most haunting thing I saw this week was not fiction at all:

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