The Outer Darkness


Without a TV in the house, we’re been woefully behind in keeping up with our TV diet.  It took us five years to plow through the complete set of Sopranos DVDs.  By the time we reached the last bit of New Jersey turnpike diner pageantry and the final nihilistic scene when Tony Soprano’s consciousness, vision, pathos, tragedy – the sum total of his entire being – suddenly eclipses forever into a blank and silent screen, the series had already been over for three years.   [Disclaimer here:  I’m a sucker for the Sopranos and consider it one of the great works of American theatre, TV be damned.]

Endings are rarely great, especially if they’re your own.  Our endings will most likely not be something to speak of, most certainly by us.  We end in bed, sometimes in a hospital bed, at an hour and place not of our choosing.  For Tony and his entire family, it was after Meadow had bumped her tire against the curb, while they snacked onion rings, listening to Journey on a night out away from that insufferable kitchen in the burbs.

The scene deserves more in depth parsing: Tony entering the diner to ‘All that you Dream’; the Diner itself, that New Jersey icon of dreams and purgatory, the Princeton mural on the far wall of the Diner, like the panels of a reredo behind the church altar;  Tony flipping through the jukebox list – past Tony Bennett’s ‘I’ve Gotta Be Me’, and’ This Magic Moment’ by Jay and the Americans – those song titles some of the last bits of information to be received by Tony’s consciousness;  Tony looking up each time the door swings open, a man expecting dinner guests, but also one who has spent his life with a back to a wall and eyes on the door, waiting for his Maker (both the death taker and the maker of Made Men), honoring the quintessential mobster power rule (never, never, have your back to the door);  the preamble sequence ending as Tony kicks off Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believing’  and we begin the final act; Carmella entering, the look of love and resignation – a small town girl looking for escape; the cut to the diner date, the short order cooks, the boyscout troop dinner; Tony and Carmella greet – love, if you want to call it that, perhaps just a life shared that lies beyond the tests of love; the lyrics ‘midnight train going anywhere’ to Tony’s bemused look, with Carmella down to business on the menu; her announcement that Meadow has switched birth control, and the implied erosion of faith and the resigned look of a father who’s daughter is now on her own, a free agent in the world to live and love and fail and fall; Tony’s word that Mick will be testifying in Chicago and the mutual looks of recognition that they’re about to enter a tunnel which has only one end; AJ entering with that at once naive and jaded swagger; the family sits as the Betrothed Family and the Wedding Guest awaiting the Holy Sup; Meadow blowing it on the parallel parking job, but for which she herself would be seated at the table; Cokes arrive (this is my Blood…); AJ busts about his entry level job, not knowing it will be the last job he ever has; the parade of men coming in and Tony having any number of would be assassins.  The hitman passes Tony to enter the Men’s room as did Al Pacino in the Godfather.  The family each take an onion ring (this is my Body), the best in the State purports Tony, and swallow the deep fried rounds; Meadow finishes parking and races across the street; Tony looks up, his synapses fire for the last time, we imagine he has just seen his daughter.  Then silence.  Blackness.  Void.   And the brutal conclusion:  that if death really is the irrevocable loss of awareness, we will have no cognition of the final moment.  We can presume AJ and Carmella were also taken out.  Who was spared?  But for the grace of a clipped curb, there goes Meadow, and for the time being,  you and I.

But that’s the way the world ends, doesn’t it?  Nothing special.  Nothing new.  It’s not the weave, but the weft that in the end gives our lives if not meaning than structure. The cups of coffee brewed in the morning, the mopping of the floor, feeding the dogs, checking homework, fighting over allowance.  The yellow jackets swarming the cider press.   A thousand measured teaspoons.  All those things of which we ask, what of it?

But that’s not what I wanted to write about on this splendid October morning.  Instead bear with me.  I want to talk about Big Love.  We’ve been slogging away for a year or two now, working our way through the first four seasons.  Last spring we hit the end of season three when first wife Barbara was called before the Church Council because of her participation in a plural marriage. Long suffering Barbara, Utah Mother of the Year, has her Galileo moment.  When she refuses to acquiesce, she is formally excommunicated from the church and, in the words of the Church Fathers, her eternal soul is cast into the place of Outer Darkness.

Outer Darkness?  Now there is a uniquely American turn of phrase.  I can hardly imagine.  A Darkness beyond darkness, A Darkness beyond the very idea of darkness, one so pitch that it cannot be perceive in this mortal realm.  This is a place that lies outside even of God’s Universe, outside of God’s dominion.  What place could that be, a place outside of God’s imagination, especially if we and all that we know are the parcel and fabric of what he imagines? What would it mean to be cast from God’s imagination?

Season four opened with what may perhaps be the best intro since David Chase conceived of the Woke Up This Morning sequence for the Sopranos.  I watched it this morning and, as in all the other times, it took my breath away.

For three years we’d been treated to that Pollyannish, Beach Boy overlayed vision of Bill and his three wives skating on thin ice, with that cartoon of the Wasatch mountains in the background, placing them as giants on some minature version of the Great Salt Lake.  Barbara’s trusting gaze is counterpointed with Nicky looking up like a girl wanting to be saved by her father, and the naive eroticism of Margene.  Then all three lost in the veils that hide the entrance to the Tabernacle, then their shabby dining room table set on the planet to which Bill and his wives have been assigned in the heavenly realm.

We’re struck not so much that they are assigned their own planet (this escapes many viewers I think), but more what a meager and lonely planet it seems to be.

The whole rub of the old intro was of a heavenly world watered down by our mortal imaginations.  Often I feel that humans are really just cartoon creatures with tiny brains, such that the best we can do is imagine a cartoon like heaven.  In the 1990’s I had the chance to visit a new Mormon Temple before it was closed to the public.  When we entered the inner chambers, our guide explained that this place was intended to be a vision of heaven realized here on earth, that it gives us just a taste of what heaven would be like.  I couldn’t get over the ways in which heaven was compromised by the materials:  the standard stairways and bannisters that met Public Safety standards, the cheap finish materials and carpets, gaudy chandeliers lit with sixty watt candelabra bulbs.  I wasn’t too impressed.  I mean he’s god after all.  Couldn’t he come up with something better?

But that’s season three stuff.  Season four presented a whole new ball of wax.

In that new intro that greets us after Barbara’s excommunication, Bill Henrickson is falling, no, he’s swimming through that darkness, out of nothingness, but toward something.  He’s not unlike a fetal being emerging as we all began, swimming toward the promise of our future existence.  The look is not one of fear, but of intent and purpose because he’s swmming through the darkness toward something known, toward comfort. But what?  It’s his first wife, Barbara, and that look of love and knowing, as if they’ve each awoken not into the afterlife as promised, but into the void and in that void they’re finding one another and reunion.  It’s as if she’s been waiting there forever, waiting for him to enter this strange place.

Cut to Chloe Sevigny awakening to this world, to that sense of newborn wonder again.

It’s the newness and sensuality of birth (in the sense that we are in that instant born into our sensate selves).  A blank half asleep look enfolds her as if her very self is still receded from her, her locks flowing as in Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.

Then Margene (Ginnifer Godwin) appears consumed with that Marilyn-like half lidded sensuality.  Bill’s gaze turns as if now free to take in this place fully for the first time.

His hand reaches out like a heavenly father bestowing life.  Unlike the Creator, though, he’s not conceiving Adam, but instead reaching for connection.

As Chloe Sevigny strains toward him, the look in all their eyes has shifted from the innocence of birth to longing and fear.  What is this place?  They’re alone in this darkness and they need one another.  Barbara’s arms outstretch as if on a cross, her head bowed, taking in the nature of both mortal sin and mortal sacrifice (and how the two can be conflated) and her brow furrows, realizing at last the depths of eternal darkness.  Margene reaches out and falls away, a looming sense of panic at the knowledge that she is falling in a blackness that has no bottom.

But Chloe Sivigny gives way to it, floating, cradling herself with her own arms, into slumber, suggesting that even without the others she is capable of giving herself comfort.  We have a sense of her relaxing into the loss, the way one might learn to swim once you begin to trust the water.  Barbara herself plummets with sad terror once she finally lets go.  And then all of them float freely in the space, autonomous, no longer reaching but possessing  a resignation that comes with age and time and a sense of love and self-realization that they have gained by entering the boundless darkness.  They subsume into fear, and joy, and an unwilling peace, never touching.

Three years ago on TV, a fictional Mormon polygamist by the name of Bill Henrickson was elected to the State Senate in Utah.  An absurd premise at the time, but it touched a certain zeitgeist in the wake of the Warren Jeff trials.  At that time, in 2009, I drove up into the Arizona Strip, to that bastion of plural marriage alive and well in America in the 21st century. That remote largely forgotten bit of earth still reigns as the Deseret, the wilderness haven of the wandering.  The coffee shops sported window flyers supporting uranium mining in the Grand Canyon.  A high school volleyball team poster was layered with the slogan “We will be there when they come for our daughters.”  Women wore pioneer dresses, homes were tucked away with multiple additions and multiple separate entrances.  The sheriff was hosting an open town meeting to discuss protection of their state and civic rights  in the wake of the Obama victory.

And now Mitt Romney, the great grandson of a man who fled to Mexico seeking refuge for plural marriage is vying for the Presidency of the United States.

But truthfully I’m a lot less concerned with plural wives than with binders of women, and ultimately, the Outer Darkness.

Why were Bill Henrickson and his three wives cast into such a place?  You could devote five seasons of a TV series to exploring that.  But it has something to do, in part, with hubris.  And perhaps limited sight.  To trying to imagine God’s world, but with the limited mind of a mortal.  Candidate Romney speaks in simple terms of balancing a budget, but no plan of how to do that.  He talks of lifting environmental regulation, of drilling and mining until carbon fuels reach their end.  He professes no belief in a changing climate (and little belief in the reproductive rights of women).  The Arctic is predicted to be free of ice within the next ten years.  At which point the permafrost will begin to melt and climate change will enter overdrive.

Receding glaciers happen on a scale nearly beyond human comprehension.  As do superstorms colliding with the eastern seaboard.  If we could entertain the scale, why certainly we’d be doing something about it.  But instead we trouble ourselves with Tom Cruise’s divorce, who has a right to marry whom, or whether Obama knows how to run a small business.  We need a leader with vision.  And we risk having one who talks in naive terms about energy independence (which is not possible in an open energy market), or who careens across a complex international stage like a toddler.

I’m afraid that on the eve of November our collective mind will fail to entertain the nuanced, the sophisticated, and the complex. That we’ll privilege overbearing confidence and blind faith (the hallmark of any fundamentalism) over the complex realities of the world we live in.  And so we’ll opt for something easy and digestible.  A cardboard cutout of the Wasatch Mountains.  A cartoon vision of heaven.  A simple 19th century belief system colliding headon with a multivariate 21st century world.

In which case, perhaps collectively we all will deserve to be cast into the Outer Darkness.

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