The 'circle of life' refers to how, in The Sopranos, the dead continuously circle the living.
Note: This essay reveals plot points already aired.
Nearly two years have passed since viewers watched, slack-jawed, as Adriana (Drea de Matteo) was shot in the woods by Silvio (Steve Van Zandt) and Tony (James Gandolfini) shot his favorite cousin, Tony B. (Steve Buscemi). For the characters, however, only one year has passed between then and the sixth season's first episode, "Members Only," which aired 12 March. Janice (Aida Turturro) has given birth to a baby girl, Tony and Carmela (Edie Falco) are back together, and Johnny Sack (Vincent Curatola) is running the families from prison.
An opening montage briefly established characters in their present situations (set to William S. Burroughs' spoken word piece, "Seven Souls"), and yet, we didn't know exactly how things changed since these double executions. The apparent truces -- between Leotardo (Frank Vincent) and the Soprano clan, Tony and Carmela, Christopher (Michael Imperioli) and his numerous addictions -- appeared too calm, in contrast with the furious tensions that raged at the end of Season Five. There are too many ghosts haunting this New Jersey landscape.
This episode was filled with the ghosts of The Sopranos past. The opening montage concluded with Carmela and Adriana standing inside the half-built frame of Carmela's spec house, the $600,000 "project" she was granted in exchange for allowing Tony to move back in to the Soprano home. As they looked out through the pine beams, Carmela confided, "I am worried all the time," then took a drag of Adriana's cigarette as the latter, who certainly knew what it is to worry, nodded gravely. It is bittersweet to have this glimpse of Adriana, because we know she's only a figment of Carmela's troubled conscience. The scene is prefaced with Burroughs' words, "Number six is Khaibit, the shadow, the memory, your whole past conditioning from this and other lives." Time has passed, as Burroughs' words indicate, and yet the past is still very much alive. The next scene, preceded by the line "Number seven is Sekhu, the remains," featured Tony, his face covered in dirt, digging holes in Uncle Junior's (Dominic Chianese) suburban backyard. Junior swore there was $40,000 buried somewhere in his yard and was fearful that Little Pussy Malanga, killed off in Season One, was after the stash. Frustrated but also deeply concerned about his Uncle's accelerating dementia, Tony barked, "Pussy Malanga's dead! Six years now. I should dig him up already!" But his offer to unearth the corpse is unnecessary -- this dead man is fully present for Uncle Junior. When problematic characters "disappear" in The Sopranos, they rarely disappear for good.
"Members Only" was also very much about the "circle of life," which Tony rechristened the "circle jerk of life" during a therapy session with Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Braco). We saw the casual juxtaposition of life's pleasures and inevitable pains: Janice's baby and Ray Curto's (George Loros) funeral, windfalls of inheritance money paired with Johnny Sack's equally sudden loss of wealth, Vito's (Joseph Gannascoli) miraculous weight loss (courtesy of VH1's Celebrity Fit Club) and Tony's steady gluttony.
The circle of life also refers to how, in The Sopranos, the dead continuously circle the living. During their session, Melfi resurrected the memory of Tony's long dead mother, reminding him, "You still, after all this time, cannot accept that you had a mother that didn't love you." Of course he can't. The past has weight in The Sopranos: the childhood memory of his father chopping off the quivering pinkie of the family butcher still causes Tony to pass out whenever he attempts to eat fresh capicolla. The buried bodies of those who were whacked years ago must be repeatedly dug up and moved to new sites to avoid detection, and an oath made in youth binds a man to a life he may no longer want in his middle age.
Indeed, it is significant that much of this episode was devoted to Eugene Pontecorvo (Robert Funaro), a lieutenant and minor character in The Sopranos universe, who wished, after receiving a sizable inheritance, to "retire." But as Tony reminded him, "You took an oath... There's no retiring from this." Moments before he hanged himself in his garage, Gene paged through a family photo album, longing for an irretrievable past when he could have chosen a different future for himself and his family.
As much as "Members Only" was haunted by the past, it also pointed ahead to the future. Though Tony escaped the FBI's initial raid on Johnny Sack's house, we saw Ray Curto, moments before his own (bizarre) death, handing an FBI agent a cassette tape with potentially incriminating evidence about the boss. Curto may not be able to back the tape up in court, but surely someone will. And the tension between the mob wives will no doubt create some reverberations in the world of their husbands. Carmela, on the pretense of taking Johhny Sack's now destitute wife, Ginny (Denise Borino), for a spa date, offers to drive them in her new Porsche Cayenne ("Like the pepper"). Ginny, once the queen bee, and the (very large) apple of her husband's eye, will not stand for such humiliation at the hands of a Soprano. The delicate balance of egos and power between New York and New Jersey is crumbling.
This episode ended with yet another incarnation of the "circle jerk of life." Uncle Junior, who in his delirium mistook Tony for Pussy Malanga, shot him in the chest and then fled upstairs to hide in his closet, huddled and crying. As one Soprano boss reverts to a childlike mentality, the other seemingly approaches his death. Though it is doubtful our protagonist will die with 19 episodes still remaining in the season, the final bird's eye shot of Tony, bleeding and alone on the linoleum floor of a New Jersey kitchen, reminds us that, in the world of the The Sopranos, the past always finds a way of returning.