The Phoenix Always Rises
In January 1982, when Joseph Mascolo arrived in Salem as crime boss Stefano DiMera, no one could have predicted the hell the man would raise, the chaos he would cause, the deaths he would fake, and the excitement he would bring viewers for years to come. Today, over 35 years later, we all say goodbye to Joe and to Stefano for the final time.
Stefano was apprehended long enough to have his DNA and fingerprints taken — presumably exonerating Hope for his “murder” — and to allow three of his enemies (more on that in a sec) to confront him. And then, because Salemites have never learned the lesson that gloating just makes things blow up in your face, they discovered his cell empty, the Phoenix having apparently slipped out of their clutches one more time.
I read that the set photos of Mascolo were marked April 2016, while the ones from the others visiting him in prison were from August 2016. This implies that they filmed Stefano’s footage back around the time they shot the Orpheus, Clyde, and Xander material in jail (all of which aired last fall), and then shot the other characters’ sides of these scenes later on. You could tell in the editing today, because he was never in the same shot as anyone else, and I wondered a few times if they were reusing shots as he reacted silently to Anna, Marlena, and Rafe. I’m thrilled that we had the opportunity not only to wrap up Stefano’s story onscreen — as much as you can wrap up the tale of such a larger-than-life character — and to see him once more. But it was also tough to watch him in these scenes. I don’t know if the decision to keep Stefano silent was because they banked footage before they knew what the story was going to be, and they wanted to be able to fit his appearance into whatever wound up playing out, but it’s tough not to think that Joe’s Alzheimer’s also played a big role in that. I felt worried that he wasn’t able to speak by this point (or at least to recite dialogue), and at times, there was a distant look in his eyes. Yet at others, he laughed, he smirked, he expressed irritation, and he even teared up.
I don’t know if that tear was supposed to be Stefano reacting to his apparent defeat or Joe’s own emotion coming through, but it broke me a little. How classy of him to shoot footage beyond when it was easy or comfortable for him, and how decent of the show to accommodate him in this way. Yeah, in a perfect world, Stefano would’ve been a greater onscreen presence through this final arc, and his last showdowns with his enemies would have been the verbal chess matches we knew he relished, but the show worked within the limitations it had, and I find it hard to complain about that.
Marlena’s final “Checkmate” to him, as she set down the queen, was pretty damn perfect. I cannot figure out the decision-making process behind doing that mid-episode and then having Stefano’s final onscreen encounter be with Rafe Hernandez, of all people, especially when you had Deidre Hall’s Marlena right there. Ridiculous. I would’ve been fine if they’d devoted a major chunk of the episode to flashbacks as the folks gathered in Prague recalled everything Stefano has pulled on them over the years; they could’ve even cut to Andre in Salem, talking with Kate, and Chad locked up, recounting stories to Gabi. As it was, the tone of the episode was all over the place, with more of the Nicole/Chloe baby histrionics going on, and of course Deimos stinking up the joint.
This entire Prague thing has been all over the place, though. It seems like they sent a group of characters off on an “adventure” and then had to figure out exactly what would be going on during said adventure. Anna, Carrie, and Austin popping up — fun as it’s been — was supremely weird, and otherwise, this has been a lot of people chit-chatting in the hotel lobby and the one outdoor cafe in all of Prague. And then there was that masquerade ball.
Hey, at least it didn’t happen offscreen, and they did manage to dedicate a set and extras to it, even if that set was a redressed St. Luke’s/Kristen’s Italian villa from 2015. I don’t think I’ll ever understand what in the world the plan was — lure Stefano out of hiding by using Marlena as bait and then hope he didn’t question why she was there or recognize Steve, Kayla, or Rafe just standing around? — or why they had to spend an entire episode standing in side-by-side pairs, yammering into their mics in the absolute most conspicuous manner possible. Nor will we ever know why it was so difficult to procure tickets for this “gala” consisting of a dozen middle-aged extras moving woozily around a living room. There were a lot of opportunities to dig deeper with the writing, to craft something suspenseful and complex even without Stefano present for most of it, but what we got was a strange mix of tepid intrigue and comic relief.
Still, though, they did try, we got a very Stefano ending, and the show had the respect to include this at the end of the hour:
Thank you for the memories, Joe, and may we always imagine that the Phoenix is out there somewhere, ready to strike again when the quiet life grows tiresome to him.