Archive for December, 2008

“University”

December 16, 2008

the_sopranos_32_university“University”

Season 3, Episode 6

Written by Terrence Winter and Salvatore J. Stabile

Story by David Chase, Terrence Winter, Todd A. Kessler, Mitchell Burgess, and Robin Green

 

Plot: Tracee (Ariel Kiley), a 20-year-old Bada Bing stripper who also is Ralphie’s girlfriend, oversteps her relationship with Tony after he sticks up for her one time too many.  Ralphie’s relationship with Tracee comes to a violent end.  At Columbia, Meadow’s relationship with Noah Tannenbaum (Patrick Tully) deepens just as her tension with roommate Caitlin (Ali Graynor) grows to a climax.

 

Analysis:

The guitar that opens The Kinks’ “Living On A Thin Line” lingers ominously anyway, but try playing it across a shot that lingers on a bright red light bulb, and continues with long, establishing shots of the Bada Bing, its inhabitants, workers, and strippers.  Writer/ Producer Terrence Winter has said that “Living On A Thin Line,” the song that is featured three times in “University,” is the show’s most asked-about song, and perhaps it’s not surprising – not only is it a sly, propulsive song in and of itself, in an episode of deeply disturbing behavior by all involved, the song represents the world it inhabits.  “Living On A Thin Line” has the power to evoke the emotions and lives living on a thin line represented in “University.”

 

What a clever use of a song anyway.  “University” focuses on Tracee, the kindly, young, simple stripper whose teeth are terrible and owes money to Silvio for fixing them and for helping her take care of her young son.  Tracee is also involved with Ralphie, which is perhaps in and of itself indicative that she has terrible taste in men.  Meanwhile, Meadow is having boyfriend troubles of her own as her relationship with Noah Tannenbaum deepens and hits skids.  Noah is the black Jewish RA Tony made offensive comments to in “Proshai, Livushka,” harming his relationship with Meadow – the two share one tense scene in “University” in which Meadow excitedly asks if her “Daddy” is home, only to be deliberately cold to him when he arrives.  Meadow and Noah’s relationship is forged and then tested by Meadow’s unstable roommate at Columbia, Caitlin, who compulsively pulls out her hair and is deeply disturbed by the sight of sad movies, bums, and Meadow’s empty bed.

 

There’s a purpose to put those two stories together, they are linked by “Living On A Thin Line,” and an actual thin line – the brutally, confrontationally clever direction by Allen Coulter who emphasizes editing in perhaps the most disturbing juxtapositions of any Sopranos episode, a show that always used editing for clever effect.  Not only are scenes of Tracee almost always shown next to a scene of Meadow and Caitlin, but it’s often even more disturbing than that – as Tracee, in a backroom deal, is having sex with a cop and with Ralphie, yelling “Are you crying?  I’ll give you something to cry about,” a flip of her hair segues exactly into a flip of Caitlin’s hair.  Caitlin is crying, talking about how awful it is to see a bum on the street.  As we watch Tracee slink to the stage at the Bada Bing and start dancing, her curves are given a match cut with a skateboarder who passes Noah and Meadow on the streets in New York.  Later, Ralphie laughs from a window watching his lover getting beaten by Silvio, and his laughter is cut directly into his laughter at dinner, as he politely laughs at a story told by Carmela.

 

Why link the fates of Tracee and Meadow so closely, particularly in an episode called “University”?  The purpose here is to link the results of opportunity.  Tracee mentions to Tony seeing a therapist for issues of violence towards her son stemming from abuse by a mother, and Tony doesn’t even want to listen.  Meanwhile, at Columbia, Caitlin of Barlesville, Oklahoma, talks to Meadow about missing her ferrets and travelling to New Hampshire for the weekend to go ride horses on a large estate.  Meadow herself has sex with Noah and probably loses her virginity, as evident by the tender, searingly vulnerable look on her face as her clothes are taken off.  Her father is no saint either, clearly, but the worlds they inhabit could have been the same – Meadow, Caitlin, and Tracee are the same age, and Tony uses the discomfort he feels about Tracee to help reform his bond with Meadow later in the season – Tony, although far from clean of conscience in the matter, is aware of the thin line they all live on.

 

Season 3 of The Sopranos busts any complacency remaining in the series, but that had pretty much been destroyed already by this point in the season.  After the second season, David Chase started saying that he felt frustrated by the direction of the series – that sure, Tony is a mobster, but a “cuddly teddy bear” mobster who loves his wife and kids and does what’s right.  Chase started the third season as a rejoinder to people trying to get too comfortable with what the Family of The Sopranos does.  “University” follows “Employee of the Month” and “Another Toothpick” directly in the third season, and the three are probably the most violent episodes in the entire series’ run.  In “Toothpick,” an angry godson of Bobby Baccala, Sr. takes a golf club to the head of an innocent bystander until brains come out, and later gets his own brains splattered against his kitchen wall in a violent brawl.  In the famous “Employee of the Month” (which won the Emmy for Best Writing that season), Dr. Melfi is raped in the stairwell of her garage and the rapist is set free on a technicality.  And in “University,” Tracee is beaten to death for absolutely no reason by Ralphie, the biggest scumbag in The Sopranos cast.

 

“University,” with its scene of an eye being hit by a chain, and with a scene of even Silvio raising his fists to Tracee, is easily the most violent of all of these episodes, and notoriously caused many Sopranos fans to cancel their HBO subscriptions, and even briefly caused James Gandolfini to contemplate leaving the series due to how the violent content was causing him personal distress.  More than that, it also raised criticism that the third season was misogynist, particularly after Melfi’s rape scene in “Employee.”  This controversy perhaps only proved Chase’s point that audiences had grown too complacent – we had welcomed the Sopranos into our living room but forgotten how they’d become who they’d become.  They weren’t pure evil, exactly, but many were violent, misogynists, rapists, and scumbags, and they were perhaps people we shouldn’t be comfortable with.  “University” is then a confrontation of lives living on a thin line – our own, about what constitutes morality, and what doesn’t.

 

I mentioned the cut that juxtaposes Ralphie laughing as Tracee is beaten by Silvio with Ralphie laughing at a joke Carmela tells at a dinner table.  This, I think, is the crucial cut in the episode, and the most disturbing.  Why is Ralphie laughing so hard at the violence towards Tracee?  That’s just who he is, we suppose – someone who thrives on violence, who, Gigi Cestone tells us earlier in the episode, “We’re gonna find this one in a trunk someday.”  The most disgusting part – particularly after seeing him stoned and oblivious in his living room, ignoring Tracee – is that Tony and Carmela welcome him into their home for dinner, and that he does so with the pose of an attentive boyfriend to bereaved widow, Rosalie Aprile.  Other character’s responses to Ralphie were always standoffish at best, but his inclusion in the series is an interesting one, and would eventually nab Joe Pantoliano an Emmy for Best Supporting Actor.  Ralphie will be killed, suddenly, in season 4’s “Whoever Did This,” when Tony snaps and beats him to death in his kitchen; at the end of the episode, he pulls a picture of Tracee off of a Bada Bing mirror, as if it absolves him of his sins, then walks out into a blinding bright morning.  If Season 3 is about breaking our complacency with who the members of this Family are, it’s telling that this is when The Sopranos introduces a character like Ralphie, whom everyone knows is a scumbag, but no one wants to avoid him altogether.  Season 2’s resident scumbag, Richie Aprile, was bad enough, but at least he had the excuse of being “from another era.” 

 

Ralphie is a terrible person, pure and simple, bitter, selfish, simply awful.  Ralphie says himself in an aside, “I had to quit school in 11th grade, to help

my mother.  Supposed to be an architect.”  No one takes this comment very seriously, but certainly Ralphie does.  Like all the great Sopranos characters, there’s more to him than his misanthropy and odiousness – he has a son who he loves but isn’t that involved with (who will fall into a coma, to Ralphie’s heartbreak, in “Whoever Did This”), he has bizarre sexual preoccupations (which we’ll see, most memorably, in “Christopher,” as Janice fucks him with a dildo), and he is, simply, someone the Family seems to have accepted as always having been around, even though no one likes him very much.  Perhaps we all have people in our lives that are questionable, make us squeamish and concerned, but we know that socially, they’ll just be there, so we put up with them.  They are likely not as awful a human being as Ralph Cifaretto, and for that we should be grateful.

 

“University” remains one of the most memorable Sopranos episodes for so many reasons, notably how disturbing and violent it is.  But I think it’s not actually the violence that is the most memorable thing about it – it’s that it makes us complicit in that violence.  By constantly juxtaposing Meadow’s innocent boy troubles with the awful choices Tracee has to make, we’re left deeply uncomfortable and confused.  Early in the episode, Caitlin, disturbed by a horror movie, asks with unctuous seriousness, “Why is other people’s pain a source of amusement?”  Why indeed.  Chase, Winter, and Stabile ask us that question up close in a Brechtian confrontation – why are we honoring this world of mobsters and strip clubs?  Why are we letting scum like Ralphie into our homes at dinner time and kiss our kind, widowed friends?  Chase wants us to especially know that to accept these characters and present them as they are is to accept what is good and bad about them, and this episode makes us deeply, uncomfortably aware about the bad.

 

There is good though, and that perhaps is the part that keeps this episode from being all misery – and that’s all encompassed in Meadow’s miniature tale of heartbreak.  Meadow, who keeps returning home to confer with Carmela over her boy, is a true princess, never having had her hand burned on a stovetop like Tracee’s was.  She lies in bed with Carm and obliquely talks about her sex life.  She waves her orange juice glass at the dinner table to get it refilled without much comment.  If Tony has some guilt for not being able to protect Tracee from her death, it has to do with the “underlying cynicism” Noah falsely calls Meadow on before breaking up with her.  Tony was not capable of saving Tracee, but he did save Meadow – Meadow is happy and loved and has the freedom to yell at people to express her heartbreak. 

 

This is accomplished through great writing and acting – for Kiley’s childish walks and almost violent dances onstage to express what she can’t have, and for Meadow expressing her own tremulous child experiencing love for the first time.  This season is Jamie Lynn-Sigler’s great accomplishment, as she infuses Meadow with so many conflicted emotions, so often the focus of what Tony experiences as a father.  He says, resignedly, in the astonishing finale episode “Army of One,” “Maybe it would be best for her to get away from me for a while.”  Tony actually is the mafia teddy bear who acts terribly but loves his children.  What he doesn’t realize is how important that love has been – it’s given Meadow her life.

 

You may have missed…: Two great moments showing the astonishing depth of detail these characters are given.  In one, Meadow speaks with Carmela about a movie version she’s heard about Eloise, and talks with her about “that one time at the plaza.”  This references a quick mention by Carmela in the Pilot episode that she and Meadow go to the Plaza on her birthday to drink tea wearing white gloves, something we’ll see in season 4’s “Eloise.”  Asides like this that link throughout the season show you the attention the writers pay to the notion that their characters lives continue when we’re not watching.

 

Also, how AJ holds his fork at dinner – his whole hand holding the thing, like a small child.  Despite being 15 years old, AJ is a small child, and will continue to be one throughout his time on the series.  I doubt that Robert Iler holds his fork like this, but AJ does.  What other series – or movie – would spend this much energy on irrelevant details of a character who shows up for less than two minutes this episode?  Only a series that realizes those details aren’t irrelevant.