Archive for the ‘Great Sopranos Episodes’ Category

The Fleshy Part Of The Thigh

July 21, 2010

Paulie learns nuns' rings are only symbolic

The Fleshy Part of the Thigh

Season 6, episode 4

Written By: Diane Frolov & Andrew Schneider, Directed By: Alan Taylor

Plot:

No one is happy when it’s revealed that Barone Sanitation has been put up for sale. Paulie has a family matter that turns his world upside down. Bobby decides to help out a hopeful rapper by helping him pad his résumé. Tony ends up having a conversation with an evangelical about religion and of all things, dinosaurs.

Analysis:

Well here’s an episode of television absolutely no one’s attempted – what could almost be described as an hour of pure philosophy about life.  “The Fleshy Part of the Thigh” enters in on Tony as he’s dousing himself with morphine trying to dull his pain – his misery – and leaves him at his poolside breathing the air, believing “every day is a gift.”  What a transformation it is, but it’s also many other things – uncomfortably bleak, but sort of uplifting.  A massive indictment of what appears to be many segments of American society, yet also an affirmation of love.  It espouses any number of different codes, different philosophies, and different expositions on what makes life important, but leaves us resolutely unaware of endorsing any one position.

The plot is listed above, but I suppose there is more to say, although the stories here appear almost as sketches.  If a plot is supposed to go from point A to point B, this plot plops point B on its characters and mostly stares at them while they stay there.  Perhaps the lack of narrative direction in these plotlines is Chase, and Frolov and Schneider’s ultimate dismissal of any conclusion beyond “we’re lucky to be alive.”

But here is what happens: Tony is in the hospital recovering, and then he gets out.  Paulie goes to his aunt Dottie’s bedside, only to have her confess to him that she has been his mother all along, and his beloved Nucci was always his aunt, something he confirms, and then disavows Nucci from his life.  At the hospital, Bobby Baccala briefly meets a rapper, whom he agrees to shoot in the “fleshy part of the thigh” in order to give him some street cred, and possibly propel a “major release” for later in the year.  Meanwhile, Jason Barone, the son of the owner of Barone sanitation (Tony’s “career,” remember, is a “waste management consultant.”  We learn here, so is Johnny Sac’s, and Paulie’s), decides to sell the company after his father dies.

This does not go very well for poor Jason Barone, who really never did anything wrong besides being born into a world he didn’t know about.  Jason gets shaken down by Tony, and New York at the same time, and ultimately gets beaten by Paulie for nothing other than having a mother who loves him.  To an extent, Jason thought he was selling a legitimate business, perhaps even after a bafflingly well versed Paulie tells Jason some business nonsense, including the “amortization schedule, which gives the true picture of a business’s profitability.”  Imagine Jason’s surprise later when, telling Paulie that Barone will “honor the provisions in the contract,” Paulie retorts more characteristically: “Fuck the contract.”

The fascination of this episode is sort of at the core of that Jason Barone plotline, which seems like a strange thing on which to spend the bulk of an episode’s plotline.  I suppose the purpose was to get to the point at the end of the episode in which Tony tells Phil Leotardo, “In truth, there’s probably enough garbage for everyone.”  It has to do with what people get born into, which itself has to do with the meaning of humanity, which itself can be forgotten about rather simply when we look to the overall insignificance of human beings’ existence on the planet.

That aspect is brought into us in the episode’s constant philosophizing – from a children’s dinosaur book Carmela picks up from a candy striper.  Aaron, Janice’s narcoleptic born-again lover of Season 3’s “He Is Risen” shows up (with his same trademark opening, “Have you heard the good news?”), and this time brings a preacher who was “addicted to coke and strippers” but nearly died in a car accident.  He wants Tony to pray and find salvation.  Oh, but I’m forgetting the other forceful bit of philosophizing – an apocryphal notecard no one will claim responsibility for tacked next to Tony’s bed, first seen in the previous episode, “Mayham,” of an Ojibwe saying, “Sometimes I go about in pity for myself.  All the while a great wind carries me across the sky.”

Since Tony will continue to declare people as “going about in pity for” themselves for the rest of the entire Sopranos run, it’s worth saying I don’t fully understand that saying.  Much like a Buddhist koan, its meaning does not have to be entirely clear.  Dr. Schwinn, a rocket scientist who is in the same hospital discovering he has laryngeal cancer, tells Tony “we don’t see we’re part of a much bigger reality,” which Tony tries (poorly) to explain to Paulie, who Tony feels really shouldn’t be pitying himself that much.

But is this what that phrase means?  Director Alan Taylor follows it literally.  Tony’s reading of the dinosaur book segues from a shot of a flying dinosaur and fades into a flock of birds, emphasizing an evolution – a “wind” carrying from one type of existence to the next.  Could this phrase, like the existence of humans, be meant to emphasize insignificance?  The wind also links the final, uncomfortable cross cut between Tony, happily sitting by his pool and enjoying the wind, to Paulie, beating Jason Barone by the side of a river.  There’s a causal link too – Tony’s happiness is connected to Paulie’s brutality, and the shots are shown with a suddenness of cuts too insistent to ignore.  In one shot, Tony looks up to the trees, which turn out to be the same trees looking over Jason.

Or, when a Spanish-speaking garbage truck driver gets beaten in front of his son because of problems with the Barone Sanitation sale, the sound doesn’t even cut out completely as the scene cuts to Tony, sleeping peacefully in his hospital bed, that notecard prominently displayed over half of the frame.

Ah, but it’s not even done there.  How about the Insurance agent – ne, “Utilization Review Specialist” – whose job it is to talk to the family and get Tony home… by pressuring the hospital to kick patients out sooner.  Is she not treating Tony as he treats Jason?  When Tony questions her about it, she says Tony would’ve been “left at Martin Luther King, Jr.” if they hadn’t found his insurance card in the ambulance’s “wallet biopsy.”  And you know what they say anyway – one person’s shakedown is another’s wallet biopsy.

There is even further an additional element, that I’ve only begun to hint at too – that of what people are born into.  Tony and Paulie stare at an 8-year-old girl in a full body cast in the hospital, third degree burns covering her entire body.  I admit I’d forgotten this scene after watching the episode twice.  Since my last viewing of this episode, I’ve been in a Torts class, in which there was a case of a 7-year-old girl, burned in a building fire.  The case was about damages, and how to appropriately measure damages for pain and suffering.  It detailed the type of treatment she’d need – extensive surgeries, not to mention the painkillers for being a young girl, and having to have her scar tissue tear every time she grows.  She could never grow hair again.  The court opinion goes on to say that she will likely never get married, never have a job, never recover from the trauma of her experience.  The court, thankfully, finds very little merit to the contention of the defendant’s attorneys that damages have been calculated at much too high a cost.

Remembering this case very much colored my perception of this scene.  My thought upon reading that is how lucky I am not to have been in such an accident, to have such minor pain in my life.  Tony here has beaten the odds.  “People keep telling me how lucky I am,” Tony says, unconvinced, as the episode starts.  By the end, he’s convinced.  He wheels past Dr. Schwinn, who’s had his larynx removed.  He’s cut in via editing to that son, who watches his father being beaten on his garbage route.  He has very little sympathy for Jason Barone, who merely wants to sell his father’s business, of which he knew nothing about.  There but for the grace of god go I.

That’s what makes the episode’s titular, least important plotline such an interesting imposition.  Here is a person willing to so casually endanger his life, which is his only gift, only to find that the “fleshy part” of his thigh turns out to be his ass, which he gets shot in.  A metaphor for taking what you have for granted perhaps?  Like much of the philosophy of the episode, we’re not exactly told what position the show, Chase, or Frolov and Schneider take on this.

What we experience instead is so much greater.  We see the way actual people wrestle with important issues.  People have their philosophies in life, sure, but how do most of us think about the big issues in our ordinary life?  “The Fleshy Part of the Thigh” shows us, above all, one man’s journey to appreciating life, for a moment.  The moment here is  very real, and perhaps most realistically, as the season moves along, he gets further and further away from it.  On the flip side, one man damns his life – Paulie tells Tony the exact opposite of something he said in “Members Only,” the season premiere: “In the end, your family fucks you too.”  Tony learns to appreciate life and in the same wind, Paulie feels deadened by his.  Like the imaginary duality of good and evil Dr. Schwinn talks about, we see but one life, and varied reactions to it.

One last thought, for an episode that makes me think in virtually every way possible.  The song “The Three Bells” by The Browns.  Here, it plays as Jason Barone goes out for a ride in his beloved kayak.  In the next episode, “Mr. and Mrs. John Sacrimoni Request…,” the song plays again, as Vito Spatafore, about to be outed as gay, drives up and checks into a roadside motel.  I downloaded the song after this episode.  As Jason kayaks, the first verse sings of “Little Jimmy Brown,” and being born.  It plays over the son of a character, neither of whom have ever been seen before or will be seen afterwards.  One generation passes on to the next.  In Vito’s scene, the second verse plays, about Little Jimmy Brown’s wedding day.  We never hear the third verse in the season, but that verse sings about Jimmy Brown’s death.  Perhaps this is more indication of how David Chase wants us to approach his view of life – we were told that you’re born, you marry, and then you die.  Where does that leave a person who wants to consider his existence?  Who is that person, and where is he going?

“The Strong, Silent Type”

March 2, 2010

 

Season 4, Episode 10

Written By: Terrence Winter, Robin Green & Mitchell Burgess

Directed By: Alan Taylor

Synopsis: Christopher, after accidentally killing Adriana’s dog and getting car jacked looking for drugs, must confront his drug addiction.  The family stages an intervention for him after he beats up Adriana to get more drugs.  Tony is still fuming over Ralphie’s killing of his race horse, Pie-O-My, and trying to hide his own part in Ralphie’s death.  Issues over the HUD deal threaten to derail relations with the New York crime family.  Carmela’s pseudo-relationship with Furio has them both miserable.

Analysis:

“Communication is what love is based on.”

Furio utters those words to Carmela in his living room regarding the end of his relationship with “Jessica.” At this point in Season 4, Furio had gone to Italy to grieve for his dying father, but his heart is grieving elsewhere.  He says he and Jessica didn’t just connect like he does with… “some people.”

Why was Carmela in his living room?  Why, she had an idea about the ways in which a “mirrored backsplash” would improve the appearance of his “beautiful” home.  The home, you might notice, doesn’t look especially beautiful – its tiny, unpainted kitchen covered with dishes and littered is like most single men’s apartments.  Carmela brings AJ along with her too, just to up the ante for the “legitimacy” of why she’s visiting, but as she tells Rosalie Aprile later, it’s all bullshit – she’s living for the moments she can see Furio gazing at her.  Furio himself is cries in his car over the thought of Carmela.

Many seized on the difficulty of believing this relationship during season 4, but actually their scene in Furio’s apartment is quite convincing.  Yet what is it saying?  Here we have “The Strong, Silent Type,” one of the season’s most gripping episodes – which is to say, a lot happens.  In it, you have three side romances threatening to complicate the “real” long-term relationships at their periphery.  There’s Furio and Carmela.  There’s also Tony and brittle one-legged Russian nurse Svetlana (Alla Kliouka).  And there’s Christopher and his addiction to heroin, who has become the lover in his life, making him “unable to perform as a man” with Adriana.

“The Strong, Silent Type” is a recurring motif in the show, showing up no sooner than the Pilot episode in which Tony muses to Dr. Melfi, “Whatever happened to Gary Cooper, you know, the strong, silent type?”  Tony laments over everyone seeking therapy, whining about how difficult they have it, unable to function because of their own problems.  “The Strong, Silent Type” shows people who clutch on to those who allow them to express their desires and thoughts because their life is, well, so silent to them.  “Communication is what love is based on” is Carmela’s response, fraught with tension.

What is it at home with Tony that they cannot communicate?  Well, airing these secrets would be rather difficult.  At dinner, Carmela continues to snap at Tony and smell the wine brought by Furio from Italy.  When he calls her on it, Carmela says, it’s “my mother, her skin condition.”  But then, why is Tony so upset too?  For him, there is his murder of Ralphie Cifaretto, who in the previous episode, “Whoever Did This,” he killed, brutally, in the man’s kitchen.  Ralphie had torched the stables featuring Tony’s beloved racehorse Pie-O-My, enraging Tony.  “Whoever Did This” was one of season 4’s most famous episodes, this shock murder happening mid-episode.  Ralphie, played gruesomely by Joe Pantoliano for two years, was always a scumbag and you knew he’d wind up seeing an early grave.  Still, Tony’s furious killing of him shocked everyone.  So did the sight of Joe Pantoliano’s severed head as the episode graphically portrayed Tony and Christopher’s cleanup of the murder.

As I mentioned in discussing “No Show,” Season 4 brought the first bout of Sopranos backlash that the show experienced.  David Chase’s goals were always to push the form of the show, or so I think, so this sort of thing was inevitable and would be repeated with even more vitriol in the first part of Season 6.  Actually, if Season 4 and Season 6 share one thing in common – besides the backlash – it would be a sense separate writers tacking plotlines together in ways that often felt a little superglued.  Here, Winter must have written one half (perhaps the piece on Christopher’s drug addiction) and the superlative team of Green & Burgess the other (perhaps the plots of Carmela and Tony).  In some episodes, you felt as though you sat at the intersection of plotlines waiting to get up the road.

In “The Strong, Silent Type,” however, this intersection provides a lot of crossover.  Christopher’s drug is the lover he’s communicating with, and he violently lashes out at Adriana when she tries to discuss it with him.  He gets car-jacked in Newark then brought home, and hits her trying to get more money – after all, the car-jacking prevented Christopher from scoring the H he needs.  It also features one of the episodes great tragicomic lines.  Christopher’s been brought back from near death by a stranger, who asks for money, and Adriana snaps back, “Who the fuck are you?”  Christopher lives a double life she barely understands.

Actually, the episode begins with one of The Sopranos great bits of tragicomedy.  Christopher is watching TV while shooting heroin (a gorilla tellingly emerges from the woods).  In a haze, he sits on the couch crushing Adriana’s tiny dog Cosette to death.  Later, of course, there is an intervention, and it doesn’t quite go well.  Christopher calls his mother a cunt, prompting Paulie to smack him in the face and Benny Fazione to kick him in the rib cage.  Not exactly the first step many would envision on the path to recovery, but the scene is, uncomfortably, quite funny.

Yet the human touches surround the episode.  Director John Taylor frames the shot in which Tony and Carmela learn the extent of Christopher’s addiction brilliantly, watching Tony walk down the stairs, we see his expression go from annoyance at being woken up, to alarm at recognizing the bruises on Adriana’s face.  In fact, we see this for a few seconds before seeing Adriana.  Drea de Mateo would, in the show’s 5th season, win an Emmy for her work on Adriana, but actually, she began proving her capability in Season 4.  Here, her love of Christopher overpowers anything in her life.  Michael Imperioli, on the other hand, was always extraordinary as Christopher, but it was Season 4 that showed his inability to control the monster within wildly outpacing his humanity.  In a scene in the hospital later, Tony makes it clear to him that the only reason he even got an intervention rather than an “intervention right through the back of the skull” was because of Tony’s love for him.  Christopher breaks down in shame, unaware of how he’d gotten to this place. 

Many TV shows have attempted drug-addiction plotlines, but rarely did they take them here.  Just look at Michael Imperioli in this episode.  His arms are bruised and ugly.  He looks like he hasn’t slept in weeks.  Even earlier in the episode, when coming into the Bing to play pool, he looks like he’s barely alive, yet enough so that no one would really bother to investigate.  As we know from finishing the series too, as much as he tries, Christopher never gets on top of his addictions.

Meanwhile Tony’s lovers appear to be a horse and a one-legged nurse.  In one jolting cut, we’re taken from an angry Tony telling Furio to quit crying about his dead father, to him crying in Dr. Melfi’s office over Pie-O-My’s death.  Another source of Season 4 criticism was Tony’s love of this horse, that does seem to be a tad overkill – as Dr. Melfi tells him, “The death of this horse is sad, but it is a horse.”  She points out Tony had only cried one other time in her office – about the ducks who fled his pond in the Pilot episode.  She reminds him of the familial worldview the ducks embodied, to which he respond, “Can’t I just be sad for a horse without some Freudian, touchy-feely shit explaining it?”

Probably not in Sopranos world.  I had a theory on Pie-O-My.  In the episode the horse is introduced, “Pie-O-My,” Tony is asked why he never got a race horse before.  There have been other offers, other horses.  “Well you know, it’s a horse, it’s a commitment.”  Tony sees something different in this horse that goes further than the rest.  Is it too much of a leap to say that in this season, in which Tony’s marriage is the focus, this horse represents the other “commitment” in his life, to the one woman who went further than the others?  In the season’s first episode, Carmela tells him, “Everything ends Tony.  Everything.”  Pie-O-My is sick by the end of “Pie-O-My,” significantly after a fight with Carmela.  At the end of the season, his marriage to Carmela may be over.  Perhaps his feelings are a projection.

This is so crucial because truly, this episode speaks to the ways we don’t speak what is true to those that are closest to us, perhaps because of the suspicion that we may be voicing our concerns too publicly, or that our concerns aren’t valid.  When Tony has sex in the episode with Svetlana, the one-legged nurse, he seems attracted to her dignity in suffering.  She tells him that Americans never think they’ll be unhappy, so they’re unprepared, while the rest of the world thinks the exact opposite.  Afterwards, she tellingly rejects him for being too troubled.  As Furio and Tony each eat their dinner in cross-cut solitude, we see a vision of all of us, continuing forward suffering in much more silence than we were even aware could exist.

Scenes you may have forgotten:

Ah, the personal Sopranos touches reminding you that each character is, forever, locked in his and her own brain.  As Tony storms out of the Bada Bing in a rage from seeing Pie-O-My’s picture, he leaves a pool game mid-game.  Paulie’s classic response?  “That’s a forfeit, that’s our money.”  As Tony discusses Christopher’s predicament with Uncle Junior over a glass of Furio’s old-country wine, Junior first responds to the wine: “This reminds me of feet.”  As Dr. Melfi wants to get back to the overriding topic of her and Tony’s therapy, she says to him, “You’ve caused much suffering yourself.”  Tony stops, raises his eyebrow for a second.  Then he gets back to talking about horses.

Commendatori

August 26, 2009

“Commendatori”

Season 2, Episode 4commendatori

Written by: David Chase

Directed by: Tim Van Patten

 

David Chase started out his early days of The Sopranos wanting to expand the idea of a television series to be something that compounds – not simply a “13 hour movie,” but a story told across space and time, that deals with the feeling of movement from one week to the next.  Yet as soon as he’d come up with that mission statement, true to form, Chase felt frustrated – he missed the feeling of “self-contained episodes” that were mini-movies in and of themselves.  His response in Season 1 was “College,” the seminal Sopranos episode in which Tony and Meadow take a road trip to the Northeast to visit colleges while Tony kills an informant, and Carmela takes benediction that may or may not be sexual with Father Phil.

 

Season 2’s self-contained creation is “Commendatore,” an episode in which, at its core, Tony, Paulie, and Christopher head to Naples to visit the Family in Italy, and Carmela, at home, mans her social sphere of mafia wives around poor Angie Bompenserio, who after a cancer scare is finally willing to admit she hates her husband, Pussy.  There are vague references while in Naples to the past we’ve seen of Tony – to the stress of his mother in a nursing home, and to a certain inquisitive and inscrutable woman in his life – but, much like us when we travel, they are not truly discussed.

 

Perhaps to emphasize its stance as a mini-movie, “Commendatore” opens with, appropriately enough, an FBI warning on a TV screen – Tony and his crew are set to watch The Godfather II and discuss their favorite scenes.  “The crickets,” Tony says, “The great old house.”  These are Tony’s ideas of Italy.  He knows he’s going there, and The Godfather II is his ideal of the “old country” and the Family’s place in it.  We will hear crickets in this episode, and see a great old house, but one that isn’t old at all.  Tony pulls up to it with the traditional Italian song “Cuoro Ingrato” (the same song Junior will sing in “Army of One”) playing in his car, but that score is drowned out by rap music blasting from the windows of the house.  This isn’t Coppola’s Italy it turns out, and it isn’t his family.

 

So much of The Sopranos is devoted to exposing its characters ideas of a situation, proving those ideas false, but these characters being not entirely capable of grasping those differences, not quite making them better people because of it.  Tony has been warned Zi Vittorrio, the Napolitano crime boss he’s gone there to meet, is a “serious man,” but find out he’s lost his mind – the man quotes nothing but American street names to Tony.  The true boss, it turns out, is his drop dead gorgeous daughter Annalisa (Sofia Milos), married to a mafia kingpin serving a life sentence.  This is the first and biggest thing Tony must get used to about Italy – the Family is run by a woman.

 

But this, of course, is just where the differences begin.  Italy and New Jersey feature a culture divide that seems to have absolutely no bridging.  At a restaurant, Paulie wants “macaroni and gravy” instead of the muscles and seafood pasta he’s given (leading the locals to call him a “classless piece of shit”).  The three of them watch Furio (Federico Castellucio, in his first appearance – he’s a regular in the next two seasons, eventually even falling in love with Carmela himself) and his associates beat up a young child who set off firecrackers, fearing that they were gunshots aimed at Zi Vittorio.  Tony and Paulie marvel that “he’s just a kid” as the cops drive by, Furio punches the poor kid’s mother, and associates say, “This is Naples University,” all totally unsurprised by a typical scene of mafia violence. 

 

Annalisa herself is a puzzle – burning her toenail clippings to keep them from her enemy.  And in any case, the Italians find the American romanticizing of who they are bizarre and hilarious.  In a magnificent scene, Paulie marvels that he and his Italian hooker (Alida Tarallo, in a marvelous one scene performance) are from the same village.  She couldn’t care less as she – topless the entire time – douches herself and scratches her foot, rolling her eyes at Paulie’s bizarre infatuation and, truly, self-centered romance of what has always simply been her home.  The title too comes from Paulie’s perspective – “commendatore,” meaning commander, is what Italians seem to be saying to each other out of respect.  It also, occasionally, gets no response whatsoever from the true locals (the true locals, in this case, including David Chase in one of his Hitchcockian cameos).

 

This would be the first of many Sopranos excursions, and like future episodes, it was shot on location in Naples.  Over the years, The Sopranos will take us to LA (“Luxury Lounge”), Vegas (“Kennedy and Heidi”), Miami (“Calling All Cars,” “Remember When”), and Paris (“Cold Stones”).  Paris especially will be shot in the same manner – lots of unexplained shots of the environment itself, marveling at the details of the landscape.  A later scene, in which the men drive back from the airport, is silent except for the industrial vistas of Italy – home to some is quite different from home to others.  Tony says of Mt. Vesuvius, “I’m going to tell Artie that mural they spent all this money on is like a used Trojan compared to this.”

 

Yet why do we want to watch a bunch of xenophobes wandering around a foreign country?  To me the drive of “Commendatori” comes in Tony’s sense of fascination – Paulie and Christopher (incapacitated all episode due to the discovery of Italian heroin) are incapable, but Tony sees something else, a marvel of the differences of his world and who he is.  Annalisa says, as she takes care of her dad, “What else would I do, put him in a schpitz?”  That is what Tony did with his mother, after all – do they know more than he?  Or are they in a backwards world that cannot rationally survive – full of nonsense like an oracle Annalisa drags Tony into, where he flirts his way into a good business deal, but away from sex with Annalisa.  In the way Tony can be evil but is also rational and reasoned, his thoughts on his existence are ours.  Have we also not felt out of body, observers of our own in a new land when away from home?  Tony has no one to explain this to, and a call home from Carmela yields nothing but frustration – “well if the food is as stimulating as this conversation, I have nothing to worry about,” Carmela barks at him.

 

Carmela does not seem especially fond of Tony this episode, no she does not.  “Commendatori” does not only reference the old world respect of Italy, but also the culture of the Family’s wives, viewed as a unit perhaps for the first time in The Sopranos here.  At lunch, Rosalie, Carm, and Angie Bompenserio seem the picture of civility until Angie reveals that Pussy’s returning home makes her sick and that she intends to divorce him.  The news sends the wives gossip circle into a frenzy – we view, for the first time also, Silvio’s wife Gabriella, played by Steven Van Zandt’s actual wife Maureen Van Zandt.  She’s on hold with Carmela while she also talks to Ro – “I haven’t called Franny Altieri yet,” Carm says.  “Ooh, she’s gonna shit!” Ro responds.

 

It is perhaps worth noting, from August of 2009 while I’m writing this, that this aired in February of 2000, many years before reality TV turned so many financially wealthy, surgically enhanced middle-aged women into TV C-listers – perhaps now, in the world of the Real Housewives of… series, such underhanded cattiness is not especially surprising.  In those TV shows, the breaches of social folkways are turned into the stuff of a million camera-ready asides.  Can you imagine those women behaving as Ro did when Angie starts crying at lunch – that is, yelling to table of onlookers, “Eat your manicot, fuckin’ nosey!”  Can you imagine those women behaving as Carmela did, couching her gossip in concern – Angie was breaking the “holy sacrament” of marriage, leaving 3 children from a broken home – although, as Angie points out, the youngest of these children is 19.

 

Tony and Angie are the main focuses of the action on screen, in Italy and in New Jersey, but really, Carmela’s actions are the true object of fascination in the episode – the stuff you can’t get out of your head.  Her interactions with Tony are terse and dismissive, and why, truly, does she become so involved in Angie’s unhappiness?  Janice comes up with something – about women acting in the mother/whore vein for mafia men (and David Chase has, on occasion, called Carmela a whore) before tripping on her own inadequacies as someone who follows human logic (Janice calls Richie Aprile “sensitive” after having been in prison – this from the guy who ran over a relatively innocent mafia associate three times two episodes ago).

 

But it’s Carmela’s final scene with Angie that says the most about her.  In her home, she comforts Angie – or, is she manipulating her?  Entreating her three children, Angie starts crying, and Carmela hugs her, responding, “In the end, I know you’ll stay with him.”  This is, in its way, an act of emotional violence on Angie, forcing her to conform with her own compromises and unhappiness.  The final scene of the episode remains truly one of The Sopranos most haunting final minutes.  Carmela is home, listening to Andrea Bocelli’s “Con Te Partiro” as she does a few times throughout the episode and resurfacing later in the series’ run – even remarking on how a blind person can possess access to such emotions.  In a way, the song symbolizes Carmela’s blindness to her own emotions.  Angie commented at lunch that when Pussy returned and said he was home, she “wanted to vomit.”  Well, we see the same thing – Tony returns from Italy, and Carmela’s face is shown in full disgust because for the episode cuts to credits.  Her story and Angie’s are truly the same – one in which the important questions and thoughts of life are stifled in the day to day ongoings of the world that is their New Jersey lives.  Such a complex airing of Carmela’s contradictions form, truly, the basis for who she is throughout the series – in touch, but inexorable in a world she has no power to leave.

 

A scene you may not have noticed:

In an early scene showing a typical WASP-y family getting carjacked for Tony’s cross-continent car theft ring, David Chase lays on his bourgeois antipathy rather thick – the mother has a sensible sweater wrapped around her shoulders, and the family has a cute Cocker Spaniel named Churchill.  After their carjacking, the father yells, “Fucking n—ers!  Who else?” before cutting to a shot of Tony’s satisfied face looking at a picture of their SUV.  Chase has always seemed to have little patience for upper crust modernity, but his true attempt is to explore it – in this case, of the seething ignorance and viciousness barely under the surface of their good graces, as the father of the family unleashes his racial tirade as a response to his provocation. 

 

The truth is, I think Chase needed to employ a little of this cynicism and bitterness in order to truly capture all of us.  In future (and, for that matter, past) episodes, dealings with money are always very specific on the amounts, perks of middle class economic success very clearly drawn – and the fear and bile they hide exposed.  From episode to episode, you can often connect dots of this type of cynicism dotting around both in peripheral characters, and in the interactions of the main cast.

Made In America

July 15, 2009

“Made In America”

Season 6, ep. 21holstens

Written and Directed by David Chase

Call it as close to a mission statement as David Chase ever wrote or his worst bit of writing ever.  Call it deeply routine regarding the lives of The Sopranos’ characters or a treatise on modern America and the immigrant experience.  In fact, call it brilliant or call it terrible – that’s the divide that occupied most of the episode’s discussion immediately after it aired.  “Made In America,” the final Sopranos episode, was more divisive than anything the show ever aired, and perhaps (as I certainly believe) that only emphasizes all of the astonishing elements that fascinate about it.  The second Tony, Carmela, and AJ pick up their onion rings at their table at Holsten’s, a certain iconic logic immediately overcame all discussion of the episode.   It is an episode full of dichotomies, and is, in its own effect, composed of two episodes anyway – one resolving the immediate storyline of Tony’s gang war with Phil Leotardo’s New York crew, and one telling the story of where all of these characters we’ve known will wind up – and perhaps, where everyone winds up.

As a unified whole, however, “Made In America” moves at a different pace than other Sopranos episodes, a fact seized upon by my idol Owen Gleiberman, writing a synopsis for Entertainment Weekly – he found it choppy and declared it “hardly David Chase’s deftest hour of writing.”  Like many so-called flaws pointed out in The Sopranos run, I have no doubt as to the intentionality of this approach.  The scenes jut at you, cut quickly into one another, and move away instantly.  Things, important things, seem to have happened between the last scene and what we’re watching, but  we’re supposed to catch up.  Life, after all, is a composition of moments we did not know going in were important, so we’re given many perspectives on many moments and asked to compile the entirety of the story ourselves.

Start with the first scene – Tony’s where we left him at the end of “The Blue Comet,” alone in a dark room, in front of its door, with a very large gun, totally unsure what will happen next.  His best friend Silvio is near death and Bobby Baccala is gone for good.  The episode opens as virtually half of the episodes of this second half of season 6 (which aired in the spring of 2007) does, with a medium shot of Tony waking up from sleeping.   This scene, with music blaring, find him in his room, and then suddenly, we’re in a car on a snowy, cold night sitting by the Newark airport, waiting to hear from Agent Harris as Tony solicits information he has no right to get on Phil Leotardo’s whereabouts.  Then it’s daytime and we’re driving along the Jersey shore as Tony heads to his safehouse.  Later, even conversations will have their own internal jumpiness – a sit down between Tony, Little Carmine, and Butchie of the New York crews in a Queens car parts warehouse will sometimes sound as if a train is hurtling past them, and other times be silent.  Or even later, Tony will discuss with AJ his plan to join the military, and then suddenly we jump to him saying “He’s joining the army!” to Carmela as she sits in the bath.  This sentence (what is that, 3 seconds in duration?) comprises the entirety of that scene.

I am firmly certain this is intentional and meant to feel jumpy, sudden, disorienting.  It speaks to the actual rhythms of actual life.  David Chase spent so much of his time on The Sopranos working himself away from conventional storytelling and narratives, and eventually, this drove him from any type of the comforts of scene-to-scene rhythm altogether.  In “Made In America,” we can expect life to jump around like this forever, and for Tony to come to in realizing these moments’ importance at any second… or the opposite, the significance will end everything.  Such as the episode-changing moment in which Paulie walks into the Bada Bing, finds no one (including, thankfully for him, no Virgin Mary – he stares off at an empty spot on the Bada Bing stage where he’d seen her a year earlier in “The Ride”), and calls Tony to tell him Carlo is missing.

Has this war with New York continued, Paulie wonders?  Tony concludes something else – that Carlo’s turned on him.  This is a moment Tony’s waited for in these 9 episodes that ran as a mini-season concluding the series.  He speaks in “Kennedy and Heidi” over the relief he feels in Christopher’s death in that, “every day I wake up wondering… which of my fat fuck friends is going to kill me, or rat me out.”  This is what Carmela speaks of when she cries to Tony, in “Chasing It,” “we walk around here as if there isn’t a giant piano hanging over your head.”  And this is what Tony means when he tells Bobby, sitting peacefully on a lake in the Adirondacks in “Soprano Home Movies,” “80% of the time, this ends in the can like Johnny Sack, or on the embalmer’s table,” a conversation he flashes back to briefly in “The Blue Comet” after Bobby has found himself on the latter half of that 80%.  This season is about that anxiety that lurks everywhere.  Never has anxiety been more interestingly or unnervingly chronicled as it was in the 9 hours that made up this half of the season.

This is the other way in which “Made In America” speaks to the rhythm of actual life – not only do the scenes jut with a rhythm we can’t recognize, but big events happen in it with little fanfare, with people not acknowledging the enormity of their implications.  Tony sits down to have a conversation with Mink, his lawyer, who spends their conversation trying to unstop a ketchup bottle and glancing at security camera footage of Bada Bing strippers.  He invokes Tony’s same language: “80-90% chance you’ll get indicted,” he tells Tony.  Tony registers sadness in his eyes, and Mink now must move on to his next argument – “Trials are made to be won,” he tells Tony.  Small comfort.  Tony too, later, confirms with Carmela what they suspected – Carlo, Tony’s longtime friend, is going to testify against him in order to keep his own son out of jail.  Carmela does not respond, they just go on eating onion rings.  The consequences there are too big to discuss at this dinner, and in any case, what would discussing them change anyway.

There are so many elements to discuss in this episode, but if I can narrow it down to one thing David Chase hoped to accomplish, perhaps with the entire series, is an acknowledgment of the modern America as distinctly different than the stories we tell ourselves about it, because we continue to perpetuate myths from our past.  This is an America he shows us full of products – business meetings provided with Polish Spring Bottles, Phil Leotardo decapitated by his giant Ford SUV.  Early in the episode, at Bobby’s funeral, AJ, borderline incoherent, starts babbling, “I mean America, it’s still where people come to make it.  And for what?  Bling?”  He wonders why we tell these stories, and we see them, in form, throughout the episode.  Butchie calling Phil from Little Italy in New  York City is passed by a tour bus that blasts “New York’s Little Italy once spanned 40 square blocks, and has since been reduced to one row of shops and restaurants.”  As Butchie continues walking in the snow and wind, he is absorbed into a crowd of faces that are white, black, Asian.  America’s cultural identity isn’t what we said about it – this is Little Italy, but it’s also where America has moved forward and become something else.   Later, Tony and Paulie sit in front of Satriale’s “Italian Sausage” sign, but as they are sitting, the capital letters of Sausage – based on the position of their bodies – compose the shot into saying “Italian USA.”  Like the opening credits that symbolically moved a mob story away from New York City and into the place it truly exists (or, perhaps better stated, also exists), the high end suburbs of New Jersey, the story continues to exist in its way, but our conceptualization up until now has distorted it.  “Italian USA” helps David Chase proclaim that he’s telling a little more of our story now.

The past gets reduced to legend – from a bus, or from memory itself.  A sad, unnerving scene at episode’s end hammers this theme further  – Tony, finally visiting Uncle Junior ostensibly on defense of Bobby’s survived children, finds Junior more incapacitated and demented than he realized.  “You ran North Jersey,” he tells Junior, “you and my father, your kid brother Johnny.”  “I did?” Junior asks.  “That’s nice,” he states, and seems to mean it.

There is much to be said about many other elements in the episode.  Things come back from moments past in small, circular fashion in the way good writers love to speak of their projects.  Tony, before going to see Uncle Junior, stares up at the bare end of his trees, like he did in “The Fleshy Part of the Thigh” after being shot, in reflection there that every day was a gift.  Tony still wants to believe that, truly.  He also holds Silvio’s hand at the hospital in the same manner  Silvio held his when Tony was in the same hospital bed.  AJ refers to military school (season 3), Tony and Paulie run down the list of dead Captains from Ralph Cifaretto’s crew (“Gigi died taking a shit!”), Meadow runs back through traffic towards the family in a way she did away from the family at the end of season 3’s “Army of One.”  AJ references to Tony something he once said – “remember the times that were good,” a mistelling of that quote anyway, but one Tony remembers so little of, he initially thinks AJ’s joking – but ultimately concludes, “well, it’s true I guess.”  And Tony – in our only resolution to his sudden dismissal by Dr. Melfi in “The Blue Comet” – gets to regurgitate what he’s been able to admit from therapy as well – his mother’s a borderline personality, and he could never please her.  We smile for Dr. Melfi’s ethical convictions, but also that her work has made Tony somewhat more understanding.

Because we do care about him, we do.  This is a fact David Chase seemed surprised he had to assert again when he went on the defensive about his final hour of his show.  By now, you likely know how the series ended – mid glance from Tony, up from a table, ostensibly towards a bell being rung at Holsten’s entrance.  This scene is incredibly tense and sits on that cut for a very long time before credits begin (and, Chase states, he initially wanted no credits at all).  This was one last jolt from the complacency of being able to say goodbye to people, but also without getting closure on the deeds they’ve committed.  As close as we get is Carmela’s glancing down at the table when Tony tells her Carlo will be testifying against him.  David Chase says he was surprised to find out people wanted Tony dead, wanted his blood on the wall.

Perhaps it’s there.  There’s more than enough room to find that in the Holsten’s scene – the man in the gray jacket who comes in before AJ, sits down looking at AJ, and later goes into the men’s room, which looks suspiciously like the bathroom from The Godfather, a fact we see right away, even if we feel we’re reaching for it.  Tony has referenced this scene in his own mind too, reliving it in kind during a dream in “The Test Dream.”  This scene cuts suddenly to silence, which is what Tony remembered of his conversation with Bobby after Bobby died – back to that boat ride on the Adirondacks, when the two said to each other, “you probably don’t even hear it when it happens.”  We don’t hear anything, total silence.  Tony has just killed a boss, and it seemed all too easy.  Why not?

What does it mean if they die in this manner?  No one really believed Tony would die, right?  He’s the entire show!  My initial conclusion on the episode when I saw it was that Tony didn’t die, it’s just a mood of anxiety the show proffers, intending to show us that the anxiety is, for Tony, for us, more real than the actual occurrence.  OK, I can buy that enough now, but that’s not the whole story.  Yes.  You can conclude that the Sopranos were killed then, and certainly Tony was.  All of my “anxiety” rhetoric is protecting me from the truth that is so plainly in that scene.  No.  Tony was not killed in this scene, we’re just being anxious, and worse, buying into typical TV narrative logic that David Chase wants to break.

“I didn’t want to say crime paid.  I didn’t want to say crime didn’t pay.”  On the commentary of “The Blue Comet,” Steven Van Zandt recalls this was David Chase’s answer to the question, “why did you end the show like that?”  Instead, he says both.  This is the ultimate dichotomy of this episode – Tony lives, and there is meaning, and Tony dies, and there is meaning.  In some interviews, David Chase has sidestepped the question and said, “it doesn’t matter if it happened then or sometime later, the end was coming.”  That is true especially in that we already know Tony’s one of his dreaded 80%, but we just assume it’ll be part of the 80% that winds up in jail.  Perhaps that was enough, and that was what fate had in store for him.  That’s easier to deal with also.  But we do not know what fate has in store for us, and we don’t know what it has in store for Tony.  Why must we expect Chase to tell us this?  Both are real answers, both occurred, and both never happened.  In that moment, the world is a realm of certain possibilities, the kind that lucky people will dodge or perhaps curse their luck and their choices as they take their dying breaths.  Some people will die like Junior without the aid of even the stories of your life to comfort yourself, saying, only mildly “Me, I never had children.”  Some will die like Christopher did, suddenly, without much warning.  Some will continue living with all of their agita around death and superstition, like Paulie, who we last see sunbathing at Satriale’s next to the cat he wants to kill.  Fate and life are the ultimate untold stories of all of narration, and in telling this story with this much bold narrative control and uncertainty, David Chase got us a little closer to telling that story.

Something you may have missed:

What did you think of the scene in which Rhiannon and AJ, listening to Bob Dylan, make out, only to have his car blow up on him?  One thing David Chase did beautifully, always, was to capture the mood and words of his characters, who sometimes are living clichés, but to not devalue them – they are, after all, real to the characters they’re occurring to.  Rhiannon and AJ are connecting over Dylan’s meaning like a million college co-eds, and Rhiannon says, “It was written so long ago but is still true,” as if it’s the deepest thought ever.  Yet they have a true connection to each other, do they not?

How about the snap Janice delivers to an orderly at Junior’s hospital minutes before attempting to play a sad widow “inveigling him” for money (as Junior’s friend Pat describes it)?  “It doesn’t cost anything to be nice!” She snaps.  “That goes both ways,” the orderly snaps back.

AJ mispronouncing Yeats, Agent Harris’s affair with a Brooklyn agent, Donna Parisi’s inability to tell a joke, Carmela’s glow of success as a parent upon hearing Meadow’s initial offer of a starting salary.  This is a show that treasured the small, characterizing details of its characters and believed wholly that their stories, however silly, clichéd, or stereotypical, deserved to be told and told with respect.  That is ultimately why The Sopranos is the best show ever written.

“Army Of One”

March 18, 2009

sopranos-armySeason 3, Episode 13

Written by David Chase & Lawrence Konner

Directed by John Patterson

 

Analysis:

It never failed that every year a season of The Sopranos aired, someone would write, the day afterwards, that “The Sopranos ended with a whimper this year.”  As I wrote regarding season 2’s go-for-the-jugular “The Knight In White Satin Armor,” The Sopranos liked to put its big deaths and big action in the penultimate episode of each season.  “Army of One” is arguably one of the most emotionally taxing Sopranos episodes, but after the blood spattered, sometimes furiously cynical 3rd season, “Sopranos ends with a whimper” was the headline the day after it aired – even with poor Jackie Jr. (Jason Cerbone) lying dead in a pile of snow in the Jersey projects.

 

I remember thinking, back then in May of 2001, when I finally finished watching the third season of The Sopranos that this was perhaps the most perfect season of television that I’d ever seen.  Some of that came back to my first understanding of The Sopranos command of details – that in their Christmas episode “To Save Us All From Satan’s Power,” a small detail of AJ’s scooter comes up three times and has no relevance anywhere else in the episode; it was only relevant in that it mattered in Tony’s day to day life that we got to be a part of.  Even more than that, The Sopranos third season aired in the Spring of 2001, but began just before Fall semester for Meadow at Columbia, featured a Thanksgiving episode and a Christmas episode, and ended, during “Army of One,” as Sylvio, Christopher, and Patsy Parisi get arrested for Super Bowl bets.

 

It was a clever move, and the focus on times of the year would be elaborated upon in future seasons, but it truly began here, with its great feel for seasons, heat, cold.  Cerbone, for whom I’m shocked didn’t become a big star after this season, looked so lost and small inside of his puffy gray winter coat, despite his large guido physique.  The episode opens with two contrasting scenes of “juniors” – AJ and his friend Egon peeing in a school boiler room before trying to steal the answers to a science test, and then followed with Jackie and his friend at a gun dealer’s apartment (played by The Wire’s Michael K. Williams, rocking Omar’s great facial scar before it was cool).  Jackie is 23 in the episode and AJ 15, but both are still such children.  Both have the names of the mobsters who begat them, but both are juniors through and through.  Jackie had just made a move on a card game – much like Tony and Jackie Sr. had done at his age – but with disastrous results; this kid is still playing dress up.

 

Children, or at least parenting, was the subject of the third season, as was most evident in the great season 3 episode “University,” which I wrote about previously.  In that episode, a 19-year-old stripper named Tracee is beaten to death by scumbag Ralph Cifaretto, and smart editing contrasts her life with Meadow’s privileged life.  Meadow is a great focus of the season, but AJ’s plot contrasted with Jackie’s is a larger arc of the season, and more importantly, the notions of one generation’s standards giving way to the confusion of modern times.  Tony says in The Sopranos’ pilot episode that he feels as if he’s come in “after all the good stuff,” and “Army of One” generalizes that feeling to the entire generation.  This episode asks the question “what happened,” and theorizes that children have lost respect for their elders, that people no longer follow their institutions’ codes, and that everything’s gotten worse.

 

But it also poses a much smarter answer, spoken by a Major at a New Brunswick military school which Carmela and Tony consider sending AJ: “We’ve created too many options for our kids, you can’t blame them for being confused.”  That is true, to an extent, of everyone – now with the whole world as a possibility, the rigid rules are given more scrutiny, and as Tony experiences in “Army of One,” it leads to uncertainty and self loathing.  The Major tries to assuage Tony and Carmela that they don’t inspire mere groupthink by informing them (two years ahead of its actual implementation in print ads) that the Army’s new motto is to be “an army of one.”  “Why be an army at all?” Carmela asks.  Look what it leads to.  Tony, at least, finds an answer in the military – a certainty that breaks the loathing he’d feel leading AJ into a life in the Family he just couldn’t handle.

 

The fact that Tony’s experiencing this is an interesting point in and of itself, because he’s arguably the only person with control on what’s going on.  Early in the episode, Jackie calls Tony crying for support, and asks him to think of his father.  Tony hangs up on him, and obsequiously tells Ralph (Jackie’s “stepfather,” as he’s officially dating Rosalie Aprile, despite having numerous affairs) “You know all this, you’re a captain.  Chain of command is very important in our thing,” tacitly telling him to keep Jackie from calling Tony crying.  Carmela calls Tony crying at the Bing, and we assume it’s because she’s gotten news of Jackie – but it isn’t, it’s news of AJ getting expelled for cheating.

 

As Tony and Carmela fight with AJ at home, we’re drawn back into the everyday morass of parenting a difficult teenager.  Tony slaps AJ for a quick rebuke – he complains that he, like so many fathers before him, “work(s) hard all day to pay for this: 6,000 sq. ft. house, big-screen TVs, food on the table, video games, all sorts of scooters and bicycles… Columbia University. And for what? To come home to this?”  “Sucks to be you,” AJ responds.  It isn’t until the three of them sit down again to eat that Carmela gets the news of Jackie’s death and rushes to be by Rosalie’s side.  “You see?” Tony asks AJ.

 

“You see?”  Those words are simple, but they seem to echo everyone’s desire to keep the kids away from the life they’ve had.  Tony had told Jackie all season that his father had wanted him to “be a doctor,” although, he and Uncle Junior discuss this episode what an idiot Jackie had always been (“Is being stupid a learning disorder?” Tony asks his uncle).  We see Jackie’s pictures at his funeral – a sweet, goodlooking football star for his high school.  Yet here he is in a coffin?  He, like AJ, can’t last in his family’s business, but he’s too spoiled for the actual world.  “In the end, I failed him,” Tony tells Dr. Melfi conclusively.  Maybe his whole generation did, or maybe Jackie failed himself.  Maybe a little of each.

 

In any case, if parenting is the theme of the season, then the real focus of season 3 has been Meadow – we see her lose her virginity, date and be heartbroken from a mobster, and begin to create ambitions that make her parents proud – leaving Jersey.  As Tony puts her desire to be a pediatrician, “The important thing is that she get far away from me.  Well she could live close.”  This, coupled with a later question to Dr. Melfi regarding AJ, “How are we going to save this kid?” are two of the toughest lines Tony’s had to utter as a parent.  That last one is made even worse by a quick cut to Jackie Jr.’s coffin being unloaded from a hearse.

 

In the way that parents sometimes look at their somewhat-grown children and marvel at how they got to the place they’re at, The Sopranos takes growing children to a new level of intimacy in this episode in observing Meadow.  She’s such a fascinating mixture of loyalty, wisdom, immaturity and understanding.  She gets drunk with Jackie’s younger sister, Kelly, who begins to insinuate that Jackie’s death was mob-related in front of a distant cousin.  Now, Meadow had made this same accusation to her mother earlier in the episode (“People have to get X from somewhere,” she says dismissively of Jackie’s alleged drug ties).  This time she takes Kelly to task – “The fact that you would even joke about this, in front of an outsider is amazing to me.  Some loyalty?”  Yet later, in the car with Carmela, Meadow is both respectful and spiteful of her parents’ nature.

 

So much of the struggle of independence and “family” is represented in Meadow, whose very name suggests the dreams and peaceful hopes of her parents.  In the episode’s most famous and argued over sequence, a loose, drunk Junior begins to sing an Italian ballad called “Ungrateful Heart” at Jackie’s memorial, being held at Vesuvio.  While the Family watches reverently, a looser, drunker Meadow begins throwing bread at Junior, and breaks out laughing, singing the title of Britney Spears’s “Oops! I Did It Again.”  Tony chases her outside, before she yells “This is bullshit!” and races across traffic.  When Tony comes back in, he says to Carmela merely, “I guess she went back to Columbia.”

 

There’s a metaphor to be had of Tony chasing Meadow into traffic, and her winding up on the other side, far away, towards safety.  Certainly the clash of generations in the Vesuvio sequence is clear.  Some have argued it’s too clear, but it would also be clear to Meadow, who understands enough of what’s occurring to know she needs to reject the whole culture that raised her.  She’s not done with her conflicts of self yet in the series, but she does know the past is not for her.  This is sad for Tony, but ultimately he knows it’s right – Meadow’s made her way out of danger, and now they have to save the other ungrateful heart they’re responsible for.  That won’t be done with any method his family and he have tried in the past, and AJ will only be getting more confused the older and more entitled he becomes.

 

Some scenes you may have missed:

There are four clever touches in this episode that show the extraordinary depth of character The Sopranos employs – in four ridiculous ways.

 

First, Patterson employs a terrifically off-kilter angle to shoot Paulie’s head as he leaves his mother in Green Grove, the “retirement community” responsible for so much of Livia Soprano’s agita.  Nucci Gaultieri is beloved by Paulie, but she’s a ludicrous figure, and Paulie’s bizarrely excessive defensiveness of her is one of his quirkiest characteristics.  Here, he’s shot from underneath, as if the camera is jutting far out from his stomach, a great vision of his nostrils and hair flairs – what better way to show someone who’s a sinister, sometimes comic vision of mob obligation.

 

Second, Janice at the funeral home throws a CD of “Christian contemporary music” to the pastor in his office.  “I wish I had something like this at my mother’s own funeral,” and claims that Tommy Mottola will probably sign them soon.

 

Third, Ralphie, that master of scumminess, complains during a sit-down that he’s been needing to avoid Ro – “all that crying” makes it too difficult to sleep.  After Jackie’s funeral, too, he goes straight to the chair to watch college football.  What a stepfather.

 

Finally, Tony, complaining of the “putrid fucking rotten” Soprano gene in therapy mentions a great-great grandfather in Avellino who, out of depression, drove his mule cart off the road.  Carmela will mention this in passing during a fight in the final season’s “The Second Coming.”  Tony whines quite a bit, eh?

 

And one final bit of continuity I love.  Tony’s final words in the Season One finale, “I Dream of Jeannie Cusimano,” have come up at various times in the series, and here, Meadow remembers them as important – but incorrectly and attributes them to the wrong person.  “That thing you said once about remembering the times with the people that are important to you,” Meadow recalls.  “Actually, your father said that,” Carmela corrects her.  In the series finale, AJ reminds Tony of saying that, and Tony, as many of us would, says “I said that?”

“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.

“Join The Club”

October 14, 2008

Season 6, Episode 2

Written By: David Chase

Directed By: David Nutter

 

Plot synopsis:  In a coma due to being shot by Uncle Junior, Tony hallucinates his life as a businessman, stranded in Cosa Mesa on a business trip that has him doubting his identity.  While in the hospital for Tony, Carmela, Meadow, and AJ react to the possibility of losing Tony.

 

Analysis:

Here it is – what has to be the most challenging episode of The Sopranos, and, in its way, one of its most ambitious, daring hours.  The first 12 episodes of Season 6 were viewed by many as not very good, especially as they aired a year earlier than the far more action-packed final 9 episodes of the season, which garnered universal acclaim and a final Best Drama Series Emmy for the show.  The first 12, led by “Join The Club” as the icebreaker, were deemed “dull,” and full of material audiences found uncompelling – by the time its half-season finale “Kaisha” aired, so many negative responses had been logged, David Chase introduced his commentary to “Kaisha” by saying, “Welcome to The Sopranos, the famous show where nothing happens.”  However, it is the first 12 of season 6 I like most, episodes that were moody, isolated, cold, existential, and, truly, beyond the scope and attempt of any piece of popular entertainment, previous episodes of The Sopranos included.

 

At this time, The Sopranos had flirted with things making less and less sense – “Meadowlands” of season 1 gave us a three minute dream sequence, “Funhouse” in season 2 gave us half a dozen that included talking fish and toilet paper being whipped out in a car.  Season 4’s “Calling All Cars” few dream sequences made absolutely no sense, and Season 5’s “The Test Dream” amped that up even further by making some sense and taking up a full 30 minutes of the episode.  I’d say that one still clocks in at longer screentime than the hallucination that makes up half of “Join The Club,” but that one was well liked – this was not. 

 

“Join The Club” is paired with the following episode, “Mayham,” that takes us deep inside Tony’s comatose experience – he’s found himself in Cosa Mesa on a business trip and lost his briefcase and wallet.  Here he is a “patio furniture salesman who made the jump to selling fiber optics” and has now “grabbed the brass sales ring for 12 straight quarters,” says a woman in Tony’s hotel… or the hotel in his mind, that is.  His response? Dismissal – “It’s not so impressive.  There’s always a faster gun.  I’m 46 years old.  I mean, who am I?  Where am I going?”  “Join the club,” the woman responds.

 

This version, coming from Tony’s subconscious, is much more sedate than reality – for close to 15 minutes, you’re locked into an alternate world of Tony’s comatose subconscious – he’s reimagined himself a businessman out west on conference, he’s been stripped of his New Jersey accent. His wife’s voice is stern and foreign, his kids generic and young. And Tony, Tony’s been replaced by Kevin Finnerty, or …inFinnerty, or, infinity, a confrontation with the end of his times. Still David Chase writes it like a plausible scenario – a dense text of the everyday, a bar, a beacon spinning out the window somewhere far off. He’s confronted by Buddhist monks (“Lose your arrogance!” they yell and push him down), a TV screen of a burning bush, a pro-Jesus ad declaring “Are sin, death, and disease real?”

 

And that dialogue. A simple confrontation. Tony is indeed a businessman, the me-first representation of American capitalism, and there’s still a faster gun (he’s just been shot, after all, by a demented old man who’s lost his mind). It begins intense speculations – are our accomplishments generic when it counts, in dark bars and dark times. They ask Tony how he, “made the leap from selling patio furniture to fiber optics,” a more businesslike way of saying how he became someone.

 

But he’s not certain he’s become anyone, not certain he can live with the weight of what he’s done, confounded by the notion that he’s done anything, or that maybe he hasn’t. He loses his identity, which, for a businessman, is his briefcase – “My whole life was in there!” he declares, and indeed it is. His life is his possession, the thing he’s cultivated, and yet it could mean nothing, the cultivation replacing the experience of living.

 

This is, of course, the beginning of the malaise of the season – several characters will quote Tony’s question, particularly Carmela.  Each episode will focus on a crisis of character and personal identity as they approach the finale – this is the crux of why Carmela worries (as she tells a fictive Adriana in the season premiere), of why AJ has panic attacks and eventually attempts suicide, of why Christopher turns back to the drugs that will eventually do him in (sorta). 

 

How does it accomplish this?  At the shock conclusion of the season premiere, “Members Only,” Tony has been shot in the stomach and has fallen on the floor with 911 asking him who he is.  As this episode begins, we simply get Tony, for a very long time, sitting on a hotel bed with the beacon gleaming far off in the window.  That beacon is another vision of the afterlife, one bravely placed in the opening shot of the episode, confronting us with its meaning.  (In “Mayham,” Chase will go a step farther – coma-Tony asks on the telephone, without us hearing the response, “What is that beacon anyway?”  His answer might be the answer to many burning spiritual questions.)  Tony picks up a phone, dials his wife – the dark-voiced nobody wife, that is – and says, simply, “I’m here, call me.  Love you.”  He walks outside, and a helicopter overhead shines a light in his eyes, and we see the face of a nurse looking through the light – our only indication that this is Tony’s experience in his subconscious.

 

People questioning why they do what they do has long been a theme of The Sopranos, and they even posed the “eternal” questions once – disastrously.  Season 2’s “From Where To Eternity” attempted to posit the extreme, existential reactions of the Family after Christopher gets shot.  It was written by Michael Imperioli, who plays Christopher in, truly, one of TV’s all time great embodiments – a performance that always went toe to toe with its heavyweights, James Gandolfini and Edie Falco.  Imperioli, however, is a terrible writer, and “From Where To Eternity” feels out of character for everybody and the results of questioning here is groans – groans that are, thankfully, barely mentioned again.  I don’t like to credit a lot of missteps in The Sopranos, as so often its mistakes are intentional, but I make exceptions for the Imperioli-scripted episodes.

 

“Join The Club” arguably tackles the same questions, but in hiding it in a scenario that could be a fairly average hallucination – a guy thinks he’s stuck at a hotel – Chase does something more interesting – he acknowledges the difficult questions Tony is wrestling with while also acknowledging Tony’s defense mechanisms against them.  We’re watching as Tony’s defenses erode – his mind has protected him with an illusion of a conflict to solve, but the larger questions intrude: Jesus is on the TV, but is that even an ad, you must ask?  Monks in the hallway mistake him for Finnerty, but they want to discuss how his “solar heating” missteps have caused them to have a “cold winter at the monastery” – its own take on people being affected by Tony’s choice to constantly pillage others for his personal gain.  Eventually, the scenario turns morbid anyway – coma-Tony tumbles down stairs, and finds himself diagnosed, implausibly, with Alzheimer’s a disease, he says, that makes you “a smurf for 10 or 15 years, and then you die, shitting in your pajamas.”

 

The other way that “Join The Club” plunges you into deep questions of existence without actually doing it is by its constant zig-zag between Tony’s hallucination and the response of his loved ones.  Much was made at the time, even by the episode’s detractors, of the extraordinary work of Edie Falco in the episode – in a series in which Falco never hit a false note anyway, this episode is a standout.  At his bedside, to the tune of Tom Petty’s “American Girl,” Carmela tells Tony how sexy she still finds him, and rebukes any of her statements made in the Pilot that he’s going to hell.  Later, she’ll confess to Dr. Melfi that she’s not even sure she means anything she said to him, but she certainly seemed to mean it at the time.

 

Dealing with grief is what this episode does best, and where The Sopanos succeeds most seamlessly is in letting each character’s individual experience be true to that character – a depth in writing that’s so alarming because it isn’t even noticeable.  Carmela is strong, weak, a mess, but also deeply in charge – she reminded me of my own mother, and I suspect many in the audience had the same reaction.  See how her scene with Tony goes from a bit of casual, perfunctory, keep-things-tame to a full, tear-drenched breakdown – but with mother-ready platitudes like “it is a sin, and I will be judged.”  AJ snaps at everyone, can’t focus, gets hungry, and eventually vows revenge at Tony’s bedside after saying, “I can’t believe we’re not gonna, like, do stuff together again.”  Janice comes in and claims that she will take care of everyone, even instructing Carmela to go home, however, when she sees Tony, it is she that collapses, forcing everyone to take care of her. 

 

AJ is dumb, Carmela is aware of social cues, and Janice has a false sense of her own capabilities and limits, but Chase has never made one-dimensional characters – these are facets of personality that illicit sympathy from us, not derision, even as each unique voice is respected.  If we saw our father, husband, or brother with an open incision and were forced to confront the fact that he could die, how would we respond?  There’s great comic relief from Vito and Paulie and Christopher, who try to outdo each other with politeness to the family, but, as we’ll see in “Mayham,” it’s only Sylvio who is really concerned for his friend – he will grab Tony’s hand silently at his bedside, a gesture repeated in the finale by Tony when it is Sylvio in the hospital bed.

 

It is all this work that makes the confrontation with grief, remorse, mortality, and the “big questions” so true – we deal with it, as people, and we don’t.  It brings out the worst in us, and it requires that we protect ourselves with stories, scenarios – things we may be able to manage, even though the truth creeps in.  “Join The Club” ends with an image of stark loneliness – Tony, sitting on his bed, certain now of his “death sentence,” picks up a phone he refuses to dial, and stares silently out at the beacon, creeping ever around without regard for his suffering.  As Moby’s “When It’s Cold, I’d Like To Die” plays, we feel, truly, how alone, how scared Tony feels – a feeling he cannot even admit to himself.  So much of the season’s malaise occurs with characters experiencing loneliness by themselves – Paulie will have no one to tell (at least, for a year or so) that he saw the Virgin Mary at the Bada Bing (in “The Ride”), Vito will not be able to tell anyone why he decides to stay in New Hampshire for a while, and then why he leaves again (in “Live Free or Die” and “Cold Stones”), and Carmela, looking at a beacon of her own on the Champs Elysees as she stares at the Eiffel Tower, will not be able to tell anyone how adrift she feels (in “Cold Stones”).  In times of moral, spiritual confusion, we are, profoundly, alone.

 

A hallmark of David Chase-written episodes is feelings built on events we didn’t even know had significance.  At the end of the season 5 premiere, “Two Tonys,” Tony sits in fog and lights a cigar, holding his rifle, waiting for a bear to attack his family, and until that scene, we did not identify with Tony’s isolation at the breakup of his marriage.  As I wrote about “No Show” in season 4, it is Tony’s strange understanding with Meadow, and Carmela’s lonely bath that concludes the episode, that make the episode so powerful.  What makes “Join The Club” so revolutionary is that it attempts to confront feelings its characters are incapable of grasping the magnitude of, so Chase, too, withholds the magnitude.  Much of his audience at the time felt withheld too.  With the faux disappointment audiences had over season 6’s first part worn off, I hope people revisit “Join The Club” and are rapt in its attempt and approach – to not only understand the grief, but to understand the loneliness that comes with it.  And then to not only understand the loneliness, but to understand the way we protect ourselves from the loneliness.  The truth is no other writers in the world even attempt to work on this level.

 

A scene you may not have noticed: How great is Vito, eating back at the house, lifting his butt cheek ever so slightly to fart?  How astonishing are David Nutter’s camera swoops that take you from the sky, back down, to show you a hospital, a paparazzi crew gathered at The Soprano home?  How great is the slight camera movement that pivots from around Meadow and Carmela, at episode’s end, when she asks, “Can you hear us?” that cuts to Tony’s perspective, and follows him into his hotel room?  Nutter won the Emmy this year for Direction.  Though Falco and Gandolfini were inexplicably not nominated (the Sopranos cachet had worn off by then, I suppose), they were at their greatest here.

“The Knight In White Satin Armor”

September 16, 2008

“The Knight In White Satin Armor”

Season 2, Episode 12

Written by Mitch Burgess & Robin Green

Directed by Allen Coulter

 

Plot: Tony’s Russian mistress, Irina, tries to commit suicide when Tony tries to end things.  Tony and Richie, fed up with each other, start making plans that don’t go quite as expected.  Janice and Richie head towards wedding plans, but things get very complicated when Richie and Janice start fighting.  Carmela’s frustration and sadness deepens as she observes Janice and Richie around her – and as she learns the nature of why Vic Musto rejected her.

 

Analysis:

“Those who want respect give respect,” says Tony to Richie Aprile (David Proval) in a rain-soaked meeting about garbage routes.  Richie finds out this is true – and that’s not even because his own crew is moving against him.  Richie’s just in the wrong era – he wants to rule by force, wants his women to not speak up to him, wants his son to be a goonish college dropout like his nephew (Jason Cerbone as Jackie, Jr., in his first appearance) rather than the ballroom-dancing son he has.  He also wants everyone to be as fed up with Tony as he is, and this year, that’s just not the case – everyone has their own issues to deal with, but Tony’s the one person they can count on.

 

Each year in The Sopranos, the penultimate episode of the season is where the biggest action of the year occurs, and though each episode of those is extraordinary, “Knight” remains the one that captivated and shocked me the most.  It’s a spot in the season in which the Big Deaths of the year often occur – such as in Adriana’s shock murder in “Long Term Parking” in season 5, or Bobby Baccala’s symbol-heavy tumble into a pile of trains in the second-to-last episode of the series, “The Blue Comet.”  It’s when Tony vows revenge against Junior and his mother punctuated to the opening guitar of Cream’s “I Feel Free” during season 1’s “Isabella.”  It’s when Carmela truly begins to believe her marriage is over in season 4’s “Eloise.”

 

But this is the real shocker.  Throughout The Sopranos run, the show would prove its bravery and unpredictability by knocking off characters you knew would probably bite it eventually – but never in the way you expected.  When Ad dies in the woods at Sylvio’s hand, the shock is visceral, as it was when Ralphie Cifarretto (Joe Pantoliano) suddenly and brutally gets beaten to death in his kitchen during “Whoever Did This,” and when Christopher suffocates on his own blood in the opening minutes of “Kennedy and Heidi” – even when you see it coming, you don’t see it coming.  This is where that tradition began – as Richie punches a defiant Janice, Janice shows her true stripes and kills him, suddenly solving Tony’s problems by accident.  In the director’s commentary, Allen Coulter said that to preserve the shock even longer, he attached a special set of legs to Richie’s chair that made his tumble to the ground last longer.

 

The titular knight in this episode is, of course, Tony himself, flawed as he is, because he simply is the best game in town – something it may have benefited Richie to realize, because everyone else seems to figure out they’re best off with Tony.  Janice, in her own desire for power, spurs Richie on to move against him by informing Richie that Tony wants AJ to never spend any time with him, yet in the end she finds herself begging Tony not to leave her alone as Richie reveals his true colors.  We know certainly that Livia has her own hatred towards Tony to deal with, but she too winds up crying that she gave her life to Tony, and here he is leaving her, and here she is begging him not to.  Uncle Junior is just a year past himself ordering Tony killed, realizing that he’s just a better bet than Richie, missing coke routes or no.  And of course Irina, Tony’s sad Russian mistress, tries to kill herself when she realizes her alternatives – strip clubs?  Prostitution?  Her abusive uncle in Kazakhstan?  She’d rather have a loveless affair with a man that belittles her than that.

 

Janice herself is a literal revelation here – she reveals the Soprano within.  Wildly selfish, foolish (she says of finding love in Richie, “I don’t know why I thought I’d find someone decent in some Ashrang in Pradesh”), manipulative, power-crazed, and unstable, she is her mother’s daughter through and through – just witness the way both collapse on Tony even though both have spurred weaker men to take him out.  Junior sorta gets it when he warns Richie Aprile against her earlier in season 2, and, later, Bobby Baccala, but he’s too selfish, foolish, and power-crazed himself to do much about it.  Here, she shows that her desire for the top is matched by a temper and a rage – and a shock at what that temper entails.  In season 5’s “Cold Cuts,” Dr. Melfi will point out that her rage and Tony’s depression are connected – that depression, after all, is “rage turned inward.”

 

This, to me, is the definition of fearlessness, both in the performance by Aida Turturro, and in the way Janice is always written.  Janice came in during season 2 to the annoyance of everyone, but it’s Janice as a long-term character that’s so interesting – considering we see her kill, manipulate, say embarrassing things, and frustrate many, she should be a villain or a caricature, but she’s not.  She’s crazy enough to make us uncomfortable and human enough to make us not quite know why.  Actresses get called fearless often for playing drug addicts or prostitutes or “ugly” people, but in a way, what Turturro does is much braver – she plays an unsympathetic character with enough recognizable characteristics that we’re not entirely certain Turturro isn’t the one with which we’re uncomfortable.  For her, she’ll likely never get to play a “likeable” roll for the rest of her career, she’s simply too convincing here.  Tony points out she came by this naturally – he yells at his mother, “What kind of chance did she have, with you always nagging her about her weight?  After every date she’d come home, you’d call her a whore.”  Might we not turn out just as crazy?  Perhaps many of us have.

 

We also get to see the toll of the crazy on the stable.  Carmela, fed up with Tony’s crazy women gets her reward.  First, as Tony tells her of Irina’s suicide attempt, she screams at him, “You’re putting me in a position where I’m feeling sorry for a whore who fucks you!”  She’s been rejected by housepainter Vic Musto, and though she doesn’t get the same revelation that she’s better off with Tony, she does realize she’s stuck with him, and can at least play on her stability for some material good.  Her final line to Tony is an all-time great – she’s decided to take a 3-week trip to Rome with Rosalie Aprile, and tells Tony he’ll have to take care of AJ and Meadow himself.  She says with little inflection, “You’ll have to find a tennis clinic for Meadow to join, because if I have to do it Tony, I just might commit suicide.”

 

It’s the perfect punctuation on the perfect type of episodes fans love best – fast-moving, exciting, unpredictable, funny, shocking, violent, and sly.  To that, I’d add also that it is in these high-action episodes that The Sopranos plots are most moved by the core instability of its characters – instead of just getting violent clashes, we get action instigated by people who are, at their core, limited to who they are, much like all of us are.

 

You may not have noticed… the editing in this episode, which Coulter seems to speed up to punctuate the sense of fast-moving suspense.  In the opening scene, ironically set to ballroom music, Tony and Janice fight in extreme close-up with the cuts between each of their face happening more and more rapidly.  Later, Pussy will open a car door and it will suddenly segue to Carmela smelling Tony’s laundry as she opens the door of her washing machine – the two doors create one fluid, fast movement.  Most dramatically of all, as Albert Barese rebukes Richie’s attempt to take Tony out, we hear, suddenly, a sound of gunshots – only to reveal itself as a paint can being shaken at Vic Musto’s shop as Carmela wanders to find her would-be lover.  There won’t be love to be found there, just as Richie won’t find himself in charge – each is a fast-moving illusion mucked up by imaginary gunshots. 

 

 

 

 

“Meadowlands”

September 15, 2008

“Meadowlands”

Season 1, Episode 4

Written by Jason Cahill, Directed by John Patterson

 

Plot: Christopher, his life spared by Mike Palmice under Junior’s orders, finds his friend Brendan Fallone hasn’t been as lucky.  AJ gets into a conflict with a friend at school, only to find it mysteriously resolved.  Tony and Uncle Junior come to blows, but when Jackie Aprile finally dies of cancer, an unlikely resolution happens.

 

Analysis:

Although the first three episodes of The Sopranos – the ones screened for critics – had been widely praised, it must have been “Meadowlands” that taught its audience they were watching a creation that transcended all of television quality that had come before it.  It’s hard to know for sure, at least for me, because I’d never seen the episode before I’d been through much of the rest of the show, and now, watching it, there’s no way to undo my knowledge of the rest of the series.

 

Season 1 of The Sopranos are 13 self-contained episodes that, in and of themselves, constitute a great narrative – a mobster with depression, his therapy, his mother, his uncle, his wife and kids.  The pilot episode shows Tony confessing to Dr. Melfi that he feels like he’s “Come in after all of the good stuff,” and the series itself follows characters trying to reconstitute a life that doesn’t make sense anymore.  Tony has panic attacks and needs analysis, and in a way, he’s one of the luckiest characters in the show to have an outlet for the conflicts he’s feeling.

 

That becomes especially clear in “Meadowlands,” which is an episode of people facing up to the truth of what they’re doing and what they’re involved in.  Tony does that, rather conveniently, by connecting the frayed mental health of his mother to the needy insecurity of his uncle.  His mother, doddering sadly away at Green Grove, can’t look positively at the idea of going into New York City for some fun as “all those mothers throwing their babies out of skyscraper windows”, and Junior, feeling his power threatened, wants to take Christopher out and steal his routes.  Tony realizes the answer to both – via Dr. Melfi helping him with his thoughts about his mother – is to present the illusion of control, to create decision-making that doesn’t exist.  For Tony, it’s a knowledge that his kids and adults operate on illusion.

 

At the same time, Christopher’s illusions are gone.  Christopher has just been beaten and held at gunpoint with a gun he wasn’t aware was unloaded.  When Adriana picks Chris up from the hospital, she tells him the doctors have told her Chris, when found, had “gone #2 in his pants.”  This comes up throughout the episode, prompting violent reaction from Christopher, but the essential truth is still there – Christopher saw the truth of what he does, saw what its possibilities, and literally shits his pants with the knowledge.

 

Because knowledge can’t go back.  I can’t rewatch The Sopranos with fresh eyes, as much as I’d like to recapture the wonder I felt seeing “Meadowlands” the first time.  Now watching the episode, I find myself restructuring the plots in my head – Raymond Curto, for example, a side character who is intentionally never developed except as a red herring of an FBI informant later in the series, here is said to have been another obvious choice to take over for Jackie once he dies.  I know that that never comes up again. 

 

But this is an episode that only gets better the more you know, and it’s because you never forget the extraordinary wonder of its final scene.  AJ in this episode finds himself fighting at school with Jeremy Piocosta, only to have his conflict mysteriously resolve.  It’s not mysterious to us – an oblivious Tony was carrying an axe when he ran into Jeremy’s father at a plant shop, not understanding what was going on when a terrified Mr. Piocosta says, “I’m not even sure how close the boys are anymore.”  He is sure, and is sure Tony knows too, which he doesn’t.

 

As Meadow explains to AJ about their father’s “Other family,” something takes over, and we don’t fully comprehend it until a wink shared between father and son at Jackie’s funeral.  The song picked to end the episode, “Look On Down From The Bridge” by Mazzy Star, is what must have astonished me most – what is “looking down from a bridge”?  In one sense, Jackie looks down on his friends and family he’s left behind.  In another, Tony looks down on AJ and passes on information about what awaits him.  In a third, AJ looks down on his own ignorance and removes the innocence from what he used to know.  Life is full of disappointments and unmasking behind the truth of our nature, of why and how we act.  As the era of Jackie April goes into the ground and Tony’s era forges ahead, what awaits?  “Meadolwands” is when that question is truly asked, and the rest of the series is its answer.

 

A great trend begins… of notable actors playing way against type in daring, small guest performances.  Here, we are introduced to Vin Markazian, a dirty Jersey cop and alcoholic that owes Tony money from gambling so does favors for him.  He’s played by John Heard, the father from the Home Alone movies.  He and Tony have some sort of friendship, and some sort of disdain for each other, but each have an understanding of the intense desperation Vin feels.  Heard is extraordinary, and he starts a trend picked up by other sorta-famous actors like Anabella Sciorra (as Gloria Trillo, Tony’s depressed, angry girlfriend), Juliana Marguilles (as Christopher’s crackhead lover Juliana Skiff), Robert Patrick (as self-destructive gambling addict David Scatino), Robert Loggia (as beyond-his-prime mobster Feech LaManna), and, eventually, Joe Pantoliano and Steve Buscemi in starring roles.  Apparently the ugliness of real characters could draw movie talents to the small screen – and make the actors better than they’d ever been before.

 

A scene you might not have noticed:  After a nightmare in which Tony sees his friends showing up around Dr. Melfi’s office, he awakes to the sound of a truck honking on the highway.  I don’t know if this is consistent throughout the first season, though I imagine it is and want to check, but after that scene, the sound of cars on the highway is omnipresent throughout the episode, as it is, truly, around Newark.  This is one of those outstandingly placed Sopranos details that goes unnoticed because of how accurate it is, and takes on symbolism in its specificity – outside their doors, life moves callously on, and the noise is like the panic that’s begun to surround Tony’s thoughts on life.

“No Show”

August 20, 2008

“No Show”

Season 4, Episode 2

Written by Terrence Winter & David Chase

Directed by John Patterson

 

Plot: Meadow, home during the summer, can’t decide if she wants to go back to school or go to Europe, so she sees a therapist, alienating her parents.  With Paulie (Tony Sirico) in jail, Tony moves Christopher (Michael Imperioli) to the forefront of his jobs, helping solidify Christopher’s place at #2, which makes no one happy.  Adriana’s (Drea de Mateo) “friendship” with “Danielle” (Lola Glaudini) ends when she thinks Danielle hit on Christopher, so the feds tap Adriana directly.

 

Analysis:

With its plastic smack on the ground, the camera follows Meadow’s flip-flops in, and there she is, all pouty, 5’5” inches of her.  That shot of Meadow from the flip-flops up puts us squarely in confrontational mode with Meadow and who she is – desperately lazy, whining whenever Carmela or Tony ask her to do anything, and shouting that she’s still reeling from Jackie, Jr.’s death whenever anything is asked of her.

 

The Sopranos took a hiatus between seasons 3 and 4 that lasted for 15 months, and they’d just get longer in between seasons as the years went on.  This was the first time they’d experimented with longer waits between seasons – deliberately delaying action 9 months or so, betraying the convention of television to let only an imaginary summer pass between episodes, and catching the audience up on it quickly (and, seemingly, never referencing those summers again).  In the years to come, significant events would happen off screen between seasons – Janice’s marriage to Bobby and the birth of her daughter, Meadow’s breakup with Finn, etc.  This time, we haven’t seen much of Meadow since she ran symbolically across traffic from Tony in “Army of One” at the end of season 3, but we’re left to assume she finished her Freshman year at Colombia successfully enough.

 

However, are her complaints about Jackie Jr.’s death genuine or just an excuse to get out of responsibility?  Dr. Melfi suggests to Tony it’s probably both, a grating act of manipulation that blocks the real pain she hasn’t dealt with yet.  Her laziness may be both too – malaise and depression lost in sunbathing.  This is something The Sopranos employs often – a more distressing expression of emotion that masks the real, needier truth underneath.  And the reason Meadow’s not expressing that truth is that it touches on a deeper truth – her complicity in the matter by enjoying her lifestyle.

 

Complicity is, I think, the true subject of “No Show,” down to its title, referencing negotiations Silvio and Ralphie negotiate for a set of construction jobs in which, it’s agreed, half of which no one will work for, and the other half no one will show up for – they all agree.  This lines up nicely with Adriana’s subplot – she’s developed a friendship with Danielle, whose name is actually Deborah, and who is actually a federal agent trying to get dirt on Tony.  When Christopher awkwardly courts a threesome with the ladies, Adriana blames Danielle and their friendship ends.  The feds bring her in and tell her directly she must answer for her complicity in drugs and murder – Ad tries to say that Pussy and Richie Aprile merely are in “witness protection,” leading to a funny moment in which all of the agents try and figure out if that’s true.  But once Ad realizes, her response is visceral – she pukes all over the table in front of her, and all over the Harry Winston bracelet Christopher has given her with, as Carmela’s therapist once called, “blood money.”

 

People facing, re-imagining (falsely, often), and justifying their decisions that harm others is a constant theme of The Sopranos, but rarely is it so overt and upsetting a theme as it is in “No Show.”  Sigler’s magnificent here in representing Meadow’s conflict – in a scene with her therapist, she gives and pulls back.  She tells her therapist that her father’s work is “Waste management wink wink,” but when Dr. Kobler intuits that Jackie’s death may have been more than drugs, Meadow pulls back, and defends that her father tried to keep Jackie from drugs.  On the surface, this is all Tony ever told her about Jackie, but it’s a question how much she believes this.  This scene makes me believe, truly, that Meadow knows but loves her father too much to indict him.  This is echoed in a confrontation, later in the episode, when Meadow finally disrupts all of their lies by calling Tony, “Mr. Mob Boss,” but pulls back in horror when he says to her, “Are you inferring to me that I didn’t do everything to keep that kid from fucking himself up?”  The two share a glance that is the definition of intensity, much as in their long history with each other, the two maintain their love through an understanding based on lies.  As in season 1’s “College” and season 2’s “Funhouse,” every time the two get close to speaking the truth to each other about Tony’s life in the mob, Meadow seems to understand, and seems to perpetuate the lie.

 

Meadow on the show is the future, the pastoral hope of American dreams – she’s an academic, she’s beautiful, and she’s far more clever than Tony or Carmela ever were, but the two are terrified, constantly of the choices that she’ll make.  Meadow does decide to go back to college, and to sublimate her concerns in a class called “Morality, Self, and Society” – it works, apparently, as she gives a very academic excuse for her father’s behavior to Finn a year later in “Unidentified Black Males.”

 

Still, what’s extraordinary about The Sopranos is the way each person has his/her own reaction to each situation, and so often it’s different from what we see on screen.  When Tony rebukes Christopher for “drawing heat to a half a million dollar job,” Christopher shows nothing, but goes home shattered, ignores Adriana for the night, and says, “Fuck it, I’m getting’ high.”  Deborah tries to get Adriana to talk about the mob, but Adriana is lost in her own thoughts, and, freed finally by the feeling that she’s made a friend, confesses that she believes she cannot have children.  It is actually the lack of details in this section that give them truth – Adriana says of her former relationship only, “the guy was such an asshole.”  In another show, she’d have a long monologue telling the story, but it wouldn’t make it lived in.  “The guy was such an asshole” makes you believe she experienced what she’s saying – these characters (and, for the most part, you and me) talk around the truth, because it’s often so hard to admit.

 

Which leads to the great bit of ambiguity that closes the episode.  A vanquished-looking Carmela sits in the tub and tells Tony not to worry about Meadow because, “I’m the one she’s angry with.”  Tony asks, “For what?,” and the episode ends.  For what indeed – shouldn’t Tony be responsible for their life?  For Meadow’s complicity?  I think often about what Carmela is referring to with this line, and with the conviction with which Edie Falco performs it. 

 

What it is, I think, is Meadow’s model of complicity in Carmela.  Later Carmela will confess to Dr. Melfi that somewhere along the line, they made the kids complicit, however, it is here that it happens, and it is she that is a model for profiting on the misdeeds of others, she that set the patter for loving men that are self-destructive and impossible to deal with, and ultimately, it is she with which Meadow must be angry because Meadow just loves Tony too much, meaning Carmela is who she has to become – someone that can perpetuate the lies that protect them all.

 

A scene you may have missed: You probably didn’t miss it, but John Patterson’s direction is a study of forcing your eyes to strange places in the frame, making you brilliantly aware of the depth of detail taken with this world.  I’ve mentioned the shot that opens Meadow’s story here, following her flip-flops into the room, but also the great shot of Deborah’s phone – you see her bedroom around in the background, see her and her husband taking care of their daughter, see, even, another “real” phone; when her fake phone rings and she resumes her performance as Danielle, we get a deeper understanding of the life she must protect in the one she’s making up.

 

Also, Janice’s (Aida Turturro)  fantastic lie to Tony over her affair with Ralph Cifaretto (Joe Pantoliano) – she’s simply “working on her demo for Tommy Mottolla.”  The scariest part of this lie is that certainly Janice believes it.