“It’s good to be in something from the ground floor. I came too late for that, I know. But lately, I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.”
So began the conversation between Tony Soprano and his therapist, on January 10, 1999. Twenty years ago today, Jennifer Melfi opened the door to her office, ushering in with her patient a new era of television. The best was yet to come. Famed for its ability to evoke mixed emotions of pathos and disgust for its characters, often in a single episode, The Sopranos quickly became must-see-TV.
Like Twin Peaks before it, The Sopranos revived watercooler talk in a new way, as people discovered the show that made them feel as if they were watching a short film. This was intentional. Creator David Chase “didn’t want it to be a TV show. I wanted to make a little movie every week.”
And he wanted to make viewers think. Tired of truthful TV types who said exactly what they thought, Chase wanted characters who lied their amoral asses off while smiling about it. Predictably, his approach was met with some resistance.
Now a fan favourite, Chase recalls that the show’s fifth episode, “College,” was a turning point for Tony. Chase had to lobby for his original script, co-written with James Manos Jr. when HBO suggested that they let Febby live. They felt that cold-blooded murder, particularly amid a father-daughter weekend, would tarnish Tony’s carefully built reputation as the show’s protagonist, causing them to lose fans. Chase argued that he would lose fans if Tony didn’t kill Febby. What kind of soldier lets a rat live? Chase won, and the blood on Tony’s hands put an Emmy in Chase and Manos’s the following year.
Why was he right?
When Meadow says that she sometimes wishes that he were like other dads, writing this as a straightforward, happy little road trip episode would make him just that. There had to be some point at which the nature of Tony’s work became unequivocal. The perfect impetus for this is her question, “Are you in the mafia?”
The pivotal scene does not feature any of Katherine Dyack’s masterfully matched music, but Meadow flips through the radio before turning it off. Before she does, we hear a commercial for a local lobster house, reminding us that while we are in town, we should try the new salad bar. The idyll of Maine is the perfect backdrop for this conversation. The gritty streets of New Jersey give way to sprawling campuses and lush greenery. When one takes a back road in Jersey, there’s usually a reason. In Maine, being the lone car on a quiet road is nothing out of the ordinary. This location gives Meadow the freedom to ask her question.
At 18, Tony’s daughter is embarking on the road to independence and learning to face things on her own. The state’s motto, “Dirigo,” translates to “I Direct” or “I Lead.” Meadow takes the lead here, disarming him with her question and her knowledge. She reminds him that childhood Easter egg hunts turned up more than chocolate bunnies. “Did the Cusamano kids ever find $45, 000 in Kugerrands, and a .45 automatic while they were hunting for Easter eggs?” She corners him in the confines of the car, much like Tony corners Febby in the deserted parking lot.
Meadow is not my favourite, but I like Jamie-Lynn here. Her hesitant, darting look around the car before she breaks the silence is so good. Gandolfini has been praised for being able to say it all with one look, and he’s not the only one. All of them will have the chance to speak with just a flicker of their eyes. This is hers, and he follows close behind. The question rips Tony’s gaze off the road for a second. Brows knitted in distress, he’s probably wishing she’d take it back to the sex talk from that morning.
Taking umbrage, he calls the stereotype of a mobbed-up Italian working in the waste management business offensive. Funny stance from a man who routinely drops racist epithets without a second thought and tries to break up her relationship with Noah because he’s not white.
Without this question, the episode’s climax would be left to Carmela (who deserves at least one this year, amiright?), whose heart-to-heart nearly ends in a lip-to-lip with Father Phil back home. That would be satisfying enough. Edie’s first shining moment as Carmela is in her living room confession to Father Phil.
In vino veritas. As with Meadow, the long-suppressed words spill out of her, as if a dam has burst. She holds nothing back, admitting that she has let herself be courted by decadence and overlooked the deceit that made it possible. She lives by the don’t ask, don’t tell rule because it’s a convenient loophole. She never has to ask; she knows what’s behind every gift. In a more secular setting, she will later confess to Melfi that at seventeen, the idea of his wealth becoming hers was part of why she fell for him. Such power and influence would intrigue any teenager, but now the bloom is off the rose, and Carmela can no longer blame adolescent naivete. She worries instead about her own children and the fate of her family’s souls.
I don’t like the idea of calling a woman brave for daring to appear onscreen dishevelled and unadorned, but I do admire the intimacy of these scenes. A fully turned-out Carmela would have robbed them of their necessary vulnerability, so I applaud the decision to keep it all as bare bones (and faced) as possible. The silk robe also serves as a dual symbol of sensuality and vulnerability. Even though she’s sick, her informal dress adds to the sexual tension but takes on a different tone as soon as she breaks down. Talk about your versatile pieces.
Carmela is not the only one whose wardrobe I’m paying attention to. Loosened between the extra glasses of wine and tear-jerking scenes from The Remains of the Day, Phil’s collar sticks out like an unbuckled belt. This is pretty much the priestly equivalent to the Al Bundy pose.
After giving her Communion, he kneels with her, wrapping her in a hug. The post-confessional scene is rife with sexual imagery and tension: her kneeling, him placing his hand on her head, both laughing like virginal teenagers to break the solemnity. Holding the embrace, she adjusts his stole so that she can see the holy cross. Standing for the priest’s authority, the purple stole symbolizes reconciliation and healing. I also found it interesting that the stole is worn during exorcisms, too. There is an overwhelming sense that Carmela has exorcized her own demons, if only for the night. She has to remind herself of why he is there, and what he can do for her on a spiritual level.
These moments could stand on their own, but set against the backdrop of Tony’s sinister game of hide-and-seek with Febby, they take on greater poignancy. We’re given our first sense of Tony’s other life lurking around every corner, even in the most innocent of circumstances, as well as the impact that this life has on everyone around him.
If the subtleties for which the series is most famous aren’t enough, they decide to spell it out for us by doing so for Tony. Waiting for Meadow at Bowdoin, he looks up at the wall. Written in bold block letters is a line from Nathaniel Hawthorn’s “The Scarlet Letter”: “No man can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which one may be true.”
Back to the genius that is Gandolfini. There is no dialogue. All is conveyed with just a look. He wears an identical expression in the Pilot when he tells Melfi that just talking about his life exhausts him. He casts his gaze toward the floor, and suddenly the bags under his eyes are prominent. It’s like watching a magician pull a dove out of a hat. He looks so young and smooth-faced; then in an instant, the years of strain become apparent.
Tony’s duplicity is so far familiar to us via his relationships. The show’s fifth episode builds on that to show exactly how far he will go – literally veering off-course, ducking and weaving to stay under the radar, and how he behaves with his wife and girlfriend is no different.
He calls Irina first, not Carm, and is far warmer toward his goomar than he is to her. He greets Irina with a smooth, “How’s my sweetheart?” leaning on the phone like a bachelor who hopes to get lucky at a bar.
With Carm, it’s, “yeah, how you doin’?” He still has the air of a man at a bar, only it’s slowly approaching closing time and he’s had more rejections than drinks.
Were their relationship different, this casual approach could be taken as a sign of their comfort level with each other. If happily married, they could dispense with familiar terms of endearment without the omission raising suspicion. There would exist an unspoken trust and understanding between them, even when romantic conventions are abandoned. But knowing what we know about Tony, it speaks volumes. It shows us where Carm tends to fall on his list of priorities. In their more tender moments (“From Where To Eternity”!), I ship the hell out of them, but at times like this, I have a hard time believing that Carm is his one and only, as he earnestly claims, and that she could truly love someone who almost always puts her second.
This is also one of those moments where I’m grateful that smartphones haven’t been invented yet. Tony slams the phone down in the booth, while Irina throws her cordless phone into the pillows with a dull thud. I’m no Luddite, but I like seeing them holding (or hurling) phones with some weight to them instead of the thin little slices of technology that we have today. It just feels more concrete, and perhaps familiar to someone who grew up in the 90s.
Carmela’s corded phone also gives you a sense of how bedridden she is. She’s not goin’ anywhere.
Seeing Carm like this, you begin to lose even more sympathy for Tony. Yeah, he’s being fatherly and forgiving toward Meadow, who feels secure enough to admit that she and Hunter did speed before finals, but he can’t extend the same love and kindness toward his own wife. When he returns home, the first thing he does is accuse her of letting Fr. Phil slip her the wafer. He brings out the double entendre in the word “communion,” which suggests intimate connection and exchange. This from the man who began his mini vacation with a call to his goomar and not the woman he is married to. Tony’s guilt tends to manifest in defensiveness and hostility. He turns this on Carm with his sarcastic question. Adding to his guilt, no doubt, is his confidence in her honesty. If she says nothing happened, nothing happened. She has never given him reason to doubt her.
Relieved of her guilt about her complicity in Tony’s dealings, Carmela is now on the defensive about her relationship with Fr. Phil. She maintains that he is is just there to help her be a better Cath-a-lick but it is clear that their relationship occupies a gray area. Carmela and Phil enjoy a mutual flirtation, one that we assume will never go further than jokes about baked ziti and the inevitable fate of her husband.
Carm remarks to Fr. Phil that she “didn’t know [he] looked,” but thus far we didn’t know Carmela did, either. And she has cast her gaze upon a priest, of all people! Her attractions range from one end of the morality scale to the other, although Phil is not exactly a star at upholding his vows. Thinking about something doesn’t constitute sin, but you and I both saw it: it was the padre who moved in for the kiss.
Every time I watch this episode, I hear Barbara Stanwyck as The Thorn Birds‘ Mary Carson purring to Ralph de Bricassart (Richard Chamberlain) that perhaps the vow he has broken to land him back in Drogheda is chastity.
Sitting down to tea after his arrival, Mary questions Ralph about his “exile,” inviting a comparison to Napoleon, who was famously exiled twice before his death at age 51. Historian George Rudé noted The Little Corporal’s magnetism and “rare combination of will, intellect and physical vigour.” Taunting him with visions of cardinalship, Mary compliments Ralph’s pedigree, wit, and ambition. “You’re the stuff cardinals are made of. And,” she adds, in her sly, spidery way, “you would look magnificent in red.”
This connection is merely an inference on my part. Mary’s carefully chosen words are meant only to bait her subject, to twist the knife until she wrenches a confession out of him, as Tony intends to do with Carm. “Exile” emphasizes punishment and implies loneliness and isolation, two things that haunt Ralph throughout the story. He has been banished to the Gillianbone parish for insulting a bishop (did he call him bish?), and is further punished in various ways for his ambitious streak and abiding love for Meggie.
Carmela’s growing obsession with punishment in the afterlife is what drives her to confess and nearly commit a greater sin in the process. A sense of claustrophobia pervades the episode, enveloping each character in its own way. Tony’s double lives threaten to collide and in a sense, do, when Meadow interrogates him on the way to the motel. He and Febby share the feeling of being watched, aware that at any time, the other could make their move. The flu forces Carmela to stay home, wrapped in blankets and waited on by A.J., whom she swiftly sends next door. The cozy atmosphere of her movie night with Fr. Phil gives way to desperation as her conscience closes in on her. Even Irina admits to feeling left behind in the wake of Svetlana’s engagement. “What do I have in my life?”
When Phil and Carm’s relationship is questioned by Tony, Carmela asks if she looks like “the friggin’ thorn bird over here.” Her reference, which I’m not sure Tony even gets, is surface and refers more to the illicit relationship between Ralph and Meggie, but I couldn’t help but notice how nicely their deeper themes overlapped. And there are the later references to Napoleon throughout the show, although this is in no way foreshadowing.
Even though a gracious Gandolfini told Jamie-Lynn in a read-through that the Meadow-centric episode belonged to her, this one is still mainly about him. From start to finish, it is the deconstruction and reconstruction of Tony Soprano.