Back To The Beginning

Jump with me, if you will, back to the first season. Seeing the pilot again in May instantly sparked millions of thoughts; so many, I could hardly keep up with my pen. Thoughts on family (not la famiglia), depression, machismo, sympathy for Tony. These have all been tackled by various bloggers and columnists since 1999. Discussions abound about sociopaths, manipulation, and the evergreen puzzler of why so many women are attracted to this self-admitted miserable prick.

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You lie down, confess your secrets, and you’re saved!

One of the easiest ways we’re made to feel sorry for Tony is through childhood flashbacks in the first season. As soon as you can identify with the scared, confused child, you’re going to lower your guard and think differently about the man in front of you. This is, of course, part of what Melfi is trying to do: get him to connect with his inner child.

Constant angel, Livia Soprano.

It helps that he grew up during the easily-idealized 60s. The first flashback is to the Summer of Love, 1967. He’s a kid playing in the neighbourhood. A little boy who wonders why his dad favours his sister, Janice, and why his mom yells at him all the time and threatens to jam a fork into his eye. Where’s Mr. Rogers when you need him?

We hear little about Tony’s father, proving that everything that is taken to therapy really is about their mothers (I’m only half serious). What’s certain is that Johnny Soprano was not the most demonstrative man. The only time in Tony’s memory that his father was nice to him was after his arrest the day the amusement park was raided. Otherwise, he was as cold and calculating as his wife, using Janice and the park as a front for his mob meetings. It is probably here that Tony swears that he will never repeat history, and makes an effort to keep affari di famiiglia separate from affari di cuore. Seeing him make sundaes with AJ at the end of “Down Neck” helps to contrast the nearly non-existent relationship Tony had with his own father, and remind us that he’s doing his best.

You also see adult Tony as a secretly goofy guy. He fucks with Cusamano, asking him ominously to hold on to a box of sand. He knows Cuz will think he’s being made an accessory to some nefarious plot. Carmela tells him, “you’re cute when you’re being a bad boy.” It’s a rare moment of easy flirtation in a notoriously troubled marriage, where you catch a glimpse of what attracted her to him to begin with. It’s also the only time that Carmela will be able to speak lightly of Tony’s misdeeds.

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Who’s my sweet little murderer?

One of the things I noticed immediately was how everything unfolds perfectly. There is no shaky first season. How rare is that? Maybe almost as rare as a mobster who falls in love with baby ducks.

The ducks, Melfi theorizes, symbolize his family. Meadow will be going away to college, Carmela is unhappy, and AJ… is AJ. Tony’s mother, unharmed by the pseudo-stroke, is still manipulative. As the first season progresses, Tony’s life and status are precarious. With the police promising indictments in “The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti“, he is faced with two options: Hide the stash and deny everything, or join the witness relocation program. Hope above all that Christopher’s impulses don’t get the best of him. Pray that the day he and Carmela are empty-nesters does not come before he can handle it.

Matters are further complicated when they smell a rat. Fearing that Tony’s therapy sessions will lead to the exposure of carefully guarded information, Tony becomes the target of a hit, orchestrated by his Uncle Junior. Junior is also motivated by Tony’s public ribbing during a golf game in Boca, where he mocks him for eating pussy. (A surprisingly un-macho thing. Never until this show would I have equated going down on a woman with sucking dick, but they do. Lots of thoughts on that one.) “Cunnilingus and psychiatry brought us to this!”

A later scene shows Carmela’s and Tony’s playful sides. As she gigglingly tells him what she heard from Gabby Dante, they look like any other couple getting ready for bed. He tickles her, prodding for the truth, before she spills Roberta’s secret. A woman got Junior Soprano, the capo, to go down on her! Hilarious. Power play.

sttttoooopp

Someone who does not bend to Tony’s power until absolutely necessary, and then with unapologetic anger, is Dr. Jennifer Melfi. She is the coolest psychiatrist you’ve ever seen. She has mastered textbook detachment and objectivity, at least on the surface. Her dress is conservative bordering on frumpy (even for 1999), though this doesn’t stop him from fantasizing about her.

Hey Carm, nice dye jo–
JESUSMARYANDJOSEPHANDALLTHEBLESSEDSAINTS

You could easily imagine her spending her nights alone with a bottle of wine and her work, like Dana Scully. But she too is more complex. This is one of the many wonderful things about The Sopranos: it seemed to spring up fully developed, a media Athena, leaping from the head of Zeus (David Chase), already armed. Melfi is shown with friends and family. She has a son with her ex-husband. They argue about her work, their marriage, Italian stereotypes. These glimpses into Melfi’s life are brief, but not boring. They are not inconsequential: through them, we learn that she and Tony have a mutual friend in the Cusamanos.

Melfi having dinner next door to Tony and eventually spying on his house from the bathroom window was a cute moment. For all of her professionalism, she can’t resist taking a peek. It’s a humanizing move. Without it, it might be too easy to see her only as The Psychiatrist. Such nuance so early is commendable.

Any cannoli?

She is still professional when she tells Tony that she was “in the neighbourhood,” lest he hear it from a second source, and draw his own conclusions. He laughs about it with her. “So, uh, you saw my house?” You’re not really sure what he’s thinking. He says it with a smile that could be sly or shy. It’s like that sentence that can be read seven different ways, depending on the emphasis. He could be hopeful that his obvious wealth makes him more appealing, increasing his chances with her. He could be uncharacteristically shy, or contemplative. He softens considerably when he explains why he loves her so much. Interestingly, he’ll love Gloria for what seem to be the same reasons: she’s different from any other woman that he knows. But Gloria has an edge that Melfi lacks.

It is Melfi’s resistance that makes her powerful. She won’t accept bribery in the form of gifts. She does not bend to his angry outbursts. She questions him and demands more from him than probably any woman in his life. The reason why he always gives in and returns weekly is that he knows he needs help and actually wants it.

Most women’s knees buckle when he shows interest in them (lucky for him….), but not Melfi. She’s not afraid of him, as I suspect all women are or come to be; not enough to let him take over. Even when gets into her face, this time with a death threat instead of a kiss, she remains calm. Agrees.

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Quite literally saving face.

She’s far from passive, though. When Tony returns to tell her she should leave town for her own safety, she initially refuses. When he phones her at her makeshift home-cum-office motel room, she bluntly asks if he’s watching her. In a closing scene, he tracks her down at a diner, dominating her physically (but non-violently) by placing his hands on hers, then moving the cutlery aside, telling her not to scream. Though her body language betrays understandable fear, she continues to dismiss him. “Fuck off. Get out of my life.”

How’s the bagels?

The tension is eased momentarily when she tells Tony that a patient of hers can no longer eat bagels because she committed suicide in her absence. It’s a darkly funny way of showing how Tony’s actions affect everyone, not just his immediate circle, of which Melfi is arguably now a part.

Tony leaves quietly, heeding her request. He looms into the frame outside of the diner, the blue sky and old-fashioned sign visible over his shoulder. Shot in muted tones, it’s as if his world has been drained of colour. He just stands there. Now what?

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Where did I park?
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All Happy Families: Adios, eyebrows.

This show can be brilliant in its simplicity. Even when tackling the mundane, it is entertaining. In keeping with the lightened tone of the season,  “All Happy Families” shows the unhappy side of divorce – with a touch of humour.

Still so perceptive, Tony.

As in countless episodes previous, there is a mix of business and… well, displeasure. Tony’s poker games, rife with misogynistic shop talk, alongside his attempts at parenting with a woman who wants little to do with him. Two kinds of humour.

Let me say now, I hate Feech, and his name makes me uncomfortable. Die soon, please. I’m so glad true hothouse flower, Artie, isn’t at these games.

 

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You are not a big boy.

 

Ah, the ol’ ride switcheroo. I love when my expensive car gets replaced by an even more expensive car. One thing that Tony and Carmela can agree on, besides the fact that therapy is bullshit, is that AJ needs the incentive to pull his grades up. Luckily, they can afford extravagant ones. Tony presents him with a top-of-the-line Nissan Xterra, imperfect only in its effect on the environment. AJ, perhaps in an attempt to show his parents that he’s not wasting all of his time at school, sullenly tells Tony that SUV’s eat up more of the ozone. “I’m going to get some shit at school for this!” Has he considered a career as an environmentalist?

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AJ Soprano, the Emma Nelson of Jersey.

Tony has taken out the GPS, by the way. It made him nervous, just like that cookies shit.

AJ is pushing for permission to go to a Mudvayne concert in New York, then stay overnight. Soprano or not, Carmela’s precious little peanut is not going to spend the night in the Big Apple without parental supervision. Or maybe he is: after agreeing to stay with Meadow afterward, AJ is allowed to go.

We both know that won’t happen. Instead, he wakes up Krazy Glued to a hotel room floor, with Sharpied eyebrows after a night of drinking and getting high. Undisturbed, Meadow has awesome sex all night.

Anti-drug PSA

Carmela trying to connect with him at dinner by bringing up The Beatles! I remember seeing this and thinking how hilariously middle-of-the-road it was. This is a show about mobsters? She was like Marge Simpson barging in with Tang and Rice Krispies. AJ has posters of The Murderdolls up in his room, and tickets to see Mudvayne; she opens up the conversation with Pete Best.

Tony continues pursuing Melfi. This time, he gifts her a card of apology, and a basket full of bath products. Elliot’s interpretations of Tony’s actions are worse than hers. Tony is cleansing himself… by sending her bubble bath.

James Gandolfini makes this face often. Watch, if you don’t believe me.

(reading from his card) “‘But it is still no excuse to use the vile word that I used, of which I am sure you know that I’m talking about”‘
“‘Cunt’, right?”
“Yes, Elliot.”

Tony’s greatest English faux pas is yet to come: (to AJ) “If you’ve got some sexual proclivities with that teacher, you’d better tell us now!” This is the same man who quietly reflects on Meadow’s difficult adolescence by saying it was like watching an angel fall.

IS THAT THE CARS PLAYING IN THE BING?!? IS PHOEBE CATES GOING TO SHOW UP?!?

Edie Falco continues to turn out wonderful performances. Carmela’s insecurities surface again, as she tells Tony that the only reason she let AJ go to the concert was so that he would love her as much as he loves him. A classic parental struggle.

(brief interruption to remind you that her hair is back to its usual level of fabulous. thank you)

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Wife goals

Did I mention how much I love the sound bridges and scene transitions on this show? When I’m done, I’m going back to make a list of them from the first three seasons. Pairing Tony’s dumbfounded expression with Ralph Kramden stammering on a game show is only one example. Tony is rarely at a loss for words but bumbles frequently when it comes to parenting. He flounders as much as anyone.

It was also a nice tie back to his waiting room conversation with Gloria about The Honeymooners. I think she’s still on his mind, even subconsciously, hence the panic attacks.

THEY’RE ALL GONNA LAUGH AT YOU

After a fight with AJ, where he swears at her, she tells Tony, “he can be so hateful.” IS THERE AN ECHO IN HERE?

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Ouch.

Here amid the teen troubles begin Carmela’s own “sexual proclivities” toward Wegler. Get that dick, Carm.

Dinner

“I’ll stop by Borders on my way home.” RIP 2004.

Wegler recommends Madame Bovary, hailing it as “an almost perfect novel…. Emma Bovary destroys herself for some fantasy in her head.” Hmm, that’s never been a problem for any women we know. Cough. Livia. Cough. Carmela. Cough. Is it dusty in here? I swear I heard someone say Gloria Trillo. Hack.

I love watching her awkwardly write down Flaubert’s name. I often complain about how slick TV dialogue can be (mostly in sitcoms. Hey, Gilmore Girls), how the patter is too perfect. There’s no line trading on The Sopranos. Even the Bing banter comes off as natural. Carmela hasn’t dated for years (She and Tony were high school sweethearts!) She kissed Vic Musto, but never had the chance to have a real conversation with him. She had limited conversation with Furio. She craved his attention. Now, she has Wegler’s, and what does she do? She talks about Tony. It’s what she knows best. It’s only natural that she would be flustered in this situation. Which leads me to…

The ending. Carmela comes home to an empty house, with only her memories and groceries. Finitura.

Pets Soprana

A question that has occurred to me many times is, why don’t Tony and Carmela own pets? Chrissy has fish, and he can’t even scramble his own eggs.

A wall-sized aquarium would have been beautiful in their living room. Tony might have stumbled into it in “Boca“, with comically disastrous results. It could have also fit nicely into the fish theme that surrounded Pussy, although I think it would have taken away from the impact of the Billy Bass gifts in “To Save Us All From Satan’s Power”. Tony could have had many a Benjamin Braddock moment in reflection.

Adriana had little Cossette, who became a cushion.

Tony had his ducks, and Pie-O-My, but neither lived with him.

Even flaky Janice missed the opportunity to have a parrot she could have taught to quote Scripture and say “om” every now and then.

I think it would have been a bit uncreative for the Sopranos to own a guard dog. It would also have kept the ducks away. Tony’s only real pet, then, is Pie-O-My. It’s obvious that while Ralphie was only in it for the money, Tony had an instant, genuine connection with his horse. Tony calls Pie a “beautiful, innocent creature,” (yes, he could have also meant Tracee) so it makes me wonder why he never had a pet if animals were his weakness. Before googling to refresh my memory, I guessed that Melfi would probably blame Livia’s neurotic tendencies in his childhood. She’d have probably threatened to jam a knife in its eye. Skewered cat, anyone? I’m four episodes away from Camelot, where it’s revealed that Tony had a dog named Tippy, that Livia gave away.  That clears that up.  Always, with the mothers.

I always pictured Carmela owning a cat; maybe a Persian or Ragdoll. Something long-haired and stately. She seemed uncomfortable around Pie, and she has never struck me as the nurturing type (future post on this is rattling around in my head). A cat’s independence would have suited her.

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Lasers optional

AJ could have had a gerbil he’d forget to take care of… Just as long as long as it wasn’t from Paulie.

Whitecaps II: White-knuckling it.

Tony Soprano is a violent guy.

You’re learning a lot from this blog, aren’t you?

Tony plays fair with his wrath. Nobody is exempt. He’ll choke this month’s best fling, murder his best friend, and smack AJ when he thinks he deserves it. His unpredictable nature is one of the most predictable things about him. It’s a main draw of the show: Who’s going to die in this one? Which unsuspecting man or woman might meet their end by his hand? We’ve been sure until this point that the answer to either of these questions will not be Carmela.

I never thought he’d actually kill her, but when I saw this episode a few years ago, I felt a little betrayed. Like Carm, we’ve trusted that the one thing Tony will not do is physically hurt her. He’ll scar her emotionally and take her out financially, but he wouldn’t actually hit her.

To his credit, he doesn’t. But he has ripped her heart out one time too many. Now, it’s her turn to pour it out to him. Whether you ship them or not (I do. I can’t help it. It’s the chemistry), Carmela’s anger and sadness are justified, even glorious. I love watching her lay into him. She slaughters him and his “pigs” – clever of Junior to call their home the abattoir.

Round One. User has disabled embedding on both videos, so get that split-screen going.
Carmela’s pain is so palpable here. Even if you only watch the gifs, you can feel her yelling at him.

When he slams her against the wall, it’s clumsy enough to be believable. Even though James G choked Annabella Sciorra for real, they lacked the chemistry and history that are special to him and Edie. (Gloria is still one of my favourite girlfriends.) Watch his hand in her hair. You can see him place it there to take the impact as Edie hits the wall, but he incorporates it into the fight as a hair pull. It’s a small but important detail that gave me a little extra chill as Carmela screamed for him to let go.

Finally, she asks what any woman in her position would: “What does she have that I don’t?” It’s a little cliched, but Edie is no soap opera queen.

http://previously.tv/the-sopranos/is-the-fourth-season-sopranos-finale-a-tour-de-force-or-an-overrated-mess/
Okay, maybe that looks a little like As The World Turns

Carmela has tried. She’s cut her hair. She goes to the gym with Adriana and Rosalie. She gives Tony sex when he actually wants it with her, for a change. Only earlier that day, on the beach at Whitecaps, she kissed him and told him that he was full of surprises. Now she gets to ask him the question that she has asked herself each time he took a new lover.

The happy trio: Tony, Carm, Carm’s nails.

Round Two.
David Chase said they filmed it at 4 A.M. Take after take, starting at midnight, both delivering flawlessly every time. As before, her vulnerability shines. If anything, the late hour helped her world-weary tone. “You were my guy. Nobody could make me laugh like you. … You really don’t hear me, do you? You think for me, it’s all about things.”

I love the catch in her voice when she tells him she’s been dreaming about Furio. Not just dreaming about but in love with! She makes a distinction between dreaming and fantasizing, to make sure that he knows that both love and sex are part of it. Kind of funny how she doesn’t stop to think that she might lead the same life with him as she had with Tony. If she could have seen how he took down that kid in Italy…

It was probably all choreographed, but I wonder if James charged at Edie a second earlier than she expected, the way they dropped Alan Rickman on the count of two instead of three in Die Hard, to get a real reaction. She rolls out of the way just before his fist hits the plaster. I know she has to, it’s just the way she adjusts her collar makes me think she was getting ready for another take, in case they called cut.

Carmela isn’t eligible for sainthood by any means, but until season five, she remains more faithful to Tony than he ever was to her. She reels off a short list of the women he has slept with, starting with the pre-school teacher… and those are just the ones she knows about. It’s been a very long time coming.

Carmela’s desperate need for happiness and security are what make her breakdown so heart-rending. She will do almost anything to make Tony love her. Now that it has failed, she can tell him exactly how it makes her feel. When she starts sobbing. I have to wonder if she’s not just discovering it for the first time, like he is.

Whitecaps (4×13): Part I.

Here’s where the “mostly” part of my “mostly chronological” claim comes in. I just finished Whitecaps, and think it’s a good one to lead with. I’m going to break it up into two posts, so stay tuned.

Holy balls, kids.

I need a lawyer. I’m ready to sue for damages. Edie Falco caused my heart to ache for her so much, I thought I would need medical intervention.

It has been said in too many instances to reference, that Whitecaps is one of the most realistic portrayals of a couple’s separation. It makes you feel like you’re five, peeking through the bannister while your parents are fighting downstairs. It’s almost voyeuristic. This episode strips Tony and Carmela down to what they really are at the end of the day: A husband and wife in crisis.

Edie Falco earned her Emmy. She is extremely believable as the broken-down wife who is tired of looking the other way when it comes to Tony’s goomars. It takes a home invasion of sorts–Irina’s phone call–to push her over the edge. It is easy to turn a blind eye to your husband’s affairs if they don’t happen under your roof. Sort of a “what happens in Vegas” agreement. She has even told Janice that she will have to “accept a goomar” when she marries Richie.

Carmela has long accepted Tony’s secrecy; his one-or-five-night-stands; his money hoarding, so long as she gets a fur coat and a weekly manicure out of it. She doesn’t mind his unpredictability when it benefits her, which is often (see the furs, the jewelry, the lingerie).

“Who the fuck did you think I was when you married me?” Tony asks angrily. The truth is, Carmela doesn’t know anymore. While she knew from the first what she was getting into when she married a Soprano, she has rarely been comfortable confronting it. She has already refused counselling from Melfi and Dr. Krakower, the latter of whom is bold enough to label Carmela an accomplice to Tony’s crimes. She has sought spiritual guidance with little effect. But Irina and Svetlana are unexpected interlopers. Irina crudely brings the situation to the forefront with her call. Although Gloria Trillo called their house before, speaking directly to Carmela, Carm had no knowledge of Tony’s affair with her. The close call (heh) prompts Tony to break up with her, swearing off of extra-maritals for good (in declaration only).

Gloria entered dangerous territory when she gave Carmela a ride home in Our Mofo Amour Fou, allowing an unsuspecting Mrs. S to sit beside her husband’s latest goomar. Only Gloria never spoke to their children; Irina did.  With Irina’s call, the outside is now in. It doesn’t matter that AJ never finds out who was on the phone. In fact, it’s kind of nice that there’s an innocent party in all of this. AJ is still just a kid, whose voice cracks as he blames himself when Tony announces he’s moving out.

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Carmela’s explosion at Tony is powerful. She sounds as if she’s on the verge of a panic attack, and I involuntarily flinch every time he has her against the wall. I want to devote another post to them, but looking briefly at the climactic scenes, there are a couple of things worth noting:

Carmela finally gets to play the cat in the cat-and-mouse game they’ve been at for twenty years. When Tony confronts her about the stolen money from the birdfeeder, Carmela goes full Gas Light on him and tells him he’s demented. Money, what money? Just like, women? What women?

Tony calls her “my own wife,” now that it’s convenient for him to acknowledge their relationship. She just finished telling him about all of the times she let him off over the years, as if he thought about her then.

Carmela almost catches him in another lie when she brings up the fake nail she found on their bedroom floor in “Mergers and AcquisitionsThat episode was the beginning of the end for Carm, but instead of forcing him to explain, she left it on his nightstand. She has now assumed that it belonged to Irina or Svetlana. Tony realizes that she doesn’t know about Valentina, and shuts his mouth, unable to defend himself. Junior is not the only one on trial!

(Just going to add that Gandolfini was adorable in the scene where Valentina lost her nail, even if Tony is being a dick. Don’t break my heart like this, dude.)

What makes Whitecaps so good is its brutal honesty. During their second fight, Carmela flatly tells him that he is hateful. Now that everything is out in the open, she can delight in deflating his ego. It is one of the best forms of revenge. She is able to turn a formerly bitter experience into a sweet victory when she tells him that she’s been fantasizing about Furio. I noticed that Tony never connects Furio’s lapel-grab outside the casino with her confession, proving how imperceptive he can be about this type of thing. It has never occurred to him that Carm could have her own affair.

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The rest of the episode is kind of a wash, except for the comic relief provided by the Dean Martin smoke out (“Just give it to him, Alan!”). I can’t get too excited about the hit on Carmine.

Melfi knows it can only be one person when *69 returns a blocked number. Car 54, where are you?

As always, the dark humour finds its way in (there’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.) Carmela rambles that she poured her heart out to Irina when she was his mother’s nurse, talking about Livia’s “alopecia and bowel movements.” Irina cheerfully calls herself “a piece of shit which the world, every morning, strains and pushes out its butt.” Poetry.

Season five awaits! There’s another fight in season six that I was probably misremembering as being from Whitecaps, that I can’t wait to see again. V is for violence.

Part II forthcoming.