Catching It.

It was a dark and stormy night…

I was slightly apprehensive about “Kennedy and Heidi. I wasn’t sure I wanted to watch Chris’ death again, but I didn’t want to skip any episodes either, no matter how many times I’d seen them.

It turned out to not be as bad as I remembered, which is not to say that I had my nose pressed to the screen as Tony smothered him on the side of the road. It actually turned out to be different from how I remembered it: I could have sworn that he’d dragged him out of the car first, instead of reaching through the window. Still, my recently acquired sensitivity to death and gore made me a little squeamish about watching this part.

In a scene that recalls Tony and Adriana’s car ride in “Irregular Around The Margins,” Christopher and Tony drive through the rain on a dark, seemingly deserted road. Their conversation runs a little deeper than the one that he had with Ade, as he and Christopher discuss the latest Leotardo bullshit.

The DVD’s closed captions have Christopher calling Phil’s recent appointment as head of the family “the fly in the ointment,” forgetting his penchant for malapropisms. What he actually says is “the flying ointment.”

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If my ointment had wings.

After flipping through the radio (“What is this, Make Believe Ballroom?”), Chris pops in the soundtrack for The Departed.  Comfortably Numb plays, a subtle nod to Chris’ altered state of mind.

Tony tries to shift the conversation away from work, asking Christopher about a party he threw. Christopher responds by stepping on the gas, sending them speeding. They swerve to miss an oncoming car, driven by the steering-wheel clutching Heidi. Christopher’s car flips as the music stutters and finally dies. Behind them, Heidi sails down the dark road.

Shaken but physically unscathed, Heidi’s friend, Kennedy, suggests they go back. Heidi quashes that idea since she’s on her learner’s permit after dark. She would be like, sooooo grounded.  She’d have to delete her Myspace and everything. The two girls, who can’t be more than sixteen, remain unaware of their brush with the other side of the law. What would they have found if they had returned to the scene of the accident? A bigger crime than they left behind, for sure. They probably wouldn’t have been permanently grounded by Tony, if you know what I mean, but their night would have been capped off in a very different way. They might have chanced to meet again in Melfi’s office.

There’s kind of awkward cut between the shots of Chris breathing in, then lying with his head on his shoulder. It’s meant to convey the passage of time (Tony doesn’t exactly jump out of the passenger side with speed or agility of a varsity athlete), but the more I watch it, the more it bugs me.


As is always the case with Gandolfini, it’s all in the eyes with Michael Imperioli in this scene. With only ragged breath sustaining him, Christopher eyes Tony warily, as he slips in and out of consciousness.  He coughs up blood before he asks Tony to call him a cab instead of an ambulance, to avoid legal repercussion.

Tony takes out his phone to call 911 but flips it closed after a moment’s consideration. I’m just impressed that his rinky-dink phone still has service! His eyes darken as he mentally prepares himself for what he is about to do. Standing at the window like a cop during a traffic stop, Tony reaches in and puts his hand over Christopher’s nose and mouth. Stone cold motherfucker.

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I caught a fleeting glimpse out of the corner of my eye…

Christopher’s eyes open in panicked awareness and utter helplessness. Tony expertly tilts his head back so that he will choke on his own blood. The camera pans over the back seat, resting on Caitlin’s empty car seat littered with branches, giving us a clue as to where Tony’s, and possibly Chrissy’s, thoughts are.

Then, just like that, it’s over.

Tony makes the necessary calls. News travels fast,  and rent-a-mob are soon gathered at Tony’s bedside the next day while Carmela visits Kelly’s parents.

Even Sil’s and Carm’s at-home looks are stylish.

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Check out the fine stitching on that shirt.
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Haven’t I seen you on the side of a Grecian urn?

Paulie breaks his own heart regretting time spent fighting and acting the pusher. “Maybe I didn’t do right by him,” he concludes sadly. Tony brushes him off (quite coldly, after extending his support in “The Ride), with a dismissive “it’s over.”

Later over drinks, the family mourns Christopher’s relapse. They are led by the coroner’s report to believe that he might have survived if he had been wearing a seat belt. (Which I think Tony undid before the ambulance arrived?) Christopher’s mother turns away, grief-stricken. Tony gets up from the table. Carmela follows. Assuming that he is also grieving, she pats him sympathetically on the shoulder.

We now take in the scene through the window, the panes cutting across their features. Carmela purses her lips; Tony smiles, the corners of his eyes crinkling in their usual way. From the outside, it looks to a casual observer like any ordinary scene of heartbreak. To Carmela, Tony appears to be in mourning like the rest of them, albeit privately. He is, but we still know better. He is also struggling with a deeper regret that is his alone. The shot represents how Tony continually frames his own version of  events, reorganizing them to his liking until they appear the way that they should.

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Cuties.

This show follows the “show, don’t tell” rule  well. So well, in fact, that it’s taken me multiple viewings (at least three in total) to realize that the scene with Melfi where he confesses to murdering Puss, Tony B, and Chris is just a dream. It was an easy mistake: Melfi plays it characteristically cool in the face of his admission, and this isn’t the first time Tony has called therapy bullshit or turned on a dime. It had me completely fooled. It changes my original interpretation, but only by a smidgen.

Assuming the therapy session was real, I thought that the hard cut from her office to the Sopranos’ bedroom meant that he was coming out of an unseen nightmare about Christopher. Instead of watching him explain the lingering trauma of his death to Melfi, I thought we were seeing the impact that it had on his sleep.

This still fits: dreams continually play an important role in Soprano Land. They often reveal truths, confirming a character’s deep-seated fears. (“Someone should tell your friend she’s dead.” RIP everyone.) Christopher is added to the roster of those who have gone before, whose shadowy midnight presence sheds light on the darkest areas of Tony’s brain. This is exactly the kind of psychological mumbo-jumbo that Tony rejects, but it does seem that his dreams are wishes or representations of repressed urges.

Dream Tony opens up to Dream Melfi (who is clothed this time). He tells her that watching Christopher die in his arms was difficult. This was one of the reasons I thought it was real. He is vague about the cause of death, framing it almost romantically by telling her that Chris died in his arms. This is what he truly wants to believe, what he needs to have others believe.

I did think it was weird that he was suddenly admitting to murder while she just sat there, which should have been my first clue that it was not really happening. But wouldn’t it be a relief to him if he could tell her the truth? Assuming she could keep it from the authorities, Melfi would be the one person above all others whom he could trust with his secret. Carmela would cut his dick off for real if she knew. 

I think his pain is genuine, even if the incident isn’t, which is why even his dream self rushes to renege. “This is bullshit” – exactly what he says to her  in real time a few episodes ago, in “Walk Like A Man,” and as far back as season 4’s “Calling All Cars.

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Any time Tony gets too close to the uncomfortable truth—be it his own emotions, or the repercussions of his actions– he checks out. Backtracks. It’s kind of like a psychological edging. It’s probably why he was able to recognize Paulie’s anxieties so well in “The Ride,” when he told him that he was too fearful of everything.

Like Paulie, he either lashes out or buries anything he can’t immediately understand. One of the easiest ways to cope is by re-telling the tale in his own words. However great the strides he has made in therapy (baby steps for him equal strides), he is still his own greatest fear. So, he lies to himself. Christopher gets blamed for being a “tremendous drag on [his] emotions,” when he would have had just as much heartache and paranoia if Chris had been a sober top earner, and not formerly engaged to a rat. Tony doesn’t seem to realize (or remember) that you can love a person but hate their behaviour, which has been the case with Christopher all along.  Keep lying to yourself, T. Whatever helps you sleep at night. Or doesn’t.

Jerking awake, he asks Carmela if he was talking in his sleep. He is relieved when she tells him he was just snoring. Snoring isn’t snitching.

 

 

 

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Please don’t make me hide the gun in my underwear again.
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“You want sex?”

 

 

The next morning, Tony shuffles into the kitchen for some coffee. Ignoring the espresso machine from Paulie, he grabs a cup from the mug tree, making me miss my own mug tree a little. It’s the promotional mug from Cleaver. He carries it outside, pausing at the edge of the walkway before throwing it into the trees. For a change, he has used the very weapon, his hands,  to throw away the reminder.

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Sell it on eBay with a story about a curse.

Back inside, he speaks with Carmela. I really like where she took their conversation, thinking of Christopher as a child. We were led to do the same with Tony in “Down Neck” with his flashbacks to the fair. Tony deflects her sentimentality with a crack about the Moltisanti schnozz living on in Caitlin. Carmela berates herself for ever suspecting him of murdering Ade. “Obviously, he was violent as an adult… his upbringing. But he adored Ade. He could never let himself take her life.” Death makes saints of us all.

Carmela turns out to be half-right. Technically, Christopher only ordered the hit on Adriana. Silvio is the one who takes her life. Christopher did try to choke her to death in the apartment beforehand, but couldn’t bring himself to. Semantics, I know! That’s the argument Tony would use if ever confronted with the truth.

Still reeling from the dream, he sets about bringing Carmela onto his side as much as possible without revealing everything. His voice is careful as he tells her that he thought she sounded relieved when he called to tell her Christopher had died. He is hoping that she will be as “fuckin’ relieved” as he was in the dream. She is horrified: “You don’t know what you’re saying!”

But he does, and he isn’t exactly wrong. A tearful Carmela admits that maybe she was, but only because it was him and not Tony. The thought of living on the end of a hospital bed again is overwhelming.

He tells her with measured cruelty that Caitlin would have been “mangled beyond recognition” had she been in the baby seat behind them. This is his way of justifying to himself why he killed Christopher. It was for the greater good, he silently maintains. It was better him than anyone else. I did the right thing.  Carmela had just said that she couldn’t stop thinking of Christopher when he was young; Dream Melfi says that he was “just starting his life.” The true beginner is Caitlin Moltisanti. He thinks this will also be of some consolation to Carmela, but she flees the conversation.

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C’mahhhhn! What’d I say?

In (true) therapy, he tells Melfi that he only meant to make her feel better. What he means is, he meant to make himself feel better.

Best line: “I was fuckin’ prostate with grief!” (about Tony B)

Looking at it from a solely professional angle,  I can understand why he killed Christopher. Chris was next in line and angling for his position. He was young. (Tony is approaching 50, an age that Christopher hypocritically predicts he will never reach because of his lifestyle.) He had a family to support.  He was a professional pain in the ass who cost him time and money and would have, as their leader, run the crew into the ground in due time. It only makes sense to kill the incompetent competition.

JULIANAAAAAA. CARMELA MEETS ANOTHER GOOMAR. I detect a flicker of suspicion in Carmela when Juliana says she used to buy her meat at Satriale’s. If she went there often, then she knew Tony well, too. And what does Tony do with every woman he meets? To skew their familiarity, he intentionally flubs her name, introducing her as Juliana Skiffle, not Skiff.

 

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Juliana Wifflebat. Uh, Swiffer. Uh…

As they make their way into the viewing room, Carmela remarks that Juliana is a good-looking woman. Unusual coming from Carm, this is probably more of a comment on Chrissy’s taste, but I also took it as a subtle jab at Tony. Said as nonchalantly as possible, it’s as if she’s asking, “isn’t she, Tony? Wouldn’t you love to have her?” knowing that he has, or has thought about it. Having learned that silence is golden, Tony does not respond, and she does not pursue it. Is this newfound bliss in ignorance?

I thought I saw a tear glistening on his cheek when he was talking to Carmela. It was just light reflecting off the burn. Oops.

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A Don does not cry at funerals.

I liked Chris’ funeral. It was pretty realistic, as far as TV funerals go: the solemn nods, the way Carmela collects herself before approaching the coffin. Nice and understated. In my experience, all Italian men look like mafiosi when they attend a funeral, whether they actually are or not. I’ve never been to one with a professional mourner, but I’m still young.

I’ve written before about how much I love AJ, but you don’t know that yet because I’m posting my notes out of order. Right now, I fucking hate him. The attack on the Somalian man was disgusting. He turns to AJ for support, hoping he would be the voice of reason. Instead, he of the delicate stomach stands by, unable to act. He holds the most clout in his group, and he does nothing with it. In any other situation where he benefits, he is happy to exploit his name and his wealth.

As with the acid attack, AJ’s reticence reveals his true nature. He’s definitely Carmela’s son, with more than a dash of the occasional sensitivity we see in Tony. He only acts the tough guy, knowing that the world expects him to be the next Mr. Mob Boss.But when things get real, he freezes, ignoring the option to fight (fairly) or flight. With the quick flash on his face as he separates himself from the fight, we are meant to understand that he inwardly condemns their actions, but his inaction outwardly condones it.

 

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More is lost by indecision than a wrong decision.

 

In therapy, he goes on a Tony-style rant about the state of the world, concluding that it would depress anyone who didn’t have their head up their ass.  That’s ass-tute. (Sorry.) It’s probably not fair to compare the way he uses his status at clubs to the way he handles real life crises, since they are completely different situations. One involves his private self, the other his public projection. We already know that he’s nothing like Tony, but keeps trying to be. He can only pull it off so far before it starts to wear on him.

His therapist, who barely knows him, asks him what exactly he’s talking about. AJ responds, “why can’t we all just get along?” Aware of the clear racial motivations of the attack (which would be accurately labeled a hate crime today),  AJ indirectly answers his therapist’s question with the oft-misquoted Rodney King plea. Before you tell me that this is the writer speaking and not AJ, don’t forget his newfound interest in politics and social justice. He’s bound to have come across it at some point, especially with Meadow as his sister.

Tony’s trip to Vegas always seemed like a separate episode. They’ve already crammed so much into the first half, it feels like the whole hour has gone by.

Of course, he fucks Chris’ old one-night-stand. Nice socks.

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Bow chicka wow wow

With the nonsense controversy stirred by the flip phones in “Hello” still fresh when I watched this, I laughed at Phil snapping his phone shut on Tony. “This is me hangin’ up!” Tony says, but Phil beats him to it. Now that’s how you end a call.

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That guy is so in love.

Okay, not to be Paulie, but I noticed that Tony’s pendant touches the inner rim of the toilet bowl when he throws up after taking peyote. Lysol that shit.

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I’m serious, clean it up.

He and Sonya make their way to the casino. Tony wins on roulette. He watches the wheel spin through heavy-lidded eyes, while Sonya moans and slumps against him. When his number comes up, he laughs. “He’s dead.”

Sonya and the croupier look on in confusion as he falls to the floor, helpless with laughter. The croupier has a trained, vaguely sympathetic expression on his face, that says he’s been there, done that, bought the t-shirt. All in a day’s work. Moments like this make me think again about all of the nameless characters who have crossed Tony’s path, often unaware of whose presence they are in. It’s kind of amazing when you think of the number of background players who have come into contact with him in some way in the course of their lives, even from a lucky distance.

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Dawn.

Somehow, Sonya and Tony make it out to the desert. This is one of the most beautiful locations they’ve shot in: pink sky, hazy, half-shadowed trees and mountains on the horizon. I feel like I’m in a Don Bluth movie.

Tony sits on the rock, watching the sunrise. The winking light pulls us back to the mysterious beacon that he saw while in the coma, pulsing cleanly in the sky like the signal from a radio tower. In what inarguably became one of the most famous scenes of the series, Tony stands up (much more steadily than Sonya, I might add), clasping his hands behind his head. With real tears in eyes this time, he yells, “I GET IT!!!!!” The echo makes sure everyone else within earshot gets it, too.

But do I get it? What does he get? I’m finding that hard to work out. Whenever I think I’ve worked out a theory I’m happy with, I think,  maybe there’s more.  Is there even anything to work out?

Honestly, it might just be an excited, drug-exaggerated reaction to seeing the same thing from his coma dream in his waking life. He’s high, he’s alive, and maaaan, I saw the coolest thing that time I almost died… Now he’s tripping in the desert, far from home, far from responsibilities and his wife, with a beautiful woman at his side. What more could he ask for? This is all he’s ever dreamed of. Maybe it goes no deeper than this selfish joy.

On a grander scale, it could mean that he has solved or come to terms with some sort of existential crisis. This trip (both types) is his answer from the universe, which he just referred to in the casino when he tells Sonya that the wheel is designed to mimic the orbit of the solar system. Is he able to let go of his fear of death? Or of life? When he was navigating his alternate universe as Kevin Finnerty, he was afraid to enter the Christmas party. He refuses to give Bellhop Tony B his suitcase because it holds his very identity.  He knew something was pulling him back, but didn’t know what. Something now tells him that he is meant to be here, still.

One of the episodes just ahead of this, “Chasing It,” opens with Tony gambling and losing. In an argument with Carm, he explains the powerful pull of addiction. “You start chasing it, and every time you get your hands around it, you fall further backwards.”

Since Chris’ death, he has been falling ever deeper into the chasm he has never really climbed out of.  He can mouth platitudes about being carried across the sky by a great wind, but he is still chasing freedom from his own conscience. (I think he has one!)  He has admitted to some sadness, but only as much as he’ll allow himself. The rest gets buried or expressed in anger toward Chris and everyone else who mourns him.

For the better part of his recent life, Tony has been on a personal losing streak. Every action of his is a gamble. At any minute, his carefully laid plans may go awry. They come close to crumbling each time his life is threatened, starting from the time his mother and uncle plan the hit on him They fall apart in smaller ways along the way: Jackie’s death, Junior’s Alzheimers, leaving therapy (then going back…. then leaving…), his separation from Carmela, AJ’s suicide attempt, to name a few.

He sees this as an ending to all of that, one that he can revel in because it’s purely symbolic, and does not require his own demise. Chris is gone. He is here. He’s got a crew to return to. He doesn’t have to admit anything to Melfi; they’ve already talked it out in their limited way. He’s back with Carmela. He has slowly but surely watched the obstacles in his way disappear, either by circumstance or his own doing:  Livia (dead), Philly (dead),  Chucky (dead), Mikey Palmice (dead), Junior (locked up; may as well be dead), Tony B (dead), Ralphie (dead), and now Chris. The future looks blindingly, glitteringly perfect. He’s in control again, and his stars have aligned. Everything’s comin’ up Milhouse.

But…

For how long?

I feel like there’s  a greater connection to the finale here, but I don’t know what. Send me flowers.

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Casting Calls: Losing Liotta, Gaining Gandolfini.

The Sopranos is one of a handful of shows that I’ve watched at different stages of my life, obviously with a different impression and focus at each age. I was eleven when the show debuted in 1999, and even though I was in the habit of (often surreptitiously) watching television that was “intended for mature audiences only,” this was one of the shows that didn’t become must-see-TV in my house until a couple of years later.

At that age, I was only aware of this show on HBO that was slowly gaining momentum and praise. The cast had yet to possess the star power that they would with each passing season, but I knew who James Gandolfini was. It seemed to me that his name quickly became synonymous with the phrase “unexpected sex symbol,” and I came to associate him with Dennis Franz, who, apart from looking exactly like my uncle and sharing a first name with him, was known only to me as That Guy Who Showed His Butt. Being interested mainly in David Duchovny at the time, and not overly enthusiastic about seeing the behind of  a guy who looked like a blood relative, I didn’t really see what the big deal about Franz  was… But Gandolfini was a different story.

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Get away from my mother.

Even at a young age, I could understand the attraction that many women seemed to have toward him, even if I hadn’t seen the show. It wasn’t merely about budding sexuality, but just recognizing this wonderful magnetism that he had. He seemed born to play Tony Soprano, no substitutes accepted. Properly casting the main character is key for any series, but I think there was probably extra pressure to get this one just right. There were pitfalls on either side: casting an unknown, such as Gandolfini, would add to the ever-present challenge of hooking an audience.

Erring on the side of caution and casting Ray Liotta, one of Chase’s first choices (get your tongue around that one), would have been typecasting, and would have made the show less interesting, even with the big-name attachment, especially if he had succeeded in hooking Lorraine Bracco to play Carmela. It would have been Goodfellas for the small screen; star-studded, but not particularly innovative. A series headed by Bracco and Liotta would have been too Hollywood, too slick and sexy, and there is really nothing sexy about these characters’ lives. There wasn’t about Karen and Henry’s either, but that was Scorsese. Same diamond, different ball game.

Do you love her?

To be more specific, “Whitecaps” would not have been nearly as effective with these two when we’ve already seen them torn apart by drugs and infidelity. However well or uniquely scripted, a Bracco/Liotta fight as Carm and Tony would instantly invite comparisons to Karen and Henry’s screaming matches about the same subject.

There are easy parallels between the Whitecaps fights and Karen (KAHHHRENNN!) and Henry’s fight over his so-called whores. The beleaguered wives both suffer emotional breakdowns over their husband’s adulterous ways. Karen’s, interestingly, comes much sooner than Carmela’s, only several years (at least six) into their relationship. Karen seems either oblivious to the fact that goomars were part and parcel of living la vida mob wife, or she just never thought it would happen to her. Either way, she confronts him violently, feeling as though she has, like Carm, been made a fool of.

Henry initially takes a gentler approach to Karen, reassuring her that he loves her, which Tony, annoyingly, does not do. (And I don’t think he’s just paying her lip service to talk her down.) But then he throws her off the bed and turns the gun on her. Buckling under the pressure of staying one step ahead of everyone else, and unable to cope with one more threat, he grabs her by the throat, screaming that he should just kill her now. “How does it feel, huh? How do you feel, Karen?” He then punches the bedside table before storming out of the room.

During their first fight, Tony throws Carmela against their bedroom wall as she pleads for him to let go of her. He backs off, stopping just short of striking her, but his release is rough. His hand later goes through their kitchen wall, where she stood only seconds earlier, revealing her fantasies about Furio. These are rare displays of physical anger toward their wives; anger usually reserved for other opponents.

Karen and Carmela also  make sure the other women know where they stand (or lie) in all of this. Karen destroys Janice Rossi over her apartment’s intercom. Carmela capitalizes on her status as a mob wife, threatening to kill Irina herself if she ever calls again. Don’t you talk to her about pecking order.

Eventually, both women take their goddamned men back. If they had even been able to make it as far as the fourth season, this now-famous episode could have simply been ho-hum, instead of the tour de force that it is.

Had we seen Liotta play opposite Bracco as Melfi, it would have been an interesting dynamic, but likely ruined by our almost automatic association of them with Karen and Henry. I have no doubt that they have the acting chops to try to make us forget what we’ve seen, but it would have been a difficult sell. I don’t see that the show could have lasted long with either of them in a leading role.

“What do you do?”

With this casting in mind, Melfi’s oft-quoted introductory query about Tony’s profession, and his equally famous reply of “waste management consultant,” loses some impact when stacked against a nearly identical scene between Karen and Henry. After that glorious Steadicam entrance, in which Karen’s suspicions about how Henry makes a living first arise, she notices the generous tip that he gives the waiters. Twenty bucks each just for seating them at a table? A table that has been brought in specially for them? Now she has to know.

She asks point blank, “what do you do?” Henry dodges the question (purposely, to buy time?), forcing her to repeat it, before finally answering that he is in construction. He focuses his eyes on the stage, avoidant. Touching his hand, Karen flirts.”They don’t feel like you’re in construction.” He dodges again, ignoring even the flirtation, telling her that he’s a union delegate. Fancy. Believable. (I like the rimshot after he says it.)

Picturing Liotta’s Soprano glibly delivering the waste management line leaves me cold. I’ve already heard this story, and so has Melfi in another life. There is no way to get around introductions or exposition, so omitting it would be impossible. Scenes like these, with more in common than not, would have crossed that fine line between inspiration and parody. Simply sharing 28 cast members is enough.

 

Home of the burger, what’s your beef?

Why else not Liotta? He’s too pretty. This in no way diminishes his talent, but he did make his screen debut  as a soap opera stud on Another World. Soap actors often have a difficult time breaking into the mainstream and being taken seriously as “real” actors because of the emphasis on looks over talent. It doesn’t matter if you can’t cry convincingly, as long as you look hot at Johnny’s funeral when he dies for the third time that year. Liotta’s abilities obviously match his looks, but Hollywood hotness was ultimately not David Chase’s goal. Edie Falco has commented on his commitment to casting “real people,” cracking that he was probably the only showrunner who encouraged his actors to gain weight between seasons. Cannoli for everyone!

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Transfer them right onto my plate, thanks.

Liotta is very good at being very bad, with the ability to soften when necessary, like Gandolfini. He’s doing a fine job of playing the thoroughly hateful Matt Wozniak on Shades of Blue, which also stars Drea de Matteo. His blue eyes can be as scary as they can be seductive, but he’s still not my Tony Soprano.

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Fun fact: Liotta was later approached to play Ralphie, but mercifully turned it down. I don’t want to imagine him sporting a Nick Carter haircut and killing a girl outside of a strip club. I’d hate him too much and I don’t want to hate Ray.

David Proval, who went on to play Richie Aprile, auditioned for the leading role, as did Stevie Van Zandt and Michael Rispoli. Rispoli took an unintentionally comedic approach to Tony Soprano. His natural “wiseguy cadence” bled through, colouring the character a brighter shade than necessary. But he is physically closer to what Chase must have had in mind, if Gandolfini is any indication, tending toward the Regular Guy side of things. Even though Jackie is the acting boss of the DeMeo family, Rispoli lacks the gravitas to carry a show about a cold-blooded killer with an affinity for ducks.

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Sorry, wrong number.

Proval has the dark Italian looks. Google suggests that he and young Al Pacino totally look alike. I can see it now, even though it hadn’t crossed my mind before. He’s a little closer to De Niro to me. Put all three in a line-up and I’d tell you they were brothers. A stereotypically Italian-looking leading man would again reduce the individuality and intrigue. There is already an array of films to choose from if that’s what I want.

(l-r: Proval, De Niro, Pacino. See a pattern emerging here, Scully?)

Proval was 55 in 1997 when the pilot was filmed, fifteen years older than the 40-year-old Soprano. He has proved himself to be a strong character actor (see 1973’s Mean Streets or 1995’s Shawshank Redemption), making him perfect for the supporting role of Richie. Speaking of Richie (Finestra), there was something in Proval’s performance on this week’s Vinyl that made me think of Gandolfini. Something about the hair and suspenders and Fuck Me? Fuck You! carriage. All that was missing was a cigar.

Van Zandt had a similar look when he was younger, but by the time the 90s rolled around, he had lost a little of the smoldering intensity necessary for the role. HBO also felt that they needed someone with experience, which Van Zandt lacked, but more than made up for in charisma and natural talent. He has the perfect mien for the snappily-dressed consigliere, bringing a certain goofiness to Silvio, a character that Van Zandt had originally created for a short story. That goofy, secret-teddy-bear quality is also present in Gandolfini, but again, these are two men who seemed born to play the roles that they did. Fate knocked…

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Had I been a teen in the 70s, he would’ve been a crush.

Gandolfini doesn’t look like any of these men and that’s part of why it works. Not only is it the chemistry between him, Falco, and Bracco that makes the show what it is, but it’s that Regular Folk appeal. It’s the fact that you could walk out your front door and see someone who looked like him, and maybe wonder, “is he or isn’t he?”

When I was staying with a friend a few years ago, I’d watch their neighbour across the street shuffle out in his white robe and slippers to grab the morning paper at the end of his driveway. He was balding and paunchy, and completely oblivious to the fact that I called him Tony Soprano until I left. When I pass that house now, I cast an ear toward the basement window, in case he, too, has been rejected by his local golf club.

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Just your average, everyday murderer.

Looks aside, it is ultimately James’ undeniable presence and approach to the role that makes him special. He has an instantly detectable sweetness and vulnerability about him that is essential to creating a strong connection to Tony Soprano. In order to feel anything for this guy, whether it be love or hatred, or both in one moment, to willingly let him into our lives each week to follow his unspeakable acts, there must be some endearment. Danger and drama are intriguing, but it is ultimately heart that holds an audience captive. Commingled with the moments of destruction led by him are odd moments of connection, even minute understanding. Even if you can accuse Tony of being heartless, is he always so? No. And even if you say yes, the fact would remain that Gandolfini is not, and that is why he wins us over. Charisma and intuition beat acting cred and connections any day.

Anything I could say about Van Zandt’s, Rispoli’s, or Proval’s take on the character is pure speculation since we may never know how they read for the part (got some tapes for us, David?), but it was Gandolfini who intuitively tapped into the heart of Tony Soprano, even before his creator:

“Jim Gandolfini had a lot to do with Tony’s personality. And this was done without much conversation. I think the Tony Soprano that I was originally thinking of was not as tough as what the character became. Jim showed me early on how much of a prick that guy would have to be. We never talked about it. I just saw it. The first day we shot, there was a scene where Christopher said he was going to sell his story to Hollywood. In the script, it said something like, Tony slaps him. But when we shot it, all of a sudden Jim was out of his seat. He picked Michael Imperioli up by the neck, by the collar, had him almost off the ground and said, “What?! Are you crazy?” And I thought, Of course, that man’s a motherfucker. That guy is surviving the mob. He’s really a dangerous person. He’s not a fun guy.” – David Chase, 2014.

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Two miserable pricks.

This brings me full-circle to the point that glamour is not The Sopranos’ goal: Reality, with its inevitable hills, valleys, plateaus, and chasms, is. That is the landscape of our lives, whether we are made in America or not.

 

And now for something completely different…

The day before Christmas Eve, I went to the library to pick up my season three DVDs. I couldn’t find them on the holding shelf, so I asked the librarian if they were somewhere else. When she returned with a small stack, I wondered if there had been a mistake.

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Can you tell I have a specific interest?

No mistake; all of my holds had come in, even the ones I’d forgotten about! When I had searched the online catalogue for The Sopranos earlier that week, the relevant results were meager. One of the titles, which included several autobiographies by operatic sopranos, caught my eye: Mike Russell’s “Undercover Cop: How I Brought Down The Real-Life Sopranos.” What?! Cool!

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Woke up this mornin’…

The true(ish) story is as follows: In 1980, New Jersey state trooper Mike Russell assumed the meaningless moniker Mikey Ga-Ga and began working undercover to infiltrate the mob. With the help of Patrick W. Picciarelli, he tells, in astonishing detail, how he conned some of Newark’s biggest cons in a six-year stint that resulted in the arrest of close to fifty made men and associates.

I spent Christmas Eve engrossed in Russell’s action-packed, and frequently funny, tale. I would have finished it in record time, but I try to reserve reading for bedtime only. It’s a little treat for the end of the day. This leaves me with two options: stay up reading until I drop the book on my face or read a little every night to make it last (and still drop the book). I wanted to be immersed in Russell’s world for as long as possible without glutting myself, so I left it alone for a few nights before picking it up again. I made frequent stops at The Whistle Stop Cafe along the way, but I digress.

Only a few chapters in, I thumbed back to the beginning to make sure that this was indeed a true story. There were a few moments where I doubted his recollection, wondering how closely time and memory had conspired to create an entirely new version of events. Not that wild and fantastic things can’t happen when you’re hanging out with gangsters, and what do I even know about these things, but some of it seemed too well told. Hey, you never know: he could just be blessed with a Marilu Henner-esque memory and a knack for storytelling (or for picking a good collaborator).

When I googled later, I found that I wasn’t the only one who doubted Russell’s riveting yarn. With the help of New Jersey police, Star-Ledger reporter Dan Goldberg poked some holes in his story. Former State Police Captain Nick Oriolo, who is mentioned in the book, confirms that Russell did go undercover as an informant to collect information that landed some of Jersey’s most notorious wiseguys in jail. But did he really get shot in the head, almost dying in a sleazy alley, while his pocket was picked by a homeless man?

Not exactly, says Oriolo, who has no recollection of the event as it was told. Russell was badly beaten up, but not shot. There was no emotional scene at the hospital with Oriolo “blubbering away” at his bedside. Other parts of the story appear to have been similarly exaggerated, or even spun out of whole cloth, including Russell’s rank. Apparently, he was never a state trooper, and maybe not even a cop at the time of the undercover operation.

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How is Russell able to misrepresent himself as a legal authority? Isn’t posing as a cop, you know, illegal? Yes, but there is a loophole: for an indeterminate time, Russell was a cop in East Orange, N.J. He was reportedly  fired from the force at an unknown date for shaking down gay bars. So technically, he didn’t lie when he told his mob buddies that he was a former cop, but that doesn’t explain how he can continue to get away with it now. I combed the book for mention of this in case I had missed it and found nothing. Russell shrugged this off in a phone interview with Goldberg, merely saying that “the titles were bouncing all over the place.” Ooookay. For a guy who prides himself on being a Good Cop, hell-bent on exposing the truth, he is being remarkably vague. Russell refused to comment further for Cosa Nostra News but stressed to the Star-Ledger that who he worked for is not as important as what he did.

Digging a little deeper (okay, I clicked the third search result), I found that Russell had even been sued over his account.  Joe Ricciardi, the man whom Russell alleges pulled the trigger on him in the alley in 1980, sued for defamation in 2014. Riccardi’s attorney cites a lack of evidence, such as missing hospital records, and the fact that his client escaped arrest after shooting a supposed undercover cop, as grounds to mount a case against him.

Cosa Nostra News also reports on other inconsistencies found in Russell’s book, as well in as in his episode on HBO’s America Undercover, which Russell produced with reporter Frank Grimes. (Yes, that is really is his name.) The documentary, which Russell brags aired thirteen times between 1988 and 1991, pulling in excellent ratings each time, can be viewed here. I haven’t watched it yet, but the comments are split between those who think he was a”scumbag rat fuck” and those who hail him as a hero. Still others don’t care what he was, as long as they have their gabbagool.

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Where’s the fuckin’ food? I was told there’d be food!

When Terry Atkinson reviewed the show for The L.A Times, he was not much kinder. Instead of giving the rave review one would expect for a show that reportedly rivaled The Cosby Show in the ratings, Atkinson denounced it as “repetitive, exploitative, amazingly clumsy and confusing.” He paints Russell as an ineffective, overly excitable neophyte who sounds closer to Henry Hill or Matt Bevilaqua than the smooth-talking tough guy he comes across as in the book. Whether the dialogue was pumped up or not, I did find myself laughing and applauding at what Russell said to some of the not-so-wise guys he spent time with. I’d like to think I’d be as cool and quick on my feet, but I’d probably fuck up and lose two teeth, or worse.

Something I have always wondered about was, how do authors and filmmakers get away with works like this? Aren’t they afraid they’re going to get whacked for an unflattering or erroneous portrayal? Personally, I’d prefer jail. I’m not the only one. Russell actually explains at the end that he has taken certain measures in recent years to protect himself and his family against retaliation from surviving members of the crews that he ran with. He has changed some of the names in his book to protect the identities of those close to him, but does not mince words when it comes to the mafiosi. Russell is not the kind of guy you’d have to ask twice for his opinion.

The former Mikey Ga-Ga name-drops like a man trying to get on a guest list, not one trying to stay off the hit list. They are all familiar: Genovese, Lucchese, Colombo, Gagliano, Luciano, Gambino. (Looks like the guest book in a Hamilton funeral home). These are names that Meadow reels off with a smug smile at dinner in “The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti,” in one of my favourite exchanges. Tony pushes back from the table.”Is there something you wanna say to me?”

Meadow simpers, “I just like history, like you, dad.”

Despite the title, the book makes few references to the show itself. On the second page, he remembers Frank Vincent (Phil Leotardo) doing his best Sinatra at King’s Court, a Newark hot spot for wiseguys and wannabes. He frequently mentions The Godfather, which is more fitting since his undercover stint took place in the early 80s. (The book was published in 2013). The Godfather and its sequel were still the first things people thought of when you brought up la famiglia in 1982.

Nonetheless, there are a lot of connections to be made. There are too many to name individually, but some highlights:

Russell claims that a lot of mob leaders are not well-educated. This makes me think of Tony’s letter to Melfi, which is riddled with spelling errors and improper syntax. She relates the contents to Elliot, literally spelling out the errors for him: “Foul language, f-o-w-l.” They peer at each other over their glasses, like disapproving school teachers. You, Soprano! Detention!

No to be outdone, Chrissy throws out some of his own malapropisms, such as telling Tony about the “flying ointment” in “Kennedy and Heidi,” or talking about creating “dysentery among the ranks.” He and Tony frequently depart from the popular perception of the polished, well-spoken boss/heir apparent, whose brains match their expansive waistlines. Tony and Chris may be street smart, but they are not necessarily book smart.

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Surprise, bitch!

Russell points out that making money is always the bottom line. Loyalty, tradition, and respect, all rank below the bucks. This is something else that The Sopranos brings out, although I would argue that they also  emphasize loyalty. Puss and Ade are killed for their lack thereof. Tony claims (in a dream, thus giving insight into his subconscious) that Christopher’s death means he never has to worry about being ratted out by him. Everyone is a suspect. When such personal loyalties are betrayed, emotions run high… unless you’re Paulie; then you’re just dead inside.

Tony does not always stand on ceremony. The reason he doesn’t want Vito killed is because he was a top earner. Gay or not, he brought in good money. Tradition is all well and good in theory, but for Soprano, today’s facts trump yesterday’s tradition.

He also acknowledges that Ralphie is a hell of an earner, but he’s also a horse killer who won’t shake hands, so, see ya. So, respect does factor into it more than Russell lets on, at least in Chase’s world.

In this business, you must choose your words wisely. Talk is not cheap, and the wrong kind can result in you or someone else speaking with the fishes. Russell explains the difference between the seemingly interchangeable terms “a friend of ours” and “a friend of theirs.” A friend of ours is a made man or associate; the kind of guy whose shoulders you’d sling your arm across, and treat to a cannoli. A friend of theirs is a civilian; some poor schmuck who’s probably about to lose both his kneecaps. I’d never noticed it before, but they do use it a few times on the show. Johnny Sack accuses “friends of ours” of making a joke about Ginny’s weight in “The Weight.”

I also learned what “bust out” really means. Busting out is when a legitimate business is taken over, and their credit line exploited. The big boys use that credit to buy supplies (whatever suits the business, be it 100 extra Nikes or new TVs), which they sell independently, often at a lower price, walking away with the full profit. The business owner is left with mounting debt, full responsibility, and the sole option of bankruptcy.

This is what Tony and Richie do to “friend of theirs,” Davey Scatino, in the aptly titled “Bust Out.” Gamblers, like Scatino, or serial spenders are often easy targets. If you’re a close Wiki reader, you know this already. I, however, learned something new. In  “…To Save Us All from Satan’s Power…” they talk about Tony’s father busting out Satriale’s, which I assumed just meant taking a guy to the cleaners, or using the place as a mob hangout. I was basically right.

Ralph Vicaro is a real-life Paulie. Russell describes him as insecure and indecisive, two traits that should disqualify him as capo-in-waiting. He gloms onto Russell, seeking his approval and reassurance, just as Paulie does with Tony. Russell didn’t even pretend to be a made guy! A conversation between Vicaro and Russell about obituaries and parking is classic Walnuts.

Toward the middle of the book, a familiar name caught my eye. Russell mentions the murder of George Franconero, Jr., who was shot in 1981, after becoming involved with noted crime families. I thought, “That can’t be–” Connie Francis’s brother? Yes! As if the woman needed one more tragedy to colour her already expressive voice. It doesn’t do much to dispel the notion that all Italians are either in the mob or know someone who is, but it goes to show that, like Scatino, it can be easy to fall in with the wrong crowd.

The editor could have had a keener eye. Typos abound, although the grammar, direct quotes aside, is sound. Nothing too distracting, but I did notice them. Transpose a few letters and look at the context, and you’ll know what he meant.

Whether or not we’ve been Tony Maneroed, it’s still a fun and light read. His tone is conversational, and I feel as if I’m sitting across from him in a sticky-tabled Newark diner, drinking espresso he can’t taste  (Russell claims he lost his sense of taste in the initial attempt on his life, however it went down.) The dialogue could have been lifted from any Sopranos script. He writes in such a way that you can just hear dat Jerrshee accent with a hint of Italian. I think James Gandolfini is my mental narrator.

The book that did not need Gandolfini’s voice-over was Lorraine Bracco’s.

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Let’s talk about that.

I put it on the list for giggles, and I got a few. It’s standard fare for a lifestyle book, written with her unmistakable candor. Bracco was recently inspired by her parents’ failing health to look after herself. As she approached sixty, she embarked on a new way of life, which included ridding her pantry of sugar and common allergenic foods, and taking up regular exercise.

True to form, she does not come across as holier-than-thou. I don’t like it when some celebrities try to act as if they’re just like us, despite having scads of money, a chef, a personal trainer, and someone who puts their pants on for them one leg at a time. She too keeps the tone conversational and honest. She admits that she didn’t always lose a pound a day, a popular claim in the world of dieting, because, as she often points out, this is not a quick-fix. She wants you to look at the word diet not as a 21-day-whatever, but a way of eating that you can maintain for the rest of your life. In other words, a lifestyle change, treats included.

Another thing that distinguishes her from the rest is that she encourages gradually cutting out the main food offenders if you’re not ready to go cold turkey. A lot of health gurus push the go-big-or-go-home mentality, which is not always motivating or sustainable. If that’s your thing, as it was for her, go for it. Otherwise, don’t feel like Jillian Michaels is going to come and slap the coffee out of your hand while screaming at you to do twenty push-ups with your cat on your back.

Bracco comes across more like your friend or mother than a celebrity. The only thing that made me roll my eyes a little was her zealous quest for the perfect gluten-free cracker. She would rip into them in store to try, buy them even if she hated them, then throw them out if they were more cardboard than crunch. There’s disposable income, and then there’s wastefulness. Not all of us are sitting on a pile of cash, Lorraine. I love a good gluten-free cracker as much as the next girl, but sheesh.

She also lists the dirty dozen, or top twelve fruits and vegetables you should always buy organic, popularized by her pal Dr. Oz. I’m side-eyeing that association, too, as well as her affiliation with Rodale Publishing, creator of Prevention magazine. I used to subscribe to it but got annoyed with the hyper focus on fitting exercise into your day at absolutely every opportunity. C’mon, keeping weights in the bathroom so I can do bicep curls while I pee? I’m all for staying on your feet and as active as possible, but they could find a way to turn a zombie apocalypse into a workout. “Dogged  by famished, half-dead fiends? Strap on your pedometer and grab your quarter cup of almonds for a calorie-blasting workout!” (But there is an app for that.)

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the list per se. I follow it as much as possible, but I also say, “fuck it” and get the regular stuff if I have to. Mine’s more like the dirty top five. The money, Karen! That’s all I got!

Ideally, she also wants you to spend your money on her Liv4Mor cleanse, developed with her friend, Lisa Davis. (Whom she credits here, but whose name and picture ended up on the website? Lorraine’s, naturally. That’s fame for ya.) From wine to  cleanses, the woman knows how to make a buck.

That said, I enjoyed it. It’s not all a lengthy plug for her products. She offers advice first, products second. A lot of her personal philosophies jibe with mine, a rarity when consulting with the stars.

I liked her recipes. I’m copying some of them! They aren’t too time-consuming, and she doesn’t want me to use leaves picked from the Peruvian mountainside between September 30th and October 2nd. I can do this.

Because this isn’t a book about her career, you won’t find many Sopranos stories here. Only toward the beginning does she refer to James Gandolfini, in a story she has retold several times on TV. Whenever she saw him, she would affectionately grab his belly, telling him to get into shape, to which he would respond that it was all muscle.

After her father was diagnosed with heart failure, he regularly skipped his medicine. A model patient he was not. To get him to comply, Bracco had Tony Sirico call him up to tell him to take his “fucking medicine!”

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Malocchio or meds, what’s it gonna be?

This one took no time at all to finish. I read it from cover to cover in one night, and would recommend it only if you’re a die-hard collector or fan, or won’t let me google that for you. There’s nothing it in you can’t learn from an ordinary magazine, or two minutes online. If you’re looking for some good recipes, it’s not a bad resource. If you’re hoping, like Bracco, to drop certain habits and be “fuckable by 70,” it might be a fun starting point.

Employee of The Month

When I started watching the show again, my mom asked if I had seen the one where Melfi gets attacked. She made it sound like a Seinfeld or Friends episode: “The One With The Parking Garage.” I had, but only remembered it in flashes: Melfi with bruises; Tony getting pissed off; some guy blabbing off about something. All standard Sopranos fare, except for the part about Melfi. I knew Tony hadn’t snapped and hit her, so I figured it was a case of mistaken identity; perhaps another irate patient, or a random mugging.

I had forgotten it was rape.

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Why do you wanna hurt me?

I used to consider myself inured to even the most horrific of plot lines, such as this. But I think I had a hard time with it even then. The attack itself is just raw and terrifying. The episode has earned accolades for being realistic and honest, particularly in dealing with the aftermath. Even the most violent death can’t hold a candle to it.

Why does everything bad that happens to a woman on this show always involve public parking? After a day that includes a session with everyone’s favourite capo, an unsuspecting Melfi takes the usual route to the underground parking, chatting with nosy Richard on her phone as she goes. She passes a man on the way down. The writers dispense with the usual cues: there is no dramatic music; no foreboding shoulder brush or even an attempt to edge past one another while making portentous eye contact. He looks at her, but we, like Melfi, think nothing of it. Foregoing suspense places us in her position. We can later wonder along with her why we didn’t see it coming. Only at the last minute, when the camera switches to near first-person point of view as he approaches from behind, are we struck with sudden realization.

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This is freaking me out.

She switches modes at warp speed. When Rossi grabs her, she puts her arm up to block him and says, “okay,” in her Psychiatrist Voice, as if to subdue him. Then in the span of mere seconds, she goes from cool, capital-P Professional to Regular Human Being. The first time I saw it again, I wondered if she initially thought it was Tony. After his reaction to the behaviour mod suggestion, it wouldn’t be a stretch for her to assume he was coming after her in anger. She’s probably thinking, shit, Richard was right. But I think it’s really just her instincts kicking in when she realizes what’s happening. The fact that it is random will be more terrifying to her than thinking that the hulking Tony Soprano has her in a choke-hold.

Portrayals of rape and the ensuing trauma are generally fraught with challenges. There is much to consider to ensure a sensitive, appropriate approach. Writers run the risk of grandstanding, and including as much gratuitous violence and nudity as possible for shock value, as if the act itself is not shocking enough. They may unintentionally (one hopes) sexualize the event by putting the woman at the fore for the wrong reason, dressing her in revealing clothing that is then torn off to reveal her bare body. They may also go in the opposite direction, often simultaneously with this first treatment, casually regarding the rape as an easy, open-and-shut case. Woman is raped, attacker is caught, woman goes to therapy and is doted upon by her loving family, and she’s fixed! Hurray! Miracle of miracles!  The Full House formula works again.

No such treatment occurs here. You don’t need to see everything to know what’s happening when. Only Melfi’s bare leg is visible as Rossi pins her down, telling her what he’s going to do to her, making it quite clear that this has nothing to do with sex, and everything to do with power. Instead of a flash of inner thigh or breast, we get an unwelcome glimpse of his ass. Remember, this is HBO. If they wanted to go in that direction, they could have. And the trauma, as you’ll see, does not go gentle into that good night.

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This is the worst thing I’ve ever capped, but the starkness of this shot is compelling. The shaft of light on the wall disappears as the door shuts behind Rossi, leaving her to sob alone in the cold and dirty stairwell. You can almost feel the draft from the closing door as it slams shut; imagine, if nothing else, the seeping feeling of cold concrete through clothing. We’ve seen enough, and we’re left to fill in the blank space between this and the following scene in the hospital. Time and audience interest aside, I like to think of it as a natural gap in Melfi’s memory. How often do we emerge from a traumatic event with only spotty recollection, wondering, how did I get from here to there? What happened next?

Lorraine has been criticized for speaking too slowly as Melfi, as if reading off of cue cards. I don’t agree with the cue cards bit, and if she ever did come off that way, this episode put it to use in the best possible way. Who wouldn’t become dazed and detached after what she went through? Anyone who thinks that she can’t act, or isn’t versatile, must have missed Goodfellas. Her acting here reminds me of the breakdown Karen has when Henry finds out she flushed his heroin down the toilet. Every scream just rips my heart out.

She had this to say about her character:

“I was not ready for how fucking difficult Dr. Melfi was to play. I am an explosive girl. I am loud. I am full of life and full of all kinds of bullshit, and I have to sit on every emotion, every word, everything, to play this character. I mean, I had to suck the life out of myself to play her. I mean, I don’t think Dr. Melfi ever smiled. I wanted her repressed and sad. And she also had to pay attention to not give an inch with Tony, because he would have eaten her up. I wasn’t going to let that happen. So I had that strength, but emotionally I suffered.”

All true, which is why Melfi’s rare show of emotion in this episode is so important. Trauma gives her an opportunity to be honest, raw, and uncensored. She is so used to regulating her reactions, to sitting on every impulse, that her pain is ultimately therapeutic. She gets it all out.

Restrained as she may be, I would never call Melfi a shrinking violet. Find me another woman who would refuse Tony’s advances with as half as much assurance, or tell him off when his life intrudes on hers. “Fuck off. Get out of my life,” is, therefore, one of my favourite lines ever spoken by her.

In a rollicking 2015 HuffPo interview with Ricky Camilleri, Lorraine Bracco remembers her initial reaction to the script. “Why do you wanna hurt me?!” she says, now all smiles and squeaky laughs, “I’m only trying to help this poor son of a bitch!” Ricky adds that it seems doubly cruel that the one time the workaholic Melfi leaves her office–hyperbolically speaking of course–this is what happens. I liked seeing her discuss this. It’s a good question: Why Melfi? Why her, and not Carmela, Meadow, or a goomar? Because that would be too easy. Some disgraziato unwittingly rapes the capo’s wife or daughter, you can’t expect anything other than an instant vendetta. Melfi is the outside insider, connected only by a loose, professional association that she has done everything in her power to keep that way. Would she dare to do a little of her own recruiting? If so, would he comply? If yes to all of the above, should we support it?

To my own surprise, I’m realizing that there would have been no real satisfaction in seeing the guy clipped. Yes, justice, in some twisted form, would have been served. But it would have been  predictable. Predictability is a theme that runs through an episode that is anything but that. Ahead of the attack, Melfi scoffs at her life choices in Elliot’s office, marveling at how “textbook” her situation is: “Marry a man ten years my senior; of course Richard’s gonna be protective and patriarchal. Then I go and reject him for being exactly that!” Elliot’s response is that her need for safety is only human, and it’s about the only time I will side with him. Her heightened need for safety after the rape drives her to consider taking drastic measures.

As usual, The Sopranos dares to indulge in the ordinary. Even after such extraordinary, harrowing events, life returns, on some levels, to normal. Melfi still has her clients to think of. We see her barefaced and bruised, in a robe, making the necessary appointment cancellations. Richard adds unnecessary commentary in the background while he polishes the brass or something. It might not make for riveting viewing–hence the brevity of such scenes–but it is necessary. There are ebbs and flows in the action, just as there are in real life.

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So I says to Mabel, I says…

But “Employee” also shows quite clearly the transformative power of rape; how even the simple act of stopping for a quick lunch–an act few of us, including Melfi, think anything of–can be marred by painful memories. In her case, she risks coming face to face with the recently released Rossi (dear god, the alliteration), who has been named Employee of the Month. Unbelievable, right? No! Life can be this absurd! Television often asks us to suspend our disbelief, and we quite willingly do its bidding. It’s just like when you’re listening to a friend tell a story and you call them out on a seemingly impossible detail. They’re going to snap back, “That’s not the point. I’m telling a story!” It adds a little twist, a little flavour. Sometimes these twists are real. Life is frequently stranger than fiction. (Just ask Alanis Morissette.)

While Jackie and Meadow skip off on an impromptu sushi date, Melfi places an order at Wrap Nation. Sliding her tray down the line, she glances up while punching open a straw… and freezes.

The fuckin’ faccia di merda is staring her right in the face, wearing a shit-eating grin, and the hat that he wore the night of the attack. She turns wordlessly, knocking over her drink before running out of the restaurant. The men in business casual seated at the cramped table behind her barely notice. This is often how these things go. While our inner worlds are in turmoil, the world at large remains oblivious. All of this to an incongruous soundtrack of Britney Spears, whose “Oops!… I Did It Again” is playing for no other reason than the fact that it is still relatively new in 2001. Music in The Sopranos is usually artfully matched to the scene. This mismatch is slightly jarring, adding to the sudden surprise of seeing Rossi again. It’s too bizarre, and that’s exactly why it works.

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#aesthetic

It lasts just under a minute, but this crucial scene calls our attention to the open-ended nature of Melfi’s ordeal. This is not over when the screen fades to black. It is one of the most painful and pointed reminders that will pop up unexpectedly throughout the season, reopening the wound each time, surprising us as much as it does her. There will be no tidy resolution for my beloved Melfi.

It also drives home another other cruel reality, which is that, too often, these men walk free. Not only that, they prosper in their own ways. While their faces smile down on unsuspecting diners and fellow employees, their victims live in fear. They maintain the perfect facade as model employee, father, son, brother, husband, friend, co-worker, genial fellow on the bus on your nightly commute.

On that note, it is refreshing that Melfi doesn’t magically turn into a fearless advocate for women, although she does defend herself when Richard tries to blame her for what happened. She doesn’t run around gouging men’s eyes out, or castrating them while yelling, “TOWANDAAAAAAAAA!” She simply allows herself the normal fantasies of revenge, made sweeter by her exclusive potential resource in Tony.

Face it, asshole: I’m connected, and you’re dead!

One such fantasy is presented in the abstract. I’m a sucker for a good Lynchian dream sequence, and this is one of my favourites. Working by lamplight in her office, Melfi hears a car alarm beep. She is wearing the same outfit that she wore on the day of the attack. Walking through a door marked “Danger: High Voltage,” she stands by a brightly lit pop machine, which accepts pasta as currency. When she reaches in to retrieve her drink, she gets stuck. As she struggles to free herself, a Rottweiler appears. She braces for an attack as it barks at her, until Rossi enters the room, and she realizes that the dog was warning her. She pleads soundlessly as he moves toward her. The dog lunges at Rossi, whose muffled screams break the eerie silence, while Melfi watches, unable to look away.

As we sleep, our subconscious stays awake, feeding us bits of information that we have relegated to the back of our mind during waking hours. This dream sequence is as realistic as it gets, calling forth past events and conversations, and working them into a disturbing collection of images. The pasta is an obvious reference to Richard, who is loath to accept that his ex-wife’s rapist was Italian, and not Puerto Rican, or some other nationality that he can project his hatred onto. When a single piece falls from the change slot, it becomes clearer who the Rottie symbolizes: her last chance, Tony, who also inspires ire from Richard, who resents him for being a stereotypical Italian goombah.

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HERE I COME TO SAVE THE DAY

It takes awhile for the meaning click as she dissects the dream in Elliot’s office the next day. (I’m surprised she wasn’t lying on a couch for this one.) Then it dawns on her: “big head, massive shoulders?” When she realized who the Rottie symbolized, I half expected her to go, “remind you of anyone?” like Craig Ferguson, because her tone was perfect for it. I love that she figures it out before he does. He prompts further analysis, but the light bulb goes off in her head first.

I’m a little mad that these revelations come through discussion with Elliot because I hate him so much. Yet that is important, too. Elliot is the only real confidant that she has.  We all wonder how mental health professionals handle their own crises. We tend to assume that psychiatrists possess Herculean mental acuity and agility. Surely they are constant ports in the storm, paragons of strength and knowledge, armed with the necessary coping skills to take them calmly through the worst.

Reality is not so cut and dried, and life in Soprano Land is no exception. Even the doctor needs a doctor. In “He Is Risen,” she will tell Elliot that she just wants to tell some of her patients to fuck off and deal. Humanity, thy name is Melfi. We all have our breaking point. Therapists are not exempt just because they have a few letters after their name.

I spoke briefly here about Tony’s response to Melfi’s breakdown. What a bittersweet ending to an intense episode.

Her personal breaking point comes when he reminds her of her suggestion that he seek treatment elsewhere. Feeling as if he is about to be dismissed as a patient, he has decided that it might not be such a bad idea after all. Melfi stares at him, equal parts defiant and determined.

No melf

Did she just say no to him again? Hell yeah. It is a command. Not a pleading “No, I don’t want you to,” but a definite “No, I won’t let you.”

Melfi promises that she would never “break the social compact” and use Tony to get revenge on Rossi, but losing him as a client would mean losing a certain sense of security. It doesn’t make much sense, considering how her life was endangered and thrown into upheaval by him only a short time ago, but he is someone with certain exclusive resources.

As indicated by the dream, having Tony somewhere on her side would give her a sense of power and safety. All she has to do is say the word, and Rossi is a dead man. Even though Tony often scares her, she is confident in her ability to control him. In her office, she reigns supreme unlike anywhere else. She has subdued and redirected his anger, averting crisis. If she could harness that power to use against her rapist, she could emerge the victor.

I can’t say I blame her. Who wouldn’t like to wield such power, even by proxy? But at what price? It wouldn’t be worth losing her job or her carefully built reputation. Her Yelp reviews would suck. She will never do it, but she can still entertain the fantasy. Who knows, maybe she reconsidered after leaving Elliot’s. Illusory security is better than none at all. A lot of therapists will tell you that when all else fails, or when you don’t know where to start, fake it til you make it. She’s just following her own advice.

Her defiance here, then, comes from a place of personal victory. She will not be cowed into making a rash decision, thinking that it is the key to recovery. She will not let fear run her life. She cries when she realizes how close she has come to ruining everything for herself.  I don’t think she would be able to sleep at night if she allowed herself to become an accessory to murder. Madonn’, if she did, and let it slip in therapy…

It is also a rebellion against Elliot and Richard. Both suggest that she should “pink slip” Tony, and dissociate from him, lest she become too entangled in his world. She essentially gives them the finger with this act of  self-reclamation. Stick it, patriarchy! I can, and will, make my own decisions without your help.

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Fry his ass.

Richard is going to drive me to drink, but not half as much as Elliot is. He holds up the usual proverbial mirror when Melfi says she can’t believe that she said Tony’s name out loud.

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No caption necessary.

“Why did you?” he asks, turning the question back on her. Talk about textbook. Not everything is a Freudian slip.  He parses everything she says, down to the letter. A mistake is a mistake! If I were her, I would dump him. He’s so ineffective. Everything he says is either condescending or a reversal of what she asked him. The latter is not always a terrible strategy to get someone to question their own motives, but answer a few questions for her, for God’s sake! I bet his degree was self-printed on a potato sack.

AHA! Now I know why she opted for initials later. Richard is a snoop.

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Snoopy Snoopy Iced Tea.

Melfi’s call to her other client, Kate, made me laugh: “I know talking on the phone upsets you, but I need to cancel your next appointment.” Again, ordinary stuff, but a nice set-up for when she will later tell Elliot about the unique challenges that her clients present her with. As a former phone hater, I can empathize with Kate.

Chase sneaks in a small sympathy bid for Carmela, too. While Tony rambles on about the injuriousness of knee injuries, Carmela stares at him passively. He broaches the subject of couples therapy (without actually saying those words), to which she responds with an indifferent “sure.” All the while, there are close-ups on her face, with her huge wedding ring in the foreground.

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When you want to give your husband the finger, but would rather finish your coffee in peace.
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Did you find any fucks, Tony? No? That’s because I didn’t give any.
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My poor, wilted sunflower.

Edie’s eyes are wonderfully expressive. While her face betrays nothing, her eyes speak volumes: This is not a happy woman before us. Her marriage, built on shaky ground to begin with, is in shambles, and her husband is showing more concern for his therapist than he is for her. Another woman is more important, what else is new.

Johnny and Ginny Sack are their usual cute selves. Ginny announces Tony’s presence by screaming up the stairs. In an instant, I’m back at my friend Amanda’s house. Her mother had two volumes: loud and loudest. My own Italian mother is thankfully a little quieter. Johnny appears, looking hilariously pear-shaped, as if bow-legged or jacked up from extra leg days at the gym.

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Sick gainz, bro.

Courtney Love once told Jim DeRogatis that everyone calls Billy Corgan “The Pear Shaped Boy” behind his back, so this is the name I’m lovingly adopting for Johnny. He ushers Tony into the new house, laying a dad joke on him. “They call this the great room. I don’t see what’s so great about it. Pretty mediocre, if ya ask me.” Ba-dump-tssh. The Pear Shaped Comedian.

Speaking of repressed desires, Melfi isn’t the only one with a few…

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And you speak from experience?

Oh, that Ralphie.

A few random things

Some thoughts on my thoughts. Pile ’em up.

I was thinking over Paulie’s visit to the psychic, which ended with a freaked-out flounce where he denounced them as “fucking queers.” Could he really have meant that any other way? I wanted to believe otherwise, but I think that’s just my own hopeful interpretation.

Paulie is at least ten years older than Tony, meaning he grew up in an age when it still might have been used without homophobic intention, even though its use as a pejorative dates back to the 20th century. And of course, word meanings change over time, or may have multiple meanings at any given time, even if there is a popular overarching definition.

I was just picturing his little ma making that gossip queen face (see below) over coffee with friends and going, “Well, isn’t that queer?” and meaning strange. This is a woman whose vulnerability may have nothing to do with age, and everything to do with naïveté, leading her to be duped by ahem, Mike Hunt.

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Even though Paulie is about as warm as a Sno-Cone, I think that he picked up some of her qualities and characteristics. Innocence is just not one of them.

Moving on to another Sno-Cone… Uncle Jun.

In “Boca“, after his secret gets out, he heads to Bobbi’s office to break up with her. An unsuspecting Bobbi expresses concern for his lateness, and tells him about her dinner plans. Not cut out for the kitchen like Carmela, she has planned a take-out feast of barbecued chicken, salad, and a lemon meringue pie. While she waited, she had a piece.

Now it’s time for Junior to say his. He backs her against the filing cabinet, fist at the ready. This is a familiar scene we’ll see repeated in Tony and Carmela’s bedroom in “Whitecaps“, without the first-person POV.

Shaking with rage, he drops his fist. He reaches for the desk instead. HE SHOVES A CREAM PIE IN HER FACE. It cracks me up, but not because the actual assault is funny. It’s the attention to even the finest points. Little details with big impact. Apple pie? Fuhgeddaboutit.

The general misogyny of this and many, many other actions is pretty gross, but to its credit, this is probably one of the show’s least violent attacks on a woman, at least physically. It is definitely humiliating, but considering the fates of Tracee and Adriana, it is of milder consequence. That said, it’s pretty sad that the only alternative to death is degradation. Internal scars are no less important than outward ones.

To show us that Junior isn’t completely without heart, we see him storm out onto the street, on the verge of frustrated tears. They had been together for sixteen years. Junior never married, and Bobbi ends up being his last romantic interest. He, like AJ, let pride be his guide. This, I think, upsets him more than anything. He is angrier with himself than with her, but you know how the Soprano men deal with their anger. In bocca al lupo next time, Bobbi.

I like Sopranos Autopsy’s comparison to Edward Hopper’s Night Shadows. This, in turn, reminded me of Phiz’s plates for Charles Dickens’ Bleak House et. al.

 

Speaking of “Whirecaps” (when am I not?), I’d written that this was the first time we’d seen Tony physically threaten or intimidate Carmela.

Wrong!

I was forgetting the fight in “Bust Out, when he throws her against the couch. This time, she is mad at him for not coming to AJ’s last swim meet. In both cases, she springs first, unleashing years of pent-up anger on him. He of course can’t see the bigger picture, and views her reaction as an overreaction. After all, he already gave AJ the opportunity to spend time with him, and he passed it up to go to the mall. An eye for an eye, etc.

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Not a glitch in the matrix

While watching the first season, I said that it was easy to imagine Melfi unwinding with a glass of wine after work.  This is either coincidence or some strong writing on their part to guide my imagination in that direction, because she begins drinking to cope with the strain of having “T.S” as a patient.

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T.S Eliot?
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Nope, that other living waste land.

This little detail was kind of cool, because until now, I’d never thought about a therapist using initials only. It makes sense for protecting client confidentiality, but I  wonder if she does it only for Tony because of his notoriety. Watching in 2015, it’s also nice to have a visual cue that isn’t on a computer or smartphone. This episode is almost sixteen years old!

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SIXTEEN?

Melfi admits to Elliot that she has begun drinking alone between clients, mainly before she sees Tony. She has even developed a slight dependence on Ativan. He later finds out the exact identity of her patient, arming him with ammo that he frequently and unfairly launches at her during their sessions. He even goes so far as to identify him at a dinner with colleagues in “The Blue Comet” (which I just saw in full for the first time the other night, what the fuck?)

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#justpsychiatristthingz

Melfi’s professional choices and morality are often questioned, given that she keeps Tony on as a patient, even allowing him back after giving him an ultimatum to get serious or get out. But I think Elliot is way worse. As important as it is to dig deeper, to help someone get to the heart of why they act the way that they do, and dig up roots if necessary, this is not what Elliot does. He goads her, accusing her of getting off on the thrill of her weekly tête-à-tête’s with the head of Jersey’s most notorious crime family. That might be a tiny bit true, but Melfi wastes no time defending herself.

What a condescending fuck. As if he wouldn’t feel the same.

Thinking of Bevilaqua, I linked to the scene from Goodfellas where Karen admits that having her honour defended and being given a gun to hide turns her on. It’s funny that Lorraine Bracco plays both roles because there’s a bit of Karen in Melfi. This is actually a character that a lot of women admit to relating to, proving that superficial attraction to dangerously powerful men like Tony is not new or unusual, or even anything to be ashamed of. The allure of the ~bad boy~ has long existed and been perpetuated in fiction, but this is what I like about The Sopranos. They give us a woman who is not simply a hanger-on, nor a wise, all-knowing Pollyanna. Being a psychiatrist does not mean that she is always perfect or logical, or immune to certain human trappings. Elliot might be hitting a nerve, but that doesn’t mean he now has her pegged. He wishes she were so uncomplicated.

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It only takes one call, Jenn…

From the first, Melfi is torn between her feelings, which run the gamut from empathy, to fear and disgust; to attraction and intrigue; to anger with herself and Tony. These remain ultimately unresolved, mixed, and ever changing, which is the magic of it all. There is no breakthrough via therapy, no complete letting go of this feeling or that one, save for the brief sexual intrigue that she felt early on. She stays conflicted, drawn to him like a rubbernecker passing a trainwreck. (Or like a moth to the flame, like Gloria? Hmmm.) Elliot’s idea of the perfect psychiatrist is one who can be completely objective, emotionally separate from their cases entirely. Again, this is a nice goal, and partially true — but only partially. He’s basically a robot who needs to come off the cross and hand in his license.

Even though she drops Tony in “The Blue Comet,” it has taken her years to reach that point, and is so out of character that I don’t know what to make of it. I’m just going to pretend it was an elaborate hallucination, like Isabella.

After the rape in “Employee of The Month,” she admits to Elliot that she would never use her connections, but that she would be lying if she said she hadn’t thought about it. Two of my favourite Melfi scenes are that one, and the closing one in the office with Tony, where she comes close to telling him everything. Kill it, Lorraine!

I kind of ship them, even though that would’ve been a bad and unfulfilling road to go down. (Not to mention that Employee would’ve been a shitty, cliched place to start it.) It was their scenes that drew me to the show in the first place. I fell in love with their chemistry, which is just as good as the spark between Edie and James. But that’s not the whole reason I like that part.

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Now kiss!

I like it because Tony’s concern is real. It illustrates a rare willingness to improve or examine himself. Not knowing the real cause of her bruises (she told her clients she was in a car accident), he immediately asks if it was something he said or did. He approaches her gently, cautiously. He is not motivated by revenge, as he surely would be if he knew what really happened. It is different from when he tells Meadow he would “take care of” Coco in “The Second Coming.” There, violence is immediately implied, backed by parental love and protective instinct. This is a voluntary emotional offering of the self. It’s an understandably tentative one, but it is an offering.

Even though I’m going to watch the finale soon, I’m by no means finished. I’m just going to start all over again. I have a lot to say about that and other episodes, about Ralphie, Ade, Tony B… VITO, OMG VITOOOOOOOOOO.

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Top 5 Most Shocking Deaths: Part One.

I find that as I get older, my tolerance for violence and death on TV gets lower. I’ll skip the self-analysis and only say that regardless of your tolerance for scripted mortality, there were more than a few disturbing deaths on The Sopranos.

I had planned to limit this list to the first three seasons to keep it even, so I could do a separate list for 4-6, but I realized that wouldn’t work. So, without further ado…

The following contains talk of death and suicide. If this is a trigger for you, my next entry will be better.

  1. Vin Makazian (John Heard)Final words: “COME ON, GOD DAMMIT! LET’S GO, LET’S GO, LET’S GO!”

This one truly shocked me. Hard to say why. It’s far less brutal than Febby’s death in “College, which I don’t mind telling you made my cover my throat the entire time. Is it because it’s Kevin McAllister’s dad?

Vin is not our antihero. However familiar his gambling and propensity for sleeping around may be, we have far less emotional attachment to and history with him than we do Tony. There is just something about that stark wide shot of him falling easily to his death. It’s the all too brief moment of hesitation. He considers it the way one might consider a spontaneous trip to Vegas on a Wednesday night. “Fuck it, let’s do this, boys.” He tucks his badge in, securing it, erasing the hope that he might throw it into the water and go rogue. He’s already crooked, completely disgraced by his arrest. Why not trade in one powerful position for another? I kind of had an alternate universe mapped out for him in my head where he moves away, takes on a new identity, and continues to carve out a life of debauchery elsewhere.

I’ve said before that the writers have a knack for blending the mundane with the extraordinary. Not all of us are crooked cops or serial cheaters (if you are, get off my blog!), but we’ve all found ourselves in seemingly impossible situations.  Everyone alive right now has made difficult or split-second decisions that have come as a shock to ourselves and those around us. It’s just a little scary to watch someone wait in traffic, speak normally to a colleague, then suddenly be gone.

He lacks the calm that is characteristic of those who choose suicide, which leads me to wonder when Vin made his decision. Did he decide in jail, off screen? That day in the shower before his arrest, when he realized he was in over his head? Did the traffic jam push him over the edge; one more uncontrollable event in his already spiraling life? As the title says, nobody knows anything.

2. Matt Bevilaqua (Lillo Brancato, Jr.)

Final words: “Mommy! Please don’t, please!”

Oh, man. How did this end up on a list of the ten most badass Tony Soprano moments? The revenge kill for Christopher was one of his worst.

To be sure, Bevilaqua is not an innocent bystander: he’s a social climber who has stolen cars, beaten people up, and jumps at the chance to kill Chris, who is his superior. Huge opportunist. Bevilaqua is ambitious but misguided. He strikes me as the type who grew up watching The Godfather and Goodfellas and thinks that the life of a mafioso is all fast cars and even faster women, all enjoyed in a haze of cigars and expensive wine. If he could just get to the top, he knows he could be the best.

He is, however, not at his best when dealing with the top. He’s already been in trouble with Tony for talking about business casually, risking confidentiality. Cheese it, fucko, the feds!

The evocation of childhood has proved effective in garnering sympathy for Tony, so it comes as no surprise that Bevilaqua earns ours by turning into a five-year-old caught with his hand in the cookie jar. in front of Tony and Pussy in the snack shack. Tony reminds me of Livia here. Heartless. Cunning. He even has me convinced that he’s going to let Bev walk.  (I doubt that Livia could be that patient, though. She never hesitates.)

Sitting across from him, hands dangling easily between his legs (watch that cigar), he turns avuncular. C’mon, you know me. I’m your Uncle Tony and you can tell me anything, pal! B’s relief is clear: he wets himself out of sheer overwhelm, fueled by a different kind of adrenaline than the one that drove him to this place.

He’s thirsty. Tony tells Pussy to get him a drink; Tony feigns concern over the diet Fanta. “You sure you don’t want something with sugar in it?” To get his blood sugar up, right?! You’re going to need energy if you’re going to walk out of here, you lucky, one-shoed bastard! Bevilaqua is grateful. He’s looked death in the face, but he’s going to be okay. He’s so relieved, he doesn’t notice the change in Tony’s demeanor.

“You finished?” ‘Cause that sugarless motherfucker is the last fuckin’ drink you’re ever gonna have!”

WHOA WHOA WHOA HOLD ON

I don’t want to believe.

Remember when Bart told Lisa he could pinpoint the exact moment when Ralph’s heart broke when she told him she never wanted to go out with him in the first place? I had a Ralph moment. My heart broke a little.  Matt thought he was in the clear. WE WERE ALL ROOTING FOR YOU!

Tony and Pussy draw their guns, pausing just long enough for Bevelacqua* to throw his arms out in supplication, before doing what they had intended to do all along. Effectively, this scene comes on the heels of Tony’s pizza party apology to AJ. Less than an hour ago, he was sitting in AJ’s room, apologizing for saying he wasn’t fit to be the next Soprano patriarch. Now he’s killing a kid young enough to be his son.

Oh, and since he left the pizza with AJ, he goes out to dinner with Pussy after. Buon appetito.

*I’m keeping that typo in because it makes more sense. Beve l’acqua! Now he can’t.

3. Sal “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero (Vincent Pastore)

poor pussFinal words: “Jesus Christ. I gotta sit down. I feel like I can’t stand. Is that okay, Tony, that I sit?”

Puss. Puss, Puss, Puss. Fitting that his last name is close to pensare (think), because he is never far from Tony’s mind. This one feels more tragic than shocking, although I was fairly shocked that not even Tony’s closest friend was off limits.

The Twin Peaks-y dream sequences return to build up to a revelation about Pussy’s status. Like Dale Cooper, Tony is given the answer to his questions in his dreams. Suspicions raised by Makazian are confirmed by the talking fish in his fever dream. “You know I’m workin’ for the government, right, Ton’?”

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There was a fish in the percolator.
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What fuckin’ percolator?

Like Matt, he was not entirely innocent: Puss has been an informant since the 90s (as early as 1995, but likely by 1998), an absolute no-no in the mafia. but I think we all hoped that they could find a way to let him stay alive. Imagine having to kill your best friend?

Puss knows what happens to snitches. Cornered below deck by Paulie, Tony, and Sil, he asks that they not aim for his face. “Can you give me that?” He either expects a beating, or he’s in denial, since he seems stunned when they all pull out their guns. His last words are especially sad because he still refers to T. He has no hope of making it off the boat alive, yet he remains strangely loyal to the end.

Paulie scares me in this scene.

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The temperature just dropped ten degrees when I looked at him.

Just like on The X-Files, some people never really die on The Sopranos. Not known for dabbling in the unexplained, with the exception of portentous dreams and a religious vision or two, they couldn’t resist a good ghost sighting. His appearance in flashbacks and dreams are one thing. Whoever expected to see him reflected in the mirror in “Proshai, Livushka”?

There’s got to be a rational explanation.

One thing I know for sure, I will never hear Take Me To The River in quite the same way. Maybe Stevie Nicks can help.

4. Minn Matrone (Fran Anthony)

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Final words: “Oh no!”

In the words of Jennifer Melfi, “Jeeeeesus fuckin’ Christ!”

The first time I saw this, I wished I hadn’t. Some people (and by this, I mean youtube commenters) found it funny, but I still have a hard time watching it. I’ve got this thing against watching someone die a slow death. They argue that the scene was camped up for laughs; played as an homage to Goodfellas, which I partially agree with. Paulie is like Joe Pesci’s character: he might be the funniest, but he is also one of the scariest. If you cut Paulie G open, you’d get freezer burn. Even though he is devoted to his mother–this hit was for/about her–he’s still one icy son of a bitch. “I got feelings, too,” my ass!

As with Makazian, it’s the sudden switch that packs a punch. I don’t think Paulie went there with the intention to kill. Violence is always an option, but I don’t think his backup plan involved murder. Not until Minn reaches for her life alert and starts screaming loudly enough to wake the entire retirement home does he spring into action. Pinned against the wall, Minn gains enough courage to tell him that he was “always a little bastard.” This, coupled with the fact that she already called him a disgrace to his sainted mother (ohoho, how quickly the tide will turn), sends him into a rage. He makes a move to strangle her. She bites his palm, so he grabs a throw pillow, and starts to smother her.

This is where I feel a little unwell.

Look, Minn might be a tough ol’ broad, but she is no physical match for her attacker. This one is particularly painful because it’s drawn out. Another victim could have attempted to throw him off, forcing him into faster action. Or, if he had shot her, it would have been over in the blink of an eye. Not here. It takes an agonizing half minute to avenge his little Ma.

5. Gloria Trillo (Annabella Sciorra)

glFinal words: Technically unknown, but her last words to Tony  are, “Kill me, you cocksucker. Kill me. Kill me.”

Gloria is definitely in exelcis, but she probably could have used a few extra prayers when dealing with Tony. Gloria is my #1 favourite girlfriend, and the only woman of his I could relate to. I never fucked a capo at the zoo or threw a steak at anyone’s head; not saying the desire never arose. But she is the most interesting and human goomar Tony has had. The rest of them want the wealth, the status, the thrill. Gloria has all of that. She wants peace. She wants love.

This is not to say that she is not excited by Tony’s identity. She is drawn to him for the same reasons most  women are. Why is he drawn to her? She offers him just as much in return. In addition to being drop-dead gorgeous, Gloria is funny, successful, spontaneous. She makes him feel alive for the first time in years. No other woman stirred his passions the way that she did. She was a welcome distraction from his long-crumbling marriage. Until he began to see the other side of her, Tony might have even considered seeing her long-term.

Something that I liked about Gloria was that Melfi knew her. It made things more interesting. It was almost like a love triangle, given his affection for Melfi. Melfi is usually a few connected dots away from the full picture. She tries to help him as much as possible, but is often frustrated by the code of silence that his profession demands. Gloria is someone she has intimate knowledge of, beyond what Tony thinks he knows. (“I didn’t just meet you. I’ve known you my whole fuckin’ life.”)  She knows Gloria in a way that she will never know anyone else in his life, even Carmela.

Another cute little murderer…. of seven relationships.

A common theme of love triangles is the presence of a too-good-to-be-true person, “who is often revealed to have a significant flaw, such as hidden insensitivity or lecherousness, causing the other person to become the more desirable partner.” I don’t know that they make Carm more desirable, but Gloria’s flaws–lack of trust and need for control, which manifest as insensitivity and disregard for Tony’s personal life–put the relationship in jeopardy before he ever finds out about the car ride with Carm.

Like Pussy, Gloria never really dies. She returns as a discussion topic with Melfi and Janice, and in dreams. In “The Test Dream,” she reminisces with Tony about their time together. They laugh warmly, until he brings up childbirth. “I don’t have any children,” she says, turning serious.”I died too young.”

WHAM.

So, why is it disturbing that Gloria committed suicide? Shouldn’t we have seen it coming? That’s a question that Tony grapples with in “Everybody Hurts.” “Why the fuck didn’t you help her?” For me, this death was surprising and sad because she was not a one-off, one-dimensional character. Even though we never saw her in therapy as often as we did Tony, we could guess that she bared her soul in the same way that Tony did. She was, at least, in search of herself.

HAHAHAAHA Oh wait… Something’s twisting my heart…

While she was a financially stable career woman, Gloria was emotionally vulnerable in a way that his other women were not. Even her boss knew she had a lot of personal troubles. Tracee might be the only one who comes close, since it is obvious that she wants Tony’s validation and advice. But they were never together. Valentina threatens to kill herself after Tony breaks it off with her, only because she blames him for causing the accident that might rob her of her looks. Gloria was a woman who wanted to be lucky in love, and thought she might have found The One in Tony. That he may be to blame for her demise without having pulled a knife or trigger is one of the heaviest burdens he must bear.

Loose ends are usually never praised (just look at the finale), but I like that Vin and Gloria do not have clear resolutions. Suicide is rarely the result of a single problem. Sometimes, there is no confessional note left for those who remain. Gloria’s and Vin’s deaths retain a certain amount of mystery that haunt those who knew them, and those who watched them.

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.

pro
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.

my precious
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.

leave plz
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?

brill
Where did I park?

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.

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 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?

school
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)

hair
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.