Was Livia truly in the early stages of senility? I was sure before my third re-watch of the first three seasons that she was completely faking it, until I noticed moments in season one where she seems genuinely confused, namely in “46 Long” and “I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano.” However, I’m not convinced that she was completely unaware of her actions and used her failing memory as a scapegoat.
Unexpected slips in memory and spatial awareness are common enough even in those not experiencing some cognitive decline, but Livia’s slips in these episodes are a little too far off base to be explained away by planning or a poor night’s sleep alone.
On the phone with Tony in “46 Long,” only the second episode in, she puts him on hold to take her pan of mushrooms off the heat. Instead of moving immediately to the stove, she looks across the street to watch a package being delivered to her neighbour. She regards the mail woman with suspicion, then picks up the phone and asks who’s on the other line, forgetting that she was talking to her son less than a minute ago. Her food goes up in flames in a small grease fire that renders her helpless. She panics, incapable of putting it out, even with Tony’s patient instruction. Livia may be prone to histrionics, but this incident doesn’t seem connected to anything, and there’s no reason for her to fake it, especially if she’s trying to avoid Green Grove.
Then, her conversation with Artie in the season finale. Acting on news of the probable diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, Artie decides to pay her a visit. He greets her by asking if he remembers her. She says she does, but mixes up Tony and Johnny, “remembering” that Artie and Johnny used to play Little League together. Along with forgetting that her husband has been dead since 1984, she fails to make the connection between his age (and her own) and Artie’s. Artie is a baby-faced forty-something who, despite the bald pate, looks barely of his twenties. All you have to do is look at him to know that this baseball scenario is impossible. For someone in the early stages of Alzheimer’s or dementia, this error in episodic memory could be a clue to her mental state.
She at first thinks Artie’s mother is still alive. She asks after her, and he gently reminds her that his mother has been dead for six months. Livia carries on as if she hasn’t heard, asking if she’s still on “that crazy diet.” (What, Atkins? Scarsdale? Ephedra? Talk to me, Liv.)
Artie was not prepared for this awkward moment and it’s pretty well played. It’s actually sad, something few scenes with Livia are. He came prepared to see a woman he’s known for most of his life, who was a familiar (if not always warm and cuddly) fixture of his childhood. When he makes a graceful recovery, trying to save her from embarrassment by offering her some pasta, you can see how little he has changed over time. He’s still as polite and respectful to “Mrs. S,” as he sweetly calls her, as if he were standing in her kitchen with Tony after a sweaty game of summer baseball.
What I like about this scene is its quiet insight into Artie’s character. You can just tell that he’s the kind of guy who hates hospitals and nursing homes, even though this is only a RETIREMENT COMMUNITY! It’s in the cautious way he enters the room, unsure of what to expect, certain only of his fear of places like this. The way he makes small talk about the sunniness of the room. If there were dirt for him to dig his toe into, he would. We don’t know how Artie’s mother died, but he may well have spent more time in institutions recently than he cared to. He’s probably still scrubbing the smell of antiseptic off his skin. We’re not just learning about Tony or Livia here.
Artie is someone who cares for little else than his restaurant. It’s more than his pride and joy, it’s his lifeblood. It’s his constant prop, and it is both his saviour and his downfall in this scene. He relies on food to ease the tension, using it as an ice-breaker in case things are uncomfortable, as most first-time visits like this are. He does it to self-soothe, knowing that he might find a very different woman than he remembered on the other side of that door. And of course, he does it out of the goodness of his own heart because he’s such a darling and loves to cook. I’m not that cynical or analytical. But it is the one thing that Artie knows best and is a big part of his life. It’s only natural that it’s going to be something of a coping mechanism for him. And what kind of Italian would he be if he didn’t bring food? He’s no mangiacake.
But the food also brings about a moment of clarity for Livia. She tells him that Tony was responsible for the explosion at the original Vesuvio. This prompts a tense scene with Artie holding a gun to Tony’s face, something I’m sure neither could have imagined even in their wildest dreams.
With a cocked rifle on his shoulder, Artie reiterates how great his loss is: He didn’t just lose a restaurant, he lost a legacy. (All the more reason to dig determinedly into that rabbit recipe down the road in season six’s “Luxury Lounge” as he tries to prevent further loss.) Against his will, he has now been drawn into that vicious Soprano eddy that threatens everyone who rows a little too closely, whether by accident or intent. Even just being in the same waters can leave you immune. Tony is like a vortex or black hole, something he calls Gloria, likening her to mommy dearest, in “Amour Fou.” Eventually, everyone who knows him will get sucked into his world in one way or another, even if they start off in good standing.
This is the case with Livia. Part of why Tony loathes her so much is because he knows how much they are alike. She has a talent for reeling people in.
“I loved my new place so much and this ruins everything!” Artie says, still pointing the gun. Not even the love of the game can make him feel better. Thinking that the restaurant hit was random is difficult enough, but to find out that his best friend and customer, who has had a hand in his success because of his patronage, was responsible? That hurts more than getting your hand stuck in a pot of hot spaghetti sauce.
Also, is that the same gun he shot the rabbit with? God dammit!
There’s a dash of humour with some regional snobbery when Artie unveils his dish. Livia gives it that classic Soprano look of disdain. “Oh, Northern.” Southside Soprano turns her nose up at cavatelli in a duck ragout. Geddafuckouttahere.
When he asks if she remembers Vesuvio, it seems to bring her back to the present. We all know that smells have been scientifically linked to memory, especially working memory, where such a link between the present smell and the past event or thought would occur. The location of the primary olfactory nerve, which registers and controls the sense of smell, is only three synapses, or neuronal junctions/steps, away from the hippocampus, the famous storehouse of memory and emotion. In “Fortunate Son,” Melfi tries to explain this in simple terms to Tony, using Proust’s madeleines as an example of how certain food odors (gabbagool, in his case) can trigger a memory. Tony sophomorically dismisses the whole thing as being “very gay.”
For Livia, it has nothing to do with a specific smell linked to a specific memory, just that food equals restaurant, which to her equals her son, who, for better or worse, never seems to be far from her mind. She never conveniently forgets who he is, or who they are.
If that’s true, that the food is a cue, then her admission is downright evil. Malice is Livia’s specialty. She drops it on Artie right after he tells her how much he loved her PB and J’s.This cute little gourmand is reminiscing about a simple childhood pleasure, and she chooses that exact moment to burst his bubble. Revenge really is a dish best served cold.
There is something in the way that she says it that makes me think the spontaneous revelation is intentional. She says it the way that she says “poor you” or “I wish the Lord would take me now.” It’s that quavering, wishy-washy tone that could be misread by someone like Artie, who is unfamiliar with her ways, as sadness and regret. The slight quiver makes it sound like she’s telling him something she wishes she didn’t have to; something that could be followed by “I’m sorry, but it’s for your own good.” Only she does want to, now that she’s aware of who’s in front of her. It was in no way premeditated because she didn’t know he was coming to see her. It shows how sharp she still is in some ways. She saw an opportunity and took it. At least some part of her brain is still like vulture-like, waiting for the right moment to swoop down and grab its prey.
Artie taking Livia at her word after witnessing her confusion seems a bit strange. I think he had a silent inkling about Tony’s involvement that he never wanted to admit to, and now, after thinking it over, realizes it makes the most sense. Charmaine has been right about Tony all along.
He also leads with his heart 99% of the time, and this entire situation is wrapped up in deeply personal history and nostalgia.
There is also the earlier incident of a confused Livia banging on the door of the Soprano home, looking for her now-deceased sister, Settimia. Looking like a specter–literally a shadow of her former self, clad in a light jacket that covers her nightgown–the wailing Livia sounds like a banshee. This is an appropriate resemblance, for she is frequently a harbinger of doom and is at the forefront of the contract on Tony.
Jeremy and Meadow are making out to Howling III in the living room. (My idea of a hot date.) The gate clanks outside, making him jump. It’s the classic teen scare scene: “Was that your parents?!” Nobody wants to be walked in on, especially not if your girlfriend’s dad is a mob boss. Eager to get back to making out (and seeming to be the only one. Meadow is more interested in the Georgia O’Keeffe symbolism of the blooming clit-flower on screen), he agrees that it’s probably nothing. That’s what they always say in the movies before someone dies! Everyone makes it out alive, but I think Jeremy killed a pair of pants, crapping himself.
There’s a small thing to be said about fear here. I think everyone’s worst nightmare is seeing a family member decline before them. It’s a peculiar thing to lose someone who can still stand before you, sometimes in body only. Jeremy’s fear is different from the kind that AJ and Meadow (and even Artie) feel. You won’t find it in any cheesy horror sequel from the 80s. It’s too much to bear, so it goes unsaid between them, spoken only in troubled glances.
Calling up to his open window, Livia calls AJ “Dickie,” mistaking him for Chrissy’s father, Dickie Moltisanti. When he corrects her, she tells him to get back into bed because he has whooping cough. More timeline confusion. Once inside, she calls Meadow a faccia brutta (ugly face) when she tries to tell her that Settimia is dead. The look of righteous anger on her face cracks me up. It’s just so familiar to me. Such indignation! This is your typical Italian grudge in action. God knows what she thinks Settimia did to her. I wonder if she’s invented something entirely new or is going after her for a decades-old slight, only now remembered.
Meadow reminds her of who she is, with the same gentleness that Artie will use with her later. Coming around only slightly, Livia tells her granddaughter that she can’t bear to stay in the same house as ol’ ugmo, who has obviously slithered off into the same crack in the sidewalk from whence she came.
A cop arrives, responding to reports of a wandering woman. Standing in the foyer, she brightens at AJ and pinches his cheek (“Ow! Shit!” Nonnas, dude.) The officer asks if she knows who he is. Livia smiles confidently. “Of course! He’s…” She trails off, faltering. After a moment, during which AJ and Meadow exchange a knowing (and I think heartbreaking) look, she regains awareness and identifies him as her grandson, but there’s no pride in it. Only dismay and confusion.
To digress momentarily, I have to tell you, I love baby AJ. He’s had a rough season so far. He’s constantly in trouble at school and risks being slapped with a controversial diagnosis of ADD that threatens his already low self-esteem. He had to attend Jackie Sr.’s funeral, which is usually a boring, scary, and confusing thing for a kid. I was around AJ’s age when I went to my first funeral. Not fun. I probably got pocket money while there, but it wasn’t my idea of a good time. But I didn’t have to contend with the knowledge that my father was a mobster and get a snotty, told-ya-so look from my sister. Maybe she is a little faccia brutta.
For me, Livia’s surprise visit cements my opinion that she is not faking it entirely. Her appetite for destruction seems to stop with her grandchildren. She’s always a little softer with them and has no reason to mess with them. There’s no need to go through them to get to Tony. She’s proved quite capable of going directly to her target.
That’s not to say that she didn’t pretend at other times. Something within her is still sharp enough to home in on Artie’s weakness. She’s really aiming at Tony, but she’s aware of how devastating it will be for him, too, and doesn’t mind that he’s caught in the crosshairs. He’s just a means to an end. The glint in her eye when Tony goes to smother her speaks volumes. Accustomed to her ways, having been jerked around by her all of his life, and watching her do it to others, I agree with him that she was smiling, quite aware and proud of what she set in motion.
These establishing episodes serve to confuse as much as enlighten. This mix of truth and falsehood help us to empathize with Tony and his family a little. We become part of that tug-of-war between fact and fiction, never sure if we are being led down the garden path, or if we can trust her. Just when we think we’re out… she pulls us back in.