Ho, there she is!

 

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o hai

No, this is not a mirage. After a year’s absence, I’ve decided to try to return to this blog. I don’t know who out there keeps reading, but thank you for making me smile every time I check the stats page and see your views! I hope you’re enjoying it.

Last summer, I fell away from the Sopranos fandom, entertaining as it was. I had slowly stopped watching episodes, keeping in mind all the while the fifteen eighteen(!) drafts I had on here. I kept telling myself that next week, I’d get back to it. When the appointed day came, there was always some reason why I couldn’t work on it. I’d remind myself that there was no deadline. I could work on it anytime I wanted to. After a while, I stopped wanting to, and that wasn’t a pleasant feeling. It was kind of like childbirth…

It may sound strange to call a show where murder and corruption are central to the story a “comfort show,” but there was nothing more comforting to me than halting the world and its responsibilities for 45 minutes to enter David Chase’s universe, then writing about it for the rest of the night. I loved it. That was my time. It was non-negotiable: This was Sopranos time, and nothing was going to get in the way of that. Throwing myself into character and episode analysis for days at a time was exciting. Editing and working on my posts for however long it took was fun! It didn’t feel like work. It was a way to unwind and express myself, to flex the creative muscle, keep it strong.

Getting into discussions on reddit (and on a smaller level, tumblr) only made it more fun because I could talk directly to people who got it. Similar to the Italian-American slang that punctuated the Sopranos’ dialogue, we had our own language, made up of quotes and references. Though a sometimes imperfect form of communication, we all knew what the other meant.

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Some stunad just told me to go shit in my hat.

I knew I wasn’t going to abandon I Soprano permanently. It was just a matter of when I would let myself back in. Coming back meant facing the idea that I might not ever be able to write again. I would look over old entries (some incomplete), mourn what was, and close the tab. Like Tony, I began to feel that maybe the best was behind me and that I couldn’t do this anymore.

Write again? — that was when I was being optimistic. Maybe I never could and this, as well as my entire education, had all been a waste of time. I never called myself A Writer, it was just something I did without hesitation. No matter how uncertain I was about everything else, it was the one thing that I had confidence in. But then the questions seeped into my mind, slowly, like a bloodstain: Was it worth anything? Was I saying something that was useful or intelligent? Or was it a bunch of horseshit dressed up to sound that way? Just how good is my writing, anyway? I continued to post, but doubt had begun to eat away at the edges of my confidence.

I agonized over word choice. I  rejected multiple rewrites. I started to question my own interpretations. Observations that I had considered solid became pedestrian when measured against other people’s. And again, more painfully, when measured against ones I had made before — I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had lost something, if I had ever had it to begin with. I just didn’t know. I was aware of all of the contradictions in what I felt but nothing made sense to me.

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Like a woman with a Virginia ham under her arm.

After an extended period of wallowing–unusual for me–I realized that I’m being too hard on myself. Putting aside actual writing ability, much of this is just conjecture. Chase himself could reveal the meanings behind things (the finale; why he used that single  Goodfellas freeze-frame in “Cold Cuts” and never again), and expert fans would find some hole in his explanation and take it apart. As nice as it is to agree with someone and have your theories confirmed, disagreement is an opportunity to look at something from a different perspective. Nobody is really “right” about everything because our experiences shape our interpretations and understanding of what we see. Agreements happen when our circumstances collide with someone else’s. When they don’t, it doesn’t always mean everything you’ve believed up to that point is wrong.

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Fuckin’ intanet.

Opening a new page again, I felt some of the confidence that had eluded me for so long. The voice came back. Words flowed. I started putting pictures in. I still feel unsure. I still feel fearful, but I don’t want to keep living under the burden of uncertainty. What I had was good and it can be good again. I had a lot of fun doing it, so why just give up without really trying? I don’t believe that fear of failure should hold you back to the point of inertia. Anyone who creates goes through this. Writer’s block, impostor syndrome, it’s all the same.

This is turning into an open Melfi session, but I’ve wanted to make this post for a long time. I know what it’s like to find a blog you like, only to see it hasn’t been updated in a year. People are still reading, often finding me through hilarious search terms.

My most viewed post happens to be one of my personal favourites. This post about Gloria Trillo is how most people who aren’t searching for lesbian friendship tips find me.  (Update me on how that worked out?) Gloria fascinated me all the way back in the days of catching censored episodes on A&E (5/10, sort of recommend). She was smart, beautiful, and misunderstood. Most of the discussion about Gloria focuses on the fact that she’s “crazy,” but as prominent as her mental illness is, ignoring the other facets of her character is to do a disservice to the writers. I think the reason why so many people, especially men, have such a strong reaction to her is that they recognize someone they know in her. Someone they dated or maybe even married. Though only a minor one, Gloria is still one of many characters who were so real, that it was hard to watch her and not feel something, whether it was positive or not. What the Sopranos has always done is make people think, and they succeeded again with the goddess of Globe Motors. This blog and others like it are proof!

I’m going to start watching from the beginning and get the drafts out. I haven’t revisited them with an optimistic mind yet, but I think I’ll be able to now.

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Hope comes in many forms.

 

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Artie and Livia: To Tell The Truth.

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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.

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Sad kitten.

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.

 

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The wild gesticulator.

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.

 

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Vesuvio erupts.
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IT WAS YOU, FREDO.

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.

 

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#NotAllItalians

“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.

 

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Go to the source. I love the “moozillness” tag.

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.

 

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Setteeeeeeemiaaaaa!

 

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.

 

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Protect AJ.

 

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.

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.

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.

Mr. Ruggerio’s Neighbourhood: Won’t you bug my neighbour?

Welcome to Mr. Ruggerio’s neighbourhood! Not to be confused with Adamo Ruggiero’s Degrassi neighbourhood.

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Mambo Italiano.

The third season starts off with neither a bang nor a whimper, but with a few laughs. Chase takes a light-hearted approach to the premiere, after slamming us with the surreal and sad  second season finale that was “Funhouse.” The previous season opened with the comically titled, “Guy Walks Into A Psychiatrist’s Office…”, a reference to Tony’s return to therapy. “Mr. Ruggerio’s Neighbourhood” is an obvious riff on Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood, although I’m not sure why the title puts the spotlight on Tony’s plumber, other than the sheer fact that it is punnier than “Mr. Soprano’s Neighbourhood.”

References to The Godfather I and II immediately loom large. The agents sit in front of the flow chart drawn up in “Pax Soprana” (a favourite), after Junior’s promotion to boss is secretly snapped by photographers disguised as waiters. The agents do one better and also re-create the hierarchy on a chalkboard, just in case.

These guys even look alike, right down to the expression…

Picking up the driveway daily, Tony, like Michael Corleone, reads a headline that refers to him.

It’s hard to tell, but I don’t think that the article about Vito is fully drawn up. It looks like a mock-up with intentionally blurry filler text. The Star-Ledger in Sopranos Land, however, boasts a full article, complete with quotes from concerned residents. Someone crafted a believable report, even going so far as to name names! Sam Lieberman, one such  resident (apparently not so concerned as to remain anonymous. Watch yer hubcaps), and NJPD Detective F (can’t make out the full name – The Elusive Mr F!) all speak to reporter Bob Shaw, who takes his name from the show’s production designer. Is this show brilliant, or is it brilliant?

Tony’s first scene with dialogue is pure Gandolfini. He had such a natural way about him. It helps that he does not yet have the t’ick Jershee acshent that became his character’s imitable hallmark. If you’ve seen paparazzi footage of James, you’ll notice that he barely seems to be playing a part here, yet he never loses the ability to disappear completely into the role.

Edie Falco once remarked, “He was just Tony – fully inhabiting the part of this man I was married to. And it was thrilling. Usually, if you look deep enough when you’re doing a scene with somebody, you can see the actor, and I never saw anybody but Tony. Never.”

This is how I’ve always felt about him. The only times he’s distinguishable from Tony is when he has a beard. Even when he was walking around the city as himself, with a camera in his face, relieved of any vestiges of New Jersey, he was still Tony Soprano.

A jazzy instrumental, identified by the closed-caption as The Peter Gunn theme, plays over quick cuts of code-named family Bing going to and from various locations. (Seriously, Bing? Not something more discreet?) Peter Gunn was a show about a smartly-dressed P.I., that ran from 1958-1961. I had never heard of it before, and Wikipedia notes that it is a remembered mostly for its music. Our beloved I Soprano has also been lauded for its soundtrack; ask any fan what they loved most about the show, and one of the answers will probably be, “the music.”

Composed by Henry Mancini, the theme has been covered by  everyone from Emerson, Lake, & Palmer, to Aretha Franklin. The brassier version on the Porky’s Revenge! soundtrack is by Clarence Clemons, Stevie Van Zandt’s fellow E Street bandmate. RIP.

Some promotional images for Gunn show a stylized G in the shape of a gun, 40 years before the famous R gun appeared in the Sopranos logo. Probably a fun coincidence!

Operation Bug The Bings is underway. Wearing a sun visor, diamond earrings, and a sporty button-down, it’s almost as if Carmela dressed for the occasion. This is exactly what you’d expect someone with leisure time to spare to wear when being surveilled. Not too flashy, but not so casual that you’d mistake her for a working stiff.

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~*sO 90S*~

As the vans roll toward the house, the theme easily segues into “Every Breath You Take,” before blending with the Gunn theme. This catchy little mash-up was the brainchild of music editor, Kathryn Dayak.

Inside the real Bing, Paulie picks lunchtime to talk about that awful way your shoelaces sometimes drag in the water on the bathroom floor. He goes into great detail about the migratory pattern of germs, our first introduction to his germophobia. Sil hunches over his dish, turning several shades of green.”C’mon, will ya?” protests Hesh. Paulie snaps back, “He’s askin’ me, I’m tellin’ him!” Might I suggest slip-ons?

When Tony enters, Patsy returns Carmela’s sable coat, noting the alterations he had made. “It shouldn’t have torn like that,” he says apologetically. Considering how it was torn, I don’t think that either of them minded.

Picking at his food, Patsy opens up about the loss of his twin brother, Philly. It’s their 51st birthday, and Patsy’s first one alone. He has no idea that he’s breaking bread with the men who had him killed. Tony all but kicks him under the table trying to change the subject. Can we go back to toilet water and shoe laces?

Gigi, who shot him on Tony’s orders, shrugs callously. “It’s the life we chose, right?”

This caught my attention. He says it to shift blame, possibly to alleviate guilt, and definitely to alleviate suspicion, but there hasn’t been a lot of talk so far about choosing to be in the mafia. Walking away from the life is next to impossible, and so far, the only one who has spoken about choosing their connection is Carmela to Father Phil. Okay, Tony too, when he reminds a wet and whiny Christopher that he “chose this life” in” College.” Thanks, google! But as far as hearing it from someone in a serious way, those moments have been few and far between.

Patsy says he misses Philly. Trying to stay patient, Tony abruptly replies, “Well, that’s natural.” He says almost the same thing to Carm in  “Kennedy and Heidi” after she admits that she was relieved that it was Chris and not Tony who died. Both deaths are his fault, and he doesn’t like being reminded of the fact. Deflect, deflect, deflect.

I notice that Tony likes to avoid conflict while eating; see countless strained dinners with Livia, and how he handled Meadow’s sly lecture on the Five Families in “The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti.” Probably because he’d get acida, then he’d really be pissed.

I laughed at the way they all gesture and grumble in unison when Patsy says he would have preferred to die the way some twins do, within hours of each other. “Ehh, c’mon!” Enough with this talk, stronzo. You’re disrespecting The Bing.

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Way to go, Christafuh.

In case you were wondering, Carm’s tennis visor isn’t just for show. It’s time for her weekly lesson with Ed Restuccia, a good Italian boy who is interested in other rackets. It sounds like Carm wants to set him up with Ade, but then she finds out that his wife (“I didn’t even know you were married!”) got a new job, so they’re moving to California. But it’s okay, Birgit is going to take over for him!

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WOMEN, AMIRITE???

Carmela takes Christ to the courts. That thick golden crucifix goes everywhere, and good thing, because she’ll need it to ward off The Evil Lesbian. Ade doesn’t seem to mind Birgit’s sudden shine to her, but Carmela thinks she’s just a little too friendly. For me, Carmela’s homophobia comes a little out of left field. Even with her strong (or situational, depending on whom you ask) Roman Catholic background, I figured she would be the liberal one. She’s so good at looking the other way when it comes to  other, greater moral transgressions, I don’t know why she couldn’t just let this one slide.

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That’s lesbian activity.
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Tonight on The Office, Carmela Soprano.

You want inappropriate conduct? Listen to the bullshit coming out of the mouths of the G-Men with binoculars. If you only knew, C.

Ed has burned her, so she burns him back. Oh, your wife is a dot-com antiques dealer?

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Oh Ed, ya big lug!

But you have a couple thou in the bird feeder! Doesn’t get any more traditional than that.

With The Sausage Factory, aka Casa Soprano, empty, the FBI moves in to plant their recorders, sift through the mail, and check the expiry dates in the fridge. Safety first!

They set their sights on the desk lamp in the basement. This was pretty cool, watching them bug an exact replicate recreated in painstaking detail, right down to the last scratch. I feel like I’m watching Fight The Future with the establishing shot of Quantico. Scullayyyyy!

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It’s shedding light on things, geddit?

What the fuck, AJ’s drinking Snapple.

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Don’t backwash!

I TOLD YOU THERE WAS SOMETHING ABOUT MAFIA DUDES AND APPLE JUICE.

Meadow’s dorm room is classic. Touch tone phone with a cord, an NSYNC poster, and a pizza box on the dresser.

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Where can I find that cloud blanket?

I like the juxtaposition of the agent listening at the door as the FBI bug Meadow’s house, half an hour away, while she talks about being homesick. The lamp on the desk behind Caitlin will factor in later. You’ll notice her side of the room is covered in posters for Absolut Vodka, providing the perfect backdrop for her drunken Liza tribute.

This is the one with “that cookie shit“! Ah, the days before private browsing.

Did you cry at Carmela collecting the tennis balls? I did. Such a menial task, by her standards. Add to that that she has been ordered by A Lesbian, while her sweet, straight, cinnamon roll of a friend is being given the very hands-on lesson that she misses from Ed. It’s practically public humiliation.ball collector

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Lesbian request denied.

SHE IS SO ANGRY. That is a white suburban mom face if ever I saw one.  All that’s missing is the “I want to speak to the manager” haircut. Cut to a shot where we hear their maid, Liliana, panicking inside the house, establishing a connection between the demoted Carmela and her “hired help.” Although Liliana has not been on the receiving end of it, Carmela has  previously summoned her first housekeeper with a flick of her long nails, a not-so-subtle reminder to everyone that she will never have dishpan hands. Tony is not the only one who likes to assert his dominance. Out of insecurity, Carmela does, too, by making sure that nobody forgets their place inside her home.

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STOP IT.

Question: Where did Oona, their first housekeeper, go? Did they dismiss her after the indictments in the first season?  Unless they let her go with a nice sum of hush money, it would make more sense to keep anyone who could answer questions about their house close by.

In Denial, Anger, Acceptance,” Carmela beckons to Charmaine in the same manner. Understandably offended, Charmaine retaliates by letting her in on a little secret about Tony’s past.

I’m a big fan of  Uncle’s John’s Bathroom Readers. One of my favourite articles was a collection of different rules from old etiquette guides, with one entry about farting dating back to the 16th century! A rule from the mid-1800s reminds people that how you speak to your servants reflects upon you. Addressing them with condescension, especially in front of your guests, is a tell-tale sign that you were once where they were, and are “putting on airs at the thought of your own promotion.”

This fits her to a, um, T. Class-conscious Carmela knows that she might be in very different position had she married someone else. She resents not merely the fact that Charmaine and Tony slept together in high school, but that Charmaine and Artie are legitimate earners. They built up and have so far maintained, the family-owned Vesuvio without the help of the “blood money” that allows the unemployed Carmela her lavish lifestyle. Even if she will never know how often Charmaine discourages her husband from getting in too thick with Tony and his friends, she is, at least, aware that they will never have to live with the permanent stain of being married to the mob, a stain that she fears may earmark her for eternal damnation.

“I have forsaken what is right for what is easy. Allowing what I know is evil in my house. Allowing my children–Oh my God, my sweet children– to be a part of it because I wanted things for them: a better life, good schools. I wanted this house. I wanted money in my hands, money to buy anything I ever wanted. I’m ashamed. My husband, I think he has committed horrible acts. I think he has… you know all about him, Father Phil. I’m the same. I’ve said nothing. I’ve done nothing about it. I’ve got a bad feeling. It’s just a matter of time before God compensates me with outrage for my sins…” – Carmela Soprano, in College

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Her face. I die. Give her all the awards.

The Police start up again (THE POLICE ARE PLAYING AS THE FBI WATCH THEM. YO DAWG, I HEARD YOU LIKED LAW ENFORCEMENT), joined by Peter Gunn. Carmela heads back to base, and the feds make their escape. They find out later that Liliana was yelling about the water heater. Bye-bye, Black and Decker! Six months on the thing? Not even six days. Our white collar boys are baffled. They can’t even make the connection between their prediction and the plumber’s truck that they saw at the house.

I’m just going to praise the level of detail on this show again. Wading through the flooded basement, Tony grabs a box of old photos at Carmela’s behest. “The prom!” he cries. A black and white picture floats by, and lo and behold, it is actually a picture of them. The prop department took the time to photoshop a believable picture of Edie and James as seventeen-year-old Tony Soprano and Carmela DeAngelis.

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KEEP LOOKING AT IT

Carm and Ade look like they stepped out of the sports section of a 90s Sears Catalogue, not like they’d shop there. I didn’t say I hated it.

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Tennis, anyone?

Jeannie Cusamano almost spills the beans. When the feds in disguise knock, she answers the door in a casual, colour-coordinated outfit that would look right at home on the set of Everybody Loves Raymond.

In classic sitcom fashion, Jeannie leans in like Gladys Kravitz to discourage them from going over there themselves. “They’re in the ma–”

The agents look at her, feigning disbelief. “Pardon?”

Money! In the money. Rich, rich people.

Jeannie recovers. “Nothing. They’re different. For this neighbourhood, they’re a little different, that’s all.”

Sopranos Autopsy already touched on the significance of Jeannie’s role, and how she is the perfect surrogate for the audience… But I wonder if she still has that box of sand?

I didn’t think I would have so much to say about this one. It was a pretty anti-climactic opener. This is not to say that it didn’t have its suspenseful moments. The whole time, I was nervous about the timing falling to shit, and the tap operation being discovered. All it takes is a clear traffic forecast, and you’re home with time to spare. If someone is in the middle of bugging your house, it’s bad news for them.

Stylistically, it deviated a little from the typical Sopranos episode. Parts of it were purposely campy, perhaps as an homage to the original plan of making it a comedy, a la The Simpsons. After the darker episodes that book-ended the previous season, a little levity was in order. “Every Breath You Take” while everyone, feds and viewers alike, watch? Cheeky bastards!

This is the first, and maybe only, episode that I can think of that uses full fades between scenes. Instead of the usual straight or contrast cut to the next scene, they go completely black to indicate a new day. They’re a step away from using the intertitle.

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C’mon, make some mob stuff happen.

I LOVE THE ENDING. The agents take the legally required time-out from their listening session. When they tune in again, Tony is telling Carmela about his own indoor plumbing, and complaining about having something stuck in his teeth for two days. Carmela tells him he needs to eat more fiber, and floss regularly. What is it with us and food in our teeth? If you’re ever around my mom, don’t suck your teeth to remove food: It’s a purported Italian habit that drives her up the wall and around the corner. Help yourself to a toothpick.

I can picture him lying in bed later that night, working loudly on a stubborn piece of gabagool. From behind the cover of Memoirs of a Geisha, Carmela pipes up, “Do ya have to do that, Tony?”

“You want it to stay in there, whatever it is, and rot my teeth? I’ll need a fuckin’ root canal.”

“That’s not how it works. And we have insurance.”

“It’s all being spent on replacing the cocksuckin’ heater and everything in the basement!”

She shrugs, eyes never leaving the page. “AJ got you that nice electric tooth brush for Christmas.”

Tony grunts in reply. He rolls over to snap on the television, where he sees an ad for denture cream.

Yeah, I just wrote Sopranos fanfic lite. That means we’re done here.

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No respect.

To Save Us All From Chase’s Christmas

Ah, the Christmas episode. The flashback Christmas episode; now that’s extra special.

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Angel of my dreams.

“…To Save Us All From Satan’s Power…”  is pretty boring, and it shows, surrounded by an otherwise exciting series of episodes. Even the ellipses suggest reluctance: Yeah, this is our Christmas episode… I guess…  Fuck, I don’t know. In the sentimental spirit of the season, Tony finds himself reflecting on Pussy’s betrayal, and running an errand for Janice.

Things kick off with a slight panic attack over his Christmas list. Um, “all the shit” you have to do?

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Oh, poor you.

I see three things on that list, one of which is unnecessarily pluralized, but I’m not going to tell you how to live your life.

As is customary after such attacks, Tony goes to his appointment with Melfi. As he evasively tells her that the memory of his former friend “working for the government” brought him close to panic, she finds herself in that inner circle again. By this point, she is fully aware of who Tony is. There isn’t much she can do with the limited information he gives her about Pussy. I wish he had made her guess who it was. She could have called him Booty again.

Booty or no, she still gets in a memorable line.

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That’s cute.

I’m willing to bet all the money in the bird feeder she got that from Elliot. In turn, all of Lorraine Bracco’s real therapists are jumping on the couch, going, “I gave her that one!”

Back at The Bing, the annual opening of the Christmas box is underway. Hesh pulls out a branch and says that he doesn’t see the rest of the tree, to which Christopher responds, “Fuck that philosophical shit.” Christopher, honey. Come here. I have a crystal ball, I want to show you your future.

Now that Puss is dead, someone’s gotta don the gay apparel. Who will be the next Santa? I love the way they all look at Paulie, who then looks at Tony. With the empty space between the two sides and Tony at the head, it’s like the parting of the Red Sea.

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Then the consigliere said to the capo…

Sil waves the suit in front of T, who abruptly tells him to “fuckin’ stop.” Sil’s smile drops like a kid finding out that Santa isn’t real. Stevie Van Zandt is the best.

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Ah, go on.

Things are proceeding apace. He’s makin’ a hit, checkin’ it twice.

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Start rushin’, boy.

Tony and Aaron have a little eyeline match staredown as Tony crosses another laborious task off his list. But wait, what’s this…

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Sup.

Can you strum a keyboard? Does this happen if you see the light?

I know all the cool kids hate Janice, but I don’t. She’s funny, and if you don’t like Aida Turturro, get out of my house. Tony and Carmela bring dinner supplies to her place, interrupting a jam session with Aaron and the Lord. Tony calls her on her born again crap, which he sees as just another flaky phase. “When’s the last time you went to a prayer meeting?”

It’s not unlike the time he told Carmela she was only religious when it suited her. He doesn’t seem to embrace any particular faith, but is quick to call out the women in his life when they do. He sees it as hypocritical; this very judgement itself an act of hypocrisy.

Janice tells him that the conversion was, on  the whole, a chance to break into Christian Contemporary Music, proving his point: “Christianity brought about a business.” It’s all about the daily bread.

Best lines: “It’s a great mother-jumpin’ lyric, Jan” (Jumping mothers, eh? Good thing Tony wasn’t around to hear that one.)

“What are we sellin’, Ajax? ‘His blood cleans stains’?”

This is turning out to be a frustrating one. Normally I’m the defender of flashback and clip shows, but not this time. Chase and co. choose to wrap some  interesting exposition in Christmas paper: We learn that Pussy might have flipped after his trip to Boca in 1995; that Francis Satriale killed himself after getting in debt to Johnny Boy Soprano; and that Tony’s father was the one who came up with the idea of having Santa at Satriale’s in the first place. All good, necessary stuff, but, zzzzzz. Not their strongest presentation. Don’t forget, “Remember when is the lowest form of conversation.”

This is all slightly buoyed by lighthearted theories about the origin of elves and the North Pole. Paulie, Learning Channel fanatic that he is, is the expert: The original elves traveled with Santa to beat up the bad kids and give the good ones toys. Vigilante Santy, right up their alley. Sil is indignant: “And fuckin’ Dr. Seuss ripped it off.”

Also classic is Bobby’s Santa enforcing the one turn rule with a kid whose mouth is as big as the gap in his teeth.

There’s still time for a quick and dirty dream sequence. Sleep carries us over the threshold of time, to the present, but with a face from the not-so-distant past. Sil dreams of finding  Puss in a rat trap in the Bing’s dressing room. Cutting the music on the strippers, he demands to know what happened to the Jarlsberg he had. One of the dancers tells him another girl had just had a wheel of brie stolen from her purse.

He heads to the back, to the ominous beat of an off-hook tone coming from a pay phone on the wall. Sil approaches a rack of costumes. He pushes them aside, and there he is: the rat himself, in the jaws of a gigantic trap. (Which, if you look closely, you’ll see couldn’t even realistically hold him down. The jaw comes to his shoulders, not his neck.)

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Let’s hear it for Mouse Rat!

Once out of his silky red pj’s, Sil pays a visit to Tony. They head to their usual meeting place to talk about when Puss took the bait, as it were. Tony tells him the lamp that used to be down there is with Meadow at school, a reference to the season’s opener, “Mr. Ruggerrio’s Neighbourhood.” The basement is truly sacrosanct again.

And now, a word from our sponsors. The Sopranos actually used a fair bit of product placement during their run. There must be something about apple juice and mafia dudes. Tony hydrates with Motts; Johnny drinks Snapple while watching TV in “He Is Risen.

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CHUG, CHUG, CHUG.
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Snapple happy.

There are also two boxes of panettone on the counter. Their labels are barely discernible, but one of them looks like Bauli, and the other is so familiar, it’s making me mad that I can’t figure it out.

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I said *all* the panettone.

Another Thing Mafia Dudes Love™ is The Godfather. Flashback Sil puts his heart into a prophetic Michael Corleone imitation as Puss enters in the Santa suit. Tony cracks that he’s “method acting, like Al,” poking fun at his suitable size. This comes on the heels of Melfi admitting that her primary sources for situations like Tony’s are movies and Bill Kurtis.

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You broke my haaaht!

Shit just got meta. You may have heard of this little independent flick called Goodfellas, starring some woman named Lorraine Bracco.

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I have no clever caption. I’m just in love. Bye.

Bracco, of course, plays Karen Friedman Hill, who marries wannabe-gangster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta). With the help of Henry’s arresting baby blues and increasing power, she is quickly drawn into the mob world, to discover just how seedy the underbelly of their lavish lifestyle can be.

Karen continually tries to put as much distance as possible between herself and Henry’s business, while simultaneously indulging in all that it affords them. Bracco’s sympathetic portrayal of a tough but curious woman, who gets involved with an equally curious and ambitious man, would likely strike a chord with Melfi. She will never marry the mob, but the intrigue of Tony’s profession is always there.

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Loud, outspoken, turned on by guns?

To make it even more self-reflexive, Bracco turned down Chase’s original offer to play Carmela because of her role in the movie.

“…I said, ‘Look, I don’t think I should play Carmela because I did it, I did it in a Scorsese movie, I got an Oscar nomination. I really don’t think I’m going to bring so much to this for you that I haven’t done already.” – Lorraine Bracco

Not only are all Italians related, we all have to play the same roles, too!

Speaking of being related, guess what? Now that Artie is on the market, I’m gonna marry him.

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Oh hayyyyyy

The final scene doesn’t just save this episode, it makes it. In a bid to smooth things over between them, Meadow gives Tony a Big Mouth Billy Bass for Christmas. It may as well have been a dagger to the heart.

Tony stalls, quietly quelling the familiar rise of panic. What actually happens is kind of like one of his panic attacks, but with everyone around him actually laughing, and not at him. He thanks Meadow, who twists the knife by telling him she expects to see it on his desk, not gathering dust in a closet.

Carmela’s first real laugh in the whole show? Has to be.

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Do the writers jump up and click their heels when their creative stars align like this? It’s 2001. Billy Basses are the perfect dad gift, and here’s a guy who killed his best friend after a talking fish told him in a dream that he was working with the feds. It practically writes itself. Merry Stressmas to all, and to all a good night!

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Merry Moltisanti.

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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Gloria Trillo: Manic Pixie Dream Girl?

Almost two years ago, columnist Nathan Rabin rightfully apologized in Salon for coining the term Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Per his original article, the MPDG is defined as a perfect, fantasy girl-woman who “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” Clair Colburn, played by Kirstin Dunst in 2005’s  Elizabethtown, inspired the controversial term that has since been retroactively applied to everyone from Katharine Hepburn in Bringing up Baby, to Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (naturally), and Belle of Beauty and the Beast.

(All I remember about Elizabethtown was that I never saw it, but thought I should because Lindsey Buckingham was on the soundtrack.)

As I watched her story play out, I wondered:  Could you call Gloria a Manic Pixie Dream Girl?

What got me thinking about this was the fact that 90% of the très genteel comments about her on youtube and some other Sopranos forums are about how they’d fuck her if she wasn’t so ‘crazy’ or even because she was. I know, who cares about youtube; why look there for signs of intelligent life, blah blah. But it still made me think about the way we perceive and talk about mental illness, especially in women.

So, is she the dreaded MPDG?

It would be easy to label her as such, but I don’t think she meets the criteria exactly. Yes, she’s unpredictable and “crazy,” and exudes a playfulness mixed with irresistible sex appeal that masks her darker side. She does add a certain elan to Tony’s life, snapping him out of his Viagra-induced impotence, making him hungry for more than just gabagool.

Coffee, tea, or me?

But they aren’t inexperienced twenty-year-olds. They’re established adults who happened to meet at the exact moment that they wished for something more in their lives.

I’ll break down some of the qualities that she adheres to, as well as look at how she breaks away from them.

Feminine: The now-famous “Pine Barrens opens with a shot of The Stugots. An extravagantly dressed Gloria pulls her Benz up to the dock, killing the engine.  She flips down the car mirror and takes in her reflection before pulling a floppy J.Lo-inspired hat over a patterned head scarf. She strides across the dock in knee-high stiletto boots, expensive gift in hand, all to the tune of Gloria by Them. 

PETA is taking down your license plate as we speak.

Though the original is lyrically sparser than Patti Smith’s horny rewrite (which she denies is a reflection of any bisexual leanings), the message is still clear. Morrison’s Gloria is a perfect fantasy woman, who comes around for the right thing at the right time, which is exactly what our Gloria is to Tony, to both their delight and eventual chagrin. It struts and swaggers, and so does she. As the embodiment of traditional Western femininity and sexuality, she is as close to Kirstin Dunst’s perky, childlike flight attendant as I am to Dana Scully.

Fun facts: One of Annabella’s three middle names is Gloria, and she stands–you guessed it–5’4.

Otherworldly: While Gloria is not an ethereal, elfin creature who listens to Joanna Newsom, she is unlike anyone Tony has ever known, at least initially. She’s spontaneous, sexy, uninhibited. However hot his relationship with Carmela was, they probably didn’t have sex at the zoo. (Just at the beach.)

Gloria is also unlike anyone we’ve known. Her independence sets her apart from the others. She comes to depend on Tony physically and emotionally, but she doesn’t need him to empty his wallet for her.

Something tells me it’s all happening at the zoo.

Tony is used to being paired with “gold diggers”; women who are perceived as slightly beneath him socially and economically, who crave the attention and excitement of a relationship with an older man with means. Even Carmela has been accused of being a gold digger, something she muses over when she tells Melfi that he lavished gifts upon her family on the second date: “The minute I met Tony, I knew who that guy was. …  I don’t know if I loved him in spite of it, or because of it.”

We may be able to accuse Carmela of being naive or sheltered, at least at one point, but these terms definitely do not apply to Gloria. Gloria is fairly equal in wealth and status. She’s only about five years younger, narrowing the usual age gap significantly. She probably doesn’t have a secret money stash in her backyard bird-feeder, but she does work at a Mercedes dealership, and can afford some luxuries. Her home is a small, modest fit for a sometimes-single woman. She already has the means to wear leather head-to-toe, and vacation solo in Morocco. She has her own ambition. She doesn’t need Tony’s money. In fact, she buys him a gift first… the one that he throws out the window in “Amour Fou.” Slighted by his no-show at dinner in “Pine Barrens”, she tells him he can’t just treat her the way that she does because he bought her a “fucking gaudy ring.” Her affection cannot be bought.

This is not to say Gloria doesn’t love the chase. She knows she’s in a relationship with a married man who has children. I will always love her reaction when Tony storms into the dealership after finding out she gave a ride to Carmela. He drags her into the office, grabs her by the throat, and pushes her against the wall. She licks her lips with a gleam in her eye, turned on by his aggression. I think she is at first expecting a quickie like they had in the zoo. Once she sees that he’s angry, she realizes why he is there, and you realize that was what she wanted all along.

We, of course, know this before he does, having seen her jump at the chance to drive Carmela home. She asks all of the questions any of us would if we were sat next to Mrs. Mob Boss, but with much more than idle curiosity. She’s feeling out her territory, casing the joint, and taking not-so-subtle swipes at Carmela’s lifestyle and dependence on her husband. Melfi calls her a moth to the flame, someone unable to resist danger.

Okay, we’ll skip the handshake.

First she turns you on. Then, she turns on you. – TV Tropes.

Manic: I don’t think the “manic” in Rabin’s term always refers to true psychological mania, but to a hyper, coat-tugging type who refuses to let anyone be in a bad mood, because look at how beautiful the world is at this exact moment! Their enthusiasm is not born of a true need to experience and spread joy, but to distract themselves from their own inner turmoil. It’s kind of like faking it until you make it, only they never make it. It’s the sweet tragedy of their existence that endears them to an audience. Miriam Toewes calls it bullshit bravado in A Complicated Kindness. 

Life with Gloria is at first like opening the door to Oz: she takes Tony from living in black and white to technicolour. She does not overtly tug on his reluctant hand, enthusing that life is a gift, but she does give him a shot in the arm. He tells a concerned Melfi that Gloria is better for his mood than her therapy and Prozac combined.  He tells Gloria he has never met anyone like her before. Their interactions are at first playful and sexy, and frankly, fucking adorable.

Favourite line:
Tony: “See ya later!”
Gloria: “Who was that?”
Tony: “Oh, that was my hard-on.”

How cute of them to have sex by the boa constrictor enclosure. Gloria will eventually choke him with a slow squeeze, testing his patience, suffocating him bit by bit. Considered one of the most beautifully coloured and attractive of all snakes, its inclusion in this scene cannot be accidental. Careful not to lean on the glass!

Gloria’s exact diagnosis is never confirmed, but wiki suspects BPD. She struggles with depression and suicidal ideation. In her last fight with Tony, she screams that nobody would care if she died. Melfi has reached the same diagnostic conclusion about Livia based on her reported behaviour, leading Tony to retort, “I didn’t just meet you. I’ve known you my whole fucking life.”

I can’t decide if she presses Tony’s buttons intentionally, like Valentina, or if her behaviour is a coping mechanism or symptom. Probably all three in varying degrees. I have no doubt that she is truly afraid of being left alone, something we all fear, regardless of our situation.

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Russian Roulette is not the same without a gun

Among fans and casual viewers alike, Gloria’s shrewdness often comes under fire.  Many of the opinions about her come from unfair misconceptions and projections. Her propensity to manipulate crudely places her in the “fucking wackadoo” category. Hot But Crazy is the official appraisal, which comes with supposedly well-intentioned warnings to avoid women like this in real life. Apparently all of us are either The Cool Girl or The Crazy Girl, with no safe middle ground. Just what is an innocent boy to do?

The main men on the show hold dubious claim to morals and values, but nobody calls them crazy bastards for shooting someone in the foot over cannoli. I mean, they do if you look hard enough, but for the most part, people like Tony and Chris are considered badass legends who get shit done. Look no further than this two-part compilation, titled Tony Soprano’s Most Badass Moments, dedicated to his myriad murders and threats.

To be fair, a lot of the comments question these clip choices too, with the best one warning that “pride comes before the fall you fat fictional pig,” and it is popular opinion that Tony and Chris are psychopaths or sociopaths, but the connotations are different.  It’s always like, “I’d be crazy if I had that job, too!” As soon as a woman takes the upper hand or exhibits similar behaviour, even toward herself (suicide vs. murder), she is considered truly dangerous. Too much to handle. Avoid at all costs. I’m not praising or excusing Gloria’s behaviour, only pointing out that one often gets rewarded and the other reviled.

I give the writers credit for not villainizing her for having a mental illness. Gloria wasn’t portrayed solely as a perpetually out of control havoc-wrecker. She was plagued by failed relationships, but no blame is explicitly placed upon her. In therapy, she tells Melfi that her relationships all failed because her boyfriends couldn’t handle her, but this is only her perspective.  This could mean a number of things, not all of which have to do directly with her  treatment of them. There is no denying that mental health impacts a relationship, but maybe she had met men who took advantage of her in the past, or who only wanted her for her looks and money. Who knows what her life has been like?

If they really wanted to make her ~the crazy one~ and build her identity around that, she would have come out of the gate that way. The slow build allows us to see that there’s more to Gloria than what she brings to therapy. I think they developed her in the best possible way, given that she was a secondary character with a limited run.

It also helps that Annabella Sciorra is inherently likable. You know how you like someone just because?  That’s how I feel about her. She’s cute, with a sweet smile that lights up her face, even if its impetus is a devious plot. Good casting call.

Gloria is shown in much the same light as Tony, as a woman with an equal amount of good characteristics to match the bad. The reason why she so loved by fans (mainly women) is that she is real. She’s flawed. She’s self-aware, not above admitting that she needs help, and seemingly committed to self-care. She seeks peace through spirituality and meditation. She sees Melfi. I liked her because she called Tony on his bullshit. To borrow her words, he does have a habit of taking a dump and walking away.

I also think they handled the delicate subject of suicide well by not showing it. Instead of showing a horrific death (as they did with Eugene Pontecorvo, fuck you very much! My therapy bill is on its way to Chase right now), they opted for the horrific aftermath, in which the survivors are left to grapple with their own questions and the fragility of life. This effect further disqualifies Gloria as a true MPDG. Her ostensible purpose is to inspire a greater appreciation for life. Quite the opposite occurs here. If anything, Gloria’s death drives Tony deeper into depression. It further engenders the feelings of helplessness and fear that brought him to Melfi’s office in the first place. With Gloria gone, Tony must now face the ugly truth that maybe he’s not as good a guy as he thinks he is. Whatever joy he felt with her is forgotten.

The Devil You Know

If I had to attach a stock character to Gloria–really had to, because I think the writing is better than that–I would label her a siren. She’s a femme fatale with an immediate, almost supernatural hold over Tony; they begin their affair only days after meeting. It’s hot and heavy; the kind of whirlwind romance that is easily and unabashedly romanticized for the big and little screen. This rapid progression is not unusual for him, but the personal connection is rare. It is this real connection that they form, and the immediate fallout, that further allows her to defy such narrow categorization.

G-L-O-R-I-A is not a true M-P-D-G, and that’s a good thing.