Breaking News on The Sopranos!

Well, I’m only a year late to this party, but Jane and I finally finished the Sopranos last week. If you haven’t seen the show, let me simultaneously give you my strongest recommendation that you watch the show, and also a strong warning that some items to be discussed below may be best learned in the course of watching the show, rather than reading a blog entry about the show.

First, let me say that The Sopranos is the best TV show I’ve ever seen. Certainly, Tony Soprano is the most interesting character I’ve followed in a TV show. I think this is due to the combination of outstanding writing and acting, and the ability to present that on the cable format over several years. The Sopranos features character development to the extreme, although since most of that development invariably shows the characters in a bad light, I suppose your view of the series might depend on your tolerance for watching the lives of bad people.

Second, if you enjoyed the series, take a moment to go read some of this guy’s analysis. Top notch stuff. Here’s his analysis of the third-to-last show in the series, called “Walk Like A Man”.

Third, just my two cents for what I get out of watching the series. There are obviously many layers on which to view the series, but for me it’s one of the more scathing commentaries on the uniquely American Baby Boom generation. All of the older people in the show (Tony and Carm’s parents, all the older mobsters, all the people in the neighborhoods) have a distinct Italian (or some other) ethnic identity. They come from a time when people remembered where they came from. There are some very clear downsides to that, but each successive generation has less connection to that identity; for Melfi or Tony, it’s a point of trivia, something to talk about at dinner, or to get angry about if you are slighted, but not the key to their identity each day, necessarily. And their kids? They are almost completely homogenized into suburban American monoculture (which paradoxically includes more ethnicities than ever before).

I believe the prevalence of therapy throughout the show, for so many different characters, is a clear knock on the Boomers, a generation that took introspection and self-centeredness to heights never seen before in this country. Phil Leotardo summed it up very well in the episode summarized at the link above: His generation would do 20 years to protect the family, because that’s what you did. His description of the hardships he suffered must have cut Tony to the quick, because Phil knew and Tony knew that Tony (and by extension, Tony’s generation) had lived the easy life by comparison. Tony’s biggest problem was that his mommy didn’t love him, and the duck family flew away from his pool. Hard to stack that up against 20 years in the can.

OK, enough analysis of a show that’s already been analyzed to death, and all over a year ago. My apologies, but I found myself thinking about each episode for days on end after we’d view them. I thought it was that good.

Now…My 11 Favorite Sopranos Scenes! (That I can think of today, in no particular order.)

1. The Christopher Intervention-Best intervention scene ever, hand’s down. Obviously I haven’t seen all intervention scenes ever filmed, but I can’t imagine how this could be topped.

2. Tony, Sizing Up Guys In His Crew To See Who’s Ass He’s Going to Kick-I think Steve Buscemi directed this episode; Tony is just getting back on his feet after Junior shot him, and he knows that until he proves he’s the alpha dog again people are going to doubt him. So he figures he’s got to make a show out of kicking somebody’s ass. But who? Two uncomfortable minutes are spent looking at different guys in the crew, looking at their arms, their body flab, sizing them up in every way possible. He ends up picking the only guy for the job. Just a brutish, primal scene that says more about Tony and his mentality than you learn about some main characters in shows for their entire run.

3. The Melfi/Tony Therapy Scene After Melfi is Raped-Through a quirk of timing, the two episodes where Melfi is raped and the season-ender after that were the first two Sopranos I ever saw. Once she realizes who her assailant was, and Tony asks her at the very end of the season if there’s anything she wants to tell him…well, I’ve rarely seen 5 seconds of silence used to such amazing effect. I was hooked.

4. Johnny and Ginny Sac in the Basement With the Candybars-Johnny Sacrimoni wasn’t like all the other gangsters. He never had the woman on the side, and he treated his wife like a goddess. Ginny used to be a hell of a dancer, but she’d put on a lot of weight over the years. Johnny comes down to the basement unexpectedly, after Ginny thought he had left the house, and he sees Ginny literally cramming her face with chocolate bars, from an enormous and mouth-watering stash of secret candy. Johnny Sac blows up at her, which causes her to blow up at him for not quitting smoking. They start to cry and he hugs her, telling her that he never cared about the weight, and how much he still loves her. In that one moment, Johnny and Ginny Sac showed us a depth to their relationship that Tony and Carmela would never match. I always liked Johnny Sac after that.

5. Vito Was Catching, Not Pitching?!-When the crew finds out that Vito was having oral sex with a guy, that was one thing. Minds aren’t necessarily open at that point, but the final verdict on Vito in the court of Jersey Mob Opinion had not yet been rendered. But when they find out Vito was the one blowing a guy, and not the other way around…

6. Paulie Gets Christopher A Club Soda-Christopher always blamed the guys for making it hard to be sober, and justifiably so. And there was real tension between Paulie and Christopher throughout the series, but it was always a kind of stupid tension, the kind that comes from people who both can dish it out but not take it, which causes dumb fights over dumb shit. But then, towards the end, there are some real things that happen that really can cause hard feelings. Rather than escalate things, Christopher goes beyond his official obligation to offer an apology, and offers Paulie a real apology, one he wasn’t required to make according to the rules of the family. And unlike so many times before, Paulie recognizes that Christopher is reaching out. What does Paulie do? He reaches back to Christopher, and asks the bartender to set him up with a club soda. It’s a small gesture that means everything, and after all the disputes large and small, they have finally found peace with each other. Unfortunately it only lasts about two seconds, because Chrissy decides to respond to Paulie’s gesture by having an actual drink. He was all in the clear with getting his crew to respect his sobriety, but he wanted to be accepted more than he wanted to be sober.¬† (And oh, how fateful that decision was for Christopher, to say nothing of his ghost-writing friend…)

7. Tony and AJ by the Pool after AJ’s Suicide Attempt-It’s a simple scene, just incredibly well-acted by both James Gandolfini and Robert Iler. Tony’s first reaction is to be angry with AJ, which is natural, but then he slips quickly into comfort mode. Tony knows why AJ is this way, even if AJ doesn’t. And it’s just one more piece of Tony’s life that’s slipping away, out of his control. The delusional dreamland his family has existed in, turning a blind eye to how they are able to live the lives the live, is starting to crumble.

8. Carmela’s Hellish Return-Speaking of dreamlands, Carmela and the family have to go into hiding to avoid a potential hit job on Tony that was ordered by Phil Leotardo. Rather than fearing for her life, Carmela is merely inconvenienced by it all. When she asks Tony when they can go home, she’s essentially saying, “Can’t you kill this fucking guy already?” Her days of moral ambiguity are long past; her part of the spoils was just too good. And then when she can finally go home after almost a week in hiding, horror of horrors! Standing in her pink little fashion parka with the white fur, holding up almost a handfull of letters and magazines and shaking her head in disgust: “Tony! Would you look at all this mail!” That about says it all for where Carmela ended up.

9. Bobby Bacala Comes Home-Tony makes Bobby do his first hit on a guy, mostly out of spite. Bobby’s kind of a lug you root for, a softie who genuinely cares about other people. He’s not above threatening to blow a guy’s head off to rig a union election, of course, but if you actually want a trigger man he’s never been your guy. But of course he’s in the family, and the day comes for him to take the life of an unsuspecting 23 year-old kid who’s dating the wrong girl. He finally gets back to his family cabin after being gone for a few days to do the job, and his little girl runs across the yard to greet him. He’s still just a big lug; you know when he picks his daughter how much he loves her, and she loves him. But as he looks out over the lake while he holds his daughter in his arms, you know he’s a changed man forever.

10. Christopher Punches Lauren Becall in the Face-Christopher lies in wait by the cars after an awards show, because he knows the presenters get like $30,000 in free stuff. He punches her in the face, steals her gift bag, hops in the getaway car driven by his rehab sponsor, and they speed away. Kudos to whoever wrote that scene. And of course, to Lauren Becall.

11. Eliott Humiliates Melfi at the Dinner Party-The mobsters aren’t the only treacherous ones in this series. Eliott may have good intentions (to make Melfi stop enabling a gangster), or he may not (to show Melfi he was right all along). Either way, he not only reveals who her patient is, he sets her up for professional and personal ridicule. Melfi responds by cutting Tony loose for flimsy reasons that are likely immoral from a caregiver’s point of view, which Tony makes sure to mention. But the scene itself is pretty heavy. Maybe Melfi letting Tony go is our cue to let him go as well. And, is it that Tony’s description of his son’s suicide attempt seems forced and insincere because we are seeing him through Melfi’s eyes now? How would that scene have played out for the viewer if we didn’t know what happened at the dinner party, or we didn’t have the same epiphany Melfi had when she (finally) read the article Eliott kept bringing up? Because that’s what it would have looked like to Tony, who had every right to be pissed off. (And really, Melfi hadn’t heard of the article before? And she cut him loose after reading only one article?)


I need to know what people think about Agent Harris, one of my favorite characters in the whole series. Specifically, what did he mean with his last line, upon finding out that Phil Leotardo had been killed: “Damn! We’re going to win this thing!”?

My first thought was that he was in a fantasy pool, and he said, “I’m going to win this thing!” That explanation could work regardless of what he actually said, but I’m not in any way sure that’s the meaning.

Does he mean that he’s helped out the NJ crew by helping them take down Phil, who he never cared for? Certainly, he knew that he was providing Tony with information that would very likely lead to Phil’s death. Not only that, but he appeared to be sleeping with Agent Hannah Storm specifically to get that information; she certainly wasn’t pleased to see him relaying that info to people post-coitus.

Or did he mean that “we” were going to win by shutting down the mob altogether, because if Phil’s out the NY crew is old and decimated, and he knows the NJ crew is pretty much Tony, Paulie and Patsy, and that’s not much of a crew, especially knowing that Carlo was going to testify against Tony.

One thing is clear: Agent Harris liked Tony, and didn’t like Phil. And he needed some excitement in his life that the terror beat wasn’t giving him.

I have my own views on how Tony ends up (the center cannot hold), but for me the lasting image is of Paulie and that cat (Christopher?), the last of the crew sitting in the sun in front of Satriale’s, a scene filmed in faded light, already like a photograph from a bygone era.

Damn, what a show.

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9 Responses to Breaking News on The Sopranos!

  1. Nathan D says:

    Have you watched The Wire yet?

  2. Paul says:

    Also love the intevention scene.

    Syl, reading from notes in a monotone: “You were in the bathroom throwing up. Your hair was in the toilet. It was disgusting.”

    I think Harris simply meant that the crew that he knew was going to beat the NY crew. He saw them as bad guys either way, but he’d rather his bad guys win than NY’s.

    I actually think the Wire is on par if not even better than the Sopranos.

  3. Jim says:

    The Wire is better than the Sopranos, in my opinion, but as far as I’m concerned HBO has the three finest shows I’ve ever seen, which are those two and Six Feet Under. None are those are my favorite, per se–that’s Buffy–but I can acknowledge fully that they were better than Buffy or anything else. And I still haven’t seen season 5 of the Wire.

    One of my favorite subplots was the Carmelo pseudo-affair with David Strathairn’s guidance counselor. It’s the naked exposure of Carmelo’s manipulation (punctuated at the end of that season by her willingness to forgive Tony as long as he buys her a house–she’s all about the gifts). Strathairn’s line about Carmelo “using her pussy” to get what she wants is so unexpected and dead on. Plus, David Strathairn.

    Also love the comedic scene when they’re on the way back from the casino and Christopher is incredulous about Gary Cooper being gay.

  4. Doug Hennessee says:

    Most of the key characters (and the minor ones too, I suppose), have one or several crossroads moments where they could make a choice, and they invariably choose the wrong path. Carmela’s moment happens when she has the affair, and she’s looking in the mirror after the first time she and Straithairn have sex. And it’s like she remembers who the real Carmela is, but it’s been so long ago that she was anything but a mobster’s wife. That moment when she looks in the mirror and smiles is perhaps the only time in the entire series when she seems truly happy.

    Her response is to more or less immediately shake the guy down to “help” AJ.

  5. Katy says:

    You know where I come down on the Agent Harris debate. Because why does the guy come around Satriale’s all the time? Not to get Tony’s bullshit I-met-an-Arab-guy-once terrorism “tips.” He came to admire Tony’s lifestyle, and it’s no coincidence that he is with his “gumah” (how on earth do you spell that word? mistress, in italian, anyway) when he tips Tony off about Leotardo, even if she gave him the information. And no coincidence that he doesn’t really give a shit when she walks out on him. Fighting mobsters isn’t his fight anymore, so he’s siding with Tony because his job fighting terrorism is not satisfying. As a side note, I’ve read that dissatisfaction among FBI agents is rather high right now because everyone has been pulled off whatever is they do best to work on terrorism. Perhaps Agent Harris is a comment on our political situation.

    Even if Carmela comes to be basically despicable by the time we get to David Straithairn, she is still fairly likeable in the early seasons, when she tells the priest off because he likes the “whiff” of sex. Ultimately she proves more adept at Tony from living a hypocritical and contradictory lifestyle. Though of course she is in a better position than Tony to ignore the ugliest parts of his living. I accept Elliott’s proposition that Tony manipulated Melfi and all of us as the audience from day one into thinking he was this cold hard mobster with a sensitive side. Really he was just a cold hard mobster who knew how to seem likeable at the right times.

    I’m totally with you on the Christopher intervention scene, definitely one of the best scenes.

  6. Doug Hennessee says:

    Certainly, Tony knows how to manipulate people, and certainly, David Chase knows how to manipulate his audience. But I do not accept that as the sum and total of Tony’s motivation or the outcome of the therapy scenes.

    I think some of his struggles, his revelations, his confessions, are real. We see too much in the way of dream sequences, we see too many moments where only the viewer is able to see Tony’s struggle to manage a relationship. He certainly isn’t above using emotion to manipulate (witness his attempt to negotiate a better deal with Phil by alluding to the personal moment they shared after Phil’s heart attack), but that doesn’t mean his emotions are invalid or non-existent. He and Phil did have that moment; it’s just that Tony tried to use it, like everything else.

    I mean, he didn’t manipulate the ducks, or his anxiety attacks. Cold-hearted mobster, yes, but also one who has a decent amount more self-knowledge and intelligence than anybody in either of his families, and a lot of psychic trauma because of it.

  7. Jim says:

    Agreed with Doug–Tony is manipulative, obviously, but he’s a hell of a lot more than that. I think the point of Tony’s forays into cold hard mobster are not to highlight that he is a cold hard mobster, but rather to highlight that he is not.

    Which doesn’t mean he’s a good guy. But his struggles with the world and his identity and his family (families, I suppose) are obviously real.

  8. pipelineblog says:

    I would be remiss if I didn’t mention what a loss it was when Nancy Marchand, Tony’s mother, died. I saw those episodes too long ago to remember many specific scenes with her, but she absolutely killed me. When Tony’s mother was just an abstract concept, that was one thing. But having seen how she really was, even as she neared death, it was easy to see how Tony turned out the way he did.

  9. Nathan D says:

    I’d also say Rome and Carnivale are worth watching, not to mention Deadwood — HBO just keeps cranking out quality television.

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