A favorite Sopranos episode visits the “Funhouse” in Tony’s head

A favorite Sopranos episode visits the “Funhouse” in Tony’s head

Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that all deal with a central theme. Now through March: some of our favorite episodes of all time.

The Sopranos, “Funhouse” (season two, episode 13; originally aired 4/9/2000)

In which Tony speaks with the fishes

Erik Adams: When I sat down to compile a list of my favorite episodes at the start of this Roundtable edition, it looked like this:

The Adventures Of Pete & Pete, “Yellow Fever
The Muppet Show, “Episode 515: Carol Burnett”
The Dick Van Dyke Show, “It May Look Like A Walnut”
The Sopranos, “Funhouse
Space Ghost Coast To Coast, “Pavement”

Clearly, patterns of preference were emerging. I like my TV on the surreal side, with colorful casts of characters and superheroes who either serve a specific “little Viking,” or retire to host a talk show. I’m also a fan of when a series takes a step back to screw with its formula: In that Dick Van Dyke, Rob has an Invasion Of The Body Snatchers-like nightmare involving an alien who looks like Danny Thomas; Carol Burnett’s stint on The Muppet Show, meanwhile, is overtaken by a 1920s-style dance marathon. It also doesn’t hurt if a show boasts some talking animals.

“Funhouse” checks off all of those boxes, a tremendous, absurdist surprise from the second season finale of an important cable drama. The entire series does a great job of drawing the viewer into the world of New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano, but the weird woolliness of “Funhouse” spills forth from the frame and washes over me like the waves in the episode’s final shot. The first half jumps in and out of Tony’s head with little warning, but the whole episode’s off-kilter. It’s not all fart noises, fever dreams, and Little Steven spouting non sequiturs, but the atmosphere and tone of “Funhouse” authentically represent the feeling of a world turned upside down.

And Tony Soprano deserves it, considering that he starts the worst couple of days in his life by arrogantly declaring, “Things are good. What the fuck.” That hubris will lead to his temporary downfall, because despite all his protestations to the contrary—and all the blame laid at the feet of his mother—nobody does damage to Tony Soprano like Tony Soprano. A brief season-two recap, since there’s at least one of us who’s engaging with this episode for the first time: A lot of long-tail plots come to a head in “Funhouse,” most prominently Sal “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero’s short-lived career as an FBI informant. Suspicions of Pussy’s snitching form the narrative and emotional crux of the finale, and they’re tearing Tony apart. His fever only breaks when he can face the conclusion he’s been fighting off for the entire episode: One of his closest friends and most trusted colleagues has betrayed him. And not just Tony, but possibly the entire criminal organization Tony inherited at the start of season two. The discovery of the surveillance equipment in Pussy’s humidor is the sort of thing that could send the whole house of phony calling cards crashing down.

That sinking feeling is a crucial aspect of John Patterson’s “Funhouse” direction, which embodies the titular boardwalk amusement in unsettling, David Lynchian ways American Horror Story only wishes it could achieve. It’s a representation of the main character’s growing paranoia, and the way it ropes in various players, themes, and developments from the show’s first two seasons elides some of the cornier aspects of Tony’s bad dreams. These sorts of scenes are hard to do well, but “Funhouse” understands the slippery, illogical nature of dreams, while still underscoring the symbolism playing out in Tony’s head. (And The Sopranos, like its spiritual successor Mad Men, isn’t a show that treats symbolism with a light hand.) It’s especially telling the way the two most important women in the gangster’s life—wife Carmela and psychologist Dr. Jennifer Melfi—have a call-and-response in one dream, before Melfi morphs into another of Tony’s forbidden infatuations, fellow crime boss Annalisa Zucca.

But most importantly for my enjoyment of “Funhouse,” Patterson allows that absurdity to continue seeping into the episode after Tony shakes what ails him. It’s easy to picture a mob story like The Sopranos as a grim parade of scowls and executions, but “Funhouse” demonstrates the show’s healthy sense of humor when a later scene set at sea mimics the woozy camerawork of Tony’s dreams. It’s seasickness standing in for Tony, Silvio, and Paulie’s discomfort with what they have to do out on that Sea Ray. It’s a fact of the life they’ve chosen, but none of them relish it—Tony’s pathological, but even he gets no kicks from ending the life of a friend. And though it’s the betrayal that’s roiling his guts, it’s the closing montage that gives the viewer genuine cause for pause. As the members of Tony’s crew celebrate Meadow Soprano’s high-school graduation, we see the ruin that pays for their gaudy silk shirts and gilded champagne flutes: the sanitation company that served as a cocaine distributor; the motor lodge under their thumbs; the father whose gambling problem attracted the mobsters like wise-guy pheromones. You can have your good time in this funhouse, but there are consequences at play too—consequences that go beyond what years of drug and alcohol abuse have done to the voice soundtracking that montage. (The greatest compromise The Sopranos ever asked of its audience involved listening to a Keith Richards track from The Rolling Stones’ Voodoo Lounge twice in the span of one hour.)

Have I done an effective job of explaining why this episode is one of my favorites ever made? Probably not, but that’s because I have this awful tendency to dig too deeply into my critical subjects, even the ones with which I should just allow myself to say, “Holy shit, everybody—I love this. Don’t you love it?” Well, Roundtable, do you love “Funhouse,” or is it just a bunch of pretentious twaddle trying to gussy up an old, pulpy story? Answer honestly, and I promise not to act hurt.

Phil Dyess-Nugent: There’s another TV classic that this one reminds me of, and that’s Twin Peaks, specifically the episode in which Agent Cooper pitches rocks at bottles in hopes that it will somehow grant him mystical insight into Laura Palmer’s murder, and is rewarded with that famous climactic dream sequence. David Chase is not a natural surrealist like David Lynch, and his dream logic is more prosaic and less high-flying and stylish, but he seems committed to an idea that was at the heart of surrealism. There are things we can’t consciously admit to ourselves in our waking lives that come bubbling up from our subconscious in coded form when we dream.

It’s hard to pinpoint a moment when Tony realizes that Big Pussy is working for the Feds, but the suspicion is humming underneath the action throughout the entire second season of The Sopranos, from the moment Tony finds Big Pussy outside his house and demands, “This is how you come back to me!?” Of course Tony has to know, on some level, that his best friend in the world is looking to sell him out. (It feels that way to the audience, if only because we know, and we trust in Tony not being a sap.) But he can only admit it to himself when he’s at his most vulnerable, when he’s both sick and asleep. It’s as if the information he’s repressing has become an infection and is making him sick, an idea that’s taken viral physical form—but that’s closer to David Cronenberg territory than David Lynch. In its reaching for artistic glory, The Sopranos would later get rather crazy with the dream sequences, in ways that (to me, anyway) could feel like the writers and directors were showing off. But this episode holds up as a terrific example of a show extending its stylistic palette in a way that serves the story and the characters and reveals a different angle on how their minds work.

Ryan McGee: While certainly not intentional, “Funhouse” feels like an episode about criticism. More specifically, it’s about the pitfalls and perils of critical thinking. It’s not about the type of criticism that we do here, necessarily, but it’s concerned primarily with the limits and thresholds that move “theory” into “certainty.” Did Tony get sick off the Indian food, or from the mussels? Was his condition more physical, or psychological? Did he give Livia the tickets as a way to get her out of his life, or a way to repay her for the life she forced upon him? Both are equally valid interpretations, and why “Funhouse” works is that we address these issues simultaneously with Tony. Even if we are privileged to know more facts than Tony, we’re not privy to any more truths than him.

That dissonance between fact and truth runs throughout the series, not just this episode, and that distance could be described as the space between one’s head and one’s gut. Tony suspects Big Pussy’s betrayal, but he doesn’t have proof. Even upon discovering the wireless microphone, Tony only gets answers on a factual level and doesn’t achieve any catharsis. As Erik notes, the final image of the episode is important. The ripple effects of that knowledge keep crashing over Tony, even while ostensibly composed in his own house after Meadow’s graduation. He may not be keeled over a toilet anymore, but there’s still a rot at the center of his world. That’s why Chase’s use of dream imagery is not only important, but central to his worldview in The Sopranos. Dreams are a space in which we can converse with ourselves. Finding answers isn’t the point, articulating the question is. For those looking for clean lines and tidy solutions, The Sopranos often disappointed. (“Pine Barrens,” anyone?) But it’s not about removing the rot so much as the difficult process of identifying it in the first place. What characters choose to do with that knowledge is often disappointing, but the analysis itself makes the show powerful, and gives it the type of heft that will keep people analyzing this show for decades to come.

Molly Eichel: Okay, confession time: I’m the Sopranos virgin. While I may not be able to discuss this episode in context, what immediately interested me about “Funhouse” was the setting of the majority of the dream sequences, which is most certainly intentional. To me, it highlights a disconnect between Tony’s subconscious and his dream world. There are boardwalks all over the Jersey coast, so why pick Asbury Park? For those familiar with the shore town its landmarks are featured prominently. The most obvious aspects are the shots of Tony in front of the stately Convention Hall and the surrealistic pan featuring two of the city’s most iconic murals: amusement park fun face “Tillie” and Madam Marie’s sign. Asbury Park was a city in steady decline when Tony Soprano landed there. But when Tony wakes up, he’s safe and sound, covered in the lush duvet that he and Carmela sleep under in his North Jersey mansion. He falls back asleep, and he’s once again in a place of decline and decay.

While I may not be a Sopranos expert, I do know that David Chase is also a Bruce Springsteen acolyte. The two murals are important to the Springsteen legend. Tillie is featured in the background of a photo with the E Street Band. The face smiles wide, while the band almost scowls at the camera. But it’s Madam Marie’s sign that immediately popped out at me. Madam Marie was a fortune teller on the Asbury Park boardwalk who Springsteen name checks in “4th Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy),” from The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle:“Did you hear the cops finally busted Madame Marie for tellin’ fortunes better than they do?” Springsteen sings. There’s certainly an element of seeing into the future in prominently including this symbol, especially by having Little Steven and Silvio say “Our true enemy has yet to reveal himself” in front of Madam Marie’s Temple Of Knowledge. The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle is, like, most of Springsteen’s early output, filled with images of escape and of a desire to leave for a better life, for a better place, somewhere far away. Erik, do you see those themes pop up within the context of “Funhouse,” or am I just a Springsteen nut reading too much into this episode that’s admittedly tough for me to grasp, because I’m new to the series?

EA: You’re reading The Sopranos’ tea leavesbetter than you think, Madam Molly. In later seasons, the show becomes preoccupied with notions of destiny and escape, explicitly exploring both in some of the flashier dream-sequence episodes Phil alludes to above. The grand narrative of American organized crime tells us that these groups came together to hijack a system that was set against them, to enjoy the wealth, power, and influence denied them by color, creed, or nationality. But The Sopranos often illustrates that this escape can be a velvet trap, which lends potency to every frame of “Funhouse.” In the self-immolation dream, Christopher suggests that Tony doesn’t have to go through with the deed, and only in his dreams does Tony Soprano have the option to do, or not do something. This can cause some “clockwork universe” problems for the series, but it also underlines a paradox that inspired The Sopranos’ most powerful moments. Tony may be the boss, but he’s calling shots that were handed down to him by a group of desperate Neapolitans he never met.

I’m glad Molly found so much about “Funhouse” to tuck into, because I was worried its stylistic flourishes and position within the arc of season two might render the episode incomprehensible. But your comments take me back to the last time Ryan wrote at length about The Sopranos for The A.V. Club: this For Our Consideration essay about how the show taught future generations of TV creators and writers to value “installments” over “episodes.” Feel free to correct me on this, Ryan, but by the metrics of that piece, calling out any one episode of The Sopranos as a “favorite” is a tell that what I actually want to talk about is The Sopranos as a whole. (And I think the way we’ve talked about the episode in relation to the rest of the series bears that out.) And yet when I started assembling the list at the top of this piece, I found myself at a loss trying to pluck a standout hour from The Wire; by the time that show aired, the novelization of TV had reached the point at which building the greater whole is the primary aim of each episode. I can name a favorite season of The Wire (the fourth, of course), I can pick out scenes and vignettes that stick around (“Where’s Wallace, String?”), but a favorite episode eludes me. With The Sopranos, however, it was immediate: “Oh yeah: The one with the dreams and the boardwalk and the boat and Meadow’s graduation!” For all the writing habits, good and bad, it inspired, The Sopranos is an “episodes” show. The aforementioned “Pine Barrens” makes that argument plain as well.

Do you agree or disagree, Phil? If pressed, what would you pick as your favorite hour of The Sopranos? And are you, like me, hoping that this Roundtable theme will lead us to drill down into the mechanics of what makes an individual piece of TV worth remembering as a favorite?  

PDN: One of the first episodes of anything that came to my mind was “Long Term Parking,” which contains another of the show’s balder Springsteen references. (Tony asks Christopher why the hell he’s late for a meeting, and Christopher replies, “Eh, the highway was jammed with broken heroes on a last-chance power drive.” It’s funny, because it’s true and it’s hilarious, because Little Steven is sitting right there.) Truth be told, I probably have re-watched “Pine Barrens” more times, just because it’s hilarious. (Paulie the finicky sociopath, who thinks he and Christopher are about to go all Donner Party, because they’ve been stuck in the snowy woods in a car for a few hours, is told that there are some ketchup packets on the floor and asks, “Are they clean!?”) The Sopranos is an actor-friendly show, and it’s made up of choice moments like that. Things like dream sequences with talking fish help to get the viewer’s attention, and serve as a reminder that you’re watching something that was made by ambitious people, but what haunts my memory are things like Tony’s wolfish joy when he’s out with the boys, scarfing down anything put in front of him, and the way that remorse and the fury of the betrayed shift around inside him when he has Big Pussy at his mercy. (My strongest memory of the dream sequences, in fact, is that fish’s inflection when Tony asks him what he gave to the feds, and the fish replies, “A lot!”)

The tenor of TV criticism, and the degree to which it was seen as a respectable use of a working brain, went through a major shift around the time that The Sopranos wrapped its first season. It’s kind of a side issue at this point, but when people talk about the show’s stature and how it works, I still feel like, on some level, they’re really asking, why was this the show that made the big difference? I think it’s a great show, though I don’t really think it represented a quantum leap beyond Buffy The Vampire Slayer, The X-Files, The Simpsons,andThe Larry Sanders Show, or even some of my older-school favorites, like the best episodes of SCTV or The Rockford Files or the first season of Wiseguy. But I do think that David Chase may have been the right guy to make people feel that TV was capable of being used as a more personal medium than had generally been assumed. He was a little older than some of the other people who’d been making noise in the industry in the ’90s—he’d worked on shows like Rockford and Kolchak: The Night Stalker as well as more recent shows like Northern Exposure. He had the old-school instincts needed to understand the basic, meat-and-potatoes pleasures that serial dramas feed. 

So, with the greater degree of creative freedom that HBO was willing to cut him, he was able to invent a show that did that while at the same time making a crime series that was basically inspired by his own bad feelings about his mother. (I think the big difference between The Sopranos and The Wire comes down to the different backgrounds of Chase and David Simon. Simon came into TV through a side door, after serving his apprenticeship writing long-form journalism. Each season of The Wire feels like a seamless whole, instead of a succession of more-or-less standalone episodes that add up to a larger whole, because the ideal creative unit in Simon’s head is a long, multi-part newspaper article or a nonfiction book. If we start seeing more series like that, it’ll be because we start seeing more and more shows created by people who decided that they wanted to be David Chase when they grow up.) The ironic thing about Chase is that, because he’s a little older than, say, Joss Whedon or Chris Carter, or some of the geniuses who’ve worked on The Simpsons, he still has that attitude none of them seem to have, which is that, no matter what he can bring to the medium, TV ought to be a stepping stone to the movies. Even if those other creators end up working on movies, I don’t think they feel that it’s the big leagues, compared to that shit they do for TV. So at the same time Chase was changing how the culture feels about TV as a serious medium, he was confusing interviewers by talking about how, maybe, someday he’d get to make a Sopranos movie, and then you’d see something. It was as if Moses actually led his people to the Promised Land and told them, “Okay, get some rest. Tomorrow, we push on to Boca Raton!”

RM: I’m glad you brought up that piece I wrote, Erik, if only that your response to it brings up an important delineation I’ve often made since its publication. My delineation between “installments” and “episodes” partly applies to the way The Sopranos actually operated, but primarily about how it’s presently conceived. (I tried to make that point in the original article, but failed somewhat in fully articulating it.) The novelistic aspects of the show are usually imposed on the show after the fact, giving the show in its totality a weight that wasn’t always apparent as it aired. In other words: The Sopranos feels like this mighty, united, albeit messy tome when in fact that only tells part of the story. While many now try to emulate what they only think the show actually did, along comes “Funhouse” to demonstrate how The Sopranos could use an episode of television to tell a concentrated, start-to-finish story that also supported the weight of all that came before it.

You and Phil are both right to point to The Wire as a show that truly was novelistic in the sense that certain episodes meant less than the totality of the season or the series. What I was trying to analyze in my piece were the ways in which showrunners in the post-Sopranos age used an open-ended plot as a smokescreen, trying to confer “quality” with its slow-moving approach, but instead deploying unfocused episode as delay tactics. If those shows had moments a quarter as good as Big Pussy trying to make his friends laugh one last time before death, those delay tactics wouldn’t matter. We’d be meandering with interesting people, which is a perfectly fine relationship that a television show and viewer can have. But The Sopranos took a long view, while simultaneously focusing on the short-term. That didn’t always mean the plot moved forward slowly (or at all). But it had strong actors giving strong performances, so it didn’t matter. That’s why I’m really glad you picked this episode, Erik. It’s worth taking The Sopranos as a living, breathing entity rather than some monolithic entity to be stared at from a distance. To watch The Sopranos is, to use the language of its food-loving world, to savor it—those that do understand what made the show tick. Those that only take a big-picture view miss the details that make this show not an oppressive novel, but a real page-turner.

ME: What you guys are saying is really interesting to me as a new viewer. I knew “Funhouse” was a season finale, so I figured it would be a culmination of season-long themes and arcs. I figured I would be lost on various plot details, and there was certainly more that I’m just not getting. Since we started this discussion, I’ve watched the first four episodes of the first season, and the near-constant Godfather references are apt not only because of the shared subject matter, but because of the vivid world created. Shift the plot slightly to different characters and another world could be created. I think it’s unfair for me to critically examine this episode further without experiencing Ryan’s installments firsthand. But, hey, if the point of this discussion was to take a look at the series as a whole, it worked if only because now I want the knowledge to take part in it too.

Next time: Sonia, Pilot, David, and Brandon talk Sex And The City’s “My Motherboard, My Self.” It’s available on DVD and HBO Go.

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