Sometimes a single TV episode can exemplify the spirit of its time and the properties that make television a unique medium. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.
The night The Sopranos aired its series finale, the Internet was mostly full of chatter about the ambiguous cut-to-black ending, and whether it was a conceptual coup or a cop-out. But more than a few commenters were just as worked up about David Chase’s decision to end the show with the Journey power-ballad “Don’t Stop Believin’.” The Sopranos featured so much great music during its six-year-run—Johnny Thunders, Fred Neil, Tindersticks, and more—and this is how Chase chose to go out? Fucking Journey?
Yet The Sopranos had ended an episode with Journey before, in season two’s “Bust Out,” which closes with a scene of stressed-out mob boss Tony Soprano enjoying a day of boating with his teenage son Anthony Jr., while Journey’s “Wheel In The Sky” blares on the soundtrack. In the episode, both the song and the scene are packed with meaning. Tony has just destroyed an old high-school friend’s sporting-goods business, and he’s just dodged a potential murder charge. As a relieved, almost-giddy Tony lets A.J. take a turn at the helm, the camera pulls back to reveal a much smaller boat, rocking precariously in the Sopranos’ wake. So, yes, the wheel in the sky does keep on turning: From father to son, men with power continue to bully those who have less.
It’s also not inconceivable that “Wheel In The Sky” was a song Tony and his now-bankrupt chum Davy Scatino enjoyed when they were teenagers together in New Jersey, which adds yet another layer to the scene, and raises a second point. Though Journey has never been hip—and in fact, it actively disgusts certain persnickety rockophiles—its music was inextricably woven into the lives of just about anyone who grew up in the United States in the ’70s and ’80s, and for a lot of people, it represents a kind of youthful golden age. Some can’t stand Journey because its albums have the pristine sheen pejoratively dubbed “corporate rock.” But the band was largely unpretentious (science-fiction LP covers aside), and it wrote hooky hit singles by the score while using the state-of-the-art sonic glitz of the era to its best advantage. Simply put, the sound of Journey is the sound of machine-tooled American craftsmanship, in service of a product with seductive horsepower. Even when Steve Perry sings songs of woe, those songs come out strong, shiny, and swaggering. Digging Journey means imagining yourself as one of life’s winners.
The same could be said about digging Tony Soprano—and don’t think David Chase didn’t know it. Throughout the series’ run, Chase and his writers toyed with Sopranos fans’ conflicted attitudes toward the show’s protagonist, and the cathartic feeling of watching a dangerous man get his way. Metaphorically speaking, The Sopranos turned its viewers into Journey fans.
The Sopranos was a significant achievement in television history on a number of fronts: It helped establish HBO as a cultural force; it made the literary qualities of symbolism and thematic development more acceptable in television dramas; and perhaps most influentially, The Sopranos showed that Americans would cheer an anti-hero more readily on TV than they would in the movies, where “unsympathetic” protagonists are usually the box-office kiss of death. Why? Because on television, writers have the luxury of time. Episode by episode and hour by hour, we get to know TV characters more intimately, so that we come to understand and even embrace their contradictions. One of the main reasons The Sopranos became such a phenomenon was that no matter how awful Tony Soprano could be—and how ferocious James Gandolfini’s performance—viewers genuinely enjoyed spending time in his company. Even the show’s opening credits drew people in: We follow Tony as he drives from Manhattan to New Jersey, through several plain-looking or decrepit neighborhoods, until he ends up at his lavish, inviting suburban house. Many of us (myself included) would love to live in that house. And from 1999 to 2007, David Chase threw that desire back at us by showing us exactly what it took for Tony to make that drive every day.
“Bust Out” is especially good at making the case that Tony isn’t someone to cheer, no matter how nice his property may be. The episode arrived toward the end of the second season in spring 2000, as several long storylines were approaching a crux. In the episode immediately prior, Tony and his turncoat associate Big Pussy (who informed on the Soprano family to the feds) assassinated a young thug named Matthew Bevilaqua, in retaliation for Bevilaqua hospitalizing Tony’s protégé Christopher. The aftermath of that assassination looms large in “Bust Out,” because it turns out there was a witness: an avant-garde-classical-music-listening intellectual who flips through the police mug books and identifies Tony, adding that he also saw “a husky accomplice.” The witness fashions himself as a heroic citizen. “I’m so goddamn fed up with crime,” he says, before asking the cops if the bad guys were involved with “crack.” “Something like that,” the cops say earnestly, while inwardly rolling their eyes.
As for Big Pussy, the aforementioned “husky accomplice,” he gets called on the carpet by his FBI liaison, who knows that Pussy was either involved with Tony’s crime, or at least knew about it and failed to tip off the authorities. But Pussy is unrattled. Like the witness, he’s enjoying feeling important, for the moment at least. The cops need him. Tony trusts him. Ultimately, he’s just marking time and he knows it, but for now, Pussy thinks he might just be able to keep both sides happy long enough to come up with an escape plan.
Tony, meanwhile, having heard about the witness, is making his own plans. He gives his lawyer a sack of money to pass along to Carmela Soprano as an allowance, just in case he has to lam it for a few months. (“This witness can’t remain nameless forever,” Tony cracks. “I didn’t hear that,” his lawyer replies.) Tony has reverted to survival mode, doing what needs to be done to secure his safety and comfort. Any guilt he feels over having just murdered a man—a young man, at that—creeps in only subtly, as when he hears a lost little boy calling for his mommy by a carousel, and has a flashback to the hit.
Right after the flashback, Tony’s disgruntled employee Richie Aprile arrives and Tony immediately switches back to boss mode, throwing out put-downs and shrugging off Richie’s gripes about the bad rate he’s getting on his garbage routes, telling him to man up and figure out on his own how to take what he’s been given and make more money out of it. But Richie keeps stewing. As a former higher-up in Tony’s criminal organization, he’s having a hard time adjusting to being out of prison and lower on the mob totem pole than he once was. Plus his girlfriend—Tony’s perpetually shit-stirring sister Janice—is buzzing in Richie’s ear that he should be the boss. And Richie, in turn, is buzzing in the ear of Tony’s house-arrested uncle, trying to convince Uncle Junior to make a behind-the-scenes move against his nephew. So between Richie, Pussy, Junior, the cops, and the witness, we see what Tony’s up against. He’s a bad man, but the men lining up against him aren’t any easier to rally behind.
There are three more major threads in “Bust Out,” each more or less tied off by the end of the episode. One involves the final liquidation—the “bust out”—of Davy Scatino’s sporting-goods store, through a process that involves the Soprano mob family ordering everything from airplane tickets to picnic coolers, and charging them to the store for as long as they can until the creditors get wise. (Richie has a good theory about coolers; he says the gang can sling them on street corners for just about any price, because coolers are one of those products where “no one has any idea how much the fuck they cost.”) Davy, meanwhile, is depressed, suicidal, and sleeping in a tent in his store, and Tony is sympathetic to his old friend, but only to a point. Ultimately, Davy’s to blame for his own debts. He’s a gambling addict who lost a huge chunk of money to Richie and in Tony’s “executive” poker game. And besides, taking advantage of people like Davy is how Tony makes his living.
Davy made the mistake a lot of Sopranos characters make: he asked for a favor from criminals. From the outside, it makes sense to have the mob on your side, because they have money and influence. But the mob didn’t get that money and influence through selfless generosity. They expect to get back what they’re owed, and then some. Later in the episode, Davy’s brother-in-law corners him in a bar and mouths a few platitudes about Gambler’s Anonymous, but Davy lets him know that he’s in way deeper than that. “You got no idea what ‘dead-eyes’ means until you face these people in your bathrobe and flip-flops,” he says. In the next scene, we discover that Tony’s mystery witness is hip to that threat too. While he’s relaxing in his living room reading Anarchy, State & Utopia, the witness’ wife sees in the paper that the Sopranos may be involved with the Bevilaqua case, and the two of them practically fall over each other to call the cops and recant his statement.
The second of the three threads has Carmela flirting with Davy’s brother-in-law, Victor, whom she’s hired to do some remodeling work around the house. With Tony out late every night—and with romantic pop-lit like Memoirs Of A Geisha rattling in her head—Carm has plenty of time to fantasize about Victor, and when she finally gets him alone in the confined space of the bathroom, they kiss, and start making plans for a long lunch and tryst.
But the next day, while Carmela is primping, cooking, and listening to Shania Twain’s “You’re Still The One,” the doorbell rings and Victor’s assistant walks in instead. Victor’s conversation with Davy in the bar has scared him away from getting involved any further with the Sopranos. Tony has inadvertently thwarted Carm’s affair. (And later, when Tony finds out that the witness to the Bevilaqua hit has backed down, he relaxes in the same bathroom where Carmela kissed Victor, unconsciously reclaiming that space as his own.)
The third thread has to do with Tony’s relationship with Anthony Jr. Worried that a directionless, often wimpy A.J. will end up like Matthew Bevilaqua, Tony pledges to spend more time with the boy, but A.J., infuriatingly, doesn’t seem interested. He’d rather play videogames, or go to the mall with a big group of his fellow teens—but never on a one-to-one date with a girl. Tony complains to his therapist Dr. Melfi about “the group date” being symptomatic of changing standards of masculinity, but she astutely suggests that Tony is really just hurt that A.J. didn’t drop everything when Tony asked if they could do something together.
The conversations between Tony and Dr. Melfi in “Bust Out” are fairly typical for the series. She pushes him to confront the awful things he’s done; he gets indignant, insisting that he hasn’t done anything wrong, and that if he did, whoever got hurt deserved it. (Sometimes Tony Soprano reminds me of myself back when I’d try and fail to call in sick to work; even though I was faking, I was still mad at my bosses for hypothetically endangering our customers’ health.) We see a lot of different sides of Tony in “Bust Out:” the guilty side, the self-justifying side, the smug side, the dangerous side, the pensive side. Tony’s anger at Melfi’s intimations makes her flinch with fear. Later, he watches TV shows about World War II, identifying with General Patton when he talks about “the enemy” and “his men.” Later still, he tries to salve his conscience by forcing a wounded associate into taking $50,000. Tony fluctuates so wildly that he can’t spot his own contradictions—but “Bust Out” makes sure we can.
As I wrote up top, The Sopranos was as good as just about any show in television history at manipulating an audience’s sympathies. Davy is getting shafted, but we see how pathetic he is, so it’s hard to feel bad for him. Victor is a melancholy widower, but he’s perfectly willing to start an affair with a married woman, until he realizes it might put his life in danger. Carmela is stuck in a crummy marriage to a brute, but she’s deceitful herself, and enjoys the fruits of her husband’s labor. Tony is a murderer, but the guy he killed—the most recent one, anyway—is a creep. (Plus the witness is a doofus, and the lawmen are jerks.) We’re inclined to root for Tony because he’s the protagonist—and because this is ultimately just a TV show, not real life, so there’s no consequences for our backing him—but we also see how thoughtless and selfish he can be. At one point in “Bust Out,” a routine domestic argument between Tony and Carmela turns into a yelling-and-shoving match in which neither party comes off well. Then Tony plays the sad-sack and gets drunk in the dark, looking for comfort from his college-bound daughter Meadow when she comes home late. Meadow’s attempt to placate her dad could stand as a thesis statement for the whole series: “Sometimes?” she says, “We’re all hypocrites.”
The brilliance of The Sopranos is the way it reveals that hypocrisy, and then—to an extent—implicates the audience in it. We know when the characters are lying, and what they’re lying about. We’re given reasons to identify with them, then shown why we shouldn’t. The series accomplishes this through the writing, and in the staging. Take a closer look at that fight between Tony and Carmela, for example. While they’re in the heat of it, the camera goes handheld, bringing us right into the fray.
And the then the camera pulls back—way back—so that we’re more like voyeurs, asked to observe more objectively.
See also a scene mid-episode where Tony and Big Pussy sit around the sporting-goods store after midnight, taking a world-weary, darkly comic perspective on the trouble they’re in.
Tony and Pussy toss around phrases like “murder and aid to racketeering” and “20-to-life” as though they’re half-proud of them, and when their buddy Paulie comes along to tell them he hasn’t uncovered the name of their witness yet, Paulie puts down the witness as “some flag-salutin’ motherfucker.” For a moment, it’s hard not to feel like Tony and Pussy are getting screwed over by this nameless asshole. Then the perspective shifts twice more: first to Tony’s Neopolitan muscle Furio, who has no idea what Tony means when he talks about going on the run to “Elvis Country,” and then to Davy, who comes in whining right when Tony is most on edge. We’re in a room full of people with whom it’s hard to fully identify, so naturally we gravitate to the strongest presence: Tony Soprano.
For all its sophistication, The Sopranos had some elements in common with ordinary, everyday TV dramas, such as bringing in characters like Davy for short arcs while treating them as though they’ve always been a big part of the main characters’ lives. But The Sopranos’ creative team also made some simple choices that built the show’s universe in clever ways, like focusing on what the characters read or watch on TV, and threading little self-references and recurring images from episode to episode. (In “Bust Out,” for example, Davy’s picnic coolers show up in multiple scenes, as do bottles of water and sneakers that the gang has obtained in bulk.) The show, like Tony Soprano himself, sometimes reacts to what’s dead ahead, and sometimes anticipates the turns.
Which—like that old wheel in the sky—brings us back around to where we started, with Tony and A.J. on a boat, set to Journey. That scene offers such a bold finish to “Bust Out,” wrapping up the multiple themes of the episode in a single amusing image, with a soundtrack that gets the blood pumping. The closest analogue to The Sopranos in contemporary popular culture may be the Team America song “America, Fuck Yeah,” which both critiques mindless patriotism and creates such a buzz of excitement that it’s hard not to feel a little mindless and patriotic yourself while it’s blasting. It’s easy to thrill to The Sopranos, even as it chills.
Because the life of the Sopranos is, in a lot of ways, not too different from the average American’s: the Sopranos are good consumers, conscious of the status conferred by what they buy, and they make selfish choices every day that they then scramble to justify. “Bust Out” takes us deep inside those choices, allowing us to understand them—and even somewhat approve of how and why they were made—and then it pushes us back outside so we can see how vulgar they are. The episode offers the gift of perspective. It shows how effortlessly we can all get caught up in the culture of instant gratification, without having any idea how much the fuck it costs.
I’ve been avoiding reading Todd VanDerWerff’s TV Club entries on The Sopranos since I knew this VSE column was coming up. But after finishing this piece, I went back and read them all, and so should you. He makes some similar points to mine, but also catches things I didn't.
Next time on A Very Special Episode: The Larry Sanders Show, “Out Of The Loop.”