"A Hit Is a Hit" (season 1, episode 10)
Last week, toward the end of the piece, I described this episode as the worst episode of season one, a season that can lay a legitimate claim toward being the best season of The Sopranos (I'd place seasons three and five ahead of it, but that's for another day). I recalled that every time I worked my way through the series - this is my fourth time now - "A Hit Is a Hit" seemed to stop everything dead to tell a disconnected story that offered no real interest in the way the season's other standalones, like "College" or even "Boca," did. The show had been building such narrative momentum before "Boca," and then it had to stop the season dead for these two meandering tales. I also remembered that this episode had some rather clumsy attempts to expand the show's world into other areas within its primary area of concern. Insofar as being able to dig deep into the people tangentially connected to Tony and the gang, The Sopranos was no The Wire.
But there was some hue and cry in comments about how this episode wasn't all THAT bad. And on a rewatch, yeah, it isn't all that bad. This is still The Sopranos, where the good easily outnumbers the bad most weeks. Even the show's worst episode - season four's "Christopher" - has a handful of terrific little scenes. But where "Boca" has dated poorly and probably felt fairly exciting and interesting back in 1999, "A Hit Is a Hit" was already dated when it aired, doomed by its attempts to expand into a world the show's writers clearly didn't understand with the intensity they understood the life of gangsters. Again, there's plenty of good stuff in "A Hit Is a Hit," but it's blocked from being wholly successful by any number of things. It's still the worst episode of season one, but more marginally than I remembered.
Let's start with the thing that wasn't as painful as I remembered it being: The performance by the lead singer of the band Adriana courts (Visiting Day) is now more clearly a knowingly strained performance to me. This guy - Richie - is someone who's decided to put on the costume of being a disaffected rock star as surely as Christopher has decided to put on the costume of being a gangster, but he's not entirely comfortable wearing it just yet. Maybe he'll grow into it if Visiting Day becomes huge. In fact, that seems as likely as not, since Christopher will grow into being a gangster more. But is it any wonder that this is Adriana's ex-boyfriend? She seems attracted to half-formed men whom she can help mold, and Richie very much fits that profile. He and Christopher are intriguing flipsides of the same coin, one putting on the guise of severe mental anguish and the other putting on the guise of trying to hide it.
That said, the show's journey into the music business is largely painful. I can see where the idea for the story came from. It might be interesting to deepen Hesh, and the show had already established that much of his fortune came from producing hit records (and adding his name to the writing credits). He's a guy that's bumped around the edges of the show but would become more important as the series went on, and giving him a showcase episode in season one isn't a terrible idea. Combine that with a chance to deepen Adriana, one of the show's less vital characters to this point, just a bit, and it's easy to see where this looked like an appealing chance to try out some new things.
The problems come from the way the plotline gets started. If this had mostly been kept to Adriana trying to get Visiting Day a record deal and Hesh eventually shooting down those attempts, it might have worked (though it would have only been a half-story at that point). But Chris and Adriana get involved in the deal with a famous rapper in The Sopranos universe, Massive Genius, who plays out as a well-meaning caricature of a famous rapper. The Sopranos always had a hard time working with black characters because the characters at the show's center were so racist, much of the time, and the kinds of black people they did business with (drug dealers and other hoodrats) tended to confirm their racist suspicions. Even Hesh, who's seemed like a mostly jovial old man in prior episodes, lets loose with a few racially questionable statements toward Massive in the episode.
It doesn't help that the main thrust of this plotline - Massive wants Hesh to pay royalties Hesh owes to the mother of a deceased relative who had a big hit song - feels dropped in from another series entirely. This is an episode where The Sopranos carried on with a favorite theme: Everybody's a shithead, and at least Tony and the gang are more open about it. But where the episode's other plotline (which is much better than this one) finds a way to do express this that feels largely organic, the royalties plotline feels like so much filler, as though some writers on the staff were interested in the ways royalties were ripped off from black artists in the '50s and '60s and wanted to write an episode about it. Is there a way this episode might have worked? Possibly. But the way the storyline is presented here, I half expect the episode to end with Christopher sitting in a room full of books, saying, "To learn more about the ways black people were exploited by the American corporate system in the 20th century, consult your local library."
Similarly, the character of Massive Genius is kind of half-formed. There are some interesting ideas for what a rapper in The Sopranos' world might look like, but they're never taken to any kind of logical conclusion. It's nice to see a man who's not afraid to go toe-to-toe with Tony and the gang, since so many characters have been cowed by them this season. It's also fascinating to see this man who's confident he has the upper hand get undermined by the gangsters (who take issue with his appropriation of the term), and seeing Christopher try to come to the aid of his new friend is often amusing. But what's left of Massive Genius feels like a collection of boxes checked off on a checklist that don't completely come together. He's attracted to Adriana. Check. Chris doesn't realize it. Check. He's college-educated. Check. He's a rapper. Check. For the most part, The Sopranos succeeds when it takes us into worlds that are portrayed with a certain amount of gritty texture. We buy Satriale's or The Bing because they feel like places we could step into if we went about five degrees to the right of this reality. Massive Genius' world never feels like this, perhaps because we don't get to see him through the eyes of anyone but Chris and Adriana. The Sopranos' limited focus is a benefit to it in most episodes, but in an episode with a major guest character, it often ends up a detriment.
On the other hand, as mentioned, that other plotline is well-done, and it mostly saves the episode from being one only worth a shrug. We finally meet the oft-mentioned Cusamanos, Tony's physician neighbor, who's the link between Tony and Melfi, at a dinner party, which Melfi also attends. At first, this seems like it's going to be a restatement of the Melfi family plotline from "The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti," but it quickly goes in some more interesting directions. I love the scene where Melfi crouches in Cusamano's bathroom, looking out at Tony's house across the way, only to hear loud groans (which turn out to be Tony pushing himself to work out). And the scene with the dinner party guests gossiping about the mafia is probably better written than the similar one where the Melfis talked about awful Italian stereotypes, if only because it better expresses the weird allure those stereotypes have for white collar guys like Cusamano and his friends.
What's more, the episode goes to a fairly interesting place and quickly. Tony has Cusamano and some of the other guys over for a backyard barbecue, and while talking with them, gets some stock tips (stock tips that Carmela later uses to pad out her own stock profile, but we'll get to that). There's a clear line drawn here by Chase and his writers. Tony and his gang do illegal things, but they're out in the open. Capitalism, however, will always leave room for illegal activity around the margins, because it creates an opportunity for lots of money to be created quickly. What Cusamano and his pals are doing (trading information about stocks before it's public knowledge) is just as illegal as anything Tony and his gang do, but it's less frowned upon. It's unlikely that Cusamano or anyone will ever stand trial for what they've done; it's far more likely Tony would for what he's done. Tony traffics in the undesirable sorts of things we claim not to want in our society, which sets him apart. (Granted, Tony is guilty of things like murder, which is something that can't be said for Cusamano, but the episode is clearly drawing a line between the two's economic activities.)
This leads to the fantastic scene where Tony goes golfing with Cusamano and friends. Said friends start to ask Tony questions about the mafia world, and it's fascinating to see the way that James Gandolfini's performance, so extroverted up to this point, has to turn suddenly introverted. He can't deal with these guys like he'd deal with, say, Paulie if he felt Paulie was making fun of him. He has to sit there and take the questions they keep throwing at him and trying to shrug them off or answering them. When he finally fields a question about John Gotti, it almost doesn't matter if he's telling the truth or not; just the fact that he can answer the question holds the men in a state that's somewhere between awe and absolute terror. Tony does have a certain power over these guys, but only in the sense that he performs for them.
It's a statement he himself makes later, while talking with Melfi about how humiliated he felt. He compares himself to both a "dancing bear" and a kid with a cleft palate that he and his friends used to make fun of in school. Empathy, of course, has never been Tony Soprano's strong suit, but for a little bit in this scene, it feels as though he just might come around toward feeling something for someone he caused pain. When he talks about realizing how that kid must have felt, you can sense wheels turning in his head that don't always turn, wheels that might lead him to another conclusion than the one he'd normally draw. But once he manages to successfully reorient the conversation back toward himself, he returns to making fun of the kid. Empathy can only go so far in a universe where everybody's a shithead.
Again, I don't want to give the impression that "A Hit Is a Hit" is an absolutely awful episode. Like every Sopranos episode, it's better than the vast majority of TV, and there are scenes in it that are as good as any the show produced (like that golfing scene). And I like the notion inherent in the episode title, expressed by Hesh when speaking about how you can just tell when a piece of music is going to hit people straight between the eyes and make them want more. There are some things that are just inexorably true, and any attempts to deny them are not worth your time. It's like a weird restatement of the developing theme that there are some things that are right and some things that are wrong, and any attempt to undercut that ordering of the universe is inherently flawed. A hit is a hit just like a sin is a sin. Don't try to split the difference. You'll only end up burned.
- I do love that scene where Carmela talks with Meadow about maintaining her independence (while discussing why she's placing an order for the stock), something a woman has to do in a marriage. There's an interesting mirror for the scene in the next episode (when Tony talks about the house being 1954 and the surrounding world being 1999), and this is another scene where the series lays out just how many compromises Carmela has made without being explicit about it. Edie Falco is predictably terrific, but so is Jamie Lynn Sigler, who says a lot about Meadow's desire to escape this life without saying a word.
- Naturally, I didn't discuss the ending of the episode, which is another one of its best parts. Tony brings a box of sand over to Cusamano and asks him to hang onto it as revenge for the way Cusamano and company belittled him. It's crudely effective revenge, and it underscores how Tony tends to understand that psychological terror can be almost as effective as physical brutality, often in a way his fellow gangsters don't quite seem to get.
- I forget where the death count left off, but we have another one in this episode with the guy Paulie shoots at episode's beginning. I also love the shots of the guys going through the big bags of money.
- Hey it's 1999 sighting: Rent is still a big, popular, vital show. Christopher's comments about the show are meant to be a criticism of him as much as anything else, but ended up becoming something like the major critical viewpoint on the show. The farther the world got from 1996, the harder it became to empathize with the characters in that show, weirdly. (Or I may be mixing my feelings for the show when it came out up with how terrible the movie was. It happens.)
- Adriana dancing around to "You Give Love a Bad Name" is, obviously, fun to watch, but also gives me more of a sense of her character than any of her talk about how she listens to the radio so much, so she'd surely KNOW what would make a good song.
- "The third one, a lot of people didn't like it, but I think it was just misunderstood."
- "I sit in a fuckin' pork store, for Christ's sake."
- "This, as far as I'm concerned, blows AWAY Matchbox 20."
Speaking with the Fishes:
- I didn't have a lot written down in this section for this episode. Obviously, the Cusamanos come back a few times. (According to Wikipedia, their three subsequent appearances are in three of the series' very best episodes.) Obviously, the show returns to Tony's uneasiness around more white collar guys whom he feels belittled by. But this is an episode that feels largely disconnected from the rest of the series.
- Oh, well, Hesh used his money to buy horses, and Tony seems fairly interested in the horses. That will come up again.
"Nobody Knows Anything" (season 1, episode 11)
Vin Makazian is in a hurry. He's stuck in traffic, and he needs to get somewhere. It's not an especially good week for the detective. He was caught at a bordello with a mafia member friend, and Tony Soprano still treats him like he scraped Vin off his shoe. Vin pulls out his badge, shows it to the officer on the scene, gets preferential treatment to go ahead of everybody else. And once he does, he pulls off the road, over to the side, through construction, and he climbs out of his car. Barely even thinking about it, he climbs the side of a bridge, affixing his badge to his pocket. And he plunges, end over end, into the river.
Makazian's suicide strikes me as the perfect image to encapsulate The Sopranos. Here is a man who presents a certain image to the world (in that badge). Here is also a man undone by his own appetites and his inability to restrain them (seen mainly here through his anger). And here is a man whose life is now coming down to one last moment, his arc not so much an arc as a straight downward trajectory, the only thing waiting for him at the end being death. This is who most of the characters on The Sopranos are. They have one face for the real world but another face for their private lives. The only people here who know every side of all of these characters are us, and the show is constantly goading us into considering whether we want more and more violence or not. Eventually, we all reach the end, and there's no use for a public face or private face anymore. It's simply what happens.
I had forgotten just how powerful "Nobody Knows Anything" is. After a couple of episodes of dithering around and a half season of character-building episodes, Chase abruptly picks up all of the narrative threads he's been scattering about and starts to tie them together. There are actions that take place in this episode that basically cause the rest of the series to happen. Vin's misidentification of the rat that the Feds have turned, for instance, causes Pussy to disappear, and the consequences of that decision will reverberate throughout the series. And Livia's decision to guide Junior toward a truly tragic choice (and one that should upset Livia a lot more than it does) will similarly reverberate throughout the series. All of the characters have taken that step up onto the edge of the bridge. There's nowhere left to go but straight down.
I have no idea if David Chase had an ending in mind for the Pussy storyline at this point (since most of the resolution will come in season two, without spoiling too much), but the way it's set up here is truly engaging. Pussy, suffering from back pains, escapes from an FBI bust of a card game, racing down the street and wheezing, finally making it back to the Bing and the mockery of all of his friends. But then the questions start to come. How, exactly, did Pussy escape? The FBI couldn't catch this big, fat guy? Shouldn't he be behind bars with Jimmy now? Or is he just extraordinarily lucky? The questions only get more pressing once Vin intimates that his source has told him that Pussy is wearing a wire, something that, of course, sets Tony on a course of paranoia. Slowly but surely, he attempts to build a case against Pussy. He's not going to kill the man unless he's absolutely certain.
The Sopranos tried on many guises in its first season, but in this episode it firmly gives a shot to paranoid thriller. There are moments here as fraught with tension as anything in The Conversation, and the episode makes good usage of playing our desires to see Tony walk free up against the fact that, well, he's a hardened criminal who doesn't deserve to. Every sequence involving Pussy - particularly that one with Paulie trying to convince him to take a shvitz - is just marvelously paced and padded out, proving that if the show had really wanted to, it could have been a much, much straighter gangster show without sacrificing quality. Tony's attempts to prove that he's been betrayed by his closest friend will be the things that push that friend away, that cause him to completely disappear. One minor mistake by Vin ends up being one of the catalytic events of The Sopranos' run. But that's how life is. Something minor happens, and it snowballs.
Because, you see, Vin is wrong. He's got the wrong fat guy with dark hair. Jimmy is really the rat, as evidenced by his pretty terrible attempts to get Tony on the record as to where he's going to hide some stolen money. Suddenly, all of the characters are living in lives beyond their control (as Tony puts it in therapy, things were going pretty good and then, "Boom"). The Sopranos is excellent at illuminating that moment when life ceases to be something you live and becomes something that lives you, and this episode is filled with moments like that. The slow, dawning realization of what's going on on Pussy's face in the locker room. The look in Tony's eyes as Jimmy peppers him with questions. The way Vin doesn't even look down as he climbs the side of that bridge. There's an inevitability to this episode that simply works.
In a way, the final three episodes of season one form a loose trilogy, and this one is all rising action. The Pussy thing is mainly set aside for the rest of the season (aside from a few references here and there), but the consequences of the other storyline will continue to play out. "Isabella," then, will be almost completely a build toward a climax, while "I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano" will feature the hectic fallout from those climactic moments. These final three episodes form a nice mirror of the season's first four. Tony is still trying as hard as he can to stay in charge, but the foundation he's built is rotten, and it's starting to collapse out from underneath him, his mother standing over in the corner, swinging an ax.
"Nobody Knows Anything" still has that wicked sense of absurdist humor the show always has. After all, that scene where Vin drives to his death has a certain sense of pitch black humor to it. And any episode that begins with all of the guys enjoying the treats of the local bordello, only to have Pussy seemingly have a heart attack and have to be attended to by a doctor in a skirt, carrying a feather duster, can't be all gloom and doom. But the essential undercurrent of "Nobody Knows Anything" is that of tragedy, of things getting worse and worse and worse until that final plunge is the only move any of the characters has left. These people are all being boxed in by events beyond their control, though some of them don't know it yet. Some of them won't know it for years.
The other major plotline, of course, involves Livia's resentment slowly curdling into action while sitting in the retirement community, waiting for something to happen. Tony, who stops by to drop off some Mario Lanza CDs for her, learns that Junior has been visiting quite often, but even he can't guess the extent of what's going on, as Livia carefully cherry picks details of her life at the place to guide Junior down a predetermined path: She's going to have her own son killed, and if all goes well, her fingerprints won't be detectable to anyone. It'll just look like a mob kingpin taking out the capo that seemingly wants him out of the way. The only person who might detect Livia's involvement is Tony himself (since he knows Junior visits her and is often ready to believe the worst of her), but if all goes according to plan, he'll be out of the way soon enough. Who else might be a threat? Carmela? She wouldn't be able to convince anyone, even if she did suspect something. Tony's crew? They'll be more focused on Junior. Livia gets to live out the ultimate passive-aggressive fantasy: removing someone you don't like entirely but remaining mostly behind the scenes.
It's tempting to see Livia as a character that's hitting the same notes over and over. She certainly seems to skew that way in season two. But in season one, the show finds a way to somehow make her bitterness and resentment curdle more and more until it finally explodes. She's a woman who really thinks she's out of options and really thinks her son has simply abandoned her to die. No matter how much Carmela and Tony try to convince her otherwise, she's created a vision of the world, and she refuses to deviate from it. Really, that's the central message of The Sopranos: The more that you create for yourself a view of how the world operates, the less likely you are to pull away from that view of the world. Change is possible. Change also requires you to shake up what you believe to be true, and most people aren't willing to do that.
It's hard to write about "Nobody Knows Anything" without drastically spoiling "Isabella" or "I Dream ..." Had I been thinking, I might have tried to schedule reviews for all three for the same week. Fortunately, we'll be able to talk about how this season resolves itself and how this story wraps up in the final two parts of the trilogy next week. But for now, we're left with a sense of dread, a sense that, really, there's nowhere else for any of us to go but into the river. Seen in the light of this episode, Vin's decision to toss himself from the bridge and to his death isn't a destructive action; it's the only logical response to a world that is slowly strangling you.
- "Nobody knows anything," of course, is William Goldman's famous maxim about the way Hollywood works. I struggled and struggled to find a way to tie this idea in to the bulk of what's going on, but I just never got there. See if you can figure something out!
- Lots of mafia movie references tonight. Naturally, you have Paulie's Godfather theme car horn, but you also have Mikey's talk with his wife at episode's end, which sort of sounds like a guy who's self-consciously styled himself like a guy who talks like mafia men in movies.
- I like the "Four Days Later" time card early in the episode. At least it orients us within the timeline.
- Vin's right. Tony does treat him pretty shittily. I mean, I see why, but I can also see why Vin would like a little more respect.
- I don't like the way that the newsguy says "Wiseguy" when he's delivering his report on Vin being caught. I realize this is a really nit-picky thing, but, hey, this is a pretty good episode.
- Death count ticks up another one with Vin's plunge.
Speaking with the Fishes:
- Now here's an episode where pretty much everything pays off. We, of course, have started the "Pussy becomes a rat, and Tony has to kill him" arc that will drive much of season two, and Livia's indirect hit on Tony will dominate much of the next two episodes.
- Mikey's wife will turn up a few more times as the series goes on. Not my favorite character ever, but, then, I don't really like the mob wives on the show in general.
- Jimmy the Rat turns up again in the next few episodes, and the resolution to his arc is one of the better moments in the final two episodes.
- Eponymous makes a good argument for why the scenes with Tony visiting Melfi were still necessary in later seasons, when it seemed like Melfi had less to add to the show as a character: "Tony is someone with a pretty complicated inner life that almost never talks about his feelings or thoughts. Having him see a therapist was a great mechanism to explore a lot of that, and I think that psychological acuity was one of the greatest strengths of The Sopranos. Without the Melfi scenes I think Tony would be quite a bit more difficult to track as a character, unless the writers cheated by using a device like voiceover narration to get at what Tony is thinking. I never saw them as superfluous. To be sure, the whole device of having a character see a shrink as a way of doing character development is not exactly unique, but I always felt that the show kept it interesting by making the sessions about Melfi as well as Tony. I can't recall other shows before The Sopranos taking that tack. Ultimately, Tony Soprano is the sort of character that is usually better served by novels than by television, because so much of him is internal and novels often do better when it comes to exploring inner lives. It's difficult to make that sort of thing visually compelling. But the therapist scenes in The Sopranos are successful for the first few seasons, at least."
- Barefoot Jim makes the argument that "Boca" is the worst episode of The Sopranos, since it introduces a bunch of characters and concepts that it has no real intention of paying off later. I rather disagree (since I think "A Hit Is a Hit" is worse, obviously), but I can see what he's saying. At the same time, I do think that in a first season, a show gets a little more leeway to try things that might not necessarily work, leeway it wouldn't really get in later seasons. He compares it to the Battlestar Galactica episode "Black Market," and I think "Boca" is MUCH better than that. It also doesn't compare as well because "Black Market" came at a time when that show obviously knew what worked best for it, yet it plunged ahead with an episode that just didn't work. The distinction may not mean much to you guys, but it works for me.
- King Bastard complains about the way that new characters were suddenly introduced as if they'd always been important. Honestly, I have trouble thinking of a TV show where this wasn't the case. There's always a need to freshen the cast a bit on an ensemble drama, and on a show like The Sopranos, you can't fill lots of time with random new mafia members. So that means you have to give the show a little room to add in brand new characters out of nowhere and act as if we were always supposed to know who they were. It works for me because I assume it's the show gradually expanding its focus. Tony is the center of the pilot, but as the show goes on, more and more people become important to the action. We only get to know them as we need to know them.
Next week: Season one concludes in fantastic fashion. Prepare for more gushing.