“Christopher” (season 4, episode 3)
In which everybody celebrates Columbus Day and Iron Eyes Cody is secretly Italian
Every show has to have a “worst” episode, one that sits at the bottom of a subjective, personal ranking of that show’s many adventures. What’s different about “Christopher,” the worst, clumsiest hour The Sopranos would ever produce, is that it’s not just the worst episode. It’s the worst episode by SEVERAL DEGREES. The show had not been this bad before, and it would not get this bad again. (Obviously, I haven’t been through the rest of the series again, so I could be eating these words by the time we get back through all of this again, but “Christopher” is almost worse than I remembered it being, which rarely happens to me. Removed from the context under which it was produced—a context where The Sopranos was frequently attacked by anti-Italian-American defamation groups—the episode just seems weird, like all of the characters in the show had written columns for the “My Turn” feature in Newsweek and were reading them to each other.
It’s not like the episode is without merit. There are plenty of interesting plot developments, and there are some very good scenes, with the final scene, in particular, being a strong example of the show undercutting itself in a humorous fashion. And the storyline about Ralphie deciding to dump Rosalie so he could be with Janice is well done, particularly at the end when Janice no longer wants anything to do with him. (OK, I could have lived without having to see the two of them do their weird sex play thing again, but that’s not really a demerit against the episode.) It’s just that the rest of the episode is so bulky, so unlike The Sopranos, which is usually pretty lean and witty. This is a show where nobody really says what they’re feeling, and that’s a strength. Here’s an episode where everybody says what they’re feeling all of the time, and that’s why it doesn’t work.
The basic idea is this: It’s coming on Columbus Day; they’re putting on parades. Silvio reads about an anti-parade protest by a group of Native Americans who want to take issue with celebration of a man whose arrival precipitated several centuries worth of struggle and genocide for their people. Silvio, taking this to be a slur against Italians, decides he doesn’t like it and goes to an earlier demonstration where a Columbus effigy is going to be burned. He and some of the other guys take the effigy down, and then a scuffle breaks out (precipitated by the demonstrators, after Sil takes down their effigy). Several people are injured, and it lands both groups in hot water, with Tony visibly upset with everyone for getting involved in something so stupid, to the point where they could have gone to jail for something relatively innocuous in the grand scheme of their crimes. Meanwhile, everyone decides to make things right with the protest leader, a man named Del Redclay.
Again, not every scene here is a flop. In particular, I like the scene where Ralphie, having decided that the best way to get back at the Native Americans for insulting Christopher Columbus is to tear down an icon of equal stature to Native Americans, which means that he discovers the Italian heritage of Iron Eyes Cody and threatens to go wide with it if the protests don’t scale down. The whole absurdity of this conceit is tremendously amusing, especially the way that Joe Pantoliano plays the moment like he’s a great investigative journalist or something. The moment where Del seems shaken by this knowledge and can’t believe it’s true is, admittedly, a step too far into the farce, but the whole scene plays out like a weird, comic inversion of the show’s usual mob intimidation scenes, a giant poster of Cody standing in for the sorts of threats the mobsters might usually use.
And I think what the episode is trying to go for is vaguely well-expressed (except when the show just comes out and says it). The show rarely allows Tony to be unequivocally right, but it seems to agree with him here that it’s fine to be proud of your heritage, but what really matters is who YOU are. The final scene in the car, with Tony returning again to the question of whatever happened to Gary Cooper, takes this tack as its centerpiece. The scene argues that getting too tied up into an identity that extends to a group beyond yourself can be a dangerous thing, a sort of drug that stands in the way of you being in control of your own actions and your own life. Once everything can be seen as a slight, then all you’re doing is looking for slights. Because this is a world of several billion people, slights will come, but it’s usually better to not get too invested in feeling bad about them. Feel proud of who you are, of what you’ve done, and the rest will take care of itself. It’s not a bad life philosophy, particularly coming from Tony, who can be kind of an oaf about these things, and it stands in marked counterpoint to an entire episode made up of people complaining about who’s had it hardest. (I also like that Sil completely forgets it's Columbus Day when they go to the casino, which shows just how serious he really is about this thing.)
But the problem is that everything on the way to that scene is so tortured and awkward, as though David Chase and episode writer Michael Imperioli (from a story idea by Imperioli and Maria Laurino) had that final scene in mind and then weren’t quite sure how to get there. The episode, outside of the Ralphie and Janice storyline (and another that we’ll get to), takes the structure of various people airing their grievances on behalf of the groups they represent. Even a mostly disconnected scene of Carmela and her friends—including Bobby’s wife, Karen, now enjoying a loftier status in the life of the mob wives, just as her husband enjoys a loftier status at work—attending a speech recommended by Father Phil mostly just turns into a woman lecturing the group about how Italian-Americans have so much to be proud of and how they should remind the world that they’re about far more than the usual stereotypes, instead embracing things like broccoli rabe and the many millions of Italian-Americans who don’t participate in organized crime. (I do love the way Rosalie silently tells off the woman who turns to look at her accusatorily during this section of the speech.)
Hell, even Montel Williams gets in on the act on TV. I certainly know that we have these conversations in America, and I’m sure that Chase and Imperioli are tweaking the idea of Italian-Americans who think their lives have been rough based on the fact that, at least in America, they kind of don’t have a contest when comparing their suffering to African-Americans or Native Americans. (Hell, we even get a scene where Hesh not so subtly reminds us that Jewish people have plenty to complain about if we’re talking on a global scale.) And the scene where Furio complains about tensions between northern and southern Italy is even a nice little reminder about how this problem is not specific to this country and is more of a generalized human thing, where we tend to mistreat people from other groups. But I don’t know that the episode had to be so talky about this central idea. It’s a needlessly bulky episode, where people don’t just have exchanges of dialogue but, instead, tend to make gigantic speeches. Granted, a lot of these speeches come from characters the regulars are listening to, but that doesn’t make things any better. There’s a place for discussion of the awful ways Native Americans were treated after Columbus arrived in North America; I’m not sure that an episode of The Sopranos is that place.
The show, of course, was battling perceptions of it as a series that glorified Italian-American involvement in the mob or created a perception that all Italian-Americans were in the mob. As any show becomes more popular, it will inevitably attract some form of controversy, and that was the controversy for this show. “Christopher” was widely seen as a response to that controversy, a suggestion that those who were worried about these sorts of things were taking them too seriously and should just lighten up already. Was it? I have no idea, but the timing certainly makes a compelling case for that argument. The problem is that the episode felt clunky at the time and now just feels weird, divorced from the arguments of that earlier period. When’s the last time you heard someone complain about how The Sopranos suggests all Italian-Americans are in the mob anyway? It’s an odd storyline, told oddly, particularly since it has little to no bearing on much that comes later.
Other storylines, however, are much better. I’ve already mentioned the story of Ralphie’s pathetic attempts to improve his love life by ditching Rosalie for Janice (who appears to enjoy treating him like a prostitute). It’s one of the few times in the series so far where it’s possible to feel something like sympathy for Ralphie, whose inability to stop climbing the ladder at work has a tendency to infect the rest of his life. Does he really care for Janice or Rosalie? It’s kind of impossible to tell (though the fact that he constantly cheats on Rosalie and seems to mostly think of Janice as a passing thing is a good indication that he doesn’t have much feeling for them either way), but it’s hard to watch him try to make Janice his girl when she’s just seen how devoted Bobby was to his wife and realizes that there’s a different way of having a relationship. So she pushes him down the stairs, and he swears his revenge.
There are a bunch of other small plots—like, say, Paulie telling Johnny Sack about the crack Ralphie made about his wife or Ralphie deciding to buy a racehorse or Junior’s trial beginning—that seem promising as things that will have a bearing on what comes later, particularly in regards to Paulie’s attempts to drive a wedge between New York and New Jersey for whatever reason. (It’s a bit hard to read Paulie’s long game at this point, particularly when he only appears in a few minutes of every episode. Tony Sirico was suffering after back surgery and needed the reduced workload.) But they’re all shoved into the midst of the much less competent A-story, and that makes them seem less organic than they might and more like the show saying, “See these? These plot points will be important later on.”
The one other story that seems to be the exception to this is the death of Karen. For a character we just met two episodes ago, who only appeared in these two episodes, her death is surprisingly heartfelt. Bobby, who’s never taken a comare, weeps openly at her casket in a display of outsized emotion rarely seen among the men of Sopranos-land. And the scene where he’s stuck in a traffic jam and complains to his son about the task his wife calls in to him (through his kid) is rather predictable—as you just know that the accident holding everything back is going to involve Karen, the very person he’s complaining about—but still packs a punch. Up until now, Bobby’s been hapless comic relief. In this episode, the show goes out of its way to show that he’s got some depth to him, just like everybody else on Tony’s crew. The storyline is raw and deeply felt and real, which stands in marked contrast to most everything else that goes on in the episode. It’s rare for The Sopranos to lose sight of the sorts of things that made it so good in the first place, but “Christopher” does early and often. It’s the nadir of the series, and it’s amazing a show this good could produce an episode this poor.
- Maureen Van Zandt very much looks the part of the kind of woman who would be Silvio’s wife (probably because, well, she’s Steve Van Zandt’s wife), but her acting leaves quite a bit to be desired, particularly when she’s asked to emote at all, as she is in this episode.
- Check out the vintage early 2000s jams at the gym, including U2’s “Elevation” and Jennifer Lopez’s “Waiting For Tonight.” (Oh, oh.)
- Wikipedia lists Pie-O-My as “the horse Tony befriends,” a description that’s always amused me.
- Despite the episode’s title and despite Imperioli’s script, Christopher doesn’t really have much to do in this episode. He gets some choice lines in the final scene, but that’s about it. Imperioli has a reputation for writing Chris-heavy episodes, and I’m not entirely sure he deserves it, based on the three he’s written so far (though, granted, the other two featured prominent Chris storylines).
- A nice return to the season’s central theme when Tony complains that somebody out there has loose lips, and it’s costing him money. Never mind that the real problem is someone cracking jokes about another guy’s wife. It always comes back down to who’s costing Tony the most and who’s making Tony the most.
- Am I right? Does Melfi not appear in this episode? I don’t see her in any plot summaries or in my notes. She was always the show’s example of how not ALL of its Italians were mobsters. (Oh, right. She's in that late scene where she sees what happened on TV. Well, that's not much of a scene at all!)
- When Redclay’s assistant says they’ve researched and found that Iron Eyes Cody was Native American, she’s either lying or misinformed (probably the latter). Cody’s parents were Sicilian.
- "Mussolini was Hitler's bitch!"
- "He was gay, Gary Cooper?"
- "You take it up with Frankie Valli when you talk to him."
Speaking With The Fishes:
- Janice’s sudden realization of what a good husband Bobby was leads to her eventual marriage to him (and child with him), though I don’t entirely remember the timeline of these events, outside of Bobby’s eventual death in the next to last episode.
- All of the seemingly minor plot points of this episode—Pie-O-My, Junior’s trial, the Johnny Sack anger—will pay off as this season goes along more. So will Carmela’s increasing interest in Furio. Similarly, that random mention of Frankie Valli seems prescient (though it's not) when Valli plays a recurring character in seasons five and six.
- This is something I actually don’t remember: Does Ralphie’s limp manifest itself in future episodes?
Next week: Tensions rise between New York and New Jersey in “The Weight.”