It strikes me that we haven’t spent much time in this series talking about just how technically accomplished The Sopranos is, just how able it is to suggest the characters’ thought processes and emotions through a series of images and cuts. TV is viewed primarily as a writers’ medium, and that’s not wrong. The vast majority of TV directors are journeymen, pushing between jobs and rarely finding a place to work for too long before moving on to something else. Furthermore, teams of writers (and writer-showrunners) have always dominated the medium, and the technical and visual aspects of TV have only recently (like, within the last few decades) caught up to the sorts of things we take for granted in film. Still, we persist in thinking of the medium as one primarily driven by writers. They’re the ones doing the storytelling, after all, and they’re the ones on whose backs the show’s success primarily rises and falls.
Obviously, the dominant force behind The Sopranos was David Chase. No one would ever claim that his many lieutenants—from Terence Winter to Robin Green and Mitchell Burgess to Matthew Weiner—didn’t have plenty of influence over the show as well. But the show also had a full stable of terrific directors, directors who contributed so much to the feel and look of the show and to how it suggested moods without having to do much more than show things painted in a certain color of light or by setting certain story points at particular seasons of the year. (Some of you have been doing discussion of what time of year each episode of season five has taken place at in comments, and it’s amazing how well the show tracks the rebirth-flourishing-slow death life cycle of the year in its storytelling this season.) People like Tim Van Patten and Allen Coulter (and David Chase the director) were vital to the show’s longevity, and they really made it feel more intricate and sophisticated than any television program that had aired up until that time. Particularly in the later seasons, HBO was generous with this series in terms of time and money, in ways that it wasn’t with its other shows, and the show mostly used that extra money and time to construct episodes that looked more and more beautiful.
Of course, I’m talking about all of this in an episode that wasn’t directed by one of the show’s regulars and, rather, by Mike Figgis, a film director who stepped in to direct this single episode of the show. Guest directing by film veterans isn’t uncommon, particularly on cable series, but Figgis makes the look and feel of “Cold Cuts”—which could be a rather standard “Tony Soprano is a jackass to all people he sees” hour without that mood-setting—so superb that the episode becomes one of the highlights of the season and maybe even the series. Yes, this is the episode that has the unfortunate freeze frame, intended to show that Carmela has lost all hope of breaking from her old ways and is once again ensnared by them, but if you listen to the commentary on the episode, Figgis seems as surprised by it as you probably were, indicating that it was likely inserted in post, after he’d moved along. (Directors on TV don’t get final cut in most cases because of the speed of the process; final cut falls to the networks in most cases and the showrunner in some.)
But take a look again at the sequences on Uncle Pat Blundetto’s farm. Figgis quotes Hamlet—there’s Shakespeare again—in the scenes where Tony B. and Christopher are digging up the long-buried bodies they’ve been sent there to exhume. And the other portions of this storyline really do feel as if they take place in some oasis from the violence and horrors of these guys’ everyday lives. In particular, once Tony shows up to “help” them, the whole thing becomes a kind of slow, hazy dream, a return to a childhood these men would never be able to get back to in New Jersey. I love the lighting here, the way that it suggests slow-falling dusk in the countryside. And I love a shot of Tony that seems to be in slow motion, as he sits and supervises, smoking a cigar. Everything slides by so slowly that it’s easy to miss that it’s moving at regular speed. This is just the way things proceed on the farm, where life in New Jersey is easy to forget about and where everything seems to move as if swimming through molasses.
Figgis shoots a lot of scenes in this strange way that suggests slow motion without actually being in slow motion. Look, for instance, at the scene where the guys run down the port worker on the bridge to ask him what happened to the Vespas. Because the worker is so tired out by the chase, he moves incredibly slowly, and the whole thing becomes as farcical as it is threatening. This overall sense of slowness, of, again, swimming through molasses, contributes to the episode’s feel of people trying to escape a past that pursues them as relentlessly as a zombie. Just when they think they’re clear, it’s back from around the corner, ready to drag them down again. Tony B. and Christopher bash up the literal skeletons in the closet and seem as if they’ve moved to a new phase in their friendship. And then Tony shows up to supervise and the whole thing shifts because he’s there.
The show has pointed out many times before that Tony Soprano is a corrosive element in the relationships he’s a part of. That’s nothing new. In some ways, “Cold Cuts” repeats things we already know, but it does so so stylishly that it’s fun to watch the show run through these beats again. In particular, “Cold Cuts” is useful for its dissection of “the Soprano temper,” as Melfi attempts to help Tony get to the bottom of just why so many in his family are so angry at the world and attempts to help him understand that his depression might just be rage turned inward. This is contrasted with Janice, whose hair-trigger at a soccer game causes her to make the evening news and causes Tony to go to Bobby, once again, and insist that he get control of his wife. Janice actually does what Bobby asks her to do, going to anger management courses (with Chandra Wilson!), but when she seems to have made some small steps toward overcoming her anger issues—even finding herself able to deal with those eternal telemarketer nuisances—Tony drags her right back down with him. If Tony Soprano is miserable, then everybody else is going to be miserable right with him.
I almost always enjoy stories that dissect the Janice-Tony relationship. (“Sopranos Home Movies,” coming up in season 6B, is a particular favorite in this regard.) In some ways, they’re the only two people who can understand what the other has been through. They were both raised by their parents, after all. But in other ways, that likeness has caused them to be at each other’s throats their whole lives. Tony and Janice’s rage is driven by lots of things—frustration with the world not conforming to what they want, poor childhoods with parents who left lots to be desired, a creeping sense that their lives aren’t particularly useful in the grand scheme—but the two are able to recognize it in each other. When Tony tells Bobby that Janice has to change, he might as well be telling the guy that he, himself, has to change. It’s impossible to suggest Tony’s even aware of this, so little is he aware of his effect on people around him, but the episode deals with these issues head-on, as the best episodes of season five do.
Tellingly, unlike last week’s episode, “Cold Cuts” suggests that, yes, there is a way for Tony to put this anger and rage behind him. You can see it in the baby steps that Janice makes toward inner peace thanks to her classes, and you can see it in the way that Tony B. recalls how Tony used to be the “funnest” guy around but now seems to be haggard and harried, even though he’s got the world “by the balls.” (Christopher seems surprised at the notion of Tony as a force of jollity.) While The Sopranos always suggested that most people are averse to change, it also suggested that being able to change requires surrounding yourself with people who will support that break with your old self. “Cold Cuts,” if nothing else, shows that so many people on the show are unable to make that clean break with the past not because the past itself is inescapable but because Tony Soprano is always there to rub it in their faces. Janice is ultimately undone by Tony bringing up her long-lost son, Harpo, and the way that he rubs in her face how the whole thing ended. Look at the gleeful expression on his face as he does this and the happy smile as she finally snaps. He really enjoys getting to her; he really enjoys making people come back down to his level when it might seem as if they had risen above it. The Kinks’ “I’m Not Like Everybody Else” plays at episode’s end (as Tony strides through the falling leaves after leaving the disastrous family dinner), and it reminds us that if other people in this world are going to change, they need to get approval from Tony first. And even if he gives it, he might not always be comfortable with the results.
“Cold Cuts” is also significant for providing forward momentum in the story of Tony and Carmela—she tells Wegler that she’s going to get back with him after she and Tony had a near-fight over her emptying the pool—and for providing a brief respite from Tony B.’s increasing turn back toward the mob life. I had forgotten just how good the show is at letting you know exactly where this is all headed—there’s no way Tony B. gets out of this situation in any kind of good state—but also at letting you know how this is, in some ways, deeply tragic. Where Richie and Ralphie were thoughtless goons who merely provided challenges to Tony’s authority, Tony B. really could have made something of himself. When Tony brought up his high IQ in last week’s episode, it was his way of saying that his cousin was different, but it’s also meant to tell us that Tony B. could have been someone other than who he is with a different life and a different set of influences. As much as Tony Soprano corrodes every relationship he’s a part of, the world he’s in does that just as well.
Look at the Tony B. we see on the farm. He talks wistfully of how much his time there as a child meant to him while he and Christopher are driving out to dig up the bodies. The scenes where he and Christopher are alone, working on their task diligently, show him being friendly and funny, making jokes that crack his “little cousin” up and talking openly about how Tony’s got his faults (not the least of which is how, as Christopher says he learned in rehab, he buries his feelings by eating all that food). Tony B. and Tony S.’s relationship is a complicated one, but it’s obviously shot through with love—except when the two are in the same room, in which case, it turns into a competitive one, where everyone competes to win his affection and love. (Notice how, after Tony B. makes a joke Tony S. doesn’t get, he immediately shifts to making fun of Christopher, something Tony S. will always have time for.)
Tony isn’t always present in this episode, but the script (by Green and Burgess) and Figgis’ camera make sure that he always is anyway, even when he’s completely absent. On just about any other show, the idea that the protagonist is always there, always fucking with things even when he’s not around, would have gotten incredibly repetitive by now. On this show, somehow, the writers and directors keep finding ways to plumb new depths. If season five is all about figuring out whether there will be any redemption for Tony Soprano, “Cold Cuts” is an important episode in showing us that, on some level, at least, the guy just has no interest in being redeemed or in changing at all. And why would he? He’s got the world by the balls.
- We need to talk about that freeze frame, which is really damn goofy. It wasn’t as bad as I remembered it being, but it’s still pretty bad. It’s the only moment of such outright stylization in the entirety of the show, and it doesn’t really fit. Usually, when the show is trying to do something more symbolic with the filmmaking like this, it will pause for a long, wordless passage or it will go to a dream sequence (as we’ll soon see). But this? This just stops the action dead and makes the audience laugh. Which is surely not the intended effect.
- “Revenge is like serving cold cuts” is one of those quotes people often bring up from the show, so I might just be curmudgeonly here, but I don’t buy that Tony would actually be dumb enough to think the saying was that. On some level, you’d think he’d realize it didn’t make any sense. It’s a minor quibble, however, since it’s a great line.
- I wish Uncle Pat and his daughter had been bigger characters. I really like their squabbling.
- Johnny Sack is too smart for Tony’s denials that Tony B. was involved in the death of Joey Peeps. He’s well aware that Tony B. was responsible, and he’s also going to sit on these smuggled Vespas Tony’s been waiting for. It’s a nice reminder of how the show would play out these little mob storylines in the background of more character-based episodes to keep us up with what’s happening in the master plot.
- Is this the season that takes place over the most amount of time? It sure seems like it takes place over the better part of a year (since the season finale—not really a spoiler, but I’ll mark it anyway—takes place when the first snows are falling), which seems longer than the previous four, at least. But maybe 6A takes place over a similar amount of time, come to think of it.
- This is another stellar therapy session in a season filled with them. Melfi often seemed like an afterthought in season four, so it’s nice to see the show reorient her as its conscience in this season. In general, the show works much better when it remembers that it has her in its stable to poke and prod at Tony’s psyche.
- I like Silvio’s suggestion that Johnny Sack should be “looking for the real killers.” O.J. Simpson humor never gets old!
- Thanks to Alan Sepinwall for the image. I’m stuck at the courthouse trying to avoid a RICO trial (or, rather, on jury duty) and didn’t have a chance to make a screencap.
- Happy Thanksgiving, American readers! I really appreciate how you’ve made these articles a great place to discuss this show, and I’m hoping you’ll like what’s to come in the weeks ahead (including my favorite episode the show ever produced).
- “As far as male modeling, I’d probably be a success…”
- “The center cannot hold. The falcon cannot hear the falconer.” “What the fuck are you talking about?”
Speaking With The Fishes (spoilers):
- Melfi quotes Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” which will be all over the place in season 6B, particularly in the episode titled, uh, “The Second Coming,” which deals with A.J.’s depression and suicide attempt (and is another candidate for my favorite episode the series ever did).
- The final shot of this episode—Tony walking away from the camera in the falling leaves—will get an eerie mirror in the final shot of “Long Term Parking” in a few weeks, as Tony sits amid the falling leaves, facing the camera, after killing Adriana, the act that seals his fate in Shakespearean terms. (But we’ll get to that.) Another “Long Term Parking” echo here: Adriana first suggests to Chris that the two escape to somewhere far away so he can pursue his writing again. (There’s an alternate universe version of this show where Chris turns into Henry Hill of Goodfellas.)
- Carmela first declares her intention to return to Tony in this episode. The process will take a few episodes and result in her new real estate schemes, which she’d need Tony to make succeed anyway.
In two weeks: I’m taking next week off for my birthday, but we’ll be back with “The Test Dream” on Dec. 7. Next week, however, look for a chance to vote on which series I’ll cover in between seasons five and 6A.
And after that:
Dec. 14: “Long Term Parking”
Dec. 21: “All Due Respect”
Jan. 18: Coverage of the replacement series begins.