“For All Debts Public And Private” (season 4, episode 1)
In which money becomes a concern.
When terrorists struck the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, flying jets into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field, the nation breathlessly waited for the other shoe to drop. The whole day was spent wondering when the next step of the terrifying plot would begin, when we would all be subject to the escalation that might have happened in, say, a disaster movie. The world was rotting out from underneath many of us, and everything was ending in real time. Here we were, invulnerable, suddenly revealed to be the opposite, waiting for the abyss to finish devouring us. But then the world DIDN’T end. Things kept going, pretty much as they had before, only everything seemed a little less… certain than it had before.
I mention this not just because the fourth season of The Sopranos was the first season of the show produced in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks (events the show mentions a handful of times in this episode) but because the attacks neatly cleave the series in two. Creator David Chase’s plan was likely always to have a long, slow build of the good times getting ever better, even as those good times had the taste of ashes at their core, followed by a long decline, a slow malaise that gives way to self-destruction. The vaguely apocalyptic tone of the rest of the series can’t entirely be blamed on the attacks, but those attacks inform the show nonetheless, right down to the opening credits (which the World Trade Center towers have been scrubbed from). The first three seasons of this show are about how men profit when they choose to stray from societal codes. The final three seasons are about how, eventually, everything ends and there’s nothing you can do to avoid it. (Carmela says as much, in a line that only gets more chilling the more times I see this episode.)
“Malaise” is an almost perfect word to describe the fourth season of The Sopranos, really. I don’t necessarily mean this in a negative way, either, even though that word often has negative connotations. The characters, so certain of themselves earlier in the run, now seem to be sweating things they essentially took for granted in the first three seasons. One of the major themes of this episode—and this season—is the idea of money, of always needing a little bit more to truly ensure comfort, of always worrying about what will happen to the spoils of war. Tony seemingly spends 75 percent of this episode trucking various packages of cash around, hiding them in assorted places around the Soprano estate. Carmela asks Tony what will happen to her in the event of his death (after seeing Angie Bonpensiero serving up samplers in the supermarket), and he assures her there’s money in overseas accounts she can rely on (though his actions give the lie to his words). Chris kills the man Tony says killed his father, and when he tries to rob him, he can find but a single $20 bill to take, a bill he leaves for his mother after a singularly unsatisfying conversation with the woman.
The major sense the viewer gets from season four is the idea that the things that were supposed to always be there won’t necessarily always be there. It’s best to prepare for the absolute worst, a question Tony sidles up to the side of in his one therapy session with Melfi in this episode. In one of the series’ most famous lines, Tony tells her that there are only two ways for a guy at his level to end up: dead or in the can. Melfi starts to suggest a third way—he could leave a life of crime behind entirely (and take up God knows what)—but Tony can’t even begin to hear this option, nor could he consider turning state’s witness or something similar. It’s not even in his frame of reference. The third way he imagines involves following the example of an old mob boss he knew who lived until 81 without ever being killed or arrested. Why? He gave all of his orders through his son, and that kept him shielded from the Feds and anyone who would wish him dead. Tony’s son is never going to be that figure for him, but he hopes that Christopher might step into that role eventually, which may be why he’s riding his nephew so hard.
Christopher, however, is far from ready for this role. More and more, he seems like a drug-addled wreck, a man who’s letting his various addictions cloud out any of his skills. When he goes and kills Barry Haydu, the cop Tony says killed his dad, he stumbles around Barry’s home like someone who seems incapable of hitting a stationary target, much less killing a surprisingly agile man who escapes from being handcuffed to his stairwell railing. The malaise settling over the show’s characters leaves a character like Tony full of nervous energy. In one of the series’ more obvious visual metaphors, he comes across a squirrel by his backyard pool because (all together now!), he’s feeling a little squirrely. But said malaise leaves Chris without a center, and that causes him to fill that void with whatever he can find. He can avenge the death of his father, but it won’t feel good like it might in the movies. It’ll feel empty, you’ll only get $20, and your mother won’t know what you did, even if she could begin to acknowledge it. (I love that the inspirational refrigerator sticker he covers up with the blood money reads “One Day At A Time,” the mantra of the recovering addict or anyone trying to overcome a severe crisis. Anything good has a tendency to get crowded out by petty grievances and a lust for money and power around these guys.)
I can’t imagine “For All Debts Public And Private” making a great deal of all-time top 10 lists for lots of fans. It’s a slightly lumpy episode, one that really just settles in and takes its time with these characters, all but daring us to forgive it for having only the barest resemblance to a plot. Sure, stuff happens here. Bobby gets a promotion at the behest of Junior (and the scene where he and Tony sit in a diner and talk about whether he’s up to the job is one of the series’ finest). Christopher avenges his father—maybe. Tony and Melfi begin talking about his future, even as Carmela realizes how shaky her place is when the inevitable comes. And the FBI’s newest undercover agent gets ever closer to Adriana, even finding herself inside of Tony’s house. (I love how she’s looking around in wonder when we first see her here; she had no idea this assignment would bring her this close, or lead to Tony actually flirting with her.)
But the overall sense one gets from this episode is that life has simply gone on. For a while there, it seemed like it might all be over, like the constant dread of what’s coming next Tony and his crew feel had grown contagious and spread to everyone else in the country. But now, things have settled just a bit, and the Earth has stubbornly continued to rotate on its axis. And so there are awkward family dinners where Hugh goes on at length about stories from his past while Ralphie and Janice sneak off, up to the bathroom upstairs to get high and fool around a bit. There are lots of scenes of Junior going to the doctor (where he falls for a nurse who proves to be yet another person assisting in building the case for his upcoming RICO trial) or just hanging out at home and slowly wasting away while watching old movies. Hell, the episode ends with footage of a woman sipping coffee while “World Destruction” plays, as if this were the most action-packed thing in the show’s entire universe.
The fourth season of The Sopranos occupies a troubled place within the show’s history. It was by far the most controversial season at time of air, even more so than the final season, largely because the season mostly decided it was going to take its sweet time. At the same time, the show was at the height of its ratings popularity, so more people were watching it in real time than ever before. (Those who’d caught up on DVD often thought the show was more exciting than it was because it was easy to watch large chunks of episodes at a time. A similar fate would befall series as diverse as Lost and Mad Men in seasons to come.) These twin facts combined to create a restless fanbase, one that wasn’t helped by HBO’s promos that constantly teased something Earth-shattering to come. By the time the season was over, most fans had come around on it, but in the thick of the season’s run, there was plenty of grousing.
And even in “For All Debts,” an episode that, let’s remember, has plenty of superficially exciting stuff, like Chris’ hit on the police officer or Tony hiding all of that money all over (including in a big bag of cracked corn), there’s a slower, more contemplative tone to the goings-on. While working my way through the first three seasons of the show, I wondered if the conventional wisdom about season four being slower and less jittery than those seasons was just wrong, since there were more than enough slow moments and episodes in those seasons. But season four feels like something else entirely. This is the show realizing that it’s a big hit and doesn’t have to justify anything to anyone anymore and can get away with just spending an hour with these characters. I don’t always buy that David Chase hated his audience, but there’s definitely a sense in this episode of the show saying, “Here’s what we want to do, and if you want to tune out, fine.”
We need to consider yet another thing that had changed between the third and fourth seasons of the show as well, something beyond world events, bigger ratings, and cultural prominence: The series had been gone a long, long time. Now, of course, cable series being gone for more than a year isn’t terribly surprising to anyone, especially if they’re established hits. (Both of AMC’s big shows are going to be gone for lengthy periods of time, with Breaking Bad taking 14 months off and Mad Men taking something like 16 or 17 months off, for instance.) But it was unprecedented when The Sopranos ended in May of 2001 and then didn’t arrive again until September of 2002, sitting out an entire Emmy period in the meantime. (HBO didn’t mind, since it had the twin hits of Sex And The City and Six Feet Under to fall back on.) That’s a 16 month gap, and it had made fans grow ravenous, especially when you consider that season three had a fair share of what amount to cliffhangers. (The most direct one, Paulie’s entreaty to Johnny Sack to join Carmine’s crew, is mostly sidelined by actor Tony Sirico’s back problems, which led the show to launch a storyline where he was in jail.) For the show to return with an episode—a season—as devoid of fireworks as this one was seemed like the series flipping off its audience.
But the characters in The Sopranos, like all of us out in the real world, had just lived through something that put them in a mood that was more somber, more anxious than anything they’d felt before. When Carmela tells Tony that everything ends, she seems to both be talking about the news and about the series itself (which was already trying to plan an exit strategy), but she’s also underlining something that everyone on the show and in its audience was feeling in those weird, freewheelingly apocalyptic days after the terrorist attacks. You couldn’t take anything for granted anymore. The world wasn’t the place it was just a few days before, and even the few constants were slipping away. It’s in this dark territory that the fourth season of The Sopranos pitches its tent, and the light it finds to hold up against that darkness is very meager indeed.
- Welcome back! I really enjoyed writing about Spaced for seven weeks, and I definitely needed the break, but I’ve missed talking about this show with you guys and even just watching a new episode every week. Season four should prompt some excellent discussions—hey, we’ve got one coming up in JUST two weeks—and I can’t wait to dig into the real meat of it with all of you.
- “World Destruction” just might be one of my favorite music cues on the series. I particularly love the way it serves to make Chris’ mom sipping her coffee seem more rockin’ and how it serves to give Tony that added glint of menace as he goes down to get his paper (as he always must to begin every season).
- I love Carmela reading the story in the New York Times to A.J. 80,000 pounds of fish, indeed! (It’s also a nice way to introduce one of the big ideas of the season: Anybody can be bought if you try hard enough.)
- Meadow, who was such a big focus in season three, barely gets anything to do here. She mostly just seems to drop by to whine a bit.
- I love the use of what the characters are watching on television as a score for what they’re doing, particularly when Chris shoots Haydu to the dulcet tones of Magnum, P.I. This was a structural trick The Sopranos would use often, but it strikes me that it was used to its best effect in season four.
- Is it just me, or does Gandolfini seem quite a bit heavier this season? One of the great things about the show is that Gandolfini gradually allows himself to become, in the immortal words of ZMF, “A BIG FAT FUCK,” and it feels like that process has begun in earnest here.
- Love that slow zoom in on the eye of Andrew Jackson on the $20. I’m sure they did that with special effects somehow, but it feels like the perfect way to end this particular episode.
- "I thought we were Napoli-Daboli or whatever."
- "We don't have those Enron-type connections."
- "So let me tell you something, or you can watch the fucking news: Everything comes to an end."
- "Oh, Bartleby. Oh, humanity."
- "Is that him?! With the sombrero on?!"
- "You know, Quasimodo predicted all this."
- "... to whack my father while he was carrying a TV tray for me to watch TV?"
- "I can't make you a fluffernutter."
Speaking With The Fishes:
- Plenty of fodder for the “Tony’s dead” folks in this episode, from Melfi’s conversation with Tony to Carmela telling him that everything comes to an end. There are just a lot of chilling moments in this one, and they all seem to point to the man occupying an early grave.
- Of course, this is the first time we meet Bobby’s wife and their two kids. It’s also one of the last times we’ll meet Karen, as she dies in just a couple of episodes’ time, setting up Bobby’s grand love with Janice, one that seems like a joke at first but ends in genuine, no shit tragedy when Bobby is gunned down.
- This is just a cool way for the show to signal what’s coming: the song from the Western that Tony’s watching on TV will later score the end credits of “Pie-O-My.” Pie-O-My, of course, is the animal that finally causes the fourth season’s long stretch of violence-free episodes to snap. But we’ll get there.
Next week: Meadow and Chris both struggle with a lack of direction in “No Show.”