"Funhouse" (season 2, episode 13)
The greatest theme of The Sopranos is decline. There's a reason all of the show's promotional art from season three on used an autumnal color scheme. Even in the second season out of six, the show seems on the verge of some sort of permanent ending. Despite the fact that the main action of "Funhouse" takes place at the end of the school year (and thus in late spring or early summer), the dream sequences that take up the bulk of the episode's first half all take place in a weird twilight winter of whipping wind and the frosty ocean just over the horizon. The ocean is important in "Funhouse," both as the place where Big Pussy finds his final resting place and as a symbol of something permanent, of something that doesn't care so much what happens to Tony Soprano and his associates. It will swallow any of them up just the same.
The opening and closing shots of "Funhouse" are both symbols of that permanence. The closing shot is of the rolling waves. On a plot level, it's a reminder of Pussy, who can't share in the celebration of Meadow's graduation with the other characters, since he's rotting on the bottom of the ocean. But on a symbolic level, it's even more potent. The other times we've seen the ocean on The Sopranos, it's been crowded with pollution or a place for Tony to show off his new boat and push little guys around. Here, it's beautiful, almost peaceful, despite what it hides beneath the waves. We will all perish from the face of the Earth, but the planet will go on, regardless of what we do here.
The opening shot suggests a different kind of permanence. It's a shot of Livia's house, filmed from an odd angle, one we're not used to. We immediately cut to a shot of Tony framed by a doorway, looking smaller than we've seen him in a while, head buried in his hand as his mother (from offscreen) tells him to try some eggplant. Livia's house, of course, will disappear, as will Tony and Livia, but the effects of her personality on her children won't be washed away so easily. These sorts of sins will be passed down throughout the years, as she visited them on Tony, and that stain will only fully disappear when humanity itself disappears. The things we build have a tendency to rot. The things we stand for and the things we believe have longer-lasting side effects.
In the first dream Tony has, Hesh says "Spring snow. Heavy when my parents got married. Won't last." He's trying to explain away Tony's question of just why such wintry conditions have turned up in the spring, but the line may as well encapsulate the series as a whole. Things were different back then, but they won't last. The time to get in on the ground floor of things is long past, and everything out ahead of us is a long decline into irrelevancy. And yet, the characters stand looking out over the sea, which will always be there, will always last.
Season two of The Sopranos may be the season where things are going the best for Tony and the gang. There are cracks in the facade, particularly when it comes to Carmela, but Tony has largely eliminated his enemies. The one person who dares to rise up against him is killed by an unexpected ally. He's back in therapy, and his relationship with his kids is mostly on solid footing. And yet the season finale is obsessed both with the stains of the past and with the idea that nothing this good can last. There's a sense of foreboding running throughout "Funhouse," particularly in the dream sequences, which are absurd in places but often seem more like nightmares than anything else. Hell, this is an episode that makes Tom Petty's "Freefallin'" seem like some weird portent of doom. If season one of The Sopranos was obsessed with a golden past that can never come back and season two has mostly been about how the present is pretty darn good, "Funhouse" is all about the crash, the fact that the worst is just around the corner.
Critical reception to "Funhouse" was mixed at the time it first came out. After "Knight in White Satin Armor" wrapped up most of the mob plotlines, spending an hour watching Tony explore his own psyche and come to the conclusion that Pussy was ratting on him thanks to the words of a talking fish in his dream threw any number of viewers, who were probably expecting a slightly more conventional wrap-up to the season, closer to "I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano" than the weird, pseudo art film we got. Now, seen in the context of the entire series, "Funhouse" is another triumph for the series, an episode that looks at the characters' situations in the past, present, and future, filled with intimations of what is to come but never coming out and saying where all of this is going.
I suspect that some of the contemporary "Funhouse" reaction also had to do with the fact that the series killed Big Pussy. Before Pussy, regular characters were only killed off on TV shows if that show was a crazy primetime soap (and in those cases, dead people often came back for no reason whatsoever) or if the actor involved wanted off the show. Pussy is the first big death of a regular executed in a mostly serious manner on a show that critics took seriously, for the most part. We've seen Tony kill any number of people, but this is different. We always knew it was going to come to this at some point, but maybe not this soon. Pussy is someone we've gotten to know, and while we understand why Tony has to do what he does, it's easy to hope that he won't do it, that there will be some change of heart. The sequence where Pussy dies toys with these emotions, drawing out the inevitable, as we think that maybe - maybe! - Pussy has talked his way out of his own murder by suggesting his position with the FBI is useful to Tony or as Silvio disappears onto the main deck. Is he having second thoughts? Or is he just seasick? The episode suggests both.
But there's only one way this can all end. Pussy betrayed these guys in a way that must be punished with death. Everything in "Funhouse" is inevitable. Livia creates more monsters in her image. Melfi can't pry loose the cap on Tony's greatest sins. Carmela can be bought off with a really nice fur. The FBI and Tony will be locked in eternal conflict, even though very little of it really matters. And even though the guys kill Pussy, they honor his final request to keep his eyes, which stare, lifelessly, at the ceiling, perhaps seeing beyond what any of the guys can see. (There's a great shot here where it almost seems as if he and Paulie are making eye contact until the viewer realizes that, no, Pussy is dead, and that's impossible.) The world is an inviolate set of processes, like waves rolling in on the beach, and if you try to stand in the way of any of them, you'll get blown out of the way. You can maybe change yourself if you work hard enough and really try, but you can't change the world. The world is what it is, as unchanging as the ocean.
The thing is, I think Tony grasps a lot of this. Most of the other characters are in denial to one degree or another, but Tony can catch glimpses of it here and there. After Pussy's death, much of the episode is taken up with Livia ending up in the custody of airport security because she's used one of the stolen airplane tickets to try to fly to Tucson. As Tony correctly notes to his lawyer, if he spent just a few more moments with her, he wouldn't have been in this predicament. And now there's every chance that he'll go off to jail because of his own impatience. Carmela can rant to the feds about how they persecute her family and maybe she believes what she's saying. But Tony knows the score, and he knows there are very few ways for this story to end. "Funhouse," perhaps, has such an overlay of melancholy because it's the episode where Tony first begins to really see all of the ways he could be destroyed.
The therapy scene in "Funhouse" is another series highpoint. It's the most boldly confrontational between Melfi and Tony so far, with the doctor realizing that she can push him further and further. At one point, she says that she's realized she's been afraid of him all this time but that she doesn't need to be anymore. Much of Melfi's development has been occurring offscreen, but I don't think that matters as much as what she's saying, the way that she's tackling the central issues that make Tony Soprano Tony Soprano. There's almost a relish to the way she attacks these issues. It's not that she's using them to strike back at Tony (though I could see that interpretation) but that she's rediscovered her passion for this job. She took Tony back as a patient because she wanted to help him, and she's realized that this is the only way she can. She has to keep smacking him in the face until he realizes what it is he wants. (The dreams suggest that Tony is still in therapy, in part, because he wants to have sex with Melfi.)
"Funhouse" is an episode marked by change, but it's all change that marks how things mostly stay the same. Christopher moves up a notch in the organization. Tony is forced to get back into contact with his mother. The FBI apprehends Tony, but he slips free of their grasp yet again. Carmela talks to her daughter, for the first time, like she's an adult and fully aware of what her father does. David Scatino is done in by his own worst impulses. And Meadow graduates from high school (in a scene that's shot to be oddly heartbreaking). It all closes in one of the series' greatest musical montages, set to a Rolling Stones song, featuring the camera drifting through empty office space, suggesting one scam is over but another - the one featuring the phone cards - is just beginning. The mobsters share a laugh and a cigar together, but in the hotel, a junkie is shaking from his need for the drugs those mobsters provide for him. Things change superficially, but they only get replaced by new things to fill that void. Even if Tony went straight or turned state's evidence or died, someone new would arise to fill his vacuum. The universe has a permanence to it, a sense that things must be a certain way.
After re-viewing season two, it's obvious that the show suffered in places from a sense of not knowing just where it was going to go. At times, it feels like the middle chapter of a trilogy, setting in place things that will bring about the conclusion that wouldn't come for six seasons. At other times, it feels like the show is trying a little too hard to make sure that it remains a TV show and a popular hit. (The most obvious indication of this is the weird, false drama of the "Will Melfi take Tony back?!" arc.) But the best moments in the season are right up there at the top of the series' run. Episodes like "The Happy Wanderer," "Bust Out," "From Where to Eternity," and the final two all stand shoulder to shoulder with the best stuff the series would ever do. It's a season about how even when things are good, there's a cloud behind the silver lining.
"Fuck of a way for it all to end," says the Pussy fish to Tony during the two's dialogue. He's referring to the relationship between the two, but he may as well be talking about the show as a whole. "Funhouse" is a turning point for the series. Things will continue to be good from here on out, but there will always be that sense of foreboding and darkness creeping around the edges. You can change a few things, but you can't get out of the way of the train that's rushing your way. We're all going to die. We're all going to let each other down. The best of intentions often lead to horrible outcomes. And still, the ocean rolls on.
- This section and "Speaking with the Fishes" will be shorter than usual this week. "Funhouse," weirdly, is an episode I have less to say about than some of the others, though it would be one of my favorites in the series' run at the same time. I'm also not quoting comments this week, not because there weren't any good ones, but I'd rather we all focus on this episode, which has lots to chew on.
- That said, let's talk about how well directed this episode is. That wonderful dolly in on the cigar box as Tony realizes that's where Pussy's wire is hidden. The fantastic camera moves in the dream sequences. The great reveal of the little Volkswagen all of the guys are riding in, as well-conceived a visual gag as the show ever came up with.
- I just thought I should throw this out there: I don't really like the name "Meadow." It's too obvious as a symbol.
- Hey, the Italian boss from "Commendatori" turns up again in this episode! I had forgotten that happened.
- The use of sound in the dream sequences is terrific as well, particularly the weird sound of Junior scratching on the window or the random sound effects overlaying the scene where Tony and Melfi have sex.
- The running joke about what gave Tony food poisoning is pretty funny.
- I'd say this episode might have the best use of music, overall, in the series, though I'm not sure of whether Meadow would actually listen to Joan Baez. Still, the use of the Stones and Tom Petty is fantastic.
Speaking with the Fishes:
- Here's the great, abandoned Sopranos plot in its infancy. Season three of the show was to be about Tony trying to patch over his relationship with his mother to avoid going to jail. The series had rather gotten away from the Livia and Tony relationship in season two for a variety of factors, and I imagine the writers wanted to give it primacy again. Instead, Nancy Marchand died, and the show had to go in an incredibly different direction. This plotline is one of the great what-ifs of TV history, and even though I really, really love season three, I can't help but feel that that might have given the season a center that would have unquestionably made it the best of the series' run.
- Patsy Parisi will stick around for a while. He mostly seems to be here because David Chase liked the actor who played Philly.
- There will be dream sequences a plenty as the show goes on, but "The Test Dream," from season five, will hearken back to this episode in many very specific ways, including an appearance by Pussy.
Next week: There is no next week! I'll be back with Sopranos write-ups the first Wednesday in November, and we'll be tackling season three one episode at a time. So join me then for a look at "Mr. Ruggerio's Neighborhood"!