"Guy Walks into a Psychiatrist's Office..." and "Do Not Resuscitate" (season two, episodes 1 and 2)
One of the great pleasures of watching a television series is coming back after a long break to find that the show you loved is still the show you loved. Seeing the characters again and seeing where their lives are at after the passage of a certain amount of time is always nice, particularly with short-scheduled cable series that are only on 13 weeks out of the year. I recently watched the Mad Men fourth season premiere, and it was almost relaxing to be back in the world of the show, to see the people I'd come to know and love again. One of the things that draws me to television is the way that a great series builds a relationship with its viewers over time, the way that we come to think of these people as friends, not exactly, but as people that we are acquainted with, have gotten to know. I wouldn't say that I'd actually want to be friends with Don Draper (Peggy Olsen? Different story), but seeing him again triggers a fond memory of times we've spent together before. There's nothing really like it in any of the other arts.
This is all preamble to say that I've only been away from the Sopranos for a week, but when I saw them all again in that masterful musical montage that opens the second season premiere, I felt that same rush. A year hasn't passed in our world, but the show does a good job of making it feel like several months (an ambiguous number of them, to be sure) have passed in its own world. Similarly, I wouldn't like to have Tony or Livia or even Carmela as a personal friend (Melfi? Different story), but seeing them gave me the sense of coming back to a place I loved after a long voyage. Maybe this is all residual memory from seeing the characters again way back in 2000, from remembering the anticipation I felt about the show's return. Or maybe David Chase, as much as he's always wanted to make movies, has just always intuitively understood the way that we tend to fall in love with our favorite shows and want to spend more and more time in their worlds.
I'm writing about the first two episodes of season two together for a couple of reasons. One more prosaic one is the fact that I don't have a lot of time, what with my upcoming Comic-Con coverage, and I thought the commenters' idea to do "Funhouse" at the end of the season as a standalone with some thoughts on season two as a whole was a good one. But the other is that these two episodes, while they don't tell a whole story, do a pretty good job of setting virtually every major theme and idea of season two (and season three, for that matter) into motion. They aren't as connected as the final three episodes of season one were, but there's a definite sense here of what Chase will use these two seasons to express.
I am not the world's biggest fan of season two. This is not to say that I think it's bad or anything, but I do think it has a tendency to get a little indulgent in the middle, as the series stretches out some of the story of the season just a bit too far. (I am not a big fan of "D-Girl" at all.) Season one was able to save some lackluster episodes with that incredible finale, and while season two pulls itself together in some fascinating ways (and the last two episodes of the season are among the best the show would ever do), it doesn't do so in such a way as to redeem some of the more meandering tangents of the season. Most serialized TV shows try to create a sense that everything matters, that when you add up all of the pieces, they'll come together in a tantalizing way. The Sopranos doesn't think this is necessary at all. It does this when it feels like it, but more often than not, it's just as content to leave a bunch of frayed edges hanging out there.
Sometimes, those frayed edges are masterful - we'll look at "Pine Barrens" next summer. But a lot of the time, they aren't so good as to justify that they exist with the other material. I'm not one of those people who minds Chase's penchant for anticlimaxes, but the short story collection approach to making a TV series necessarily leads to story arcs of more varied quality than the novelistic approach. At the same time that I'm rewatching The Sopranos, I'm rewatching The Wire, and it's a lot easier to accept a hamfisted moment or plot development in that series because you know it will add up at the end. The Sopranos makes it harder to write off a "D-Girl" because it's content to have the plot not completely add up, so long as the character arcs and thematic tropes stay consistent. Of the three great HBO dramas, this makes it the most frustrating. It also probably makes it the most realistic.
"Guy Walks Into a Psychiatrist's Office..." is a fairly classic serialized TV show season premiere. Its entire purpose is to introduce new storylines for the show to pursue, new ways to put the characters through their paces, and to remind you of the various storylines that weren't closed off in the last season finale. In the case of "Guy," this ends up being two storylines, more or less. Pussy comes back to town, and deep in his gut, Tony can't stop suspecting the guy. At the same time, he's trying to get Melfi to take him back, after he ruined her practice and inadvertently put her in danger in the season one finale. The new storylines also begin to take shape here. Tony has Chris in charge of some sort of stock market scam, and Janice returns, all grown up (and played by Aida Turturro), to finally take her place as a Soprano. There are other things going on, but the vast majority of the episode is taken up by these four things. (The other major storyline of season two - the return of Richie Aprile - doesn't start up until episode three, something I had completely forgotten, so heavily does the character hang over the season.)
"Do Not Resuscitate," then, is less about mob storylines and big important plot points than in deepening and examining the relationships between the characters. This tendency to spend episodes really examining the character relationships will get more and more pronounced as the show goes on, frustrating the fans who watched the show solely for the mob violence. Some of these seeds were present in season one, but I would mark "Do Not Resuscitate" as the moment when the show first realized it could get away with long episodes where pretty much nothing happens in the way of mob action. There is a mob plot - involving Tony breaking up a protest by African-American workers at a job site and Tony's attempts to handle the Junior situation - but both plots are far more interested in the relationships between the characters and the thematic material of the show. When it turns out that, yeah, the reverend behind the protest is also in bed with Tony, it's just another sneer at the world tossed off by the show's cynicism. And the Junior plotline is in keeping with the show's growing interest in just what the baby boomers are going to do with their parents and elders now that said parents and elders are dependent on them.
Because I had built up season two of The Sopranos as a "minor" season in my head, I was pleased to see that the first two episodes were better than I had remembered. Nothing much happens in either, in terms of plot movement, but both stride forward with confidence, laying out just what's going to happen in season two. After that big montage at the start of "Guy," the series immediately turns to Tony seeing Pussy again for the first time since he disappeared at the end of "Nobody Knows Anything." Season two, at least in retrospect, seems to be about loyalties to me, about what it takes to fray the loyalties you've had to certain people and replace them with loyalties to other people. Tony's loyal to Pussy, but the seed of suspicion has been planted, and now there's no way he can get rid of it. The question is heightened by the fact that if Pussy's flipped, it means that Tony will face jail time, most likely, but it's a question just about any one of us has faced at work. Is our loyalty to our friends? Or is it to our own self-preservation or even advancement at work?
Of course, in "Do Not Resuscitate," we see the flip side to this whole scene. Pussy has flipped - maybe even flipped before the series began, depending on where you place the timeline (more on this in stray observations). On his way back from his surgery, he talks with his FBI contact, Skip, about how he's reluctant to step up his look into Tony's operation. Tony, of course, already has his suspicions, but this is us being let in on the fact that he's right. It's the show succinctly setting up two of the polar ends of the board this season will be played out on. Pussy's on one side, trying to hide himself in plain sight, and Tony's on the other, trying to get a clear look at him. The way the show cannily plays with our sympathies throughout the season will be one of the highlights. (The series also does this with Richie, but we'll talk more about that next week.)
One of the things that Noel Murray's excellent write-up on the show "Bust Out" last week reminded me of was the fact that much of the second season was about how the people several levels below Tony and not in his immediate operation simply aren't on his radar. A big thrust of the season will be about how he's, in Murray's words, a bully, a guy always leaving the little guy in his wake and casually destroying lives without giving them much thought. He cares about the people he cares about, but it's a superficial kind of caring. When it comes right down to it, if he ruins a life in pursuit of his own ends, he's not going to get too broken up about it. The show rather definitively answers the "Is Tony a sociopath?" question as it goes along, but season two is where it first really starts to build a case for that answer being "yes."
Look, for instance, at the protestors in "Resuscitate." On another show, they'd get far more attention paid to them. There'd be a storyline where Tony or one of the other characters would realize that they had a point in some ways. The characters would struggle with the fact that the good life they had came at the expense of a lot of other people having terrible lives. But on The Sopranos, this is just an excuse for Tony to break up the protests and line the pockets of a corrupt preacher. That they might have a point, that they might actually be beaten down and trod upon, simply doesn't even enter his view of the equation. Tony's great at compartmentalizing - he's doing a damn good job of acting as if his mother doesn't even exist in these episodes - and the show is starting to nudge us in the ribs about that. Should we really want to see a man like this succeed? Are we willing to follow anybody who's a well-written protagonist, stuck at the middle of a well-executed show?
The key scene to understanding season two comes early on. It's near the end of "Guy." Tony has tried a new psychiatrist, since Melfi won't see him. His wife has requested he do so, since his anger and his anxiety are overwhelming him in ways that have a tendency to leave him gasping for breath (or getting into car accidents). Tony, who's been keeping an eye on Melfi, who lets her know that it's OK to go back to her normal office instead of holding sessions in a hotel early in the episode, tracks her down to a diner where she's having her breakfast and goes in to beg her to take him back as a patient. Right away, the scene projects unease. Melfi wants nothing more than to get AWAY from this guy that we're able to see, right away, just how much he's ruined her, how much she'll have to rebuild from him. Melfi is, in many ways, the audience surrogate, the character that HBO subscribers - who tend to be upper class and/or white collar - could identify with. And, as such, when she's scrambling to get away from Tony, it's both a plot point and a moment when we're supposed to say, "Hey, this guy is worse than we've thought previously."
It's not as though the show has shied away from the bad things that Tony does in its previous season, but this scene puts those bad things in a tremendously succinct way, and it uses the character who's supposed to be us to do it. One of Melfi's patients committed suicide while she was away because of the things Tony did and the dangers his life represents. "She can't eat bagels. She can't call in sick because she's feeling blue. She's gone. She's in the ground because of you," she says, in a much harsher, but no less moving, version of the Anya speech from season five Buffy episode "The Body." ("Guy Walks Into," obviously, predates "The Body," and I'm amazed by how similar the rhythm of that line is to the rhythm of Anya's speech. I don't think it's a direct lift by Joss Whedon, but, rather, a similar observation two TV auteurs made around the same time. And it's not like it's a new observation either.) Melfi invites us, for a second, to step outside of the narrow window we see the series through. "How many more people have to die for your personal growth?" she asks, and it's the central question of her role in the series in a nutshell.
It's here that I want to take a step back and, again, talk about the ways this series compares to The Wire and Deadwood. Deadwood - perhaps my favorite series of all time - takes the broadest possible view of humanity. We're all one unit, struggling together toward similar ends and all affecting each other in ways we don't fully understand. The Wire is a bit more bleakly deterministic - most of the people on it will never see even a modest victory - but it, too, observes all of the people in its universe as complex, complete people, as pieces that are connected in complex and interesting ways many of them will never know about. The Sopranos takes the narrowest view of its world and humanity possible. These people are venal and self-obsessed, and they will never change. The only way they - or we, really, since they are the people we view this world through - will notice the protestors or Melfi's patient who commits suicide is if someone (Melfi, in this case) forcibly throws open the window and makes us and them look at that sight. Someone dies on Deadwood or The Wire, and you feel it. It reverberates. Someone dies on The Sopranos and they're outside of Tony's immediate field of vision? They don't even exist.
One of the criticisms I and other critics have held against The Sopranos has always been that it doesn't really develop characters outside of its central mafia world. When the series tries to head off to Hollywood or visit the African Americans Chris works with in the projects or drop in for dinner at Melfi's house, it often feels hilariously awkward, as though the series has completely left its wheelhouse. It's rare to hold that complaint against an episode of Deadwood or The Wire, where the writers easily slip between the classes within their fictional cities. But on this rewatch, I'm less and less convinced this is the case. The characters we meet from outside of the mob world are so often bare stereotypes or simple plot points because the point-of-view characters we observe this world through see them that way. The only one of the protestors who gets much development at all is the preacher, and that's because he's the only one Tony can really understand, since both men are corrupt, to some degree. Men fighting for something better than what they have? Not really something Tony can grasp. But a man taking advantage of others to line his own pockets? Tony sees bits and pieces of that every day in his line of work. The Sopranos misses the "little people" so thoroughly because the SOPRANOS miss the little people so thoroughly. They're just people standing in the way. (In this way, The Sopranos is probably just as trenchant and complex a criticism of pure capitalism as Deadwood or The Wire.)
If there's a reason the characters are this way, it's because so many of them have at least crossed paths with Livia Soprano, someone who never met a person she couldn't reduce to a supporting player in the story of How the World Fucked Over Livia Soprano. Livia's not in these episodes as much as she was in many season one episodes, and she's confined to a hospital bed, but her presence looms large over everything else that happens. As if that weren't enough, she's also having to cope with having yet another child who's a disappointment re-entering her life, as Janice comes back from the West Coast (Seattle, specifically) to spread her hippie-ish life and aggressively whiny attitude around to everyone she meets. If Tony fell completely into the pattern expected of him and Barbara (whom we meet briefly) seems to have left this life behind completely somehow, Janice is the one who struggled to break free but kept getting pulled back into the black hole of her mother's personality.
Janice is a difficult character to deal with for Sopranos fans. She's clearly deeply irritating, but she's also clearly meant to be deeply irritating, as conceived of by the show and played by Turturro (who received multiple Emmy nominations for her work, after all). At the same time, as much as Chase enjoys throwing these sorts of irritating, divisive figures at the audience, there's sometimes a sense that only so many of them can co-exist in the series at the same time without the show growing tooth-grindingly hard to watch. And, yeah, scenes where Janice and Livia talk to each other aren't exactly day-brighteners. But it's also becoming easier to see that the arc of Janice's character is essentially tragic, even at this early moment. When she chooses to move back in with her mother instead of continuing her attempts to break with her family, her fate is sealed. Janice's wimpy West Coast vague hippie-dom is now apparent as a costume she's put on, a way to avoid being a Soprano, but a costume that will fall off the more she's exposed to these people.
And always, always, there's Livia, just offscreen, plotting or wondering just why her children would sign a DNR order in regards to her. Tony describes her in "Guy" as the devil incarnate, and his inability to make peace with her (for obvious reasons) will drive plenty of rumors and speculation, especially when the head of her retirement home starts talking in a way that will get him bumped off. Her resentments and paranoia infect everything around her, leaving rather innocuous scenes where she simply comes up having an overhanging sense of dread. The ironic thing about Livia's position on The Sopranos is that the less actual, physical power she has, the more mental power she has over her son (without spoiling, we'll see this even more in seasons to come). Already, as he's attempting to keep with the break he made with her in the season finale, he's crumbling. Soon, she'll be back in her life, poisoning him.
But the biggest sense one gets from watching these episodes - and other episodes in this season and season three - at this point is of a bunch of characters and a country poised on some sort of precipice and looking down. These people are, for the most part, fat and happy, living at the height of their fortune and power, and yet, there's such a sense of foreboding overhanging nearly every shot, the sense that there's something very wrong we can't quite put our finger on. It's there in that very first scene of the season, when Christopher has someone taking the stock broking class in his stead. It's there in the scene when Tony's at the grillout, and he realizes there's something not quite right with his best friend. And it's there in all of those scenes at the stock firm (written at a time when the tech bubble had not yet burst but was obviously on its way toward doing so). Is this just the mindset of Livia reaching out to infect the series itself? Or is it something broader, picking up on something in the culture of the time? I tend to think the latter.
In a real way, The Sopranos cleaves pretty neatly into two halves, with each half having different themes it weighs more heavily. In the first three seasons, there's that sense of things being good but alternated with a sense that something this good can't last. And in the last three, there's a sense that the bubble has finally burst, that we've been left to pick up the pieces and wonder what the fuck just happened.
- I feel like I didn't get as in depth on these episodes as some of the past ones. For that, I can only blame my insane scheduling predicament. Touch on all of the stuff I missed in comments.
- All right. Skip says that Pussy's been working for the FBI since 1998. The question, then, is whether that means he's been working with the FBI since sometime in season one, or if he joined up before season one started airing. I've always read this as him joining up during his disappearance (since he certainly didn't seem reluctant to perform tasks for Tony in season one). The show filmed its first season in 1998 and its second in 1999, so it would make sense if that were the "real" time when the seasons took place. But at the same time, figuring out the timeline on The Sopranos is kind of a mess (and only gets worse from here), so I can understand the people who prefer to think Pussy was in the FBI's pocket from very early on.
- Oh, AJ. Is there a vital piece of information you WON'T let slip to grandma?
- Meadow's obsession with seeing Livia is vaguely in character, but it also sort of feels like the show just needed to give her something to do in these early episodes.
- Barbara Soprano only turns up a few times over the course of the series, but she's a fascinating figure every time. I wish the show had devoted a full episode to her at some point during its run. I don't think she's the greatest character ever, but it would be interesting to get an outsider's point of view from someone who used to be an insider.
- Something I've barely touched on is how Junior being in prison shakes up the dynamic but Tony's determined to not let it shake things up too much. Also, Junior gets out of prison and returned to his home in the second episode. It's great to see the resentment between the two mixed with the grudging respect they've always had for each other, and the fact that Tony is seemingly able to sweep Junior's hit on him under the rug to pursue business - but unable to sweep his mother's involvement under as well - has always struck me as a perfect character choice.
- I have to admit that the majority of the scenes in the stock broking company have a tendency to feel oddly inconsequential at times. It's probably just a way to give Christopher and Adriana stuff to do, but it feels, every so often, like one subplot too many. Though I think the premiere handles it about as well as the show ever did. I do like the guys trying to get in good with Tony, though. (I guess the larger point is, again, about how other businesses game the system as much as Tony does but don't get persecuted for it, but the show has made this point more subtly before and will make it more subtly afterward.)
- I was going to leave this for Speaking with the Fishes, but it's always nice to see Bobby Bacala. It's less certain as to how nice it is to see Carmela's parents, but it is good to know they exist.
- Death count from these two episodes is tricky, since you have the preacher's dad, who dies of natural causes (and thus probably shouldn't even be included) and the retirement community director, whose death is heavily implied on screen but never actually shown. On the other hand, Philly Parisi definitely counts.
- Geeky stuff only I care about: Aida Turturro and Drea de Matteo are added to the opening credits.
- That Sopranos blog I linked to a few weeks back points out something I missed: Off to the side of the shot where we see Tony's picture moved up into Junior's position on the FBI bulletin board, there's a Post-it that says Johnny Sack is a Capo, which is factually inaccurate. The show probably changed its mind and wrote it off as the FBI having bad information.
- The show always picks the music the Sopranos listen to so well. Tony getting into "Smoke on the Water" and Carmela listening to Andrea Bocelli (which she will do quite a few times, if memory serves) are both great character choices.
- "He blames me for EVERYthing." "I know, me too." Livia and Meadow, sharing in their mutual paranoia about Tony. At least one of them is a teenager and having fairly normal adolescent emotions.
- "Do Not Resuscitate" was produced third, but swapped out in the order with the original second episode, which got bumped to third. It's rare for a serialized show to be able to do that, but I think this actually works better. Having Melfi offscreen entirely (for the first time ever) and having the slow build in "Do Not Resuscitate" works very well.
- "Dad, how do you stay so hip?"
- "She's the devil."
- "Analyze This? C'mon, that's a fuckin' comedy."
- "We don't mind that shit. We'll do anything. Wetwork. Pick up his shirts."
- "What is she into? ... Negativity?"
- "I think it's time for you to start to seriously consider salads."
- "Get out of my car before you flip it over, you fat fuck."
- "Why don't you look in a mirror sometime, you insensitive cocksucker."
- "Why? So you can not resuscitate me?"
Speaking With the Fishes:
- There's a huge, huge number of people who appear for the first time ever in these episodes, including Janice's future husband, Bobby, Carmela's parents (who will become vital in the show's fifth and best season), the Parisi brothers (by way of, well, only one of them appearing), Neil Mink, a large number of mob underlings, and Agent Skip Lipari, who will go on to be Edgar from 24. Virtually every one of these people will end up having some importance to the plot or another.
- Again, I'm surprised that Richie makes no appearance here, since his importance to the season can't be over-estimated. That he doesn't appear in the first two episodes or in the season finale means that actor David Proval made a lot out of a little.
- I sort of alluded to this above, but I increasingly find Janice's arc one of the most tragic of the series. Sure, she's a completely irritating woman, but she deserves better than getting sucked into the life of just another mob wife.
- If Pussy wasn't working with the FBI until 1998, it mostly invalidates Tony's concern about the same from the season three flashback to 1995.
- We'll deal with this more next summer, but seeing Livia in the hospital bed definitely made me think that the series figured out a way to make her death seem inevitable after the fact, even though it was obvious that it had more stories to tell involving her. One of the better handlings of the unexpected death of an actor that I've seen.
I don't have as much time for comments this week (again, gotta run), so I thought I'd print this from l3C10 (which I really liked) in full:
"One of the things I loved about the first season is that, by the end, it feels like we've been with these characters for a bunch of seasons, even though it's only been 13 episodes. By the time Tony and his family sit down for a candlelight dinner at Vesuvio, an entire world and history has been built.
"A lot of that has to do with how we enter the series, in the middle of a conflict between Junior and Tony, and at the end of Jackie Aprile's reign as boss. It continues throughout the season, as Johnny Soprano gets referenced and 'new' characters like Johnny Sack get introduced like they've always been there, and how Tony kills 'the rat' in College for turning on The Family however many years ago.
"The first season is that it could have been the only season of a big-budget HBO flop, but it also could have been the last season of a long-running, successful show. It's not hard to picture a series where we see Tony Soprano coming up in the ranks from Soldier, to Captain, to finally reaching the top spot (or close to it) in this season. All the while Livia turns the screws and slowly drives him insane to the point where he needs to see a psychiatrist. It would be a much different series, but my feeling is it would have been just as compelling to watch.
"One of the complaints I read a few recaps back was how characters seem to get introduced out of nowhere. This is actually one of the things that works about the series. Events get brought up all the time that we never see. In therapy, Tony tells stories about his past mostly through dialogue, not by cutting to a flashback sequence (except when he confronts his relationship with his dad), characters pop in like they were always there. One of the great things about the show, in this season to the next season and all the way up to the end, is that constantly reinforces that there is a history we haven't seen, that things happen in between seasons, and even in between episodes. We're only with these characters for a brief part of their lives.
"Tony Soprano lived 40 years of his life before we met him. This is the first season, but we came in at the end."
Next week: The arrival of Richie Aprile and other moments of note.