“He Is Risen” (season 3, episode 8)
In which Tony and Ralphie come to an understanding … of sorts.
The phrase “He is risen” is most commonly associated with Easter. It’s one of the things you say in responsive readings during the service celebrating Christ’s resurrection. Easter is roughly timed to Passover on the calendar, as that’s when Jesus’ crucifixion occurs in the Bible, but many of its most famous rituals are taken from Pagan feasts celebrating the birth of a new growing season, the return of fertility to the soil and to the animals humans have domesticated since we started doing that sort of thing. Easter is a celebration of one very particular rebirth, but it’s also a celebration of the idea of rebirth in general, of the idea that no matter how long and dark the winter is, there’s always a spring to follow it. The snows will melt, there will be lilies in the field and little baby bunnies to romp among them, and the world will begin to renew itself all over again. Year after year, it’s the pattern we count on.
What’s odd about the title of this episode, then, is that it occurs within a season that takes place entirely within the autumn of what’s likely 2000 (though we don’t get time and place markers, like a drop-in on the Bush/Gore election, to orient us). The holiday celebrated here is Thanksgiving, and the overwhelming sense that season three, along with the two seasons that follow it, gives off is one of a long decline, what would be an almost completely tragic slide toward an undignified end if so many parts of it weren’t so boisterous and human and funny. The character who says the titular phrase, Janice’s new boyfriend, Aaron, says it at the Thanksgiving table, and while you could write that off as Aaron being a fundamentalist Christian and being more thankful for Christ’s sacrifice than anything else, it’s still a bizarre thing for him to say, even if he just woke up. The leaves are turning, the snow’s about to fall, and once again, we’re all going to hope we come out the other side OK.
The predominant mood of The Sopranos is autumnal. Many of the very best sequences in the series occur with red and orange leaves swirling around, and even the episodes that very obviously take place at other parts of the year (like, say, “Funhouse”) will drop in scenes set in late autumn or early winter via any means necessary. I’ve compared The Sopranos and Mad Men a lot in these pieces, but one of the other things that unites them is that both series make among the best use of the characters’ position within the calendar year that I’ve seen on a TV show. Mad Men uses this to mark how relationships change and evolve and to tease us about certain major historical events that are coming up. The Sopranos uses the idea of spring into summer into fall into winter as one that provides a thematic balance to whatever the characters are going through. Tony’s life is going just fine at this point in time, but the entire season has played out against a backdrop of the days getting shorter and the chill winds picking up. Tony may not be aware of it, but the autumnal overtones give us a sense that his time is growing short.
Some of this, of course, is there for plot’s sake. It makes the most sense to pick up season three of The Sopranos with Meadow going off to college, and that requires starting the season in late August. But season three is the first season of the show to really make sure we know roughly when everything is happening. (“Employee of the Month,” come to think of it, seems to take up most of the latter half of September and the first couple weeks of October.) But that feeling permeates the rest of the series, meaning that not only is the show able to do its own twists on fairly staid Thanksgiving and Christmas episode formats but it’s also able to use the seasons to evoke certain kinds of feelings and moods. Autumn is associated with decline, with death, with passing on, and season three of the Sopranos is rife with these ideas. “He is risen” as a line of dialogue is one of my favorite jokes in the entire series, but it stands out as particularly bizarre, a note of hope amidst the chaos that doesn’t really need to be there. Fittingly, it’s spoken by the show’s equivalent of a buffoon.
Another thing I love about this season and this episode is the way that things fester. The Sopranos was always smart about mostly underplaying the emotional conflict. It’s rare that two character in the series will come right out and tell each other what’s on their minds, even compared to other great dramas in The Sopranos’ weight class (Deadwood, The Wire, etc.). What made The Sopranos different was that it could bury all of these feelings in the subtext, then let them grow and grow in the minds of the audience, until they spilled back out when you were least expecting it. Often, the show would use the therapy sessions to clarify how the characters have been feeling over the past few episodes, providing a kind of retroactive context that should have felt like narrative ass-covering but somehow never did. “He Is Risen” is a good case in point for this technique.
Ever since “Employee Of The Month,” it’s seemed like Melfi has mostly put her rape behind her. Since that episode took up an unusually long period of time for a Sopranos episode, this seems understandable. It was a world-shattering event, but Melfi’s a capable, strong woman. She’s able to piece together enough of herself to push on. And yet “He Is Risen” is able to instantly call us back to that moment of sheer horror on the stairwell, when Tony simply suggests that he could walk Melfi to her car, since it’s so late. (He’s gone to a later appointment than usual, the better to begin his seduction of Gloria Trillo.) In an instant, all of it rushes back into the viewers’ minds, and even though Lorraine Bracco doesn’t let Melfi crack, the audience brings enough to the exchange to understand exactly what she must be going through. Even better, it comes at a moment when you least expect to be reminded of this episode, when you’ve started to think that it will fade into the background like many of The Sopranos’ one-offs. Instead, like a trauma in real life, it comes back at the least predictable time to haunt you. And when Melfi brings up the rape again in her therapy session, we’re primed to want to hear how she’s doing with it. (Better than could be expected, but still not well.)
Or, since “He Is Risen” seems to be based almost entirely on past business that remains unresolved (including Gloria, but that’s something we’ll have to bring up in Speaking With The Fishes), you could also look at the story of Tony trying to figure out how to come to some sort of rapprochement with Ralphie. If there’s a moment I don’t like in this episode, it’s that moment where Meadow walks toward Tony in the kitchen and there’s a quick cut to Tracee walking through the Bing. It’s obvious that the dead stripper is on Tony’s mind, with how he seems so uninterested in talking to Ralphie about anything or in making peace with the guy, and this moment just hits the nail on the head a little too obviously, where the moment might have worked a little better with a touch of subtlety. That said, Joe Pantoliano’s performance as Ralphie was always better when he felt cornered by Tony, who was always very smart about pushing Ralphie’s buttons, and this episode is perhaps the first great example of that. When Tony disinvites Ralphie from Thanksgiving, he panics, and it’s up to Johnny Sack to broker some kind of peace.
This plot’s my favorite of the episode, largely because it revolves around something neither man is terribly comfortable bringing up upfront. The phrase “disrespected the Bing” is such a marvelously coded way to deny that what they’re really talking about is the cold-blooded murder of a young girl by a hothead who continues to be a member in good-standing in Tony’s organization because he’s a made guy and a good earner. Even removing morality from the equation entirely, there’s a lot of good stuff in The Sopranos about living your life by a code of some sort, and Tony doesn’t know what to do with a man who doesn’t violate the code of his organization but gravely violates the code of society and Tony’s own personal ethics (even if he doesn’t know how to put it that way). That girl could have been his daughter, if her life had taken a few nasty turns and if he hadn’t cared for her so thoroughly. He’s not really able to understand how to say this, however, so he just talks with Melfi about Sun Tzu and how it’s helping him deal with Ralphie. Gang wars and retribution killings? Tony sees those as the cost of his business. But this he has no real words for.
Ralphie, for his part, spends the hour complaining about how Tony needs to treat him better, rather than trying to worm his way back into the good graces of his boss. He rudely refuses to drink with the man, then spends most of his time with Johnny Sack threatening to kill Tony. (I love the way Johnny Sack plays both parties as he attempts to mediate. Matter of fact, I’m pretty sure I’d watch a whole series about Johnny.) He’s cornered, and he knows it. On some level, he has to know that Sil’s advice to Tony—the only two places Ralphie can end up is apologized to or disappeared—is correct, even if he’s never heard it. And yet the cruel hand of fate strikes so both men’s problems are solved, without really solving the conflict between them, as it so often does on The Sopranos. Gigi dies on the can, which leaves Tony to try to find a new captain for his crew (in a great pan across the remainder of Gigi’s crew, Tony’s heavy breathing the only sound on the soundtrack). Ralphie, of course, is a good earner, and he’s the only one who’ll work in the position. But Tony pointedly refuses Ralphie when the guy offers to have that drink with him. Everybody’s where they wanted to be, and the immediate danger is mostly passed, but no one feels very good about it.
The scenes in the Tony and Ralphie storyline are the highlights of “He Is Risen,” but there’s another important character introduction here: Gloria Trillo, a fellow patient of Dr. Melfi’s and Mercedes saleswoman who becomes Tony’s latest conquest. The way the episode keeps raising Gloria’s presence throughout, without really commenting on it (like that Mercedes commercial voiced by Fat Tony himself, Joe Mantagna) is terrific, and the way that Annabella Sciorra plays Gloria makes it abundantly clear that she’s completely, completely messed up but also that there’s a certain appeal in that craziness for Tony. It certainly doesn’t hurt that she’s drop-dead gorgeous. I don’t think it’s spoiling too much to say we haven’t seen the last of Gloria (since the two end the episode in bed together), but she’s like another long-dormant storyline that’s lumbering back to life, as Tony’s proclivity for cheating on his wife rears its head again.
But there’s all sorts of that in “He Is Risen.” Stories you thought were buried come back from the dead, and the cold autumn ground unexpectedly turns fertile again. The Sopranos has always been less about a straight throughline for the story and more about accumulation, about details and plot points piling on top of each other until you wonder how the characters can even breathe. Season three may feel a little disjointed at times, but episodes like “He Is Risen” remind us that even stories we thought the show was done with can come back at any time and under the right conditions, the dead can walk the Earth again, just in new guises.
- I really have absolutely nothing to say about the Jackie, Jr., and Meadow plotline, which gets its start here. The romance between them is not especially compelling to me, at least at its start, but it definitely drives home how perhaps the main conflict in this season is between Tony and his daughter. (Actually, that’s something I might expound upon in Speaking With The Fishes.)
- That said, I do enjoy how excited Rosalie Aprile is at the idea of the two dating and how much Carmela seems to dread that same idea. Carm knows what she wants for her daughter, even if she can’t bring herself to say it.
- I like how the entirety of the Thanksgiving scene plays with the very tired device of an awkward family dinner at the holiday, with new boyfriends arriving to fall asleep on your shoulder and extended relations gathered around, yet keeps it fresh by always keeping the device of Ralphie’s un-invitation lurking in the background.
- I like the shots of Tony’s men hanging out by the door while Ralphie goes to apologize to the big guy.
- The Gigi death may be the most humiliating in the entirety of the series. I do like Sil talking about how that was also the way that Don guy from Hollywood died. You know. The producer of The Simpsons.
- More sickness and decline: Tony drops off some Thanksgiving leftovers for Junior, who sits alone and forgotten on his couch, watching a soap. Once the most powerful man in northern Jersey, now reduced to a sick old man waiting for his nephew to drop off some food.
- Speaking of which, I like the way this episode gets so much mileage out of the way the Thanksgiving food is passed around the little group. Very much like how it goes in real life.
- Aaron is one of my favorite bit characters in the entirety of the series.
- This is something I should know, but I can’t, for the life of me, remember it: Who’s the guy who comes from the church to pick up the turkeys? Is he the guy from season two? Or someone else?
- Also, I like how the whole esplanade plotline, central to everybody’s plans to make money this season, mostly plays out entirely in the background. Here, it’s seen only as a news report Johnny Sack is watching.
- I like how this episode shows Tony and Ralphie reaching the same conclusions via different methods, like Tony not wanting Ralphie any closer to Johnny Sack and Ralphie desperately trying to get closer, even asking to switch crews.
- "Most of the guys I know, they read Prince Machiavelli. And I had Carmela go and get the Cliff's Notes once, and it was OK."
- "Have you heard the good news? ... He is risen."
Speaking With The Fishes:
- LOTS of portents in this one. For starters, Aaron and Gloria will both become important characters (only slightly in the case of the former). Aaron turns up most memorably in a final season episode in the hospital, while Gloria will go from Tony’s red-hot fling to the thorn in his side that must be dealt with when everything else crashes down around him later this season. (Furthermore, Gloria’s just the latest resurrection in this episode, though we don’t know it yet. As we learn later, she’s got a lot of the same troubles Livia did.)
- Speaking of how these seasons boil down to one major relationship, it sure seems like the show is centered on fairly standard mob plots but also seems to examine one familial relationship of Tony’s in intricate detail every season, even if it’s not directly commenting on it. I don’t have the answer for every season, but it seems to me that season one is about Tony’s relationship with his mother, season three is about his relationship with his daughter, season four is about his relationship with his wife, season five is about his relationship with his surrogate son, and season six is about his relationship with his ACTUAL son. Season two might be about his relationship with his uncle and the ghost of his father, but I’m not immediately clear on that just yet. As I said, I just thought of it, but I thought I’d bring it down here, so as not to spoil anyone on future developments.
- Two ominous foreshadows that probably belonged in the above section but will get sent down here: As Tony and Gloria pull out of the Mercedes lot, they go the wrong way out onto the street, and as they settle down into bed in Tony’s boat (Gloria having canceled her therapy appointment), ducks settle down in the water nearby.
Next week: Other blogs may take Christmas week off, but not this one! We’ll be back with thoughts on the Lady Gaga-starring “The Telltale Moozadell,” while we bemoan the fact that we didn’t start this early enough to have “To Save Us All From Satan’s Power” fall within the Christmas season.