"House Arrest" (season 2, episode 11)
One of the things someone in the comments section (dgl, I think) accuses me of - and fairly, I'd say - is trying to implicate the entirety of the audience in Tony Soprano's actions. It's a fairly standard reading of the show by critics (and, as I'll argue in a bit, David Chase himself) to say that part of the show's appeal is that Tony Soprano does stuff we would never do, stuff that's well outside of legal and ethical bounds but stuff we still have a sick fascination with. The commenter's point is that just because we watch Tony do this stuff doesn't mean we're somehow implicated in it, that voyeurism is not nearly as bad as the act itself. And I'd agree with that, actually, while adding that there are plenty of people who watch The Sopranos and Tony Soprano himself like zoologists, observing an animal in his natural habitat and seeing how he responds to various outside stimuli. At the same time, I think arguing that the show - at least after the first season - doesn't aim to implicate the audience for Tony's crimes somewhat is misguided.
"House Arrest" features the best example of this particular argument from Chase and his writers. Dr. Melfi is falling apart. When she sees that Tony's coming in for therapy, she has a nice, stiff drink. She collapses into tears in her therapy with Kupferberg. She has a professional obligation to Tony, but she also feels she has something of a moral one: Unless she's able to bring his therapy to a healthy conclusion, he could injure himself and others during one of his panic attacks. (Helpfully, to drive this point home, the episode stages another one of his attacks at a party.) But there's an element of sick fascination she recognizes in herself as well. She has the best of intentions, maybe, but she also just loves hearing the stories Tony tells her. She wants to know what happens next, with his business travails, with his RICO trial, and with everything else.
Melfi has always been the show's audience surrogate. She's our window into this world, and her arc, tellingly, is about just how much she'll become complicit in what Tony does. Is she a part of his world, or will she remain outside of it? The reason the therapy scenes are at their best in season two is because the outcome of that question is very much in doubt. It's easy to see Melfi rising above all of this to fulfill her professional obligations without being complicit in Tony's actions, but it's also easy to see her becoming so fascinated by his actions that she gets drawn more and more into his web.
I'd argue the show sees the viewers as roughly similar. We're perched between that zoologist observing Tony and between people like Matt and Sean, who want to be on his crew, even if only tangentially in our cases. Chase often took a more cynical view of our enjoyment of the show, perhaps because he wanted to make a simple family drama and kept having to include mob stuff to keep the audience around. The tension between those two elements is what makes the show so great. The mob stuff is not as compelling without the empty malaise of late '90s and early 2000s American life, and the family stuff could drag without the periodic bursts of violence. This is maybe not a world worth living in, but the show certainly presents is as one that might be fun to hang out in for a while.
Take, for instance, the final scene in "House Arrest," where the guys in Satriale's rush out of the store to see a car accident that's just occurred. It's a scene meant to illustrate an earlier point Melfi makes about all of these guys constantly moving, so they don't reflect on how what they do affects other people around them, but it's also a surprisingly warm and inviting scene, one where the characters are just hanging out and giving us a glimpse into their world at a supremely unhurried moment. Nearly every TV show that runs for any length of time eventually becomes a place that many of its viewers will want to hang out in, and that goes for The Sopranos as well. We may not all want to be in Tony's crew or get to know the guy personally, but it might be fun to go to Satriale's and sit in the corner and just listen to the guys shoot the shit. To a degree, that's what we already do as viewers of The Sopranos. The argument that Chase makes more and more stridently throughout the series is that by enabling the show, we're enabling Tony. I'm not sure that necessarily follows, because he's, well, a fictional character, but Chase certainly has something of a point when it comes to the way that crime is often alluring to non-criminals, the way that we simultaneously find it repulsive and fascinating.
"House Arrest" isn't my favorite episode of The Sopranos, but I think it's one of those Rosetta Stone episodes, an hour that helps us understand more of what the show is going for elsewhere. It's one of those long, meandering hours where nothing much happens, the hours that gave the show a reputation as being slow and pointless with too much of its viewership during many of its middle seasons. I, obviously, find that reputation to be an unfair one, but in an episode like "House Arrest," it's easy to see where it came from. There's some mob action, but most of the hour is taken up by Tony trying to appear as if he's going straight by going in to work at the office of the garbage company he ostensibly works at, Melfi looking for a way to solve her crisis, and Junior puttering around the house, a deposed king who now gets his hand stuck in the garbage disposal.
I mentioned above that The Sopranos would not nearly work so well without the contrast between the brief bursts of mob violence and the drab landscape that violence arises out of. "House Arrest" is simply filled with the kind of American cultural detritus that would come to dominate the show's visuals as the series ran on. Junior falls asleep in front of Diagnosis Murder. The garbage company's office is a perfect evocation of a low-rent business at the edges of society. "More Than a Feeling" plays at the party when Tony passes out. Melfi and her son dine at a ritzy restaurant. The details of Junior's medical care seem relentlessly pored over. All of these things are deeply specific, the show going out of its way to indicate that The Sopranos don't live in a TV world but, rather, in our world.
Much of season two has revolved around the assorted characters feeling trapped or imprisoned. That theme emerges again here and in more than just the title. The terms of Junior's house arrest, of course, are the most obvious example of this, but Tony's stint at the garbage company also takes on the grueling sense of imprisonment, and Melfi's creating her own psychological prisons. The waste management job is also the perfect way for the show to examine what Tony does when he has a few moments to consider his effect on other people's lives. As Melfi suggests, when antisocial personalities have a moment to stop and think, they can often crash, and Tony crashes to the floor at one point and seems almost ready to at another. It's telling, I think, that both events are brought on by Richie, and when Melfi tries to tell Tony about how antisocial personalities can be brought to a moment of crisis, he immediately deflects her words by talking about how Richie ran over Beansie (episodes ago in the show's timeline). He's not ready to face what she's really talking about. Whether he will be or not becomes the unspoken subtext of the episode.
Could Tony Soprano become a guy who just punches the clock every day and goes to a boring office job? Even at the garbage company, he seems incapable of this kind of action, doing everything he can to liven up his day, right up to seducing and screwing the fundamentalist Christian secretary (again, everyone in The Sopranos' universe is venal to one degree or another). The episode - and Melfi's diagnosis - suggests that this would simply be impossible. To do this, Tony would have to go through some sort of self-reckoning, to really deal with the evils that he's done and come out the other side resolved to not do bad things like that anymore. But this would cause such a break in his personality, such an occasion to realize the feelings of emptiness he's had since childhood (in Melfi's diagnosis), that he can't even confront this diagnosis as a theoretical possibility that exists outside of himself. Melfi never says, "You are like this, Tony." She simply suggests a kind of person and invites him to draw his conclusions. The look in James Gandolfini's eyes says it all. Tony's not ready to think about this, not yet.
What would cause life to be a little less empty? Well, connections with other human beings don't hurt. It's also telling that the one person in this episode who seems to have some small moments of joy is Junior, who's stuck alone in his house but at least strikes up a friendship with a widow he knew going all the way back to their school days. Broadway veteran Mary Louise Wilson plays the woman, named Catherine, and the connection between the two is genuinely sweet. It stops just short of an actual romance, but it's clear that there's something real and caring between the two. Junior has had nothing but time since he was arrested, and he's filled that time with contemplation. I don't think the episode necessarily suggests that Junior has done the hard work Melfi would prefer Tony do, but it does suggest that Junior's house arrest has given him room to act less as a paranoid mobster and more as just another human being. Catherine and Junior don't have a romance for the ages, but when he snores away in front of the TV, she kisses the top of his head and puts his hilarious looking mask back on. It's a small moment, amid the ruins, and it registers as one of the sweetest moments the show ever pulled off.
Another thing some of you have been holding my feet to the fire over is my dismissal of this season as a "minor" one a few pieces ago. On this rewatch, I've been heartily impressed by nearly every episode of the season (but for the "D-Girl"/"Full Leather Jacket" duo), but I still think of the season in this fashion. It doesn't mean that I think it's lesser in quality, when compared to the other seasons. I simply mean that this season was a testing ground, an attempt to find out if the show could work without the heavily serialized mob storyline of season one. There's mob stuff going on here, but the focus of the season is really on setting in place character conflicts and thematic concepts that would play out and pay off over the next four seasons.
There are no bad seasons of The Sopranos. Indeed, I could see ranking season two above some of the seasons I would call "major" seasons (typically, the odd-numbered ones). It's a more consistent season, and the episodes all offer up fascinating tidbits here and there. But there's a sense, also, that this is a season where the show is just riffing, just tossing ideas out there and seeing what sticks. Episodes like "House Arrest" are a good example of this. It's a great episode of the show, but it's not the sort of one you'd pull out and mention immediately when talking about the show's very finest hours. It's a slower hour, in a minor key, but in its little moments, in men fucking secretaries while junkyard dogs bark and women kissing dozing men atop the head, it suggests there's more to the show - and the world - than what happens next in a relentlessly moving plot.
- The nurse's joke about Marshall McLuhan is one of my favorite moments in the season. I like how baffled everyone is by what she says.
- More evidence that the episode is supposed to suggest to us that Chase thinks all we want to see is Tony killing people: How great does it feel when he returns to Satriale's at the end, even if pretty much nothing is happening there?
- It seems like Silvio is sitting out a lot of this season. Looking at Wikipedia, it seems likely that Steve van Zandt might have been out on tour with the E-Street Band during much of the filming time. Can anyone confirm?
- Janice and Richie are looking for a house. I mention this only because it's important to the next episode, but isn't home ownership another kind of house arrest? I rent an apartment month-to-month and could pretty much just up and move anywhere I wanted at the end of the month. It'd be a lot harder to do that if I had a house. Similarly, owning a house would make it harder to get a divorce. Janice, who seemed so free-spirited at the start of the season, is backing herself into another form of imprisonment. (Also, Richie is using the garbage routes to distribute drugs, another plot point that will become important again.)
- Melfi's confrontation with the other diner at the restaurant is one of Lorraine Bracco's finest moments in the series. I love the way she puts out the cigarette at the end of it.
- "Gotta Serve Somebody" by Bob Dylan is one of my favorite musical uses in the series, but I can never tell if Tony's randomly listening to it or if it was specifically chosen to score the scene by Chase. If he's just listening to it, it's a weird choice for him to have on.
- "I'm not a cat. I don't shit in a box."
- "Sliding Doors?" "Fuck no. Seven."
- "Two years ago, I thought RICO was a relative of his."
Speaking with the Fishes:
- I just realized that the title of this section is going to make sense to everybody after next week. Huh.
- While watching this episode, I realized that there's a pretty big clue for the "Tony's dead!" crowd that I don't think I've ever seen elucidated anywhere else. The show would use the trick of cutting between a standard shot of Tony and his point-of-view a number of times in the series, but this is the first time I can think of where the show plays with that point-of-view significantly. Look at the scene where he's having his panic attack. We constantly cut between a standard shot of Tony looking more and more ill, then his point of view as the rest of the people at the party grow fuzzier and fuzzier. This is, more or less, the exact shot sequence used in the final scene of the show, and, more importantly, once Tony collapses, we get a shot of his final point-of-view - from the floor, looking at everyone from a sideways angle, similar to how "Tony's dead!" proponents argue the final cut to black is his final point of view. I'm still not in the "Tony's dead!" camp, but this rewatch is seriously making me question my allegiance. (My wife randomly caught the finale on A&E on our vacation, and she now thinks Tony dies at the end. Y'all may win me over yet.)
- The idea that Tony will not fully recover until he confronts the evils he's done becomes a fairly standard theme of the psychotherapy sessions as the show goes on. Indeed, Melfi's final break with Tony will come when she realizes that he's likely a sociopath, an idea that is first raised by Kupferberg here.
"The Knight in White Satin Armor" (season 2, episode 12)
"The Knight in White Satin Armor" is one of the all-time great Sopranos episodes. It somehow finds a way to pull together all of the divergent plot threads that made the season so frustrating to watch when it first aired and shows them to be part of a larger pattern. It comes up with one of the all-time great surprises in TV history. It's somehow fulfilling on a thematic level, on an emotional level (I had forgotten just how fantastic that final conversation between Tony and Janice is), and on a plot level. And it proves that the show's ability to head in the completely opposite direction of the direction you expect it to head in was still working perfectly at this point in the series' run. Season two can sometimes feel a little unsatisfying on a pure plot level. Since I don't watch the show for its blistering plot, this doesn't bother me, but it's the complaint most frequently leveled against the season. This episode packs a season's worth of plotting into one hour.
That said, I think the episode has been unfairly reduced to one scene. Naturally, that's the scene I'm going to talk about first. It's here that we find out where both the Richie and Janice stories have been going all along. Janice, someone who's been running from her past and her Sopranos roots for much of the season, only to fall in with her old boyfriend, part of the life she wants to escape, shoots Richie in the chest, killing him. (Honestly, I had forgotten that the squib work in this scene is kind of lackluster, but that may be something I'm only noticing now because of how many times I've seen this scene over the years.) Richie, for his part, has been plotting a move against Tony, which Janice doesn't really know about when she shoots him. She knows that he's unhappy with her brother, but the real impetus to kill him comes from him backhanding her across the face.
It's a terrific moment. It singlehandedly snaps into place just who Janice is. The whole season has featured Janice trying to keep her free-spirited nature and slowly succumbing to her roots, but in this scene, the show suggests that there's something in her blood and psyche that is stronger than any new persona she might try to adopt. She's a Soprano, through and through, and this moment of steely clarity redefines Janice in the audience's eyes and allows us to filter every other action she took in the season through this new vision. She's a woman who's tried to run from herself, then succumbed to the worst version of herself, then abruptly felt the full weight of everything she hates about her life and her upbringing in one slap on the face. The Sopranos is a show that trusts in the power of the human face to convey any number of emotions, and the wordless, long look at Aida Turturro's face after Richie slaps Janice is one of the series' best acting moments.
As mentioned, though, this episode is terrific, top to bottom. The way we talk about it suggests something about the way we talk about TV in the serialized drama era. Episodes become less about their component parts and more about the things we remember from them. We remember Janice's dispatching of Richie because it's such a shocking, unexpected moment, possibly the biggest surprise in the show's run. Everything in the episode has led us to believe that Tony and Richie are going to square off in the season's final two episodes, with all of the other players choosing sides (as shown in that wonderful scene where Junior talks out loud in front of Bobby about whom he's better off with alive). Instead, the show finds a way to remove the central villain of the season that comes in from another storyline and conflict entirely. This was the great, masterful skill of The Sopranos, the thing it could do that no other drama at its level was really capable of. (Deadwood had a few moments like this, and Mad Men has found a way to turn out some of them, as well, but most serialized dramas operate within a certain range of possibilities.)
Part of this is the fact that The Sopranos has such a huge ensemble of characters that could carry an episode at any given moment. This episode is a Janice and Richie episode, but it's also a Junior episode and a Tony episode. It's a Pussy episode. And, hell, while we're at it, it's a Carmela episode. It's even a Christopher episode in places. In The Sopranos, like in real life, the resolution to a conflict could come from anywhere. Or a conflict could simply fizzle out. Or it could come to a head and play out exactly as we expect. This last possibility is the rarest of all on The Sopranos and, probably, in reality. Most of the time, things end up feeling fairly unpredictable, don't they?
The episode's central theme - another thing I'd forgotten about entirely - is right there in the title. Tony's girlfriend, Irina, longs for a man who will treat her as well as her cousin's fiancee, Bill. "Where is my knight in white satin armor?" she asks, as Tony attempts to distance himself from her. Tony doesn't do anything as immediately repugnant as slapping her across the face - one of those things characters on TV shows only do to women if they want to get punished - but he does push her toward a suicide attempt, which he seems to find more inconvenient than anything else (even Carmela's sympathies are with Irina over Tony, when he protests to her that he's just trying to do the right thing). Similarly, Janice is mistreated by Richie, and Carmela is mistreated by Tony, with her knight, the home renovations guy, unwilling to sweep her off her feet. (She goes to his place of business to offer a strained "thank you" for thinking of both of them.) All three women lash out, one with a gun, one with pills, and one with a trip to Rome. It's all designed to hurt their men, in the end.
The idea that the women in the world of The Sopranos are trapped by the life they've married into, unable to express themselves properly, is something the show has been building, piece by piece, since the start of the series. Season two, in particular, has made that theme abundantly clear throughout. Carmela's depression and suffocation in her life, as well as her anger at the way Tony treats her, has come up in episode after episode, and Janice has functioned throughout as a "do as I say, not as I do" figure, as she preaches her feminism but keeps getting sucked deeper and deeper into a deeply objectifying relationship with Richie. (The Sopranos is not terribly hopeful about anyone who professes to believe in a creed holding to that creed.) The ultimate specter of this, of course, is Livia, who haunts this episode like a ghost, the monster upstairs that Janice could turn into that must be in the back of her mind when she pulls the trigger.
It's here that I should talk about how terrific David Proval has been this season as Richie Aprile. To a degree, his storyline has been kind of one-note. He shows up, makes trouble for Tony, and leaves. But Proval has found a way to somehow turn this into an arc, to create a guy who simply is unable to live his life by the new rules he found when he left jail and found that everyone else in his circle had moved up in the world. He plays at being a better man, at being the guy who can marry his girlfriend and fly right, but he's simply incapable. Every scene with Richie is like a test of wills between his desire to fit in and his desire to simply do what he wants, and Proval portrays all of this thrillingly. "Knight" is the episode where he finally just loses it, but the show removes him before we can see him in all of his completely unrestrained glory. I'm sort of surprised Proval did parlay this into more prominent acting gigs, but this is a great testament to his skills. He holds the screen at every moment he's on it.
But there are other "knights" in the episode. Pussy's trying to straighten up and be an FBI agent, even as Skip dissuades him at every turn. It's kind of an abrupt shift, but the show mostly makes it make sense, and seeing Pussy's consternation as his options trickle down to just the one: Wear that wire and get Tony to admit to something seriously criminal. The Pussy storyline is maybe my favorite part of season two, if only because it most elucidates the season's ideas of entrapment, the way that you can just keep digging a hole deeper, even when you're trying to crawl out of it. His final, desperate attempts to get in good with the FBI without doing something that he knows will endanger him more than anything else he could do are ultimately heartrending, and this feels like the end of that long, sad road. What the show does with Pussy in the second season - making him simultaneously a figure of sympathy and something of a villain - is one of the greatest feats it ever pulled off.
But as great as the big moments are in this episode, the small moments are what sells the whole package. The scene where Tony and Janice talk about his therapy and their mother at the bus depot is one of my favorites of the series, the perfect, small coda to an episode full of giant twists. The scene where Livia rants at Tony about how she never did anything to him is a good, bitter way for Tony and Livia to leave that relationship heading into the finale (and, I believe, the first significant scene the two have shared in the season). Tony's attempts to get Melfi to give him the number of a therapist for Irina suggest how he cares, but only so far, and when he later sends Silvio over to simply dump a pile of cash in her lap, it shows the extent of that caring.
"Knight in White Satin Armor" pulls off a trick that's exceedingly rare in television: It makes the audience look at everything else that happens in season two via the events that happen during its run time. We're forced to reconsider who these people are and just what they're capable of to escape the prisons they've been trapped in. We're forced to look at everyone in a new light, to determine just what is important to them and what they're willing to live without. It's a funny, surprising hour, but it's also a dark, curdled hour, an episode that examines both what makes someone like Tony Soprano so attractive to the people around him as a leader and what makes him so frightening. "Knight in White Satin Armor" is just a little bit genius.
- I'm always surprised to find that The Sopranos received only two writing nominations at the Emmys for this season, though one was for this episode. Typically, the show dominated the writing category at the Emmys, but this was the only season that the show did not win, losing to the West Wing episode, "In Excelsis Deo." I like that episode of The West Wing, but it's no "Knight in White Satin Armor."
- Janice and Richie's house and the financial straits they find themselves in as they attempt to purchase it is just a wonderful symbol of everything in the episode - notice how it's gleaming white. And Carmela sees it as a potential real estate investment. (I also love the weird, disconcerting scene where the dancers are swooping through it at episode's start.)
- Signs of the times: Tony's boosting Pokemon cards?
- Other signs of the times: Christopher is back at his financial job, watching the perilously good financial news. Something that good surely can't last forever.
- Richie's our first addition to the death list in a while, though it's a good addition.
- After talking about her one-legged cousin last season, Irina's sister Svetlana actually shows up in this season. Some people point out this as evidence that the show was heavily planned out, but it's more likely that someone just remembered Irina said she had a one-legged relative and then brought that character back.
- "Usually, he takes the clip out!"
- "You are putting me in a position where I feel sorry for a whore who fucks you?!"
- "Babies are like animals. They're no different than dogs."
- "All in all, I'd say it was a pretty good visit."
- "Carmela, after 18 years of marriage, don't make me make you an accessory after the fact."
Speaking with the Fishes:
- Jackie Aprile, Jr., shows up for the first time in this episode, in connection with Richie. Considering he'll serve much the same function next season (and rather controversially so), it seems appropriate.
- I have no idea how much Chase and his writers knew about the severity of Nancy Marchand's health conditions, but the scene where Tony speaks with her in this episode (and the scene where Junior speaks with her in the last episode) has the feeling of the writers knowing they wouldn't get a large number of scenes between the two in the future.
- This really probably could stand to be in the above section, given how little it spoils, but Pussy's reveal of the stolen tickets will have a direct payoff in the very next hour and points to an abandoned season three storyline.
- Rowan has some interesting thoughts on how the mob violence is integral to The Sopranos' success, based on his thoughts on "From Where to Eternity": "I'd have to say that this may have passed 'College' as my favorite episode so far. I think both episodes succeeded because they put Tony's moral choices right up front, and in both cases, he didn't merely make the amoral choice to murder, but he did so without any compunction. If anything, this one is worse, because he toys with his victim, telling him that he's not going to do the deed when of course Tony's going to kill him. I understand that David Chase is antagonistic towards his viewers who think that the show needed more mob violence, but this seems to me to be a superficial reading on both sides. The episodes which include the mob violence, like this one and 'College,' succeed because they force the viewer to confront who Tony is. The tension was through the roof in the shooting scene, not because of some kind of expectation of violence, but because Tony had every chance not to be a murderer, and failed to even consider it."
- A jeff probst film is amused that the guys' vision of Hell involves being stuck in an Irish bar for eternity. I'd agree with that take. It's a funny scene, but it's more funny because of Chris' endless description of what sounds like the most cliche Irish bar ever and the guys being sort of horrified by it.
- There's a good debate about whether or not the psychic from "Where" is a fraud or not, with good points on both sides. If you have the time, it's well worth going back to last week's post and reading it.
Next week: We come to the end of season two with "Funhouse." But good news! I'm tentatively going to be bringing this feature back after the fall season settles in (probably in early November). We'll be tackling season three one episode at a time, and we'll hopefully take the series at that pace until its end.