“Irregular Around The Margins” (season 5, episode 5; originally aired April 4, 2004)
In which Tony and Adriana do not have sex
As we saw last week, Tony Soprano is changing. Granted, he’s changing incrementally, but he’s finally starting to learn things in his therapy—and from life experience—that are pushing him to make better decisions in both his business and home lives. But there are other obstacles to change beyond just finally motivating yourself to live your life differently. And one of those is convincing everybody around you that you’ve changed. If you’re a well-known “cooze hound,” as Christopher would have it, and you’re in a car accident in the middle of nowhere with the very pretty fiancée of your beloved nephew, what do you expect people to assume happened? And how do you expect to shut them up just by saying that what they theorize happened didn’t really happen—even if you’re telling the truth? Your past can’t be ignored. People are going to assume the worst.
“Irregular Around The Margins” is one of the best episodes The Sopranos ever did, and what’s so great about it is that it makes Tony the villain of the show without having him do anything wrong. His flirtation with Adriana is something he shouldn’t be engaging in—but he recognizes this! When he brings up his feelings of guilt and inappropriateness to Melfi, she congratulates him on his growth, on his ability to realize that sometimes, his immediate impulses shouldn’t be acted upon. If the separation from Carmela has been awkward and painful for the man, it’s also created a situation where he seems to realize that some of the stuff he did he shouldn’t have done. He even launches into his own version of an apology to Carmela late in the episode. Granted, it’s couched in the idea that he’s begging her to save his skin after everybody comes to believe Adriana was giving him a blow job, but it still feels about as genuine as Tony Soprano ever feels.
The Sopranos, unlike many of the shows it inspired, is still a show that breaks down best into a series of incidents. Most of its best episodes are the ones where X happens. You know what I mean. “College” is the one where Tony and Meadow go on a college visit and Tony has to kill a rat he spots. “Pine Barrens” is the one where Paulie and Chris get stranded in the woods. “Whitecaps” is the one where Tony and Carmela split up. Where we might discuss other shows in terms of standout scenes or character moments or season-long arcs (the season of Hamsterdam, the season where Al faces off with Hearst, the season where Walt faces off with Gus), we still primarily think of The Sopranos in terms of episodes and the incidents they contain. To that end, the series always tossed a few basically standalone episodes into each season, and these were frequently very well-done.
Though it features a bunch of the season’s most important recurring plotlines, “Irregular” is one of those episodes. It’s somewhat surprising just how much plot is packed into this one. Tony and Adriana arrive at a momentary connection that somehow doesn’t feel forced at all. He nearly makes out with her one night backstage at the Crazy Horse, but they’re stopped by New York banging on the door. A few days later, he takes her on a ride to score some cocaine, and the two are in an accident when he swerves to miss a raccoon off Adriana’s warning. After the two get out of the hospital, the rumors start to spread, and the actual plot of the episode—which involves Chris (who was out of town at the time of the incident) coming slowly unhinged and proving a definite risk to his own boss, to the point where he walks into the Bing brandishing a gun. (Silvio, trying to wave all of this off, refers to Chris as an unhappy customer and asks everybody to keep having a good time in one of the episode’s funniest moments.) Chris, who’s brutally broken up with Adriana, is finally convinced his fiancée wasn’t giving Tony a blow job, but he can’t face living in a world where everybody thinks she did. And so Tony convinces Carmela to go out with him and the reunited Chris and Ade (as well as Tony B. and his mother) to convince everyone that things are okay.
That’s not as much plot as some Sopranos episodes pack in, but for an episode that doesn’t feature a ton of crossover with other episodes—though we continue with Adriana’s FBI informant plot, and we get vague hints about what’s going on in New York—that’s a lot to take in. What’s interesting is the way the episode pivots neatly at the halfway mark from being an episode about Tony and whether he’ll give in to temptation or take the high road (even though taking the high road ultimately nets him nothing, not even a terribly clean conscience) to an episode about Chris and whether he can forgive his boss and fiancée for something that didn’t even happen. When he’s finally convinced by the doctor who saw to Adriana after the accident that she was sitting up at the time of impact, he moans, “I have to live in the world,” meaning he has to be surrounded by people who look at him and assume that his boss and fiancée made him look like a chump. Tony Soprano doesn’t have to live in the world. He strides above it, even if he’s starting to feel bad about the ripples he causes where his feet come in contact with it.
What’s also remarkable is just how many characters get mini-arcs within these larger character arcs in this episode. Obviously Tony, Chris, and Adriana get major storylines, but we also drop in with some major, character-defining moments for Carmela, Tony B., and even Agent Sanseverino, whom we finally see just looks at Adriana as someone she can get information from, nothing more (no matter how much Adriana might be looking for something more like a friend). And all of this is done to contrast someone who was merely innocent in the moment—Tony, who gets caught with his pants around his ankles for all the wrong reasons for once—with someone who’s the one true innocent in the world of The Sopranos (with the possible exception of Meadow).
It’s sort of amazing just how far Adriana has come since the very earliest days of the show, when she was essentially a pretty face showing people to their tables. Adriana, obviously, does some bad things. She snorts coke, she drinks alcohol around Christopher, and she contemplates cheating on her fiancé with his boss in this episode. But she’s also about the one person in this universe who can be called mostly innocent. A lot of this is because she’s a little naïve and a little dumb. She certainly knows what Chris is up to, and she knows what line of work he’s in, but the show works hard to keep her from being as compromised by that fact as, say, Carmela is. She grew up in this world, and perhaps her absent father made the hyper-masculine men who exit in it that much more appealing to her. Adriana isn’t innocent, but she is an innocent, someone who mostly stands off to the sides of the action and doesn’t take part in the bloodshed. Naturally, she’s in a position where she’ll immediately be killed if Tony ever finds out who she truly is.
I think it’s also fascinating that the three main characters of the episode all suffer from some sort of minor malady that speaks to their position within the show’s world. Adriana’s sickness is most obvious. She suffers from irritable bowel syndrome, a condition that may be caused by stress. She is, in other words, uneasy about everything that’s happening, even as she keeps hoping there’s an exit strategy coming up ahead. Chris—and this is mentioned only briefly, so it’s easy to miss—is suffering from some sort of tooth problem, one that he can’t properly medicate because he needs to stay sober. Chris, in other words, is rotting from the inside out, and he’s got no way to stop the decay. He can no longer self-medicate through drugs and alcohol, so he’s stuck pushing further and further into the darkness. (Remember: The show often slotted Chris into the role of innocent in its first season; look no further than “The Legend Of Tennessee Moltisanti,” where he tried to figure out his “arc,” or the episodes where he talked about the possible escape of his movie career.)
But it’s Tony whose malady is most telling. I’ve discussed Tony—and many other critics have as well—in terms of a cancer on the body that is both his family and the Family. Anybody who comes into contact with him is eventually destroyed if they spend too long in his presence and particularly if they take his money. (Notice how the impossibly virtuous doctor rejects the offering of funds here.) But this episode takes that discussion and makes it literal—and this was a plot point I’d literally forgotten before watching this episode. Tony has a small, cancerous growth on his forehead, one that he has removed. It’s nothing serious, but it gets him thinking about his own mortality (perhaps prompting his discussion with Melfi about how he could give it all up for Adriana and have more kids with her—if only he knew who she really was!). His efforts to change, then, to do the right thing, make even more sense.
But he can’t have word of the cancer leaking out. Even though it’s been removed, even though it’s no longer a problem, just the word cancer will get people thinking that he’s on his way out and start the jockeying to take his job over once he’s gone. And even though nothing happened in the car with Adriana, just the fact that the two of them were together gets the rumor spreading (in a brilliantly edited sequence) through the rest of the gang, passing all the way to the FBI, which seems briefly excited about the idea of a fling between Adriana and Tony. (They’re going to bug her club anyway, but this could be a gold mine of information.) The information spreads like those cancerous cells, growing and mutating and changing, until it doesn’t resemble what actually happened. And you can remove those cells, you can tell the truth and eventually convince everyone to at least leave well enough alone. But you can’t remove the mark of what happened, and you can’t remove the memory. Just as cancer could eat Tony Soprano alive, this rumor—regardless of the fact that it’s not true—is like an acid gnawing away at the once healthy relationship he had with his nephew.
And yet weirdly, these incidents can sometimes make relationships stronger, just as a battle with cancer can strengthen someone’s spirit or increase their resolve. The fight between Adriana and Christopher around the episode’s midpoint is astonishing and easily the equal of any of the fights between Tony and Carmela in “Whitecaps,” only where those two fought primarily with words, Christopher escalates to actually beating the shit out of Adriana. (Sanseverino, in one of the few good bits of advice Adriana gets in this episode, tells her that a relationship with an abuser can become an addictive one. Adriana says if it had been Chris in the car alone with a woman, she would have killed him.) But by the end, the two of them are sitting at that table, looking as if nothing ever happened, despite the bruises she still bears, both from her beating and from the accident. Cancer eats people alive. You can rot from within. Everything leaves a mark. But sometimes, the pain and bruises and rot don’t destroy; they strengthen, no matter how little what’s strengthened deserves to be built up.
- Meadow turns up only at the very beginning of this episode, and she’ll often turn up in episodes about Tony’s relationships with the other women in his life who aren’t Carmela, usually as a sort of compare-contrast with how he treats them and how he treats his daughter. Here, we even get a mention of Adriana’s daddy issues, the ones that make Tony so attractive to her.
- I’m always impressed with how the show turned James Gandolfini into such a believable romantic lead even with his unconventional body type. He wielded such power, I guess, that he became attractive through that magnetism. (And do I need to say how hot Drea de Matteo is? No, I do not.)
- Where was Chris while this was all going down? He was in North Carolina, humping around with some rednecks to keep Adriana in liquor and coke. Some life!
- The confrontation between Tony and Christopher in the field of waving grass is one of the most beautifully shot in the whole series, I think. I love the way the key lights are used to just barely flash across the character’s faces, letting us know who’s who but mostly letting us admire the remoteness of the location and the nicely chosen shots.
- Favorite person in the little game of “Adriana gave Tony a blow job” phone tag? I just love the way Junior digs into his nephew with such relish.
- Tony Blundetto is more important to this episode than I remembered him being. I like the way that he finds a method of soothing the conflict without getting anybody killed, and I love his back-and-forth with the doctor about how he could possibly know all of this stuff. Maybe he really will stay on the straight and narrow. (Speaking of this, that too-noble doctor is the one element of this episode that grates to me.)
- A.J.’s such an insufferable little prick in this season. It used to annoy me, but now, probably with more distance from my own adolescence, I think it’s great. I like the way he bemoans not getting any pizza when his father sends him off to study for his test. (I also like the way Tony struts around with the pizza like he’s saving the day, finally grabbing it off the floor rather than leave it for Carmela.)
- A great acting moment: Carmela doesn’t say anything, but Edie Falco’s eyes let you know exactly what she’s realizing in that moment. Her husband—no matter how estranged—didn’t do anything with Adriana. No matter what he put her through, he wasn’t going to do that.
- I like Tony saying that he probably should have slept with Adriana for all the good it did her. Cut to Melfi smiling, somewhat primly, obviously realizing that her patient is always going to be screwed on some level, just because of who he is.
- “Apparently, he came all over the sun visor.”
- “You threw food at Vito. That’s gotta be resolved.”
Speaking With The Fishes:
- Okay, I lied up there to keep the newbies having fun. Tony B. is obviously sliding a bit more down the path of depravity in this episode, as noted by the way he subtly threatens the doctor or the way he gets involved in the poker games.
- Possible foreshadowing: Adriana, of course, is killed by Silvio shooting her. But Chris is killed in a car accident, caused by Tony swerving to avoid something coming up in the road ahead of him.
- Definite foreshadowing: Adriana’s now betting everything on being able to escape New Jersey and live a life in some other state. We all know how that goes.
Next week: Carmela continues her romance with a new gentleman caller in “Sentimental Education.”