“Mergers And Acquisitions” (season 4, episode 8)
In which Tony already took the horse.
A lot of money is spent or invested in “Mergers And Acquisitions,” perhaps appropriately. Indeed, there are something like four straight sequences where Tony spends a significant amount of money for something. First, he’s installing an expensive home theater system (that looks positively quaint nowadays). Then, he’s going to spend $6,500 to have someone paint himself and Pie-O-My (cropping Ralphie out, of course). Then, he’s paying for a hotel room in the country to spend time with his new comare, Valentina, whom he meets because she’s Ralphie’s girlfriend. Finally, he goes to a jeweler to buy her a diamond-encrusted horseshoe that will let her know he really enjoyed his time having sex with her, but it can’t happen again. (Tony keeps tossing really insulting things off to Valentina in this episode, and she keeps taking him back, which should probably tell him something but won’t.) For a while there, I wondered if the whole episode was going to be about Tony buying things to manage his own happiness.
But, of course, money becomes the central thread of the episode in a far subtler way. I’m loving the way season four is building this slowly growing, epic rift between Tony and Carmela. As we’ve seen several times this season, they can be in the same room, but they’ll still be miles apart, and the show is conveying this almost entirely through visuals. Still, the final scene of this episode lays it all out there on the table for us, even if its subtler than most shows would have been. It’s one of my favorite sequences in the strange, sad tale of the marriage of Tony and Carmela Soprano, and it deserves discussion in full.
Tony, of course, has taken up with Valentina, but only for their one magical day in the countryside (which is actually how he tries to sell it to her). Unfortunately, on that one day, Valentina loses a nail when Tony can’t leave well enough alone and again gives way to his own animal lust. Her losing a nail doesn’t seem like such a big deal, except for the way it implants in the viewer’s brain. That nail is coming back at some point. It’s the trashy girl version of Chekhov’s gun, really. And come back it does. As Carmela does Tony’s laundry, she plucks it out of the folds of some of his clothing, staring at it and realizing that, once again, Tony’s taken a comare. Carmela’s fury mostly seethes throughout the rest of the episode, but every so often, she’ll just start throwing stuff—the laundry, the book she’s reading—until a brief mention on TV (while Tony is in the shower, singing away to Pink Floyd) of wives making sure they have financial security sends her out to the backyard, where she breaks into Tony’s secret money stash, one that she was trying to get into futilely earlier.
Carmela takes a hefty chunk of money and drives around New Jersey, investing just enough that the IRS won’t be notified in a variety of accounts. At the same time, Tony keeps dropping money on his own pleasures and on Valentina, and that eventually leads him to head out back to get some more cash. But once he does, he discovers that there’s less of it there that there was before. And now it’s his turn to seethe. He does until he heads up to pick up his wallet and watch and finds… the lost nail Valentina left in his shirt. And in that instant, he both knows who took the money (though he had a pretty good idea before) and just why she might have done so.
And that leads to a wonderful final scene where Carmela and Tony are both in the kitchen, and they both know that they each know the other’s secret, but there’s nothing they can do about it. If Carmela brings up Valentina, Tony can bring up the money and vice versa. (I love the way that Tony lets Carmela know he knows via the clueless A.J.) It’s mutually assured destruction, one of those moments in a flailing marriage where the couple is very much aware that there’s shit they should talk about, but the second one starts to talk, the other is going to have just as much to say. Carmela and Tony never have that conversation; how could they? To open that wound would be to open up the fact that Tony’s never going to stop taking girlfriends and the fact that Carmela is completely dependent on him. Even her real estate dreams don’t seem terribly realistic. Carmela may rant about the comares, but what’s she really going to do about it? Tony’s the kind of guy who wants to take his girlfriend out on Friday and his wife out on Saturday, like in the old days. Why couldn’t it just be like that?
The scenes of The Sopranos where nothing of note is said are almost always my favorites, and this one’s a terrific example of the form. We know what Carmela and Tony COULD say, and we can also see from the way they warily watch each other that they’re each waiting for the other to make a false move. But they’re so on guard that neither would be stupid enough to do that, which leads to the uneasy stalemate between them. They’re engaged in a very high-stakes game of divorce chicken, where just one of them opening their mouths would bring the whole house of cards down. But that’s the way it’s always been, and that’s the way it is in all marriages, really. There are certain things you just don’t say or just don’t talk about, both minor and major, because to talk about them would be to chip at the foundation, to start making things crumble. This is a scene about a wife making her husband coffee, surprised that he wants decaf, yet every single moment in it is tinged with menace, the threat that this could all spill over into something awful. They each keep asking the other if there’s something to talk about, and they each keep denying it. And she makes him his coffee, and that’s that.
This storyline and sequence is so good that it makes me wish the rest of “Mergers And Acquisitions” could live up to it. The stuff about how Tony blows through money almost completely on himself (and how he continues to cut Carmela out of financial discussions, in favor of Brian) and the stuff about how the two carefully dance around the various lies they’ve built their marriage on are so good that everything else can’t help but feel a little disappointing. In particular, I’m not sure I like what the show does with Ralphie here, trying a little too hard to make him even more loathsome than he already is (though you could also make the argument that the show is situating him as a more tragic figure, with the revelation about his mother). But the central theme of what we’re willing to overlook for a lot of money (or power) is strongest in the Tony and Carmela storyline and doesn’t feel as pressing in the other two storylines.
Let’s go to Paulie and his mom, next. I kind of like this storyline in spite of myself. It’s silly and mostly inconsequential (as it’s mainly another story about how these men will do terrible things to get what they want), but I like the idea of the retirement community being a sort of high school for old people, and I like Paulie having to deal with the crazy bullshit of his mother being stiffed by a bunch of other old ladies and then sinking into depression, never leaving her bed. The episode blatantly brings up the idea of Ralphie’s mother in Tony’s therapy session (and any time Melfi starts talking about mothers withholding love or anything like that, any Sopranos fan’s antennae start twitching in a very particular direction), and here we see a son who has a real, abiding love for his mother still having to put up with her and take care of her and make sure everything’s OK. It’s not much of a storyline, and I think the ending with Paulie’s guys tracking down Cookie’s son is, in a way, too formulaic, since you could have predicted it was going here from the first. But it’s a storyline with its own peculiar charm, and sometimes, that’s enough.
I’m not as thrilled by the Ralphie stuff. I like the idea that Ralphie is a masochist who can only get off on his own pain and humiliation (at least I assume that’s what the stuff with Janice using a strap-on on him is all about) because of how his mother treated him as a child, theoretically giving Tony something that he could talk with Ralphie about if he weren’t so busy hating the guy, but too much of this feels like the show giving into the characters’ point of view. “Isn’t that guy a weird little shit?” the show almost seems to be asking, and that makes this whole storyline feel like a way to excuse us for feeling roughly the same about Ralphie as Tony does. And I don’t know what the best way to approach this would have been. I like the idea that Tony takes everything he wants from Ralphie, essentially appropriating Pie-O-My as his own and then taking Valentina as well. But the effort the show makes to let Tony off the hook feels very unlike it. Sure, Ralphie’s a little prick, but this is the show skewing a little too close to Tony being the awesome guy who gets what he wants and outsmarts the guy he hates for my tastes. The Sopranos works best when it doesn’t lose sight of Tony’s essential blankness at an ethical level, and there are too many outs for him here.
But at the same time, the Melfi session here is one of my favorites of the season so far. Melfi’s been very sidelined this year, largely since “Employee Of The Month” closed off her character arc, but the show is gradually feeling its way to a new idea of making her a sort of unofficial consultant to Tony, someone who can help him understand not just how to run his business more effectively (which has been a consistent use of the character in the show’s run) but how to understand his men more effectively. And she’s, as mentioned, the one saving grace note in the Ralphie storyline, giving him a sense of the tragic that the character hasn’t had until now, since he’s basically a weaselly little gutter rat.
And there’s also the sense that things are falling apart around the edges of this episode, even more quickly than they have been in the last couple of episodes. Christopher’s drug use is hurting his ability to follow Tony’s instructions and thus create the safety his boss needs to operate effectively, and even if he were sober, he and Silvio do a poor job of coming up with plans that Tony would like. Furio’s father has died, and he confesses to an uncle that he’s in love with Carmela, and even as the old man tells him Furio should do nothing, we’re transitioning to Carmela watching a special about Naples on her kitchen TV. Ralphie’s driving everyone—even Adriana—nuts. Janice continues to move in on Bobby. And all Tony wants to do is fuck Valentina.
If there’s one thing The Sopranos does expertly in this season, it’s build the sense that everything is getting more and more dangerous, that the characters are just narrowly threading the needle and could end up overwhelmed by whatever forces or fates are gathering against them. There’s the sense that everything could burst at any time, that violence could erupt from anywhere (a nice side effect of the show almost completely removing mob violence from the storyline so far), and that makes scenes that shouldn’t feel so tense—like a wife making coffee for her husband—feel like scenes where blood could start raining from the sky at any moment.
- OK, another thing I don’t like so much. When Carmela watches the TV show and sees the big, fat dude’s ponytail, I’m not sure we need the cut to her and Furio dancing in silhouette in her imagination. It’s strangely literal of a show that’s able to suggest her desire via small images and music cues, as if the series were trying to create a legion of Carmela/Furio shippers to write fan fiction about the show.
- I enjoy the painter toasting Pie-O-Mine and Tony quietly correcting him. It’s another scene where you know Tony’s not going to start throttling the guy, but it sort of feels like he might.
- I hadn’t thought about Robot Wars in years, until Spaced, and now there’s an episode of it popping up on The Sopranos. (It’s what Janice is watching when Tony drops over.)
- I love the way The Sopranos does little things like have Tony wake up listening to a Pink Floyd song, then get another, more famous Pink Floyd song stuck in his head so he sings it in the shower.
- I also like how Valentina plays little pranks on Tony, prompting him to dump cold water on Carmela in the shower, which causes her to erupt in fury about how he tried that on their honeymoon, and she told him never to do it again. It’s little moments like this that give us a picture of Tony and Carmela before the show began and give us a sense of what isn’t present in her that he seeks in his girlfriends.
- Still, I wouldn’t have thrown the food out the window.
- I didn’t realize Svetlana was back in the picture, yet there she is at the dinner that Valentina and Tony break away from so he can inadvertently insult her.
- I like how every mention of Ralphie’s sexual proclivities gets more and more over-the-top. For a while, I thought the show was setting us up to make this Ralphie’s word against Valentina’s (since Ralphie suggests he’s a great lay), but Janice’s confirmation shoots that idea in the foot.
- I’m not entirely sure what the big entertainment center has to do with anything, other than showing us Tony spending money (and shouting to Carmela over it as she goes to buy food shopping, getting the family things it ACTUALLY needs). But I do like his obvious glee over it and him settling in with the bagpipes. And I’m always down for a Fugitive reference.
- Paulie’s mom is pretty terrible at blackjack. I wouldn’t want her at my table.
Speaking To The Fishes:
- Pink Floyd is a vaguely important band to the show, and another of the band’s most famous songs will, of course, recur in a famous sequence from the back half of season six.
- I’m amazed at how well we’ve been maneuvered to have Tony do what he does next week just out of nowhere. (Well, not NOWHERE, but you know what I mean.)
- Is this the first time Tony blatantly asks Chris if he’s getting high? We’re being set up for the intervention already.
Next week: A terrible tragedy sets Tony seeking vengeance in “Whoever Did This.”