"Pax Soprana" (season 1, episode 6)
Last week, Noel Murray and Scott Tobias had a great discussion about the ways that watching television have changed and, specifically, the ways that critics write about television have changed. In it, they dealt a little with the choice all shows have to make between doing standalone episodes and serialized arcs. I've talked a little about how this relates to The Sopranos, but "Pax Soprana" feels like about as good a time as any to look at how the series handles the balance between telling self-contained stories versus how it builds its world and expands its storytelling universe. Every episode of The Sopranos, of course, has standalone elements, usually with at least one or two plots that wrap up completely in the hour (though reverberations from them will continue to be felt). But at this point in its first season, the show is also slowly expanding its territory, developing a serialized narrative that was unlike anything TV had seen up until that point.
Other shows had done complicated narrative structures and created worlds of their own (Twin Peaks springs readily to mind). Other shows would build on the foundation The Sopranos laid down and go even farther. But The Sopranos was unique for the time in how it blended elements of continuing serial, straight-up crime drama, and character study. Each episode contributed to a larger mosaic, but each episode was its own thing at the same time. It was a puzzle where all of the pieces was also its own puzzle. It's become the dominant structure for cable drama, but The Sopranos was pretty much inventing it whole cloth in this first season.
Prior shows with heavy serialized elements - like, say, Hill Street Blues or St. Elsewhere - had had occasional callbacks to their own history and nicely constructed communities and worlds, but they also operated under a narrative structure that was just as false, ultimately, as the standalone episode model: the "arc." In an arc, a character would confront a problem or go through a series of events, and then the arc would draw to a close eventually, and those events wouldn't necessarily become a part of what happened to the character going forward. They were there for the viewer to draw upon, but if the show made mention of them, it was rarely. The Sopranos was notable in that everything that happened was meant to allow us (and the show) to draw a full psychological portrait of all of its characters, particularly in how they related to each other. It was a continuing world, but it was also a world where nothing really went away, something that gave the series the tragic weight it had in its final hours.
The first season of The Sopranos, then, is an experiment in seeing just how well the producers of the show could handle this structure. The first four episodes tell a complete story, then "College" is essentially a standalone episode that we expect to mostly be left behind (though it isn't, and more on that in a moment). But in "Pax Soprana," we pick right back up with what happened back in "Meadowlands." Junior is the boss, now, but Tony's the one who makes things happen. This is, more or less, the status quo from the beginning of the series. But now that Junior's officially the boss, he's making far more headaches for Tony and the other capos than they might have predicted. This means things really have changed in the Sopranos universe, even if they've only changed incrementally. Things shift. Previous events matter. The show is telling us that even when an arc closes off, it won't be forgotten about, and we're going to watch as these events slowly accumulate over the seasons. "Pax Soprana" isn't a tremendous hour of television like "College" was, but it may be more significant.
"Pax Soprana" also makes two key expansions to the show's universe: We first meet a key member of the New York crime family the show will primarily deal with throughout its run, and we first meet some of the federal agents tasked with bringing down the DiMeo family (though we don't see their faces). The show is signaling something else with these additions: It's not just going to be about the one family at its center. It's going to be primarily about that, but the world it inhabits will grow more and more and encompass many different things as it goes along. Now, The Sopranos would take a few side trips into parts of its world that didn't fit as well with the other parts that had been established - all of the show's jaunts to Hollywood felt incongruous - but the feds observing the Sopranos and Johnny Sack and everyone else from New York both felt like a part of this world from the first.
Junior's the head of the family, now, something that he's been waiting for for a long time. But the way he's running things involves breaking up card games and taking out employees and taxing Hesh, and the situation is leading to grumbles from the other capos, who don't like the way that Junior seems to be spreading his wings by disrupting the way things have always gone. They're all able to admit that not everything Junior is doing is completely wrong - that card game, after all, wasn't making money for anybody - but they're human beings, and like television shows, human beings resist change. (I've always wondered just how much the central "Nobody ever changes!" theme of The Sopranos was David Chase's commentary both on the human race and the television series it so enjoys.) Once again, the task of calming Junior down falls to Tony, who's able to subtly suggest to him that he should rein it in just a bit via a speech about Augustus Caesar and two bulls fucking cows. But, of course, Tony is starting to understand that the real idea man behind Junior's constant agitation is someone whose passive-aggression toward him essentially knows no bounds.
Now Livia, with her constant bitterness toward the world, isn't exactly the most pleasant character to hang around. The writers of the show mostly make up for this by having everything she says be hilarious, especially as it all comes straight out of her constant self-pitying, but hanging out with her is about as unpleasant as watching a television character can be. But "Pax Soprana" and "Down Neck," if they have a thread in common, have in common the fact that they both take their time delving into the character of Livia, showing her to be an emotionally manipulative monster who, nevertheless, deserves some amount of pity for just how far she's pushed away everyone in her life. Now, of course, she's pushing Junior to be even more ruthless than he wants to be, simply to mess with her son. (Well, for other reasons beyond that, but as far as Tony Soprano is concerned ...) The show has always posited that Livia is one of the true powers behind Junior, but the way it gradually reveals just how much sway she holds over his opinions is nicely done.
"Pax Soprana" has plenty of scenes where people use others as a proxy for what they really want. Tony tries to turn his comare into Melfi, but the reason he's attracted to her is because she's the thing he wants most out of his wife and mother. The scene where Tony tries to tell Melfi how he feels about her is wonderfully squirm-inducing, and the fact that Melfi doesn't begin the process of ending their sessions together after he makes these confessions (and after she learns about all of the "gifts" he's been giving her, to say nothing of the man he's had tailing her) is one of those things that seems like something the show hadn't terribly thought out in this moment - and, indeed, it probably hadn't - but is something the series will make hay out of in the episodes to come. Melfi gets something from treating Tony, just as he gets something from her treatment. Melfi categorically states that what Tony's feeling for her are positive feelings about their therapy, but one of those great fan debates stemmed from whether she had feelings for him as well. It's hard to read her expressions, as it should be.
"Pax Soprana" is full of statements we're not supposed to be certain about taking at face value or not. When Tony tells Carmela that she's his full life, we know that it's not, strictly speaking, true, but what's more interesting is to ponder whether or not he actually means it in the moment. When Father Phil seems to blame Carmela, of all people, for the evils that Tony does, are we meant to think that's actually how he feels? (I suspect so.) And just how, exactly, is Junior taking the slow realization that Tony is actually in charge? He seems OK with it, but he also seems like someone who could keep a good rage simmering away. These are all questions the show wants us to be asking, questions that the show thinks will add to the psychological make-up of the characters, and it's a sign that the events that happen in this world will matter and have impact.
- It's a funny scene, but I'm not sure I buy that Mikey would just talk at length about that guy's grandson dying in front of him like that. A weird misstep.
- Our death count is now up to six with the death of the dealer. Wikipedia wants me to count the grandson, but he dies offscreen, so I won't.
- That final scene where the feds switch the photo of Jackie Aprile with the photo of Junior is a great one, saying a ton both about the Sopranos' worldview (no one is so significant that they can't be easily replaced) and expanding the world of the show at the same time.
- If you're wondering whether you should be paying attention to some of the new characters, yes, Johnny Sack is going to become fairly important.
- I had forgotten just how big of a douchebag Father Phil was. I wonder if I just didn't notice this the other times I've been through the series or what.
- There are a lot of funny lines in this episode. To wit:
- "She didn't you were a girl. A woman. Sorry. A doctor. A woman doctor."
- "How much complaining can you do? Eventually, they find you with a broken hip."
- "Whoever heard of a Jew riding horses?"
- "If you were a dildo, we wouldn't be fighting."
- "I don't even let nobody wag their finger in my face."
- "Maybe you could wear a nice business-type outfit. I think I could get into that."
- "No, you fuckin' whack-a-doo, I don't want you to dress like a man."
- "I'm livin' next door to Gunga Din!"
- "Bring my cookies!"
- "We understand each other. You don't love me."
- "Apparently what you're feeling isn't what you're feeling. And what you're not feeling is your real agenda."
- And there are more I missed.
Speaking with the Fishes:
- Uncle Junior says to Tony, "I ain't seen a long face like that since you were a kid." Now, granted, we'll get payoff for this in the very next episode, but it suggests that Tony's depression has deep, deep roots.
- Uncle Junior also seems to be experiencing some memory loss. The show is already setting up the sad conclusion of his arc in the sixth episode. Now, granted, this isn't such a surprise when you consider this is the standard arc for any "old person" character, but it's nice to see the seeds being planted, at the very least.
- Johnny Sack, as alluded to above, becomes one of the more important supporting characters in later seasons, particularly after Carmine dies and the New York families erupt in warfare that rebounds on the New Jersey crew.
"Down Neck" (season 1, episode 7)
"Down Neck" is the centerpiece of the first season of The Sopranos. Everything up until this point is pretty much rising action, and everything after this point is heading for the climax. It's the episode where at least one key event - Livia learning about Tony's therapy - happens, and it's the episode where the groundwork for what is to come is laid. Perhaps fittingly, a huge percentage of this episode - maybe even most of it - is spent inside Tony Soprano's head, dealing with the demons that live there and trying to wrestle them into something like submission. As much as anything else, it's about the central triangle that informs the series: the one among Tony, his mother, and his father. One of these people is a ghost. One of them is a shell of her former self, confined to a retirement community by her son. But the way the two loom over the consciousness of their son is what makes The Sopranos what it is.
Perhaps more fittingly, the nearly final moments of this episode contain one of the baldest-faced assertions of what the show is all about. Dr. Melfi's character grows problematic over the seasons because she was always more of a device than a character (as therapist characters often are), someone who was there to poke at Tony's preconceptions and try to push him onto a new set of tracks. But in this first season, she's useful because she provides an alternative point of view to the series' worldview. "You think that everything that happens is preordained? You think human beings don't have free will?" she asks, after Tony rants about how his parents doomed him to be who he is. He retorts that he was born here, so, to a certain degree, he was preordained to be someone. But within that set of parameters is a range of options, Melfi says. After all, it IS America.
One of the key psychological insights of The Sopranos that doesn't get overplayed or, really, a lot of attention, is the way that everyone in the series is a sponge, picking up on the moods and ideas of everyone around them. Tony, of course, will reappropriate things he's heard other people say - particularly Melfi - and use them in new contexts, as he did in the pilot when he quoted some things Melfi said to him verbatim to his employees. But other ideas and motifs will recur throughout each episode or even through the series, as the characters pick up on strands of what other characters have said. Look, for example, at how the word "polio" floats through this episode, popping up at least twice from two different characters, in a slightly different context each time but suggesting the same thing each time, a terrible disease that eats away at the body.
But every time Melfi's idea that someone can change if they want to enough gets tossed out there, it doesn't really take hold. In the world of The Sopranos, the life you've been leading is the one that's easiest to snap back to, and the life you could be leading is almost murderously difficult to achieve. Getting there requires sacrificing some of the other things in your life, and even if you can objectively realize that these things are no good for you, letting go of things is harder than just sinking back into the way you've always lived. There's a tendency to read "Down Neck," I think, as a kind of Rosetta Stone for why Tony is the way he is, to see that theme park he wasn't able to go to with his dad and sister (and hello, Janice) as the series' Rosebud. But nothing on The Sopranos is that simple, psychologically. The theme park is just a significant part of what made Tony who he is, of what started him on the path toward a life he would never really be able to change.
It's a risky move to devote so much of an episode this late in a series' first season to an all-encompassing flashback that attempts to lay down something of an origin story for the main character while leaving enough room for ambiguity. For the most part, I think the move works, though I do worry the actress playing the young Livia is doing something of an impression of Nancy Marchand's work. One of the chief tensions between The Sopranos and its audience was the fact that it wasn't a more classical story of the world of the mob and mob violence, and "Down Neck" provides that kind of story in spades. The flashbacks, particularly as we see Tony watch his dad and Junior beat a guy in the middle of the sidewalk, feel very similar to the opening passages of Goodfellas (this is a good thing), to the point where every time Tony said it was 1967 (or there was a reference to music I knew was from the '60s), I did a bit of a double take. I'm sure all of the cars and clothes were directly accurate to the '60s, but the style of the action seemed more like something out of the '50s, at least to me.
At any rate, the flashbacks in "Down Neck" are nicely constructed and handily paralleled with Tony's fears that his kids will find out what he does for a living. It's here that "College" comes to bear on everything that's happening, with those jarring, split-second cuts to Meadow asking Tony whether he's in the mafia. AJ, in particular, is at the age where he's starting to ask questions, and with the trouble he's in at school, as he and his friends stole the communion wine and got drunk on it, Carmela and Tony are forced to confront just what role Tony's influence has had on his children. As AJ and his mother scream about how his suspension from school isn't going to lead to AJ just laying in bed all day, Tony shambles into his bathroom and pulls out his Prozac. Cue Jefferson Airplane and a return to 1967, as he stares into the mirror. (Though "One pill makes you larger," is a bit on the nose.)
I try not to get too deep into plot summaries in these write-ups, simply because most of us have either seen the show at some point or are watching it at the same pace (unlike with something like, say, FlashForward, where it's obvious most of you are turning to the write-ups to find out what happened). But the flashbacks are significant enough - and easily enough forgotten - that perhaps a little summary is in order. As a young boy, Tony happened across his father and Junior beating a man in the street when he missed his bus for school. This led him to begin to grasp just what his father did, though he did not yet know the full extent of it. Later that year, Tony envied his older sister, who went off with his father on outings that they would not take Tony along on. Tony hid in the trunk of his father's car to find out where they went, only to find out they went to an amusement park. The next time he followed them (on the bus this time, in a scene that nicely incorporates some of the racial strife splitting apart New Jersey at the time), he watched as his father was arrested. Of course, his father came home later that night with some boilerplate about how the cops always arrest Italians, and Tony was privy to a fight between his father and his mother about moving to Reno to get into the casino business. Livia was against it, but Johnny Boy wanted to go. And, of course, those who did are rich beyond their wildest dreams, and Johnny Boy died in a much more miserable state.
"Down Neck" is an unusually focused episode. It rarely deviates from its central thesis about fathers and mothers and their sons. There are some important plot moments - as mentioned, Livia finds out from AJ that his father is in therapy, and she attempts to tell Junior, only to have Tony come in unexpectedly - but this is, by and large, a character hour, a chance to delve even more deeply into what made Tony Soprano Tony Soprano. The episode also really digs into the relationship he has with Melfi and the relationship he has with his mother and how the one gives him what he really wants from the other, keeping a careful eye on the way that Tony's affections shift and change.
It doesn't hurt that Livia is at her best in this episode - the scene where she says "Won't that be nice" when she finds out AJ will be visiting her more often with such a dismissive air is a hoot - or that Tony finally realizes she's always been the one pulling strings, the one who's been subtly manipulating himself, Junior, and her husband for years and years and years (though in the case of her husband, the manipulation apparently wasn't so subtle). Livia is a thoroughly unpleasant person, as mentioned, and in a world full of sponges, it's easy for all of that bitterness to get soaked up.
- Why the A-? For variety's sake, mostly. Also, neither of these episodes is "College." But "Down Neck," in particular, is a sterling hour of television.
- This is the first episode written by the team of Robin Green and Mitchell Burgess, who would become a vital part of the Sopranos' writers' room in seasons to come. Chase would collaborate with them on many great episodes, and the two would write terrific episodes of their own. "Down Neck" is good, but the team has masterpieces in its future.
- I do like the actor who plays Johnny Boy (who makes his first appearance). You get a sense of just why everyone liked the guy and why Tony would feel as though he had to live in his father's shadow.
- There have been hints of violence in Tony's past, and we get our first real look at it, as Livia threatens Tony directly here.
- There are some great examples of Tony's ability to equivocate in this episode, particularly in regards to the horrible things he does, as he points out that chemical companies dump their chemicals in a river, and nobody cares about them. Part of this is Chase's cynicism; part of it is just the consistent portrayal of a man who's lied to himself about the morality of what he does for many, many years.
- Hey, it's 1999 alert: South Park was still mostly seen as a raunchy cartoon.
- Another funny episode. Check it out:
- "I got dust up the crack of my ass, and I'm starving to death."
- "Nobody gets hit in our house. Not my idea."
- "He'd been away when I was a little kid, but they'd told me he was in Montana being a cowboy."
- "Fuckin' albacore around my neck!"
- "What constitutes a fidget?"
Speaking with the Fishes:
- This is, of course, the first appearance of Johnny Boy, who will appear a small number of other times, and of Janice, who will become a very important character in the run of the series, starting next season. She was a rather pleasant person as a young girl!
- Choice vs. predestination will be something that comes up throughout the series, particularly as Tony slowly unravels the causes of his panic attacks.
- For as little as I've thought of Robert Iler's performance in these early seasons, the portrayal of AJ throughout the series remains remarkably consistent. He's just as much a shadow of Tony as Tony is a shadow of his own father, and it's impressive how the writers keep that consistent.
- Thanks to everyone who reminded me that, indeed, we do get to see Melfi's son, and he's pretty insufferable. Perhaps why I'd scrubbed him from my memory.
- In a conversation between Tristiac and Werdsmiff, there's some discussion of how the penultimate episode in any given season is the one where everything happens, a device that has made its way to any number of other television shows over the years. Weirdly, one of the shows that has rebelled against this device is Mad Men, The Sopranos' most direct descendent.
- There's some discussion of whether there's an overall arc to the life of Tony Soprano, and Farmer John chimes in to say that the arc, while not traditionally structured, is there, as Tony gets capable of more and more heinous acts. I would say this is more or less the case. The arc of the character as the series goes on is in the show's attempts to give him a way to get out of his lifestyle - the one he's chosen willingly - and his eventual refusal of all of those possible exits. The biggest manifestation of this is in the first few episodes of season six, which may be why the latter half of the first part of season six feels so disappointing.
- Penguin makes such a good point about The Godfather vs. Goodfellas that I think I'll just quote it in full: "'The Godfather' gets all the attention, both from people reviewing 'The Sopranos' and the characters themselves, but the show couldn't have existed in its final format without the influence of 'Goodfellas.' Every single 'Godfather' film ends with someone operatically getting shot to death, but 'Goodfellas' has the anti-climax to end all anti-climaxes. The last shot fired (not counting the Great Train Robbery homage just before the credits roll) comes a good half hour before the end, and even that happens in a mundane fashion that leaves viewers and characters alike feeling powerless. Chase and Scorsese both proved that well-developed characters and strong writing don't require grandiose, over-the-top gestures in order to make their point."
- Later in that thread, Eponymous says that David Chase referred to Goodfellas as his Koran in creating The Sopranos, which makes sense, given what the show looked like at this point.
Next week: Melfi's kid shows up! We're all atwitter.