The Sopranos: "Proshai, Livushka"
A

The Sopranos: "Proshai, Livushka"

A

The Sopranos

"Proshai, Livushka"

Season 3, Episode 2

"Proshai, Livushka" (season 3, episode 2)

In which Livia Soprano passes on.

"Mrs. Soprano may have passed, but who's to say there isn't another Mrs. Soprano just like her, or will be. Maybe not with the same fears or paranoia, but ... the same." —Christopher Moltisanti

"Whaddaya gonna do?" —Tony Soprano

There's a ghost in my apartment.

OK, I'm smart enough and skeptical enough and science-friendly enough to know there's not ACTUALLY a ghost in my apartment, but when my cats stare and hiss at the darkened hallway between the living room and the bedroom or when the medicine cabinet swings shut of its own accord or when the doorbell starts going crazy in the middle of the night, science and skepticism leave the brain, making room for stark, blinding terror, the sense that things are not as they should be and there's some ineffable "other" in the space where I live, taking up its own room and occasionally crossing over to wreak havoc with my cats' brains and my sense of security. In the morning, it's easy to say that the doorbell is wired wrong and we leave so many windows open that an ill wind must have blown the cabinet shut. At night, the door between living and dead has been opened.

I've always thought of The Sopranos as a vaguely mystical series, as a show where strange omens held sway over everything that happened and the dead were never really dead. It's unique among the great drama series of the last decade, nearly all of which were grounded in one reality or another, in that it allows the boundaries between reality and the afterlife to remain porous, permeable. And yet in the first two seasons of the show, there's very little of this. We get occasional flashbacks to when Tony was a child that serve the same function as a ghost might in the story. We have Christopher's vivid trip to Hell and the psychic's excoriation of Paulie. And we have the show's crushing, Catholic guilt, the sense that all will be judged and found wanting and deposited on the doorstep of Hades when everything is said and done. This is a show where Tony Soprano and his crew keep getting handed clear moral tests and failing them, but it's also a show where the creator believes in some sort of ultimate good, some sort of ultimate evil, and he's not afraid to indulge in that every once in a while. And yet until "Proshai, Livushka," that sense of something being wrong, of the border between life and death being crossable, has not yet come to haunt the series so thoroughly.

In the summer of 2000, shortly after the second season of The Sopranos had finished airing and shortly before she would be nominated for her second and final Emmy for her work on the show, Nancy Marchand passed away of emphysema and lung cancer. By some accounts, creator David Chase had planned to end the show's first season with Tony killing Livia, finally relieving himself of the burden of her bitterness and expectations, but he was unable to. Livia had become one of the show's chief drawing points, a mother so monstrous, she seemed to be out of Freud's greatest hits album (though Chase reportedly drew on his own mother to create her). The relationship between her and Tony was psychologically rich and the source of much of the tension on the show, and even if Chase was always fond of subverting television tropes, he knew a good thing when he saw it.

Livia lived on, and Tony spent the second season not speaking to her. And yet as the second season wore on, it became more and more obvious that Marchand was physically ailing. Long stretches of episodes would go by between her appearances, and when she did appear, it was only for a scene or two, mostly to excoriate Janice. Placing some degree of faith in his actress' health, Chase planned a major storyline in season three for her. She was to be a key witness against Tony in a RICO trial, and, thus, her son would have to make nice with her, the better to stay out of jail. Chase, perhaps, thought he'd have enough time to draw out a believable conclusion to the Livia storyline, one that would work in the event of Marchand's death (which all involved knew was coming soon enough). Instead, she died before principal photography could even begin, and the writers were left scrambling.

That sense of not knowing what to do lies heavily over "Proshai, Livushka," which is an episode that has become unfairly maligned in some circles for one bad special effect (though it's a pretty atrocious one). Backed into a corner, Chase and his writers improvised a way out: The season premiere would deal more with the FBI agents spying on Tony, allowing the show to deal obliquely with the fact that Livia was to testify against him (something that is mentioned in passing). In the second episode, old footage of Livia would be combined with a rough double for Marchand's form, and a CGI version of Marchand's face would be pasted over the double's actual face, allowing Tony to get one last scene with his mom. As far as solutions go, this is passable at best, inelegant at worst. The scene between Tony and his mom is stilted and all wrong, and even as James Gandolfini strains to carry most of it on his own, the fact that Livia is so blatantly copying things she's said before, even for a woman who goes on like a broken record, kills any dramatic impact in its tracks. The crudity of the effects work doesn't help manners either. At all times, Livia seems like something out of that Polar Express movie, something from the other side of the uncanny valley.

Once Livia dies, though, the episode becomes something else altogether, a haunting, vaguely unsettling episode about the absence left when someone close to you and important to you passes on. (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a show with surprising ties to this one in many ways, offered its own spin on this material slightly earlier in 2001 with "The Body.") "Proshai, Livushka" is mostly there to remove Livia from the plot picture, but it's also an episode filled with wonderfully observed moments about how people react in the face of a big death. Tony expresses his relief to Melfi (and she observes this is a common phenomenon). Janice refuses to come home for the funeral, but when she does, she immediately begins to hold court at the center of the proceedings. Barbara always seems to be looking for an escape route, even as she throws herself into the grieving process. Silvio throws a tantrum, since he has to meet the Jets. Christopher, Adriana, and Furio get high. Ray Curto wears a wire. An endless succession of people come up to Tony to give him their condolences, and he's left with the only words he can think of, "Whaddaya gonna do?" It's the last gulf opening up, the final problem that has no solution.

Oh, and Pussy drops by for the post-funeral gathering.

I hadn't watched this episode in a few years, so I had utterly forgotten that this was also the episode where the series' sense of the supernatural intruding on daily life began in earnest. It's never the show's foremost theme, and it's never something the series runs into the ground, but Chase wants us to know that he's going to be dabbling in these ideas from here on out, and he lets us in on it before he lets any of the characters in on it. Tony roots around in a hall closet for something, pulling open the glass door while talking to someone else. As the door swings open, for a split second, only we in the audience can see Pussy reflected in it, standing against the other wall, just watching what's going on. The camera immediately cuts to a wide shot, showing us nothing reflected in the mirror now (though Tony looks over his shoulder, as if sensing someone behind him). It's that same sense I get in the middle of the night, the sense that something is there that shouldn't be, and it's wonderfully unnerving, without drawing attention to itself.

Later on, as the group gathers to talk about Livia, to fake some happy memories of her, a male figure descends the staircase just over Tony's shoulder, out of focus. He peers down toward the group gathered in the living room, then re-ascends. Who is he? It's unknown. (Wikipedia suggests, due to his glasses that he may be the young Junior Soprano; to me, the actor looks vaguely similar to the one that plays Tony's dad in flashbacks.) More importantly is that he's supposed to be unknown. He's out of focus for a reason, just another ghost checking in on the party. You can explain him away rationally, but the way he just suddenly appears in frame and the way the show never returns to the man wandering around upstairs suggest we're meant to be as unsettled by him as we are by the glimpse of Pussy.

But in our own ways, we're always haunted by the ghosts of the dead. Tony suggests to Melfi that now, his therapy process is over because his mother is dead and, thus, the major thrust of his therapy can be closed off. Melfi doesn't say anything, and the episode immediately cuts to something else, but the suggestion in the episode is that the dead never really leave us. In some cases, they hang with us in memory (as Livia does for Artie, who recalls when she told him about Tony bombing his old restaurant). In some cases, they come back as an established pattern of behavior (without spoiling, Tony's panic attack early in the episode plays into this idea heavily). And in some cases, they revisit us literally, as ghosts, though they stand just on the edge of what we can comprehend. Like us in the audience, Pussy is merely an observer now.

Or looked at another way, the dead remain with us because we can't shake the ways they taught us to live. Shortly after my paternal grandfather died, my extended family gathered for one last Christmas in the home he and my grandmother had made theirs for decades, an old, ranch-style farmhouse in the middle of blinding white nowhere. That house sits empty now, filled mostly with cobwebs of memory, but on that night, it was what it had been when I was a little kid and my grandparents' house had been the best place in existence, at least for one last night. And yet, as we all sat there, it was ever more obvious that not a one of us was truly behaving as if he were dead. He wasn't literally with us, but the person he had been had shaped all of us, had left us behaving much the same in his absence as we would have if he were sitting there among us. We had intended to tell stories of who he had been, but these mostly fell by the wayside because we didn't need to. The stories were there, out of the corner of our eyes, and if we looked at them too hard, they'd evaporate.

It's the same with that final scene post-funeral. Livia's friends and family gather to remember who she was and try to memorialize her life in a way that will recall her memory. And yet because of who Livia was, this is essentially impossible. Janice plays her favorite song ("If I Loved You" from Carousel), while Christopher goes on a long, stoned rant about how no one can ever know if a duplicate of someone will appear or not (shades of Nietzsche's idea of the eternal return, though not quite). The only woman who can be found to say something kind about Livia is a woman Livia hit with her car (way back in season one). It's the outsiders who are able to break this spell, at least a little bit, as Carmela, her dad, and Barbara's husband write off this eulogizing as a bunch of bullshit. They knew this woman as she was, and they see how much she continues to terrify her children from beyond the grave, leading them to throw her a funeral she didn't even want. Livia may be dead, and Tony may think that's the end of everything, but everybody else knows Livia's presence will hang over everything that happens from here on out.

Or look at it another way: Tony wakes in the middle of the night and goes downstairs to watch Public Enemy, the movie he's been working his way through throughout the episode. Up until now, he's been the usual stoic, the Tony who rarely shows emotion at much of anything at all, the Gary Cooper of his own mind. And yet, as the film shows Tommy's mother getting ready for his return, plumping pillows and smiling at how happy she is to see her boy again, he begins to break down. Like in the scene immediately before this one, we're left with the thought that Tony isn't mourning his mother, but his mother as he wishes she would have been. He's not just haunted by Livia; he's haunted by the Livia Christopher described in his stoned rant, the woman without fear and paranoia, the woman who could have loved him and raised him as he so obviously desired. When we cry for the dead, we cry that we'll never see them again, sure, but a part of us also cries for the idea that they are now frozen in memory, that there will be no last chance to make it right, no final conversation or moment. We're stuck here, and they're over there, watching everything dimly in a mirror or ringing the doorbell in the middle of the night, trying to get back inside.

Stray observations:

  • Terrific shot: The pan across the newspaper and then the lunch meat to reveal Tony sprawled out on the floor, then right down next to his face, is one of my favorites of the series. It says everything you need to know about much of Tony's journey this season in one shot. (Also fun: The long rewind of how Tony came to be on the floor, with the show slyly commenting on itself by having Meadow be doing exactly the same thing to Public Enemy.)
  • Terrific shot, part 2: Tony comes back inside from moving the sprinkler and sees his family all standing, staring at him mournfully. They know something he doesn't, and they're about to tell him.
  • One of the things I love about this episode is the way that it captures the dull inanities of preparing or attending a funeral. I like the way the funeral director calls Livia "mom," even though he has no right to (funeral directors always do that) and the way Janice and Tony look through Livia's belongings to find just the right way to represent her to the world one last time.
  • Tony meeting Meadow's friend Noah from college suggests this episode is going to take a very different turn from the one it ultimately does. I'm not a huge fan of the Noah character, who seems to me just a way for Chase to make some jokes about how the effete kids of sophisticated parents are rarely as tough as they think they are.
  • There's a waste collectors' war going on in this episode, though Tony tries to calm it down in the immediate wake of his mother's death, and it seems to mostly go under the radar after.
  • Nice touch: The FBI office sends Tony a bouquet with their condolences.
  • I love how into the idea of wearing a wire Ray is and how little his handler seems to care if he does or not.
  • Meadow and AJ's discussion about the Robert Frost poem is one of my favorite scenes between those two. It so perfectly captures their dynamic, as well as the way that Meadow's smart enough to escape this life if she wants to, while AJ just wants everything handed to him.
  • I'm unsure what to make of the scene where Artie confronts Tony. Mostly, it feels like the writers vamping for time and trying to suggest conflicts that COULD arise.
  • Livia gives Svetlana her records, but Janice, who's moving into Livia's house and kicking Svetlana out, wants them BACK, dammit. Classy.
  • "Oh! So this is a Thanksgiving poem!"

Speaking to the fishes:

  • After this episode, David Chase would receive sole script credit for just three more Sopranos episodes: "All Debts Public & Private," "Join the Club," and "Made in America." All three have similar sequences where the supernatural seems to intrude on everyday life, particularly "Club," which features Tony's time in Purgatory, and "America," which features the cat that may or may not be Adriana.
  • Though they get very little to do in this episode, this marks the first appearances of Ralphie Cifaretto and Eugene Pontecorvo. Ralphie, of course, will end up being vastly important to the show's next two seasons and will feature in what must be one of the most brutal scenes in Sopranos history. It's also the first appearance of both Noah and Ronald Zellman, though both characters will be less important to the show going forward.
  • I don't know how much he got paid every time, but this also marks Vincent Pastore's first appearance as a harbinger of death, though he's a bit late to mark Livia's passing. (He'll be much more on the ball in season five.)
  • Do my eyes mistake me, or is that Jackie, Jr., at the funeral? He'll, of course, be very important to this season as well.
  • This is the last appearance by Livia, as played by Nancy Marchand, but the show will use a long string of Livia surrogates as it goes along. Indeed, the first will appear in the back half of this season. (It's also arguable that actual Livia will get in on the proceedings when Tony considers whether to go into the house in his final season jaunt through Purgatory.)

Next week: Christopher has a very big day in "Fortunate Son."

More TV Club