"Second Opinion" (season 3, episode 7)
In which Junior faces down cancer, Carmela struggles with depression, and Christopher and Paulie's relationship sours even further.
Most of the people on The Sopranos have a price. That price is not always obvious, and it's not always paid with cash money, but that price is always there, hanging over the head of everyone in the series. Even the most virtuous regular character on the show, Dr. Jennifer Melfi, has a price of sorts, in that she really, truly believes she can get Tony to become a better person, to give up what he's done, to find a way to a sort of repentance. Her faith in her abilities and her faith in psychotherapy become a kind of unbridled vanity. No matter how much good she does Tony or her other patients, her price is still there. If Tony would just change, she could be satisfied with what a good doctor and what a good human being she was, so every little millimeter of progress she gets is all the self-justification she needs. And yet for someone who's pretty self-aware, she's not even slightly aware of this simple fact.
This is, of course, a cynical reading of the show or a cynical reading of anyone who tries to do good. Even the most altruistic of people has, on some level, a desire to be altruistic that stems wholly from the self. Being a good person just looks and seems good to a certain subset of the population, and living a life without guilt is its own kind of reward. I'm not suggesting people should become wholly venal, living solely for themselves, but I do think that there are no wholly selfless acts, outside of maybe choosing in one split second to take a bullet for someone that you barely even know. Ultimately, everybody has a limit to how far they can be pushed, to how much they're willing to put up with before they abandon the right thing for the easy thing. And there's no character on The Sopranos where that push-pull dynamic is more in evidence than with Carmela Soprano.
When The Sopranos began, it was easy to read Carmela as a kind of shrugged off mob wife stereotype. In the pilot, creator David Chase's interests lay so obviously with the relationship between Tony and his mother and the relationship between Tony and his psychiatrist. This is fairly common for a show in its pilot, where the characters are all quickly sketched in, with promises of depth to be added later. But Carmela took a while to receive that deepening, arguably longer than any other major character on the show. For the first four episodes of the series, she's often just a mob wife or a suburban mom or any other typical character type. Because Edie Falco is playing her and because Falco's a great actress, this is all fun and interesting to watch, but Chase and his writers even seem slightly more interested in Tony's kids than they do in his wife.
This all begins to change in "College." A friend of mine has described The Sopranos as one of the definitive statements in American pop culture about marriage, and I don't disagree. The relationship between Tony and Carmela is so delicately constructed and built on such a massive collection of ignored slights and careful negotiations that it could be any marriage. This is just one where the stakes are higher. Instead of Tony disappointing his wife by constantly forgetting to do his chores, he's disappointing her by constantly sleeping with other women. But both are based in a kind of ignorance, in a sense that the other person you share the marriage with isn't really a person but, rather, a kind of accessory to yourself. And it's not like Carmela doesn't get something for turning a blind eye to everything that is Tony Soprano. She gets a giant house and nice things and a new car and, at the end of this episode, a sizable donation to her daughter's school (which will guarantee her name etched on a stone wall near the new building's entrance).
As mentioned, "College" is where the writers really begin to wrestle with the question of just how much Carmela knows, just how much she ignores, and just how much Tony keeps from her. What's interesting is that the show doesn't answer this all at once. It only gradually becomes clear that Carmela is a very, very smart woman who knows a lot (indeed, knows almost everything) but is choosing to keep herself separate from Tony's business ventures, in the misguided belief that this somehow keeps her hands clean. In tonight's episode, the show finally baldly confronts her with this fact, though the slightly plot device-y character of Dr. Krakower. Krakower is someone Melfi highly recommends, someone who's been influential on her life, but obviously not as significantly as he might like. Krakower is an old-school moralist, and he refuses to take Carmela's "blood money." His advice? She can take the kids and leave and refuse to take any more of Tony's money. And if her husband wants atonement, MAYBE he can get it by turning himself in and spending the next several years reading Dostoyevsky. Only then would he even have a prayer. If Carmela doesn't do this, she's an accomplice or an enabler to Tony. Krakower doesn't mince words, but he also doesn't get through to her (though I love how he says at least she'll never be able to say someone didn't tell her). She can't leave Tony. Everything she is is bound up in the life she's built with him.
What's interesting about the middle seasons of The Sopranos is that Tony is the protagonist of the series, but he's rarely the person facing the major thematic or moral crises. You'll occasionally run across an episode where the show throws a potential moral crisis in his face, like "University," but the major question of the middle seasons, particularly seasons three and four, is how much the characters around Tony are going to allow themselves to be drawn even further into his web. "Employee Of The Month" is the textbook example of this kind of episode, as it gives a character who has only slight involvement with Tony in her day-to-day life a chance to substantially increase that involvement, but "Second Opinion" is this kind of episode as well. It lets us get a good sense of the kind of person Carmela COULD have been, giving us a taste of the lives she gave up to be with Tony (including mention of another man she might have married and a largely ignored degree in "business administration) and the life she might have had if she were more like her daughter, and then it gives us a sense of how she let herself become the person she is today. The more she thinks about this, the more depressing it becomes, and who could blame her for having that realization?
By placing most of the thematic weight of the story on the other characters, The Sopranos largely solved the problem of how to make a show about a mostly amoral man (who likes dogs) but still figure out ways to engage with the consequences of that amorality. Tony still drives the story; he's still the one pushing everything forward and confronting people and busting shit up. But he's usually not the one confronting the awful consequences of his actions, at least not yet. There are hints here and there of the way that what he's done haunts him, most notably here in the case of how the Big Mouth Billy Bass reminds him of the dead Pussy (in a truly brilliant storytelling move) and in the case of how he has little to no sympathy for Pussy's widow (who doesn't know she's a widow), yet keeps trying to shift the blame for Pussy's death onto Pussy's shoulders, not his own. There are glimmers here and there, but Tony, by and large, doesn't examine his life because he doesn't have to. Things are going well, and that's all that really matters to him.
It's not the same with Junior and Christopher, who are at two very different ends of the same rope. Junior is clinging to what's left of his life and career with all he's got, imagining a world where the FBI cures his cancer in exchange for information on his nephew, giving him ample time to bed Angie Dickinson. But, ultimately, he's powerless in the face of the cancer that's chewing up his stomach and a hospital and doctor that pretend to care but actually view him as something of a statistic (quite rightly, I would argue). The sequence where Junior goes into surgery, the voices of the past surrounding him as he stares blankly at the ceiling, is wonderful, but so is the rest of the story, where Junior clings desperately to Dr. John Kennedy, largely because he likes the man's name, even though Kennedy didn't get all of the cancer the first time through. Junior's lost and confused with all of this, and Kennedy's a friendly face. When Tony and Furio go to the golf course to intimidate the doctor into keeping a closer eye on Junior, it's less because Kennedy's a great doctor and more because he's the only thing that will keep Junior on the path toward overcoming his cancer. The Junior story is possibly more ruminative than anything the show's done to this point (at least in the long form), and it's mostly about an old man staying crotchety to the end, but it's also doing some really beautiful work with the idea of how obligated Tony and Junior are toward each other.
Meanwhile, Paulie's messing with Chris more and more, accusing him of wearing a wire in the office of the Bing, all to get him to pull down his boxers, so Paulie and the other guys can laugh at his penis. Chris is still rising in the organization (he brings home a bunch of illegally obtained shoes for Adriana, but he gets the wrong size, which ends up being the same size Paulie thinks his girlfriend's feet are), and he's aware that this is almost solely because he's Tony's nephew. Sure, he's good at what he does, but he's also a little sloppy here and there, and even if he were the greatest gangster ever, without the Tony connection, he wouldn't be rising THIS quickly. Still, he complains to Tony about Paulie's actions, particularly when Paulie comes to his place at 2 a.m. and sniffs Adriana's panties. The relationship between Chris and Paulie and its deterioration is another of season three's more consistent, continuing plots, particularly as some of the others feel more closed off from each other, and it's always fun to see Paulie push at Chris' thin skin. This is more setup for future episodes than anything else, but it's interesting enough to watch, just by itself.
And yet everything in the episode comes back to that idea of a price, in the end. Chris' is respect, ultimately, no matter how much money he makes. Tony's is power, while Junior's is just getting someone to listen to him and hanging on to the slimmest thread of control he has over the organization. Melfi's is her sense that she might be helping Tony. Carmela's, at least for this week, is $50,000 to Columbia. Meadow's just might be a Tupperware container of baked ziti. Is A.J.'s PlayStation 2 right there in the hotel room? Probably. The point is that everybody has a certain amount of bad they're willing to put up with to get what they want. Krakower's point might be that the only way to get out of this life clean is to leave it entirely and try to do something else, but it falls on deaf ears. When it comes right down to it, it's always easier to just go along with what's been working all this time and hope your soul doesn't get too banged up in the process.
- You rarely hear "Second Opinion" discussed as one of the all-time great Sopranos episodes, but there's really a lot that's going on here that I'm impressed by. I doubt it would sneak into my all-time top 10, but it's closer than I thought it would be, perhaps because it's right after "University" (a pivotal episode in the show's run) and right before "He Is Risen," another significant episode. Man, season three was just hitting 'em out of the park week after week.
- The ghosts of the past continue to be a major recurring theme of the season, and we hear from both Livia and Pussy in this episode, albeit via old dialogue in both cases.
- Tony's still got a soft spot for animals, as evidenced by the way he bends down to pet Coco, immediately after bashing in the windows and lights on Angie's new car with a baseball bat.
- Here's something I always wonder about, any time a major character leaves this show: Just how much does Carmela suspect? She clearly doesn't KNOW for certain that her husband killed Pussy, but how much do you think she suspects him? I'd say she's willfully ignorant, but I've read good arguments about how she's so careful to partition off the information about her husband's living in her brain that she legitimately believes him when he says Pussy's in the Witness Protection Program.
- The song that pops up both in Carmela's dorm visit and over the closing credits is "Black Books" by Nils Lofgren. I wonder how they got the rights to THAT song?
- Speaking of which, I enjoy the long, silent scene of Carmela just sitting in the dorm, uncertain of how to proceed now that she has an hour to kill and no daughter to visit. She just looks so adrift and lonely.
- Edie Falco won her second Emmy for this episode, and there are a lot of really strong moments for her, though I wouldn't call it a particularly showy performance. Sometimes, the Emmys randomly go for a subdued performance if it's from an actor they just like, and this is one of those cases. (I'm not complaining at all.)
- Nice callback: Carmela stares at the naked statue in the waiting room of Melfi's office, just as Tony did back in the pilot.
- Speaking of THAT, Melfi's just had nothing to do since "Employee of the Month," huh?
- Wikipedia informs me that Mike Nichols was originally to play the role of Krakower. I'm not entirely sure on why he'd be cast in that part, but, hey, why not?
- Chase and his writers always had a good sense of just how horrible their characters could be, even the non-mafia ones. Here, we get to see Carmela insinuate that Jews don't know how hard it can be to stick with a difficult marriage, unlike Catholics. Nice one, Carm.
Speaking With The Fishes:
- Tony and Angie's relationship will continue throughout the series, and it'll always be a contentious one. Here's another case where I wonder just how much Angie knows, though I kind of admire the way she pulls herself back up by her bootstraps as the show goes on (admittedly, with Tony's help).
- Carmela's parents' love-hate relationship with their son-in-law is a consistent motif in the series, but it really starts to hit the fan, of course, when Carmela leaves Tony at the end of season four.
- Speaking of which, is this where the story of Carmela leaving Tony begins in earnest? The show's been planting seeds in that regard for a long, long time, but this is the episode where she really does start to consider it.
Next week: Tony meets a mysterious new woman in "He Is Risen," and I realize if I had started this just two weeks earlier, I could have matched up the one Christmas episode of The Sopranos with the actual holiday. Oh well.