“Sentimental Education” (season 5, episode 6; originally aired April 12, 2004)
In which you can never escape
One thing The Sopranos has always been clear about is that once you step into the orbit of Tony Soprano’s operation, good luck trying to get away. If you deliberately choose to become involved with them, you’re damning yourself. If you just know Tony socially somehow, you’re probably damning yourself. And if you just happen upon these guys some night in the wrong place at the wrong time, the best you can possibly hope for is to escape and always fear that they’ll come back for more. The guilty and the innocent both end up chewed apart by the Soprano operation, and no one involved seems to think much of the way they cast shadows about New Jersey, throwing most of the things they touch into darkness and creating chaos wherever they go.
“Sentimental Education” centers on the idea that once you choose to get in bed with Tony Soprano—or with the mob life in general—you’re never getting out. If you try to, it’ll still color the way others see you. And you’re probably weak-willed, too, which means that when you attempt to change, you’ll remember how easy it was to work things the other way, to just thrash people when they weren’t doing what you wanted and to make money illegally. Tony famously said last season that there’s only two ways out for a guy like him: going to jail or dying. And at the time, it seemed to apply mostly to him, but as time has gone on, it’s become apparent how much this extends to everyone. As much as Adriana (who’s barely in this episode) might hope that she can eventually escape to another state, her informing and mob days behind her, it’s far more likely that all of these people will die in a hail of bullets or will be quietly carted off to prison.
In season five, perhaps the most important character for exploring this theme is Tony Blundetto, who’s already been to prison and now desperately wants a new start. What he wants, more than anything, is to be a licensed massage therapist, and no matter how much people look at him like he’s crazy when he says this, he’s finally closer than he’s ever been before in this episode, as he procures a small space next to a dog grooming business and prepares to go into business with Mr. Kim, his boss at the laundry where he works. What stings Tony is the fact that the only reason he has the job in the first place is because Tony Soprano got it for him; when one of the laundry’s trucks is stolen at the start of the episode, Mr. Kim blames Tony B., because, well, wouldn’t you, with his connections? But he had nothing to do with it, and only ends up with suspicions from his boss and a skinned leg for his troubles. Already, the episode is planting the idea that once you’re in with Tony Soprano, you can never leave.
But we already know that, don’t we? In order to cover new ground, “Sentimental Education” juxtaposes Tony B.—who eventually finds the old way of doing things too seductive and falls into his old habits and, eventually, his old job—with Carmela, who really does seem to want to change but keeps tripping herself up. Carmela’s often a hard character to pin down, because so much of what she does is driven by subconscious desires she’d never, ever admit to. This episode brings back Father Phil, mostly so she can rub in his face that she’s hooked up with another man—Mr. Wegler—who isn’t him, now that Tony’s out of the picture. But at the same time, Edie Falco plays this so well that you genuinely believe Carmela has no idea what effect this will have on the man, even as you can see the cunning driving the whole process. Falco’s portrayal of Carmela’s constant concern over Anthony is similarly terrific. You at once buy that Carmela would be this worked up over A.J.—since he’s all she has left, and she’s prone to this sort of worrisome concern—and that her subconscious would be driving her to use who she is and how used she is to getting what she wants to push her new boyfriend to do things he’s not comfortable with. It’s a wonderful performance, and though it’s more subdued than some of her more elevated scenes, she conveys every possible interpretation of Carmela’s actions without settling too comfortably on any one.
I had remembered this storyline being far more cynical, far more about how Carmela uses her standing to get what she wants. What I’d forgotten is that the romance—brief as it is—is portrayed with a decided sense of two people who’ve gotten to middle age and have abruptly realized they’re smitten with someone. This isn’t a mercenary move on Carmela’s part; Wegler’s really attracted to her, she’s really attracted to him, and if she were anybody else, the constant complaints about A.J. might have driven the two apart, but the relationship likely would have lasted longer. When Wegler breaks up with her, she’s devastated, and she cries to her father about how it’s all Tony’s fault. And, yes, on some level, it is, because he infects all he touches, but it’s more Carmela’s fault, for getting involved with the guy in the first place and for not immediately apologizing to Wegler for how he took the things she was saying. Carmela’s used to getting what she wants, and she does get a slightly better grade for her completely uninterested son, even if it costs her this new relationship. But deep down, she knows who she’s always going to be attached to, no matter how much she believes she’s trying to run away.
It’s the same with Tony B., who may resent the way that his cousin is the sole reason he’s able to find a job and eventually find a path toward his own business but seems to undercut his own efforts at every turn. After all, he does pass the test, entirely of his own accord, and he does come up with a fairly solid plan for how to fix up the space and how to work with Mr. Kim and so on and so forth. But his concentration and determination are hijacked by an unlikely coincidence: He and his girlfriend, Gwen, come across a bag of money in the trash that’s apparently been tossed there by drug dealers who roar past the two. The money seems like the seed that will be just what he needs to get the space ready in time to open up his parlor in a few days’ time. But at the same time, it’s tainted with blood, no matter whose money it is.
The fun thing to speculate about here is whether Tony S. had a hand in making sure the money got into Tony B.’s hands. And while that is, indeed, a fun thing to ponder, I’m not sure it ultimately matters. Even if the whole thing is one big coincidence, one moment that tosses the cash Tony B. needs into his hands at the exact right moment, it’s still not money he should be taking. The money is tainted by its very ill-gotten nature, and no matter what good he puts it to, there’s no way to make it clean. Even if the money’s not from Tony S. directly, it’s the same as the allowance Tony S. gives Carmela every week, allowing her to keep living her life in the manner she’s accustomed to. The Sopranos often posits that we don’t change because we’re comfortable with our lives the way we are, and things like money or luxuries are the sorts of items that will just enmesh us further in the world we’re already trapped in. Tony B. is doomed because he’s always known Tony S., on some level, but he’s also doomed because he takes that money, because it opens the door back to his old life.
In some ways, this whole storyline feels a little too easy, a little too shortened. It would almost have more weight if Tony B. had returned to the mob life over the course of the full season, rather than returning just before the halfway point. And the role of the money in Tony B.’s transition is almost too blunt for this show. Even though The Sopranos deals in symbols, it rarely has turns as sudden and obviously motivated as this. The bag of money that Tony B. picks up might as well have a neon arrow pointing to it that says, “Look! Here’s one of the important themes of the show, in case you hadn’t noticed it already!” The whole thing feels like something that would be more at home in an ancient morality tale, like something out of Chaucer or, at best, Treasure Of The Sierra Madre.
But I really like the way the episode portrays the corrosive effects of the cash, the way that Tony B. almost immediately begins to sink back into a life of gambling and corruption. It’s like he can’t help himself, like he always knows that no matter what he does, he’ll be trapped by who he was and the life he led before he went to prison. At first, the idea of fixing up his own studio seems like an idyllic thing, a fun way to put his own hands to work before he uses them to gradually make his way out of the mob life. But then the coincidences—Mr. Kim just “happens” to have this space, the money just “happens” to fall into his lap—start to pile up, and he grows more and more embittered by what’s happening to him. By the time he’s beating Mr. Kim with a 2’x4’, sending koi splashing out of the pond, the whole thing has attained the weird haze of a cinematic drug trip. Without crime, trying to lead a straight life, Tony B. was a fish flopping around on the ground, unable to breathe. When he goes to Tony S. and says he’s in for the airbag scheme, he’s back in his element, ready to swim again.
Or maybe that’s exactly wrong. Maybe Tony B. is now gasping for breath again because he’s headed back into the mob world. Maybe breaking free from Tony S.—even if he was still indebted to the man in ways he grew more and more irritated by—was letting him find his own path, was giving him a new sense of purpose. After all, Tony B. already lived out one half of Tony S.’s equation for what happens to these guys in the end. He’s already been to jail. What’s left but to flop around on the floor, slowly counting down the seconds until someone puts a bullet in your brain? Tony B. had a chance to get out—maybe the best chance of any character on the show, really—and he blew it because the easy money always leads to bad choices. Now, he’s playing out the string, waiting for death.
It’s that shot of the fish and the wonderful ambiguity of Carmela’s relationship with Mr. Wegler that ultimately makes this episode work for me. Is Tony B.’s journey back into the mob a little ham-fisted? Undoubtedly. But this is a show that sometimes works well when it’s playing in broad gestures, and this is an episode that’s anything but subtle but also one that contains great depths. To a degree, I think, The Sopranos got better the more it came to despise some of its characters, and in this episode, the series lets us know all too well that both Tony B. and Carmela know the way out of their own predicaments but choose—on some level at least—to keep getting mired further and further in the mud. And there in the center of the mud—always wheezing and calling his unknown romantic rival a “fag”—is the man who’s made it impossible for both of them to escape without throwing themselves out of the fountain and flopping around the floor, hoping to find a new pool to swim in. But there are no other pools. There’s just the floor, and you either go back where you came from, or you die.
- I didn’t really mention Tony in this episode, but he’s almost another side of the same coin as A.J. The son, of course, spends most of the episode shirking work, even as his mother tries to get him to pay attention and as his guidance counselor puts his ass on the line for the kid, while the father spends most of the episode shambling around and just generally wreaking havoc wherever he goes, whether it’s taking an impromptu swim for no real reason or bringing along the whole crew to talk with Tony B., said crew mocking Mr. Kim and telling Tony B. to remember Pearl Harbor. And both men are convinced Mr. Wegler’s homosexual. (“Could be!” says Carmela, testy.)
- It’s worth pointing out that Carmela’s pillow talk is ridiculously awful. Nobody wants to sleep with someone who’s always talking about their son, Carm!
- Just what does Wegler see in Carm, anyway? I speculated a few weeks ago that he might feel vaguely superior to her and enjoy this, but he does seem incredibly smitten by her and her inability to understand Flaubert. (The episode title, incidentally, is from a different Flaubert novel.) I suspect it’s just that she’s pretty darn good looking.
- Even if Carmela believes that Wegler’s stupid to think she was trying to influence her son’s grades, it’s not like Tony’s been above throwing his weight around in the past in that department.
- This episode was directed by Peter Bogdanovich. I wish that I could point to a few vintage shots that would show how Bogdanovich-ian this was, but, alas, I cannot. (It was written by Matthew Weiner and shows a fascination with the kinds of singular images and symbols that he would bring to a sharp point on Mad Men.)
- Though I didn’t mention him in the review proper, Mr. Kim’s another person who gets in bed with Tony Soprano and only finds pain and misery for it.
- I’m always happy when Carmela’s dad turns up to toodle around the house and do his little projects and make his daughter come to the crushing realization that she’ll always be alone unless she gets back together with the man she hates.
- “Keep your eye on the tiger, there.” This is one of my absolute favorite Christopher lines ever.
- “Violence? I coulda put my shoe up your ass.”
- “Or maybe he’s just a big homo!” “Could be!”
Speaking With The Fishes (spoilers):
- Just a reminder to all of you tuning in late that this section—named after the Pussy fish from “Funhouse”—is a section where we talk about the overall sweep of the series and everything that happened in it. Enter at your own risk.
- Here we begin, in earnest, the descent of Tony B., the one that brings him to the point where Tony S. has to kill him in the season finale. The abrupt shift in this episode has always made me wonder if the whole thing was a sudden shift in where the story was going to go originally, but this time through, I’m less concerned about that. It feels far more organic, for some reason.
- And with that, Carmela’s relationship with a man other than Tony ends. In just two episodes, the two will be hooking up again in the pool. (I’d make a connection with all of the fish imagery, but I really don’t think that was intended.)
Next week: Tony bumps into an old friend of his dad’s in season five’s most divisive episode, “In Camelot.”