“The Army Of One” (season 3, episode 13)
In which Ralphie handles the Jackie, Jr., situation.
What makes you you? Sure, it’s a stupid, overasked question that can never be answered entirely satisfactorily, but it’s perhaps the major idea that haunts The Sopranos. Are you just a collection of personality quirks, developed when you were a child because of how your parents raised you and your siblings treated you? Or are you a series of genes, misfiring at will, causing you all of the pain and misery in your life? When Tony finds out his son has panic attacks, too, he tells Melfi that he’s got the rotten Soprano gene, the one that perhaps made his great great great grandfather drive a mule cart off a mountain road while possibly having a panic attack. Melfi says blaming our genes is just a way of blaming ourselves. Tony doesn’t look so sure. The Sopranos isn’t so interested in nature vs. nurture, though it certainly presents compelling arguments for both sides of that tired debate. It’s interested in whether destiny is predetermined, inescapable.
If someone were to ask me what the central theme of The Sopranos is, I might say something like, “People can change, but most are unwilling.” This idea of being able to change yourself if you really want to is sprinkled throughout the series and is, indeed, an integral part of the therapy process that is so close to the show’s heart. And yet this notion of change is something I’ve dealt with very little in these pieces, until this episode blatantly pointed it out to the audience. It’s easy to miss the forest for the trees on this show, to get so caught up in the mob plots or the character dynamics or the great humor that you stop paying attention to what David Chase and company are really trying to say. And what all of season three has been about is people who are trying to change but lack the wherewithal. People in the world of The Sopranos who make the necessary shifts to do what they want or need to do are rare, and they’re certainly not in the regular cast. As much as we enjoy hanging out with Tony, we’re supposed to be asking “Is this it?”
There’s, of course, nothing like a funeral—particularly one for a young man—to get those questions flowing, and “The Army Of One” gets the Jackie, Jr., business out of the way early. Tony and Ralphie have a conversation where Tony’s order to have Jackie, Jr., killed is never explicitly stated, but it’s still completely obvious what he means. Ralphie orders Vito to track the kid (who’s staying in the projects with Omar!) down. Vito comes up behind Jackie, Jr., when he’s headed down to the park and shoots him once in the head, causing him to sprawl forward into a snow pile. News of the death is circulated around the circle of Soprano friends and family a few hours later, and the authorities blame drug dealers, leaving the mob out of it completely. The only one who seems to really know what went on is Jackie’s sister. Even Meadow stops short of blaming her dad, though her knowledge of who actually did it is written all over her face in the episode’s final moments.
The other major story thread of the episode directly involves these questions of genetics and parenthood. A.J. and a friend hide out in Verbum Dei after hours, using the janitor’s closet as a spot where they won’t be noticed. After everybody in the school has gone home, they sneak out and grab a test paper, using it to cheat, both scoring 96 percent. Since the two are only passable students, this raises the attention of the school officials, and they confront A.J. and his friend about the “DNA” they’ve found linking the two to the crime (in a hilarious scene). A.J. is expelled, his parents are upset, and Tony decides that military school is the answer, even if it causes Carmela to hate him for a little while. They take A.J. to a prospective school, where he has a long conversation with the school’s head about “stinkin’ thinkin’” and what 0530 means. Carmela and Tony fight. Carmela eventually caves. And then, just then, when A.J. is in his dress greys and his parents are commending him for how handsome he looks, he has a panic attack and passes out. The pediatrician says there’s no way he can go to military school. So that’s that. The Soprano gene strikes again.
These two plots are linked most obviously by the fact that both are about the sons of prominent mob figures. There’s even a slightly-too-obvious moment at the funeral where Tony looks over at Jackie, Jr., in the casket, then looks back at his son, sitting alone and staring blankly ahead. When he and Melfi have their conversation about family legacies and what can be done to change them, he scoffs at the notion of A.J. joining the family business. The kid isn’t hard enough. He cries when he’s scared of going off to military school, and he’s been coddled his whole life (even if Tony was the one doing the coddling). At the same time, he wants Meadow to become a pediatrician so she can get far away from him. Not geographically, maybe, but definitely in the sense of having no connection to mob life. What he wants for his kids is the freedom he feels he never had. He didn’t have a choice but to follow in his father’s footsteps, he says, as if that puts an end to all discussion on the matter. Yet Jackie, Jr., had a choice, and he chose mob life. He was obsessed with it, as his sister says after the funeral, obsessed with following in his father’s footsteps. Sometimes, the idea of a legacy, of owing something to our parents, becomes a way we excuse our own baser impulses, the fact that we end up trapped in bad decisions or modes of behavior. Jackie, Jr., had all the opportunity in the world. He still ended up dead in a snowbank.
At the most basic level, the only thing we’re here to do is reproduce, spread our genetic material. But we’re people. We overthink things and try to find meaning where there might not be any. So our children become a sort of promise to the universe, a chance to get right what went wrong in us. But there’s no way to force change on someone, even a child. You can’t simply tell someone how to behave and how to act and expect them to always follow through on your instructions. The choice to make a change always has to be self-motivated, and self-motivation can’t be taught either. The great hope Tony has for Meadow and A.J. is the hope all parents have for their children: Be a better me than I was. But that’s not how these things work, and he’s left with a son who’s soft in his eyes, expelled from a school he’s poured lots of money into, and a daughter who implicitly blames him for the death of her ex-boyfriend, even if she’d never come out and say so.
The notion of the way generations relate to each other is, of course, a prominent one in The Sopranos and has been from the show’s first episode. It even pops up in a plot that might seem as though it would have virtually nothing to do with parents and children, the story of Paulie’s growing resentment toward Tony. Paulie doesn’t get all of the money he feels he’s owed from Ralphie (he asks for $50,000, and Tony tells Ralphie to give him $12,000). This comes at a bad time, since he’s just sent his mother to retirement community Green Grove, where Livia lived in season one, providing yet another link to Tony’s mother in a season most marked by her absence. It’s $8,000 a month. Where’s he going to get that kind of money, especially if his boss has soured on him in the light of all the money Ralphie brings in? (I love how the episode suggests that Tony and Ralphie’s serious issues from earlier in the season can be so easily papered over with money.) And so Paulie talks with Johnny Sack, at first about nothing in particular but then about his grievances with Tony, suggesting at the end that if Carmine needs anything at all, he’ll be happy to help out. Is Paulie going to switch families? Would the show do that, especially with a guy who’s seemed to worship Tony so often? Johnny Sack suggests a possible reason for all of this: generational divide. Carmine and Paulie’s generation did things differently. They can’t handle the brashness of Ralphie and Tony’s generation, and that will inevitably lead to conflict.
In almost all respects, “The Army Of One” is a muted closer to a season that was filled with wildly entertaining episodes that often had little to do with one another, other than featuring the same characters. Sure, there were a number of story arcs that built to conclusions in “Amour Fou” and this episode, but the season’s major mob plot—the esplanade—plays out almost entirely in the background, largely in favor of more character driven conflicts and stories. This might have left the season feeling unfocused, but The Sopranos instead leaned heavily on its sense of being a series of short stories about these characters, loosely hooked together by theme and who they were about. And if previous seasons featured one or two relationships most heavily (Tony and his mother in season one, Tony and his sister in season two), this season was about Tony and all of his children, both his two actual children and the many, many men he tries to be a father figure for. In the end, he can’t save Jackie, Jr., indeed, has to call in the hit on the man he so badly wanted to be a father for. But he can still save Meadow and A.J. He can still help out Chris as much as he can.
But will any of them want help? Will they want to become different people, or are they as comfortable with the lives they lead as Tony seems to be with his? The only person on The Sopranos who actively seems to want to change their ways is Carmela, and she’s probably too weak-willed to do so (notice how quickly she caves when Tony holds firm on sending A.J. to military school). Sure, it sometimes seems as if Tony wants to figure out a way to move forward with his life, but he’ll just as quickly use his therapy as a way to make some brief, cosmetic changes. After the real breakthroughs of earlier this season, he’s back to pushing off most of the things Melfi says, to staying far away from anything like real insight. At the end of the day, the reason none of these people want to change is because true change would involve taking a hard look at the often terrible, downright evil things that they do. And while they don’t want to do that, we don’t want them to either. This doesn’t mean we long to watch them do terrible things (as Chase occasionally seems to accuse us of wanting); it does mean that we enjoy watching their show and we know on some level that if they made these changes, there would be no show. The fact that nobody has any desire to change on The Sopranos is both a thematic statement, and David Chase’s sick joke about the needs of the television medium, where lasting growth is impossible and the only way out is a bullet through the head.
The episode ends at Artie’s place with the post-funeral gathering. Junior, who’s beaten cancer and is readying for his RICO trial (and doesn’t it seem like he’s been gone for 50 episodes or something?), begins to sing old Italian songs as a guitarist plays. When Ginny hears him crooning, she implores him to get up front and let it rip, soon bolstered by the others in attendance. And so he does, in a moment that’s surprisingly sweet and almost sentimental for this show. (Remember: The previous two seasons ended with the family dining in Vesuvio during a blackout and with Tony’s triumph at Meadow’s graduation after killing Pussy, respectively.) As Junior sings, a drunken Meadow (who’s just come close to having an actual moment of connection with her mother before returning to sullen anger) throws pieces of bread at him, before Tony chases her off. Why’s she so mad? She can’t say it. Saying it would get her in even more trouble, and if Tony says anything, even to deny his involvement, he risks bringing her closer to the life he wants no part of for her. So he goes back inside, puts his arm around his son and his wife, listens to his uncle sing. The cracks, perhaps, are showing. Meadow’s mad at him. He had his surrogate son killed. Paulie may be headed to another family. An FBI agent has, unbeknownst to her, befriended Adriana. But he’s got this moment, at least, and he’s going to enjoy it. Generations of Soprano family members—in both senses of the term—united for a moment by more than a rotten gene.
An announcement: As you can probably tell from the… erratic posting schedule for these pieces, working on these write-ups takes a lot of time, time I don’t necessarily have when the TV schedule is as hectic as it’s been the last few weeks. So I’m looking for a break. But rather than just taking a few weeks off, I’ve decided to tackle some lighter, hopefully less taxing projects between seasons. This means that starting next week, I’m going to cover two episodes of Spaced (which I’ve never seen past the first three episodes) every week for seven weeks. After that, we’ll dive into the fourth season of The Sopranos. And after that? The original British Office. I hope you’ll join me.
- Hey, it’s (early) 2001 moment (ghoulish division): Tony, when answering Carmela’s protests about turning her son into a soldier, says that the United States army hardly ever goes to war anymore.
- I didn’t say much about Adriana’s new friend “Danielle” above, but I’m impressed with just how easily she seems to get in good with our girl.
- Furio’s still walking off the bullet wound, slipping on a patch of ice when hobbling up to the sitdown with Paulie and Ralphie. One thing I like about this season is how the wounds the characters get persist, like Chris’ head wound from “Pine Barrens,” still healing here.
- Both Sil and Chris are arrested at the burial for Jackie, Jr., hauled off by the police in connection to Super Bowl gambling. They’re out soon enough, just as Sil predicts they will be.
- Hey, it’s (early) 2001 moment (frivolous division): Super Bowl XXXV is coming up as this episode continues, building to the funeral, which is held (I believe) on Super Bowl Sunday. The Ravens won that one, and it was pretty boring, so the guys at the funeral didn’t miss too much (and it’s easy to forget they probably wouldn’t just be able to DVR it as well). Still, did you see Cris Collinsworth’s hair?!
- Thoughts on the final medley of songs that drown out Junior’s voice? I want to say the show is trying to say something about certain emotions being universal, but, really, I’m just bullshitting you. I have no idea.
- Tobin Bell (who later became most famous as Jigsaw in the Saw films) is great fun as Major Zwingli. I have no idea how the show would have made him a recurring character, but I wish he’d turned up again.
- Meadow sings “Oops I Did It Again” while tossing bread at Junior. You may recall that song from when Melfi found out the identity of her rapist in “Employee Of The Month.” (I don’t think the show is trying to draw a connection here at all. Just an interesting thing to note.)
- Melissa Marsala is good as Kelli Aprile, another one of those characters we’re introduced to as if they’ve been a part of the Sopranos’ lives all along.
- It’s too bad Michael K. Williams didn’t appear on Deadwood. He could have completed the HBO trifecta! Would you settle for Boardwalk Empire instead?
- To this day, when I hear that sound of TV static giving way to the “wahhhh” sound of the HBO logo, I expect to hear the Sopranos theme song, no matter what I’m watching, despite the fact that the show has been off the air for almost four years.
- “I’m not insensitive. I hurt too.”
Speaking With The Fishes:
- Obviously, if you’re with me this far, you know a lot of these cliffhangers don’t really play out. Paulie doesn’t end up joining Carmine (instead, he ends up in jail). Junior beats the RICO rap, but not before his sound mind goes. A.J. never goes to military school (though you know that from this episode). Carmela eventually leaves Tony but comes right back to him.
- The one cliffhanger that does pan out? Adriana’s new friend in the FBI, who gets her to turn informant, culminating in one of the series’ best episodes (one I cannot wait to write about), “Long Term Parking.”
- I think there’s something interesting about this episode as a dividing line. With Adriana meeting Deborah, the major act that will lead to the series’ shift in its final 25 episodes or so to a more blatant Shakespearean tragedy is perpetrated. Similarly, the show will be much more somber after this. It’s not that it doesn’t have a sense of humor, still, but season three is probably the show’s comedic highpoint. But other things here function as “before/after” pictures as well. The FBI agents pursuing Tony will gradually be reassigned to anti-terrorism work after Sept. 11. Junior’s decline into dementia begins in earnest after his little show. And both Meadow and A.J. will gradually become more and more enmeshed in their father’s way of life after this. “The Army Of One” is kind of the last good time.
Next time: Join me March 30 for the first episode of season four, “For All Debts Public And Private.” As you can probably imagine, money is involved.