"The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti" (season 1, episode 8)
Here was one I had basically no remembrance of that ended up blowing me away. I had remembered the first season hitting a bit of a lull with very good but not great episodes from "College" through the final three, and I'm finding that - at least in the case of "Down Neck" and "Tennessee Moltisanti" - the season continued to run in that higher gear after "College." (We'll get to an exception in just a moment, though.) "Tennessee Moltisanti" is, more or less, the first Christopher-centric episode of the series. The show would come to find Christopher a little more interesting than he actually was in the seasons to come (which is about all I can say without spoiling things), but in these early years, he was both a reliable comic relief figure and someone the show could find tragic, with both shades played well by Michael Imperioli.
In "Tennessee Moltisanti," the impending crackdown by the Feds has everybody in Tony's crew running a little scared. Everybody, that is, but Christopher, that who's busy working on a screenplay called "Made Man," which is full of typos and awful dialogue. It's clear that a.) he really wants to work in the movies but b.) he's still too insecure to manage that without constant propping up by Adriana (whom he calls in to read every spare line of dialogue he comes up with). The scenes with Christopher writing are incredibly funny for most of the episode, until they turn unexpectedly weighty once Paulie comes to visit him to take him for a guys' night out.
The conversation that ensues between the two and the conversation Chris has with Tony about depression and suicide in the car are among my favorite Sopranos scenes, and I had forgotten both were in this episode. Every writer, I think, has tried to position their own lives in comparison to the stories they write and found that their lives come up lacking, inevitably. Even a relatively realistic show like The Sopranos, where climaxes often turn out to be wet fizzles, has something of an arc to its story. Granted, in this first season, it's an arc of examining one man from many different angles, but it still has a narrative thrust. Christopher is beginning to realize that his life, like mine or like yours, doesn't come with a ready-made arc, that he's not necessarily going to find himself living a life that's more like a movie than a life.
Now, granted, this is a work of fiction. Christopher does have an arc. And I suppose if I pull out far enough from my own life, I could see that it might have something like an arc, too, instead of what seems like a bunch of random incidents that added together to make up who I am today. But in the moment, when you're trying to get a picture of yourself as someone who has worth and means something to the world (not to mention when you're battling something very like depression), it can be hard to see that larger picture, to see that your life is something beyond a collection of moments that you have to live one after the other until it all abruptly ends. Paulie embraces this viewpoint as well, but tellingly, he sees it as almost a good thing. He's had a pretty good life, even if there was no real arc to it. And he thinks Christopher can have that kind of life too, even if he can't see it right at the moment.
"It's like the fuckin' regularness of life is too hard for me," Christopher tells Tony during that car trip, and it crystallizes a lot of the series' themes and ideas. Tony and his crew have come in at the end, after everything got less glamorous and life as a mobster became more like life as anyone else. The series makes a big deal in this first season out of the ordinariness of life in the mob, but this is one of the few episodes to fully play the flip side of that coin. When you get into the mob world, you're expecting it, in some ways, to be like the movies (or at least these characters are). When it's just a bunch of normal things you could get in any life, when the men you've killed come back to haunt you in your dreams, well, it starts to seem like you've been sold a bad bill of goods. To a real degree, moving from being a young adult to an actual adult is realizing that getting everything you've ever wanted isn't always going to be the best. You can marry your dream girl or buy your dream house or get your dream job, but you're still going to have to shovel the shit that comes with those things. Life can be very good, but it will always have that element of crushing ordinariness, that sense that this is really all there is.
The specter of the movies versus reality rears its head a couple of times in "Tennessee Moltisanti." Naturally, the biggest example is in Christopher's attempts to turn "Made Men" into an actual movie script, but we also see two very different family dinner scenes where two very different families talk about Italian culture as a subculture of American culture. The first, of course, comes early in the episode when Melfi dines with her family (including her son(!) and her ex-husband, for some reason), and the group, learning that she's treating a mobster, pressures her to drop him as a patient, since there's no way you can treat a sociopath. The conversation spins away from the mob in general, toward perceptions of Italians in society at large, and, of course, it's brought up that when people think about Italians, they think about The Godfather, Goodfellas, and pizza, in that order.
The scenes with Melfi's family have never been my favorites in the series (and they're the ones that hold this episode back). The later scene where the Soprano family eats dinner and talks about Italian contributions to society is much preachier than the Melfi family scene on a script level, but it doesn't feel like it, crucially, because the writers have a very firm grip on just what the Sopranos sound like and how they talk with each other. The writers on this show have an excellent ear for the way these upper-class guys who came out of the working class talk to each other, even if the dialogue is slightly stylized. Every time the series turns to upper crust type scenes between Melfi and whomever of her circle of friends she's hanging out with that week, the dialogue suddenly turns almost unbearably pretentious. It's entirely possible these dialogue scenes are more realistically written than the ones with the Sopranos (and I've been to dinner parties that would suggest this is the case), but every time we get to one of these, it has a tendency to stop the show dead in its tracks. They certainly get the episode off to a bad start, as no one watching really cares what Melfi's ex-husband thinks.
That is, no one really cares until he unleashes one of the series' key themes outright for the first time. In an angry conversation with his ex-wife, he tells her she needs to stop treating Tony because eventually she's going to punch through the moral relativism of psychology and come through to good and evil, to the fact that some things are still right and some things are still wrong. He doesn't see Melfi stopping treatment of Tony as some sort of ethical necessity but, rather, as something essentially moral that she has to do because to continue to allow the guy to justify his actions to himself, she's letting him be even more of a cancer on the world than he already is. The first season of The Sopranos seems to introduce a new theme the series will follow to its end with every episode, and this is one of the most important themes for the series, though it appears only sporadically, as if David Chase (who, fittingly, is credited as a co-writer on this episode) wants to remind us that in the universe, regardless of your moral persuasion, there are certain ground rules.
That said, though, Chase has a fondness for putting these arguments in the mouths of characters we're supposed to distrust or characters we'll never see again. In a certain sense, he wants us to identify with Tony Soprano. In another sense, he wants us to run far, far away from him. It's this central conflict that will drive much of the series but, also, much of Chase's contentious relationship with his fans in the seasons to come. Chase knows there's right and wrong, but he's also smart enough to know that everybody has some blood somewhere in their family tree. Even the therapist that the Melfis visit as a family has ties to Murder, Inc. There's no way to get away from the past and the way it rises up to grab you. But there's also no way to attach yourself to someone who does evil things and expect to get away scot-free. Despite being a jackass, Melfi's ex-husband's fears for her are well-founded. How far might she go in treating this man? And might what she tells him end up enabling him to do terrible things?
So far, at least, Tony's embrace of psychotherapy has mostly just led to tossing out advice to his crew, but it leads to some genuinely sweet moments in "Tennessee Moltisanti." He can see that Christopher is floundering, and he can tell that the kid is deeply depressed. Now, he can't tell Chris how, exactly, he knows this (though his mother, who lets it slip to Junior that Tony is in therapy finally will handle that), but he can try to offer him a lifeline. It's my very favorite kind of scene, where Tony and Chris are mostly talking about how much they care for each other without ever once coming out and saying it. To some degree, "Tennessee Moltisanti" treats Chris' existential crisis a bit too much like a joke - that it seems to stem entirely from hearing Brendan praised as a mob associate on the news and not himself is sort of goofy, and the final payoff with the newspapers, while funny, seems like an excuse to sweep this all under the rug too quickly - but it's in scenes like this one that the series shows it has a certain affection for these characters, these scumbags. The world may view them only as tawdry bits of salacious gossip on the news, but their own lives, no matter how disappointing, are as important to themselves as our lives are to us.
- I do really love that scene with the Sopranos talking about Italian contributions to culture, even as it seems to express a certain ambivalence within the show about doing yet another take on the mob when, yeah, Italians have been responsible for lots. There's an element of humor to it, too, as the Sopranos mourn all of the crimes committed against Italians back through the history of their stay in the States. This is a family with a long memory, one that holds a grudge all too well.
- The image of Tony tossing the money in front of Melfi's face after he misses his session and has to pay for it is one of the better one-shot images of what the show means to express that it came up with. Anyone can be bought and paid for. Everyone has a price.
- Christopher's nightmare is appropriately nightmarish. The return of E-Mail is particularly ghoulish.
- This is the first episode of The Sopranos directed by series regular director Tim Van Patten. He would provide the story inspiration for season 3 classic "Pine Barrens" as well.
- Every mob story needs a wedding scene, but I like the way that the events of the actual wedding are upstaged by talk of the possible crackdown by the Feds that is assumed to be just around the corner. I love an upstaged wedding.
- Sign that it's 1999: The music selections at the wedding are hilariously appropriate for a 1990s wedding.
- Random absurdity alert: Junior and Livia have their conversation about Tony in front of the world's worst impressionist. A great scene, made even greater by the inexplicable juxtaposition.
- "That smell in Blockbuster, that candy and carpet smell? I get high off it."
- "You stole this computer, plus the line that you just gave Melissa."
- "You know you can't treat sociopaths."
- "This is no time to go on the rag, Christopher."
- "This fuckin' computer. I thought it would do a lot of it."
- "You know who had an arc? Noah."
- "Don't bust my balls with Freud by numbers."
- "Why don't you just leave a fuckin' urine sample sometime?"
Speaking with the Fishes:
- If that customer at the bakery where Christopher shoots the guy in the foot looks familiar, that's because he becomes Vito in later seasons (though he's presumably not Vito here).
- Lots of first appearances in this episode. We get to meet various mob wives and the Melfi family, but we also meet the agents investigating the family, particularly Agent Harris, who will form a rather odd working relationship with Tony over the course of the show.
- This is the first credit for Drea de Matteo over the main credits. She'll eventually become a member of the regular cast, and I like to think her excellent work in this episode was a big part of the reason for that.
"Boca" (season 1, episode 9)
Here's the first episode of The Sopranos that feels a little dated, probably through no fault of its own. When "Boca" first aired, I remember the main plot getting lots of acclaim. The idea that the show would go to such a place as a teacher having sex with one of his students and the Sopranos struggling with what to do to him as payback was considered a pretty ballsy one back in 1999. Sure, shows had dealt with student-teacher sex before this, but this was one of the first to have characters who could actually do something about it. In its own way, this is one of the first episodes of The Sopranos where we're meant to be placed in an ethical conundrum that affects us as the viewer: Something bad has happened. Tony Soprano can at least enact some revenge on the behalf of the victims (and, by proxy, us). How do we feel about that? Do we want him to do it?
There are two problems with how this plays out, one with relation to what the show became and the other with relation to the rest of the TV landscape. When "Boca" first aired, yes, this plot was fresh. But now, we have stories like this on just about every primetime drama that traffics in the salacious (hell, this is pretty much the stock-in-trade of Law & Order: SVU). It's hard to watch "Boca" and not think of these millions of copycats. Similarly, it's hard to watch "Boca" and not think of the other times The Sopranos would do this basic moral setup as a storyline and do it much better in seasons to come. (Without spoiling, there's a season 3 episode that is basically the pinnacle of this particular form.) "Boca" feels a little too much like a dry-run.
Part of the problem with it is the self-contained nature of the storyline. Suddenly, Meadow's on a soccer team, and the team is doing well. The team's star is a girl named Allie, who's apparently been over at the Soprano house for dinner several times a week since her parents split up. The coach is leaving the team for Rhode Island at the end of the season, despite the mobsters' best efforts to get him to stay. Even though we haven't really seen the guys caring much about the team before, it's suddenly the center of Tony, Silvio, and Artie Bucco's world, and when the news comes down that the coach has been having sex with Allie (who attempted suicide), it sends them into a tailspin that ends with a desire for revenge. Ultimately, though, they decide to not do anything, particularly after Melfi warns Tony that there's no reason to. The law steps in, and that's the end of that.
The Sopranos has been so good - and so consistent - at building its world up until this point that the sudden introduction of Allie into it feels abrupt, as though Chase and his writers decided it was more important to get this moral tale into the mix of the first season than to build to the story slowly, like they did with others. The stand-alone nature of "College" works because it takes Tony and Meadow out of their usual environs and closes Carmela off with another character. We're not radically expanding the universe, just mostly exploring what we already know and stepping outside of it. "Boca's" problems mostly stem from the fact that the whole soccer coach thing feels like a blatant attempt to throw a wrench in the middle of the overarching plot before it gets going too fast. It also doesn't help that neither the soccer coach nor Allie are defined terribly well beyond upstanding man with a terrible secret and troubled kid.
This is not to say the plotline with the coach is without its charms. The choice that Tony has to make is still agonizing, and it's interesting to see Melfi already taking her place as the show's conscience in these matters, a position that will help the show out immeasurably in future seasons. Furthermore, there's a lot of very good business about the mobsters trying to get the coach to enjoy the company of a stripper or to take a big-screen TV that continues to suggest the show's interest in the ways that people have to either embrace or resist the little evils that pop up in their midst. That the coach is, ultimately, taking advantage of a troubled young girl in an immoral and unethical fashion muddies the waters even more, which makes his principled stand against the mobsters that much more fascinating. (It seems likely that he's just making this stand to make his exit to Rhode Island - presumably an escape hatch designed to save himself from any allegations - much easier.)
Furthermore, you get some good business with the show's continued portrayal of Tony Soprano as a man who gets what he wants and gets very frustrated when he can't have it. The scene appears in a microcosm when he goes to the restaurant with Artie and sees the frat boy type wearing his baseball cap. To Tony, this is a sin of the highest order, something that simply should not be happening, and he eventually gets the guy to remove his cap by towering over him. But Tony can't use the same methods with a person who refuses to be intimidated by him, and the rage that slowly builds in him as, first, he discovers the coach isn't going to be staying, no matter what, and, second, he learns that the coach was sleeping with Allie, is well-handled. You legitimately aren't quite sure what's going to come next, and it's to the show's credit that it had built the character so well as to create this kind of scenario.
You also get some good shading on the relationship between Tony and Artie, which is one of the series' more complicated relationships. Artie is clearly torn between two masters. He would love to get in bed with Tony and get some of the extra cash involved, but he also loves his wife and knows she would be vehemently opposed to the idea. It's a relationship that will twist and turn and convolute itself as the series goes on, but we haven't gotten a lot of focus on it until this episode, which seems to feature Artie in every other scene. John Ventimiglia was great in this part, and he's pretty great in this episode.
But the episode isn't all about the soccer coach, not by any means. The episode's title comes from Junior taking his girlfriend, Bobbi, down to the titular vacation destination, where she talks him into performing oral sex on her, despite his reservations about what might happen if the guys ever hear about it. Naturally, that's exactly what happens, via Carmela (who gets in some priceless comic bits in the scene where the Sopranos are dining together and everything Junior says is an unintentional double entendre). This ends up becoming an important part of the season to come, but the climax of the storyline here is the best thing about it, as Junior confronts Bobbi about her loose lips (and now I'm doing it), but doesn't hit her, instead pushing a pie into her face. It's another great example of the series using absurd humor to its advantage, and it continues the show's run of unexpected closing moments for what seem to be storylines that are heading for dramatic and violent conclusions.
But, by and large, "Boca" is probably the weakest episode of season one so far (though I'm pretty sure it won't remain so after next week). Again, it's not a bad episode, nor is it without its entertaining moments. It's just a type of episode that the show would do better later in its run, and it's an episode that's hurt by having subject matter and a take on that subject matter that has mostly migrated to the other networks, even on shows not horribly inspired by this one. The Sopranos was a success for many reasons, but too often, the big networks thought it was a success because it was salacious. When they attempted to pull off their own salaciousness, they inevitably made what The Sopranos did seem that much tamer, and "Boca" is one of the first episodes to really be hurt by that.
- I've seen some complaints that the length of these write-ups is way too long. Please let me know if you'd like me to cut them shorter. Conceivably, I could.
- Don't know how I've missed this up until this point, but this blog is a pretty good round-up of Sopranos-related thoughts and odds and ends.
- Sign that it's 1999: There's a fairly crude O.J. joke. O.J. jokes have really lost their cultural cachet, huh?
- Tony as a sponge alert: He repeats Melfi's mention of a suicidal gesture when trying to suggest that Allie didn't really mean what she did.
- Tony's really intent on boosting Mead's soccer team, isn't he? This still strikes me as a little odd, but I guess I could see it being something he really gets into, with his background as an athlete in his own education.
- After a Chris-heavy episode, we get one where he doesn't get as much to do, though him "finding" the coach's dog is a nicely played comic bit.
- Here's something I've been wondering a bit in these episodes: How long a time frame is this season supposed to take place over? If we assume that Tony has one session per week, and then we get several sessions sprinkled throughout an episode, are we to assume that each episode takes place over three-four weeks, with the obvious exception of "College"?
- Wikipedia informs me "Boca" is also the Italian word for "mouth." Thanks, Wikipedia!
Speaking with the Fishes:
- Wikipedia also informs me that we'll see Junior hiding out in Boca again in season three. Thanks, Wikipedia!
- The season three episode I refer to is, of course, "Employee of the Month." Though as I think about it, it's clear that the key difference between this episode and that one is that Tony is aware of the transgression here and was not in "Employee." At that point in the Melfi/Tony relationship, had she breathed even one word of what happened to her to him, he would have had the guy killed. So it's necessary that he not know anything about it. But the two episodes share a lot in common regardless, from their relatively self-contained nature to their focus on the ways that Tony can't control everything that goes on in his orbit. There are, of course, other "moral dilemma" episodes in the run of the show, but I think most would agree "Employee" is by far the best.
- Vin's visit to toss some info Tony's way will have payoffs in the weeks to come.
- There's a great discussion between a lot of our regulars on the small details that stay consistent as the series goes on. Pancakes for One kicks it off by asking if Tony continues to be a History Channel watcher as the series goes on, and, yeah, he does. But tristiac points out that the Sopranos always drink Coke, while the Feds watching them always drink Pepsi. Neat.
- Crock points out what a great sight gag it is to see the clown being rounded up with the other gangsters at the amusement part, and "Ironic Ninja of Irony" says that one of the great things about the show is the way it balances really serious moments with a taste of the absurd, right down to the final moments of the series finale. I suspect David Chase has a twisted sense of humor.
- And I have to conclude with the wise words of Zodiac Motherfucker, who makes the same point I was trying to make about the series' sense of moral relativism vs. right and wrong (and in about half the words). It's spoilery if you haven't seen the whole show: "YEAH AFTER REWATCHING THE ENTIRE SHOW I WAS PRETTY FUCKING AMAZED THAT ONE OF THE MAJOR THEMES IS THAT PSYCHIATRISTS ARE BULLSHIT. TOTAL FUCKING MEALYMOUTHED ENABLERS WHO CANT OR WONT MAKE A MORAL STAND YOU KNOW EVERYBODY GOES ON ABOUT HOW FUCKING CYNICAL DAVID CHASE IS BUT I THINK HES JUST A DUDE WITH A STRONG SENSE OF RIGHT AND WRONG AND WHAT HE SEES GOING ON IN THE WORLD TODAY WITH ALL THIS BULLSHIT RATIONALIZATION AND EXCUSE MAKING MAKES HIM FUCKING SICK AND THATS WHY WE GET TONY SOPRANO THIS GREAT BIG FAT FUCK ALL BREATHING LOUD AND STUFFING HIS FAT FUCKING FACE EVERY SECOND ALL FEELING SORRY FOR HIMSELF AND MAKING UP EXCUSES AND NOT TAKING RESPONSIBILITY AND THINKING HES SPECIAL. AND HES GOT MELFI RIGHT THERE TO MAKE HIM FEEL BETTER ABOUT HIMSELF. METAPHOR FOR THE ENTIRE FUCKING COUNTRY RIGHT THERE WHOLE BUNCH OF GREEDY SELF SERVING SELF PITYING MOTHERFUCKERS AND A BULLSHIT MOMMY CULTURE CODDLING THEM ALL SAYING ITS OKAY ITS NOT YOUR FAULT THAT YOURE A TOTAL FUCKING PIECE OF SHIT AND BESIDES WHO AM I TO JUDGE YOU. THE IRONY IS THAT MELFI IS THE MOST MORAL PERSON ON THE SHOW BUT THAT JUST GOES TO SHOW THAT GOOD INTENTIONS ALMOST ALWAYS LEAD TO FUCKED UP SHIT"
Next week: The worst episode of season one (as I recall) and the start of the terrific final trio of episodes.