“The Strong, Silent Type” (season 4, episode 10; originally aired 11/17/2002)
In which there is a care-frontation.
What really makes Tony Soprano sad? What so moves him to fits of emotion that he will dare express them publicly? It wasn’t the death of his mother. For that, he only really cried when he was alone, watching old movies on TV in the middle of the night. It wasn’t the death of his friend’s son or the death of his best friend. He was too involved in both deaths to allow himself to feel anything other than the cold calculation of his business decisions. And it’s not even really the fact that Ralphie’s son, Justin, will “never be right” again, after the injury that sent him to the hospital last week. No, what makes Tony feel emotion in public is violence done to animals. As Melfi points out, he’s only ever really cried in therapy over Pie-O-My and those ducks back in season one. And when he and the rest of his family—work and personal—hold an intervention for Christopher, the thing that most spurs him to action is the idea that Christopher could have killed Cosette, Adriana’s dog. (Similarly—and hilariously—Sil only seems spurred to emotion by the idea that Christopher’s hair would be dangling in some toilet water.)
“The Strong, Silent Type,” then, is all about how Tony—and most of his associates—seem to be the type of person in the episode title. And while we may hold that up as a certain masculine ideal, the episode spends most of its time poking holes in that ideal. To be a strong, silent type is to be uncomfortable with any expressions of emotion, as Tony is when he sees Furio crying. Outwardly, of course, Furio is sad about his father, which is an expression of grief Tony can at least understand, even if he doesn’t condone it. Inwardly, Furio is mourning the fact that he’ll never be with Carmela, who has attracted him as much as he has attracted her. Throughout the episode, in a series of terrific matching cuts, Furio is set up as the antithesis of Tony, a guy who cries for his dad in a place where others might—indeed, will—see him and a guy who prepares a lovingly home-cooked meal, while Tony simply microwaves the rigatoni his wife left in the fridge for him.
I should say here that the decision to set up Furio as some sort of grand archetype of the sensitive, European lover rings a bit false. Before season four, Furio didn’t have much of a character, outside of being the most fearsome of Tony’s associates, simply because he didn’t have anyone to answer to but Tony. When Tony needed some great violence done, he brought in Furio, and the show usually left what happened to our imaginations. I get the impulse, then, to contrast that side of Furio with the side that would really like to bring his parents over to America or the side that is just interested in redecorating his house and finds a kindred spirit in Carmela. Similarly, I love the series of shots of Furio in the taxi on the way back from the airport after flying home from Italy. Where the funeral took place in a beautiful seaside town, with ancient architecture stretching in all directions, Furio’s reintroduction to the world of the United States is a Burger King with an American flag proudly flapping along beside the sign. And yet he says that he’s more at home in the States than he is in Italy, though he doesn’t really belong in either place, just as his more readily accessible emotions don’t make him an easy fit for the Mafia, even if his brutal exterior would make him a poor fit elsewhere.
But at the same time, this simple compare-contrast feels a little too simple. Are we meant to believe that Carmela and Furio really do have some sort of elemental connection, that he’s the sensitive man in hiding she’s always been wanting? Similarly, are we meant to believe that the differences between Tony and Furio are that easy to point out, that they can be accomplished in a series of matching cuts? The Sopranos is often canny about using the traditional tricks of filmmaking against us, so that we have to go digging a little for what it’s really trying to say or the emotions it’s trying to provoke. But this really does seem to be suggesting that Furio is some sort of sophisticated European, perhaps not better than Tony on a moral or ethical level but certainly better than him on some undefinable cultural level. (In this way, the episode plays on the political tensions of late 2002, when the United States was longing to invade Iraq, and various European nations kept expressing their disgust with that idea. It’s not a direct, one-to-one correlation, but expressions of disgust for Europe from those supporting the Iraq war at the time often almost seemed to center on the same ideas that drive a teenager to rebel against his parents: We’ve got this thing we’re pretty sure we need to do, but you just keep talking about how having a car is a huge responsibility, man!)
Similarly, I think the episode makes a little too much of the fact that Tony’s unable to relate to the world via emotions that don’t express some sort of violence. He funnels virtually all of his non-anger-related feelings into animals because that’s a safe outlet for them. He can feel whatever he wants about a horse or some ducks; if he started to feel self-doubt about how he treated Big Pussy, Pussy would have escaped or leaked damaging information to the feds. “The Strong, Silent Type” often seems to be trying to set up a simple moral calculus, inviting us to watch Tony as he deals with the fallout of Ralphie’s death or with his wife changing her hairstyle or with his nephew’s addiction (and subsequent beating of his fiancée). And while setting up those moral equations with only one or two solutions was something The Sopranos did from time to time, it rarely did so in a way that felt as smart and sophisticated as the show’s handling of character or how events don’t always proceed from point A to point B. (An exception to this would be “Employee Of The Month,” where the moral question is so horrific that the show earns the simplicity of the answer.) At so many turns, the episode seems to be saying, “Don’t be like Tony Soprano; be like someone—anyone—else.” And yet Tony’s the most charismatic figure here, the only one with enough gravity to hold all of this together. When he seduces Svetlana with a couple of well-chosen words—even after he gets done basically insulting her by turning her loss of her leg into some symbol in his own little inspirational narrative—it’s easy to understand why. This is a guy people want to follow or even just be around.
And yet even as I find the core of “The Strong, Silent Type” a little hollow, I like everything around the edges so much that it’s hard to hate or even dislike the episode, really. There’s so much going on here, so many balls flying through the air, that even as questions about how Tony deals with the world don’t ring true, there’s something else to intrigue or interest you elsewhere. In particular, this is one of the funniest episodes of the series, even if all of the laughs have a darker core, a place where they give way to some sort of terrifying truth about these characters. In particular, the intervention for Christopher might be the funniest scene in the entire series, as the initially reluctant mobsters gradually forget the whole point of what they’re there to do, so uncomfortable with the whole concept of emotional confrontation are they. Adriana gets things off to a solid start by talking about how Chris can’t function as a man anymore (the cutaway to Paulie is priceless) and how he sat on Cosette and killed her, but things very quickly devolve, as Sil’s speech is simultaneously uninterested in the proceedings and weirdly worked up about Chris’ hair being in a toilet. And all the while, Tony keeps punctuating the proceedings with anger about the dog. By the time things get to Paulie, who forgot the whole “non-judgmental” part of the intervention and just starts ripping on Chris, things can only end in one way: violence.
But the follow-up scene, with Tony visiting Chris at the hospital, is surprisingly tender, especially in the midst of an often farcical episode that seems designed to underline just how little Tony actually feels. Chris has disappointed him, and the only thing standing between Chris and the grave is the fact that he’s Tony’s nephew, and Tony feels a deep love for him. It’s the sort of emotional admission Tony makes rarely to another human being, and it feels all the more honest for being so rare. (For all of our talk in this modern age about how we should be open with emotions, withholding emotions can make the rare moments of expression seem that much more valuable. Just ask any Baby Boomer about the one time they saw their father cry or something equally cliché.) And Tony’s finally realized the extent of the problem. He sends Christopher to a recovery facility, to rehab, something that, again, would have been unthinkable in his father or Junior’s day. (Though Junior shakes his head at the idea of Chris in rehab, he doesn’t outright say it shouldn’t happen.) And so Chris finds himself checking into the facility, Patsy just down the street in case things get out of hand and Chris needs to be shot. The scene where he disappears from Adriana and Patsy’s view (Adriana clutching a handful of Milky Way bars) is another surprisingly poignant moment. In general, the arc of Adriana and Chris’ relationship this season has been tragic, and here’s a moment where her steadfastness seems like it might pay off.
The other concern animating the episode is just what happened to Ralphie. What I had forgotten is that the other characters speculate that Tony might have been responsible, up to and including Paulie and Sil dancing around that hypothesis without ever coming right out and saying it. (Paulie, who’s been dallying with New York, certainly feels the brunt of this fear the most, and the scenes where the painting of Tony seems to be ever judgmentally watching him, a Sopranos version of Dr. T.J. Eckleberg.) And Tony’s so eager to get out from under the weight of suspicion—for surely even he must know that he looks suspicious in this episode—that he edges closer to war with New York, something that conveniently drops itself in his lap when Johnny Sack calls him to a meeting to demand a cut of what Tony and Ralphie were making from the HUD scams. (Notably, this is another seemingly minor season four plot point that’s wrapping itself back into the main narrative as the season comes to a close.) When he steps into the room with all of his main lieutenants and says that he believes New York had something to do with Ralphie’s disappearance, it’s self-preservation, sure, but it’s also a weird destructive streak. If a war with New York happened, would Tony live? And if he lived, what would he even have left?
But everybody in “The Strong, Silent Type” is choosing between self-preservation and being honest. And the act of self-preservation is often a longer-term form of self-destruction. Carmela can never tell Furio how she feels (and vice versa) because to be honest is to end up dead. (Even Rosalie had to be extra inconspicuous with her lover, and he was just some guy from the gym.) Chris has to go into rehab to stay alive, but at the same time, he can’t really open up about what’s likely at the root of his crippling addiction, or else Patsy will put a bullet through his head. And Tony can never really probe the roots of his psychological issues, no matter how much Melfi tries to get him to do so, because to do so would be to expose too much darkness to the light. Being strong and silent is a good thing when you need to inspire confidence, to lead men. But it can also lead to you lying just as much to yourself as anyone else.
- A nice misdirect: Furio sits in his chair, listening to a love song. He gets out of his chair. We cut to Tony, arriving home, calling out for Carmela. She’s not there. A note says she’s checked into a hotel, and he can warm up the rigatoni. Is she there with Furio? Cut to two arms preparing a meal, and from this angle, they almost look like Tony’s arms (particularly with those shirt sleeves). But no. They’re Furio’s. He’s alone, too.
- That painting of Tony is just a wonderful sight gag. I love how happy he looks in the picture, holding his glass of champagne. I love even more the repaint, which awkwardly recasts him as Napoleon.
- The use of martial drums under the closing credits—cutting from the close-up of Tony-as-Napoleon’s eyes—nicely underscores the sense that something bad is coming, that the crew is heading into war without Christopher and under the leadership of a man who’s, as the painter notes, hardly Napoleon.
- The single biggest thing I’ve most changed my mind on in this rewatch has been the performance of Robert Iler. In the early going, he was kind of drab, but as the show has gone on and the writers have figured out how to use him, he’s become a hilariously bratty portrayal of a particular type of spoiled teenager. The scene where he whines about how he was going to go to CompUSA and ended up at Furio’s house is particularly great.
- This may be the longest therapy session Tony and Melfi have had this season up until this point, and Melfi delicately tries to discuss the fact that Carmela has a very different image of Tony’s emotions, while Tony tries to paint himself as the sad clown. I’m impressed yet again by the way the show views Melfi’s gentle confrontations as mostly courageous. She’s really regaining her strength, just in time for what the series initially thought was its end game. (Read any article published during season four, and you’ll find that Chase and his writers were sure season five was going to be it.)
- Tony has no idea what to say about Carmela’s hair, so he tells her it makes her look younger. A nice save, for the most part, though Carmela doesn’t seem to buy it.
- I really love the scene at the dinner with Carmela’s parents, where Tony keeps trying to get people to feel sad for him about Pie-O-My, but nobody really cares.
- I was going to give this episode a B, but I bumped it up because I remembered it includes one of my favorite lines of the series in Svetlana explaining that Americans never expect anything bad to happen and people in other countries always expect something bad to happen.
- Also, Dominic the intervention leader is such a great character.
- "She must've crawled under there for warmth."
- "Karl Malden's nose hairs looked like fuckin' BX cables."
- "He's rather portly to be Napoleon."
- "Your hair was in the toilet water. Disgusting."
- "We are here to talk about you killing yourself with drugs, not my personality!"
Speaking To The Fishes:
- There’s a ton of Christopher foreshadowing in this episode, but in particular, Tony tells Christopher that he oughtta suffocate him. If you’ve seen the rest of the series, you know how this works out.
- Chris’ rehab, of course, doesn’t take, making that scene where Junior tells Tony that he should really just take care of Chris feel extra prophetic.
- There’s also lots of foreshadowing in The Sopranos that DOESN’T take, and it’s interesting to contemplate if the writers were just leaving themselves lots of potential openings, or if they had genuine plot ideas in mind they ended up scuttling. Case in point: The idea that Silvio would be the one to kill any boss who killed one of his men over a horse, which is raised here and never followed up on again but could have been at any time.
Next week: Tensions heat up between New Jersey and New York, and Tony makes a drastic decision in his therapy in “Calling All Cars.”