“The Telltale Moozadell” (season 3, episode 9)
In which A.J. gets in trouble (again), Tony and Gloria get closer and closer, Jackie and Meadow do the same, and Christopher buys Adriana a club.
Early on in “The Telltale Moozadell,” Jackie, Jr., has come over to the Soprano house to see his new girlfriend, Meadow. He and A.J. are playing a little game of football, so Jackie can impart his knowledge of the game to the younger boy. Watch the quarterback, Jackie says, especially his eyes. If you’re paying enough attention, you can pick up on his tells, figure out if he’s going to pass or hand-off or run the ball himself. And if you start to get his tells, you can dominate the game defensively, by cutting the other teams most offensive player off almost entirely. The theory extends to pretty much all fields of human interaction: If you can predict what someone is going to do completely and totally, then you can remove them from the playing field, be that the field of business or sports or politics or even something as basic as love. What we really want is to know exactly what people are going to do.
And yet, we pretty much DO know what most of the people in our lives are going to do at any given moment, especially if we know them well. You probably knew I’d begin this article with a lengthy, somewhat rambling and discursive discussion about a minor point within this episode, and I’ve obliged you by delivering. You probably knew how your mom was going to react to the Christmas gift you just bought her, and you probably know how your boyfriend or girlfriend will react to certain words or phrases from your relationship history. We use objects and phrases as keys to unlock deeper emotions with those we love. But what haunts us is the idea that we DON’T know, that we’re going to give our mother a gift, and she’s going to say she hates it, or bring up something we said to the person we love on our first date, and he or she will just react with disgust. There’s always that fear that the façade will come tumbling down, and someone will start being completely unpredictable and, thus, somewhat unknowable.
If we can predict how the people in our lives will react usually within reason, then we can REALLY predict how the characters on some of our favorite TV shows will react to certain events. And there’s no show where this is more true than on The Sopranos, a series relentlessly devoted to the idea that people only change when they have a vested interest in doing so. For the most part, people are just going to do what they’ve been doing, rarely content to leave their comfortable little holes. “The Telltale Moozadell,” the weakest episode of season three and one that seems slightly too chaotic on a first viewing, is all about whether behavior can be predicted to a fault. Can you know what’s up with someone based on their lineage? Can you figure out how a person is likely to react to a certain situation based on past behavior? Does the fact that a woman says “poor you” mark her as unstable from the word go?
There are four main story thrusts in the episode, as outlined above. Of the four, the most compelling is Tony’s growing infatuation with Gloria. This is the first time we’ve really seen him at the beginning of one of his extra-marital relationships, and it’s intriguing to watch the way that he and Carmela handle the situation. Carmela doesn’t know that he’s cheating on her, but she definitely suspects something is up, from the way she asks what’s going on as he’s lying in bed and watching TV. She understands, on some level, that the sapphire ring he got her for her birthday is a birthday gift, sure, but also a way of him doing penance for treating her badly, even though she doesn’t know what it is he’s done yet. Tony, for his part, can’t seem to find the will to avoid dallying with this beautiful but obviously damaged woman. (The damage, indeed, is a part of the appeal.) The camera keeps isolating the two in shots where Tony stands far, far away from her, then daring him to close the distance between the two. Inevitably, he does.
The Sopranos uses the audience’s omniscience cannily, most of the time, and the Gloria storyline is another example of this. In season two, for instance, we knew that Pussy was talking to the feds, and we knew it was a matter of time before Tony caught on. The show made the most of that knowledge, creating a situation where every conversation between the two, no matter how mundane, was incredibly suspenseful. The show accomplishes something similar with Gloria, using she and Tony’s one mutual acquaintance, Melfi, to inform us of a bunch of stuff we need to know going forward. Gloria attempted to commit suicide after a recent bad breakup. When she said she had murdered seven relationships in the last episode, that didn’t give a real sense of just how much the end of those relationships had damaged her. She’s a mess, and while Tony knows this on some level, he doesn’t know this to the extent that Melfi and the audience do.
Of course, this, too, has something to do with predictability. Melfi, more than anyone on The Sopranos, understands the fact that people get trapped in patterns of behavior, and sometimes those patterns aren’t beneficial. Right now, she, in fact, seems to be trapped in a cycle of loathing her patients, who fail to regard much of anything she says with the needed gravitas. And why shouldn’t she feel this way? Both Gloria and Tony essentially avoid entirely what she’s saying to them in this episode, even though she knows the roads the two are going down all too well, even if she doesn’t know they’re going down that road together (and we can imagine her anger when she finds out). To Tony, Gloria’s still just a good time on some level, a woman who will have sex in the reptile house. To Melfi, she’s a woman who has yet to do the hard work of putting her life back in order, so that she might be actually able to pursue an adult relationship. There’s a level on which The Sopranos is primarily about avoiding responsibility, and this episode is rife with that theme. Or, put another way, this is the kind of universe where Gloria saying “Poor you” to Tony or being fascinated by his gun should be a warning bell to him. Instead, he beds her.
AJ’s also looking to avoid responsibility, though he’s doing so for a mostly understandable and believable reason: He’s an adolescent. First, he gives his mother The Matrix for her birthday. (It’s “right up her alley,” Tony says, hilariously.) Then, on the night of Carmela’s birthday, he breaks into Verbum Dei with some friends and trashes the swimming pool. It’s notable here, I think, that AJ is just a kid who goes along with what’s happening. The other kids are the ringleaders, with only one taking the initiative to break open the trophy case before the others come along to toss the trophies into the pool. Another show might have made AJ a junior copy of his father, to better drive home how the life Tony has chosen has doomed his family. (The show is roughly playing out this arc with Jackie, Jr., instead.) But AJ is weak-willed and willing to go along with the flow. He’s good out on the football field, but when he’s hanging out with friends and a young Lady GaGa, all he really wants to do is impress them, not take the initiative, for good or ill, with them. There’s not a lot more to this plotline, though I find the character of the Verbum Dei administrator who hands out AJ’s punishment rather amusing, but it’s another sign of just how little Tony’s son is like his father.
This is a Michael Imperioli-scripted episode, so of course there’s going to be a Christopher subplot, and while that plot has very little to do with anything, it’s at least fairly unobtrusive. Christopher, still feeling a little bad about forcing Adriana to quit her job, takes a club from its owner, who owes money after a bad bet. (The show creates a conscious echo of what happened to David Scatino last season, when it has Tony and Meadow fight, again, over him giving her Eric Scatino’s car after David offered it up as a part of his payment. David’s now in a mental health facility in Nevada, as it turns out, where he’s presumably fantasizing about helping Agent Scully out on The X-Files.) Chris gives the club to Adriana, that she might turn it into a place to bring the bands she discovers to the world and that he might have a place to carry out some of his business without having to worry about the feds, at least just yet. Nothing anybody does on The Sopranos is wholly altruistic, but this act is about as sweet as anybody gets, and it’s a good reminder of how solid the Chris and Adriana relationship is at a baseline, even if the show usually plays the two’s romance for comedy.
The story of the new club (renamed Crazy Horse) intersects with the episode’s other major storyline, however, and the one storyline that really holds back the episode. Theoretically, seeing the story of Tony trying to keep the son of a beloved colleague away from a life of crime and failing at every turn is interesting, and theoretically, seeing that young man date Tony’s daughter is even more interesting. If one of the biggest themes of the season is examining who Tony is as a father, then there’s plenty of rich material here, as he tries to keep Meadow on the straight and narrow and away from a life that would bring her anywhere near the kind of life the woman who wanted to be his surrogate daughter (Tracee) had, and as he tries to keep Jackie, Jr., from failing as a student and a boyfriend to his beloved Meadow. Unfortunately, something about the storyline just hasn’t clicked yet. Maybe it’s Jason Cerbone’s performance as Jackie, Jr., which is serviceable but hasn’t really crossed the line from “idiotic young guy who doesn’t know what he’s getting into” to “tragic figure” just yet. The Sopranos is usually so sure-handed about mixing comedy with drama that the ham-fisted attempts to make Jackie, Jr., both a figure of humor and sympathy seem even more odd. Furthermore, Cerbone’s chemistry with Jamie-Lynn Sigler is virtually non-existent (though, come to think of it, Sigler rarely had much chemistry with any of the men playing her boyfriends), which makes the budding romance between the two even harder to take. This storyline, simply, should be as Shakespearean in practice as it is in theory, but bringing together the tragic prince of one of the series’ great families with the princess of another just hasn’t paid off like the show hoped it would.
The Jackie, Jr., storyline intersects with the Christopher one when Jackie’s friend Matush is kicked out of the Crazy Horse after trying to sell ecstasy there. (Chris is trying to give the feds as little leeway to raid or bug the place as possible.) Jackie, who asked Chris to just let Matush sell there and turn a blind eye as a favor, is quickly rebuffed by Chris, but he’s unable to just tell Matush that the Crazy Horse is off-limits. Instead, he lies and says that Matush can sell drugs outside of the establishment, so long as he doesn’t go inside. Matush is already upset about this stipulation, but he’ll become even more upset when he discovers that Jackie simply didn’t tell him the truth. When Furio and the others discover him selling outside the club, they beat the hell out of him, even though he mentions Jackie’s name, and he ends up in the hospital. And while this storyline has its moments (and could, conceivably, have worked as a sort of exploration of what guys have to do to break into this world), it’s relying too heavily on the shoulders of an untested and uninteresting character to carry it. Jackie, Jr., isn’t irritating enough to sink season three entirely on his own, but he is just bland enough to keep this episode from hitting the heights the series is capable of. Like most storylines on The Sopranos, we can predict where this is going, but in this case, that's not a good thing.
- The Poe reference in the title calls to the custom-order pizza that AJ and the kids leave at the Verbum Dei pool, the only link between the kids and what happened. But Poe comes up again when Jackie tells Tony he got an A on the paper he wrote about the guy for an English class, a paper that Meadow actually prepared for him.
- Aaron once again asks Jackie if he’s heard the good news. Having the character do the same thing twice in two episodes has to mean something, but I suspect it just means the writers liked the incongruity of the exchange from the last episode as much as I did.
- Carmela’s Andrea Bocelli song of longing recurs in her birthday scene, though this is a happier occasion for her than the uses of the song previously have been.
- I like how the thing Tony seems to be most upset about in regards to AJ’s prank is the fact that it occurred on his mother’s birthday. Tony being less upset about actual events than he is about the timing of them and how they might inconvenience him or Carmela is a consistent character trait throughout the series.
- Rather oddly, the HBO description of the episode, reprinted on the DVD menu, describes AJ’s act as a “cry for help,” even as the show depicts it mostly as a teenage prank.
- As mentioned above, that’s a young Lady GaGa as one of the three girls hanging out with the guys at the swimming pool. She’s the blonde one, in case you’re wondering. (I couldn’t pick her out without consulting the Internet.)
- This week’s “Thanks, Wikipedia!” comes thanks to the site pointing out the fact that Vincent Pastore (Big Pussy) once owned the club that becomes Crazy Horse.
- The movie Tony’s watching stars W.C. Fields. The Fields’ screen persona and the character of Tony have some odd similarities, come to think of it.
- Paulie and Tony have a conversation about how snakes have both sex organs and can, thus, in Paulie’s words, fuck themselves. Why do you call someone a snake? Because you can’t trust them, like you can’t trust someone with both sex organs, apparently. What about the Adam and Eve story? "Snakes were fucking themselves long before Adam and Eve showed up."
Speaking With The Fishes:
- Matush is one of those characters on the edges of the series who takes on this whole other life that becomes almost more compelling offscreen than onscreen. He only appears in three episodes (two of which are in season three), but he’s brought up without appearing a handful of times, including in the final season, when Agent Harris intimates to Tony that he’s involved in some sort of terrorist organization. Is he? Is this just the FBI being suspicious of him because of his nationality and former criminal associations? We never find out. (We’ll talk about this more when we get to it, but, in general, the final season’s suggestions of terrorist attacks that never happen both add to that season’s apocalyptic mood and create a nice sense of never-ending suspicion that dovetails nicely with at least one reading of the final scene.)
- Crazy Horse will, of course, become an important setting for the rest of the series, as it’s the home of the events that finally cause Adriana to flip and inform to the feds once and for all.
- I suspect most fans of the show would have picked up on this already, but Gloria saying “Poor you,” as alluded to above, is foreshadowing for Melfi’s ultimate query to Tony about whether Gloria reminds him of anyone. To my mind, Gloria’s the show’s canniest method of having Livia remain a part of the show without actually having Livia be a part of the show. (Well, her and the way that Livia lives on through Tony, that is.)
Next week: Christmas comes a little late for the Sopranos clan with “… To Save Us All From Satan’s Power.” And after that, I’ll likely take a week off, but it’ll be worth it, as “Pine Barrens” is next.