“… To Save Us All From Satan’s Power …” (season 3, episode 10)
In which Tony is haunted by the ghost of Christmas past.
Many of the great Christmas stories have ghosts in them. There’s even a tradition (especially prevalent in Britain) of placing ghosts in the midst of Christmas festivities, letting their presence provide a sort of mournful counterpoint to the festive goings-on at the story’s center. Now, obviously, some of this has to do with the most famous Christmas story (outside of the Biblical one, at least) having several ghosts at its center. Everybody would like to be Charles Dickens or at least get a taste of his residuals. But there’s another reason ghost stories do so well at Christmastime. The end-of-year holidays, leading on in to New Year’s, are all about taking stock, about looking back over the year before or the years preceding and seeing where you were at the start and how far you’ve come. Traditions you inherited from great grandparents you never met may still hold sway, and nostalgia becomes so thick it could choke you if you gave it half an inch.
When members of the upper classes in the nascent United States and the United Kingdom tried to repurpose Christmas from the raucous drinking holiday it was into a more staid holiday where families stayed at home, they leaned heavily on the nostalgia button. Some of the writings of the time described festive country Christmases of the writers’ youths that almost certainly never existed, so great was the desire to create this sensation of this holiday being uniquely permeable for the past, a place where the ghosts of what we’ve known and who we’ve been seep through. And they succeeded, more or less. Families often take the time of year to remember those who’ve gone on before or look at old photo albums or talk about the year that was. In the last week of the year, it often makes as much sense to look backward as it does forward.
The same goes for Tony Soprano and The Sopranos as a series. Much of season three has seen Pussy Bonpensiero’s death lurk around the edges of the frame. He popped up as a ghost at Livia’s funeral. Tony dealt with his widow (though she couldn’t exactly prove she was a widow). Big Mouth Billy Bass popped up and reminded Tony of the talking fish in his dream. (Has any show gotten as much weirdly tragic mileage out of a bit of cultural ephemera so instantly disposable as The Sopranos got out of Billy Bass?) But the series didn’t bother to make much of this front and center. It was always at the side of an episode, tangential to the main storylines swirling around the characters. Fittingly, the series uses its one Christmas episode to fill in bits and pieces of just how the death of Pussy continues to affect Tony.
It’s the first Christmas since Pussy’s death, which means that no one’s around to play Santa Claus for the neighborhood Christmas party at Satriale’s. Tony’s put in mind of one Christmas in particular, the Christmas of 1995, after Paulie brings it up early in the episode. That Christmas, Pussy brokered a deal between Jackie Aprile and Junior, a deal that kept the peace long enough for both men to salvage their pride and, most likely, their lives. Pussy went down to Boca to find Junior, and the guys now suspect he flipped when he was in Florida, though Tony knows that’s not the case. He was with Junior the whole time. But Sil, who’s similarly haunted by dreams of his dead former friend, points out that for some reason, Pussy missed the actual meeting between Jackie and Junior, the meeting he set up. Could that have been when the Feds brought Pussy into their operation? And could he have been wearing a wire under the Santa suit at that year’s Christmas party? It’s a ridiculous notion, really, but he was a little uptight before the party got under way and he had to force holiday cheer.
In general, I don’t believe that Pussy was flipped in 1995. He says in season two that he’s been working for the Feds for about a year and a half, which would roughly correspond to the period when he goes missing in season one (which probably takes place in 1998, but the timeline on this show is always a little wonky). There are some fans who read this as the truth, as Tony and Sil realizing in retrospect something they should have seen coming from quite a ways off. But Pussy has no real reason to lie in season two, and the series has frequently shown how the mobsters’ paranoia can distort their perceptions of events. It seems more likely that what’s going on here is something of a reckoning. Pussy was most likely Tony’s best friend. Even though he betrayed Tony, Tony’s not able to immediately forget what the man meant to him. Nor are any of the other guys. And when Bobby proves a terrible Santa Claus, the reminders become even more poignant. Christmas stories are often about people realizing just how much they’ve always had that they didn’t even know about. Notice how Tony and Carmela watch the ultimate example of this type of story: It’s A Wonderful Life. But “… To Save Us All From Satan’s Power …” is less about this and more about a man who’s starting to realize all of the things he’s lost.
Nearly every shot of “Satan’s,” at least nearly every shot in the Tony storyline, is haunted by Pussy in one way or another, even if he’s not physically (or paranormally) present in all of them. The rolling waves remind Tony of Pussy’s final resting place (and remind viewers of the notions of permanence raised in “Funhouse”). Billy Bass reminds him of the dreams. The big box of Christmas decorations and that Santa suit remind him of times when the two could be fighting one minute and Pussy could be launching into a hearty “Ho, ho, ho!” for the kids in the neighborhood.
Check out a couple of great midshots of James Gandolfini as Tony. First is the one early in the episode, when he just wakes up and has sat up to begin his day. It’s shortly after he was at the shore and was reminded of Pussy’s death. His face seems to almost crumple, and a panic attack begins, forcing him to lay back down (though it doesn’t stop Carmela to wander back through and give him something else to put on his list of to-dos). Then check out the shot at the end, after Tony opens his gift from Meadow, the gift of a singing fish. The camera observes Tony from a slightly lower angle this time, the better to keep Billy flopping back and forth between staring right up at Tony, then flat against the board that is his backing, out of focus in the lower part of the frame. Notice how Tony seems almost on the edge of another attack, how his face crumples just a bit again, before he regains composure and thanks his daughter in the manner of all parents who’ve gotten an inexplicable gift from their kids. And as the fish continues to sing, the frame dissolves into the rolling waves, gospel music drowning out Billy’s singing. Pussy may be gone, but the memory of who he was, how he betrayed his friends, and what his friends did to him will live on.
For an episode this late in the game of a Sopranos season, there’s not a lot going on, plot-wise, in “Satan’s.” Tony settles the score with Janice’s Russian attacker, leaving him bloodied and beaten underneath Santa’s sleigh in a department store window display (and prompting Janice to such fits of appreciation that she adds a verse about brotherhood to the Christian song she’s writing with Aaron). Jackie, Jr., who’s barely in this episode, finds yet another way to prove he’s unworthy of Meadow’s love by consorting with a stripper at the Bing, then giving Meadow a necklace inscribed with his promise to “always be true” to Tony’s disgust. (Another great shot: Jackie and Meadow, out of focus in the foreground, discussing the gift, while Tony looks on in irritation, framed between them in focus in the background.) There’s some comedic business about Janice wanting to host Christmas dinner and cook a goose, all the while conspiring to get into Christian music with Aaron. There’s a surprisingly long “opening presents” scene that’s nicely observed, like how Meadow’s new coat still has the tags attached as she wears it or like how AJ’s already zipping around on the scooter Carmela was bugging Tony about earlier. The mob business is barely present in the episode, outside of the flashbacks. The contents of the meeting between Jackie and Junior or the details of the money transfer Tony makes midway through aren’t really necessary, even less so than these sorts of things normally are. We get the gist; what’s really important are the emotions that these memories arouse in the men having them.
There’s also a lot more faith in the audience to keep up with what’s going on than the show has displayed on some occasions. Perhaps trusting that having an episode full of flashbacks featuring the guy would keep Pussy fresh in viewers’ minds, the show never belabors what, say, the shot of the rolling waves or the Billy Bass could be triggering in Tony’s head. There’s a temptation with flashback-heavy episodes like this one to underline every detail, to make sure that the audience is getting the fact that the past was a better place and everyone’s lost so much since then. “Satan’s” is wonderfully subtle, for the most part, understanding that at the core of Tony’s nostalgia is the fact that he murdered his best friend. No matter how necessary that murder was for Tony’s business prospects and no matter how much it needed to be carried out for Tony to remain a free man, it’s still a hell of a thing to have to put up with. Indeed, when Melfi tries to broach the subject with Tony (instead of the other way around), he simply walks out of the session. This is something he’s not willing to confront in any detail, lest he realize how much he’s damned.
And yet how objective are these flashbacks supposed to be? They’re all clearly memories that Tony is having, spurred sometimes by things his friends and associates say but usually stemming entirely from his own thoughts. The Sopranos is so smart about how people’s perceptions of what happen color everything they do that I can’t imagine we’re supposed to see these scenes as the unvarnished truth. Every single one of them seems chosen to highlight how, say, Pussy was a great Santa but acted suspiciously or how Jackie, Jr., was the apple of his father’s eye, seeming awfully smart to everybody around him. Now, five years on, Pussy’s dead, Jackie, Sr., is long gone, and Jackie, Jr., is making out with a stripper at the Bing and carrying around a gun. Things are on the decline.
“… To Save Us All From Satan’s Power …” is a fairly slight episode of The Sopranos, but it carries a powerful sense of lost potential with it. It’s a necessary pause in a season-long storyline that’s starting to pick up some steam (notice how Ralphie doesn’t even appear), but it’s also a pause that fills in just how much Tony continues to isolate himself, to close himself off from what was once a better, perhaps more understandable world. The past is a place we might long to return to, but it’s a country forever barred to us, no matter how much we try. Fitting, then, that the one time of the year where we seem to long to go back most desperately is also the one time when Tony Soprano realizes how little he’s gained and how much he’s lost.
- Not gonna lie. I’m kinda bummed this ended up feeling ever so slightly not seasonally appropriate. On the other hand, we’re still in the midst of the 12 days and, indeed, tonight’s Twelfth Night. I trust you’re all going to head out to the local mead hall for some revels?
- Bobby’s endless lament about his shyness is very funny. Steve Schirripa is a gifted comic actor, and it’s fun to see the show figuring out how to use him.
- I, for one, would have liked to have seen Tony in the Santa suit.
- Dr. Melfi calls this time of year Stressmas. Just so you know.
- Another nice little moment: Carmela takes some time out to listen to Christmas music and “enjoy the tree,” which is when Meadow chooses to come home. My mom always liked to “enjoy the tree,” too. Is this something everybody’s mom did?
- Hesh seems awfully into the whole Christmas festivities for being Jewish. Then again, Hesh is always up for any sort of party.
- Some more Soprano history filled in: Tony’s dad took over Satriale’s after old man Satriale put a bullet in his brain. (Actually, we may have known that. I can’t remember offhand.)
- The makeup and hairpieces given to the actors to make them look five years younger are all sort of goofy looking. Have all of these people aged THAT MUCH in the ensuing five years? Paulie having very little grey hair five years ago is particularly bad. That said, I was impressed by how young they were able to make Jackie, Jr., until I realized that the kid playing him five years ago was the older actor’s younger brother.
- I enjoy Sil taking the little kid aside to lecture him after he yells “fuck you!” at Bobby-Santa.
- There are literally only two jokes about Aaron: He’s a fundamentalist Christian, and he frequently falls asleep. Yet the show continues to make both of those jokes hysterical.
- Some nice Christmas music choices in this episode. They’re familiar, so you could buy these people listening to them, but not so familiar as to be tooth-grindingly irritating.
- The newly liberated Charmaine Bucco is … very nice to look at.
- "It's a great mother-jumpin' lyric, Jan!"
- "You're Santa Claus! So shut the fuck up about it!"
- "I didn't wanna do this. Shyness is a curse!"
Speaking With The Fishes:
- I sort of lied above when I said this was the only Sopranos Christmas episode. Technically, “Kaisha” also takes place at Christmastime, though the holiday is much more tangential to that episode, and the Christmas celebration at its end is meant to stand much more firmly as sort of a “last good time” before everything turns to shit in the final nine episodes.
- Tony’s issues with the Russians will bubble over in the very next episode.
- Given Pussy’s presence as both a literal and figurative ghost this season, I’m always surprised to remember he doesn’t appear again until late season five, and in that season, he’s in a dream sequence, instead.
Two weeks from now: I’m taking next week off for the Television Critics Association press tour (I know … BOOOO), but in two weeks, it’s time for the one, the only … “Pine Barrens.”