The Sopranos: "Toodle-Fucking-Oo"/"Commendatori"
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The Sopranos: "Toodle-Fucking-Oo"/"Commendatori"

"Toodle-Fucking-Oo" (season 2, episode 3)

Richie Aprile, brother of Jackie Aprile, has just gotten out of prison. His return to the world of New Jersey after ten years away is a violent one, as he storms through that world without any real regard for what others—particularly Tony—think he should do or say. He's free again, free to do whatever he wants and strike back in the way he desires at the people he feels have wronged him. He rampages through the episode like a monster, and no one quite knows what to do about him. He's like the serial killer in a slasher movie, popping up just when the plot feels as though it's running around in circles, and David Chase and his writers will often use him in this fashion as the season goes on. When he's at the yoga class and sets his eyes on Janice, despite the fact that Janice isn't really the most likable character, it feels horrifying.

The show uses the newfound freedom and swagger of Richie Aprile in the way it does because every other character in the series at this point is in a prison, often of their own making. Richie, the only one who was in an actual prison, knows the sheer joy of being freed, of being able to do whatever he might desire. To everybody else, the kind of life that Richie leads is a dream they're unlikely to attain. Even though they're, ostensibly, in lives where they can do whatever they want, they're pinned in on all sides by situations both of their own creation and of others' creation. Meadow is grounded. Livia is confined to a hospital bed. Carmela is stuck in a life she didn't really expect to end up in. Tony is trapped by his new position. Melfi is trapped by her own fear and moral obligations.

That "Toodle-Fucking-Oo" pulls off this trick without making it seem cutesy is remarkable, really. This is one of the first episodes of The Sopranos where nothing much actually happens, where the show is content to sink into a careful examination of what it was like to live in the United States at the turn of the 21st century. Times are good, mostly, but there's that creeping sense of malaise that inhabits all of the show's middle seasons. "Toodle-Fucking-Oo" is an episode rich with character detail—look at Tony reading the Honeycomb box over breakfast or the conversation among the Soprano family after Meadow gets in trouble—but it's also an episode where the mob storytelling is mostly set off to the side, with Richie coming in every so often to give the episode a literal kick in the teeth.

It's this approach that would eventually drive many fans of The Sopranos—who longed for the relatively straightforward plotting and big payoffs of season one—nuts. Season two isn't so bad in this regard, since it has Richie there to juice things up when they need juicing, but this sense of the series being a set of small art films about a group of characters who were dissatisfied with their lives and struggling to articulate it would grow through the years, and many would wonder when the whacking would begin again. (Season four is probably the apex of this portion of the series' run, and there was a minor backlash against the series at this time, though the season packed a number of hard-hitting episodes into the back half of the season, "saving" it for many.) The central question of the middle seasons of The Sopranos—which I would define as seasons two through four—is "Is this all there is?"

It's a question that hangs heavily over "Toodle-Fucking-Oo," an episode that springs Richie from prison but also introduces Dr. Elliot Kupferberg, Melfi's therapist and a character who could frequently be enervating. In this episode, however, he provides the key to understanding just what Chase and company are trying to unlock. Melfi runs into Tony at a restaurant, and she tries to treat him as someone she once knew and is now being polite toward. Tony gives her the brush off, and she tries to save face by walking off with a "Toodle-oo." In her therapy, she grows angered at herself for using the expression (using the episode title to describe it), and Elliott suggests that she is really two people, Dr. Melfi and Jennifer Melfi. The former is the one that Tony has usually dealt with, and the latter is the one that Melfi chooses to show when she feels belittled by Tony, the actual, real person and not the professional he's been dealing with.

Kupferberg's question for her is just why she felt she needed to hide her professional self—the self Tony knows best—in that moment. She's irritated by how defensively she acts around her former patient. Kupferberg asks if she has sexual feelings for him, a question that is avoided. Later, Melfi dreams of Tony driving along, listening to the Wizard of Oz soundtrack, for some reason, having a panic attack and crashing into a truck. She drives by to see his dead body sprawled across the hood of his car, eyes turned accusatorily toward her. In her earlier session with Elliot, she says that, yeah, one of her patients killed herself because of what Tony did, and it's clear that she feels a similar responsibility toward Tony. He terrifies her and makes her feel small. But she also feels obligated to treat him. She's trapped between the two sides of herself, imprisoned in a world where even a simple expression can make her feel small.

All of the characters, as mentioned, are trapped like this, but let's begin by talking about Livia, who is the only other one to be physically imprisoned, though in this case, her poor health keeps her trapped in her bed. There's something I love about confined performances—James Caan in Misery is a great example—and Nancy Marchand, who was similarly ailing at the time, makes the limited range of movement she has into a virtue. Livia is less physically powerful than she was in the first season, but it almost feels as if her emotional power to flatten everyone in the room with her malevolence has grown. One of the bigger complaints against season two that I've heard is that Livia repeats basically the same two or three story beats over and over and is less capable of manipulating people into doing stuff (because Junior is similarly out of the picture). I thought this for a long while, but I'm pleased with her role now. I like the way that she lashes out, the way she obviously knows that her time is coming, and the only real, lasting damage she's done is psychological. It's one of the better "old person who knows they're about to die" performances on TV, and it's a little unheralded.

But that sense of imprisonment extends to all members of the Soprano family. Meadow, of course, has the most facile and superficial imprisonment of all, as she's grounded for having a big party at her grandmother's house, a party which causes the house to get absolutely trashed by drunken teenagers. This storyline is a pretty effective goof on the fact that teenagers feel their parents just DON'T UNDERSTAND, and everything that comes out of Meadow's mouth plays much more comedically for me now than when I first watched the episode at 19 (and could more easily identify with her). And, of course, the final scene of her cleaning up Livia's house is solid as well. Everyone's imprisonment only ends once they find a way to do their penance, and this is hers, stomach-churning as it seems to her at the time, and the final suggestion to her from her parents that they're still in control.

Her father, meanwhile, is similarly boxed in, though he isn't really cognizant of it yet. No matter what he tells Richie, there's nothing he can do to get the guy to listen to him. Richie just doesn't care, running over Beansie and blatantly doing the opposite of everything Tony tells him to do at any given moment. At the same time, he's trying to think of an appropriate punishment for Meadow, and when Meadow herself comes up with a punishment (having her credit cards taken away), he and Carmela realize it's robbing them of their power but have to figure out a way to combat that. Meadow, one of the things he's proudest of in life, isn't yet an adult—look at that mess she leaves in the kitchen. I usually think when shows do something like have the main character have a personal problem and work problem be metaphorically the same (as Tony's struggles with Meadow and Richie are, more or less, the same here), it's a little too cute. But "Toodle-Fucking-Oo" circumvents that by having the final solution to his problem with Meadow be fairly easy to come by—he is, after all, still her parent—but having his solution to the Richie problem remain far more elusive.

While I could, potentially, go another 3,000 words on how every single character in this episode is in a prison of one sort or another, this article is already late enough as is, and I want to talk at length about "Commendatori." So I'll leave much of the theorizing to you in comments, but I will say that the character whom the imprisonment theme is tossed off most effectively in the episode is Janice. She doesn't even know she's trapped, really, and like Meadow, the things she does to fend off her impending punishment are only half-measures, stopgaps designed to keep her afloat. She can change her name to Parvati all she wants and deny the fact that she is a Soprano. But the more she tries to do this, the more she will be unable to escape her name and everything it carries with it. The only way to do so would be to make a complete break with her family, and she's not strong enough to do that.

We don't get a real sense of who Janice was in Seattle—outside of the fact that she's scamming the government out of welfare dollars and is, therefore, more like her brother than she'd want to admit after all—but this episode lays on even more heavily that there's simply no way for her to escape the family life. The second she comes back to New Jersey, it's like all of the Soprano parts of herself start to wake up, and when she sees Richie Aprile in that yoga class—and he tries to act as though it's just like when they were younger and together—there's no way she can escape. Being a Soprano is a black hole. You can try to break free of its grasp, but you'll ultimately end up sucked right back in. Unless you're Barbara, apparently.

"Toodle-Fucking-Oo" isn't the best episode of The Sopranos ever, but it does feature a number of great moments and some solid observations about the ways that the characters have ensnared themselves in traps. And it features a tremendous performance from David Proval as Richie Aprile, who's something like the id of all of these characters unleashed and able to beat guys up. He's a throwback to an earlier kind of mob story, an earlier kind of mob life, and Tony struggles to know what to do with him for a variety of reasons (his sister's affection for the guy, his relation to Jackie Aprile, etc.), but one of the great unstated ones is the fact that Tony surely recognizes something of himself in Richie. Now that he's the boss and has all of the responsibility, it's less easy for him to simply break out and do the sorts of things Richie does, but there's a sense that he'd love to be doing it anyway. Richie is like all of the characters' unexpressed desires made manifest, and that is why he's the season's main villain. When you reach a certain level of comfort, you have to tamp down all of those animal impulses, and you have to do it as quickly as possible.

Stray observations:

  • By far my favorite really, really minor Sopranos recurring character is terrible impressionist comedian, who turns up again here for some reason. I think he turns up once or twice within the series again?
  • I love Hunter's advice to Meadow to develop an eating disorder to get her parents off her back. That should definitely work, Mead!
  • A.J. hasn't gotten a lot to do this season—beyond inadvertently leaking more information to his grandmother—but I like the way he taunts both Meadow and his parents in this episode. Perfect younger sibling behavior.
  • Elliot Kupferberg's water bottle practically becomes a recurring character in and of itself.
  • I love Melfi's inner struggle, but the whole thing still feels like false drama. If Tony weren't going to return to therapy with her at some point, she wouldn't still be on the show. So every scene with her is just a waiting game about when, exactly, she's going to crumble, and the show can probably sense this, as she doesn't appear in two of the first four episodes (though at least one was filmed much later in the season).
  • "I could have taken ecstasy, but I didn't!"
  • "There's an old Italian saying. You fuck up once, you lose two teeth."
  • "That sweetie? World-class blow job lips."
  • "Start purging. They won't say anything."
  • "Did you ever think you'd see Richie Aprile doing a downward facing dog?"

Speaking to the Fishes:

  • I was wondering just how useful this section would be heading into the later seasons, and I'm surprised by just how much more foreshadow-heavy these episodes are than the season one episodes. Granted, Chase and his writers knew that they'd be around for the long haul at this point, so they could start planning things out over the long term. Obviously, Marchand's death would throw a wrench in the storyline they had planned for Livia over the course of seasons two and three, but for the most part, you can already see them laying the groundwork for seasons three and four in these episodes. And rewatching these episodes has made me at least more charitable toward the "Tony dies!" viewpoint, since there's a very good argument to be made that the sense of autumnal doom that hangs over these episodes is the sense of a man who's about to be killed. Oh God. Now I've ignited the debate in comments again. Forget I said anything.
  • Richie, of course, turns up throughout this season, though I'm surprised, again, that he didn't turn up until this episode, since so much of my memory of the season is tied up in Proval's performance. Kupferberg is there right up until the next-to-last episode, and Beansie pops up a few other times as well, though he's not as important a character as the other two. Oh, I think we see the doctors treating Junior a few additional times as well.
  • Richie and Janice's relationship, which also kicks off here, will, of course, pay off in one of the series' very best moments. Which we'll get to in a month.

"Commendatori" (season 2, episode 4)

The "Hey, we're going on vacation!" episode is a hallmark of television. Every so often, a hit show is able to convince the network to send the cast and crew to go to Hawaii or London or Disneyland for a few days, and the vacation within the show doubles as a vacation for the cast and crew. These episodes are almost uniformly awful. A handful of them work—Modern Family had a good one this season—but most of them become far more about the new setting the characters are inhabiting than they are about the characters and situations themselves. I had forgotten "Commendatori" was the Italy trip episode of The Sopranos and that the Italy trip came so early in the season. I remembered it being better than most vacation episodes, but still falling into some of the same pitfalls, and I wasn't terribly thrilled to see it turn up this week.

Fortunately, it's not as bad as I remembered it being. I'd say that it almost falls to the problems of the vacation episode, but it—for the most part—nimbly eludes them. There's a reason why Christopher keeps talking about going to see the volcano. On any other show, he and Paulie would go there and have a goofy time, with one of them almost falling in or something (this sounds like something that would happen to Joey and Jesse on Full House). But on The Sopranos, Christopher scores such good heroin that he wastes his vacation in his hotel room, sleeping it away. On The Sopranos, you never get to the volcano. The hijinks are left for everyone else to imagine, and the reality is grim and depressing and ends with you buying your girlfriend a gift from the duty-free shop at the airport.

I'm certainly interested in what happens in Italy, and it results in the guys bringing home Furio, who will be important to future storylines, but I'm almost more intrigued by what's going on back in New Jersey. The "Carmela hangs out with the other mob wives" subplots often get a bad rap from fans, but I tend to like them because I enjoy the long tease of Carmela's arc, which basically boils down to just how much she's willing to put up with for her own comfort. There's an absolutely fantastic scene where Janice and Carmela talk about how Angie (now played by a different actress and given a speaking part) is probably going to leave Pussy, and it becomes clear that Janice is actually talking about Carmela.

There are some things in this scene that are a little too on-the-nose—Carmela realizing that Janice really is talking about her, for one—but they're on the nose in the way that a conversation you have with someone that you realize is actually about you is on the nose. Janice suggests more than she comes out and says, saying that a woman of Carmela's intelligence and promise...and then leaving it hanging. It's clear that nearly everyone in Carmela's life thinks that she's settled and not settled well, that she's ended up stuck in the life of a mob wife of limited options and upside, with a man who embodies all of the bad, Neanderthal attitudes that Angie claims to see in Pussy. When Pussy dismisses Angie's cancer diagnosis—the lump was benign—with a "That's nice" because he's got his own problems, Carmela can't help but ever-so-slightly see the way that Tony hasn't let her go along to Italy, even as her own kids seem cognizant of the fact that mom would really like to go.

But, honestly, just about everything going on in Jersey is fantastic. I love the way that the trip to Italy is an aspirational thing for many of these characters, something that they would love to do but only Tony, Paulie, and Christopher actually get to do (and where the hell is Silvio in all of this?). The conversation between Tony and Junior about meeting up with Junior's contacts overseas and how Junior never got to go hums with all of the disappointment of an old man who's realizing he didn't get to do many of the things he wanted to do, and, as mentioned, Carmela's raw envy powers much of her storyline. Italy is a place that holds an attraction for these characters, a homeland to return to and roots to get in touch with. Tony is being a good businessman by only taking a handful of associates over there, but he's also asserting his power and control over everyone else in his life. He's the gatekeeper now, and he can lord that over other people whether he's aware of it or not.

Pussy, of course, is so seemingly deaf to his wife's problems because his problems dominate his thought process so thoroughly. He and Skip are wandering through a party store, talking about the Italy trip, when he happens to run into another mob guy (with an absolutely terrific dolly in on his face), an Elvis impersonator named Jimmy (sadly, Pussy will kill Jimmy, and we'll never get to see him again). The thing is, if he could just sit down and talk with Angie about his anxieties, it might be what would save their marriage. They're both so anxious about such different things that there's every possibility that simply sitting down to talk about these things would put them on the same footing. But, of course, Pussy can never do that, for fear Angie might let something slip in front of the other wives, and Angie will never know, and their marriage—burdened by secrets and lies at its center—will continue to erode from within.

In contrast to all of this is Carmela and her Andrea Bocelli song, sitting in her bedroom and doing the laundry and hearing all of the longing in his voice and feeling none of it in her own life. And then her husband comes home, almost as Angie depicts her husband returning from his long absence, and it's hard not to feel that she's missing exactly as much as Janice and others suggest she might be missing. She comes down so hard on people who contemplate divorce because it's the one thing that she would never possibly consider doing, even though it's the only thing she wants. The story of Carmela in The Sopranos is the story of a woman who slowly comes to realize just how much of a mess her life actually is, just how big the cracks in her facade have become. And from here, we watch as she tries to figure out a way to slip between the cracks or to close them up.

With all of this going on in Jersey, the Italy stuff occasionally almost feels like a stopgap, as though Chase and the writers convinced HBO to do an episode in Italy and then had to figure out a way to fill that episode with stuff. It's not as though I don't like the various things happening in Italy. I think Annalisa is a fascinating character and one that nicely puts Tony in his place about the various things he believes. I love the ways that Christopher and Paulie's different reactions to Italy reveal fundamental things about their characters. I even like the weird little jokes scattered throughout the episode, like the way that the don only wants to recite street names, rather than conducting actual business. But there's a sense that the episode is working overtime to avoid being just a vacation episode, and that makes some of this feel more labored than the very best episodes of The Sopranos ever feel. It's a much, much better episode than I remembered it being (and in the course of writing about it, I've talked myself into liking it even more than I thought I did), but the Italy stuff is strained.

That said, I like Tony's relationship with Annalisa, the way it seems like it might turn into something more at any moment and the way that Tony is the one to call it off in that final meeting at the cave. He doesn't shit where he eats, and though he's not entirely sure about what to do with a female boss, he knows he's not going to sleep with her, no matter how attracted to her he is. He works out a deal to sell her the stolen cars for less than he had been planning on doing so, in exchange for getting Furio to come over to the States and be a man he could be certain wasn't a leak for anybody else. It's a shrewd bit of dealing, and Tony still gets double the value of the cars, which suggests, again, what a good businessman he is. Annalisa is a fascinating character, and it's too bad she only makes one other appearance in the series, though I have no idea how the show might have squeezed her into other episodes.

But the main value of the Italy segments is to make our characters feel out of place. New Jersey is their world, and, to a degree, season two is about feeling trapped and feeling uncomfortable. The sense of displacement here is the same displacement Livia feels in the old folk's home, is the same displacement Christopher will feel when he travels to Hollywood in a few weeks' time. There were probably better ways to show this than by having the Italian characters constantly joking about how stupid Tony and his men are in their native language, but look at the way Tony's face turns from something like shock to something like awe when Furio takes the kid who lit the firecrackers aside and beats him up. He knows he's in over his head, and he knows there's ways he could be better. Sometimes, forcing yourself outside of your normal living space is the way to realize what it is that you actually have to do.

Stray observations:

  • This episode was filmed ninth in the season, and while most of it makes more sense fitted into the fourth episode slot, quite a bit of it seems to play toward the conflicts that develop late in the season, about which I'll say more in Speaking with the Fishes.
  • I enjoyed the scene with the upper class family that has its Mercedes stolen, especially the way Churchill runs away from the scene of the crime and off into the darkness of the city. It's the perfect family night, completely destroyed and ruined, and it continues the season's "bullies picking on the little guys" theme. Churchill probably has the right idea, getting out of this moment whenever he can, particularly when dad starts throwing out racial slurs. And then, the least subtle cut ever after he says, "Who else?" (On the director's commentary, Tim Van Patten says, once Tony appears on screen, "There's who else!" which makes me think he's maybe not as smart as I always hoped.)
  • Paulie's constant interruptions of Tony in Italy are hilarious. His obsequious fawning is one of the things that just gets funnier every time you watch the show.
  • To be fair, I'd smack Pussy around with the roses too given what he did.
  • Sometimes, it seems like the only things these guys talk about in their off-hours are business and their favorite parts of The Godfather and its sequel.
  • Death count ticks up another with the death of Elvis Jimmy.
  • "Somebody should tell Paramount Pictures to get their fuckin' act together."
  • "Ton? Ton? You try this octopus yet?"
  • "I'm gonna hoof it back to the Excelsior. I gotta take a wicked shit."
  • "I hope we get some spare time. I'm gonna see that fuckin' volcano."
  • "Richie, because of his experiences in prison, he has a sensitivity toward women!"

Speaking to the Fishes:

  • Carmela first openly considers leaving Tony in this episode (though it's been a subtext before). The series marks its shift to its third act when she actually does, at the end of season four, and the question of whether she'll escape or not becomes a major portion of the show's final act.
  • Furio is a big part of the reason why Carmela grows more distant from Tony. He's just so handsome, and he does all the things she'd like. (It sure seems like Carmela has a thing for blatantly obvious beefcakes with a romantic streak.)
  • Tony, here, gets some hints about how to deal with problematic people that will come in handy when it's finally time for him to take Richie out at the end of the season. Again, this episode makes more sense at number four, but it could work pretty well as number nine too.

Your comments:

  • Some of you wanted to discuss how Janice's hippie nature slowly erodes as the show goes on. I think this is intentional, that the whole thing was just an act from the earliest and this was the way that it gradually revealed itself as an act. But I can see where some would see that as inconsistent character writing.
  • John L. points out that Chase's original plan for Livia was to have Tony kill her at the end of season one, and then he relented under pressure. Is this true? I have no idea. But it would explain how Livia seems to have so little to do in season two when she was such an important character in season one and how she seems to be a little more palatable at this point in the series' run. Baked Bean Teeth also mentions that Marchand kept working because she wanted to keep working, even though she was very ill, which would explain why she's confined to a bed or chair so often. The producers of Everybody Loves Raymond ended up having to do a very similar thing with Peter Boyle.
  • My mention of the "three great HBO dramas" got some of you wondering what I meant. Naturally, I mean The Sopranos, The Wire, and Deadwood. Deadwood is my favorite of the three, for reasons I went on at length about less summer, but I don't blame anyone who prefers one of the other two. If your favorite is Six Feet Under, though? We're going to have words.
  • And Larry has some good thoughts on Janice: "I think people are focusing way too much on Janice's superficial hippie-dom and ignoring the loathsome Soprano underneath. She's easily as monstrous as Tony, if not—in her own way—even more so. She only elicits sympathy because she, unlike Tony, at least occasionally LOSES. The event that established her character for me (SPOILERS) was her theft of the prosthetic leg, and the fact that even though she's slightly roughed-up for it, she basically gets away with it. She's constantly showing herself to be ruthless, selfish, and brutally sociopathic in much the same way Tony is. Self-serving and self-righteous, she's the most repulsive character the show dreamed up. Tony has slightly more self-awareness, and at least puts on shows of guilt at times. Perhaps they're genuine, but short-lived, or perhaps he's just been socialized JUST ENOUGH to realize that it's only polite to do so. But whereas Janice pretty much NEVER admits she's wrong, Tony at times indicates, if not quite remorse, then a conscious desire to improve."

Next week: Terence Winter joins the show in "Big Girls Don't Cry," and Tony and Melfi get back into therapy in "The Happy Wanderer."

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