“Two Tonys” (season 5, episode 1; originally aired 3/7/2004)
In which Tony’s gone, but he’s still there
The Sopranos is about a great many things: the decline of the United States, the waning influence of organized crime, the immigrant experience (a few generations removed), psychotherapy, the impossibility to living up to fiction, etc. But if there’s one thing it’s about more than any other thing to me, it’s marriage. The most consistent, detailed throughline of the series is the story of Tony and Carmela Soprano, the ways they come together and fall apart and the ways they build each other up and destroy each other, almost without realizing they’re even doing so. The show’s seemingly aimless fourth season revealed its true goal all along in the finale, “Whitecaps,” where we saw Tony and Carmela finally push the big, red button marked self-destruct and lay waste to their decades-long relationship. It’s a great episode of TV, one that was seen as historical immediately after it aired.
Which, of course, means that the biggest question “Two Tonys” has to answer is “Now what?”
Season five of The Sopranos just might be my favorite. It combines the terrific character explorations of seasons two and four with the more thoroughly plotted arcs of seasons one and three. Add to that the fact that the show finally had a vague sense that it was near the end, and you’ve got 13 episodes that tell a complete story that also allow plenty of room for diversions and interesting character digressions. If The Sopranos—more than any other great drama series—is a series about how being a television character would ultimately turn you into kind of a sociopath, season five is the first season to confront this idea directly. (Notice how Kupferberg labels Tony a “sociopath” in his session with Melfi, which is, I believe, the first time the s-word has been pinned on the big guy.) Season four was all about spotting the cliff far off in the distance and realizing there was plenty of time to turn. Season five is about realizing the guy behind the wheel’s really quite comfortable driving the car over the cliff, thank you very much.
If there’s a plot in “Two Tonys,” it’s one marked by absence, specifically that of Tony Soprano, now gone from his house and gone from his therapy, leaving both Carmela and Melfi wondering what to do about him. Carmela, for her part, would probably be happy enough to never see him again, even if he keeps the money pouring in. She’s still in the part of the separation where she can feel self-righteous about her choice, certain that what she did was best for herself and her kids. And maybe it was. Maybe in another universe, Carmela actually gets away from Tony’s pernicious influence and starts to realize just how much her husband dragged her down with his blood money (as the therapist she visited in season three labeled it). In this one, though, she stays in the house that money built and feels quite comfortable continuing to take that cash from Tony. And if we know one thing about Tony Soprano, it’s that he gets what he wants in the end.
Except for Dr. Melfi, maybe. Even as she’s honest enough to admit that there’s a spark between her and Tony, a spark that manifests in a brief vision of herself mounting him in a seedy hotel room somewhere, she’s strong enough to not let that spark travel any further than her imagination. The scenes between Tony and Melfi in this episode are ripe with sexual tension that seems as if it could boil over at any moment. In particular, the moment when Tony kisses Melfi, then refuses to back away for a second or two, feels as if it’s going to take the show down a path it couldn’t have traveled in previous seasons. TV shows are particularly susceptible to the idea of throwing together two characters with chemistry in later seasons, just to see what happens. Might the show do that? As it turns out, no. This is just the latest in a long line of temptations regarding Tony that Melfi must face. Where once she refused to turn him into her attack dog, she’s now refusing to let him care for her in another manner.
It’s notable just how charming and boyishly jubilant Tony is in this episode when it comes to Melfi. Enough time has passed that whatever wounds he carried around about his separation have mostly been set aside, and when he goes over to his old home, his concern for Carmela mostly seems to be a part of his masculine ideal, the strong, silent type who takes care of the bear in the backyard. But when he talks about Melfi—to her face or to Sil—or even when he just thinks about her—while watching Prince Of Tides with Valentina—there’s a kind of giddy, schoolboy-ish energy present that we’ve rarely seen in the guy. He talks about keeping his weight down. He talks about how there are two Tonys, the troubled one and, presumably, the untroubled one, the happy wanderer who would go through life with a smile on his face and a song in his heart if only Melfi would go with him to Bermuda.
And, yes, she’s tempted. But she resists him by reminding herself of just why she and he would make a terrible match, almost as if she’s trying to ward off an evil spirit. He’s not honest. He’s not respectful to women (or people in general). He thinks violence can solve his problems. And on and on and on. And Tony, who told her it was okay to tell him just what she thought of him, watches her, face falling, until he finally gets in her face and tells her off, leaving her office with a declaration that she’s a “fucking cunt.” Tony often needs people to be solutions for him, ways for him to avoid the central darkness and unhappiness at his core, but the only solution that could be at all useful to him would be genuinely confronting that darkness. In that way, Melfi is the one woman who can help him navigate the troubled waters he’s in, but she also can’t do it as his lover; she has to do it as his therapist.
At the same time, the episode is just as marked by Tony’s absence as anything else. The opening montage—set to an Emmylou Harris tune—shows how the Soprano house seems ever so slightly different without Tony there. The leaves collect in the backyard, and water pools up into puddles. Most notably, no one retrieves the paper at the foot of the driveway; in fact, Meadow’s car runs over it, reminding us in a single image of just where Tony and Carmela left things at the end of the last season without belaboring the point. (The hour doesn’t have anything that could be considered a “recap” of the events of “Whitecaps.” Instead, the characters talk about the separation like real people who’d been living with this separation for a while might.)
Tony’s absence, of course, is also symbolically depicted via the emergence of a black bear in the Soprano family backyard. The Sopranos has never been terribly subtle about its animal symbolism, but I kind of like the way the bear is used here, even if it’s blatantly obvious that the bear is meant to represent big, brutish, predatory Tony (and that’s why he ultimately gets involved, subtly marking his territory to all the other potential animals around). The bear’s drawn out by the moldy old duck food that Tony had locked up in those cans (where he was hiding his cash last season), and that, in and of itself, creates enough of a complicated symbolic minefield that it’s kind of fun puzzling all of this out. The bear is Tony, sure, but he’s also the absence of Tony, all of the bad things that could lurk in the corners now that Tony’s not at home to “protect” Carmela and A.J. Tony, of course, sends over Benny to keep an eye out for the bear, but there’s also a part of him that seems rather excited by the notion of the bear being there. Whether that part is just intrigued by seeing such a wild creature in such a suburban environment (Tony’s always loved animals) or just likes the idea of having something to bring him back into the life of his family and into the marriage left in shambles remains to be seen.
There’s another group of unexpected predators released back into the wild that drives this episode, and that’s the “class of 2004,” a group of gangsters locked up in the 1980s who are now seeing their freedom, a group that includes, most notably for this episode, Feech La Manna and will include Phil Leotardo and Tony Blundetto (both of whom are mentioned in passing here). As seen here, Feech is a member of Junior’s generation who wants to get back in the game, and he tags along to the various mob dinners and events that the guys throw over the course of the episode, events that Christopher inevitably ends up paying for, except for one ill-fated time when he makes Paulie pay. It’s interesting to watch as Feech tells a lengthy story of back when he was on the streets that ends in violent bloodshed and have everyone essentially laugh at it, as though it were just another story being told by just another cute old man. Feech isn’t the greatest character in the history of the show, but he certainly gets a memorable introduction, and Robert Loggia does a fine job of making the guy seem both kind of old and harmless and completely terrifying all at once.
But the primary message of the episode—as was the primary message of the show throughout—is the idea that the more things change, the less they actually change. Sure, Tony’s moved out of his house, and sure, Carmela’s making a show of independence, but she’s just as dependent on his cash as ever, and he’s just as dedicated to satiating all of his carnal appetites as before. Paulie and Christopher are still fighting. Chris and Ade still seem as though they might be on the verge of a catastrophic break-up every time they talk. Melfi’s still holding firm against temptation. And the gangsters are still awful, repugnant people, no matter how much their exploits might viscerally thrill.
Take a scene that might be the centerpiece of the episode but one that tends to get forgotten when discussing the episode. Chris has just plunked down $1,200 for a meal at an Atlantic City casino’s restaurant, one that cost $1,184, thus leaving just $16 for a tip. While he and Paulie argue about how Paulie ran up the bill, the waiter comes out to ask Chris if there was a problem with the service that meant he would deserve such a small tip. But rather than shrinking away when he realizes the danger he’s in, the waiter keeps pressing the point because he assumes if he can make Chris and Paulie see the error of their ways, they’ll give him more cash. Instead, they hit him in the back of the head with a rock (knocking him to the ground and making him have an impromptu spasm), then shoot him. It’s a bit of a too-easy morality play—of course the waiter has kids to support!—but it’s also another expression of how everybody within the Soprano family—in both senses of that word—has a tendency to align themselves against whomever or whatever might come up against them. Paulie and Christopher’s fight is forgotten as soon as the waiter starts talking to them. Tony says Melfi can say whatever she wants, then immediately overreacts when she actually does. Carmela may no longer be in the Soprano family, but she’s always going to be in the Soprano “family.” Bears come out of the woods to rummage around and find some way to mark their territories. Is it any wonder that Tony seems so fascinated by the bear when he and his men do much the same thing everywhere they go?
- Welcome back to the Sopranos reviews for the fifth season. I’m hoping to get through the first two or three episodes before putting this on hiatus for a couple of weeks (for fall première season, of course), then we’ll power through to the end after that short break. There are a ton of classic episodes this season, and I’m excited to discuss them with you. I’m also dropping the grades, at least for this season, because looking at the list of episodes, I don’t see a single one I’m even lukewarm on. This is a strong season of television, and I hope my enthusiasm speaks for itself. (We may reinstate them for the first part of season six, which is… challenging.)
- Yes, that’s Mad Men creator (and new Sopranos writing staff hire for season five) Matthew Weiner as the mafia expert on the TV news program Tony and Bobby watch at the beginning of the episode.
- Speaking of that scene, one nice way the show indicates that a substantial amount of time has passed comes when we realize, only in passing, that Janice and Bobby have gotten married in between seasons. The timeline of the show is a bit wonky—Tony and Carmela seem to still be negotiating the terms of their separation, but it does seem as if at least a year has passed—but this is a nice way to show that there have been changes beyond the separation. (And while we’re on the topic of placing things within the timeline, any idea when this episode takes place? It seems to be shortly after Easter, but other than that, I have no clue. Everything in the final two seasons is so constantly autumnal that the show seems to exist within an eternal October.)
- Here’s an interesting coincidental connection: Tonight marks the series finale of Rescue Me, one of the many shows indebted to The Sopranos that sprung up in the show’s immediate wake. Animal Control Officer Zmuda here is played by Robert John Burke, who plays Father Mickey on that other show (and has some nice moments in tonight’s series finale).
- Carmine has a stroke while eating with Tony, Johnny Sack, and others. First, he complains of smelling burning hair, and then he’s pitching over onto the freshly cut lawn. What’s he eating? Egg salad, of course. (The Carmine subplot, for as important as it ends up being, sure starts out rather muted. That said, it’s always fun to have Little Carmine pop up.)
- Johnny Sack is still steamed at Tony for not ordering the hit against Carmine last season. I guess he wanted a bloodier season finale too.
- Paulie and Chris have turned the story of “Pine Barrens” into one that almost seems like a triumph for them, even as their arguing eventually undermines their essentially heroic tale of tracking a dying Russian through the wilderness.
- The DVD cover for this season is my favorite.
- Remember our rules for spoilers: Please clearly mark when you’re discussing plot points for upcoming episodes with SPOILERS.
- “Thank you for the flowers.” “And the detergent.” “And the detergent.”
- “God knows he loves room service.”
- “He had coffee here, Tony. That’s all.” “And now the coffee maker sucks. How do you like them apples?”
- “Wasn’t it a meteor?” “They’re all meat eaters.”
- “The other thing with bears is, if you’re ever attacked by one, run downhill. For some reason, they can’t do that.”
- “They attack your period, too.” “That’s fuckin’ jungle cats.”
- “What do you want? An apology? Fuckin’ Whitman sampler? What?”
- “Those guys killed me at fucking Benihana’s.”
- “You’re not respectful of women. You’re not really respectful of people.”
Speaking With The Fishes:
- Feech, of course, will eventually have his importance greatly reduced when compared to how he’s set up here. The writers on the show were excited to have Loggia involved in the program, but they soon realized that he wasn’t as able-bodied or minded as he had been, which led to Feech’s part being reduced. Fortunately, they’ve got Steve Buscemi’s Tony B. and Phil Leotardo (one of the best late-addition characters in the history of TV) right around the corner. Update: I just spoke with Alan Sepinwall about this very plot point, and he says that David Chase claims this was always the plan for Feech, despite all rumors to the contrary. It was meant to show how Tony had learned better how to deal with problematic elements within his organization after Richie and Ralphie, and that mostly makes sense. The more you know!
- Carmine’s on death’s door, and what’s interesting is that much of what happens in the rest of the series (in regards to New Jersey and New York seeming to be perpetually at war) would have been alleviated if Tony had whacked Carmine as Johnny had requested. That would have reduced the uncertainty on the New York side and indebted Johnny to Tony heavily.
- Keep an eye on that assault rifle Tony uses to watch for the bear. I believe it returns a few times throughout the remainder of the series.
Next week: Meet Tony B. in “Rat Pack.”