"University" (season 3, episode 6)
In which the troubled affair between Ralphie and a stripper named Tracee is shown.
Of all of the great drama series, The Sopranos is the one that most firmly has its roots in the soil of what came before. That seems self-evident, since The Sopranos is the dividing line between the old, mostly Hill Street Blues-influenced style of TV drama and the new, mostly Sopranos-influenced style of TV drama (it's very hard to be influenced by yourself), but it's still a bit shocking to step into a situation where, say, we're expected to just go with the idea that Ralphie and a stripper named Tracee have been having a passionate affair for a while now and that we'll get to see the pivotal point in their relationship, the climax, really, over the course of one hour of television. "University," like its spiritual forebear, "College," is as self-contained an episode of The Sopranos as you could get on a plot basis. Almost everything in the episode that matters is either introduced within the episode proper or given more than enough explanation. And yet the implications the episode has for the rest of the series are huge.
What we're meant to do over the course of "University" is contrast and compare the lives of two women of roughly the same age. Meadow Soprano is 18 or 19. She's got a bright future, a good boyfriend, a largely loving family, and a college education that's just beginning, just allowing her to figure out who she is and what she likes. Tracee is 20. She's got a future as a stripper, a boyfriend who treats her like shit and is publicly involved with another woman, a young son and a never-seen mother who cares for him, and no higher education. The contrast couldn't be more stark, yet both young women approach the end of the episode emotionally devastated. Of course, Tracee dies at the hands of Ralphie (in one of the most brutal scenes the show would ever film), while Meadow mostly marches around the Soprano household in a snit, so the show understands they're not equivalent, not at all. But it takes the emotions and hopes of both seriously, which is nice, particularly considering one of the two is a character we only meet in this episode.
If "University" has a problem, it's the fact that as Tracee, Ariel Kiley leaves quite a bit to be desired. She's not bad, but her performance rarely rises above serviceable. To work in the role, she mostly just has to look really good, and she does that, certainly, but she never gets past some idea of Tracee as an innocent cast into this lion's den. And while that's structurally necessary, it doesn't go very far toward making Tracee more of a character than a symbol. This was always a push-pull within The Sopranos, as the writers tended to make new characters stand in more as plot functions or symbols as the series went on. Ralphie isn't so much a fully fleshed-out character at this point as he is an example of the kind of person that Tony has to put up with in running his business, the hot-headed, quick to snap guy who often causes more problems than he's worth. Naturally, Joe Pantoliano brought so much character to Ralphie that he became a character in his own right, and the writers could mostly use him in this functionary manner. But when the actor wasn't as strong, when the actor was an Ariel Kiley, these roles could suffer.
Because "University" is, more or less, another parable, another moral test, though this time it's for Tony, and this time, he probably fails. I suppose if you want to look at the show from a purely mercenary perspective, as a show about a guy trying to run his business with the minimum of problems, then the cost-benefit ratio could land in favor of keeping Ralphie around. But on a simple ethical, moral scale, the one that season three seems to increasingly be basing episodes on, Ralphie should be punished in some way for killing Tracee, for leaving her bleeding body out behind the Bing. That Tony doesn't do anything to him within "University" outside of dealing a few punches to him is notable. When that car pulls into the lot, the guys and Tony are more concerned about making sure he's not in the same place as a dead body than in righting the wrong of Tracee's death. Any way you look at this situation, it's a mess, but the show argues (much more subtly than it did in "Employee of the Month") that there's a right way out of this mess, and Tony, in the interest of self-preservation, doesn't take it.
At the same time, Kiley's weakness as a performer undercuts the scenes where Tony is meant to be forming a half-hearted relationship with Tracee. Tracee's so thankful for a bit of offhand advice that Tony tossed her way that she bakes him a loaf of bread as a gift. (The advice, amusingly enough, amounts to, "Take your son to the doctor," though one assumes he also gave her time off to do so or the Bing has a really great health care plan or something. Surely Tracee isn't THAT naive.) Tony, of course, can't be seen fraternizing with one of the strippers, lest Carmela find out, and he advises her that the two should have an employer-employee type of relationship. This is fine. It's more or less as professional as this situation can be, and he still accepts the bread as a gift.
But when Tracee comes to him much later to try to talk with him about how she's pregnant with Ralphie's child, the show insinuates that he might have done something more to help her, that he might have gotten more involved than just implying she should get an abortion. What more could he have done? Well, he could have taken her problems seriously enough to treat her as a fellow human being, to not simply act as though she's a business commodity. To a degree, she is. Without the strippers, the Bing falls apart, and at the end of the episode, a new stripper is trained to take Tracee's place as easily as one might replace a low-level office worker. But she's also fundamentally human on some level, and that's the level Tony misses until it's too late, until he's in therapy with Melfi and Carmela and gets emotional about the young associate at Barone Sanitation who just passed. He can't tell the truth, lest Carmela suspect something, but he finally recognizes some of the tragedy of what happened, and that (or perhaps a sense of guilt) prompts a display of emotion from him.
One of the chief criticisms of The Sopranos throughout its run was that Tony was just an amoral sociopath, so who'd want to get invested in what he's doing? But this reaction, at least, suggests that there's more to him than just that, that there's an actual human being who reacts with empathy to certain situations within him. It's just horribly stunted and doesn't have the courage to do the right thing at the right moment. The portrayal of Tony's moral quandary in this episode is surprisingly nuanced, especially when compared to the "This is right and this is wrong" aspect of "Employee of the Month" that would rub the wrong way if the episode weren't so tremendously acted. "University" is about human compassion and empathy and the limits of those things, when confronted with raw selfishness.
Because as much as it SEEMS like we're meant to be contrasting Meadow and Tracee by episode's end, what we're meant to contrast is actually Caitlin (another character we're just getting to know, though believably in this case, since she's just Meadow's roommate and wouldn't have been a part of this world before) and Tracee. Like the episode its title is so similar to, "College," this is another Meadow and Tony hour, as the both of them confront what they're going to do to help out a problematic woman they barely know and mostly fail miserably. Caitlin, coming from Oklahoma, is your stereotypical rube in the big city, another character the show uses more as a symbol than as an actual character. In this case, it works, more or less, because Ari Graynor is playing her with a hint of black comedy. (Graynor would become a go-to guest star in the years to come, and she's probably best known as Olivia's sister on Fringe now.) But the central idea is the same: Meadow and Noah are confronted with a girl who clearly needs some sort of help from them, then reach the limits of their compassion.
Only in this case, the show finds Meadow's actions mostly justified. Noah comes off as a real douchebag when he criticizes Caitlin as the reason he got a bad grade on a paper, and his father comes off even worse when he begins the process of filing a restraining order against Caitlin. Meadow, however, has the right idea here, suggesting Noah try talking to the poor girl, rather than pursuing some ridiculous form of legal recourse. Meadow actually TRIES stuff to get through to Caitlin, suggesting she go to student health or taking her out drinking on her birthday or trying to be a good friend by suggesting Caitlin not see those scary movies. Sure, she eventually gives up, but at a point when most anyone would. She handles the situation, more or less, like an adult, and it marks her in contrast to her father. Could she have done some things better? Sure. But she probably wouldn't have been able to fix Caitlin, who clearly has something like too much empathy and can't quite function out in a world where she could see a homeless woman using a newspaper as underpants. And she's certainly a damn sight better at trying to help Caitlin than her boyfriend is or than her father is at helping Tracee.
One of the big themes of season three is the idea of the limits of human compassion, of the point where we brush up against that which we are capable of doing to help someone else. The question is always just how much someone should do. Is the bare minimum enough? Or is there some maximum, theoretical limit? The show certainly doesn't think Caitlin should be our model, or we'd all be catatonic. Nor should we copy Tony, who is unable to step over the employer-employee no man's land to relate to Tracee as a fellow human being. And we're certainly not meant to consider Noah a role model. He tries, but when he's done trying, he completely disengages. On that level, Meadow's our best possible influence. While she doesn't do anything perfectly, in the hermetically sealed world of a Sopranos parable episode, she's the best we've got.
There are darker rumblings on the horizon anyway. Look at Ralphie, a guy who's protected by the organization he works within but a guy who almost certainly shouldn't be, a guy who should probably be tossed aside. But Ralphie's a made guy. He's a good earner. He's all of those things that make him invaluable to the organization. And that means overlooking the way that he cheats on Rosalie Aprile with Tracee or invites Jackie, Jr., out to discuss mob business with him (thereby sullying the boy all of the mobsters clearly view as a kind of golden boy). It means overlooking his annoying tendencies or the way he brings Gladiator into every conversation. It means overlooking a whole host of things. But should it mean overlooking the fact that he lies cruelly to his mistress about what the future holds for the two of them? Should it mean overlooking the fact that he then beats her to death, savagely, and tries to laugh the whole thing off as an accident? Should it even mean overlooking when he seriously injures another man earlier in the episode? The Sopranos is, on some level, about the place where morals and business intersect, and Ralphie is the biggest moral quandary Tony has had up until this point.
- Man, Noah's an asshole. I kind of like his dad, in spite of myself, because I like self-assured richy-rich type characters, no matter how terrible of people they are, but the way Noah says EVERYthing is just ridiculously smarmy. He's like a bad cliché of that older college guy who exclusively dated younger girls, and I can't decide if the blame lies more in the writing or the performer.
- So all that said, it's hard to see just why Meadow storms around the Soprano house so much at the end, sad at losing him. I guess you always mourn your first real boyfriend and the person who took your virginity, but she could do so much better.
- Great shot: Tony, sitting at the counter, eating cereal, shot from a high angle to look utterly powerless and ridiculous, as Meadow stomps around the kitchen, looking for some FOOD.
- Tracee having braces has always struck me as kind of a canny way to remind us how young she really is, though I suppose it could be read as too much of a reminder at the same time.
- I remain amazed at the impotence of the non-Tony Sopranos crew members. That no one stepped in and grabbed Ralphie from behind when he was threatening Georgie with the makeshift mace is really kind of appalling. Self-interest rules all, I guess.
- Nice edit: Meadow stomps around the house, having the freedom to be pissed about things going south with Noah. Cut to the strippers at the Bing, talking about how none of them should mention what they know about Ralphie and Tracee. Young women, on very different ends of the spectrum.
- The recurring use of The Kinks' "Living on a Thin Line" ends up being haunting, but I'm not sure it's the world's greatest stripper song.
- Tony striking Ralphie is a violation of the mafia's code about made men, but I really don't think anyone's going to come back at him on it, do you?
- This is often held up as an episode that got lots of people to cancel their HBO subscriptions, thanks to the savagery of what happened to Tracee. (Wikipedia informs me that Kiley herself has stated this on occasion.) I don't know if that's an urban legend or what, but I wouldn't be surprised if it has some basis in the truth.
- There are some interesting parallels between Tony's situation and the film Noah and Meadow see, Dementia 13, which is about a fairly normal course of events being brutally interrupted by a violent psychopath who won't listen to reason. Sound like anyone you know?
- "I think I miss my ferrets."
Speaking With The Fishes:
- Noah's father speaks of sitting next to Tim Daly on his flight. Of course, Tim Daly will play an actual character on the show in a later season. Are we meant to believe there are just ... two people who look exactly like Tim Daly in The Sopranos' universe? Are we meant to believe this is some sort of ... magic xylophone?
- We first met Caitlin (very briefly) in the season premiere, but she'll return for a few more episodes, as she eventually gets over her anxiety and starts to settle in, as these things usually go.
- Tracee returns in just a couple of episodes, actually, in one of the season's more haunting moments.
Next week: "Second Opinion" has one of the most pivotal scenes of the series, though fans rarely speak of it as such. (Of course, you guys have already analyzed the hell out of it and did so long ago, so good on you. Though now I have no idea what I'll say about it.)