“Watching Too Much Television” (season 4, episode 7)
In which a wife can probably be compelled to testify against her husband, despite what TV would have you believe.
Adriana, sitting on her couch, waiting for Christopher to come home from Paulie’s welcome home party, channel surfing, happens across an old episode of Steven Bochco’s mid-90s experiment in ultra-serialization, Murder One. (How this show is airing on Adriana's cable package in 2002 we'll never know.) The lead character is trying to get a witness to testify, to finally nail the coffin shut in the case built against Richard Cross (Stanley Tucci, in one of his first big roles and still one of his best roles). But she reveals that she CAN’T testify. She married Cross last night, and as his wife, she can’t be compelled to testify in a way that would incriminate her husband. The courtroom reacts in shock at Cross’ dastardly deed. But Adriana sits up a little more (well, as much more as she can in what’s probably a buzzed stupor). This might be the solution she’s been looking for, the escape from the corner she’s been backed into.
One of the things I like about this season of The Sopranos is the way that it very, very slowly turns up the heat on virtually every major character. As this episode continues, it’s clear that Adriana is absolutely falling apart, but the path she’s taken to get to this point has been so gradual that it would be easy to miss it. At the bridal shower thrown in her honor late in the episode, you can see how she’s just barely holding herself together, how the fact of opening a convection oven or a giant serving plate shaped like a leaf or a cappuccino maker is just about all she can handle. Feigning happiness in that moment would be too much to ask. She’s hitched her yoke ever more firmly to Christopher, and she can’t leave him now that he’s even more firmly tied himself to her (by saying he’ll try to get OK with the fact that she can’t have kids). And now she knows that her solution to her testifying problem was bullshit, that there’s little the feds won’t be able to do if they want her up on the stand. (I also like that she reaches this conclusion thanks to a friend’s half-assed memory of an episode of Murder She Wrote.)
“Watching Too Much Television” isn’t a great episode of The Sopranos—we’ll get to the reasons why in a bit—but it’s very much a fulcrum point for the season. A lot of stuff that seemed to be building shifts subtly in this episode, in ways that might not even be obvious at first glance. We knew that Carmela was interested in Furio before, but now we can be pretty sure that he, too, has a certain attraction to her, even if he’ll go out of his way not to act on it (and for good reason). We knew that Paulie was disenchanted with Tony and the way he’s running the operation, but now it seems like he’s more thoroughly cast his lot with New York. We knew that Adriana was going to get married to Christopher eventually, but now that she’s tied herself even more thoroughly to him, it just might be her doom. Hell, the FBI agents actually half-celebrate news of the impending nuptials. (And is it just me or does this near-wedding get thrown together awfully fast?)
“Watching Too Much Television” has its problems, however. Everything in the Zellman and Maurice subplot that doesn’t directly involve one of the main characters is bad, occasionally outright terrible. And the episode lacks a strong, central idea to tie everything together as the best episodes of the show have had. This is a great collection of individual scenes and moments, but outside of the idea of money animating every single decision anyone makes this season, there’s not a lot in the way of stuff holding this together. This is a lot of interesting material in search of a stronger shape, and it’s a big sign that The Sopranos was toward the end of the process of shifting from looking at its episodes as individual hours that might add up to something later to pieces of a larger, season-long whole. There’s a standalone story here, sure, but the real action is coming from watching these people slowly do themselves in.
Let’s start with the bad. The depiction of inner-city characters on The Sopranos is a constant complaint, and the crack houses here are almost laughably bad in their portrayal. It’s not so much that the show resorts to stereotypes; it’s that those stereotypes seem pulled down from a 2-for-1 bin at some TV cliché warehouse store. It’s one thing to have a bunch of young gang members (recruited by the seemingly upstanding Maurice!) storm the houses and roust all of the crack addicts from them. It’s quite another to have a cute little girl who’s the collateral damage from the kinds of behavior the addicts carry out, day in and day out, the kind of behavior that’s often underwritten by men like Tony Soprano. And as if that weren’t enough, the scene where Zellman wanders by to talk with Tony as he’s supervising the stripping down of the houses for copper wire and decorative embellishments features a small child asking Zellman if they’re going to put NICE houses on the spot, in place of the crack houses. Yes, The Sopranos. We get it. And now we’ve seen The Wire, so we can realize just how terrible all of this material really is.
But the story is misbegotten on yet another level. The actual stuff having to do with the scam to get money from HUD that will then make its way into the pockets of Tony and friends is pretty solid, and it’s always nice to watch the show get into the nitty gritty of just how a deal like this is carried out (and just how badly the taxpayers get screwed over). But the scenes where Zellman and Maurice argue about their ideals as children of the ‘60s feel very out of place, sort of like all of those times Melfi’s ex-husband would talk about negative portrayals of Italians in the media. Both characters are interesting as an extension of Tony Soprano’s corruption. (I love the way that the show seems to introduce Maurice as someone who’s mostly getting involved in this scam because his non-profit needs cash… and then you see his house.) They’re not as interesting when we listen to them talk about how the ‘60s sold out.
Still, both of these less successful plots have nice echoes over in the plots involving the main characters. This episode actually features one of my favorite sequences from the entire run of the show, where Tony and A.J. head out to the old neighborhood, so Tony can show A.J. the church his great-grandfather built. Like Zellman and Maurice, Tony feels an intense nostalgia for the past, but in his case, it’s a past he didn’t even live through, a time when the Italians came to the U.S. and didn’t need any handouts to make a neighborhood that was as vibrant as any other in the city. (Tony, of course, nicely looks over the fact that his operation makes obscene profits off of exploiting others, just as his ancestors were exploited.) A.J., of course, just doesn’t give a shit. He doesn’t get any of it. He doesn’t get what his dad is trying to tell him. It’s another example of Tony reaching out to someone and getting rebuffed, only this time, it’s his own son, who’s unable to appreciate anything his dad is trying to tell him. The Sopranos always has this sense that what was is better than what is. Here, we see that it’s better than what will be as well.
The drug addiction plotline, meanwhile, finds an echo in Chris, who turns to Tony and his other friends for advice on what to do about Adriana, who’s revealed to him that she can’t have kids because she’s got a problem with her uterus (“both of them?” Chris asks). Chris’ anger in this scene is at once completely incomprehensible and completely terrifying. It’s another example of how the guys in the show often don’t seem women as much more than mothers or whores, but Chris is able to get over it, thanks to some surprisingly tender advice from Tony and Sil, who both advise him that since Adriana stayed by his side when he was in the hospital and since he loves her, it’s time to man up and marry her, even if they never have kids. So he heads out into the night and gets high in his car. When he finally comes to, he’s ready to marry her, even if she doesn’t trust his reaction, due to the drugs. But throughout all of this, we never see Chris bottom out. He doesn’t just have people who care about him. He’s got a whole system underneath him that would make it all but impossible for him to just utterly disappear, unlike those people getting high in the crack houses. Tony can talk about the federal government giving out handouts left and right, but the episode’s great irony is that the biggest handout goes to him, and he’ll never notice the similarities between the people in his life and the people hurt by men like him exploiting the system.
If there’s something tying the episode together, though, it’s that idea of nostalgia and memory, that idea that everybody is clinging to something from the past, even if it’s just the recent past. I love the way the episode slowly builds to its unexpected climax. Zellman has taken up with Irina, a fact that Tony learns when he goes to the sauna with Zellman, Ralphie, and Maurice. He says he’s fine with it, but it’s clear from the way that Zellman keeps talking to him about how he doesn’t mean any disrespect and how it just happened that Zellman’s incredibly worried Tony isn’t fine with it. At the same time, Maurice sings along with the song on the radio in the locker room, the Chi-Lites “Oh, Girl.” (Tony, who’d been baiting the African-American Maurice in the sauna with talk of the “White Knight,” a Newark politician whom Maurice sees as tantamount to a Klansman, bonds with Maurice over the memory of the song.) It seems like nothing, like a nice little touch of color.
And then at the end of the episode, Tony’s driving through a somewhat snowy night as Adriana’s bridal shower is going on back at the house, and that song comes on the radio. And he’s crying, somewhat, and we’re left to wonder just why he might be crying. Is he looking for someone to reach out to again? Is he thinking about Pie-O-My? Is he thinking about Carmela? Could she be the girl of the song? But at the same time, Irina, who was in the episode earlier when Tony went over to Zellman’s house (something he doesn’t do often and something he’s obviously doing to check in on his former lover), is on our minds, perhaps because the show planted the subconscious reminder of her attached to the Chi-Lites song. And when Tony pulls up in front of her apartment, it’s not really a surprise. And when he goes upstairs and starts beating Zellman with his belt, screaming about how he had to take up with Irina, out of all the girls in Jersey, it feels almost logical. Tony Soprano can share, but he can’t really share. He’ll take your race horse winnings, even if it’s your horse. And he’ll try to take back the girl he broke up with long ago if you’re with her now. Tony Soprano gets what he wants, and all it takes is a Chi-Lites song to remind him of what he once had.
“Watching Too Much Television” has its problems, but that end sequence, combined with Adriana’s unraveling and the sequence with Tony and A.J., makes it a worthwhile experience all the same. What I love is the way the show has already increased the sense that these people are living in the past because the present and future don’t hold much in the way of hope for them. Adriana can see that Chris is spiraling, but she needs him, even if he’s not her way out of her current predicament. Tony’s hung up on Irina, even if he doesn’t really want to be with her, and he’s hung up on the past, even if his son could care less. Everybody wants something they can’t have this season of The Sopranos, and when they can’t get it, they tend to react poorly. “Watching Too Much Television” isn’t the greatest episode of this season, but it’s definitely the episode where you can feel these tides start to shift.
- I didn’t mention Cousin Brian because I’m still thinking over something one of you said in comments last week, where you pointed out that Brian wakes up at the Bing and sits up in the same pose as the neon outline of the stripper on the wall behind him. He’s just another whore. That’s a great observations, and I tip my cap to you.
- Still, I love the way that the show plays out these little morality plays about what happens when civilians get caught up in the world of the Sopranos. Brian gives Tony the idea that evolves into the real estate scam, and when Tony wants to thank him, he buys Brian a $15,000 watch. Brian knows that taking it is like admitting that he did a bad thing, and he initially tries to pass on the watch. But he still takes it anyway. (Notice how skeptical Carmela is about the fact that he’s really borrowing tools to hang a wall mirror. She knows.)
- I also like the way the Carmela and Furio flirtation is playing out all the way in the background, with Furio realizing that this is dangerous territory and pulling away and Carmela not finding that acceptable.
- Seriously, how DOES Carmela pull all this wedding stuff together so quickly? Or is this episode supposed to take place over the course of several months? (There’s not really an indication of this.)
- I like Tony’s constant attempts to suggest that the government is the REAL problem in this episode, especially that part at the end where Brian protests about the poor taxpayers and Tony says that if the government can’t handle airport security, then what are they good for?
- Maurice is played by Vondie Curtis-Hall, best known for Chicago Hope, most likely, and an actor who’s mostly moved into directing since that series went off the air. I like the air of desperation he gives to Maurice, and the series uses his tendency to be typecast as someone noble against him very well, making the fact that Maurice is just another opportunist all the more jarring.
- Paulie getting out of jail gets less play in this episode than you’d expect it would. I like, though, that the tensions between him and Tony often seem to come down to money first, THEN respect.
- Paulie also tells Johnny Sack about the HUD scam, which is something Johnny seems shocked by, even if Paulie doesn’t know anything about it. Hmmmm…
- Where did Janice get the money to buy Adriana a cappuccino maker? (These are the things I worry about.)
- Hey, it’s 2002 alert: Everybody knows that real estate is the wave of the economic future. That’ll never go south! Never! After all, God only made a certain amount of land! Better buy it! Whoo!
Speaking With The Fishes:
- This is something I genuinely don’t remember. By this time next season, Paulie will be back to his sycophantic self, unveiling paintings of Tony as Napoleon and what-have-you. Does he just forget about his anger at Tony?
- This time through, I’m really struck by the quiet desperation of Adriana’s arc and the way that the show drags it out until it’s completely agonizing. To think that we still have a whole season and a half to go before she’s killed is just horrifying to me.
- This is the last appearance of Zellman, though he will continue to “appear” as an offscreen character until the end of the show’s run. It’s very nearly the final appearance of Irina, too, though she has an important part to play in this season’s end game.
Next week: Tony meets Ralphie’s girlfriend, and things get all ominous in “Mergers And Acquisitions.”