“Where’s Johnny?” (season 5, episode 3; originally aired 3/21/2004)
In which Junior Soprano goes for a walk
One of the most popular readings of The Sopranos is that it’s a show about how people don’t really change, about how they don’t grab at opportunities to better themselves that are offered to them or get too comfortable in the lives they’re leading to realize their flaws. Usually when making this reading, the critic offering it will extrapolate out from the show to talk about how that implicates America or how it implicates psychotherapy or something like that. And while I think that’s a valid reading of the show—and it’s one I’ve made more than a few times on my own (including in this very series)—I don’t know that it’s strictly accurate. There are people who change on The Sopranos. They’re just on the periphery of the series. I think a more accurate reading would be to say that The Sopranos is about how television characters never change. The Sopranos is any number of things, but one of the most potent of them is a not-so-veiled critique of the very medium it utilizes, and that critique grows more pointed in season five.
“Where’s Johnny?” is just the latest episode to explore ideas of the passage of time and history impacting the world around the characters, as Junior Soprano’s growing condition causes him to have a series of infarcts—mini-strokes—that leave him stuck in the past. As he wanders around Newark, mostly in bad neighborhoods, he keeps expecting to find his brother or to find the things he knew when he was at the height of his young career. Instead, he finds that the world as he knew it has been replaced by another one, one occupied mainly by African-Americans and one that doesn’t have a great memory for the world he can’t find his way back to. The episode often plays Junior’s conditions for dark laughs—Tony’s inability to see past himself when his uncle keeps saying he never had the makings of a varsity athlete never fails to elicit a chuckle—but in a scene on a park bench with an old, probably homeless woman, the whole thing comes home in devastating fashion. Junior’s lost in a world that no longer exists, and he’s probably never coming back entirely.
At the same time, Tony and Janice are thinking about the past, namely about their mother. When Janice suggests that she now has some idea of what Livia had to put up with all of those years now that she’s married to Bobby and has to take care of those kids, “Where’s Johnny?” gives us a much larger sense that, no, it’s bobby and the kids who will be scarred by this experience, if anyone. (The episode doesn’t make being married to Janice look like all that good of a time—as if that will surprise anyone.) And when Tony tells Janice to talk to him—really talk to him—after she tells him he needs to get involved in his uncle’s life and not write him off, since he could be really sick, the sequence goes from bad to worse. He’s still looking for someone to blame for what he suffered growing up, and since Janice is alive, the brunt of that blame falls on her for the moment. Why did she leave him—at 16—with a mother who made everything she touched wither? Well, probably because Janice was 18, and if you think about it, a 16-year-old kid should be able to do what he needs to do to escape a problematic home life. But the world Tony grew up in—the world Junior’s trying to get back to—was so all-pervasive that it kept sucking him back into its pull.
If Tony wants someone to blame, he also wants someone to love him. But he doesn’t want the give-and-take of adult love. He wants to be cared for, and he wants to be loved unconditionally, like a child might be by his parents. In some ways, the series’ read of Tony’s psychological make-up—largely blaming most of the bad things that happened to him on Livia or on his own inability to process his own flaws—is a bit simplistic, but in other ways, it’s tragic in the Shakespearean sense: Here’s the one tiny flaw that brings down a man who could be great, that reduces him to villainy. We’ve seen that Tony has great qualities—he’s certainly a clever and inventive mediator between the various parties warring over New York in this episode—but he’s a small-minded, petty man, trapped by the past as surely as Junior is. In the final scene of the episode, Tony turns to his uncle and asks if he even loves his nephew. Junior, who’s watching a special on prairie dogs and offering irrelevant commentary on Tony’s discussion of things (“Here’s that coyote”), responds only through tears. It’s as close to a connection as the two men have gotten in the whole series, but it’s too little, too late. There’s no way Junior will remember this in the morning.
Even though the bits where Junior wanders around Newark are far less important in the scheme of the episode than some of the other stuff, they grow to dominate the mind. One of the reasons may be because the Junior scenes are, again, so very funny. When Junior sees Curb Your Enthusiasm on TV and gets confused over why he—Larry David—and Bobby—Jeff Garlin—are on the tube, it’s one of the funniest gags the show ever pulled, a winking nod to another show that’s underlined with just enough of a hint of the macabre to produce some real, dark laughter. But they also work because they’re underlining something every single character on The Sopranos has wanted throughout the run of the show, even if they haven’t quite expressed it: a return to when things were better. Tony wants to go back to when his father was running things. Carmela wants to go back to when her marriage was good (even though she’s deluded about it ever being what she thought it was). In this episode, Johnny Sack wants to go back to when he was respected and the successor to Carmine, and Feech just wants to go back to when he was on the streets, making dough. But even if they—as television characters—can’t change, their circumstances keep changing. Time keeps moving on The Sopranos, where it freezes on other television series, and that makes things all the harder for the people who live in its world.
The business with New York seems to be setting us up for a larger conflict down the line—business with New York is always fraught with these sorts of complications—but what it boils down to is very simple (and another major theme of The Sopranos): When it comes down to it, do you go with family, or do you go with the person you know who can get the job done? Carmine failed to leave a stipulation as to who should take over the operations of the family upon his death, and now that Little Carmine’s back in the picture—Johnny blames Tony for “legitimizing” him—there’s a muted war breaking out between the two sides. When Lorraine goes to collect her earnings, the meeting is interrupted by Phil, who announces himself as a character, somewhat, by threatening to shoot her, then using a phone book to muffle the shot. The phone book is too thick to let the bullet through (something Phil was surely aware would happen before pulling the trigger), so instead, he gets his message across: Lorraine kicks up to Johnny Sack, or she kicks up to no one.
Tony ends up having to be the one to settle this feud—Tony always ends up being the one to settle a feud. His suggested solution is really quite clever: Johnny and Little Carmine are joined by Angelo—Carmine’s onetime consigliere—in a power-sharing structure. It takes two votes to accomplish anything, and the three will split what territory the family has (as well as the earnings). Johnny, however, is having none of it. (We never see what Little Carmine thinks of the idea, though Angelo seems open to it.) He worked for years to get to this place. He was Carmine’s right-hand man. He shouldn’t have to put up with this uncertainty in the transition, just because Carmine’s bumbling son is back in the picture. If he’s come this far, why does he have to step aside and be gracious, when he’s spent his whole life doing just that? The series has occasionally painted Johnny as almost a gentleman mobster—nice to his wife and generally easygoing—but here, we begin to see the rage that drives him, as surely as it drives any of these men. He wants what he wants, and now that he’s not getting it, he’s impotently yelling at anyone who will listen, which usually turns out to be Tony. (I love the scene where Chris, told by Tony to say nothing at a meeting with Johnny, instead suggests that Johnny could take a cut of Little Carmine’s profits in Florida, only making things worse. Ah, Chris. What a dumbass.)
It’s interesting to remember the circumstances under which this episode aired in 2004. Viewers knew the show’s fifth season would not be its last, but they also knew that the sixth season very likely would be. (I don’t believe the “21 episodes, split in two” plan had been announced yet.) Thus, viewers were speculating about just how all of this would shake out in the end game. Again, for those of you who’ve never seen the show, I won’t spoil how all of this shakes out. But in the early goings of season five, two things seemed to be true at the time (and continue to seem as though the series is heading in that direction as I watch now): Tensions between New York and New Jersey will erupt into warfare, and Adriana will somehow prove to be instrumental in whatever Tony’s ultimate fate will be. To be fair, viewers probably could have made these predictions at the end of season four, but here in season five, the net drawn around the characters seems to be getting tighter and tighter. When Adriana asks how long she’ll have to keep doing this, she’s given the answer of seven years (an answer that probably heartened HBO), and we know the FBI is no closer to making a case on Tony than it ever was. But we also know that New York is in unrest and has a tendency of lashing out in all directions when that’s the case, and we know that if Adriana’s watching Tony at just the wrong time, it could prove fatal to his life as a free man.
And yet with all of these tensions swirling around, the series still makes time for a fairly “classic” mob storyline in every episode. In “Where’s Johnny?” we get the grim tale of a landscaper who sees his life ruined just because Feech has decided that a relative should be the one to have that man’s territory. When Paulie’s aunt Mary starts complaining about how she misses her old yard guy, Paulie starts digging and finds what Feech has done. The storyline plays out as a fairly typical battle between a guy who was in the can trying to get some of his old territory back and a guy who’s been out all these years asserting the way things are now—again, characters caught in the past getting buffeted by the present—but the background of this storyline is dark, depressing, and ghoulishly funny. The landscaper’s situation keeps getting worse and worse: a broken arm here, a kid taken out of college there. The chaos swirling around the Soprano family tends to suck in everything it touches—even tangentially—and reduce the people left in its wake to the same state as everyone in the family: never-changing, stuck in a kind of twilight that longs for a time long gone.
- If there’s a flaw with this episode, it’s the portrayal of Lorraine, who’s not the world’s best character. Oh, and when it comes to writing inner-city, African-American characters, The Sopranos remains no The Wire (which was running at this time), but, then, how could it be? All the same, the series’ attempts to leave its specific milieu remain pretty bad.
- That said, I love Adriana’s attempts to explain to Robyn the reason that Tony calls Christopher his nephew, which seem almost as pointed at the audience as anything else. Here’s one of the big questions people ask about the show, answered in a way that clears nothing up, beyond, “It’s an Italian thing.”
- This is the first episode of the show to not feature Carmela Soprano. Even though she’s, arguably, the second most important character after Tony, I’m glad the show didn’t feel like it had to shoehorn her into an episode she didn’t really belong in, and ”Where’s Johnny?” is all the stronger for it.
- Tony’s rage over the “varsity athlete” comments is sort of silly, but that’s the point: He’s so blinded by his own self-worth that he can’t see that his uncle is very obviously ailing.
- There’s another line in that final scene that might spell out a lot of what the show is getting at, when Tony asks why Junior has to always repeat mean things and not nice things, even if he’s losing his mind. The shit these guys are mired in has a tendency to drag everything down into the muck, even when you’re not conscious that’s what you’re doing.
- I also like the subtle tension over who’s the boss of the family. Tony is, for all intents and purposes, but Junior still has the title, and this is something that could become problematic down the road, given the latter’s condition.
- I enjoy the Artie Bucco subplot in this episode (if it can be called that) for reasons that aren't quite entirely clear to me.
- Paulie's really getting into that Sun Tzu.
- If being married to Janice doesn’t look like any day at the beach—as she makes Bobby go and ask Tony for more cash—then being one of her step-kids looks even worse, as Bobby, Jr., gets his chocolate milk dumped down the drain, then the kids are trapped in Junior’s house with her while Bobby goes out looking for the old man. (And in the scene where Tony angrily tells Bobby if he wants more control, he should start by controlling his wife, Bobby almost seems ready to be done with Sopranos altogether.)
- "I gotta lotta sorrows in my life."
- "She sleeps a lot. It's hard."
- "What are you asking him for? He never had the makings of a varsity athlete."
- "Obviously, he wasn't rehabilitated."
- "When I was a kid, you told the girl cousins the same thing. It was very hurtful."
- "He's a goddamn hothouse flower. That's his problem."
Speaking With The Fishes:
- Is this the only episode of Sopranos Carmela doesn’t appear in? I think it is.
- Adriana, of course, won’t have to wait seven years to complete the case against Tony. She won’t even get the chance to come close to doing so.
- I’d forgotten how the series set up Phil as Johnny Sack’s terrifying pit bull, then swiftly removed Johnny from the picture. (I mean, I remembered all of the story points, but I didn’t remember the exact construction of the story.) It’s really well done.