Before we get started, some brief notes on how we're going to proceed going forward. A fairly large number of you are going to be watching this series for the first time ever, and to that end, you'd appreciate as few spoilers as possible. That makes perfect sense to me, and from here on out, the main body of the review will be spoiler-free. I WILL have a section for those of us who've seen the show before to talk about how it's building its themes and world as it goes along. It'll be called "Foreshadowing" for this week, but if you have a better name, suggest it in comments. Also, I'll be responding to things I either thought were cool or just completely forgot about in the write-ups that you guys bring up in comments, so be sure to talk away. Finally, I'm going to have these pieces up Wednesdays at noon Central from now on. The last two weeks have been a little over-busy, but I should have a better sense of time from here on out.
That said, on with episodes two and three.
"46 Long" (season 1, episode 2)
Tony's been holding it in all episode. The pressures of his work and home lives are slowly but surely getting to him, and the angry stew he's been building up threatens to take down anyone who so much as happens to get in his way. Which, of course, turns out to be the hapless Bada Bing employee who simply can't figure out how to work the phone (shades, as always, of his mother). Grabbing the phone from the other man, he beats him with it, about as savagely as one can be beaten with a land-line phone receiver. And then, satisfied, he strides angrily back into his office, the bull whose temper has been briefly subdued. As he walks away, the strippers on stage watch him leave, clearly having seen the whole thing. Then, rather than try to find any help, they let their fear of their boss get the better of them and return to dancing.
Maybe he didn't even know it at the time, but David Chase was introducing us to one of his most persistent and potent themes here: When confronted with a situation where they could take care of another in need or do the right thing, most people will just gawk for a while, then return to whatever it was they were doing. It's easier to do nothing, hard to step up and put yourself at risk for the greater good. It's part and parcel with the rest of Chase's cynicism, and it's something he would return to again and again, particularly (without spoiling) in the series' final nine episodes, where he often consciously mirrored the first season. People are capable of great things - like that church from the pilot - but for the most part, they'll slide back into their comfort level. It's what we do. Adaptation is hard.
Second episodes are hard, too. They may be the most difficult thing to pull off effectively in television, where the temptation is to do a bunch of different variations on the pilot in the first handful of episodes, then slowly start to build the world beyond what was shown in the pilot. Even the hardest of hard-core serialized dramas will often keep the first few episodes of season one slightly contained. As an example, take Breaking Bad, a great show that spent the first half of its first season (or what would have been the first half before the writers strike cut the order short) mostly playing variations on the theme of "This man made a choice to do something very bad, and has he really thought it through?" before gently beginning to expand the show's world in the last three episodes of the season. (I do not mean this as a slight, honestly. It's a hard thing to give viewers enough entry points so that they feel secure watching the show and knowing what's going on.)
There's no such hand-holding in "46 Long," an episode that bristles with swagger and confidence. If it's not up to the level of the pilot, well, few things could be. What it is, however, is a suggestion that David Chase has very thoroughly thought out his world and his show and how we're going to get to know both. All of the restatement he does is confined to that first scene (the only time The Sopranos would have a traditional "teaser" before the credits, perhaps because the scene served a vastly different function from most of the other scenes in the story). In it, Chase (who scripted the episode, with direction by Dan Attias, a familiar name to most HBO fans) basically replays the thematic concerns of the pilot in miniature. The best days are behind us, argues the ex-mafia member on the TV, but there's always going to be a need for illegal trafficking, so there will always be a mafia. The guys watch this on TV, bickering about their own prosaic concerns - thus playing up the sense of normal life punctuated by heightened moments of grisly violence the pilot gave off - and Sil keeps impersonating The Godfather, as the show continues to suggest that real life mob life can never be as glamorous as fictional mob life. Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.
Mostly what "46 Long" is is a confident expansion of the show's universe. We meet Jackie Aprile for the first time and get the sense that Tony is a major player in the DiMeo Family, but not THE major player, that he still has to answer to Uncle Junior and assorted others and that he's not necessarily opposed to this. It's often hard to get a read on Tony in the first half of this season, when the show plays him a bit opaquely (deliberately, I think), but it certainly seems like he has a respect for the old codes, for doing things by the book, at least as much as anyone in this life can do things by the book. There was some quibbling in comments last week that this episode goes out of its way to backtrack from the pilot, where it sure seemed like Tony was THE boss, but I don't know that that's really the case. In the pilot, Tony seemed like THE boss because he was to the majority of the characters we met, but, in reality, everybody answers to somebody, and in this episode, we get a better sense of where Tony stands in the world.
The other abiding idea one comes away from "46 Long" with is the show's keen sense of generational conflict, of the ways that different kinds of people come into conflict with each other. There are, more or less, six generations portrayed in The Sopranos. There's the golden age, which is now long gone and perhaps over-romanticized, best established by Johnny Boy Soprano, whose shadow looms over the rest of the characters like few already dead characters ever have on TV. There's the actual living remnants of the golden age, exemplified by Junior and Livia, older people who constantly feel under-appreciated, regardless of whether those feelings are founded or not. There are the remnants of the long slouch toward the current situation, exemplified by people like Paulie (who gets his first "Did you hear what I said?" of the series in this episode, a gag that is never not funny). There's the current generation, young boomers who are trying to cope with their parents' legacy, exemplified by Tony. There's the next generation under them, Generation X, if you will, full of people who seem to the older folks to have little respect for the way things have always worked, exemplified by Christopher and Brendan. And there's the youngest generation, the Millennials, who have had everything handed to them on a platter and yet whine about everything (at least in Chase's view of the world), exemplified, of course, by Tony's kids.
More than any other great drama, I think The Sopranos is intended to stand in as a microcosm for America, and it's acutely aware of these generational divides in a way that few other series ever have been. The central conflicts of the show are mostly internal, but if there's a central external conflict, it's this one, a story of how a bunch of people built a better life and a better country for themselves and then slowly watched it crumble, reacting with disbelief at how little respect their younger selves paid them for what they had accomplished. When Junior asks Christopher and Brendan to stop hijacking trucks, he's protecting his business interests, sure, but he's also reacting to a couple of young Turks who seem to not understand that even though the game is illegal, there are still rules.
And, of course, it's the same with Livia and Tony, a son and mother standing on opposite ends of life and simply unable to find the common ground you'd think any mother and son pairing would find. Most of the great TV dramas are rife with father issues (since that seems to drive many, many writers to write), but The Sopranos is richly influenced by mother issues, by the sense that Tony was more affected by his mother's poison embrace than even he would be willing to admit. The reason Livia looms so large to him, even as she's a frail old lady who can't keep her mushrooms from catching on fire and is too addled to keep from running over her friend, is because she's the only one who can really hurt him or strike at him. If The Sopranos is often about the ways that people protect their own self interests by stopping to gawk, Livia is the caustic bystander, shouting "Poor you!" at any who would suffer misfortune. She's a tiny woman, yes, but like her whole generation, she's the spirit - sometimes daunting, sometimes vengeful, sometimes spiteful - that haunts everyone who had the temerity to come after.
- We're going to talk about the events of future episodes here, so if you don't want to be spoiled, skip to the stray observations section.
- The Aprile family will, of course, become an important part of the Sopranos universe, and this is the first time we hear about any of them. Jackie's time on Earth is necessarily limited, but the show always gives us a sense that he was the kind of boss who was able to keep worse interpersonal conflicts under his thumb. Now that he's ailing, the wheels are starting to come off the bus, as we'll see in the rest of the season.
- Tony will, of course, take out his anger on Georgie numerous more times in the series, usually to comic effect.
- Other characters we meet for the first time: Brendan (who is not long for this world) and Mikey.
- I believe this is the first "Poor you" of the series. This will continue to haunt Tony long after Livia's death.
- Franny will also return, as the only person with anything nice to say at Livia's funeral. Heh.
- Events that will mirror the events in this episode in the last half of season six: Anthony, Jr., will turn "So much drama!" back on his parents. The two girls who choose not to stop and help Tony and Christopher after their car crash (Kennedy and Heidi) and the gang at the gas station who watches mutely as Sil's assailant jets away in "The Blue Comet" will play up the show's idea of the common man as a spectator who daren't do anything to help out to the hilt.
- It's safe to come back now!
- It's easy to forget how readily The Sopranos differentiated characters that could have been generic hoodlum types, but every character we see in this episode will become their own person as the series goes on, and most of them feel fully realized from the first here. Mikey is a good example of this.
- Something I had forgotten about these early episodes is just how often it seems like the plots are occurring in some sort of dream-time, where Tony's adventures will take place over the course of several days, but some other subplot will seem to take place in an afternoon. In this case, that's Paulie and Big Pussy trying to track down the teacher's stolen Saturn. Paulie says something about how they've spent the last few days doing this, but it seems like it was added in post, and the plot seems to take place over the course of one long day.
- Hey, it was 1999 alert: Those two gay guys are, uh, a little stereotypical.
- I had a quotes section, but my computer ate it in a restart. Go ahead and toss your favorites out in comments. There are some very funny lines in this episode, not least of which is Paulie reiterating the incredibly stupid joke he just told Christopher to Sil. (As I said, this never stops being funny.)
"Denial, Anger, Acceptance" (season 1, episode 3)
Just what kind of man is Tony Soprano?
That's the central question of the first season of The Sopranos, and it's a question the third episode begins to grapple with in earnest. Is he a monster, a golem or a Frankenstein's creature who shambles out after his targets and takes them down, unfeeling, uncompassionate? Is he a man capable of deep emotion, able to appreciate the beauty of his daughter's performance with the school choir? Is he a rotting tree, his insides a mess and slowly crumbling? Or is he somehow all three of those things and many other things as well? And, perhaps more importantly, how close are we to him?
The question of interpretation is central to "Denial, Anger, Acceptance," which boasts as one of its centerpiece moments the scene where Tony and Dr. Melfi discuss the painting hanging in her lobby and just what it's supposed to picture. At first, it seems to be a fairly stereotypical and idyllic country scene, but the more Tony looks at it, the more the camera closes in on the blotches in it, the darkness that hangs around its edges. In these imperfections, Tony thinks he can see a hidden meaning, a trick designed to get him to admit to dark and terrible things. And it's no wonder why. His entire life is a balancing act, a way to be caught between the awful things he does and the man he presents himself as. If he slips up, if he reveals the darkness that hides around the edges, he could go to jail or worse. His is a life of surfaces that can't be disturbed.
Yet Melfi's job is to disturb surfaces, to plumb deeper and deeper. Her function within the series is both as a sort of obvious sight gag - what if the mobster went to see a psychiatrist? - and as a way to reveal all of the defenses Tony has put between himself and acknowledging what he actually does. The surface is of a happy suburban dad who's able to marvel - and maybe even tear up a little - at that choir performance. But beneath the surface is a lot of pitch black stuff, a lot of stuff that neither he nor Melfi will ever be able to remove from the picture.
The interesting thing about The Sopranos is that the central life choice all of the characters made lies in the distant past. The present is all about keeping up appearances and not thinking too hard about what it is any of them actually does. The character the show most often makes this theme explicit with is Carmela, who is rather fond of her mafia wife lifestyle but is troubled, on some level, by the way her husband makes his money. If Tony and the men surrounding him are mostly OK with the choices they've made, the women around the edges of their lives are forced to deal with the fact that the money they base their lives on is paid for with blood. Is this why Livia is the way she is? The show certainly invites us to speculate in this manner in this episode, before revealing she can be just as ruthless as any gangster.
The Sopranos has been light on actual plot up until this point, mostly content to set things in motion and begin placing its characters in place for what promises to be an exciting story arc. But "Denial, Anger, Acceptance" suggests the show's rhythms are always going to be a little more jittery than we might be used to or comfortable with. Most shows would drag out the growing conflict between Uncle Junior and Christopher and Brendan, but The Sopranos largely dispenses with it one episode after it first arose. It's easy to see why Junior is so incensed by Christopher and Brendan's behavior, but it's also interesting to see how the family closes around Christopher and cuts Brendan adrift. Christopher gets the talking to. Brendan is the one who's shot in the bathtub. This montage - intercut with Tony watching Meadow sing - is one of the first moments when The Sopranos takes music and rises above its prosaic, muddy universe to become something like sublime. The series always used music well, but it uses it almost perfectly here.
Yes, there are mafia plots here - in that we see Tony helping out some Hasidic Jews trying to get one of their number a divorce for his daughter and we see the aftermath of Brendan's stupid decision to keep hijacking trucks - but there's also a surprising amount of emphasis on the at-home plots. In the past two episodes, Carmela has certainly been a presence, but she hasn't been anything like the character she would become. The Sopranos always had a certain confidence that it could sketch in characters with a few lines and actions and trust us to stick around to see them fleshed out even farther, but in the first two episodes, I do think Carmela seems a little too much like a stereotype, rather than a character. Here, though, we begin to see the central conflict that will define her for the series, the way that she is both repulsed by what Tony does and in love with how it cares for her.
I had forgotten how skillfully The Sopranos slides us into this. Carmela is hosting a fund-raiser at the Soprano house, and she hires Artie and Charmaine to cater the event, since they're still struggling after the torching of their restaurant (by Tony's crew, let's not forget). It seems, as we get into this storyline, that we're seeing a story about how two female friends come up against an impasse when they decide to enter a relationship where one is the other's "boss," more or less, sort of a marked contrast to how Tony is able to be friends with Sil and Big Pussy but also have the authority to order them around and a suggestion of how Carmela, at least at this point, lacks that authority, even with her children. Instead, we're slid into a scene where Charmaine reveals to Carmela that back in high school, she dated Tony. And instead of her using this to get back at Carmela as we might expect - by suggesting that she and Tony had something he would never have with Carmela - she uses it to suggest that she's happy with the choices she's made, not somehow compromised by them like Carmela is. It's a bold little scene, kicking off a series-long story arc (and suggesting what Charmaine's role throughout the series will be), and it's perfectly executed.
We even get a bit of a Meadow story here. Before this, The Sopranos has mostly viewed Meadow and A.J. as stereotypical TV kids. Meadow's a teenager who resents her parents, and A.J.'s kind of a whiny brat who's soft and fleshy where his father is hard. But in this episode, while we still get a pretty stereotypical plot (Meadow and Hunter are too busy and feel too much pressure!), we see that the series has some sympathy for them, that it views Meadow's desire to escape to Berkeley and put her parents and their life far behind her rather uncritically, and that she's something of a symbol of peace and tranquility that her father can never attain. It's not for nothing that she has that name.
"Denial, Anger Acceptance" is a "Let's get the plot wheels turning!" kind of episode, and those sorts of episodes can be a little trying from time to time. But there's lots of it that is just expertly executed, particularly that final montage (which subtly evokes the painting in Melfi's office through several framing choices). Up until now, Christopher has been kind of a cocky pain in the ass, but now, we get to see him as a panicky kid who doesn't want to die. Up until now, Brendan has been even more of a cocky pain in the ass, but his death still suggests that there are worse things out there. His blood pools into the water in the final shot of the episode, and we all know what follows blood in the water.
- As mentioned above, Charmaine's role within the series is fairly consistent. She's a bit of a nag toward many of the characters, but she's also a necessary moral compass, more or less. She's one of the few characters who remains essentially uncompromised by the Sopranos by the end of the series, and her speech here suggests why she was always able to avoid that influence.
- The hotel that Tony becomes part owner of will return numerous times throughout the series, most notably as the setting for a poker game. I like the way it resembles a run-down Holiday Inn.
- This is the first time we meet Rosalie Aprile, who will become a sort of symbol for the fall of the Aprile family as the series goes on. Here, she's mostly vivacious. Contrast that with her appearance in the series finale.
- She turned up in the last episode, but it's still great to see Adriana, even if her role here is a shadow of what it would become as the series wore on. Last week, there was talk of who had the best death in the series' history, and I have to go with Adriana, in my favorite episode of the show "Long Term Parking," which I can't wait to write about in, oh, 2012.
- The idea of having scenes and storylines that seem to be one thing and turn into something else entirely (like the Carmela and Charmaine storyline) is something the series will become uniquely adept at. One of the shows descended from The Sopranos that will pick up this torch and run with it is Mad Men, itself created by a Sopranos alum.
- Correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't Tony abruptly have a new Russian girlfriend? This one is hotter anyway. (Also, notice how the one in the pilot was a blonde, like Carmela, and this one is a saucy brunette, like Charmaine or Melfi. Probably reading too much into what was likely a routine recasting, but it is interesting.)
- The plot of Tony and the gang intervening on behalf of the Hasidic Jews is all right, I suppose, but it also has a few of the more on the nose moments of the series thus far. The rabbi saying that Tony is a golem is one of the less subtle moments that the show will come up with, and it could have stood to have been just a bit less obvious.
- All of the scenes between Christopher and Meadow are pretty hilarious, and I like the way the show suggests we've just abruptly picked up with a familial relationship that has a whole history of awkward moments.
- One of the things I like about the show is the way an unstated history informs almost everything that goes on, that it trusts that we'll be quick enough to catch up with the various grudges members of the Sopranos family bear toward each other, particularly in that scene where Junior is speaking with Livia.
- We've got our first panic attack that Tony doesn't completely succumb to as he's cleaning out his mother's house. Notice how often close connection to his mother causes Tony to black out? Hmmm …
- In future weeks, I'm going to talk about some of the things I've liked in comments in this space, so be sure to post your best stuff.
- This week, in particular, I want to talk about that scene from the pilot where Tony tells Meadow all about the church his grandfather helped build that I sadly forgot to mention. A number of you brought it up, and it's always struck me as one of the series' best moments. In particular, I'm impressed by how the show just drops it into the middle of everything else in the pilot, a sort of oasis of calm in an hour that could have felt overstuffed. It's also one of the moments when the series most acutely makes the point that things have gotten much, much worse.
- I also liked the mentions of the way that Johnny Boy Soprano's ghost hangs over the series as a whole. The pilot gives an almost indescribable sense of his ability to reach out from beyond the grave to make his son feel insufficient, though, honestly, Livia does just as good a job of this in person. The past refuses to remain the past. It's one of the primary themes of the series and of the whole idea of going to therapy in the first place.