"D-Girl" (season 2, episode 7)
The moral of this week's Sopranos review may as well be "Manage your expectations." I had remembered "D-Girl" as a low-point for the series, one of the five or ten worst episodes hands down. And while I still think it has a lot of flaws, it's not as bad as I remembered it being. It's still pretty firmly in the bottom quarter of Sopranos episodes, but it just might escape that bottom ten distinction. Meanwhile, I had remembered the next episode, "Full Leather Jacket," as being a season highlight, but outside of a few moments, I found it weirdly misjudged. We'll get to that episode in a moment, of course, and we'll also talk about "D-Girl," but I do wonder just how many of our opinions on the classic TV shows we love arise out of a sort of vacuum, where we're considering these shows only within the context of the series.
This is the sort of thing that comes up when I say that I don't like season two of The Sopranos as well as some of the other seasons (though I must admit it's been kicking my ass, outside of these two episodes, on this go-round). When we think about our favorite TV shows and our favorite episodes of our TV shows, it's easy to overstate the positive or the negative because we love these shows so much. When I say that "Christopher" is my least favorite episode of The Sopranos, I mean it, but it's also an episode of The friggin' Sopranos. There's a lot of really great stuff in there, just as there is in "D-Girl." At the same time, it can become easy to remember really great moments in the series' run with such accuracy that some of the lesser moments surrounding them slide away into the fog.
Watching a serialized TV series like The Sopranos is almost about cultivating moments, more than it is individual episodes. Now, The Sopranos is a little different because it does have great, stand-alone episodes, especially when compared to The Wire, where it's so much easier to remember an episode as "the one where this character dies" or "the one where the cops have the investigation slip away from them." Serialized TV is a collection of great moments that are strung together with character scenes that create a lengthy chain of scenes that tell a single story, often broken up into bite-sized chunks. But this also means that an episode of a show, particularly one that's fitted precisely within the series' overarching plot, is sometimes only as strong as its best or worst scene in our memories.
Take "D-Girl." There is a ton of terrific stuff going on in this episode, from AJ's discovery of existentialism (and his chilling conversation with his grandma) to that final confirmation scene where Christopher and Pussy are destroyed for very different reasons to that therapy session where Melfi tries to steer Tony toward realizing that questioning the nature of existence is a normal and healthy thing for adolescents to do and all Tony can blame AJ's state of mind on is the "fuckin' Internet" (one of the show's great laugh lines). But, unfortunately, this is also the first episode to really get down into the muck and mire of Hollywood, a place that The Sopranos would return to time and again, and while I'm not as down on the Hollywood scenes this time through as I was in the past, I still don't think they're executed with the precision of the mafia scenes. It's like the mobster scenes are a very precise rifle, while the Hollywood scenes spew buckshot all over.
To be fair, the Hollywood targets in "D-Girl" are pretty large, and hitting them does require the broadest satire and range possible. There's a great little theme running through this episode about what happens when fiction runs headlong into reality and vice versa, and this, of course, is one of the better ways to express that theme. I also tend to like Jon Favreau in the episode, even though I know that's a minority opinion. He's pretty great as the clueless Hollywood type who's as in awe of Christopher as Christopher is in awe of him. And I love that first series of shots of Christopher coming up to the Hollywood set and seeing the mechanics of moviemaking for the first time. To the people on set, it's as prosaic as taking out a guy for withholding cash is for Christopher, but to him, there's a real sense of excitement. He wants to be there. This is what he wants, really wants, to do. And this episode will be his first big flirtation with that life.
I think it's interesting how "D-Girl" presents the world of Hollywood as one of glamorous bullshit. It's not exactly an original take on the topic, but when you look at how unglamorous and down-in-the-muck the series' portrayal of the mob life is, it stands in marked contrast to the minor details of shooting a film, at least as Christopher sees it. It's easy for him to get roped in by these people who play at being other things all day long, even as it's just as easy for Favreau and Amy to get sucked in by the stories that Christopher tells them of his life. And yet after spending time with Christopher, all Favreau really gets out of the experience is a story he can directly lift for his screenplay. He doesn't grasp the reality of Chris' world at all, and what we hear of the script is all the usual Hollywood mobster bullshit, despite Favreau's hopes to make the film as true to life as possible. The world we're not living in is almost always more attractive to us than the one we are in.
At the same time, I remain unconvinced by most of the other Hollywood material in the episode. I like the idea of Christopher contributing the new word for Janeane Garofalo to say instead of "bitch," but the rest of the scene plays as a very cliche take on the old scene where an actor is raising an issue with the script just to raise an issue with the script. The episode's hyper-specific movie target - the short-lived indie lesbian crime genre - also hasn't aged as well as a more generic approach might have aged. (In general, The Sopranos has aged surprisingly well. It's obvious that the show is set in the year it's set in most of the time, but even references to things like, say, pagers don't feel as obtrusive as they might in other series from the era. The general world-weary malaise of the series hasn't aged at all, and that keeps everything else humming along.) There's an element of satire here, to be sure, but it's choosing some of the easiest and broadest targets, and it just feels lazy, when compared to some of the other stuff the show chose to dissect.
Furthermore, I don't buy the Chris and Amy romance, outside of the idea that they're two attractive people who happen to be in the same area at the same time. Amy is less of a character than a concept. She's an ambitious go-getter who's essentially shut herself off from human emotion and doesn't know what to do when an attraction to Chris comes along and smacks her in the face. In a way, she's a lot like the Faye Dunaway character in Network, only she's written even less subtly than that character is (and Network, for all its virtues, is one patently non-subtle movie). Sometimes people have these sorts of dalliances, and sometimes they use each other, but there's no real grander purpose to this storyline beyond the idea that Chris is using her like Favreau is using his stories. The character of Amy is such a non-entity that the whole storyline becomes a bit disconcerting, as though the show isn't ever sure who she is beyond the "D-Girl" of the title. Sure, she says she's a vice president in her famous kiss-off, but she feels more concept than character, something that's a frequent problem with Sopranos characters who come from worlds other than the world of the mob. Alicia Witt does what she can with the role, but It's a curious non-starter of a storyline and character.
Everything back with the rest of the cast is much more solid, however. AJ has started talking about how life is meaningless and how "death just shows the absolute absurdity of life" after he's caught stealing his mother's car and scraping it up. It's a storyline that's played for laughs for much of its run, but it's also a good example of just how little self-reflection Tony and Carmela are truly willing to do. To reflect more deeply on themselves would create a situation where they might have to call into question the choices they've made in life, and doing that could lead to some massive overhauls of what they believe. Melfi, like a good therapist, seems to be prodding Tony toward talking a bit about this in their session, but he just complains about AJ's impertinence until Melfi asks if, perhaps, his forceful break from his mother is throwing off his kids, too. One of the things that makes the season two therapy scenes better than the season one scenes is because the two characters are on much more level ground, and Melfi is finally able to poke at some of the things Tony would rather she leave alone without fearing for her life.
But it's that scene between AJ and Livia that might be one of the centerpieces of the whole series. (And it's here that I'll mention that the cut from the scene prior to that scene into this one is one of my favorite cuts of the whole series - from joy and debauchery right into the inevitable end of all things. Fucking grim.) I've been saying here and there throughout the run of this series that one of the big themes of The Sopranos is the idea that people don't change. And while I do think the show is tilted toward that viewpoint, many of you are right when you say that that's not exactly right. It might be more accurate to say that the series believes this: All people have the capacity for change, but real change is so hard and involves so much trenchant self-examination that few people ever even attempt to do it. This scene might as well be the natural outgrowth of that idea, a marked contrast to what is, ultimately, a pretty funny episode.
As AJ tries to tell his grandma about what he's learned from reading Nietzsche, she abruptly hijacks the conversation. That's right, she says. Life is meaningless. You end up alone. You "die in your own arms." It's a fantastically grim view of what's to come, of the life that stretches in front of AJ, and I love the way that the show presents this as if it's basically true but also presents it as if Livia is completely wrong about how to approach this conundrum. The Sopranos, of course, is a very Catholic series, and it has something like a sense that faith and hope matter in some ways, but it also concludes that a lot of life is essentially empty and meaningless (and seen in that light, the Hollywood scenes take on deeper meanings). But rather than embrace Livia's approach, the series seems to suggest that Melfi's approach - one of connection and self-examination - is a better way to approach a meaningless life that inevitably ends in the cold embrace of the grave.
"D-Girl" is another one of those episodes that I've talked myself into liking more as I've written about it. Where I think perhaps I might have given it a C or C+ based on my memory of it before rewatching it, I'd now place my grade at about a solid B. The Hollywood stuff is too big of a detriment for me to wholly enjoy it, but there's enough good sprinkled in there to keep it zipping along. And the material within Tony's family is generally very strong. And that's all without even talking about my favorite sequence of the episode, which involves Pussy and Christopher making very different choices of loyalty at AJ's confirmation. Pussy weeping alone as he contemplates the fact that he can never be loyal to his best friend again seems to be an even darker mirror of Livia's speech above, and Christopher's ultimate decision to give up on that world he caught just a taste of to chase a man who seems to grow ever more evil by the day down a path of immorality is its own kind of demoralizing. "D-Girl" isn't a great episode because it sort of feels like four episodes smashed together, but each of those four episodes is strong in its own way.
- I like the way Pussy's son comes off as such a tool in his talk to AJ about Nietzsche. He just seems to get the kid even more interested in reading the great existentialists, rather than pushing him toward earlier philosophers.
- It's worth stating that the Pussy storyline continues to be one of the great examples of The Sopranos playing what seems like the same emotional beat over and over and over and finding new things to mine in it. Pussy finally taking the step of wearing a wire is portrayed tragically, and the scene where he takes it out on his wife is heartbreaking.
- I'm not a huge fan of Garofalo or Sandra Bernhard in this episode, but I do like the look on Garofalo's face when she finds out that Chris' suggestion is just Italian for "cunt." It's a nice moment of an actor both playing themselves and playing against the public perception of who they are. Pity the rest of the Hollywood scenes couldn't have been like that.
- Elizabeth Reaser, one of those actresses who's bombed around TV looking for the breakout starring vehicle that will make her a star outside of the Twilight fanbase, turns up in a very, very small part here.
- Skip is very rapidly becoming one of my favorite recurring players on this rewatch. I like his no-nonsense approach to dealing with Pussy.
- Meadow doesn't have much to do in this episode, but I love the way she eggs on her brother's questioning of the moral authority of what his parents have taught him.
- It's hard to imagine a movie making anything all that great out of the story Chris tells Amy and Favreau, though it's certainly interesting in that moment, so … maybe?
- The notion of spiritual mentors is a pretty big deal on The Sopranos. I realize this isn't exactly a new observation, but "D-Girl" definitely plays up this idea in a pretty straightforward fashion.
- "Sounds to me like Anthony Junior may have stumbled across existentialism." "Fuckin' Internet."
- "I don't wanna be an actor unless I could play myself."
- "This is a true story."
- "Don't expect happiness. You won't get it. People let you down, and I'm not naming any names, but in the end, you die in your own arms."
Speaking to the Fishes:
- There are any number of story threads that come up in season two that SEEM like they might have been the basis for future episodes, like David Scatino, and Amy seems like one of those story threads, particularly given the show's continuing interest in the intersection of the mob with the world of entertainment. I do like Alicia Witt as an actress, so it's too bad that she didn't get another shot at this character, particularly as she was engaged to Chris' cousin.
- I wonder how much of that scene between Livia and AJ was the producers trying to get as much of Livia's world-view out there while dealing with a rapidly deteriorating Nancy Marchand.
- A mob movie with heavy ties to The Sopranos' characters and world will, of course, get made in the show's final season, though Cleaver is a much, much broader satire of Hollywood speak than even the show business stuff in "D-Girl."
"Full Leather Jacket" (season 2, episode 8)
Here, again, we confront expectations and the memory of one or two great scenes overshadowing much of what comes around them. In particular, I'm talking about Matt and Sean aiming to take out Christopher because they think Richie would like them to do so and that such a thing might help them move up in the family, woefully misjudging Chris' relationship to the guy in charge. And these moments are as exciting and shocking as they were the first time through the series. They come after a long string of episodes where the threat of violence was usually more implied than actually seen (this is another reason that long take of Furio beating up people at the whorehouse in "Big Girls Don't Cry" is so striking). They seem to shock a moribund plot - which has, to be fair, stalling the Tony and Richie confrontation everyone knew was coming through a series of (mostly exciting) standalone adventures - to life. They're just as enthralling as you remember, and they send the episode out on a bravura note, as Tony wonders just who could have taken his surrogate son and we know that the clash with Richie is coming very, very soon.
But, honestly, everything that leads up to those moments is kind of listless. Were I not really focusing on the show and writing it up, I suspect my attention would have started to wander fairly early on. This episode, actually, might be even worse than "D-Girl," though at least those final moments shrug off the anomie that plagues both episodes (though the confirmation party at the end of "D-Girl" is an all-around better sequence). I like every single plot in "Full Leather Jacket," and I like most of the plot points, but they all feel weirdly truncated. This is the shortest episode of The Sopranos, and it feels like it. Weirdly, by tightening up the moments around the ones where the characters sit around and contemplate what's going on, the show makes itself feel even more unfocused.
It's too bad, too, because this is the first episode in a while where we've really gotten a concentrated dose of Richie, just going through his life and trying to navigate the waters of a world that's changed while he was in jail. Richie has been important to most of the episodes this season in one way or another, but in this one, he gets a good deal of face time. David Proval's performance is such a livewire one that none of this is going to feel like a waste of our time or anything, but there's often a sense of this storyline taking us over territory we've already covered with the character. Richie has trouble restraining himself, but he also wants to make himself a valuable part of Tony's organization. Richie does a good job for a while, but he fucks it up in any number of ways, and then Tony has to clean up the mess, making him dislike Richie even further.
This is the first time The Sopranos would turn to the idea of an agitator within his own organization pushing all of Tony's buttons and seeing just how Tony would deal with that issue, and there are times when it feels as if the show is pushing the Richie storyline along too quickly - I, honestly, didn't expect them to push to the Tony and Richie confrontation it's obvious is coming at the end of this episode this quickly the first time I saw the episode - but it also seems as if it hits all of the same notes over and over. It feels at all times as if the writers have a destination in mind but haven't given a great deal of thought to the journey. Even on that first time through, the middle portion of the Richie storyline felt like a rough draft of better things to come to me.
But that's one of the ideas that The Sopranos plays so brilliantly with. Sometimes, life doesn't work out like a Hollywood story arc. Hell, most of the time it doesn't. For those of us who aren't protagonists of a movie of TV show, it's enough to just sort of muddle through toward a conclusion that doesn't completely destroy us. So I ultimately like most of the Richie arc and the way it toys with audience expectations, while I don't really like this episode. For one thing, Richie's gift of the leather jacket to Tony feels like a story I've seen before. It's fun to see Proval and James Gandolfini play out their uneasy dance around the fact that Richie took the jacket off a dead man, and the final moment when Richie sees the jacket on that Polish guy and knows what Tony did is pretty great. But this feels like a fairly stock TV plot, and I don't know that The Sopranos does anything new with it, outside of the idea that Richie got it off of the dead guy.
The scenes where Richie has to go over and help out on the construction project at Beansie's house are a bit better - at the very least, they couldn't be stripped down and made into the basic plot for an episode of Family Matters - but there are too few of them. Just when it seems like the plot is getting going, it stops just as abruptly, leaving the sense that there was more here that had to be cut for one reason or another. It's deeply unsatisfying, particularly when the entire Richie arc so far has been building to this moment. I get that The Sopranos deals in anticlimax, but it usually deals in action anticlimax, not character anticlimax. It usually gives us these awkward, uncomfortable scenes when it feels like they're coming. Here, I don't know that it did a very good job of that.
Similarly, the storyline where Carmela tries to get Jeannie Cusamano's sister to write a recommendation to Georgetown for Meadow is the sort of thing that feels underexplored. The show hasn't really dealt with the way that "normal" housewives in Carmela's circle deal with the fact that she's obviously a mob wife, and it's a topic that seems ripe for potential exploration. Instead, we get a scene where Carmela asks Jeannie to get her sister to do it, then a scene where Jeannie asks her sister, then a scene where Jeannie tells Carmela the answer is no, then a scene where Carmela goes to the sister directly, and finally a scene where Carmela does, indeed, get what she wants. I think there's a larger satirical point buried inside of here about the limits of limousine liberal well-meaningness or something, but the whole storyline simultaneously feels meandering, as though it refuses to get to the point, and truncated, as though there were so much more to it and we're seeing the cut that's been chopped down for syndication.
I genuinely have no idea what happened in this episode's production process. I don't know if there really is a wealth of material that was left on the cutting room floor for one reason or another. But I do know that the only story arc that seems to get the full emotional weight it deserves is Christopher's, and he's buried all the way in the back of the story, simply so the final moments will play with even more shock than they might have had he been front and center (and, naturally, he just had an episode where he was at the center of things, so it was time to take a week off). I love the uneasy scenes where he finally decides to propose to Adriana after he's more or less goaded into it thanks to his being an insufferable jackass to her the week before, and I like the way he squares off with her mother (another of the show's instantly great and recognizable characters). It's also a wildly funny Chris episode, as he gets most of the good laugh lines, and, of course, there's that ending.
Maybe the point of that ending is to remind us that, hey, these people may get bogged down in a bunch of prosaic shit like you and me, but they're still killers. They're still unable to solve most problems without some sort of violence. The function of it, in terms of the season's plot, is to keep us on our toes. A big thing like this should wait at least a few more episodes, shouldn't it? But, no, here it is in episode eight, with another five hours to go before this season closes the books. It's still a fantastic sequence, one of the show's better action climaxes (as if, again, the show just wanted to remind us it COULD do these things, even if it didn't always choose TO do them), but it feels as if there's only half an episode backing it up.
"Full Leather Jacket" is a good reminder that it's easy to get wrapped up in plot on a show like this. In terms of plot, yeah, this is a necessary episode, providing as it does a number of directions for the story to go in. But in terms of character development or thematic interest, there's just not as much to hang onto here. There's good stuff throughout the episode here and a terrific climax, but there's also a sense that there's so much more waiting just offscreen, a sense that a leisurely and often languid series like The Sopranos rarely leaves us with. Less is more, sure, but in the world of The Sopranos, the more malaise, the better.
- Setup/punchline: Livia tells AJ about how people can die from wearing their seatbelts, and Sean proceeds to die for that very reason.
- I do wonder how much of my ambivalence to some of this episode is just how stupid everyone involved has to be to make some of the plot wheels turn. I still have trouble believing Sean and Matt would take Richie's rant about Chris as a reason to go out and kill him, and Tony giving the jacket away to just the guy that Richie sees wearing it is awfully convenient if it's a coincidence or awfully stupid if Tony is aware that Richie might bump into the guy.
- It's been a while since we had a full-fledged death count moment, but Chris shooting Sean definitely counts.
- At the same time, I completely buy that Matt and Sean would be that upset about how much money they have to hand over. I do wonder if this little arc of theirs might have played out better over a few episodes, with the two of them realizing that their chances of moving up in the organization were pretty slim and they had to do something big.
- It's so bizarre to me that the same actress plays Jeannie and her sister, even as I know they're twins. I don't know why I don't like things like that, but I rarely do. It feels too cutesy, I guess.
- I do like the latter part of the scene where Carmela goes to Jeannie's sister and asks for the letter and then informs her that, no, she WANTS that letter. It's a great scene because I'm not sure Carmela gets just how threatening that might seem to someone. She just sees it as getting something she wants, which is something she tends to get.
- Carmela's mom and dad wander through. I'm always impressed with the eye The Sopranos had for actors in these little bit parts, so it could bump them up to incredibly important characters at a moment's notice. (This is not meant to indicate whether or not Carmela's parents become important in the future. I just like the actors quite a bit.)
- Perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay Proval is that Gandolfini absolutely towers over him in every way, but Proval holds the screen with him every time they share a scene together.
- Pussy sits this episode out, which is the first time that's happened this season, particularly given his importance to the storyline.
- It's easy to forget that Tony is a pretty typical father to a teenager in this era, as when he gives Meadow a hard (and crude) time about wanting to go to Berkeley. He can be a pretty big dick to his kids, but in a totally believable way, not a scary, mobster way.
- "Nobel Prize for what? Packin' fudge?"
- "She loves me, and these are her child-bearing years." (This is the greatest rationale for getting married ever.)
- "That nose is a natural canopy."
Speaking with the Fishes:
- Adriana's mother, of course, will return a few more times as the series goes on, particularly as Adriana grows more and more important to the main storyline of the show.
- Similarly, Adriana will seemingly remain Christopher's fiancee for the rest of time. Well, until she's killed. I hope to get more into the Chris and Ade relationship in the future seasons of the show, where it becomes more and more clear that the two love each other but would make a terrible married couple, at least in their present state.
- Tony's question of "How could this happen?" feels like a reflection of season four episode title "Whoever Did This." Which is an episode that does a lot of the stuff this episode aims to do and does it much better, actually.
- It's interesting to see the slow-building way that the series is deepening its ensemble, as both Bobby and Vito turn up in this episode, but are shadows of the characters they'll become.
- There was a fascinating discussion last week pivoting off of my comment that the show finds therapy generally "useless," with some convincing counterarguments that the show finds therapy useful for some of its characters. It definitely seems to think that Tony could be helped by Melfi if he just listened to her and actually examined his own life. But I do think that the series finds a lot of therapy - particularly for people who already leave fairly well-examined lives LIKE Melfi - pretty useless. I would have a hard time thinking of a useful therapist outside of Melfi (who is, admittedly, one of the main characters of the show) and - SPOILER ALERT! - the therapist Carmela visits who tells her to take the kids and run. END SPOILERS. In Treatment, this is not.
- There's also some interesting discussion of just who the most important Sopranos writers were. I think the top three writers or writing teams are, unquestionably, David Chase, Terence Winter, and Robin Green and Mitchell Burgess (in that order). Between those four, the bulk of the series' classic episodes were created. After that, it's kind of a toss-up between Frank Renzulli, Todd Kessler, and Matthew Weiner.
- Rowan's got interesting ideas about Janice in "The Happy Wanderer": "I'm surprised you didn't mention much more about her, Todd, as her role in this episode shows both a drastic and natural progression for her character. First, visually, she's completely different. The happy-go-lucky-hippiewear has been replaced by somber black. Granted, there are reasons for the formalwear in both cases when we see her, but I think it's also intentional. More specifically, she's talking to Richie in exactly the sort of manipulative harridan way that Livia spoke to Junior in the first season, as the camera keeps switching between her and Livia. I do complain about The Sopranos being a little over the top with that stuff, but I think in this episode, it was handled perfectly."
Next week: There's more wheel-spinning in "From Where to Eternity," but hopefully, this one will do so more artfully. Then, one of the season's best episodes in "Bust Out."