“Whitecaps” (season 4, episode 13; originally aired 12/8/2002)
In which something ends.
You grow up. You fall in love. You get married. You rent a shitty little apartment. You have a shitty little car. You have a couple of kids. You stop pursuing what you really wanted to do because raising your kids is really what you want now. You buy a house. You get a better car. You figure out a way to pay for private school (or move to the neighborhood with the best schools). You stop eating out, stop going to the movies. You maybe worry you’re losing yourself. You maybe worry the person you married isn’t the person you thought they were. You buy a nicer house. You buy the best car you can afford. You start keeping secrets from each other. You get the kids a dog. You start to look around for something else. You go to soccer games. You go to piano recitals. You help with science fair projects. You forget why you’re doing this in the first place. You have a friend at work, maybe you start to fall in love with them a little bit. You take her for granted. You take him for granted. You wake up one night, and you don’t know that person anymore. But you keep waking up next to them. Over and over.
My father always used to say that you don’t fall in love with someone for all time. You make the choice to love them and only them, and you shut out other possibilities. Maybe some part of your brain recognizes that there are other options out there on the playing field. But that’s the part that shuts down outside of idle glances and a few harmless flirtations here and there. The thing my father didn’t say, though, is that this isn’t a one-time, all-in kind of deal. You don’t choose to love someone forever on your wedding day, and that’s it. No. You make that choice every day. Every day, you wake up, and you roll over to look at the stranger next to you, and you say, “Yeah, I choose you again.” Some days, that makes you happy. Some days, it makes you sad. Some days, you’re just resigned to it all. But you keep making that choice because you have to and you have faith the stranger is making that choice too, is your partner in arms against everything the world has to throw at you.
Until they’re not. And you wonder what the fuck happened.
To be fair, what Carmela Soprano finds out in “Whitecaps” isn’t a surprise. She’s known that Tony slept around on her for years now. Her litany of Tony’s old girlfriends extends well into the past, back to before the series began—the preschool teacher suggests he was catting around even when the kids were very, very young. But there’s still something so raw about Carmela’s emotions when she finds out about Svetlana (and so raw about having to find out from Irina, of all people). This is a woman who’s had it with lies and manipulation, even if her husband doesn’t really see what’s changed. The show has spent all season showing us exactly why this marriage will fall apart, but we haven’t even realized it because we count on Tony and Carmela to be together as much as A.J. and Meadow do. But here they are. They're finally having their big fight.
They've been having this fight for over 20 years.
Like the season it ends, “Whitecaps” is a defiantly languid episode of television. The arguments that pepper the episode don’t go on as long as your memory thinks they do. The big three Tony and Carmela confrontation scenes are all over in under two minutes. Yet they pack so much history and catharsis into their running times that it ends up feeling like they take up the entirety of the episode. They’re violent and physical and terrifying. In any long-term relationship, there’s always that thing you keep in your back pocket, the secret thing you could do to utterly wreck the whole enterprise, the self-destruct clause. And in every fight with your partner, there’s a moment where you could push the button and tear the whole house down, but you don’t because you care about them. In “Whitecaps,” Tony and Carmela reach that point, and then they don’t just push the button. They keep escalating until his fist is disappearing into the wall and he’s shoving her up against the wall and the look in her eyes is simultaneously one of terror and excitement. She doesn’t know where this is going to end, and for once in this marriage, that’s something kind of thrilling.
“Whitecaps” is the kind of episode that would only work this late in a show’s run. If you put this episode at the end of season two or even season three, it wouldn’t have nearly the same kind of impact. The only way it works is if the series has not just a season’s worth of history to draw upon, but a series’ worth of history. Stuff gets dredged up in this episode that happened in the pilot, for God’s sake. It’s an episode that asks us how Tony and Carmela got to this point and whether reaching that point was inevitable. But it’s also an episode that posits that Tony and Carmela have been sitting at this precipice for ages now, just waiting for someone to give the boulder the shove that sends it careening down the hill. Carmela tries to tell Meadow that they’ve had a lot of good times in this family—and intellectually, we might agree with her—but when we look back on memories, peppered by the vitriol of this episode, it’s much easier to remember the pain these two caused each other. Hell, even Meadow can only remember a moment where she behaved like a spoiled brat.
I talked a little last week about how “Eloise” prepares us for one finale—the one where Tony takes out Carmine and perhaps goes to war with New York—but also quietly prepares us for another—the one where Carmela kicks Tony out. Even throughout “Whitecaps,” the episode keeps blatantly distracting us from the real calamity going on right under our noses by cutting over to the preparations for the Carmine hit that never happens. Tony orders Chris to get the whole thing set up, then Carmine wants to meet and agrees to Tony’s terms. Johnny Sack, however, wants the hit to go forward. But Tony gets cold feet and pulls out, realizing that this could too easily be Johnny setting him up for his own nefarious purposes. The only two people who get whacked are the two hitmen Chris contracted with, simply because Tony doesn’t want any word of the plan getting out. The only conflict that seems to deepen here is the one between Tony and Johnny, driven by the fact that Johnny increasingly feels marginalized and cornered.
The mob story is meant as a kind of relief from the brutally honest scenes of Tony and Carmela’s marriage dissolving (as is the Whitecaps storyline, which we’ll get to). But at every turn, the show yanks away the promise of easy climax. We don’t get to see Carmine whacked because Tony is smarter than that and Carmine comes to his senses at the last possible moment. We don’t get a big, action-packed sequence because the show doesn’t want us to stop thinking about the horror of what’s going on back in the Soprano home. TV couples don’t just break up, right? They stay together forever and ever, and TV husbands and wives have their gripes but figure out a way to push through them. But this squabble doesn’t go away. It gets worse. It deepens. More and more of the problems in the marriage get sucked into its gravitational pull, and soon, it’s all anyone on the show or in the audience can think about. Why else would all of the other gangsters spend so much time giving Tony advice and condolences?
Really, “Whitecaps” is a portrayal of three marriages. Tony and Carmela’s is revealed to be unable to withstand the strain the two put on it. Johnny and Ginny’s—so believably and movingly portrayed earlier in the season—is able to withstand Johnny’s angry outburst early in the episode (and he’s the one who lets Tony know that marriage is hard work if both people aren’t willing to do their share—another subtle reference to what the Johnny-focused episode “The Weight” might have been referring to with its title). And Alan and his wife find themselves fraying at the seams thanks to Tony’s attempts to get out of paying for the house after his marriage implodes. (Alan, who knows a thing or two about getting divorced, advises Tony to take meetings with all of the top divorce attorneys in his area, so they can’t represent Carmela when the time comes.) We don’t dig as deeply into the other two marriages as we do Tony and Carmela’s, but we still get a hint of how all of these people deal with stress placed on the relationship, and only in one case does it lead to things ending irrevocably.
What kills me every time—what I forget every time—is that this episode also features Tony and Carmela at their happiest. David Chase and his writers have spent all of this time showing us emphatically just why Tony and Carmela are such a poor match, but there’s a part of me that still wants them to end up happily together in that scene where the two dance on the beach in front of Whitecaps, the house that stands in for everything they’d ever wanted from their relationship. And yet once the many separate threads the season has scattered about start to weave themselves together and once the show begins to reveal what it was building toward all season, the truth about Whitecaps is revealed: Just like those flowers Tony bought Carmela earlier in the season when he wouldn’t sign the living trust, Whitecaps is just another way for him to appease her with things. He’s befuddled when it doesn’t work, when she insists she needs something more and can’t be satisfied with something that’s just a bigger emerald ring. And yet when she first sees Whitecaps, she’s ecstatic. It’s what she and Tony dreamed of when they were first starting out, and now, it’s hers. The central question of Carmela’s character is whether it’s really just about the pretty things for her or if she has some form of integrity. “Whitecaps” more than puts that to the test.
And yet in some weird way, “Whitecaps” also proves that Tony and Carmela really do love each other. Tony’s blindsided by what happens between the two of them, and he lashes out the only way he knows how. What he’s done is awful, but hadn’t Carmela expected such things of him? And Furio? Honestly? (I love how James Gandolfini plays this in stunned disbelief before getting very, very angry.) He does everything he can to get Carmela the house. But it can’t cover up his misdeeds. Once again, Tony and Carmela are in the same room, in the same marriage, but living in totally different spaces. The only emotion that can unite them is a mutual bitterness that’s been growing harder and harder, the bedrock of their marriage that they wouldn’t dare admit is even there. But that union, that bitterness, that's stronger than any fling. On some level, that's love that's just gone a little sour.
Because that’s the thing. You can create a system where both parties in the relationship have room to move comfortably as they wish, but that system will inevitably be unfair in some way. The Soprano marriage has been heavily weighted toward Tony, and all Carmela wants is something of her own. But she has to scrape and claw to get it. We like to think marriage is a happy ending, the part of the story where everybody settles down and fits into nicely preconceived roles. But the reality is that there’s nothing you can do to keep the other person from becoming a stranger, nothing you can do to hold them tight to you if they’re just done with the compromise and done with the bullshit. No one wants to grow old alone, but everybody’s going to grow old alone.
- In the midst of all of the bad news, we might as well point out that Chris appears to be clean and sober and doing fairly well for himself. There’s a little bit of Chris and Adriana’s relationship in this episode, too, and I love the look on the agent’s face when Adriana says that Chris might not have kids because, well, he sat on that dog.
- I also like Chris deciding not to make amends and the mention of Ralphie “resurfacing.” Chris couldn’t make amends even if he tried.
- The scene where the guys all offer Tony advice on what to do in the divorce at the Bing is about as funny as you’d imagine it would be. A solid comedic break in the midst of some heavy stuff.
- I’m really impressed with how this episode portrays both how scared A.J. and Meadow are about their parents splitting up but also just how much they make the separation all about them. Of course they do.
- Alan is one of my favorite one-off Sopranos characters ever. I love just how thoroughly he thinks he has Tony pegged and just how thoroughly he doesn’t at all.
- Junior pulls off the mistrial, in the conclusion to a plot that continues to feel a touch undercooked, as if the show wasn’t quite sure what to do with it ever, then just decided to get out as best as it could.
- Chase’s Goodfellas love continues. That’s “Layla” playing when Tony drives up to the house and runs over his golf clubs, shortly before the song disappears into the piano outro that forms the most famous montage in the film.
- I believe this is the Emmy winningest episode in television history, winning awards for Gandolfini, Edie Falco, and the episode’s writing team.
- And finally, a reminder that we transition to reviews of the British Office in this timeslot next week. I’ll get through those (with a possible one week break for TCA), then resume with Sopranos season five in August at some point. The fifth season will be split in two, with a two-to-three-week break for fall premiere season, before we finish it up. As the season that contains my favorite episode of the show, I’m looking forward to it. See you then!
Speaking With The Fishes:
- Can we talk frankly about how Tony and Carmela’s separation doesn’t actually last? I remember being very disappointed by this development when the show first aired, but I’ve mellowed on it over time. Chase and the writers do some interesting things with the reconciliation, though I still think the show missed an opportunity by not making the split last even longer.
- Chris stays sober for a surprisingly long time, as many of you reminded me the last time we talked about this. It’s those amends that’ll always get you.
- And all of the discussion of Carmine’s health seems to wonderfully foreshadow how he dies two episodes into season five.
Next time: We’ll see you in August with “Two Tonys.”