On television, the years 1999 to 2007 marked the reign of Anthony Soprano, lead character of the HBO series, The Sopranos. Over the years, writer/director David Chase and James Gandolfini (our beloved Tony) succeeded in creating not only one of the most popular entertainment experiences to date but in crafting a brilliant, socially significant production whose writing and performances will continue to be marveled over for years and decades to come. Homages to gangster cinema abound throughout the series, characters come and go, and while anyone familiar with The Hays Code and its continued effect on gangster narratives could have guessed, we meet Tony but on the upswing; things start out mostly okay but wind up in the gutter. Despite this fact, the show is not wholly about the Mafia but also about humanity; we care about Tony, his family, his crew, and his psychiatrist from the beginning because we’re able to see ourselves in them. Parts, anyway.
Limiting this list to only include ten episodes was difficult but necessary–think of these as the shiniest jewels in an otherwise magnificent golden crown. It’s not always easy, this show, but it’s an experience unlike any other. And Jimmy? Grazie per i ricordi, wherever you are.
In the series’ pilot episode we meet Tony Soprano on his first shrink visit to Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco). Having suffered panic attacks and feelings of depression after a family of ducks left the home they’d made in his pool, Tony speaks candidly about his family and the ducks, but won’t discuss his occupation. Melfi is sharp, however, and correctly deduces that Tony’s “waste management consultant” title is a cover for Mafia ties. Such begins the formula that will continue throughout the show: Tony’s willingness to share certain things but not others during his therapy, and whether or not Dr. Melfi is able to penetrate the walls he’s put around his actions and feelings, given who he is and what he does. Is it the mob that’s making him crazy, or something else?
Highlights: Imagery from the drive from New York to North Jersey in the opening credits, Tony’s gleeful face as he runs down a debtor, the introduction of Satriale’s Meat Market, Tony’s exchange with his volatile mother, Livia (Nancy Marchand), Nephew Christopher Moltisanti’s stylized execution scene inside Satriale’s cut together with black and white photographs of famous Italians on the wall, and Tony’s confessional with Melfi over what the ducks really meant to him.
“I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano”
In the final episode of the first season, Tony’s sessions with Dr. Melfi have brought war upon his crew. Melfi upsets Tony by questioning his mother’s actions and sudden dementia; he reacts in a less than positive way and threatens her with force. Just afterward, Tony unwillingly meets with the FBI, who reveal to him what Melfi suspected: Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) and Livia plotted together to have Tony killed. In retaliation, Tony’s crew prepares to usurp Junior’s but are thwarted when the feds get to him first, taking him into custody for a past crime. “What kind of person can I be, when my own mother wants me whacked?” Tony asks his wife, Carmela (Edie Falco).
Highlights: Agent Harris (Matt Servitto) showing legitimate regret and emotion as Tony listens to the recording that confirms Livia and Junior conspired against him, the procedural efficiency of “whackings” as Tony’s crew goes up against Junior’s, Carmela and Melfi seeming to know more than they let on about Tony’s panic attacks–“You had to see a shrink because of the mother you had,” and the subtle nod to Pulp Fiction-style execution as Paulie (Tony Sirico) and Chris (Michael Imperioli) take out Junior’s boy, Mikey.
In the finale of the second season, things start out well enough (“Things are good! What the $&%*?”) It doesn’t last long. Beginning with a surreal dream that has Tony and the crew wandering the boardwalk and culminating into a severe case of food poisoning, Tony feels strongly that something is not right. Livia gets busted with stolen airline tickets, Carmela plans Meadow’s graduation party, but all the while Tony writhes and shivers, unable to resolve his suspicions. The dreams continue, and soon Tony realizes that one of his captains, Sal “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero (Vincent Pastore), has been informing on him to the feds. With none of the bravado or efficiency seen in the first season’s executions, Tony, Paulie, and Silvio shoot Pussy with angry reproach–“You were like a brother to me. To all of us.” Meanwhile, Meadow (Jamie Lynn Sigler) graduates high school; the family celebrates.
Highlights: Tony’s dream sequences, the tension that comes when Pussy begins to suspect his crew is onto him, Tony’s arrest and subsequent release and how it affects his daughter, Meadow.
“Mr. Ruggerio’s Neighborhood”
The premiere of the third season is unique in that each scene is shot from the point of view of the federal agents trying to infiltrate The Sopranos’ home in order to plant a bugging device. It’s a harder task than they anticipate, and with each federal order, more setbacks abound: botched attempts to enter the domicile, assassination attempts on Tony, and exploding water heaters–bugging a Don’s house is hard work! The feds’ efforts begin strong and usually end poorly, until they don’t. The first bit of recording doesn’t quite meet the teams’ expectations, though, and rather than getting juicy details on mob hits or drug deals they get Tony and Carmela discussing dental floss.
Highlights: The significant drop of Pussy’s black and white photograph into the garbage as they label him “MIA,” Peter Gunn Theme intercut with The Police’s Every Breath You Take as the feds do their stuff, the procedural details of each scene with each one ending in a sudden fade-to-black, and Patsy Parisi’s urinary indiscretions.
By The Sopranos‘ best and most epic season, the third, Tony has become quite possibly the greatest anti-hero ever written. He cheats on his wife but is loyal to the mother who tried to have him killed. He wants better things for his children but comes to resent their social and intellectual superiority. In “Proshai, Livushka,” Tony reacts to the death of his mother, Livia. Although he admits to Dr. Melfi that he is grateful that she’s gone, his actions seem contradictory: he defends Livia to his children, angrily berates sister Janice (Aida Turturro) for attempting to skip out on Livia’s funeral, and then cries silently during the mother’s grief in the film Public Enemy. Is he mourning his departed mother or the fact that even gangster Tom Powers (and not Tony) had a mother who showed him love?
Highlights: Livia’s final “I wish the Lord would take me now!” The funeral home scene cloning that of Vito’s in The Godfather, flower arrangement sent by the FBI’s organized crime department, and Carmela’s truthful confessional during Livia’s rememberance.
An episode of mistakes and those who make them. Tony gets closer to Gloria Trillo (Annabella Sciorra) but finds a temper to rival his own. During what should have been a routine collection from one of Tony’s Russian colleagues, Paulie misjudges the man’s capacity for ridicule and with Christopher, ends up fighting to the death. Or so they believe. With plans to bury the body in the middle of a South Jersey forest, the two are unprepared when the Russian (standing nearly three heads taller than either of them) escapes into the woods. They give chase, lose their way, and report to Tony, who is less than pleased. As Tony’s situation with Gloria becomes more and more desperate, Paulie and Chris abandon the search for the Russian and focus instead on self-preservation.
Highlights: The Rolling Stones’ Gloria on the stereo of Tony’s boat, banter over universal remote controls, Tony’s gift from Morocco, Paulie’s misinterpretation of Tony’s phone call, the overall vastness and desperation of the episode, and Bobby Bacala (Steve Shirripa) in blaze orange.
“The Strong, Silent Type”
It’s probably time to talk about The Hays Code and how even years later, it still managed to shape the events of The Sopranos. The code was a list of rules within Hollywood that existed to put a damper on any sort of positive portrayals of crime and criminals–no drugs, no prostitution, and should a gangster exist, he must meet a bitter end. Illusions about Tony Soprano’s life and livelihood ending well are put to rest after this episode and “Whitecaps,” the fourth season’s finale, and continue on a downward trajectory throughout the fifth and sixth seasons. That warm, fuzzy feeling you got from the first three seasons? Yeah, that’s long gone.
In “The Strong, Silent Type,” Christopher Moltisanti’s addiction begins to interfere with virtually everything he does. He gets assaulted by dealers, his car gets stolen, and he inadvertently kills fiancee Adrianna’s dog while high on heroin. When she confronts him about it, he beats her. As Tony is still reeling from the death of his horse, Pie-O-My, he seeks advice from both Dr. Melfi and Junior on how to handle the added issue of Christopher’s drug problem. Melfi suggests an intervention, Junior, a sympathy whacking, akin to putting a dog out of its misery. As with psychiatry, drug dependencies pose significant vulnerability problems in Tony’s line of work, but out of love for his nephew, Tony chooses treatment for Chris.
Highlights: Tony’s revealing sessions with Melfi, Christopher assaulted with child’s xylophone toy, Carmela’s new haircut and increasing feelings for Furio, Intervention (Mafia Style) and Silvio’s biggest issue with Chris’s drug problem, Tony’s angry emotion beside Chris’s hospital bed, and Paulie’s discomfort over Tony’s likeness in the Napoleon painting.
Things are complicated in Tony’s life but he decides to make an offer on a new beach house down the shore, Whitecaps. Christopher is freshly sprung from rehab and looks great, but is thrust immediately into turmoil as Johnny Sac (Vince Curatola) and Tony co-conspire to have Carmine, head of a New York family, taken out. In the midst of everything, Tony’s scorned ex-mistress, Irina, phones Carmela to inform her of further infidelities. Carmela explodes in hurt and humiliation, banishing Tony from the house.
Highlights: The family’s fine policy for saying the “F’ word at the dinner table, Johnny Sac’s outburst over the esplanade, Tony’s surprisingly non-violent solution to getting out of his buyer’s agreement for the beach house, and Meadow and Anthony Jr.’s love for their father as he leaves (even knowing his flaws).
As the descent into all-around unpleasantness continues, Tony and Janice (who has married Bobby Bacala) must take turns babysitting Junior. Confused and agitated most days, it’s clear that Junior won’t be able to live on his own for much longer. In therapy, Tony explains his worries to Dr. Melfi, but her patience on the subject has come to an end. In an unprecedented moment of bluntness, Melfi chides Tony for refusing to acknowledge the role Junior played in Tony’s attempted assassination, which is rooted in his further inability to admit he had a mother who didn’t love him. Significant foreshadowing, it turns out; Junior eventually shoots Tony in the abdomen as he cooks his uncle’s dinner. Things have gone from bad to worse.
Highlights: The Egyptian symbolism of the opening music montage sequence set to a Burroughs story, The Western Lands, Johnny Sac’s emotion over photographs of his daughter’s wedding shower, and the sinking revelation that the feds just might actually be getting the drop on Tony.
“Made in America”
Certainly ambiguous and open to interpretation, the final episode of the series is brilliant for those reasons and many others.
If Tony Lives, the family reoccupies their places around a restaurant table, eating, just as they did at the first season’s finale. AJ says just before Meadow arrives that they should remember the good times, as Tony did previously at Vesuvio. Meadow chooses a law career, focusing on civil rights of minority groups; AJ had formerly been interested in a military or intelligence career in order to fight terrorism but then accepts Tony’s help in launching into film (via Little Carmine). The bigger theme here (“Made in America”) is that both Tony’s children, while at first insistent in putting as much space between themselves and Tony and Tony’s livelihood as possible, completely turn around and choose careers that intertwine them deeper to him, Meadow, criminal law and AJ, the family business as Carmine Lupertazzi’s development assistant. They grew up with advantages, had opportunities to leave, and both chose to stay. Tony Soprano is at root, a family man and life goes on.
If Tony Dies, the link to gangster cinema is firm, and precursors from The Godfather (beginning all the way back with the stray orange cat) abound. As there is no one left on Phil’s crew, the hit had to be authorized by Carmine or another New York family, and that particular bit isn’t all too clear or motivated, but there are a few things that can’t really be ignored. The lingering white hoodlum-type gets up and goes to the bathroom just as Michael Corleone went into the bathroom before hitting the table of cops in the restaurant. Why? Just before the very end, two African American men come wandering in and will presumably walk directly past Tony’s table. Why? Tony, Carmela, and AJ each eat an onion ring; Meadow isn’t there yet. Are those circular rings symbolic of the gunshot holes that will soon pierce their bodies? Hard to say. These are conscious choices made by David Chase, and significant ones, just as the fact that Meadow can’t quite get her car parked in a spot twenty-five feet wide on the street is significant. However, there was happiness at the table. If Tony and the rest of the family gets clipped in the diner, they die happy or having at least experienced good times, as Tony had hoped for his family. In ending that way, Tony Soprano becomes at root, The Godfather and his story, epic.
What do you think happened to Tony?