The world’s a jungle. You want my advice, Anthony? Don’t expect happiness. You won’t get it. People let you down…in the end, you die in your own arms.
– Livia Soprano, giving advice to Anthony, Jr.
There’s a theme of rugged individualism (dare I say, “libertarianism?”) that runs through The Sopranos. At the very least, there’s a sense that we’re all responsible for our own actions. Such is why the show’s protagonist, Tony Soprano, is subject to anxiety attacks, needs anti-depressant medication to function, and frequents a shrink. He’s forever trapped by the realization that he’s not a legitimate person. He can’t be a father, or a husband, so long as the moral realities of his mob life continue to haunt him. He wants desperately to raise his kids right, to teach them responsibility and right-from-wrong. But he can’t, because he has no moral authority to stand upon when it comes time to admonish them. “Oh, listen to you, Mr. Mob Boss,” Meadow says, when he attempts to tell her she’s making a mistake by skipping college for Europe. And last season, when A.J. dips into mischief after learning the truth behind his dad’s “waste management business,” Tony’s helpless when it comes to straightening him out. Tony can hide behind the moral code of the mafia. He can attempt to lose himself in his “legitimate” life – his family. But in the end, he’s challenged to reconcile the irreconcilable: he’s a liar, a thief and a murderer. And that’s how he makes his living. No amount of twist or spin or revisionist code he puts on those truths can change them. They are in fact truths, and the truth will continue to gnaw at Tony’s soul until he owns up to it. Ultimately, he’s responsible for his person.
The theme of individualism has played itself out in other aspects of the show as well. I’ve referenced it in a previous review, but a most telling and understated display of the theme occurred last season, when a state’s witness to a murder carried out by Tony and Big Pussy was seen in his home reading Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia. Nozick was a widely respected Harvard philosopher and libertarian (or, at least, a classical liberal). He believed in a minimalist state, and that individuals ought to be held accountable for the choices they make – and they ought to be free to make them. Nozick believed that one of the few legitimate functions of the state was to protect us from one another. Just after the shot of the witness reading Nozick, he learns that the murder he witnessed was not a random act, but rather one perpetrated by the Soprano crime family. Shaken, he recants his testimony. That’s a pretty powerful statement coming from the Sopranos’ creators. We can’t count on the state for even the most basic of governmental functions – protecting us from harm. Ultimately, we’re all on our own. We die in our own arms.
That’s a lengthy introduction into the third episode of The Sopranos fourth season, but I think it lays some important groundwork. In all honesty, I thought the episode was one of the weaker installments in the series. It was written by Michael Imperioli – the guy who plays Christopher Multisanti in the show. Imperioli also wrote “The Telltale Moozadel” from season three, perhaps the worst episode The Sopranos has yet to produce. Goes to show that perhaps Imperioli should follow the lead of his character, who gave up dreams of screenwriting to stick with what he does best – thuggery.
This week was, basically, an exercise in grudge-settling. It was the Sopranos’ finger in the eye to the Italian-American activists (such as the fallen Senator Robert Toricceli, who actually tried to condemn the show by way of a US Senate resolution) who protest the way his show portrays their ancestry – and, more broadly, it was a general middle finger cast in the direction of identity politics. I happen to love the message, but the way it was delivered leaves much to be desired. The entire episode struck me as didactic and polemical. The dialogue was trite and forced (at least by Sopranos standards). There were the usual great lines and outstanding scenes – and the show was still the best thing on TV all week – but on the whole I found it a little wanting.
The plot centers around Columbus Day, and a planned Native American boycott of the town’s celebratory parade. The Soprano Family feels that the Italian explorer’s being slighted when activists call attention to the fact that he murdered and enslaved thousands of American Indians. Silvio serves as the writers’ chief (pardon the pun) representative of Italian-American interests. In one particularly over-the-top scene, Silvio is attempting to persuade Tony that the issue is of grave concern to him – enough so that he’d like Tony to get involved. He mentions that he himself helped start an Italian-American Anti-Defamation organization – but of course, any check Silvio wrote was written with blood money, money garnered by the very means Italian Anti-American Defamation organizations consider defamatory. In another scene, Father Phil arranges a luncheon in which a successful Italian-American woman extols just how far women of her ancestry have come. She scolds stereotyping with uninspired lines such as, “They say John Gotti, we say Rudolph Giuliani.” Of course, Carmela and the other wives of the mafiosos are in attendance. Carmela manages to be simultaneously offended by the stereotype that Italian-Americans are mob-connected, and by the assertion that being mob-connected needs to be a negative stereotype.
In another unfortunate scene, Hesh, his Puerto Rican aide, Tony, Christopher and the nephew of Paulie Walnuts are talking in the horse barn at Hesh’s place. The conversation about Columbus day degenerates into a free-for-all in which each guy vouches for his ethnicity while calling attention to the historical shortcomings of the ethnicities of everyone else. I understand Chase’s point – that once you tattoo yourself with identity politics, you can’t divorce yourself from your chosen interest group when it becomes inconvenient – but the scene really felt contrived, and not at all within the bounds of what we might expect from the characters involved (Hesh, for instance, has never been the ADL card-carrying Jew. If anything, he’s been self-deprecating. For him to start throwing out anti-Semitism charges at his aid for likening Columbus to Hitler rang really hollow). I was really disappointed that we didn’t see more from the ex-husband of Melfi, Tony’s therapist. David Chase has used the guy numerous times in previous episodes as the microphone for Italian-Americans fed up with both the mob image, and the mobsters who make that image possible. He would’ve been the one guy in the show who could speak on the subject and remain within the context of his character. Yet we don’t see him until the end, and even then, he merely flips on a television and displays his disgust at the Columbus Day showdown.
That’s not to say there weren’t a few redeeming exchanges on the topic.
In the episode’s opening scene, the boys are all lounging on the sidewalk in front of Satriale’s meat shop when Bobby Bacala first reads of the protests in the newspaper. The fellas’ in turn all weigh in on the injustice being done to Columbus when Furio – the only first-generation Italian in the bunch – says he loathes Columbus. Columbus, it seems, was from North Italy. The northern Italians have all the money, and so turn their noses up at the south. Furio spits on Columbus and his northern descendants. It was a nice – and wholly believable – turning of the tables, and a reminder that every ethnic group, no matter how loathed, can find a subset ethnic group to loathe even more.
The other saving dialogue comes at the end and, unsurprisingly, is delivered convincingly and passionately by Gandolfini. He admonishes Silvio for his constant griping about the “discrimination faced us Italians.” “Look at you,” Tony says, “you got a smart kid at Lakawana College, you own the best strip club in Jersey. You got a wife who’s a piece of ass – or at least she was when you married her. Did you get all of that because you’re Italian? No. You got it because you’re you, because you’re smart, because you’re…whatever the fuck.”
In other developments, for reasons completely unclear to me, the writers decided to kill off Karen Bacala, wife of just-named-capo Bobby Bacala, in a car accident. This series is dark, and perhaps the writers are making a “cruel world” point here. Bobby of course is the most sympathetic goodfella in the Soprano family. He’s dim, but compassionate, and an avowed family man. At Karen’s funeral, the wives all watch with heavy hearts as Bobby weeps openly over Karen’s casket. Meanwhile, Tony, Ralphie, Sil and Christopher all talk business in the corner. Sil’s wife Gabriella whispers to the other wives, “I once heard Sil talking with somebody on the phone about how Bobby was the only one of them who didn’t have a goomara. They were laughing at him [note: a "goomara" is a mistress].” Two observations from that quote: 1) Fucked-up mafia world observation: Odd, isn’t it, that the wives of the mafiosos would nod approvingly that Bobby’s a good man for not having a mistress – acknowledging without question that the implication there is that each of their own husbands has one? 2) So the writers of the show reward the series’ only faithful husband by killing his wife.
Ralphie then walks out on Ro, who is particularly hit by her friend Karen’s death, considering that in the last two years, she’s lost her husband and her son, too (“I’ve had big chunks of flesh ripped out of me,” she says). Ralphie’s leaving Ro for Janice, who has second thoughts the moment he steps in the house. In the night’s most comical scene, Janice and Ralphie are in bed when Ro calls and asks him to come home. The two are – ahem – deep into a game of “bend over boyfriend,” as Janice is pleasuring Ralphie with a sex toy. “You’re my little slut, aren’t you,” she says. Ralphie nods. The scene’s a pretty literal illustration of the habit Soprano family (that’s “family” with a small “f”) women have of emasculating their men. Tony by his mother Livia, his daughter Meadow, and, at times, by his wife Carmela. Janice, now emasculates Ralphie – literally, with a vibrator, and figuratively, when she ditches him just as he’s left his “legitimate” girlfriend for her. The scene takes on even more significance when, later, Janice concludes through her new-age therapist that she’s only dating Ralphie because he reminds him of her father and of Tony – the paternal influences she feels never gave her love.
Janice and the individualism theme. Janice too plays out the individualism theme. She’s probably the most striking example because, frankly, she isn’t much of a real person at all. She’s constantly groping for a new religion to define who she is (in just the past season, she’s been Hindu and born-again Christian). She never takes responsibility for her decisions. She’s constantly asking Tony for money, and calling him to bail her out when she’s in over her head – such as, say, when she’s shot her boyfriend dead on the kitchen floor, or put herself in the crosshairs of the Russian mafia. Consequently, she’s the most pathetic and irritating character in the series, and we’re regularly waiting, hoping, for her to get knocked off.
The pending turf war. Paulie Walnuts is talking. He’s dishing all that’s going on within the Soprano family to Johnny Sack. Tony at this point is unsure where the leak’s coming from, but notes that “It’s costing me fucking money.” Johnny Sack, meanwhile, is openly dissing Ralphie, still pissed about the joke Ralphie told about the “90 pound mole taken off” his wife’s ass. Previews for next week indicate we’ll soon see the first shots fired.
Uncle Junior’s trial. The first Soprano on trial in 16 years. Uncle Junior could get life if convicted. He’s still bitching about his legal bills. He’s going to get even angrier when he learns that his nephew hung him out to dry on the parking garage in Newark, that’s set to skyrocket in value once the surrounding waterfront is developed.
Furio. All the wives – most notably Carmela – continue to fawn over Furio. Carmela and Furio share yet another moment or two, this time over cookies and coffee. I suspect the writers are going to continue to tease us here, but that the act we’d all love to see will never actually happen.
“I wanna’ talk about this new movement you’re spearheading. No pun intended.”
–Ralphie, attempting to intimidate a Native American activist.
“He was gay, Gary Cooper?”
–Christopher, in one of his few lines of the night, completely misinterpreting the point about role models that Tony’s trying to make.
“…and this is my graduate TA…”
“I can see that.”
–Ralphie, admiring the Native American activist/college professor’s assistant, and hearing the abbreviation for “teaching assistant” as “T & A.”
“I had some business in Manhattan.”
–Artie Bucco, to “Chief” Doug Smith, making another American Indian jab.
“I had a racial awakening.”
–Chief Doug Smith, on discovering that he’s 1/8th Native American, and that said discovery enabled him to open up a tax-free casino.