By way of summarizing The Sopranos, I’m going to go through my top ten episodes of the series. It’s a lot tougher to do that with The Sopranos than with a lot of others, say Buffy the Vampire Slayer or even Six Feet Under, since every episode is at such a consistently high level, and the show doesn’t usually use the build to a big mythology/finale episode structure of a lot of series. Every episode is so good that it’s mostly the weaker ones that stand out. But, there are still better and worse episodes, and I shall delve into them.
Notably, there are no Season One episodes on my list. A lot of people will tell you Season One is the show’s best season, and it is fantastic, but I don’t think it’s as layered and complex as the later years. Looking at that season now, none of the characters are as developed as they are in the later years. Adrianna is just a pretty girl, because the show's creator David Chase didn’t know at this point what she’d become, and the same is true of Paulie and Pussy. From a plot level, it’s probably the tightest season, but it’s also the most “TV” in the sense that it’s got more obvious standalone stories and a clear arc throughout the season.
While the later seasons are messier, they feel more real and more character centered. It’s the character hooks that make the series so wonderful, and that’s the reason that Season Five is my favorite season of the entire series. There, they used less serial plotting than in the previous seasons, instead focusing in depth on one or two characters each episode. This meant that each episode gave us a ton of development and much to ponder and discuss.
Also, I watched the first four seasons on DVD, then watched the fifth and sixth as they aired. So, it’s harder for me to separate those early seasons into individual episodes — they all sort of bleed together — while the latter are separated in my mind. I’d stand by these picks regardless, but it’s possible if I’d watched those earlier seasons separately, they’d be more distinguished.
Anyway, on to the Top Ten, in chronological order:
D-Girl (2×07) — This episode is the culmination of Christopher’s first flirtation with the film business, putting him and Pussy at a crossroads between serving Tony and pursing their own interests. I loved Christopher’s interest in film because it was a dream, a way out of the world. In him and Adrianna, I always saw hope, the chance to escape this world and not become like Tony. This episode plays that conflict, for a moment it seems that he can be successful and move on to something better, but, as with the Vito storyline, he finds out that it’s tough to play by civilian rules, to actually have to work for what you want, not just get it. It’s a prescient episode because it contains all the central themes of Season Six, the way that these people will give up what they really want for the easy life of the mafia.
We not only get this, we also get some of the most emotional scenes in the series, as Pussy is forced to restore AJ’s faith in his father even as he’s betraying him to the FBI. The best scene is Pussy upstairs in the bathroom, crying, aware that he will either have to leave this world or eventually die. On top of this, we get some really funny stuff with Jon Favreau, one of the few celebrity playing themselves cameos that doesn’t feel self indulgent or too inside.
Funhouse (2×13) — There’s a lot of good stuff in Season Two, with the fantastic Robert Patrick arc and Christopher’s acting class, but this episode’s surreal journey to inevitability is the moment when the series established its rich dream mythology that would infuriate some fans and enrapture others, like me. I love that they spend so much time with the weird dreams as a device to get Tony to face what he already knows, that Pussy is working for the feds. It’s crazy, exciting stuff with some of the series best visual moments.
And then we get the sad resolution of Pussy’s story as he’s gunned down and dumped in the ocean. This is a major turning point for Tony, and the series as a whole. We’d seen Tony kill before, but to kill a friend? It’s cast a shadow over the entire series, echoed in this season’s “Remember When.”
Pine Barrens (3×11) — If this episode wasn’t so good, I’d be mad it even existed because it’s led to five years of people asking when the Russian’s coming back. To that, I can only say you’re an idiot. People who consider the Russian a loose end completely miss the point, it’s like saying Pulp Fiction sucked because we never found out what was in the briefcase. The entire point of the character was the uncertainty of whether he was dead or alive, a menace out in the forest. To resolve that would strip the episode of a lot of its power, and particularly three seasons later, it’s not going to happen. Reading some online postings, you’d think it was satire, but people apparently really are furious he hasn’t come back and even spinning elaborate theories that involve the Russian coming back for the final episode. Let it go.
That aside, this is a brilliant episode. It’s the show’s funniest, as we witness Chris and Paulie go through all kinds of indignities in the woods, eating ketchup packets and making shoes out of rubber. Visually, it’s one of the show’s best, with the gorgeous snowscapes and seemingly endless woods. If nothing else, this episode is testament to the fact that the show can be incredibly funny when it wants to be.
Amour Fou (3×12) — The resolution of the Gloria Trillo arc is fantastic stuff, tying the season back to Tony’s now absent mother. While I’m obviously not happy that Nancy Marchand died, losing the character when they did worked in the show’s favor. They had pretty much exhausted Livia herself by the end of the second season and she becomes more interesting as a specter hanging over everyone. In this episode, Tony finally realizes the similarities between Gloria and Livia and, in an incredible, intense scene, leaves her. Earlier in the episode, we also get the great scene where Gloria drives Carmela home from the car dealership. The show can do tension like no other, and this episode was full of it. While I like the mob stuff, it’s really the personal drama that interests me, and where normally we’d get the season’s death in the penultimate episode, here we get the death of a relationship.
Whitecaps (4×13) — The long simmering drama surrounding Tony and Carmela’s marriage comes to a head here, as she finally rejects him and his philandering. The episode is full of incredible scenes between the two of them, moments that were building for four years and finally come spilling out here. Falco and Gandolfini have never been better. The episode is the series’ longest, at 75 minutes, and that extra time helps give things an epic scope as they march towards the separation, taking the family’s broken dreams in their wake, and setting up the brilliance of season five.
Irregular Around the Margins (5×05) — A brilliant episode at the time, and in retrospect, the critical turning point in Tony and Christopher’s relationship. This is what inspires Cleaver and starts the rift that will eventually lead to Christopher’s death. That accident is a replication of what happens here. Adrianna’s arc over the last couple of seasons was some of the best stuff the show ever did and this episode takes it to emotional, excruciating places. One thing you won’t see on another show, probably ever, is a character getting IBS, but they went there and it provided the impetus for Tony and Adrianna’s flirtation. There’s so much tension here, so much pettiness among the crew. I love the way their pettiness threatens to spill over into violence.
Long Term Parking (5×12) — Adrianna’s murder was something the series could never come back from. Writing abut the first part of season six, I said that the show had lost something when she died, the hope that maybe someone could get out and live a better life. When she died, that possibility disappeared. But, that was the whole point. As we see in season six, her death has forced everyone to either commit to the life or die. Those are the only options.
What happens here destroys Tony and Christopher’s relationship, largely because of Christopher’s own weakness. In a devastating scene, he is all set to run away with Adrianna, or at least I think he is, until he sees a white trash family at a gas station. Faced with the possibility of living a normal life, he decides to turn Adrianna over to Tony and Silvio, who kill her in the woods. The tension of this episode comes from the juxtaposition of the inevitable ending and the glimmer of hope we cling on to. Even when she’s in the car, I’m hoping that maybe they weren’t lying, that she’s off to a new life somewhere. But, she’s not and by episode’s end, she’s dead
Join the Club (6×02) — I love the series’ forays into metaphysical weirdness, and few were more satisfying than this trip to a parallel universe where Tony becomes Kevin Finnerty, businessman. The basic conceit of this episode, a man who switches briefcases and becomes someone else, is fascinating and could be a feature right there, but wrapped up in what we know about Tony, it becomes an exciting way to view the man he could have been. Few episode endings are as haunting as Tony sitting alone in his hotel room, looking out at the revolving lighthouse as Moby plays.
On top of that, we get the phenomenal hospital scenes, a showcase for Edie Falco. And, the episode’s importance to the series as a whole was confirmed during Tony’s peyote trip, at which point he realizes that there are other worlds than just this one. Did he remember the Kevin Finnerty experience in that moment? I think he did. The intensity and power of this episode wasn’t matched until the next episode on the top ten list.
Walk Like a Man (6×17) — Before this episode, we’d been in something of a holding pattern for eight or nine episodes. There were great moments, but there wasn’t any sense of urgency. I was thinking that the show would end in a leisurely manner, maybe some people would die, but things would go on as they always had. Then this episode happened and everything changed. As you’ve probably gathered, I’m a big Christopher fan and this is the episode that essentially seals his fate. He has struggled to be what Tony wants him to be, but he just can’t do it. If he’s with them and drinking, then he’s a disgrace, if he’s not, he’s also letting Tony down. It’s a conundrum and there really is no answer. There’s so many brilliant scenes with him here, including the shocking death of JT. Chris is going off the rails and it’s pretty clear he doesn’t have long to live by the end.
At the same time, we get the first major focus on AJ, who will come to dominate the rest of the season. He’s drawn into the world of the mob and for a moment it seems like he will follow his path. The happy family tableau at the end of the episode is all the more striking for the fact that after this, they can never be together in the same way again.
Kennedy and Heidi (6×18) — Any episode of this final run could easily be on this list, but I went with “Kennedy” for the ambition and sheer audacity of making an entire episode about Tony trying to make other people feel that Christopher’s death was a good thing. The pageantry of mourning seems so hollow to him, and we’re placed right there, disregarding common human decency, sadness at Chris’s death, to instead share Tony’s detached view. There’s not much emotion at Christopher’s death, that came in the previous episode, this is all about Tony and his struggle.
The peyote trip is the capper, as Tony tries to relive his Kevin Finnerty existence and winds up stumbling dazed through a casino, a virtual zombie. I love the way they depicted the trip, a strange emotional capper to a really surprising journey. It’s a fantastic hour that shows the series is much more than just a mob story.
Again, “The Second Coming” and “The Blue Comet” could both easily have made it on the list, but I wanted to give some variety. Perhaps I’m just enchanted by the new, but those episodes seemed as good as anything the show has ever done. Either way, hopefully the series finale will find a place on the list and be as strong as the past few episodes have been.