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The Sopranos: The Top Ten Episodes

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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.

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About Patrick

  • d alper

    Awesome job! I’d like to know your take on the episode when AJ collapses. Now, we, the audience suddenly realize, that this affliction T’s been dealing with has a “face” ie it is passed along to his son and its another cross Tony has to bear. Also you barely mention Melfi? There were some extraordinarily cutting edge scenes with her. I thought the whole rape arc was something never before seen on episodic TV. And finally would enjoy your feedback on the a) Furio character and b) the episode when they all went to Italy. Thanks and great job.

  • http://journals.aol.com/vicl04/THESAVAGEQUIETSEPTEMBERSUN/ Victor Lana

    Patrick, I tip my hat to you. Nicely done all the way, except that “The Blue Comet” was definitely one of the best episodes ever. I know you thought about that one and even mentioned it, but it should be there.

    Oh, and Kevin Finnerty is more important that I think any of us realized at the time. I think we will all find that out tomorrow night.

  • http://www.thoughtsonstuff.com Patrick

    AJ’s arc is actually quite well developed over the course of the series. One of the toughest moments to watch in the entire series is when AJ is forced to wear the military school uniform in the third season finale and just breaks down crying. There, Tony says something like “What are we going to do to save this kid?” That’s the core of season 6B, what will happen to him? So, that collapse is critical to setting up the theme of Tony’s genes as a curse he’s passed on to his son.

    I think there’s a lot of good stuff with Melfi, but she’s mostly only interesting in relation to Tony. I was contemplating putting “Employee of the Month” on the list becuase it is an incredibly powerful episode, but it didn’t quite make it.

    The Italy episode was up there for me too, it’s a really fun episode. Carmela’s infatuation with Furio in season four was a great arc, and a great way to show the differing attittudes this world has when it comes to male and female infidelity. The moment where Furio almost pushes Tony into the helicopter blades was one of the tensest in the series.

  • http://journals.aol.com/vicl04/THESAVAGEQUIETSEPTEMBERSUN/ Victor Lana

    Yes, that scene with Furio was powerful. Great reaction from Tony too, like “What the…?” and almsot knowing. LAter when Carmela tells him about Furio, it all comes together.

    One thing you didn’t mention (and I didn’t mention in my piece either) is the power of Livia Soprano. Nancy MArchand still haunts this series and rightly so.

    When Tony/Kevin doesn’t go into the “reunion” I thought it was because he didn’t want to see all his victims (Ralph, Pussy, Jackie Jr., etc.) but then I realized it’s Livia he is afraid of (has always been too).

  • Russ

    Very nicely done Patrick, however, I have to disagree with you on Season I – it is perhaps the single greatest season of any series in television history, IMO.

    I am also one of those people who once believed the “dream sequences” greatly detracted from the series. For example, I recall feeling very strongly that season II would have been much better served had it ended one episode earlier. I now realize how wrong I was.

    Your insight and comments help bring further meaning to some of the dream episodes I once despised. Thanks for the list.

  • http://www.thoughtsonstuff.com Patrick

    I like the dream sequences on one level simply because they let the series do really interesting visual stuff. While I’ve got some issues with “The Test Dream,” visually, it’s amazing. But, dreams also work together with the Melfi scenes to give us insight into Tony’s subjective mental space. Everything in those dream sequences is indicative of the way Tony views the world, and we can understand better what he thinks of other characters by how they’re portrayed there. I love that kind of stuff, and I think it’s a large part of what makes the show more than just a typical mafia story.

  • J.J. Hunsecker

    “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 Russian being alive isn’t a loose end. Obviously he never made it back because he would have told Slava what happened. Part of the problem is that Tony made it such a big deal because the Russian mob would have come at them. Was the reason Tony stopped laundering money through them ever dealt with? If they had made that clear, it would have straightened things out.

    “While I’m obviously not happy that Nancy Marchand died”

    Neither is she.

  • http://tvandfilmguy.blogspot.com TV and Film Guy

    Congratulations! This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net, which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States.

  • niggaP Nitch

    man the russian did survive, he kept running after being hit by paulie walnuts. if u notice as they first enter the snow capped pine forest, just before they get the russian to dig his grave, that the russian looks up. later after he escapes and is shot seemingly in the head by paulie, we see the camera look down from the trees, as if suggesting the russian has climed up a tree and is spying on them. and also when thay get back to the picnic sight they realise that their car is missing- obviously the russian took it. what david chase says of the final episode (ie tony gets shot fade to black) rings true here- its all there! the season that grows on you the most is definately season 6 prt 1 and 2, the more u watch it the clearer and more amazing and complexly interwoven it is. it is pure genious of writing and filming. the feel is different, the surrealism, tonies last chance to make a change- the foreshadowing of death and purgatory-the religious themes, and afterlife analogy. the philosophies of evolution vs creation are superbly written and achieved- vito, christopher and tony are all tragic semi-sociopathic figures in this one and there are great performances from vito especially as the most unlikely anti-hero. Dr.Melfi though is calous and not a well rounded ending for her character- i feel her advice to tony gets poorer and poorer as the seasons progress and what she tries to acheive with him falls flat -her acting gets worse as later scenes in the psych office are not well drawn out- maybe to reflect that he is incapable of change and she is too selfish to let him go although the justifies it in a martyre like way- also i thought season 5 although great, flys fast on false adrenalin- why does tony get so ragefull over things he would in previous seasons not care about?- ie the slap from janice- riding his cousin for fat jokes, attacking AJ for backchatting him about drinking., its just too over the top ie the feech lamata stuff is great but a case in point of too much unecessary rage however effective seems misplaced and unjustified- i think they deliberately amped things up- season 5 is good but not great infact i think they are taking a big dump on tv conventions in season 5- is it all a big joke are they taking the piss? deliberately rushing up the pace of the show as a play on tv shows that start to decline so they introduce new flashy chartacters with a lot of loud dialogue and noise ,they repeat themselves with new vilians that are really just repetitions from earlier seasons eg- from mummy and uncle junior in season one, S2 janice and Richie are the nemises, season 3 its ralphie, in 4 its ralphie and army of one paulie needs pulling into line.in season 5 phil retardo and cousin of tony blundeto the gambler massage therapist who tony wierdly has to kill when we know he should kil phil not his cousin tony gets mean in this season and unlikable and dumber dont the writer get him anymore they have dumbed him down a bit. season 5 is raqther a conumdrum (a jumping the shark season a joke in or not perhaps.the most complete season interms of production and story and directing misensance was season 4 was funny and interesting in terms of how we learn more about the mafia as a business and all the fingers in the pies etc, Season 3 was gritty and touched some unpleasent yet thrilling topicws- ie university and another toothpic were phenomonel episodes- the violence taken to a new level-ie “next time i shall sceam four”: -the golf club bashing and bobby’s old man’s final mission are so well written and filmed you would think they could not beat it but they did.
    CHristtopher is so stupid and tragic-why does he always go against tony at first and never listens to hinm- he cant shut up when speaking to johnny sacks the ego maniac who by season 5 wants it all after carmine pops it. season 1 is great as a stand alone epic film, and it could b e viewed that way= season 2 is great with pusssy the last enemy to be smokesd and richie april the actor who played tony so well in Mean Streets-great scorsese film check it out. Ultimatle y i wll say thay my fav in order is season 6 all together, season 2, season 1, season 3 and four beijg on par- the butter head stuff was great-Noah the entertainment freakish father.byefor now and keep it real i am an original gangster says deano jackies buddy who gets his face blown off and the black girl who plays a mean chess game= look how shes developing her knights says dad as she slaughers a given up jackie jnr who is on the lamb in ng land awaiting the bullet from vito via the dumb ralph who doesnt have the balls to give the kid a pass= great stuff from season 3.

  • Me and me and him

    Season 4 is one of the worst seasons and if u ask me season 3 is like a selection of pop videos glossed with guns for the kids … Season 1 2 are the best quite easily ………. Fact !!!!

  • Eric

    you missed the best one sopranos home movies