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The Whack Mentality

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By Stephen Silver

The fourth season of HBO’s critically acclaimed mob opera, “The Sopranos,” ended on Sunday night with an epochal event of destruction that assures with virtual certainty that the series will never, ever be the same again. But since it was a marriage that was rubbed out and not a mobster, many “Sopranos” fans are likely to walk away from the episode feeling disappointed, if not downright betrayed.

Ever since “Sopranos” returned from a 16-month hiatus and began premiering new episodes in September, public and private discourse from the armchair writer/producers has been overwhelmingly negative, with the main complaints being that it had gotten boring, lost its focus, and most of all, that “nobody’s getting whacked!”

The implication, from this, was that all of the show’s strengths and nuances (its characters, its writing, its moral dilemmas, the family/Family juxtaposition) were more or less moot, unless major characters were dying violently on a regular basis.

I never understood this theory, that major characters need to die all the time for a show to be entertaining or effective. Isn’t dramatic weekly elimination the reason “Survivor” is so popular? Isn’t “CSI” the place to go for the promise of mutilated corpses? They seemed to forget that “whacking is forever,” and if the writers rub out too many characters then sooner or later they’ll have no one to work with.

The constant complaining from the “whackers” continued unabated until Ralph Cifaretto (Joe Pantoliano) was bumped off in the season’s ninth episode (predictably, the season’s most well-received hour). But then the outrage returned when no characters (instead, merely a marriage) were whacked in the season finale. Even the planned shooting of New York boss Carmine didn’t pan out.

I’m not saying I have a problem with televised violence or of characters being whacked in general. But when a major character leaves the show it’s supposed to be a big deal – and “The Sopranos” has never been about cheap payoffs and surprises. To reduce this brilliant and influential show to a mere guessing game over which cast member will die next is an insult to the performers, the writers, and David Chase himself.

The chief whacker has been New York Post television critic Adam Buckman, a man so eager to prove his macho credentials that he actually chastised Dan Rather for crying on the Letterman show the week after September 11. For weeks Buckman ranted that the show had “lost its focus,” and that the cure-all was to “whack somebody!”

This was followed by a feature a few days later in that paper on “How to Fix the Sopranos” that was embarrassing even by Post standards (The Post, after all, is so mob-obsessed that when John Gotti died last spring they ran 14 pages of fawning coverage that treated this lifelong criminal as some kind of hero; they also employ Gotti’s daughter Victoria as a society columnist.).

Virtually all of the letters took on a virulently misogynistic tone, accusing the show of “turning girly” by focusing too much on family and romantic relationships and not enough on mob brutality. Many of them even proposed sickening, violent solutions for getting rid of undesirable (usually female) characters, like “kill all the women,” and “Carmella’s whining too much – whack her!”

In reality, “Sopranos” fans got spoiled. They experienced three years of one of the greatest shows in the history of television, and thus expect abject brilliance out of every single episode. Therefore they leave David Chase with next to no margin for error; what they forget is that the show often sets up scenarios that pay off five or six episodes later.

The underlying point of “The Sopranos,” since episode 1, has been the juxtaposition between Tony Soprano’s family, and his “family.” And even the most bloodthirsty Soprano-watcher would be hard-pressed to deny that the Tony-Carmella relationship has been central to the show all along.

On HBO’s other super-prestigious dramatic series, “Six Feet Under,” the most prominent storyline of last season concerned the show’s primary couple (Nate and Brenda) keeping major secrets from one another throughout the entire year – Brenda that she’d had sex with numerous strangers, and Nate that he’d fathered a child by another woman.

Coincidentally or not, “Sopranos” elected to go the same route in Season 4 with Tony and Carmella. Their tensions from the previous three seasons (over his cheating, her guilt, money, and other things) were all accentuated and expanded upon throughout the year, exacerbated by the mutual but never-consummated flirtation between Carmella and Tony’s Italian henchman Furio. The two also clashed over family estate planning, Tony’s plans to buy a horse and later a beach house, as well as Meadow’s study-abroad plans.

This tension was best addressed in the brilliantly understated fourth episode, titled “The Weight.” Ostensibly about New York underboss Johnny Sack and his quest for revenge against Ralphie for joking about Johnny’s overweight wife, the episode ended with Tony and Carmella in bed and a CD of Furio’s playing from another room – and Carmella was visibly disinterested in sex with Tony, comparing him unfavorably to the younger, better looking and, yes, thinner Furio. And as if to make the audience aware of Carmella’s predicament, the increasingly out-of-shape Tony was shown with his shirt off more in Season 4 than in the previous three years combined.

At that point the first seed was planted to hint that maybe Carmella’s attraction to Tony was wearing off, and their marriage wasn’t so indestructible after all. After all, on at least two other occasions in the show’s history she had contemplated leaving but Tony kept her close with the gift of expensive clothing or jewelry – but this time she was unmoved by even that.

Some had speculated that the long-missing Russian gangster from the “Pine Barrens” episode in Season 3 would resurface in the finale to kill Paulie and/or Christopher, but it was another returning Russian who was the episode’s deus ex machina – Tony’s ex-mistress Irina, who called to tell Carmella about Tony’s separate affairs with her and her one-legged cousin, Svetlana. This caused all of the season’s tensions to reach a boiling point.

Similarly, “Six Feet’s” tension between Nate and Brenda came to a head in a confrontation scene at season’s end. This was a huge risk for the writers of that show to take, as they essentially put their entire season in the hands of the actors – but Peter Krause and Rachel Griffiths performed it flawlessly, and now “Six Feet” is actually being talked about in the same breath as its HBO cousin.

James Gandolfini and Edie Falco are considerably better actors than Krause and Griffiths, and the confrontation scenes in Sunday’s finale ranked with their best work ever on the series. They were almost daring each other to bring up certain topics (the money, the affairs, Furio, etc.). But they were all addressed, and the episode’s most electric moment was Tony’s punching of a wall upon hearing of his wife’s crush on his fellow made man.

Each confrontation took on an undercurrent not only of anger but of pure heartbreak. And since we’ve “known” these characters for all these years, it almost feels as though it’s “friends of ours” (pardon the pun) splitting up. Michael and Kay Corleone had their acrimonious divorce; now so too do Tony and Carmella.

Perhaps more than anything else, it was the reaction to the finale that exposed the shallowness of the “we want whackings!” mentality. The same people who had cried for months that “nothing was happening” due to the lack of bloody killings reacted negatively to an episode that featured what was very much the biggest “happening” of the series’ history.

Sure, it would’ve been “big” had Silvio, Paulie, or Christopher been whacked, as they’ve been with the series all along, but then so has the Soprano marriage, and that marriage has been more important to the show’s direction and evolution than any single character. The reaction to the finale proves that it wasn’t “something big happening” that the whackers wanted – it was a quenching of their collective bloodlust.

On top of this, there were all kinds of memorable moments that redeemed the season and made the “lack of whackings’ palatable: The second episode, featuring Meadow’s visit with scary therapist Linda Lavin and her subsequent fight with Tony. The “intervention” for Christopher that devolved into a full-fledged brawl. Artie Bucco finally snapping, like we always knew he would.

And of course the death of Ralph, conducted as a reverse homage to the Jack Woltz scene in “The Godfather” – rather than get the horse’s head in his bed, Ralphie killed the horse and got HIS head cut off. And just as his severed head is moved, we hear a bowling ball roll down the stairs – perfect. For a whacking to work, it has to be special – and Ralph’s death certainly was.

Sure, there were two or three weak episodes – but that doesn’t mean the show’s become “bad” – it’s still better than almost everything out there. But lest you think I’m an unconstituted “Sopranos”-booster, I did have my share of problems with Season 4:

– The Columbus Day episode was David Chase’s annual transparent attempt to get back at those who rip the show as stereotypical of Italian-Americans; this obligatory charade was old when he did it in Season 1 and by now it’s downright tiresome.

– It’s become obvious that the writers have had nothing for Uncle Junior to do since Season 1. He may still get all the best lines, but since making peace with Tony at the start of Season 2 he’s had two whole seasons of house arrest, one of cancer that he beat, and one of a trial that he won. And why didn’t we get to see any of that trial? Imagine the comical possibilities of Junior as a
witness…

– Chase and the writers have always done a surprisingly good job writing the female characters, but several major ones were all but left out of the season. Meadow got next to no screen time between the second episode and the 12th, as her evolution as a character throughout Season 3 was basically left in suspended animation. And Dr. Melfi became more and more irrelevant until Tony finally dropped her on the penultimate show.

– The Adriana-as-FBI-informant arc was introduced at the beginning and looked quite promising – but nothing of interest really ever came of it.

– The always-great character Hesh Rabkin was only in one scene of one episode- he should really get his own episode some time, like Butters did on “South Park.”

– And the relationship between Bobby Bacala and Janice came across both as unnecessary and very, very creepy – why put the show’s most sympathetic character together with its most unsympathetic?

But regardless, I still recognize that “Sopranos” is still the best drama (if not the best show, period) on television. I would even venture to say that Season 4 was better than Season 3, which lacked memorable episodes (other than the one with the Russian) and seemed at times to revolve around the never-very-interesting character of Jackie, Jr. And don’t forget – Jackie (in the final episode) was the one and only regular cast member whacked in Season 3, although numerous others (Livia Soprano, Bobby Bacala, Sr., and Gigi Cestone) died of natural causes, or of other non-whack-related illness. So it’s not like there was some mythical golden age in which major characters got whacked perpetually.

What Season 3 did have was a disturbingly large amount of violence against women, including the beating to death of a stripper and the brutal rape of Dr. Melfi. Is this what all those fans are so nostalgic for? Then again, maybe that’s what got them hooked on the show in the first place…

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About Stephen Silver

  • Eric Olsen

    Super thoughtful and important review – thanks! Much to my dismay I missed this season due to scheduling and whatnot so I am in no position to comment on content, but I also picked up on the negative comments, including SNL last Saturday (calling it “boring”). Your comments on this sound very apt, but it could also just be backlash – I have been amazed at the universal praise until now, so maybe it was inevitable. Will have to see this season on DVD I guess. Thanks again.

  • http://www.jaycaruso.com Jay Caruso

    Good review. I’ll have the opposing view posted later tonight as I am one of the disappointed fans, but not for a lack of ‘whacking.’ It’s deeper than that.