Welcome to the latest installment of our summer trip through “The Sopranos” season 1. When I revisited early seasons of “The Wire,” as well as the whole run of “Deadwood,” I did separate versions of each review for newcomers and veterans, but over time realized that the newcomers weren't commenting much, if at all, and that it therefore made sense to simply do one review. Any significant spoilers for episodes beyond the one being reviewed will be contained in a separate section at the end of the review; so long as you avoid that, and the comments, you should be fine.
Thoughts on the eleventh episode, “Nobody Knows Anything,” coming up just as soon it's 1954 inside this house…
“This is our friend we're talking about here.” -Tony
After “A Hit Is A Hit” put most of the bigger season 1 stories on pause, “Nobody Knows Anything” presses play on one of the greatest home stretches any TV season has ever had. From here through the finale, it's nothing but portents and bad omens, death and destruction, and a tragic blurring of the lines between family and Family.
There's a scene early in this one where Tony goes to see Vin Makazian, who informs him that Big Pussy is now an informant for the FBI. It's notable not just because of the utter contempt and dismissal with which Tony treats Makazian – a cavalier attitude that surely didn't send Vin jumping off the Donald Goodkind Bridge, but one that contributed to a larger feeling of hopelessness and being unwanted that put him there – but because of the weather and the way the scene is shot. Revisiting the season, I've been reminded how well the show captures the extremes of weather in this area. When it's hot in North Jersey, it's like being blinded and punched in the gut when you step outside, and the show's photography nails that. Here, the news that one of his oldest and closest friends has turned rat is among the worst things Tony Soprano could ever hear – at least until he finds out what his mother and uncle have been talking about over at Green Grove – and the air around him in that scene looks and feels like doom, with the sky full of black clouds and the wind making Tony's shirt impotently flap around him.
The news sends ripples through Tony's entire crew, and leads to uncomfortably tense moments like Paulie demanding that Pussy take his clothes off before their unscheduled schvitz. But unsurprisingly, it weighs heaviest on Tony himself, particularly in a great therapy scene where he again turns to Dr. Melfi to unwittingly give him management advice. As Melfi explains the many reasons why someone might be having psychosomatic back pain, the camera pushes in on Tony, and you can see on James Gandolfini's that Tony knows that his friend has betrayed him. He knows it, but he still needs to triple-check it, because Pussy is his friend, and friendships still matter deeply, even in the Family.
Livia has less equivocation about pushing Junior into a position to order her son's murder. We've known going back to her counsel on the matter of Brendan Filone that Livia has no qualms about arranging for the death of another human being. And we have ample evidence of how little she likes, never mind loves, Tony. But until now, she's viewed his treatment of her more as an irritation – and the sort that's given her license to complain in the way that so clearly gives her great pleasure. But selling her house out from under her – and thus seemingly keeping her imprisoned in Green Grove for the rest of her life – is one sin too many, particularly when it comes on the heels of Carmela calling her out so bluntly as a manipulator who's far more powerful than she wants anyone to believe. And Carmela is proven absolutely right with the way Livia walks Junior up to the idea of having Tony whacked, even as she's acting so pained to hear Junior discussing such a thing.
There's a lot of miscommunication here, but also situations where multiple things can be true at the same time. Makazian owing Pussy money, and even Jimmy Altieri being a rat, don't automatically clear Pussy of suspicion. And while Tony isn't technically plotting a move against Junior when he meets with other wiseguys at Green Grove, that's only because he already made his move back in “Meadowlands,” and has been secretly running the Family without Junior realizing it.
The episode's final scene proper – other than a brief glimpse of Tony contemplating the darkness that's coming, under another ominous sky – takes us somewhere we've never been before, Mikey Palmice's house, as he fills his wife JoJo in on what's coming next for poor unsuspecting Tony and Mikey's own position within the Family. Mikey's a goon and not nearly as clever as he thinks he is, but it's interesting to see him come right out and tell JoJo what's coming. We've seen in the past, during the evidence-hiding binge in “The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti,” that Carmela knows a bit of what goes on in Tony's business, at least on the level of where the guns and money are kept, but he's never let her in on Family doings to this degree.
Secrets are necessary in this line of work, but as Dr. Melfi notes, secrets can bring with them many burdens, physical as well as emotional. If all the members of Tony's family and crew were more open with each other, there would probably have been even more bloodshed as a result, but there wouldn't also be this agonizing feeling – for both Tony and the viewer – about what's actually happening, and what's coming next.
Some other thoughts:
* While most of this episode is deadly serious, watching it so many years later, I couldn't help but watch Tony get into Paulie's face to be sure he's telling the truth about not killing Pussy without thinking of Larry David's stink-eye lie detector on “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
* Paulie's car horn plays the theme from “The Godfather,” because of course it does. It's the same reason Mikey Palmice's son is named Francis Albert, after Mr. Sinatra.
* Paulie's often used as comic relief, for that matter, but this is an excellent episode to show the serious side Tony Sirico could bring to the character. Not only is there his threat against Pussy in the locker room, but the earlier scene where he offers to relieve Tony of the burden of having to directly murder their friend.
* The “Four Days Later” title card right before the card game gets busted up is an eyebrow-raiser in hindsight. “Soprano” episodes often covered large swaths of time (as opposed to, say, “Deadwood,” where each episode tended to take place over a single day), and in later years, the show just trusted the audience to follow the passage of time. It's particularly odd here given that the amount of time in between the whorehouse scene is relevant only in that it allows Pussy's back to heal slightly, which needed no additional explanation.
* When Pussy returns to the Bing after getting bailed out of jail, the rest of the crew laughs at his farting, which of course makes me think of my favorite David Chase answer of all time: When I asked him why “The Sopranos” so often leaned on fart jokes, he said, “Farts are a part of life. You can quote me on that.” I can neither confirm nor deny whether he was laughing as he said it.
* That's Karen Sillas as everyone's favorite madam, Debbie. A few years before this episode, she'd starred in “Under Suspicion,” a short-lived CBS drama that was the closest American TV came to making its own version of “Prime Suspect” until the actual remake with Maria Bello back in 2011. In hindsight, it's one of several CBS dramas from the era (see also “EZ Streets”) that would have been better-served debuting on cable post-“Oz” and “Sopranos.”
* RIP, Vin Makazian. He only made a handful of appearances in this season, yet stands as one of the show's most indelible recurring characters. So pathetic, so deluded about his own self-destructive tendencies, yet still retaining enough of his old dignity to be offended every time Tony tore off another piece of it without even caring that he was doing it. And I love that he badges his way through the traffic jam – with the unwitting uniform cop telling everyone in earshot that a police officer is coming through – just so he can kill himself that much more quickly. Having spent too much of my life in Jersey highway traffic, I know the feeling.
* Party like it's 1999: in the Soprano family's discussion of sex and current events, AJ invokes President Clinton and “Monica Kazinsky.”
* If you're looking for more of my writing on “The Sopranos,” here are links to my Star-Ledger episode reviews from the later seasons. As mentioned above, the show was also the centerpiece of my book, “The Revolution Was Televised.” It's getting an updated edition in late fall, dealing primarily with the ends of “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad,” and some of the larger changes to the TV business in the last three years, though there will be some other tweaks. (“The Sopranos” chapter, for instance, will touch on David Chase's recent comments about the show's ending, but the bulk of that one's unchanged, if you're eager to read now.)
And now we come to the spoiler section, where I talk about how events in this episode will have ramifications later in the season or series. If you're new to the show and watching one week at a time, you can safely stop reading now.
* This is the last we'll see of Big Pussy this season, and it might have been the last, period, except that every fan David Chase met during the hiatus kept asking him when Pussy would return. Chase didn't usually respond to fan interest in that way (see the Russian and/or Melfi's rapist), but did here, and we find out early in season 2 that Makazian was right on the money about Pussy being wired for sound.
* That revelation created some ambiguity in hindsight about whether Jimmy was also a rat, but his queries to Tony in the Soprano basement are pretty transparently those of a man who has been briefed by the FBI on what to ask and how to ask it.
* Tony seems to recognize in Melfi's office that Pussy has turned, but he lies to himself about it through most of the second season because he can't bring himself to kill his friend.
* I don't recall if there's an explanation in season 2 for the sale not going through, but Livia's house remains Soprano family property by the time Janice comes back to town and decides to move herself and Livia back in the old place.
* John Heard pops up again in season 5's “The Test Dream,” just one figure of many from Tony's past swirling around in his unconscious mind.
* For all that Mikey is celebrating the promotion he's likely to get once Tony is killed, it seems his position in the Family is about equivalent to the rank Silvio holds once Tony officially becomes boss in season 2 – in other words, as high as Mikey could ascend without something happening to Junior. Unless someone who understands Mob Economics better than me and can explain why replacing a dead captain would be more lucrative than staying underboss/consiglieri, it doesn't quite track. When Tony reshuffles the org chart in season 2, Paulie takes his spot as captain, but Silvio seems to get the better promotion.
Up next: “Isabella,” in which Tony befriends a new neighbor, while Junior decides to take action. As usual, it's available on HBO Go, HBO Now, On Demand, and Amazon Prime.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org