Welcome to the penultimate 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 twelfth episode, “Isabella,” coming up just as soon as I buy you some sweat socks at The Sports Authority…
“To tell you the truth, I feel pretty good.” -Tony
I'll be honest: even though I'd never specifically recapped these early “Sopranos” seasons, I've written so much about the show over the years, and watched and rewatched episodes like “Isabella” so many times, that I didn't think I had anything left to see in or say about them. I put off making this the summer rewatch for a long time, and only did it this year for lack of a better idea.
But goddamn, has it been fun.
When the opening chants of Cream's “I Feel Free” came on the soundtrack at the end of this one, even though I've seen this episode and that closing scene so many times in the past, it put an electric charge through me. It's the perfect closing note for one of the series' best and most memorable episodes, one that captures not only the sense of elation and confidence Tony feels now that the botched hit has knocked him out of his lithium-induced stupor, but the joy of watching a show operating at a level this high.
There are a lot of moving pieces in “Isabella,” particularly as we watch Junior and Mikey plot the hit on Tony while obstacles keep getting in the way. But at its core, it's a pretty simple episode. Between his feelings about Big Pussy's disappearance (and what it suggests about whether his old friend has betrayed him) and the drug cocktail Dr. Melfi has placed him on, Tony has become a figure out of “The Walking Dead,” shuffling around in his robe, barely verbal at times, numb to all feeling. The depression and panic attacks were bad, but at least Tony still could function, and feel occasional joy along with the pains of his life. “Tiny Tears” by Tindersticks becomes a great melancholy soundtrack for this numb new life of his, and the sound department does a fine job of putting us inside Tony's head by showing how distracted he is by sounds of the clock ticking and water dripping from the faucet when he should be focused on Christopher discussing the Jimmy Altieri situation.
Tony's stuck in neutral, and then comes roaring back to life when the two hitmen approach him by the newsstand. Interestingly, time slows down even more for a few moments as he recognizes their approach, but that only makes the shift back to regular speed seem like the action is now moving twice as fast. We saw with the death of Febby Petrulio that Tony's not a man to be trifled with physically, but this is even more impressive, given that he's the one being ambushed here, and having to come out of a deep stupor to survive. It's all animal instinct in that scene, using the car itself as a weapon, and taking advantage of his would-be assassins' bad aim in the process. He crashes the SUV moments later, but we know from the triumphant cackle he lets out beforehand that Tony is back, and Uncle Junior – already seeming very old, small, and powerless as he cowers in the back of Mikey's car while Mikey and Chucky deal with Donnie Paduana – is in big trouble.
“Sopranos” fans who liked to romanticize the first season as being more of a pure gangland saga than it was in later years no doubt think of moments like Tony fighting off the hitmen. But the episode spends a very long period of time on his pharmaceutical funk, and on his encounters with “Isabella” herself, which in the end turn out to be a hallucination created by the meds(*). There's death and destruction, but the episode is largely about putting the viewer inside Tony's head to appreciate just how bad he's feeling about his life, Pussy, his mother, etc.
(*) Having Tony hallucinate Carmela seeing Isabella is a nice piece of misdirection for anyone who was starting to wonder if this woman was too good to be true.
Though Junior's the one who technically orders the botched hit, it's Livia who set the thing in motion. And if Tony doesn't literally know this, and can't admit to himself that his mother means him no good, then deep down, at least, he's screaming for the kind of protective maternal figure he never had, and will literally invent her out of thin air if he has to.
At the episode's end, Tony talks about how much better he feels when he finds out who tried to kill him. That might be true with Junior, but when it's his own mother at least partly responsible?
Well, let's just say that as great as this one is, the season finale is even better.
Some other thoughts:
* That's Italian actress Maria Grazia Cucinotta as Isabella, probably best known for her role in “Il Postino.” 1999 was a pretty high-profile year for her in English-language productions, between this and playing an assassin out to get James Bond in “The World Is Not Enough.”
* AJ is the perfect comic foil for Livia, because he's so clueless and literal that he somehow sees right through every passive-aggressive mind game she tries running on the rest of the family.
* Re-watching this knowing that the scenes with Isabella were all hallucinations, including the one where Carmela catches him staring out the window at this woman, I couldn't help noticing Carmela was wearing a sharp, almost Melfi-esque blue pantsuit, and wondered if this was part of Tony's fantasy. But she has the same outfit on later when she brings the kids to the hospital, so it's what she was actually wearing that day.
* When Tony has his clandestine therapy session with Melfi shortly after the failed hit, Carmela gets her first look at her husband's mysterious, attractive therapist. She does not seem pleased with what she sees.
* More extreme Jersey weather: the wind kicking up all around Junior and Livia while they wait on line for the movie matinee.
* In “The Godfather,” oranges are a symbol of death. In “The Sopranos,” orange juice is a symbol of near-death. At least for this week.
* It would have derailed the momentum of the episode's second half, but boy do I wish there were some more scenes of Paulie and Silvio being silent and creepy as chaperones for AJ and his date.
* 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. 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.
* Though some significant players like Mikey and Jimmy will go down in the finale, the deaths of Donnie and the hitmen is more in line with what so often happens on this show, where the minor players tend to get killed far more often than the big fish.
* Livia's conveniently-timed senior moments will become a regular defense mechanism for a while after this.
* Tony imagines Isabella is a dental student, and when we come to “The Test Dream,” his teeth will start falling out, which is a common bit of dream imagery.
* Characters on “The Sopranos” get into a lot of car accidents, and Tony alone will be behind the wheel to wreck a couple of additional SUVs in later seasons (most notably when he and Adriana get in a gossip-inducing crash in “Irregular Around the Margins”).
Up next: “I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano,” in which Tony attempts to settle all Family (and family) business. As always, you can watch it on HBO Go, HBO Now, and Amazon Prime.
I'm on vacation next week, so look for that on September 9.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org