Tony settles all Family business as ‘The Sopranos’ season 1 ends spectacularly

Senior Television Writer
09.09.15 40 Comments

HBO

Welcome to the final 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 season finale, “I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano,” coming up just as soon as I remind you that I'm not a big Renee Zellweger fan…

“Cunnilingus and psychiatry brought us to this!” -Tony

David Chase, as many of you know by now, didn't want to make another TV show. He wanted HBO to pass on “The Sopranos” pilot so he could scrounge up the money to film enough extra material to turn it into a feature film, which would have concluded with Tony smothering Livia to death with a pillow after learning of her betrayal. When HBO instead gave him a series order, he not only had to expand the original idea over 13 hours, rather than two, but wound up rethinking his original ending, which made sense in the context of a movie, but would have cost the show one of its most indelible characters and performances.

And we are all spectacularly lucky that it turned out that way.

A version of “I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano” that includes the matricide of Livia wouldn't have lessened the episode, necessarily, but it feels more powerful that this oppressive monster once again manages to elude the consequences of her actions. By this point, she's become so much larger than life for us, as well as Tony, that it is entirely plausible that she could have induced a mild stroke, or at least figured out how to fake the symptoms in the same way she's been faking dementia at convenient moments in recent episodes. And Livia's expression is at once difficult to read given her position and the placement of the oxygen mask over her mouth, and something that looks exactly like she is smiling at her good-for-nothing son's anguish over this.

It is a delightful moment, and one made all the more powerful – like so much of “I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano” – because we had 13 hours to build to it, rather than the two Chase would have had to play with in a movie. Small scenes like Tony bringing Livia the macaroons, or Dr. Melfi's many attempts to get Patient X to acknowledge the threat his mother posed to him, all accumulated and accumulated until we reached these amazing explosions here.

Tony's response when Melfi pushes him too far is nearly as terrifying for us as it must be for her, as this confident, smart, strong character is suddenly made to seem so tiny and weak with the great big bear that is Tony Soprano looming over her and expressing his displeasure with her diagnosis of Livia's borderline personality.

Of course, a lot of that is Gandolfini and Bracco being great, and would work in nearly any narrative context. On the other hand, Tony's struggle to contain his reaction as the FBI agents(*) play him the recordings of Livia and Junior plotting his murder, or a forlorn and self-loathing Tony vents about the situation to Carmela, gain so much strength from all the time we've spent with these relationships. We understand Tony, and Gandolfini's performance as Tony, so well that all the actor has to do is blink a few times and shift the set of his jaw slightly to make clear just how badly this is hurting him. It's incredible.

(*) A wonderful touch to that scene: Agent Harris looks completely mortified as the tapes play, not because he thinks they shouldn't be using them, but because he feels genuinely bad for a guy whose own mother would do this to him.

The finale plays like Chase and company spent months setting up an elaborate domino design, then began knocking over all the pieces to create something beautiful in the destruction. Even the moves that don't work out for Tony – Livia's stroke, or Junior getting arrested in an unrelated – end up in haunting ways, like Junior silently accepting (not that he would admit it to the feds or anyone else) that he was never actually the boss of the Family. And as we've discussed going all the way back to “College,” it's striking how much happier and more at peace Tony seems whenever he's on the verge of killing somebody. See the picture at the top of this review: that is a man who has just made small talk with two men whose murders he is in the process of arranging, and he couldn't be more pleased about it. Or look at how giddy he is – to the point where even his wife and kids make note of it – in the kitchen on the morning he thinks his guys are going to take down the whole of Junior's crew. This is the best part of his job, and perhaps of his entire miserable life.

Even something that could have been long forgotten like Silvio's torching of Vesuvio, plays into things wonderfully, as Livia tries to turn poor, tormented Artie into her latest instrument of vengeance. Though Artie stood up to Tony in the incident with the soccer coach (mainly with a lot of prodding from Charmaine), he's a fundamentally weak man, so we know he's not actually going to hurt Tony. Still, the shift in Tony's demeanor as he realizes that his mother sent this schnook to kill him, rather than his uncle, is terrific, and helps set up the later confrontation at Green Grove.

Artie's dilemma about what to do in response to what Livia told him obviously doesn't have the dramatic heft of what Tony is dealing with. But the episode does an effective job of using him, Carmela, Father Phil, and even Dr. Melfi to illustrate what life is like living in the wake of someone like a Tony Soprano. Artie struggles at first with whether to tell the insurance company, but eventually chooses the path of greatest benefit to himself, hiding behind some nonsensical justification about being a “yes” person rather than a “no” person. Father Phil seems dismayed by this, but Carmela calls him out as every bit the hypocrite, noting the joy he takes in acting as a surrogate husband for mob wives (or, in Rosalie Aprile's case, mob widows), enjoying their company, their food, and their home theater systems even as he makes half-hearted claims about a desire to get their husbands to repent. That Carmela only is able to – or, perhaps, willing to – articulate this to him after she sees him being equally flirty with Rosalie is a reminder that she's no saint. But she also has no illusions about who and what she is, and where her money comes from. When she's comforting Tony about the Livia news, he very openly discusses his plans to take out Junior and Mikey, and she doesn't even flinch. This is the business she has chosen to marry into, and she accepts that. (This week, anyway.)

At the same time, rewatching this season and thinking about what followed it, I can fully understand Chase's initial desire to make this a into a close-ended feature film, rather than the 86-hour odyssey it became. Because the threat to Tony's life this season was so deeply personal, there was simply no way the series could ever top this initial season from a story arc standpoint. Later seasons featured villains who simply didn't matter as much to Tony as Livia and Junior did, and as a result, the upper and lower-case family stories tended to exist more separately in later years. This idea that we spent the summer watching – wiseguy's relationship with his mother is so difficult that she literally tries to have him killed – was so rich and resonant that there was no way to really top it, no matter how great some of the show's later performers like Joe Pantoliano and Frank Vincent were. “The Sopranos” had to evolve, like all TV shows have to, and Chase at this point had made plenty of TV shows.

Fortunately, this show would evolve in other incredible ways. Maybe the seasonal mob arcs weren't quite as thematically rich, but later seasons featured some of the greatest episodes of dramatic television ever produced, and would do remarkable things with the personal family stories.

A standalone “Sopranos” movie, or simply a 13-episode miniseries, would have been tauter and more pure, but it would have robbed us of so much greatness that came after. Still, it's been a pleasure going back to the beginning all these years later, to be reminded that “The Sopranos” wasn't just one of the very first shows of this new golden age, but, from the start, something that still holds up as one of the very best shows of all time, even after 16 years of imitators and descendants.

Some other thoughts:

* I wonder whether the cart came before the horse with the episode's title, given how brief and unimportant Tony's reference to the eponymous dream was. Had Chase or someone else on the writing staff thought up that phrase (a riff on the '60s fantasy sitcom) and then came up with a brief in-show justification to use it, or was that exchange always in the script, and the title (which is often the very last thing completed on a TV episodic script) followed it?

* Despite the presence of an E Street Band member in the cast – or maybe out of a desire to avoid too much focus on Steve Van Zandt's day job – this is the only episode of the series to conclude with a Bruce Springsteen song, “State Trooper.” Also, you can hear “Inside of Me,” from one of Van Zandt's side projects, Little Steven & The Disciples of Soul, playing in the background as the captains meeting at Satriale's ends.

* This episode began a “Sopranos” tradition of John Patterson directing the finale of every season, which continued through the end of the fifth season. Patterson died during the long hiatus between seasons 5 & 6, and the last two finales would be directed by Alan Taylor and David Chase. Lots of memorable imagery here. I'm particularly fond of the extreme close-ups on Junior as he's being offered the plea deal; never have his eyeglasses looked larger, or sadder, than they do as he listens to evidence of his own insignificance.

* Tony pulling the gun out of the fish to kill Chucky Signore is another really striking image, and feels very much like the product of a wiseguy – and a TV writer – who has watched many gangster movies and considered the many different places a man could hide a weapon.

* Meet Frank Cubitoso, Agent Harris' boss, who will be around for many of Tony's upcoming run-ins with the FBI. He's played by Frank Pellegrino, yet another “Goodfellas” alum, and also co-owner of New York restaurant institution Rao's. 

* Comments on recent episodes have noted that the tape Cubitoso plays for Tony comes from multiple scenes, at least one of which (Livia's discussion of Aunt Kiki) took place away from Green Grove. I suppose you could handwave it away as the FBI realizing that all Livia/Junior conversations were incriminating in some way, and following them with a parabolic mic when they went to the movies?

* Also in need of some handwaving: when you dial 911, the cops in New Jersey have to show up even when you tell them everything is fine – and especially when the operator can hear the caller shouting something about her safety. I learned this the hard way when I was trying to teach one of my kids about how to call for help in an emergency, and a pair of annoyed cops came even after we explained what we were doing.

* Mob priorities on parade: Paulie is far more upset about the poison ivy he's run into while chasing Mikey than he is at the thought of killing a man. If he was still going to a therapist for his “issues,” maybe they could talk about that.

* Also, it's rare on this show to see the wiseguys' track suits actually put to their intended use.

* A couple of episodes ago, I wondered why Mikey seemed excited about getting a promotion after Tony was killed, since he seemed to be working as Junior's underboss. But in the TV news reports of the arrest (which also reveal that Mikey's nickname is “Grab Bag”), Joseph “Beppy” Sasso is referred to as the DiMeo Family's underboss. My kingdom for a Family org chart…

* 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.

* Also a finale tradition begun here: family dinners or other gatherings. It's not always the case (season 4 and 5 both end in other ways), but more often than not, the last scene of a season involves Tony's family together for events big and small.

* In the last of those family gatherings, at the very end of “Made in America,” AJ will paraphrase Tony's line from here about remembering the little things.

* This episode marks the end of Junior as any real threat to Tony, as he spends the next several seasons under house arrest before finally being institutionalized due to senility far more genuine than Livia's. Revisiting these episodes, I was reminded of what a great antagonist this relatively vital version of Junior was, but sidelining him was arguably the only way the show could keep employing Dominic Chianese – and getting great value out of him in other contexts – without making Tony look weak.

* It's unfortunately the end of Livia as a significant antagonist, as well. Tony spends most of season 2 understandably trying to stay away from his mother, and while the main arc of season 3 was supposed to be Tony trying to get back in Livia's good graces to keep her from testifying against him about the stolen tickets, Nancy Marchand's death prevented that. Chase has said that Livia would have likely died at some point in the series anyway, but it's a shame her story didn't get a more proper conclusion. Of course, Chase knew Marchand was very ill when he hired her, and wanted her despite that because she was so great in the role. Hard to blame him for that decision.

* It's funny that this finale was the standard later seasons were held to in the whacking department, given that of the three men actually murdered here, Chucky Signore barely existed as a character and Jimmy Altieri mainly registered as the guy whom Vin Makazian's source might have confused for Big Pussy. Mikey Palmice was certainly memorable, but he's still a henchman to one of the season's two primary villains, and both Livia and Junior live to complain another day. Whereas characters killed in many of the later seasons (Pussy and Richie in season 2, Jackie Jr. in season 3, Ralphie in season 4, Tony B. in season 5, Vito in season 6a, and all the bodies that dropped near the end of 6b) were far more important to those stories (yes, even Jackie Jr. and Vito) than Mikey was to what happened here.

* Melfi remains a fugitive of sorts when we begin season 2, conducting therapy sessions out of a motel room while Tony wipes out most of the remaining Junior loyalists.

* Adriana's job at Vesuvio will last through season 2 and part of season 3, but end awkwardly once Christopher becomes a made guy and Artie decides he's in love with her.

* Say goodbye to Larry Boy Barese for a while, as his kid brother Ally Boy will take over that crew for the next several seasons.

So that's it for this “Sopranos” summer. As I admitted when we started this project, I came to it reluctantly, simply because I felt I'd written far more than my fair share about this show over the course of two jobs, a newspaper column, multiple blogs, a book, etc. But it's been so much fun to revisit these episodes on the micro level that I wouldn't be surprised at all if next summer involves quite a bit of writing about Richie Aprile, Matt Bevilaqua, Sean Gismonte, and the other parts of season 2. But that's many, many months away.

As for “I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano,” what did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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