Welcome to the sixth 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 sixth episode, “Pax Soprana,” coming up just as soon as I”m living next door to Gunga Din…
“I love you. I”m in love with you. I”m sorry. It”s just the way it is.” -Tony
One of the things I've most loved about covering shows online is the insight that you guys have to offer, even on shows and episodes I've written thousands of words about over many years. For example, look at this comment from Sully during last week's discussion of “College”:
The thing that's always notable for me is the joy Tony has throughout the whole process of tracking and killing Febby. He never has that put upon or stressed out demeanor we see him have so often in the show, even though it's an incredibly stressful tightrope he has to walk. He doesn't advance from this and it doesnt alleviate a threat or anything but heloves every minute of it and it's the first time we're shown how Tony only truly enjoys life when he's committing crimes.
Tony's love of mob action at its simplest (whether killing Febby or some of the random fights or robberies he gets into in later seasons) was a clear part of the character throughout the series, yet I never saw it described as well as Sully does here. And it casts an interesting new light on “Pax Soprana,” which on one level could have come immediately after “Meadowlands,” but which makes more sense once we've seen how relatively carefree Tony is when he's away from the stresses of everyday life as husband, father, son, lover, and capo.
That stress is everywhere throughout “Pax Soprana,” whether from Junior's high-handed new leadership style or from Tony's uncomfortable dealings with the many demanding women in his life(*). Tony is back on his home turf, allegedly running things behind his uncle's back, with a wife, a mistress and a therapist all catering to his needs in different ways, and he could not be more miserable through most of it.
(*) Though, interestingly, Meadow is absent after being so prominent in “College.”
In their first scene together this week, Melfi notes that she is a proxy for all the women in Tony's life, and it's fascinating to watch how they've all started to blur for him. A few weeks ago, he dreamed that his mother was Dr. Melfi, where here his unconscious gives him Melfi as both his mistress (even speaking with Irina's voice) and his wife. He wants Irina to start dressing like Melfi, and in a therapy session blames the burn that Irina gave him on Carmela. The problem is, he can't perform with any of them, physically or emotionally. He can't get it up with Irina, is barely interested in trying with Carm, and gets completely shut down in his attempt to seduce Melfi, who knows a good case of transference(**) when she sees it. He can't give them what he wants, nor can he get what he needs from them any more than he can get Livia to be even the slightest bit affectionate when he visits her at Green Grove. (She reacts to his attempt to slow dance even more coldly than Melfi defuses his profession of love.)
(**) “In Treatment,” the only HBO show even more psychiatricall inclined than “Sopranos,” dealt a lot with this problem, particularly in the Melissa George episodes from the first season.
Though the episode doesn't much comment on the events of “College,” look at how Carmela is behaving in regards to her husband not long after her confessional epiphany with Father Phil. She wants to have sex with him – and isn't aware that he's not doing any better in that regard with his mistress – and rather than pushing him towards the church, or trying to be a better person herself, she tries to get his attention by spending his money on new furniture. She's right to call him out for ducking out on their anniversary to talk business with Johnny Sack, but whatever qualms she briefly had about enjoying the fruits of that business washed away awfully fast.
And Tony understandably develops qualms in a hurry about the Frankenstein monster he's created by making Uncle Junior the fake boss. It's a brainstorm that seemed brilliant in theory but runs into the complicated realities of human beings, from Junior's pride to Livia's continued attempts to strike back at her son for putting her in a
nursing home retirement community. At the moment, it's other members of the Family suffering – Jimmy's buddy with the poker game, Hesh having to pay back taxes – and Tony is able to manipulate the Hesh situation into one that everyone can live with. But you don't have to have watched the rest of the series to suspect that Junior's reign won't be peaceful for nearly as long as Octavian's – and that's even without the continued interest of the FBI, who are taking surveillance photos of everyone at Junior's coronation dinner.
“College” stood out not only for what Tony does to Febby, but for being so structurally unique compared to the four episodes before it. “Pax Soprana” is much more in the previous mold, and the sort of episode the show presented the majority of the time, particularly in the early seasons. But it's so fraught with discomfort and complications with both family and Family (and whatever separate sphere Melfi occupies) that it's nearly as compelling in its own right as last week's Very Special Episode.
Some other thoughts:
* Tony”s response to Melfi”s question about a prostate exam – “Hey, I don”t let anybody wag their finger in my face” – is one of his most intentionally funny lines of the whole series, and Melfi”s full-throated laugh in response is a delight. Among my favorite Gandolfini/Bracco moments.
* This episode would be the maiden “Sopranos” voyage for both writer Frank Renzulli and director Alan Taylor. Renzulli would ultimately write or co-write eight additional episodes, which is coincidentally the same number Taylor would direct after this one.
* We see a lot of the back room of Satriale”s that Tony uses as his office, and some of the sidewalk outside, but it was more rare to get a glimpse of the pork store itself in operation, as we get as Christopher walks through on the way to tell Tony that Hesh needs a word.
* Meet Johnny Sack, the first representative of the extended Family from New York. He”s played by Vincent Curatola, one of several notable “Sopranos” actors from over the years (see also Steve Van Zandt and Federico Castelluccio, among others) with minimal prior acting experience. Curatola was a masonry contractor who decided in middle age to audit Michael Moriarty”s acting class, which led to a few small roles like Detective #1 in the “Law & Order” spin-off film “Exiled.” He almost missed the audition to play Johnny Sack because he wanted to have a smoke before going in; by the time he made it upstairs, the casting director was packing up for the day. “Then she looks up at me,” he told me years later while I was at The Star-Ledger, “reconsiders, takes out the (script) and says, ‘Let's do this.” After I was done, she says, ‘We want you to come back next week and read for the producers.”” He just had that kind of face.
* Livia refusing to answer her door (“Who?”) is always the best. And on the non-comic side, we see her continuing to manipulate Junior, as she's the one who talks him into taxing Hesh in the first place.
* 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 this 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.
* Tony asks why Melfi took him as a patient, and we are already entering the area where the better question would be why she keeps him. Tony arranging to have her car fixed is a huge breach of the doctor/patient relationship, even if it was a good deed, and things will grow sketchier from here. Something to keep an eye on as we continue.
* Tony doesn”t want to be the boss for real, but he”ll have the job by the end of the season, and keep it for the rest of the series. I sometimes wonder what the show would have looked like if Tony had been just a captain for longer. Fewer management headaches, but more street-level activity.
* As ominous as that final FBI sequence seems, all areas of law enforcement will be revealed to be grossly incompetent and/or compromised in some way in short order. Whatever justice may be coming to Tony (whether from Members Only Guy or later in his life), it”s not coming from men with badges.
* This is the last we”ll see of Johnny Sack for a while, but he grows in prominence until he”s a cast regular from the start of the fourth season until he”s killed off in “Stage 5,” and becomes one of the show”s more memorable wiseguys.
* Tony profession of love to Melfi will not be a one-time incident. The one-sided sexual tension of the relationship will pop up several times throughout their time together.
* Hesh”s history as a record label owner will come up again later this season with “A Hit Is A Hit.”
* Given how greedy and paranoid Tony becomes by the end of the series, it”s startling to see how willingly and cheerfully he gives his cut of the tribute back to Hesh. By season 6″s “Chasing It,” things will get very uncomfortable when Hesh tries to collect money that Tony genuinely owes him, never mind cash Tony is under no obligation to give him like this.
* The horse farm visit also foreshadows Tony”s love of Pie-O-My in season 4. More and more, we'll see that Tony's love of animals isn't necessarily because of what they represent, but because he, like many sociopaths, can ultimately find more empathy for them than he can for his fellow humans.
Up next: “Down Neck,” in which AJ gets in trouble at school, which in turn inspires Tony to think back to his own childhood in Newark. As always, the episode's available to stream on HBO Go, HBO Now and Amazon Prime.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org