Welcome to the ninth 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 ninth episode, “Boca,” coming up just as soon as you lie like I play the French horn…
“I didn't hurt nobody.” -Tony
In the grand scheme of “Sopranos” season 1, the most important part of “Boca” takes place on a Jersey golf course, where Uncle Junior and Tony both say things they shouldn't have, and Junior begins to ponder the idea of having his nephew whacked. This first season is remembered so fondly by “Sopranos” fans – some of whom still insist it's the show's best – because there was such frequent attention to the mob wars arc, when the series' interest in that aspect of the show really waxed and waned in many of the later seasons. This is a pivotal episode for this initial arc, and all the scenes involving Junior, both in Jersey and the episode's eponymous setting, hold up incredibly well. And I'll get to that story in a bit.
But what struck me most about this rewatch was just how effective the episode's other story was.
Coach Hauser's transgression hasn't gone down in history as an iconic “Sopranos” plot, and Artie Bucco is treated as an object of pity more often than not in the series. But Tony and Artie's debate over what to do about Hauser – and the larger point about how these two longtime pals have very different attitudes about breaking the law – is gripping, and speaks to a larger point about our main character and the philosophy he shares with so many other people we meet on the series.
We've all seen stories about a pair of friends from childhood where one grows up to be a cop and the other a crook, and “The Sopranos” certainly could have done that with Artie. This is more interesting, though. Artie lives so close to Tony's world that he can practically taste it, but he's not a part of it, and he has Charmaine around to pull him back whenever he gets too tempted to change that. The ongoing temptation of an ordinary guy – not a saint, not a cop whose mission it is to stop people like Tony, but just a man who wants to make good food and not worry about his family's well-being – is powerful precisely because it's so small and yet so complicated. Already, Tony has offered things to Artie that he is right to say no to (as we saw with the motel owner, once you go into business with the Family, it is all but impossible to get out), but others that you couldn't blame him for accepting. (Had he taken the “comps” from Tony for the cruise, Vesuvio would still be open.) That's a hard existence to live, being around these wiseguys and their obscene wealth and power all the time, and John Ventimiglia plays Artie's inner struggle in this episode very, very well(*).
(*) Ventimiglia had played a lot of cops and criminals (and sometimes both at once) prior to “The Sopranos,” and on the few occasions where I interviewed him, he would joke about how he envied his co-stars who got to play tough guys, while he was sad sack Artie. But if it's not a flashy role, it's a complicated one that in many ways made him stand out more than if, say, he had been cast as Mikey Palmice. “The Sopranos” had a lot of mobsters, but it had only the one Artie Bucco.
Again, Tony and Artie grew up together. They have the same friends (and have both been with the same woman), like the same food, and share many of the same values. Artie is just as angry as Tony to see a man wearing a baseball cap in a nice restaurant, even if he would never do what Tony does in response to this lack of decorum(**). But he knows that being a shylock is a bad idea, and as much as he wants to hurt Coach Hauser in the heat of the moment for what he did to Ally – and what he could theoretically have done to Artie's daughter, or Tony's, or Silvio's – or to let Tony take care of it, in the end he lets Charmaine again convince him to do the right thing.
(**) Two thoughts on that scene: 1)I love that no one felt the need to have Tony deliver an elaborate whispered threat to the guy, because by this point in the season, all involved understood that James Gandolfini's glare (particularly as we see him practically vibrating at the thought of caving this guy's face in) was terrifying enough; and 2)It's a nice touch that as soon as Tony sits back down with Artie, he asks the waiter to send over a bottle of wine to the guy. Even though Tony hypocritically breaks society's rules all the time, he still understands how society is meant to function, and in that moment he recognizes that the least he owes the guy is a nice bottle of something.
And in the process, Artie does something impressive: he convinces Tony to do the right thing. This is still relatively early in the series, and even after the events of “College,” Tony is presented more sympathetically than not. Already, though, we know him as a man who's unswerving in pursuit of his own self-interest – and, as Charmaine points out to Artie, having Hauser tortured and killed would ultimately be about making the dads feel better more than it would help Ally, Meadow or the other girls on that team – yet on this one occasion, Artie and Dr. Melfi are able to steer him off this particular path. That he has to get so fall-down drunk as a result speaks to how ingrained violence is for him, and how much this episode forced him to examine his values, even for a little while, and it's incredibly poignant when he lies on the floor of the McMansion and tells Carmela that he didn't hurt nobody. That's a rarity in his life, and on the show, and it stands out as a result.
Meanwhile, the Uncle Junior plot helps illustrate exactly why Artie is wise to stay as far away from Family business as possible. Junior warns his girlfriend Bobbi Sanfillipo against letting anyone in the mob know that he's a willing and equal sexual partner, because “they think if you suck pussy, you'll suck anything.” Bobbi rightly points out the insanity of this stance – that Junior is so good at satisfying a woman should be proof his heterosexual prowess is to be admired, not a sign of weakness – but the mob doesn't always operate according to logic, modern or otherwise.
So Bobbi tells one person too many, and the news eventually filters to Tony, leading to that hilariously petty golf game. Once again, all the trouble starts because Junior has to insult Tony about his career as a high school athlete, and you can see the bitter wheels turning in Tony's mind as he decides to go full Livia and mock Junior for his apparent indiscretion. Gandolfini and Dominic Chianese are wonderful in the scene, as Tony takes enormous pleasure in finding different ways to reference his uncle's activities, while Junior only slowly figures out what's going, and then very quickly comes to a boil about it.
That Tony is seeing a psychiatrist, and that Junior gives head, aren't crimes, but in the world of the Family, they somehow are. And as a result of those secrets coming out into the open, Junior is now pondering the idea of murdering his own nephew.
This is not a culture Arthur Bucco should want any part of, is it?
Some other thoughts:
* Junior smashing the pie into Bobbi's face is an homage to one of the most famous moments of the iconic '30s gangster picture “Public Enemy,” where James Cagney shows his displeasure with a grapefruit to his girlfriend's face. The episode also does a good job of establishing that relationship – never discussed previously – and ending it in the space of an hour, so that we feel bad for Junior (and far worse for the now-unemployed Bobbi) that it had to end over… this.
* Carmela is largely a humorless character (though Edie Falco's dry delivery generated some of the show's bigger laughs over the years), so it's almost startling to see just how giddy she is at Junior's accidental double-entendres (“I don't go down enough,” or calling Bobbi “a sweet girl”) in light of what she knows about her uncle's bedroom habits.
* Silvio is for the most part a talker and a thinker, but his occasionally explosive temper would become an occasional source of humor on the show. This episode has his first big outburst, as he charges onto the soccer field (wearing a wifebeater undershirt, no less) to yell at the ref in objection to a call against Verbum Dei.
* A couple of interesting musical uses here. Meadow and Ally watch the video for “Buena” by Morphine, which means we get to see a fair amount of it, and the song (which “Homicide: Life on the Street” had previously used in an episode) plays again over the closing credits. Meanwhile, the music playing as Tony contemplates whether to listen to Artie's counsel on Coach Hauser is another mix (specifically, the Urban Takeover Mix) of “Woke Up This Morning” by Alabama 3, whose Chosen One Mix is of course used as “The Sopranos” theme.
* Just revisiting one of the continuity glitches between the pilot and the rest of the series: in the pilot, Silvio asks Tony if he remembers their childhood friend Artie Bucco, while here we see that all three of their daughters have gone to the same private school for years, and they're all buddies.
* Larry Boy Barese and Jimmy Altieri follow Tony's lead by working to have their mothers placed at Green Grove so they can conduct business there away from federal surveillance. This offers even more opportunities for Livia to get the verbal better of the wiseguys, like her delighted recollection that Larry Boy “lit an apartment house on fire and scared your mother half to death.”
* Director Andy Wolk's another first season contributor who never returned to the show after his initial episode, and there are a few visual flourishes in “Boca” that don't really fit what would come to be the show's house style. In particular, there's the way we transition into and out of the scene where Junior and Bobbi dance and he reminds her of the danger she'd put him in by sharing her carnal knowledge. It isn't quite Homer Simpson insisting on a star wipe between every scene, but the freeze frame and other devices call attention to themselves. On the other hand, I laughed heartily at the more organic transition from Tony saying “Good job, girls!” to Meadow's team, followed immediately by a shot of the Bing girls, topless and gyrating on the stage.
* 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 episode sets up much of the season's end game between Tony and Junior, and the golf game in particular will soon inspire one of the great lines in TV history: “Cunnilingus and psychiatry brought us to this.”
* Also, while Junior being sidelined legally, and then medically, is the only plausible way Tony lets him live – which in turn allowed the show to continue employing the great Dominic Chianese right to the end – I definitely missed this active and arrogant (if often befuddled to the point of annoyance) incarnation of Junior in the later seasons.
* Tony is horrified at the thought that Meadow might one day try to kill herself. Instead, it's AJ who makes the attempt, in the final season's haunting “The Second Coming.”
* Dr. Melfi admonishes Tony for even contemplating violent actions against Coach Hauser, but after she's raped in season 3, she at least briefly thinks about telling Tony about it to make her attacker suffer.
* For all of the pressure Tony gives him to become associated with the Family, Artie manages to resist it for the life of the series, though he does get into something of a feud with Benny Fazio in the final season.
* Richard Portnow makes the first of many appearances as Junior's attorney Harold Melvoin. Junior's house arrest will lead him to use his doctor's office for meetings in the future, but Melvoin remains involved in Junior's attempt to beat the federal case against him.
* Tony thought Junior was “a bacala man,” referring not to beloved Junior henchman Bobby Bacala (who would make his first appearance in season 2), but to the dried and salted cod from which Bobby got his nickname.
Up next: “A Hit Is a Hit,” in which Christopher and Adriana look to break into the music business, while Tony tries to befriend a neighbor. As always, you can find the episode on HBO Go, HBO Now, and Amazon Prime.
Because I'll be at press tour next week and then recovering the week after, the next review or two may be delayed. We'll see how things go.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org