The Many Saints Of Newark is, of course, a Sopranos prequel of sorts. It’s certainly possible to view it entirely as a stand-alone movie, and even in the age of the expanded universe, I’m a firm believer that you shouldn’t have to do homework before you watch a movie. And yet, how many of us are actually going to go in completely cold?
Many Saints is heavy enough on Sopranos lore that it seems reasonable to expect that if you’re interested in the movie you’d be interested in the lore. And considering it’s been a good 14 years since the show went off the air, we figured you might need a refresher. Besides, there are worse ways to while away the hours than by watching old Sopranos episodes (watching anything on CBS, say).
Where to start? The Sopranos has six and half seasons spanning eight years (1999 – 2007), but not every episode is lore-heavy. Some of them are one-offs, very special episodes about Columbus Day, or the mafia’s view of cunnilingus (short answer: there’s nothing gayer than pleasuring a woman, according to the mafia). One could easily get lost in that pine barrens of one-offs, but luckily I’m here to be your gabagool sherpa. For the most interested rewatchers, I’ve attempted to compile here the most Many Saints-relevant Sopranos episodes, starting with the most relevant and working outwards.
(Note: there will be spoilers for the Sopranos — which, it should be noted, is 20 years old — but only light references to Many Saints)
1. “Down Neck” – Season 1, episode 7. AKA: The One With The Childhood Flashback.
This is arguably the main inspiration for The Many Saints Of Newark, or at the very least its most direct reference, an extended flashback episode that sees young Tony (played by Bobby Boriello, who must be in his early 30s by now) stow away in the trunk of his father Johnny Boy Soprano’s car so he can go to the amusement park. Tony gets caught and has to take a bus, and ends up arriving just in time to see his father and his associates get arrested. All of which, coincidentally, takes place during the Newark Race Riots.
The episode focuses mainly on Tony and his feelings towards his mother, father, and sister, while the movie is more concerned with Tony’s sort-of uncle, Dicky Moltisanti, played by Alissandro Nivola. In fact, “Molti santi” means “many saints” in Italian. I bet you feel like a big stunad’ for not realizing that until now.
So, is Dicky the focus of Many Saints and not Johnny Boy? Well, have you seen the Sopranos finale? There’s nothing David Chase hates more than your expectations.
Additional Trivia: This was the only episode of the Sopranos directed by a woman, Lorraine Senna Ferrara. Also, the young black kid who yells at young Tony when he gets off the bus is played by Michael B. Jordan.
2. “For All Debts Public And Private” — Season 4, Episode 1. AKA: The One Where Christopher Avenges His Father.
Along with “whatever happened to that Russian guy from the Pine Barrens episode?”, one of the biggest questions left open in the original Sopranos series is whether the guy Christopher kills in this episode is actually the guy who killed Chrissy’s father. Tony put Christopher up to it, see, telling Christopher that this recently-retired cop was the guy who killed Christopher’s father. He’d been useful to the mafia before, but now that he’s retired he isn’t any longer, so Tony’s story goes.
Christopher breaks into the cop’s house and the cop denies it, but then, what is he really going to say to a mobbed-up junkie hitman? Still, Tony is acting pretty suspiciously about the whole thing. Is the guy really Christopher’s father’s killer, or just some guy Tony wants dead and has found a clever way to get it done while bringing an underling closer to him in the process? Or is it something in between? Being that the main character of The Many Saints Of Newark is Dickie Moltisanti, it may or may not help answer some of these questions.
3/4. “Nobody Knows Anything”/”Isabella” — Season 1, episodes 11 and 12. AKA: The One Where Tony Survives A Hit.
Out of any of the main cast the Sopranos, arguably the character whom Many Saints does the most to illuminate is Tony’s uncle Junior, aka Corrado Soprano (played by Corey Stoll in the film, and Dominic Chianese in the series). While Junior becomes increasingly addled and irrelevant in later seasons of Sopranos, in this two or three episode arc from season one, we see the conflict between Junior and Tony arise, come to a head, and dissipate between episodes 10 and 13 of season one. It comes to a climax in episode 12 with the attempted hit on Tony. There’s no direct reference to any of this in Many Saints, but it feels important to know.
5. “Kennedy And Heidi” — Season 6, episode 18 (or season 6B, episode 6). AKA: Christopher’s Final Chapter.
Many Saints explains precisely how Chris Moltisanti died in its prologue, so I don’t think I’m spoiling anything here. Christopher is only a very minor character in the movie, but if you need a visual for what the movie describes, this is the episode. One of the things David Chase and company did best on the Sopranos was that even when you were convinced a certain character was inevitably going to die, the when and how of it all almost always came completely out of left field. This one is a classic in that regard.
6. “Fortunate Son” — Season 3, episode 3. AKA: The One Where Chrissy Gets Made.
In episode 303, Christopher finally becomes a made man, complete with the drawing of blood, the burning of saints, and all of the oaths and the ceremony and so forth. As it’s happening, a raven lands on the windowsill. What does it mean?? In the original episode, the raven is less about the symbolism in the show than it is about what the superstition means to Christopher the character, though I’m sure there are fan theories that argue otherwise. Many Saints sees David Chase having some fun with this mythology. (Again, here I would argue that David Chase seems to like fucking with us more than he likes symbolism for its own sake).
Additional Trivia: This episode has a cameo by pre-blog Perez Hilton, as the guy selling tickets to a Jewel concert.
7. American Gangster (2007). AKA: The Movie About Frank Lucas.
What, you thought The Many Saints Of Newark would only have lore pertaining to the Sopranos? Please, David Chase would never do anything that straightforward. Despite there being multiple Sopranos characters who claimed to have some part in the Newark race riots, The Many Saints of Newark invents an entirely new guy for Leslie Odom Jr. (Hamilton, One Night In Miami) to play: Harold McBrayer. McBrayer, oddly, turns out to be an associate of Frank Lucas, the Harlem drug lord portrayed by Denzel Washington in American Gangster (well, the “lord” part may be embellished — whether Lucas was really the boss is still a subject of some debate).
8. “Watching Too Much Television” — Season 4, Episode 7. AKA: The One With The HUD Scam.
As noted above, The Many Saints Of Newark weirdly chooses not to bring back many of the Sopranos characters involved in the Newark Race Riots. But in this episode, Tony makes some money off a HUD scam by leaning on his mafia-friendly assemblyman, Ronald Zellman (played by Peter Riegert), and Zellman’s old buddy, activist Maurice Tiffen (Vondie Curtis-Hall) — the two of whom seem to have gotten their start in politics and activism during the riots.
Mostly, this episode explores how many civil rights leaders from the sixties sold out or got sold out during the Clinton revolution (see also: Bulworth). But the film also offers a nice background on how full of shit Tony is during this episode, which the original episode only hinted out. It’s hard to find a Sopranos character who doesn’t enjoy self-mythologizing.
9. “Where’s Johnny?” — Season 5, Episode 3. AKA: The One Where Junior Goes AWOL.
I’m trying to be more thematic in this rundown rather than explain every single callback from Many Saints (of which there are many, including John Magaro’s trying-way-too-hard Silvio impression), but this episode is a little of both. In this episode, Junior’s originally-fake dementia turns real (it’s later revealed to be the result of a minor stroke), causing him to repeat his most hurtful (to Tony) assessment of Tony like a broken record. Junior ends up running off, eventually wandering the streets of Newark, where the Many Saints Of Newark is set asking questions about many of the people and places the movie depicts.
Additional Trivia: The Junior-faking-insanity storyline is said to have been inspired by real-life mobster Vincent “The Chin” Gigante, who spent 30 years trying to convince the government he was insane, wandering the streets of Greenwich Village in a bathrobe mumbling to himself.
10. “In Camelot” — Season 5, Episode 7. AKA: The One With The Scumbag TV Writer.
I said I was going to start with the most relevant and work outward, and this episode is certainly more spiritually related to Many Saints than literally, but go with me here: David Chase is a long-time television writer who originally wanted to make The Sopranos as a movie. The Sopranos is chock full of movie references to the point that it’s basically impossible not to notice that Chase is a huge cinefile. And yet in both his directorial debut (2013’s mostly enjoyable Not Fade Away) and in Many Saints (co-written by Chase but directed by Alan Taylor), Chase has made movies that feel like nothing so much as pilots for future shows.
There are multiple brilliant storylines in In Camelot, one of the all-time greatest Sopranos episodes, but the one most relevant here involves Christopher’s friend from recovery, an incorrigible television writer named JT played by Tim Daly. Between this episode and the one with Jon Favreau, Sopranos writers more than prove that they’re at least as good at writing showbiz parody as they are at writing mafia stories, and JT is an absolute classic. A delusional, pompous prick so high on his own supply that he at one point compares his own shakedown to Tarantino, JT eventually ends up at a pawn shop impotently attempting to argue for the value of his own Emmy (and by extension, the medium of television as a whole).
“Come on, man! This is, like, huge, this shit,” JT pleads to the pawn shop owner, who initially offers him $15.
“If it were an Oscar, maybe I could give you something. An Academy Award! But TV?”
It’s a hilarious line, and probably heavily tongue in cheek for the people writing it. Yet it also seems to lay bare David Chase’s relative inferiority complex when it comes to TV. To me he seems almost like the platonic ideal of a TV writer. A guy who cut his teeth writing for iconic shows like Rockford Files and Northern Exposure, who ended up changing the very idea of what TV could be with The Sopranos. Yet somewhere in his heart he probably still mythologizes the idea of writing for the movies. And yet even when he gets the chance, he still ends up writing stories that feel like TV shows.