‘The Sopranos’ Rewind: Season 1, Episode 2: ’46 Long’

Welcome to the second 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 second episode, “46 Long,” coming up just as soon as I finish unscrewing my belly button…

“But she's my mother. You're supposed to take care of your mother.” -Tony

Second episodes are hard. Almost every TV writer will tell you that. With your pilot, you get to set up the premise, or introduce the world, or incorporate every great idea you've been saving up for years in the hopes you would get this opportunity. Pilots aren't always perfect themselves – though, as we discussed last week, “The Sopranos” has a pretty great one – but they are almost always better than second episodes, which are still holding the audience's hand (often in an attempt to repeat the pilot without making it feel like that's what's happening), even as the creator is still figuring out exactly what the show is and how it works beyond that initial burst of creativity.

So it is with “46 Long,” which was produced nearly a year after the first episode (look how much bigger AJ has gotten). Some of it – particularly anything involving Tony and Livia (which, again, was the starting point for this whole endeavor) – feels fully-formed and very much of a piece with what we would come to know as one of the greatest shows ever made. And some of it is David Chase still fiddling with the knobs and levers, trying to figure out exactly what the show is and isn't – this is the only episode in the life of the series, for instance, to feature a scene before the opening credits – how it should be balancing the comedy and drama of Tony's life, and even how the show should look. (Dan Attias, who would return to direct a few episodes later in the series, leans more on extreme close-ups than the series tended to.)

In particular, there's the subplot about Big Pussy and Paulie Walnuts investigating the theft of AJ's teacher's car, for instance. That wouldn't have felt wildly out of place in the show that “Sopranos” was quickly evolving into. (Paulie's concern about the appropriation of Italian culture, for instance, would become a core part of his character.) But it's still on the broader, lighter end of the comedy spectrum, and something much more in line with what people might have expected when they assumed this would just be “Analyze This: The Series” than with what “Sopranos” actually was. It's not bad, but it's not quite right, either.

The trouble that Christopher and his meth addict pal Brendan Filone get into when they start robbing trucks protected by Uncle Junior is a little more in line with the show's black comic spirit, and starts to amp up the tensions between Tony and Junior, and between Tony and his own idiot nephew. In particular, the moment where Silvio convinces Tony to hang onto a suit or three before Christopher returns the truck to Comley speaks nicely to the hypocrisy of the whole endeavor, where Tony and the others lecture about codes and rules that should never be broken, but do it wherever and whenever it's even mildly convenient. Silvio runs a club and could easily pay for a suit that nice, but when it's sitting right in front of him? Why not? And Christopher and Brendan's drug use and refusal to play by the rules calls back to that pre-credits scene, where a wiseguy turned author explains that the golden age of the mob is gone thanks to drugs and other activities that threw the old rules out the window.

Still, this is an episode where the lowercase family scenes are so much crisper and more potent than anything going on with stolen trucks and cars. We had seen mob violence gone awry before, but the relationship between Tony and Livia, and the way Carmela and Melfi force him to talk about it, feels instantly distinct and special. Many of this show's descendants were better in the early going (and in some cases always) when they were focusing on the protagonist's work life; with “The Sopranos,” moments where Tony was off the clock were instantly better, and the mob stuff had to catch up.

Just check out that sour look on Nancy Marchand's face when Carmela tries to talk up Green Grove, or the way Livia responds to the kitchen fire – which she largely caused through her own paranoia – like it's another insult this terrible world has visited on her. Or try the heavy-lidded, hangdog look, which James Gandolfini has already perfected by episode two, as Tony surveys the house he grew up in, now lacking its most powerful resident. These two characters are so lived-in right from the jump, and their dynamic so tangled and damaging to Tony that he can't even see just how bad it is.

We get a very lively, probing Dr. Melfi in this one – an aspect of the character that played more to Lorraine Bracco's strengths than when Melfi is more closed-off or purely expository – and even though she hasn't known Tony very long, or ever met Livia, she already knows what this old lady is about and the damage she's done to her son. Last week, he was venting about how she treated his father, but as Livia gets more vulnerable – and closer to being forcibly put in Green Grove – his guilty son complex takes over, and suddenly Livia can do no wrong when he discusses her in front of Melfi or Carmela. When Melfi presses him to share a single happy memory involving his mom, all Tony can think of is a time she led him and his sisters in laughing at Johnny Boy after he fell down the stairs – a ghoulish memory at best, and a pretty sad answer to the question – yet he still refuses to acknowledge what kind of person raised him. He clings to any signs of her goodness or independence, like Livia's willingness to drive her friends around – at least until she runs one over by accident – and brushes off the negative examples that far outnumber them. (Finally, when he can't hold in the rage anymore, he takes it out on Georgie, the Bada-Bing bartender who shares Livia's difficulty in using the telephone.)

Carmela's not blinded like her husband is, and it speaks well of her that she would still offer to let Livia move into the McMansion with her and the kids. (Or it speaks to how well Carmela knows her mother-in-law, so that she can make an offer so distasteful, knowing that it will never be accepted.) And it's Carmela's alleged lack of interest in Livia's good jewelry that causes the episode's fiercest explosion between mother and son. Tony for a moment – where it's just him and Livia, and no one to whom he has to admit to hating her – calls her out on the miserable and angry way she lives her life, and threatens to get power of attorney if she won't willingly move into Green Grove. And Livia, with all the venom and self-pity she can muster, snarls at Tony that he may as well stab her with the carving knife now, because, “It would hurt me less than what you just said!”

I've seen this series a bunch of times, and it's still amazing to witness just how monstrous and difficult she is. Chase always had that, because he had his relationship with his own mother. The rest would have its ups and downs in the early going, but the core of the show is in place, and it's stunning.

Some other thoughts:

* Last week's episode made several references to Tony being the boss of North Jersey. “46 Long” walks that back a bit, to show that the ill Jackie Aprile, Sr. (played by Michael Rispoli, who was the runner-up to James Gandolfini for the role of Tony) is acting boss of the family, even as Brendan notes that everyone in the Family knows that Tony is really running things since Jackie became “the chemo-sabe.”

* Not only does the episode feature The Man Who Might Have Been Tony, but two other guest stars who would go on to prominent roles on shows inspired by the success of this one: J.D. Williams (Bodie from “The Wire”) as one of Brendan's sidekicks on the fatal truck hijacking, and Yancey Arias (star of NBC's short-lived Mexican drug cartel drama “Kingpin”) as the barista-turned-car-thief.

* Another week, another “Rockford Files” reference, this time with Pussy complaining of this detective work, “I'm fucking Rockford over here.”

* Starting with this episode, the pork store was a set built in an unused storefront in Kearny, because the location from the pilot couldn't afford frequently shutting down for production. The Bada-Bing scenes continued to shoot in an active business, though, at the Satin Dolls strip club in Lodi; there's even a Satin Dolls sign hanging behind the stage.

* Sign of the times: this is two episodes in a row talking about the wonders of laser discs, with Tony skeptical that DVDs are of the same quality.

* That's not Martin Scorsese, but a celebrity impersonator who enters the club. Christopher's bald attempt to suck up – “'Kundun!' I liked it!” – is one of his funnier lines in the run of the series.

* Drea de Matteo gets a big makeover between the pilot (where she was the hostess at the restaurant where Tony saw Melfi) and this episode (where the hostess character becomes Christopher's girlfriend Adriana), because David Chase liked her brief performance.

* Paulie's insistence on repeating what wasn't that impressive a joke to begin with to other people who were already in earshot the first time is oddly endearing. The guy's desperate for an audience.

* The casual racism of the characters – where Livia is 100 percent awful to her live-in nurse, but Tony's pretty lousy in his own right in assuming she intends to smoke ganja in that house – is one of those ongoing notes of the show that feels honest, and helps remind us that we are watching a group of rotten people. But it's also a vein of humor – even designed to be at the expense of the main characters to a degree – that's very tricky to mine without making it seem like the show just wants us to be amused that they're saying such awful things. The scenes here don't really cross that line, but it's something the series wasn't always as successful at.

* 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 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.

* Enjoy the first of many “Poor you!”s from Livia.

* Jackie's reference to the Family's official boss, Ercole “Eckley” DiMeo, who's serving a long prison stretch, will be one of the last mentions of this figure. For a while, I wondered if Chase might do a bit of stunt casting for a story where Tony has to deal with the real boss's return – which he did a version of with Feech and the other parolees in season 5 – but when I asked him once about DiMeo, Chase shrugged and said that the old man died in prison.

* Not only does Paulie's obsession with protecting his heritage become a core part of him (so much so that it felt distracting to have Silvio be the offended one in season 4's “Christopher,” which was filmed while Tony Sirico was recovering from back surgery), but Silvio's Pacino impression becomes one of the show's more reliable and simple running gags.

* We meet two characters who will continue to be tormented by Tony, albeit one for longer than the other: Junior's enforcer Mikey Palmice, and hapless Bada-Bing bartender Georgie, who will suffer several additional on-screen beatings as a proxy for whomever Tony is really mad at.

* I never asked Chase exactly when he decided that Tony's panic attacks were triggered by food (which Melfi figures out in a few seasons from now), but if it wasn't an idea he had from the start, I assume his usual obsession with detail meant that he went back and checked all the previous incidents to confirm that meat or some other food was involved. Here, at least, Tony has chest pains and feels dizzy while considering Livia's empty house, but he never passes out, and there's no meat cooking anywhere in that place.

* Even though Livia runs her over with the car and puts her in a wheelchair, Fanny is about the only attendee who has anything nice to say about her at the memorial gathering in season 3's “Proshai, Livushka.”

Next week: “Denial, Anger, Acceptance,” in which Junior pushes back, Carmela enlists Artie Bucco's help, and Tony gets very intimate with Jewish divorce law. That'll be next Wednesday morning.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com