Welcome to the third 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 third episode, “Denial, Anger, Acceptance,” coming up just as soon as I make like a mohel and finish your bris…
“If all this shit's for nothing, why do I gotta think about it?” -Tony
While I was watching “The Sopranos” pilot a couple of weeks ago, my wife wandered into the living room in search of a book, heard James Gandolfini speaking, winced, and said, “You'd think I wouldn't still feel this sad about him being gone, you know?”
I'd never pretend that I knew Gandolfini well, despite all my time covering the show. He was too shy and uncomfortable around the press(*) for someone like me to get to know him. But I knew so many people who worked with him and adored him, and of course I knew how great his work on this show (and in his many film roles) was, and I knew how many more years of amazing performances he had to give the world. So I entered into this project prepared for the same pangs of loss my wife felt when she heard Tony Soprano's voice again for the first time in years.
(*) And I always like to make this clear: Gandolfini hated dealing with the media, but it always came from a place of genuine discomfort and not arrogance. I've dealt with plenty of obnoxious stars who acted like they were reluctantly lowering themselves to be interviewed; this was never that. One year, he even sent members of the TCA Christmas cards with his home address on the envelope. Some people – even actors – just aren't built to talk about themselves.
But an episode like “Denial, Anger, Acceptance” was particularly tough to get through. The core of the episode is about Tony coming to grips with his own fragile mortality as he goes through the eponymous stages of grief about the impending death of Jackie Aprile. Gandolfini was a very different, and better, man than his alter ego, yet listening to Tony struggle with the meaning of life and death with Dr. Melfi, it's hard not to imagine it's the actor having the same conversation, or simply to think of him dying, like Jackie, much sooner than he should have.
The “Godfather”-style sequence where Meadow's choral performance is intercut with the attacks on Christopher and Brendan is particularly powerful, and not for all of the reasons David Chase and company intended back in 1999. Seeing Christopher plead for his life, and then watching Mikey Palmice end Brendan's, is intense stuff – and Brendan's death, far more than Little Pussy Malanga's, is the show's first real whacking of a notable character – but the part that wrecked me took place back in that school auditorium, as Tony's emotions found an outlet in the music, and the experience of seeing his daughter shine like this, and the brief recognition of how much he needs to treasure these moments, for however long he has on this earth. It was a great acting moment at the time, but now it has so much added resonance because of real-life events.
Gandolfini's performance, and the struggle inside Tony that fuels it, is strong enough to carry a lot of the episode on its own. Livia appears only briefly, and late at that. And the Mob Case of the Week involving the Chasidic motel owner feels, much as Pussy and Paulie's stolen car investigation did last week, like Chase still experimenting with exactly what the show could and should be: Hey, wouldn't it be funny to see these tough Italian-American wiseguys be stymied by a bunch of Jewish guys with funny hats and sideburns? It turns out to be a bit more than that, in part because Ariel's willingness to die for the principle of the thing ties in nicely with Tony and Jackie's reckoning with their own mortality, but it's still less compelling than what's happening in almost every other corner of the show this week.
We get our first real Carmela standalone story, as she invites Artie and Charmaine Bucco to cater the hospital fundraiser, and in the process winds up making her “friend” feel even smaller about her status compared to the wealthy and powerful Sopranos. The show has a really great eye and ear for insults – particularly ones not necessarily intended as such – and I like the way that Carmela can't even recognize that she's beckoning for Charmaine in the exact same haughty manner she used for the housekeeper earlier in the episode. Charmaine's revenge is both effective and the kind of thing that only someone in her unique position – a person who grew up in the same world as Tony and Carmela, but who is deliberately not part of it now – can do, in sticking in the knife by revealing that she and Tony hooked up back in the day, then shrugging and saying, “we both made our choices. I'm fine with mine.” At the end of the day, Carmela will still have her McMansion and Charmaine and Artie will be living in their “cozy” fixer-upper and praying for the insurance money to come through, but we've seen through a couple of episodes now that Charmaine is serious and secure in her convictions about not being affiliated with mob business. In a show in which almost every character is compromised in some way, she's an anomaly.
Tony and Jackie are very much of their world, though. And while it's a world that offers the potential of going out early like Brendan, a more mundane (not to mention prolonged) exit like Jackie's is much harder for them to accept.
It's a great episode for both the actual Tony and the man who almost was Tony. As consolation roles go, Jackie Aprile isn't a super-lucrative or long-lasting one, but Michael Rispoli makes the most out of the time he has here. He nails the comic beats in the scene where Jackie doesn't realize that the “nurse” is someone Tony hired to give his day in the hospital a happy ending, but also the dramatic ones in the later scene where Tony wants to keep talking about the motel situation, while Jackie is completely absorbed in the specifics of his medical situation. It's a situation that's obviously tougher on Jackie, but it sure isn't easy for Tony to have to witness it.
Nor is it easy for him to have to talk about it with Melfi. Tony is a man who has gotten very far without asking himself the kinds of questions demanded by therapy, and you can see his intense discomfort as she forces him to actually think about who he is, why he's here, and how long he might get to stick around.
The moments where Tony Soprano is uncomfortable are often among the very best “The Sopranos” has to offer. But some of them can also unfortunately remind us of how we lost the show's leading man before anyone was ready.
Some other thoughts:
* This is the first script of the series not credited to David Chase, and the only one of the series credited to Mark Saraceni. Most of the season 1 writers returned for season 2, but Saraceni moved on to other jobs.
* The one Livia scene is interesting for a few reasons. First, it's startling even this early in the series to see her interacting with someone she actually gets along with, even if only so she can complain about her situation at Green Grove. Second, look at how casually she sentences Brendan to death, with little more than a shrug, knowing exactly who her brother-in-law is and what he will do with her advice. This is a cold and dangerous woman, and not the warm maternal presence Tony keeps trying to convince himself that she is.
* That scene also returns to a recurring theme of the series: that these people expect minor good deeds in the past to pay dividends forever. Junior wants deference from Tony because they played catch years before, while Livia likes Christopher because “He put up my storm windows for me one year.”
* Again, the show tries whenever possible to differentiate its wiseguys from the ones we know from the movies, but it's also aware that its characters love those movies and at times try to model their behavior after them. Nowhere is that more clear in the early going than with Mikey Palmice, who even makes sure to deliver a rehearsed kiss-off line – “Hijack. Bye, jack.” – as he's murdering Brendan.
* I haven't worked for The Star-Ledger for 5 years, and can think of other times when characters on the show were depicted reading other newspapers, and yet I still grumbled “Traitor!” when I saw Tony perusing the Times.
* One of the show's most frequently mined veins of humor involved characters getting ever so close to the proper cultural reference without actually landing on it, as we get here when Tony's mistress Irina says she liked that painting because it reminded her of “David Hockey.”
* Last week, I noted the characters' blatant and vocal racism towards blacks. Here, it gets voiced by Christopher and Adriana as they freak out over the idea that Meadow might be going to score drugs from the black dealers on Jefferson Avenue (presumably the one in Elizabeth?).
* We're in the middle of a delightful June heat wave here in the Garden State, and it makes me extra-appreciative of the harsh quality of the light the show uses for so many of its outdoor scenes, particularly around the pork store. That's how things can look around here when you've been inside too long and spring is giving way to summer.
* Back in the day, I used to listen to the original “Sopranos” soundtrack a ton as I drove my daily commute into and out of Newark. No song on that CD pumped me up more than the one that closes this episode: “Complicated Shadows,” by Elvis Costello and The Attractions. David Chase had a great ear for rock music, both old and new, that would fit perfectly on this show.
* 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.
* Meadow can't wait to go to Berkeley and put 3000 miles between herself and her parents, but she happens to be a character on a TV show that didn't want to turn her into an infrequent guest star, so she ultimately enrolls at Columbia.
* Rosalie Aprile! She'll become a much more interesting character later on after she gets past Jackie's early demise, and Sharon Angela is one of the members of the show's larger ensemble who would be most convincing if you were told that someone simply spotted her while the casting van was driving down Bloomfield Avenue and offered her the part. That's how good she is in the role.
* Continuing our discussion from last week about food and its relation to Tony's panic attacks, Tony suffers no ill effects from the food fight with Artie. Obviously, he didn't collapse 99 percent of the time he was around meat, but I find that's now hanging over a lot of the scenes I watch in the early going.
* Tony's crew will maintain their interest in the motel, and use it as the location for the famous “executive game” poker tournament. This is the last we'll see of Ariel and Shlomo, but Shlomo's son Hillel will appear periodically over the next couple of years, usually grumbling at having to serve at the whims of the golem his father created.
* I'm not watching ahead, and it's been a long time since I watched many of these episodes (even when I wrote the book, I didn't have time for a full series rewatch, and had to cherry-pick from the very best of the series), so at times I'm going to use this section to admit to gaps in my memory. For instance, I don't recall the abandoned apartment above Satriale's ever being used again, but keep in mind that I had also forgotten that this is where they brought Ariel as a last resort.
* For that matter, Livia's mention of Christopher now has me trying to remember if they had any significant interactions during Nancy Marchand's two seasons on the show. Obviously, both characters attended some of the same family gatherings, but did they ever have a conversation?
* Trillo isn't a wildly uncommon name, but it's still funny to hear Carmela using it (in reference to one of the guests at the fundraiser), when it'll eventually be attached to Tony's season 3 mistress Gloria.
Up next: “Meadowlands,” in which Tony tries to find out more about Dr. Melfi, Christopher seeks vengeance, and the Family gathers to see off one of their own.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com