‘The Sopranos’ Rewind: Season 1, Episode 5: ‘College’

Welcome to the fifth 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 fifth episode, “College,” coming up just as soon as I find $50,000 in krugerrands and a .45 automatic while hunting for Easter eggs…

“Are you in the Mafia?” -Meadow

There are masterpieces of the moment, and there are masterpieces for all time. Which, I wondered as I began this project, would “College” be?

In the early weeks of 1999, “College” was the episode that sealed the deal between “The Sopranos” and its audience. It put the “Analyze This” comparisons to bed forever(*), made clear that this wasn't some cute show about a henpecked mob boss with troublemaking kids – “Wiseguys: They're just like us!” – and said that this would be a revolutionary change in how TV dramas functioned, rather than all the evolutionary ones that had started with “Hill Street Blues.”

(*) Or, at least, until David Chase threw in a celebratory joke about them in the season 2 premiere.

But that was 16 years ago, when it was still jaw-dropping to see the show's relatively sympathetic main character strangle a man to death in tight close-up, when the thought of the protagonist's wife flirting with her priest seemed unthinkable, when – even in a cable universe that had seen two seasons of “Oz” and four preceding episodes of this show – we still didn't expect our TV shows to do… this.

After 16 years of pale imitators and rightful inheritors, of anti-heroes and pure villains, of series showing their main characters doing things far worse – often to people we cared a hell of a lot more than we did about Febby Petrulio – would all this feel like the bolt of lightning it was at the time, or would it feel dated and safe?

I couldn't push out all memory of Walter White, Vic Mackey and company as I watched “College,” but it ultimately didn't matter. This was a spectacular episode when it first aired for reasons that ran far deeper than the shock value of Tony pulling that cord tight around Febby's neck until his hands bled, and in many ways it's an even more powerful experience now than it was when the surprise was so fresh.

Look, for instance, at Meadow and Tony's conversation early in the episode about what he really does for a living.  At the time, he was still the relatively cuddly mobster next door(**), and wasn't this another amusing little pickle he was finding himself in? Watched now, in light of what we know comes later in the episode – and, for many of us, what's coming later in the series – Tony's blithe dismissal of her concerns seems far more unsettling. So do all the later moments where he casually – often while flashing a smile that's terrifying given knowledge of his full intentions – lies to her about where he's been or what he's about to do. This is an episode about Tony stumbling into a chance for a revenge killing, but it's also about Meadow trying to connect with her father – he'll tell her that he's in the mob, she'll tell him she dabbled in meth, and they'll all laugh about it later, no harm, no foul – in a way that we understand is impossible well before she does. “Sometimes, I wish you were like other dads,” she laments, not understanding how unlike other dads her father truly is.

(**) “The Sopranos” chapter of my book goes into this in much greater detail, but trying to make Tony less cuddly was one of Chase's primary motivations for making this episode. The idea terrified his HBO boss Chris Albrecht, who recalled, “I said, ‘David, you can”t do this. He can”t kill this guy. You haven”t earned it yet. The audience is going to hate him. It”s the fifth episode. Wait “til the end of the season.” And David said to me, ‘If Tony Soprano were to find this guy and doesn”t kill him, he”s full of shit, and therefore the show”s full of shit.” And I said, ‘Okay, that”s a good point.””

Because Chase knew this would be a huge deal, he kept the episode simple, with just the action in Maine and what's going on back at the house in North Caldwell. Christopher's the only other wiseguy to appear, and only as a proxy for the audience so we'll understand why Tony is stalking and killing this random Joe in Waterville.

The why is ultimately what made Febby's death stand out at the time. There had been a tradition in television of heroes getting to occasionally murder bad guys who either posed an imminent threat or a recurring one: men so monstrous that the audience could never really judge the likes of Thomas Magnum for executing them in cold blood. Febby is not that. He's a small time drug dealer, but also a travel agent, a volunteer fireman, and a father to a little girl. Tony gets a glimpse of Febby's home and family and doesn't feel the slightest twinge of guilt; his only concern is making sure this is the same guy. (Which he finally confirms from noticing the wood bust of Reagan – much like the one of Sinatra that Febby made for Jackie in prison – at the travel agency.) Now, Febby does try several times (first on his own, and then by recruiting two of his drug customers) to kill Tony himself – and contrary to the lie that Tony sees right through, he doesn't stop himself because of the sight of Tony's own daughter, but because he's distracted by the presence of two other motel guests – but Tony doesn't know this. Febby is no danger to anyone Tony knows or cares about; he's just someone who broke the code of Omerta, and a useful outlet for Tony's ongoing feelings of remorse over Jackie.

To let Tony Soprano – mobster, yes, but also suburban husband and father, and eminently likable thanks to James Gandolfini's genius – kill this man for that reason was a startling event in '99. That's much less of a surprise today, but the story hits just as hard because it's still told so well, with Chase taking advantage of having only two stories so he could let them both play out in exhaustive, powerful detail. The killing itself is tough enough to watch, but the moment after – a gorgeous shot of an earthbound Tony, staring wistfully up at a group of flying ducks, again standing in for the feelings of family and peace that seem to remain forever beyond his grasp – is just as stunning.

And though the only physical injury suffered back on the homefront is to Father Phil's digestive system, the dark and stormy night of the soul he spends with Carmela is equally brilliant.

Starting with this episode, Paul Schulze took over the role of Phil, who had been played in the pilot by Michael Santoro. Schulze and Edie Falco went to SUNY Purchase together, and had acted together many times on stage and screen (and would continue to do so for years after “Sopranos” ended, as toxic lovers on “Nurse Jackie”). There's a shorthand and chemistry between them – not just romantic, though obviously there are sparks between Carmela and her favorite priest – that's enormously valuable for a story that has to push their relationship to its outer edges at a time when we barely know either character.

Back in the pilot, Tony told Dr. Melfi about how much time his wife was spending with the priest. Here, we see how comfortable – almost intimate – they are with each other. He is, as he admits to Carm, a schnorrer, but she's more than happy to enjoy leftover ziti, wine, and “Remains of the Day” – another story of a man who spends a lot of time in proximity to a woman whom he can't admit he loves – with a man who will shower her with the kind of affection and stimulation (spiritual, intellectual and, yes, romantic) that she's starved for from Tony. She's home alone, still recovering from her cold, the weather outside is dramatic. Her defenses couldn't be any weaker. She and Father Phil discuss “The Last Temptation of Christ,” and for a while, it seems a higher power is conspiring to tempt both of them with each other.

Yet Father Phil, moocher though he may be, resists the first temptation. In that moment, he could very easily kiss Carmela, and more. He knows it, she knows it, and both seem okay with it. Instead, he finds a different way to join with her by suggesting that he take her confession. It's a stall tactic, but also exactly what both of them seem to need right then, and it turns out that her romantic defenses aren't the only shields that have dropped. She lives a comfortable life because her husband is a criminal – that she can say this out loud on the same night when Tony is plotting to murder another human being only underlines how much she's benefited from her willful blindness – and while it's easy most of the time to bury her feelings of guilt under the opulence of this home, she still feels it on a level that Tony doesn't. She knows that all of this is wrong – look at how much pain is washing over Edie Falco's face as Carmela says, “Ohmigod, my sweet children!” – but it's only in occasional moments like this where she can say the words aloud. Father Phil tells her exactly what she needs to hear about repenting and renouncing sin (it's his finest moment in the run of the series), even as we can suspect that this is just a momentary burst of remorse before she goes back to enjoying the benefits of being a made guy's wife.

By the next morning – after Father Phil is saved from a second moment of temptation by a stomach too full of pasta and alcohol – Carmela has, indeed, reverted to type. She couldn't have been more vulnerable in her confession, nor could she be any colder or more in control as Phil stumbles around in his undershirt trying to apologize for his behavior. Sin and redemption were both on the table for her the night before; now, it's just the status quo, which includes justifiably busting Tony's balls about having lied to her about Dr. Melfi's gender.

In an episode with so much drama, that offers such an unflinching view of its two leads, it could seem almost retrograde to end it on this lighter note of Tony being reduced to the sitcom husband having to make things up to his wife after lying to her: Don't worry, folks! This was a Very Special Episode, but everything's already back to normal! But it doesn't feel that way. It's a scene that goes hand in hand with the previous one where Tony studies the Hawthorne quote – “No man can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude without finally getting bewildered as to which may be true.” – while sitting outside Meadow's interview at Bowdoin. This guy – the one who knows he will have to pay dearly in cash and other favors to make this latest headache go away – is the same one who choked the life out of another human being earlier in the day. This is the face that Meadow, AJ, the audience and even Carmela can look at and feel oddly comforted by, and it's the face that makes the other one possible, as both a successful mobster and the center of a series. The Tony who kills Febby seems much closer to the “true” Tony, but we're watching mainly for the other one, just as his family and friends tell themselves that this is who he really is. Because if they accept the truth for longer than a few tearful moments on a rainy night, then this life they've built all falls apart.

It's a funny note to end the episode on, but also a chilling one. Chase wanted to remind the audience what his protagonist, and show, were truly about. He did it in a way that not only colored everything else to follow on “The Sopranos,” but everything that was about to happen in the larger world of TV drama. A “Sopranos” where Tony gives Febby a pass might have seemed more reassuring, but it also would have neutered the show, and given license for the executives overseeing the series that followed to demand similar restraint from their creators.

In the greater context of where television was going, “College” is a landmark moment. In the context of “The Sopranos” itself, it's perhaps the series' single greatest episode, and the one that best exemplifies the balance between family and Family that gave both the show and Tony so much difficulty.

Some other thoughts:

* Unsurprising “College” Fact #1: Edie Falco won her first Emmy for this episode. Hell, I'd have given it to her just for the way she plays Carmela's reaction to the egg AJ makes for her.

* Though the series occasionally filmed far away on location for episodes set in Italy and Los Angeles, whenever possible, the location and production teams found ways to make New Jersey and its surroundings pass for other parts of the country. So while Tony and Meadow are traveling around Maine, the episode was actually filmed in the Tri-State Area, with most of the college scenes themselves being shot at Drew University in Madison, NJ.

* Unsurprising “College” Fact #2: Allen Coulter would direct 11 more “Sopranos” episodes after this, including the next three season premieres.

* Semi-Surprising College Fact: this is the only “Sopranos” episode where James Manos Jr. has even a shared (with Chase) writing credit. He did okay for himself, though, developing one of the many cable dramas made possible by the success of this one: “Dexter.”

* Oh, if only Paulie, Silvio or any other members of Tony's crew could have heard Meadow say that her friends are much more interested in “Casino” (not even “Goodfellas”!) than “The Godfather.”

* Party Like It's 1999: Christopher has to keep running out in the pouring rain to communicate with Tony on a pay phone, since the pork store's phone is almost surely monitored. Nowadays, they'd use burners.

* Also, for all of Febby's attempts to kill Tony, he doesn't understand that his only chance to survive is to run, since Christopher already knows his new name and address.

* 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.

* Irina mentions her one-legged cousin Svetlana, who will become one of the show's more memorable ancillary characters starting in season 2.

* Carmela's bout of remorse is one of only a few times in the life of the series that she allows herself to really think about the evil she is complicit in by staying married to Tony. But neither Father Phil here nor the shrink she sees in season 3's “Second Opinion” are able to convince her to walk away from the marriage, and from the money that comes with it. Here, Carm expresses a fear that “It's just a matter of time before God compensates me with outrage for my sins!” Yet she and the immediate family make it through the series (give or take your feelings about what happens at Holsten's) physically unscathed. Many other people die for the sake of Tony's personal growth, and both Meadow and AJ will get more tangled up in Family business, but whatever punishment Carm is expecting either doesn't come at all, or only comes in the series' final second.

Up next: “Pax Soprana,” in which Tony and the other captains pay the cost of having made Junior the fake boss.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com