Welcome to the seventh 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 seventh episode, “Down Neck,” coming up just as soon as the clown gets arrested, too…
“My son is doomed, right?” -Tony
The morning after “The Sopranos” series finale aired, David Chase reluctantly got on the phone with me to talk about everything but his intentions for the final scene. Along the way, he discussed both his love of the occasional flashbacks to Tony's childhood and his feeling that, if he ever revisited this world in some form, it would be events set in the past. He specifically mentioned an idea about revisiting a time in Tony's life from midway through the series, but there was also the suggestion that he had a lot more he could do back in the '60s heyday of Johnny Boy and Junior Soprano.
Chase was older than Tony – he was in his early 20s at the time of the “Down Neck” flashbacks – but it's an era he knows inimately and loves, and that became the setting for his first feature film “Not Fade Away.” You can see the allure of the period to him as a storyteller, not just for the clothes and music and other '60s touches, but for the way the flashbacks helped inform our understanding of Tony.
This is in some ways an even more focused episode than “College,” dealing entirely with Tony's worries about AJ's situation at school and the memories stirred up by it. It doesn't have an iconic moment like Tony strangling Febby, or even Carmela's confession to Father Phil, but the episode draws enormous power from it's illustration of the way Tony grew up, how that informed the man he's become, and how he fears he may be making AJ into the same kind of man his parents made him.
James Gandolfini is spectacular in the therapy scenes with Melfi, as Tony goes back and forth between sharp clarity on his upbringing and willful ignorance as to how truly dysfunctional it was. In one of his early appreciations of Gandolfini's work, Matt Seitz raved about a Tony/Livia scene where “the man is acting with the back of his neck.” Here, he does a lot of acting with his eyelids, as the moments where he hides his expressive eyes are the ones that provide the best window into Tony's troubled soul. For that matter, Lorraine Bracco is wonderful in playing Melfi's reactions to all these terrible details Tony is giving her, as the good doctor tries very hard to maintain her usual clinical distance, but simply can't as she comes to appreciate all the things young Tony experienced.
The flashbacks themselves provide enormous value to the therapy scenes. Gandolfini was a great enough actor that Chase could have gotten away with turning this episode into a string of theatrical monologues, but showing is almost always more valuable than telling, particularly in our glimpses of young Livia, whom Laila Robins brings to horrifying life in a way that evokes what Nancy Marchand was doing without simply feeling like an impersonation.
I've always been less enamored with Joseph Siravo as Johnny Boy. He theoretically has the easier job, since he doesn't have to live up to an indelible performance in the present-day, and he's not bad, necessarily, but he comes in on the broader end of “The Sopranos” acting spectrum. The show always made room for the Van Zandts and Siricos, and you can see how this portrayal of Johnny Boy fits into that world (and would have been so beloved by Hesh and Paulie Walnuts), but given the nuance of Gandolfini, Marchand, and Robins here, Johnny Boy feels like a missed opportunity. He's just as big a part as Livia of the puzzle that is the adult Tony Soprano, and even if we never met him in the present, he could have been more striking in the past than he was. As it is, there would probably be a fun hour or two of watching the young versions of Johnny and Junior running scams, but unless that version of the story was going to be centered on Livia – a very tricky thing, albeit something Chase could have been up to doing, in that it would have to humanize her more without softening her in the slightest – I don't know that there ever needed to be more of '60s Sopranos adventures beyond what we get here, and got in briefer fashion a few other times in later seasons.
It's also interesting to look at these scenes through the lens of the many period pieces that have been made since then, including one by Chase's protege Matth Weiner. Back in '99, Jefferson Airplane's “White Rabbit” was still a relatively obvious choice to introduce a '60s flashback – albeit a perfect one to use, given Tony's current pill regimen – and not the utter cliche it's become in the years since in shows like “Aquarius.” But the Jersey-ness of it (including news coverage of the riots elsewhere in Newark as just a background element) and the story of the toxic Johnny/Livia marriage render it uniquely “Sopranos,” even if a music cue or two is familiar in hindsight.
The past and present stories also tie together neatly by having AJ inadvertently spill the beans to his grandmother about Tony's therapy. Those two make a great comic combination because AJ is so oblivious – whether from ADD, Sopranos genes, or just general upbringing – that he not only doesn't realize what he's telling Livia, but is invulnerable to her usual emotional manipulations. Once Livia decides that Tony goes to a psychiatrist to complain about her, she starts up the waterworks and loud self-pity, and AJ couldn't possibly be less interested in, or even aware of, this display. It's priceless.
Of course, we've seen how dangerous Livia can be, even at Green Grove, with some of the counsel she's given Junior. A few episodes ago, Tony was convinced he'd be dead the minute another wiseguy found out he was talking to a psychiatrist. Now his mother – who feels her son has imprisoned her, and who has the ear of Tony's alleged boss – knows his most important secret.
Maybe it's not Tony's son who's doomed. Maybe it's Livia's?
Some other thoughts:
* This is the first episode from the writing team of Robin Green & Mitchell Burgess, who would become two of the more familiar names in the credits for nearly all of the show's run.
* Meanwhile, this was not only Lorraine Senna's only turn in the director's chair, but the only time a woman directed an episode of the series. Whether it was Senna's choice, the editor's, or Chase's, this is another early one where you can see the show experimenting with its visual style, in particular with the stutter-step nature of some of the flashbacks, where they end so abruptly – say, Tony recalling the most important events of “College” – that I started to wonder if the HBO Go stream was acting glitchy. (Maybe this was just the show stealthily preparing us for the feeling that our cable had gone out with the way the series ended.)
* Party like it's 1999: Check out Christopher's big brick of a cell phone. Also, “South Park” was only a couple of years old at this point, so AJ would appreciate most of the cultural references (though maybe not the one about David Caruso's career) in “Cartman Gets An Anal Probe.”
* In addition to “White Rabbit,” songs this week include The Rascals' “Lonely Too Long” (being performed on “The Ed Sullivan Show”), “Don't Bring Me Down” by The Animals (Tony misses the bus and sees Johnny beating up Rocco), “Carrie Anne” by The Hollies (Tony and Junior play catch while Janice gets to go out with Johnny) and “Mystic Eyes” by Them (Tony hiding in the trunk).
* Silvio's daughter, a contemporary of Meadow's, complains to him about running the Bing. Had web series been a thing back in '99, I'd have loved to see occasional sitcom-style adventures of Silvio and his family starring Steve and Maureen Van Zandt. Maybe call it “This Thing Of Ours”? Or “Everytime I Think I'm Out…”?
* 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.
* Tony's fears that AJ will wind up a gangster prove unfounded, as the kid's few attempts at crime in the later seasons prove he doesn't have the brains or constitution for it. But when last we see him, he's preparing to take a low-level job working for Little Carmine, so he'll still have one foot in his father's world.
* Though Aida Turturro won't turn up until season 2, Tony's older sister Janice – who'll be calling herself Parvati when we meet her in present day – makes her first appearance in teenage form. Even there, you can see the awkward dynamic between the two siblings: Janice smugly knowing, Tony resentful and confused by her.
* Meanwhile, we get the briefest glimpse of baby Barbara Soprano, which seems about right given how faint her presence is in Tony's adult life.
* Laila Robins appears only one more time as Young Livia, in season 3's “Fortunate Son” (the episode that explains the connection between food and Tony's panic attacks), though Laurie Williams played Livia in season 5's “In Camelot,” where Tony recalls covering for the philandering Johnny Boy while his mother was dealing with a miscarriage.
* Tony suggests to Melfi that if he hadn't been raised by a gangster, “Maybe I'd be selling patio furniture in San Diego,” which is a hop, skip and a jump from him being a precision optics salesman in the Kevin Finnerty dream/alternate reality scenes from the start of season 6.
* We get our first look at Tony using the elliptical machine in the Soprano basement, which will become a significant location later in the series, as Tony comes to think of it as the only place in the house where he's free to discuss his business – to the point where the FBI briefly plants a bug on a lamp down there.
Up next: “The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti,” in which the FBI begins making arrests, and Christopher feels disrespected. As always, episodes are available to stream via HBO Go, HBO Now, and Amazon Prime.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org