Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Sopranos: Top Ten Episodes

By way of summarizing the series, I’m going to go through my top ten Sopranos episodes. It’s a lot tougher to do that with this show than with a lot of others, say Buffy or even Six Feet Under, since every episode is at such a consistently high level, and the show doesn’t usually use the build to a big mythology/finale episode structure of a lot of series. Every episode is so good that it’s only the weaker ones that stand out. But, there’s still better and worse episodes, and I shall delve into them.

Notably, there are no season one episodes. A lot of people will tell you season one is the show’s best season, and it is fantastic, but I don’t think it’s as layered and complex as the later years. Looking at that season now, none of the characters are as developed as they are in the later years. Adrianna is just a pretty girl, Chase didn’t know at this point what she’d become, and the same is true of Paulie and Pussy. From a plot level, it’s probably the tightest season, but it’s also the most “TV” in the sense that it’s got more obvious standalone stories and a clear arc throughout the season.

While the later seasons are messier, they feel more real and more character centered. It’s the character hooks that make the series so wonderful, and that’s the reason that season five is my favorite season of the entire series. There, they used less serial plotting than in the previous seasons, instead focusing in depth on one or two characters each episode. This meant that each episode gave us a ton of development and much to ponder and discuss.

Also, I watched the first four seasons on DVD, then watched the fifth and sixth as they aired. So, it’s harder for me to separate those early seasons into individual episodes, they all sort of bleed together, while the latter are separated in my mind. I’d stand by these picks regardless, but it’s possible if I’d watched those earlier seasons separately, they’d be more distinguished.

Anyway, on to the top ten, in chronological order…

D-Girl (2x07) – This episode is the culmination of Christopher’s first flirtation with the film business, putting him and Pussy at a crossroads between serving Tony and pursing their own best interest. I loved Christopher’s interest in film because it was a dream, a way out of the world. In him and Adrianna, I always saw hope, the chance to escape this world and not become like Tony. This episode plays that conflict, for a moment it seems that he can be successful and move on to something better, but, as with the Vito storyline, he finds out that it’s tough to play by civilian rules, to actually have to work for what you want, not just get it. It’s a prescient episode because it contains all the central themes of season six, the way that these people will give up what they really want for the easy life of the mafia.

We not only get this, we also get some of the most emotional scenes in the series, as Pussy is forced to restore AJ’s faith in his father even as he’s betraying him to the FBI. The best scene is Pussy upstairs in the bathroom, crying, aware that he will either have to leave this world or eventually die. On top of this, we get some really funny stuff with Jon Favreau, one of the few celebrity playing themselves cameos that doesn’t feel self indulgent or too inside.

Funhouse (2x13) – There’s a lot of good stuff in season two, the fantastic Robert Patrick arc, Christopher’s acting class, but this episode’s surreal journey to inevitability is the moment when the series established its rich dream mythology that would infuriate some fans and enrapture others, like myself. I love that they spend so much time with the weird dreams as a device to get Tony to face what he already knows, that Pussy is working for the feds. It’s crazy, exciting stuff with some of the series best visual moments.

And then we get the sad resolution of Pussy’s story as he’s gunned down and dumped in the ocean. This is a major turning point for Tony, and the series as a whole. We’d seen Tony kill before, but to kill a friend? It’s cast a shadow over the entire series, echoed in this season’s “Remember When.”

Pine Barrens (3x11) – If this episode wasn’t so good, I’d be mad it even existed because it’s led to five years of people asking when the Russian’s coming back. To that, I can only say you’re an idiot. People who consider the Russian a loose end completely miss the point, it’s like saying Pulp Fiction sucked because we never found out what was in the briefcase. The entire point of the character was the uncertainty of whether he was dead or alive, a menace out in the forest. To resolve that would strip the episode of a lot of its power, and particularly three seasons later, it’s not going to happen. Reading some online postings, you’d think it was satire, but people apparently really are furious he hasn’t come back and even spinning elaborate theories that involve the Russian coming back for the final episodes. Let it go.

Anyway, that aside, this is a brilliant episode. It’s the show’s funniest, as we witness Chris and Paulie go through all kinds of indignities in the woods, eating ketchup packets and making shoes out of rubber. Visually, it’s one of the show’s best, with the gorgeous snowscapes and seemingly endless woods. If nothing else, this episode is testament to the fact that the show can be incredibly funny when it wants to be.

Amour Fou (3x12) – The resolution of the Gloria Trillo arc is fantastic stuff, tying the season back to Tony’s now absent mother. While I’m obviously not happy that Nancy Marchand died, losing the character when they did worked in the show’s favor. They had pretty much exhausted Livia herself by the end of the second season and she becomes more interesting as a specter hanging over everyone. In this episode, Tony finally realizes the similarities between Gloria and Livia and, in an incredible, intense scene, leaves her. Earlier in the episode, we also get the great scene where Gloria drives Carmela home from the car dealership. The show can do tension like no other, and this episode was full of it. While I like the mob stuff, it’s really the personal drama that interests me, and where normally we’d get the season’s death in the penultimate episode, here we get the death of a relationship.

Whitecaps (4x13) – The long simmering drama surrounding Tony and Carmela’s marriage comes to a head here, as she finally rejects him and his philandering. The episode is full of incredible scenes between the two of them, moments that were building for four years and finally come spilling out here. Falco and Gandolfini have never been better. The episode is the series’ longest, at 75 minutes, and that extra time helps give things an epic scope as they march towards the separation, taking the family’s broken dreams in their wake, and setting up the brilliance of season five.

Irregular Around the Margins (5x05) – A brilliant episode at the time, and in retrospect, the critical turning point in Tony and Christopher’s relationship. This is what inspires Cleaver and starts the rift that will eventually lead to Christopher’s death. That accident is a replication of what happens here. Adrianna’s arc over the last couple of seasons was some of the best stuff the show ever did and this episode takes it to emotional, excruciating places. One thing you won’t see on another show, probably ever, is a character getting IBS, but they went there and it provided the impetus for Tony and Adrianna’s flirtation. There’s so much tension here, so much pettiness among the crew. I love the way their pettiness threatens to spill over into violence.

Long Term Parking (5x12) – Adrianna’s murder was something the series could never come back from. Writing abut the first part of season six, I said that the show had lost something when she died, the hope that maybe someone could get out and live a better life. When she died, that possibility disappeared. But, that was the whole point. As we see in season six, her death has forced everyone to either commit to the life or die. Those are the only options.

What happens here destroys Tony and Christopher’s relationship, largely because of Christopher’s own weakness. In a devastating scene, he is all set to run away with Adrianna, or at least I think he is, until he sees a white trash family at a gas station. Faced with the possibility of living a normal life, he decides to turn Adrianna over to Tony and Silvio, who kill her in the woods. The tension of this episode comes from the juxtaposition of the inevitable ending and the glimmer of hope we cling on to. Even when she’s in the car, I’m hoping that maybe they weren’t lying, that she’s off to a new life somewhere. But, she’s not and by episode’s end, she’s dead

Join the Club (6x02) – I love the series’ forays into metaphysical weirdness, and few were more satisfying than this trip to a parallel universe where Tony becomes Kevin Finnerty, businessman. The basic conceit of this episode, a man who switches briefcases and becomes someone else, is fascinating and could be a feature right there, but wrapped up in what we know about Tony, it becomes an exciting way to view the man he could have been. Few episode endings are as haunting as Tony sitting alone in his hotel room, looking out at the revolving lighthouse as Moby plays.

On top of that, we get the phenomenal hospital scenes, a showcase for Edie Falco. And, the episode’s importance to the series as a whole was confirmed during Tony’s peyote trip, at which point he realizes that there are other world than just this one. Did he remember the Kevin Finnerty experience in that moment? I think he did. The intensity and power of this episode wasn’t matched until the next episode on the top ten list.

Walk Like a Man (6x17) – Before this episode, we’d been in something of a holding pattern for eight or nine episodes. There were great moments, but there wasn’t any sense of urgency. I was thinking that the show would end in a leisurely manner, maybe some people would die, but things would go on as they always had. Then this episode happened and everything changed. As you’ve probably gathered, I’m a big Christopher fan and this is the episode that essentially seals his fate. He has struggled to be what Tony wants him to be, but he just can’t do it. If he’s with them and drinking, then he’s a disgrace, if he’s not, he’s also letting Tony down. It’s a conundrum and there really is no answer. There’s so many brilliant scenes with him here, including the shocking death of JT. Chris is going off the rails and it’s pretty clear he doesn’t have long to live by the end.

At the same time, we get the first major focus on AJ, who will come to dominate the rest of the season. He’s drawn into the world of the mob and for a moment it seems like he will follow his path. The happy family tableau at the end of the episode is all the more striking for the fact that after this, they can never be together in the same way again.

Kennedy and Heidi (6x18) – Any episode of this final run could easily be on this list, but I went with “Kennedy” for the ambition and sheer audacity of making an entire episode about Tony trying to make other people feel that Christopher’s death was a good thing. The pageantry of mourning seems so hollow to him, and we’re placed right there, disregarding common human decency, sadness at Chris’s death, to instead share Tony’s detached view. There’s not much emotion at Christopher’s death, that came in the previous episode, this is all about Tony and his struggle.

The peyote trip is the capper, as Tony tries to relive his Kevin Finnerty existence and winds up stumbling dazed through a casino, a virtual zombie. I love the way they depicted the trip, a strange emotional capper to a really surprising journey. It’s a fantastic hour that shows the series is much more than just a mob story.

Again, “The Second Coming” and “The Blue Comet” could both easily have made it on the list, but I wanted to give some variety. Perhaps I’m just enchanted by the new, but those episodes seemed as good as anything the show has ever done. Either way, hopefully the series finale will find a place on the list and be as strong as the past few episodes have been.

The Sopranos - 'The Blue Comet' (6x20)

“The Blue Comet” is an interesting episode because it’s simultaneously exactly what you’d expect and totally unexpected. After Tony was shot I concluded that the show was not likely to go out with a bang, more likely we’d see Tony fade away, life go on. After the slow fade of last season’s finale, and even through the first couple of episodes of this season, I was still feeling that way, but starting with “Walk Like a Man,” everything changed and since that episode, we’ve been on a march to this point, with everything falling apart, to the point that this episode leaves Tony alone in a safehouse, all his close friends dead, separated from his family. It’s an apocalyptic episode and another masterpiece from Chase and his team.

The show has teased a New York/New Jersey war for a long time, from Tony’s betrayal of Johnny Sack in “Whitecaps” to the near war in last season’s “Kaisha,” and after the buildup last week, I was hoping that he wouldn’t stop things before they started again. This entire season has had a feeling of dread, and this episode took it to almost unbearable levels. The opening scene, with Silvio murdering Burt Gervasi set up that this was going to be a big episode, though I was a bit unclear who he was murdering.

Being near the end of a series makes every threat a bit more real. Last season, you’d never have thought that Phil really might take out the top guys in Tony’s crew, now, it’s a real possibility, and as Bobby walked into that train store, he was already dead, it was just about waiting for it to happen. Things were so bad after Silvio died that I legitimately thought Tony might go.

On a thematic level, the episode integrates a lot of things that have been going on under the surface for a while. Phil says that he needs to take out Tony Soprano’s “glorified crew” because they don’t really believe in the mythology of the mafia. It is the ritual that makes them more than gangsters, the ritual is the reason Phil spent time in prison, and if that’s meaningless, then so is his time in prison. That’s also why Tony isn’t a “real” gangster, Phil mentions his lack of jail time here and shut Tony down with it last episode with his already classic speech about compromising.

The entire show has been about Tony’s inability to live up to his father and cinema’s image of what a mobster should be. Now, Phil cracks on his team, marveling at the fact that Bobby is one of the top three guys. After the death of Sil and Bobby, Paulie is Tony’s only ally, and he’s constantly shown himself to be selfish, oblivious to the needs of others. Tony is left with basically no one, sitting alone in a room, holding a machine gun.

It’s almost surreal to have these murders actually happening. While I think Chase needed to pay off all this buildup, I do think it’s a bit of a resignation to go down this road. I had come to terms with the fact that the show wasn’t going to have a big ending, and it’s a surprise to see this happen. I would have liked to see Chase screw with people one final time and throw out a big dream sequence or something like that at the close, but this payoff is certainly better than something like “Kaisha.”

The dissolution of Tony’s crew fits with one of the central themes of the series, the decline of the mafia. Even if Tony survives and either kills Phil or negotiates a peace settlement, he’s got no one left. All his successors are dead. It’s just a bunch of random thugs left, no one to carry the legacy. Can Tony run things like this, how will it work? The only person I could see stepping up to follow him would be Meadow, but I don’t think protocol would allow that.

On a familial level, we see Tony pushing away from him. He’s too much of a target, and now the only way to protect his family is to leave them. It felt final when they left the house, like they’ll never be back there. I do like the implications of him abandoning his suburban mansion to go back to an old neighborhood style house.

This episode also sees AJ fail another test. I’m perhaps most curious to see how his story resolves. He seems completely incapable of dealing with the world, will this latest outburst from Tony get him back on track or push him completely away? His arc this season has been phenomenal, here we see Tony finally treating AJ like his parents treated him, harsh, stripping him of his autonomy. He clearly blames Carmela for what happened to him and he’s trying to reverse some of that now.

This comes up in the fantastic Melfi scene, where she finishes his sentences as he goes through a rote list of complaints. She’s so cold there, I was fearing for her. Tony respects her too much to hurt her, but he is hurt by her abandonment of him at such a low point. It is questionable of her to dump him so suddenly, but that study clearly pointed out what was always apparent, that her work was helping him be a better criminal. Does someone like Tony deserve to be helped? Wouldn’t ‘progress’ only make him worse? Melfi never seemed to think that she could save him, and she must have known that much of what she said led to violence. I always thought she was complicit in that, maybe she didn’t realize how much she was until Elliot told her.

I’m guessing that’s the last time we’ll see Melfi, barring some kind of closing montage with all the characters, and it’s a great way to go out. She realizes that her work isn’t going anywhere, and that by treating him, she is in some ways complicit in what he’s doing. She tried to help him, but he wound up saying the same things and not facing up to the basic morality of his life. Unable to do that, she has a right to let him go.

The scene with Janice and Bobby’s kids was heartbreaking because Janice wasn’t reacting how we’d expect her to. It was just quiet sadness, driving home that for all the over the top cool of his murder, what’s left is three kids who will be raised by someone who will resent them and hurt them. Bobby’s kids in particular will be scarred by these next few years. We’ve already seen Janice turning into her mother in “Soprano Home Movies,” this will only make things worse.

While that scene really got to me, the deaths themselves were curiously lacking in emotion. I think it’s because we were so aware of the impending death, it was almost a relief when it happened. Particularly in Bobby’s scene, the minute he walked into train shop, I knew he was gone, and it was excruciating sitting there, wondering when it would come. Christopher’s death was like that as well, he was on such a downward spiral, the death felt like an inevitability, not a surprise. There were moments of sadness surrounding all the deaths, but never in the traditional sappy way most TV shows do it.

Perhaps the best thing I can say about this episode is that it feels like a second to last episode. There’s a lot still up in the air, but this was the 84th piece of an 85 piece story. Ever since “Walk Like a Man,” the show has been as good as anything to ever air on TV or in the movies. It’s incredibly tense and perfectly focused on what matters. It’s hard to believe, but AJ has become one of the best characters on the show and Tony remains intensely fascinating. I really can’t wait to see what Chase does with the final chapter.