The Sopranos 2×11: “House Arrest”
The Sopranos has been doing something especially interesting during the build-up to its Season 2 climax. While the entirety of the season is more focused than the first, centering about the way we’re trapped within systems, these build-up episodes are often diverging away from the most heavily serialized plot elements, choosing to emphasize certain characters and stories that don’t really amount to anything (from a plotting perspective). Instead, these episodes are offering up different perspectives on the notion of being trapped. “Bust Out” talks about how everybody is trapped by themselves as well as the systems that they as people create. The next episode, “The Knight in White Satin Armor”, is primarily about the way that people trap each other (mostly men trapping women) in order to have somebody to beat on when they need a release.
“House Arrest” is one of the most depressing episodes of the season because it’s about how life traps us, how the only release is death, how delusion is the only way to make us forget about the misery that the world inflicts on us, that we inflict on ourselves. Tony and Junior are the two main focuses in the episode, and rightfully so, as the episode fixates on the notion of entrapment and how nobody can escape the human condition. Tony, after nearly being pinched for murder, has to lay low for a while, spending his time at his office at the waste management company, an office that he hasn’t been in for quite some time. And we see exactly why he tries so hard to stay away from that office; the violence, decadence, and immorality of the mob world is what keeps him feeling alive. If he stands idle himself for too long, it’s easy to remember the ramifications of that mob world, how Tony has done so much that it’s enough to bring anybody to suicide.
Tony has never been portrayed as the most intelligent man, but we can see a sort of awareness that others in the waste management business don’t have. When he’s at a banquet for the company, he sees everybody around him engaging in boring conversation about the waste management business, and there’s something that clicks in his head, something that drives him to a panic attack. It’s the notion that the lives that we live are meaningless, cycles led by routines that don’t amount to anything. Tony’s awareness of this reality comes from the violence that he’s committed, the things that he’s done, and now that he can’t unsee them, he has to keep moving in order to keep himself above water. It’s what Dr. Melfi says when he talks about it at therapy, that he has alexithymia, a condition where he has to be in constant motion in order to stave off the horrible feelings that come from confronting the person that he is. Once he stops and sees what life is really like, what he is really like, he’ll simply crash.
Dr Melfi has a season-long plotline that follows Tony, in which she blames herself for her inability to make much progress with him. She sees the way that Tony is reacting to his stress and begins to blame it on herself, taking that anger out on random people around her, such as a woman in a restaurant smoking a cigarette. It shows how people try to escape from their own personal failures, even if those failures are inevitabilities. Dr. Melfi isn’t going to cure Tony; we know this simply because it would unravel the entire premise of the show. But she believes that she is able to truly help people like Tony, even if that belief conflicts with the way she treats Tony this season. The entire season, she’s been a little more vicious, a little more judgmental with Tony. It’s a result of her frustration, the anger she feels at the pain she’s allowing the world to experience. Because if she can fix Tony, she can save a lot of people a lot of suffering. But she’s in Tony’s orbit, and as we know, nobody escapes Tony’s pull.
Junior’s story may be disconnected from the central plot (though we do see Richie beginning to mobilize against Tony because of the restrictions on selling coke through the garbage routes), but his story echoes the same notions about life. Instead of being restricted in the way that Tony is, Junior is even further confined, under house arrest as a result of the indictment and forced to use a CPAP machine to take the pressure off of his heart while he sleeps. Sure, the house arrest comes from the way that Junior has lived his life, but his own health is beginning to trap him, just as those that grow old begin to become trapped within their own bodies. He does meet a widow of an old friend, Catherine Romano, a woman who has genuine affection for him. However, he spends the entire episode pushing her away, all because life’s ensnaring nature is so isolating that we don’t want others to be trapped along with us. Junior’s story is so tragic because it involves being continually trapped, more and more and more until there’s not much left.
But the beauty of this episode comes from the ending, where Tony is finally back in Satriale’s with the guys, where he feels at peace. Except that it’s filmed in a way that doesn’t suggest that peace. Here, at Satriale’s, everybody is just keeping busy by doing nothing. They’re playing cards, yelling at people, talking about irrelevant garbage, living lives just as empty as everybody else. “House Arrest” is so horribly bleak because it reminds us how we hollow ourselves out in order to feel comfortable, gutting our own lives and draining the purpose from them. Because to be full of purpose is to potentially not fulfill that purpose, to remember that we have a clock ticking away to our deaths. And the longer we keep ourselves from being passionate, from living life, the harder it is to push away the past to find that purpose.
The Sopranos 2×12: “The Knight in White Satin Armor”
Television shows today are remembered for moments. Game of Thrones is a perfect example of this, where people post reaction videos to character deaths on Youtube, where it’s headline news when a few main characters are slaughtered. We live for these chaotic moments in television, where we can experience a visceral reaction to something, where we can actually feel. The Sopranos wasn’t the first show to do this (Dallas ended with that massive cliffhanger involving J.R), but it was a show known for its moments, where entire episodes are overshadowed by horribly shocking acts of violence. We can all remember the finale episode and the cut to black, episodes where main characters are brutally slaughtered. It was this new way of experiencing television that spawned the television we watch today, from the shootouts in Breaking Bad to the many, many character deaths in LOST.
Of course, I bring this up because of the episode’s most prominent scene: the one where Richie slaps Janice across the face and is subsequently shot dead by her. It’s a great scene in that it takes the momentum of the entire season, stops it dead, and immediately shifts it in another direction in a way that’s both sensible and moving. Everybody in this episode is searching for the one that will pull them out of the trap that they’re stuck in, and when Janice finally realizes that her “Knight in White Satin Armor” won’t save her, she takes matters into her own hands. Janice has spent the whole season falling back into her old ways, the ways of her family, though she’s been deluded enough to keep from realizing that. Only, when Richie hits her, it all comes flying back, enough so that killing Richie is both the only way to escape her trap and the thing that sinks her in deeper. She may have been able to escape a life of abuse with Richie, but she’s proven that she’s just as vicious as Tony.
The rest of the episode is filled with people trying to find others to save them, only to see that they’re relying on the one thing that’s already caged them. Irina lives a life where she’s a perfume saleswoman, where she’s too old to model, where life away from Tony is a life of prostitution and stripping. She believes that she loves Tony, but she really just knows that he’s her lifeline, the one thing keeping her above water. Without him, she doesn’t believe she has much of a life to live. It’s why she tries to kill herself in order to keep Tony around. But Tony is the one thing keeping her from moving on with her life. She’s unwilling to find anybody else, to get a new job, to move forward with her life. In the end, Tony gives her $75,000 as a way to push her out of his life, and it becomes clear exactly what Irina means to him. She was just a plaything for him, and when she was no longer fun, he pushed her aside. Tony’s game is to make those around him need him more then anything else, and then destroy their lives when he departs. “The Knight in White Satin Armor” is a great indictment of Tony’s narcissism, pushing us to consider just how terrible he really is.
Carmela is feeling the same way, as she realizes that Tony is still seeing Irina and doesn’t know how to deal with him. She’s already in too deep with him, as her entire life is built by his, but she’s beginning to realize just what she’s lost as a result of taking his money. She, as a religious (yet wildly hypocritical) woman, was hoping to live her life with a sense of decency, so it makes sense that Victor from “Bust Out” would return. She’s glad that he didn’t come by because she knows what would have happened. She knows that she would have slept with him and that such an act would have destroyed his life. She knows how trapped she is. The one thing that separates her from the rest of the characters in the episode is her knowledge that there’s nobody out there to save her. She’s completely trapped, and all she can do is periodically run away for a little while to recharge. So, at the end of the episode, when she says that she’s going to Rome for a few weeks, it’s all she can do to get away for a little while.
And then there’s Big Pussy, the one storyline that isn’t wrapped up in this episode (as it’s the one that the finale focuses intently on). He wants to ride out his informing with the FBI so he can start his life again, so he begins to pretend that he’s a part of the FBI, using a recorder to take notes on Christopher’s Pokemon-card heist. But he eventually realizes that the FBI won’t save him with Skip berates him for doing more than he was supposed to. Reality is that Big Pussy has to give up Tony and then do his time before anything can be started over again. He was looking for help from the FBI, but there’s no help to be given. Those that have trapped him are looking to keep him trapped.
“The Knight in White Satin Armor” is one of the series’ best episodes (or at least one of the top 10), and cements the second season as one of the best of the series run, up there with Season 5 and 6b. It rounds out this discussion on life and social forces entrapping people by reminding us that the very people we rely on for escape are the ones that are trapping us. It’s a perfect allegory for the way America operates today, where we see all of the horror around us and expect our government to move us in a better direction. Only we’re trapped by the ones we rely on, hoping for something better only to realize that there is no real way out. We just have to ride the wave and hope that we come out of the other side in one piece.
So are you excited for “Funhouse”? And I apologize for the week-long wait, but working 12-hour days can be tough. Anyway, let me know your thoughts and opinions in the comments!