The Sopranos 2×13: “Funhouse”
The Sopranos is a show about the decline of civilization, how corruption inevitably taints social, economic, and political systems, dragging them further down and down until they collapse completely. We’ve talked about how Season 2 is about the status quo, how people try to break free from the status quo but cannot because of the immense pressure to conform. There have been so many different angles with which this idea has been explored, from the existential ideas in “House Arrest” to the gendered discussion in “The Knight in White Satin Armor”. But, more than anything else, “Funhouse” caps off this discussion by reminding us that these people are trapped within a status quo that is dying, slowly being washed away by the tides.
Before I keep going, “Funhouse” is, by far, my favorite episode of Season 2. For an episode of television produced in 2000, it is remarkably audacious in that it’s a season finale where the first half is almost entirely dream sequences, scenes where Tony Soprano comes to terms with the subconscious knowledge that Big Pussy has been informing for the FBI. The Big Pussy storyline is really the only one that is left to deal with, and “Funhouse” deals with it in a way most people would never expect. At the time, the episode received mixed reviews, and it’s easy to see why. Where the Season 1 finale, “I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano”, was essentially an hour of mob action, the Season 2 finale is nothing like that, an art film that explores the psyche of the main character and the notion that he’s stuck in a world in decline.
After “The Knight in White Satin Armor”, Tony has essentially defeated all of his enemies. He’s beaten a murder charge. Matt Bevilaqua and Sean Gismonte are not bothering him anymore. Richie, who was going to try to have him killed, has been murdered by Janice. Junior is under his control. There isn’t anybody trying to hurt him anymore. But, after he celebrates with Carmela, he wakes up feverish, talking about how it’s “all a big nothing”, how “everything is black”. Even when things are good, there’s something gnawing at him, some knowledge that he doesn’t want to deal with. And this knowledge isn’t just Big Pussy. It’s the knowledge that, even when he’s on top again, he’s on top of a status quo that keeps on weakening and weakening. Big Pussy reminds him that, as a man in the Mafia, life can only end in one of two ways.
So these dream sequences orient us to his subconscious knowledge that Big Pussy is informing for the FBI, but more than that, they discuss the inevitability of social decline. Out on the boardwalk, the abandoned boardwalk, Tony simply hears the tides moving in and out, eroding the beach little by little. When his dream self hears that he has only a few months left to live, he lights himself on fire. Because Tony realizes that he has a target on his back, that his life could be over at any time. Might as well end it all to avoid having to deal with the existential nature of existence. So when Tony feverishly talks about how life is meaningless, he’s horrified that his dreams are forcing him to confront what is truly bothering him. Just look at the dream where Silvio floats past him, quoting The Godfather III. Tony is walking down the boardwalk, but he’s stuck in place, unable to leave. But he’s laughing at Silvio while he’s walking. Tony, within his life, is always stuck in place, deluding himself to that reality through cheap thrills.
Dealing with Big Pussy is dealing with the fact that even people like him, even those close to him, will be washed away someday. Big Pussy was trapped by the FBI, trapped because of a crime he committed for the Mafia, and Tony realizes this when he hears the talking fish in his dream. He knows (such as when he admits to Melfi in his dream that he “always has ‘Pussy’ on the brain”) that he’s trapped, that it’s his fate to be dragged away by the current in the ocean, and even though he does delude himself, his subconscious is constantly wrestling with him, trying to expose that fact. But when he does realize that Big Pussy had informed for the FBI, the fever breaks. His food poisoning may still be bothering him, but he’s not catatonic. He’s able to function. This clarity might be horrifying, but he’s not beaten down by his subconscious anymore.
The set of scenes where Tony and Silvio go to Big Pussy’s house, discover the wire, and take him to the boat to kill him take up about 15 minutes of the episode, but the scene on the boat is one of the best of the series. Tony, Silvio, Paulie, and Big Pussy all get into Tony’s boat and set off into the sea, where the waves constantly cause the boat to tilt uncomfortably. They’re surrounded by the sea, by the current that promises to pull them under, and as Big Pussy is killed and weighed down into the sea, Tony understands that all of them will be pulled under. Everybody is weighed down by inevitability. Death, delusion, all of it is inevitable. Big Pussy tries to stall Tony, Silvio, and Paulie as much as his can, but his own death is something that is inevitable, something that he realizes as he finally sees them pull out their guns and point. Stall as much as you can, but the end is still coming. Inevitability will still drag down everything that was ever created, but only after averting their eyes from reality enough to keep them moving up until the end.
The rest of the episode deals with Meadow’s graduation, an event that marks the passage of time. And it deals with Tony getting so close to dealing with the inevitability of death and loss, but skirting around it at the last second. His meeting with Dr. Melfi is immensely confrontational, but even when she harasses him about his mother, he just sings and leaves the appointment, all after trying to distract her by talking about his dream where they had sex. After dealing with such brutal reality, Tony is willing to do anything to keep himself from remembering that such reality exists, that he will someday he weighed down and tossed into the current.
The most interesting moment of the episode has to do with David Scatino, who tells Tony of his plan to move away to work on a ranch somewhere. Tony scoffs at it, but David is living the dream that Tony wished he had. David, after losing absolutely everything, is able to escape. He’s able to start over. But Tony has so much that escape is impossible, that he’s resigned to delusion in order to keep going. So when Tony, at the end of the episode, celebrates Meadow’s graduation with the rest of the family, there’s a reason it’s all juxtaposed with the images of an abandoned Wobistics office, of a decrepit street where phone card scams are taking place, of a man picking up garbage. Everything that Tony is a part of will be washed away, destroyed by inevitability. And so the closing shot of the season is one of the tides, reminding us of this very fact.
No matter what Tony does, the tide comes for him. Just as it comes for us all.
Thanks for following me through Season 2 of The Sopranos. We’ll kick off Season 3 next week with a double review for “Mr. Ruggerio’s Neighborhood” and “Proshai, Livushka”, both of which were written by David Chase, both of which were aired on the same day. So, come back next week for yet another awesome season of The Sopranos.
What did you think of this season? What is your favorite episode of the season? Let me know in the comments!