The Sopranos 3×01: “Mr. Ruggerio’s Neighborhood”
Television shows are a delicate machine, built of a web of cogs and gears that all have to be moving in sync in order to operate. If one of those cogs or gears is broken, then the show has to take a detour into crisis mode to figure out exactly how to replace that piece. Sometimes, an actress in a show will have a pregnancy, during which the show has to be altered to hide the pregnancy. Sometimes, an actor will get a DUI and will have to be terminated from the show. Or, in the case of The Sopranos, an actress that was going to be integral to Season 3 died before they could even start filming.
David Chase originally planned to have Season 3 revolve around Livia testifying against Tony about the stolen tickets, but with Nancy Marchand having died of lung cancer and emphysema, that storyline didn’t really work out anymore. Instead, the writers had to stall for time while they came up with whatever was to come next. In the case of these first two episodes, some of that stalling is certainly present, but they’re really just trying to wrap up the Livia and FBI storylines as cleanly as possible, all while vaguely introducing new characters and ideas that are present throughout the entire season.
“Mr. Ruggerio’s Neighborhood” is certainly a different kind of The Sopranos episode, as it centers primarily on the FBI and pushes the Soprano family to the sidelines. It functions well as an episode that reintroduces us to the Soprano family, as we see glimpses into Tony, Carmela, Meadow, and A.J.’s present, but aside from that, there aren’t any larger storylines introduced, no big new characters introduced. We see that Carmela is dissatisfied with her life, looking for attention from tennis coaches to validate her, only to see that the attention of others is placed on those younger than him. We see that Meadow is off at college, trying to fit in only to see her roommate struggle with feelings of anxiety and depression. And we see that A.J. is still aimless, trying to find some way to succeed and be something but unable to find the drive to do much of anything. The entire Soprano family is flailing, doing the same thing they’ve always done, chasing peaceful submission to the status quo.
Tony, after beating everybody into submission in Season 2, now has to do the same to Patsy Parisi after Patsy begins to want revenge on Tony for the death of his twin brother. This reorients Tony not as a protagonist, but as a brutal enforcer of the status quo, forcing everybody to push aside the pain in their lives in order for their adherence to the system that he guards so intently. As soon as Patsy seems to have a problem with Tony, even if it’s a problem that is mostly speculation (Tony doesn’t know anything about Patsy stumbling into his backyard), Tony has to immediately threaten Patsy into saying that nothing is wrong. In essence, this reminds us of the paranoia prevalent throughout the Mafia in The Sopranos. As people who know that they came in at the end of the golden age for the Mafia, there’s the constant dread of the breakdown of the status quo. And with the FBI moving in, that dread is more apparent than ever.
The FBI have always been a tangential force in The Sopranos for the majority of the show’s run, but it makes sense that they would have a larger role now. As the show moves on and there’s an increasingly autumnal feel, the FBI take on a larger and larger role, reminding us of the other forces within Tony’s life that work to shift his status quo. And while these forces repeatedly fail to change anything, that doesn’t say that the next try won’t be successful. Tony knows that it’s the FBI who turned Big Pussy, and we’ll see as the show goes on that more and more people are inevitably turned. At the very least, this episode takes a vastly different direction than other The Sopranos premieres, and watching the FBI close in on Tony as he lives his boring, tedious life is showing us a different kind of story than what we are used to.
Ultimately, “Mr. Ruggerio’s Neighborhood” isn’t a brilliant episode of The Sopranos, but it is a strong re-introduction into some of the show’s most poignant themes and ideas. Tony may be taking the status quo and keeping it in place, standing as guardian of a system that benefits him, but there are always those around him that are closing in. And even if they fail once, twice, three times, there will come a time when those forces around him eventually shift the status quo. Because nothing stays stagnant. Nothing remains as it is. Eventually, Tony, Carmela, Meadow, Paulie, Christopher, Silvio, all of them, will be wiped off the face of the earth. And their names will fade into eternity. It’s just a matter of time.
The Sopranos 3×02: “Proshai, Livushka”
The second half of the two-part The Sopranos premiere moves by with a little more swagger and confidence than the first part, even considering the horrific CGI and the somewhat clunky first half. This episode revolves almost solely around the death of Livia and what that means for the family, and it’s great to see an increased focus on all of the cast instead of the limited focus of the premiere. Not only do we get insight into Tony’s reaction to his mother’s death, but we see Janice, A.J., Christopher, Carmela, everybody reacting in their own way to a major death in the family. And with the notion of death hanging so heavily over the show, it’s great to see “Proshai, Livushka” used in a way that has the characters reflecting over their own lives and the lives they could have had if their pasts were indeed different.
But first, I have to discuss that awful scene near the beginning of the episode, the one with Livia’s CGI face placed over her body double’s, where old lines of dialogue were reused for the sake of Tony’s last conversation with his mother. It’s really difficult to focus on anything other than the fact that those lines are reused from previous episodes, and it absolutely detracts from the quality of the episode as a whole. As for the CGI itself, it’s not horrible, but it’s barely passable, as some of the facial animations are reused and look pretty terrible. If the scene was better, some of this would have been forgiven, but it was mostly utilized for the sake of plot, to remind us that Livia has the opportunity to testify against Tony. Honestly, it would have been easy to keep her out of the episode entirely, but David Chase must have deemed the conversation important enough to warrant the CGI and the reusing of dialogue.
As for the rest of the episode, it moves far more confidently when it escapes from the shadow of that terrible scene. Tony has a strange reaction to anything that seems to operate outside of his expectations, and this works to remind us of his paranoia for anything that might affect the status quo. When Meadow brings home a potential boyfriend, Noah, Tony lashes out at the fact that this man is black. Tony has this simple-minded notion of what his family is supposed to be, and Noah’s presence disturbs that notion by revealing something: The fate of his family is completely beyond his control, no matter how much power he thinks he has. In the case of Noah, obviously it’s not a big deal that Meadow dates a black man, but Tony sees himself losing control, or, rather, sees the truth of his lack of control.
Livia’s death is less a tragedy and more a reminder of what Tony wants out of life. As Tony watches Public Enemy, he sees a criminal with a mother that cared for him, that wanted him around. In Tony’s case, his mother simply caused trouble, didn’t find joy in anything, berated him constantly. Even though Livia kept all of Tony’s childhood things, she was still a selfish woman that only really cared for herself. And as Tony watches the movie, he doesn’t cry for his mother, but he cries for what his mother was, for what he wanted his mother to be. When Livia died, any capacity for change was locked out. She was forever immortalized as that awful mother, that awful woman who wanted him dead or in prison. And Tony realizes that.
This episode also smartly introduces some of the characters that we’ll be following throughout the season: Jackie Jr. and Ralphie. Ralphie is portrayed as a hothead that will lash out to get what he wants, and while it feels like a re-treading of old territory (Richie), at this point he’s such a small presence that it doesn’t detract from the episode. Jackie Jr., however, is going to be a strong presence in the season, even more so than Ralphie, simply because of his identification as a son figure, just as Christopher and A.J. are son figures for Tony. Not much is said about these characters right now, but the episode at least introduces them to the Sopranos world.
Livia’s passing marks another transition for the Sopranos cast. While Tony still has Junior as an elder ahead of him, there’s still the idea of death looming over everybody. A.J. has to decipher a Robert Frost poem about death, Janice is desperate for some positive connection to Livia as she makes everybody share memories about her, and even Carmela is furious about the negative impact Livia had over everybody around her. Livia left a legacy, and that’s one thing that the cast of The Sopranos is chasing away: their own legacies. Because nobody has a legacy worth leaving. And they know it.
So what did you think about this introduction to Season 3 of The Sopranos? Was it a solid way to open the season? Let me know in the comments!