The Sopranos 3×03: “Fortunate Son”
While “Proshai, Livushka” is a solid episode of television, and does a great job showing us the detrimental effects of the past, “Fortunate Son” feels like a jump start to the season. It not only elaborates on the relationships between Tony and his three son-figures, but also reminds us just how Tony became the monster he is today. The Sopranos is a show that deals extensively with legacy and process, detailing the cause and effect of situations to the point where it’s traced so far back that nobody knows how to trace it anymore. In these next two episodes, we see Tony finally beginning to understand the process that made him who he is, and we see more and more the weight that keeps a person from changing.
If Season 3 is primarily about one thing, it’s the unanswerable question: What makes us who we are? We can point to those around us, we can point to ourselves, but it’s always conjecture, an educated guess meant to inform our lives. The mere fact that it’s conjecture means that we’re informing our lives based off of nothing more than a hunch, a clearly biased interpretation of facts. And that contributes to how aimless we often feel, how it’s easy to have purpose one second and aimlessness the next.
The season finally gives us more insight into who Jackie Jr is and it does so by telling us a little more about him, as well as explaining Tony’s relationship to him. Jackie Jr. isn’t supposed to be a part of Mafia life. He’s supposed to go to college, supposed to be a doctor, supposed to be away from everything that Jackie Sr. was a part of. But no matter what Tony wants, we can see that Jackie Jr. wants power in order to fill the void caused by his inadequacies. He’s deeply insecure, likely because he feels that he isn’t smart enough or talented enough to get through medical school. So he attempts to integrate himself into Mafia life by stealing, but even then, he finds himself pissing his pants during the robbery. Jackie Jr, like the rest of the “sons” of the episode, finds himself trying to live up to an expectation that he just cannot reach.
The son that likely believed himself to be the most fortunate (at least, at first) would be Christopher. He’s finally become a made man, and he’s excited to finally be able to earn more money and to get more respect. But now that he’s a made man, he has to give Paulie $8,000 a week in order to pay him off. And even though Christopher has been given a decent business in order to start his time as a made man, he’s not sure how to run it. He starts losing money and has to pawn some of his things, has to commit small time robberies in order to get the money he owes Paulie. Even though he’s finally given some recognition, he’s still unable to give up to the standards set for him. Tony and the crew have coddled Christopher, and that contributes to his inability to get the job done, but they’ve also set expectations of him that are set to combat their own insecurities. They want Christopher to be better then they are, but who says that Christopher is going to be better? Tony is placing his stakes on a person that just isn’t equipped to handle them.
And, of course, A.J. is Tony’s actual son, though he’s probably the least equipped to handle what expectations Tony has set for him. A.J. has a great deal of deep insecurities, and he experiences the full force of them when he takes a trip to Meadow’s college and when he’s promoted on the high school football team. This is one of A.J.’s better episodes in that it finally gives us insight into who this kid is, making him a focal point of the episode. A.J. doesn’t want to go to college and doesn’t want to try at football because he’s terrified of failure, but more than that, he’s terrified of his father’s reaction to his failure. Tony wants him to be something else aside from a member of the Mafia, but he hasn’t prepared his son for anything. He hasn’t tried to foster development in A.J. that would make him successful outside of the Mafia. So A.J. gets bad grades in school and faints when he’s made the defensive captain on the football team. Even when he succeeds, he can’t win, because to succeed is to gain more responsibility and to raise the stakes higher than he’s comfortable with.
All of this revolves around Tony and how badly he screws up the younger men around him. He has these expectations of the “son” figures around him, but he doesn’t have the tools, nor does he have the nurturing nature to help those sons become something. Instead, Tony is this malevolent figure, draining these “son” figures dry in order to gain as much as he can from them. We see in his therapy session with Melfi that his father had a detrimental impact on him, and how he’s now having a detrimental impact on the next generation after him. The cycle goes on and on and on, and there’s nothing Tony can do about it.
The Sopranos 3×04: “Employee of the Month”
Most television shows have forces of good and evil, but they dabble in areas of gray. Game of Thrones might have Joffrey and Ramsay as forces of pure evil, but there aren’t really any forces of pure good. Even Eddard has his flaws. The Sopranos, however, has a strong moral compass, and takes a stance against evil. And it’s not somebody within the family that is used to take that stance. It’s Dr. Melfi, a secondary character that always saw the evil in Tony, but finally stares right into the heart of darkness and doesn’t know how to respond.
“Employee of the Month” is somewhat of an infamous episode of The Sopranos, likely because of the visceral nature of Dr. Melfi’s rape. For a show that deals so heavily in violence, the rape scene is truly the most stomach-churning scene in the series. It comes out of nowhere, and Lorraine Bracco’s acting is brilliant, selling the pain and suffering that Dr. Melfi feels, enough that you’ll hear her screams days after you watch the episode. But the brilliance of the episode comes from how the rape scene is used to turn the episode into a parable of sorts, to definitively take a stance on Tony and how we should be acting in the face of evil like Tony’s.
To be sure, “Employee of the Month” can occasionally be a little clunky, simply because this is an episode specifically created to set up a situation where Dr. Melfi has to make a choice. We can see the writers turning the gears of the world here to make this choice apparent. When we hear that Melfi’s rapist has been let go by the police, it’s as infuriating for us as it is for Melfi, but there’s not a whole lot explained in that scene as to exactly why he was let go. But the final scene, where Dr. Melfi breaks down in tears, is so brilliant that it makes the episode’s clunky nature completely worthwhile. It’s one of the defining moments of the series, and to see Melfi stare defiantly into the camera and say “No” rings true. It could have been easy for such an ending to ring false, especially since the episode is communicating such a strong message, but it never feels pandering. We see what happens to good people, and what good people have to endure to live good lives.
There’s a reason that all of this is juxtaposed with Johnny Sack moving to New Jersey, with his lavish housewarming party, and there’s a reason it’s juxtaposed between Ralphie and Jackie Jr. beating up a man. Evil is alluring because it can be rewarding. Jackie Jr. is angry that he’s not able to be a part of the Mafia, that Ralphie is “dating” his mother, so Ralphie takes him along on an extortion run, where they both beat a man with a baseball bat. It can feel good to be evil, to do something horrible to another human being, and that evil can hold a poisonous influence over us. Just look at Johnny Sack’s house, at Tony’s house, at the kind of money that can be gained from exploiting other people. It’s a matter of looking at all that can be gained from selling your soul and turning the other way.
But Dr. Melfi’s choice boils down to one question: Does she tell Tony about the rapist and have him murder the man for her? Does she take her revenge? There are so many rape and revenge stories that glorify violence, on taking revenge against those who do evil, but The Sopranos argues something else. Dr. Melfi, when she breaks down in that final scene, chooses to hold onto her goodness, to hold onto the thing that separates her from people like Tony, from people like her rapist. Because to take revenge on this man is to become him, to be the evil that she looks to exorcise from others during therapy. And, out of all of the characters on the show, Dr. Melfi is the one that has the strongest moral compass.
Ultimately, Melfi’s choice is an indictment on our own. What would we choose if something like this were to happen to us? When we look at the evil of the world, what decisions do we end up making? Do we hold true to our goodness or do we let evil turn us into monsters ourselves? We might not have to make decisions as brutal as Melfi’s, but everyday we do make decisions concerning the way we live our lives. It could be something as simple as choosing to give the finger to a jerk on the road. But David Chase is saying here that we need to hold true to our morals, to look evil in the eye and sternly reply “No.”
So what did you think of these episodes? Is “Employee of the Month” as great of an episode as you remembered? Let me know in the comments!