The Sopranos 3×05: “Another Toothpick”
The Sopranos exists as a show to make people uncomfortable. Not only is the violence graphic and jarring, it’s usually inflicted upon those unable to defend themselves. Nearly every character is a vicious sociopath, and even if they’re humanized, the show doesn’t let us forget how awful they are. Even the plotting doesn’t operate in the fashion that most shows would utilize. But more than that, it exists as a memento mori. Death is an omnipresent force, so much that every character is consumed with it. Even though they’ve managed to get ahead in the world, there’s always that one thing they can’t escape, that they can’t control. And a lack of control for those always in control is terrifying.
“Another Toothpick” is a strong episode, but it’s one that’s hard to recall, even when I only watched it yesterday. It has a strong thematic message underlining the episode, the omnipresence of death, but that message is spread over many, many storylines, and plotting simply isn’t one of The Sopranos’ strength (which, in my opinion, is one of the main reasons The Wire is always hailed as superior, as the plotting in that show is always remarkable). The plot threads that come across as the most memorable are, by far, Junior being diagnosed with cancer and Bobby Bacala’s father dying after a brutal hit on Mustang Sally. It’s not because they’re the most poignant or emotionally taxing plot threads, but because they bring us back to notions of aging and becoming obsolete, some of the most powerful thematic messages weaved through The Sopranos as a whole.
This all comes back to one of the main questions in Season 3: What makes us who we are? These old men, Bobby Sr. and Uncle Junior, are both damaged by health, damaged by desire for purpose, things somewhat outside of their realm of control. As humans, our health deteriorates as the years go on, and we’re always in need of purpose to function. If we’re careful and smart, we can rid ourselves of some of the weight of those two realities, but they are always there. As for the men in this episode, they never cared enough about self-improvement to do much for their health, both physically and mentally. Junior, who now has stomach cancer, is still under house arrest, useless to those around him, just good for sitting in front of the TV with a sandwich and a blanket. Bobby Sr. can’t walk two steps without coughing up blood, which makes it impossible to be useful to those around him. Even when he does carry out the hit against Mustang Sally, it’s not clean. It’s brutal and messy, with Bobby under so much strain that he ends up dead when he can’t find his inhaler in the car.
Even moreso than the notions of aging and becoming obsolete, “Another Toothpick” ruminates on the idea that people destroy themselves, often in order to preserve some semblance of identity, whether it be for a moral purpose or otherwise. Uncle Junior is only under house arrest because he chose to be a part of the Mafia, and Bobby Sr. is only dead because he wanted to prove that he could still be useful. In the case of Bobby Sr., he knew that he was dying anyway, but expedited his death through carrying out the hit. One conversation in particular adds another shade to Bobby Sr.’s character. When Junior asks Bobby Sr. if he’s seen other specialists, if he wants to see Junior’s doctor, he doesn’t seem to care. There’s a level of acceptance that Bobby Sr. displays when he considers his illness, and while some of that may be because he understands how his past his brought him to this point, some of that is because he doesn’t want to welcome other hopeful fantasies. There’s no point to him being alive anymore except for his one hit. And once that hit happens, he has served his purpose and makes his exit.
There’s a lot of other plot-heavy stuff that happens in the episode, like the FBI losing their wiretap, or Ralphie and Gigi’s feud, but the two other characters of note are Tony and Artie. Artie Bucco has never been the most important character on the show, but here we see him stumbling around, self-destructing in his quest for relevance. He has a wife who is frustrated with him (mostly because he can’t pick himself up and find value in who he is as a person), and a business that he doesn’t feel is making enough progress (even though he makes record numbers the night that Adriana “retires”. When Artie tries to find relevance and purpose, he does so through meaningless avenues, such as an attraction to Adriana (a younger and more traditionally attractive woman than Charmaine) and a desire to go into business with Tony (which, as we’ve seen with David Scatino, is never a good idea). And, as a result of those avenues, he both isolates Adriana and causes Charmaine to want a divorce. He ends up self-destructing because of his desire for something more in life.
But Tony experiences his brush with self-destruction through a police officer that gives him a ticket. Even though the police officer knows who he is, he still issues the ticket. Of course, doing so gets the police officer demoted and screws him out of overtime pay, but he does it anyway. This man self-destructs, even when he’s fighting for a moral good, because the forces that he is up against have the ability to take him down. And Tony sees this, feels an odd empathy for the officer. This season, Tony catches glimpses at who he is, sees past the delusion he’s created, but only for a fleeting second. And here, with this officer, Tony sees his own capacity for self-destruction. But it doesn’t really matter, because when the officer refuses Tony’s money, we see how little control Tony has. We see how, no matter how aware Tony’s subconscious may be, there’s no easy way to stop self-destruction.
The Sopranos 3×06: “University”
While “Another Toothpick” felt bogged down with too much plotting, “University” is a much leaner outing, as it intricately bounces between Tony’s interactions with Ralphie and Tracee and Meadow’s interactions with Noah and Caitlin. What makes these interactions so lean is that they function on multiple levels, drawing comparions not only between Meadow and Tracee, but between Tony and Meadow, Meadow and Caitlin, Tracee and Caitlin, Ralphie and Tony, Tony and Noah. Of course, in these comparisons, there are always two sides that those involved can be a part of. They can either be the one in power or the one in need of help. Power is the common denominator here, as the characters’ fates are dictated by the level of power one has and how willing one is to help those without power.
In essence, both Tony and Meadow’s storylines revolve around a response to a woman who simply cannot help herself. Meadow, in this episode, responded to Caitlin, who suffered from crippling anxiety and is unable to deal with her problems. Even though Meadow is irritated by Caitlin’s incessant ranting and rambling, she still does care about her roommate, enough that she feels bad when she tries to sneak away from her. Of course, Meadow isn’t perfect, as she’s often seen rolling her eyes at Caitlin’s mental/emotional disability, but she at least cares about what happens to Caitlin. She’s just too young to adequately deal with such a monumental problem: how do you fix somebody that’s destroying themselves? And there’s really no way for Meadow to do that. It’s why she goes to sleep at home. She has to get away from a problem too big for her to handle.
But Noah is part of the problem as well. He’s Meadow’s moral test, as he begins to turn on Caitlin when she starts to affect his grades. Scenes like the introduction of Noah’s father seem unnecessary to the plot, but they serve to show us that Noah isn’t the nice guy that he seems to be. He seems like he cares, but he’s snobby, and he’s far more concerned about himself than other people. Look at the scene where he finally dumps Meadow; he does it in the library in order to silence her, making the whole affair easier for himself. But the reason he dumps her is because, when Noah talks about getting a restraining order against Caitlin, Meadow seems disgusted by it. Instead of dealing with a problem, Noah is running away. Sure, Meadow is doing that as well when she goes home, but she does actively care about Caitlin and what happens to her. Noah doesn’t seem to feel anything. Meadow may have lost Noah as a result of her moral stance, but it feels like a victory for her.
In the case of Tracee, Tony and Ralphie, Tracee was doomed from the start. She has a son, who was taken from her because she was abusive. She’s seeing Ralphie, who not only pushes her to the side, but finds glee in watching her get hurt. She’s working at the Bing, where she’s only seen as an expendable body. Her only way out is through the empathy of Tony, which she continually attempts to evoke throughout the episode. She’s basically a stand-in for what his daughter could have become under different circumstances, and while Tony doesn’t really see that, it’s obvious that we, as the audience, are supposed to. Tracee makes Tony bread in order to show appreciation, shows off her braces to him as a way to bond, even talks to him about her pregnancy (mostly because she’s scared out of her mind), but nothing really evokes Tony’s sympathy. When she talks about being pregnant, that works to a degree, but just enough for Tony to tell her that she’d basically do the world a favor to abort the thing.
Tony doesn’t really think much about Tracee until Ralphie, in another brutal scene, beats her to death. Ralphie has been characterized in a far different way than Richie; while they’re both insecure, Ralphie seems exponentially more psychotic than Richie. He’s obsessed with Gladiator (obviously because he’s insecure about his masculinity), he laughs when Silvio beats Tracee, and he doesn’t think a thing about cheating on Rosalie. But when Tony finds her dead, he starts to feel something. He sees that he failed in some way, that he could have helped a hopeless girl out but decided to turn away. And that’s why he gets so angry at Ralphie, because it was his lack of kindness and foresight that helped to expedite Tracee’s death. Because if it wasn’t that night, it would just have been another night. Tony could have given Tracee money and an avenue to escape, but he didn’t. And that’s what’s eating him up when he talks about the “Barone Sanitation worker” that died.
“University” is, in essence, a way to show the difference between Tony and Meadow. They’re both faced with similar problems, and the child ends up dealing with the problem with more grace and poise than the adult. Of course, Tony’s problem is more grave than Meadow’s, but he’s seen the way that violence works in the world. He has the tools to deal with his problem. Meadow doesn’t. We all experience these kinds of moral tests in our lives, more so Meadow’s than Tony’s, but that doesn’t make them any less profound for us. Meadow is proving that she’s different than Tony, that she has the capacity to get out. But as we see at the end of the episode, when Meadow stomps through her parents’ house after Noah breaks up with her, one moral test isn’t enough for her to escape. It takes years and years of resilience. And who knows if Meadow is capable of that.
So what did you think of “Another Toothpick” and “University”? Season 3 really is just full of classic episodes. Let me know your thoughts in the comments!