The Sopranos 3×07: “Second Opinion”
We often hit a point in our lives, and it’s a point that we hit often, where we look back at the decisions we’ve made, the lives we’ve lived, and make a serious evaluation. Are the choices that I made worth anything? Are the people that I’ve chosen to associate with making my life better or worse? Is there anything else worth doing? Is there any way to get out of what I’m doing right now? Sometimes, that evaluation leads us to a positive conclusion. Sometimes, not so much. And it’s up to us to figure out what went wrong so that we can learn to move in a direction that will lead us to a better conclusion.
“Second Opinion” has a couple key characters from The Sopranos making evaluations of their lives thus far, namely Carmela, Christopher, and Junior. And, lurking in the background, we have Tony, reminding us of the figure in the background that both keeps them all in check and makes their lives miserable. Junior’s story is the least compelling of the three, as we see how his fight against cancer boils down to Tony’s involvement. He may be trapped in his own house, but more than that, he’s trapped within Tony’s decisions. Junior goes into surgery to get rid of the stomach cancer that he was diagnosed with a couple episodes ago, and when it was established that he’d have to have a second surgery as a measure to ensure the cancer is gone, Tony wants him to get a second opinion. Junior is completely happy with his surgeon, but getting a second opinion would appease his nephew, so he does it anyway. Of course, doing it makes it so that Junior’s doctor doesn’t want to do the surgery anymore, so Tony has to step in again and intimidate the doctor into doing it.
Here, Junior is completely caged by his nephew. Junior’s well-being is completely controlled by Tony’s influence, and no matter what he wants to do to stay comfortable, Tony can push in any direction that he desires. Only Tony’s actions aren’t out of love and respect for his uncle; they’re designed to make his own life easier. Ultimately, those higher up are going to use and abuse those who are subordinate (a scathing allegorical indictment of capitalist America), and Tony is just going to do whatever he wants to Junior in order to appease to his own comfort.
Christopher is having to evaluate his life after Paulie takes advantage of him after he’s been “made”. He thought that money would come easy to him, that he’d live the life that the other made men live, but he’s seeing that having the lowest seniority is only making his life more miserable. He’s not really any better off than he was before, but now he has the expectation of living better to drag him down further. Because he’s always thought that he could ascend the ranks t be with the likes of Tony and Paulie, but he doesn’t quite understand that it’ll never get that way. Subordinates are given hope as a reason to continue working for scraps, but that hope is never fulfilled (yet another jab at capitalist America) and so those subordinates are left to be a part of a vicious cycle that never ends. Christopher is subjected to humiliation when Paulie sniffs Adrianna’s underwear or when Paulie takes his score as payment, but he’s brought back from the edge when Paulie begins to actually give him tips and pointers. For all of Christopher’s desire for self-actualization, he’s still a pawn, a boy who is going to be taken advantage of again and again and again until there’s nothing left. And he’s too foolish to see that.
And Carmela’s story is easily the highlight of the episode, as we see more than ever before how she’s struggling with guilt and shame from being a part of Tony’s life. She tries to defend his actions when Meadow speaks to his racist rants, but finds herself robotically responding to those accusations. Because, deep down, Carmela knows all about who Tony is. She knows that he’s the racist pig, the violent sociopath, the monster that she’s allowed to father her children. Sure, Carmela is complicit in Tony’s lifestyle, but she’s trapped by him, not the other way around. And when she goes with Tony to therapy, she begins to see how she’s experiencing her own depression, how her life up to this point isn’t what it should be. But more than that, she knows that her meaningless life isn’t going to change. She’s trapped, forever, until the day she dies. It’s why she tries so hard to donate the $50,000 to Columbia University. Maybe she can give the money to some place that has meaning. Maybe she can contribute something, anything at all.
Most important is the conversation Carmela has with her therapist at the end of the episode. Rarely are the characters in The Sopranos beaten over the head by the truth, but here Carmela is, talking to Dr. Krakower, being told exactly what she doesn’t want to hear. She’s told to leave Tony, to survive off of legitimate funds with her two children, to sever herself from the evil that controls her life. And Carmela could, in theory, find a way to do that. But that requires putting forth more effort to change than she has the willpower to exhibit. Often characters in The Sopranos are forced to make major moral decisions about their lives, and almost always they fail those tests of character. Here, Carmela fails, but she figures that at least she can get some money out of Tony for her donation. Sure, it’s a valiant effort, but it’s also just a way for Carmela to justify her moral failure. Because delusion is always easier than the truth.
Ultimately, everybody is trapped in their lives. They see the toxicity of living a life around Tony, around all of the money and the violence and the lack of genuine human connection. But they’re in too deep to get out. The more we live our lives, the more we’re trapped, the more we have to reverse in order to set ourselves on the paths we desire. Because we are the ones that create our prisons. Sure, there are overarching systems that cage us. But we know about those systems, enough that we walk into our own cages and close the doors behind us. Entrapment is inherent to the human condition, and we will always be trapped by something.
However, there’s always a way out, some solution presented to us that will wipe away everything and release us from our prisons. We just have to have the courage to reach out and grasp it.
The Sopranos 3×08: “He is Risen”
Watching this episode again, I was surprised how long it took this season of The Sopranos to start the major Meadow/Jackie Jr. plotline, as well as the major turning point in the Tony/Ralphie plotline. Sure, these are two stories that don’t really blow up until the end of the season, but they haven’t had a whole lot of exposure so far. The first half of this season has dealt mostly in short-story episodes, self-contained stories that focus more intently on comparing characters through a thematic lens (like what we saw in “Second Opinion”. But this episode, “He is Risen”, is the first episode of the season to really give these two stories a huge push, taking many of the events we’ve seen in the season and using them wisely to propel the narrative forward.
What makes this narrative propulsion so interesting are the thematic concepts that weave their way in and out of the story. Both Tony and Meadow are dealing with relationships that are notably flawed and toxic, and both of them are doing everything in their power to return everything to the status quo, to silence any immediate discomforts even if it will do harm later. Meadow and Jackie Jr are not a good couple. Jackie Jr. has a lot of problems, ranging from drug issues to participating in crime to being a misogynistic person. When he sees that he’s not getting any sex from Meadow, he speeds off and basically has a temper tantrum. And Meadow never really understands how toxic her relationship with Jackie Jr. is. She would rather keep her distance a little bit in order to keep from dealing with it. But she finally caves when she drunkenly crashes Jackie Jr.’s car. When he takes her out of the car and takes care of her, it’s easier for her to reciprocate the feelings than push him away again. It’s all about keeping her comfortable, even if it will result in discomfort later.
In Tony’s case, he wants to push away Ralph as much as possible, even if that means causing trouble later. Ralph has caused so much tension within Tony’s crew, not only because of the violence he’s committed, but also because he’s unwilling to really listen to Tony. And everybody is interpreting actions as deepening this conflict. When Ralphie doesn’t directly greet Tony as a gathering, it’s taken as this grievous insult, this gesture of complete disrespect. There’s such paranoia within Tony’s crew that even small actions like not saying “hi” can put everybody on edge. The stress causes Ralphie to even consider putting a hit out on Tony to break the tension and return everything to the status quo. However, Johnny Sack, after talking to Ralphie, tells Tony to accept Ralphie’s apology in order to keep from tension breaking out into bloodshed.
So when this apology does happen, Tony ends up barely acknowledging that it happen, which angers Ralphie even further. Tony and Ralphie simply cannot co-exist in the same space, as their motivations and positions within the organization cause them to constantly bicker and fight. But there’s no way for one to leave while the other stays alive. At the very least, Ralphie acknowledged that reality when he considered putting out that hit. So when Gigi Cestone dies on the toilet, Tony finally sees a way to appease Ralphie and create some semblance of peace; he makes Ralphie capo in Gigi’s place. Of course, this doesn’t solve anything. Tony and Ralphie are still existing in the same space. They are both going to get at each other’s throats again. They’re still fundamentally different to the point where one is going to have to go. That decision just doesn’t have to be made right now. Tony has found a way to release the valve on that tension, putting a bandage over the situation without really solving anything. Because Tony doesn’t know how to solve problems. He just creates them (like he will with Gloria Trillo) and pushes them away when they become too much of a bother. And if we ask ourselves the question that the season has been dwelling on (“How do we become who we are?”), part of the answer is that we make ourselves who we are by keeping from dealing with our problems. We halt our progress as human beings by deluding ourselves from reality.
“He is Risen” isn’t the most memorable episode of The Sopranos, but it reinforces the notion that people search for what makes them most comfortable. Meadow is with Jackie Jr. to keep them both content. Tony makes Ralphie a capo in order to keep the peace within his own crew. Of course, for anybody who has already watched the series, we know that this isn’t going to end well, but it keeps the peace for the time being, and that’s all that anybody wants: to delude themselves from the difficult nature of their reality.
I apologize for the long wait between this and the last review of The Sopranos. I’ve been worked LONG, LONG weeks these past few and it’s only this week where my schedule finally has begin to lighten up. That being said, I’ll be posting double reviews every Sunday for the foreseeable future. What did everybody think of these two episodes? Let me know in the comments!