The Sopranos 4×01: “For All Debts Public and Private”
We open to a man driving down the New Jersey turnpike, but more than that, it’s a ruler overlooking his kingdom. As Tony drives down the turnpike, cigar smoke pouring from his mouth, the camera not daring to even take a glimpse of him until the end of the intro, he sees the breadth of his domain. But there’s something off about that domain, more than before. We can see the real world transposition of this in the aftermath of the terror attack on the World Trade Center, where an image of the towers was removed from the opening credits. While that was a gesture out of respect, we can still see the implications of it. The world continues to decay. Countries go to war with each other. All things come to an end. And Tony just sits there, wreathed in cigar smoke, uncaring to the realities of the world.
Season 4, more than any other, signals a more insidious decline for Tony and those in his world. The world is changing. Everybody is paranoid about money. The FBI is encroaching on the Mafia in a way that is hitting closer to home. Life is not as sweet as it used to be, and it never used to be all that sweet. But more than that, we see the perception of the characters changing. Christopher is doubling down on his delusion, as we see him placing that $20 bill over the AA sign at the end of the episode. But there’s a slight level of recognition in the way Tony acts. And it’s necessary on the part of the audience, simply because it gives us something to root for. We want Tony to get better. We want therapy to work. Because he’s not only the focal character for us to observe, but he’s also the center of the characters, the black hole that poisons them all.
That recognition comes from the moment in therapy when Tony admits to Melfi that there are only two ways for him to end up (well, three, but we’ll get to that in a minute): dead or in jail. It’s a surprising moment for Tony, and Melfi jumps on this by asking the only follow-up question that matters: Why don’t you get out? But that’s too much for him. He replies with a third, and obviously delusional, way to end up: rely only on family. He asserts that relying on family will get him through the hard times, but it’s his Mafia family that always turns on each other, and his immediate family that he neglects. Tony will get close to the truth, maybe utter one or two realistic statements, but get too close to the truth and he pulls away. Look at the way that he snaps at Carmela when she asks him about finances. She keeps telling him that “everything ends”, that he won’t be boss forever, and it’s something that he understands. It takes the truth coming from Carmela, the one person he’s tethered to for life, to push him to his conversation with Melfi.
The rest of the Soprano clan acts in the same manner; they assert that the world is the same only to be horrified when reality strikes them. Junior continues to flirt with his nurse until he realizes that she’s an FBI agent. Carmela continues to live her life (flirting with Furio in order to distract herself), until she sees Angie working at the supermarket and has to confront Tony. Bobby is promoted to capo, but he sort of grunts his way through his important conversation with Tony. Meadow hasn’t signed up for classes yet since she’s been dealing with Jackie Jr’s death. And the ducks are still gone; all good things indeed have to come to an end.
The last important storyline of the episode concerns Christopher and how he ends up killing whom he believes is his father’s killer. Tony points out a detective and tells Christopher that this is the man that killed his father, but when it comes down to it, the man never confesses to it, never even confesses that he even knew Christopher’s father. And he’s somewhat convincing, to the point that we should question whether or not Tony is using Christopher for a murder. But Christopher has no problem believing that the retiring detective is his father’s killer, as it reinforces that the Mafia is there to help him and reinforces that he has a semblance of decency (he’s carrying out justice, right…). But, in the end, Christopher puts the pieces together as he sees it, all in an attempt to validate his delusion. Also fueling his delusion is all of the drugs he is taking. He’s started doing heroin, to the point where it’s a very regular occasion that he comes home and shoots up. He can’t handle the idea that he’ll never be what Tony is; he’ll never be the respected mobster that he wants to be. So he sinks deeper and deeper, self-destructing to hide the pain of never living up to what he wants to be.
Ultimately, the last shot shows us what is so wrong with those in The Sopranos: everybody is obsessed with money and greed, mostly because it’s what they’re supposed to do and it keeps them from their suffering. People don’t become useless because destiny has willed it so. There is some culpability that people have for their own actions; it’s a matter of realizing that and taking hold of it. When Christopher pins that $20 that he received from the man he killed onto the fridge, he’s not just covering up some cliché phrase, he’s covering up whatever free will he may have in place of taking the easy way out. And the easy way always hurts worse in the end.
The Sopranos 4×02: “No Show”
It’s easy to be a follower. There’s constant direction, validation, and reinforcement. If you’re following correctly, you’ll know. If you’re following incorrectly, you’ll know. Being a leader is something else entirely. It’s more difficult to take initiative, to create your own direction and go from there. There’s no template to go off of; you have to have the courage and creativity to trust in your own instincts. You also have to stave off the jealousy and the frustration of those without the courage to be a leader.
“No Show” does quite a bit to show us two people who have no real direction in their lives, and it shows us how those two people struggle to move in any direction. The first of these is Christopher, who receives a promotion and takes Paulie’s place while he is in prison. Everybody is frustrated with him because they feel his promotions are happening too quickly, a result of him being Tony’s “nephew”, and they don’t treat him with the same respect they would Paulie. Christopher obviously isn’t ready to handle a position like this, as he continues to sink deeper into drugs and damages his relationship with Adrianna by flirting with other women (such as the undercover FBI agent that Adrianna is seeing). In pushing him too quickly, Tony is holding expectations that Christopher simply can’t stand up to. He certainly tries, as he harasses Patsy Parisi to the point where he pulls a gun on him, but aside from that, he doesn’t hold the respect that the position demands, and that continues to make his life more and more stressful.
Another big focal point of the episode (and one that runs alongside Christopher’s storyline) is Adrianna being detained and turned by the FBI. Adrianna is essentially an “innocent”, even though she does participate in illegal activities (doing drugs, mostly, which is just self-victimizing), and using her as a target makes sense for the FBI because she doesn’t necessarily have the caution that other mobsters might have. But it also speaks to the way that this Mafia family works. The higher-ups shield themselves by using those below them as scapegoats or targets. And much of this shielding is done subconsciously, as putting drugs through Crazy Horse isn’t doing anything but putting Adrianna at risk. But when, at the end of the episode, Adrianna hears the truth and vomits all over the agents, it goes to show just who the truth is told to. It’s told to the people at the bottom, those that have to hear it because they’ve run out of options. And Adrianna is running out of options.
Meadow is the other character that has no real direction, and it’s a result of her extreme anxiety, as well as the knowledge that Tony has something to do with Jackie Jr’s death (which he did). She lays around the pool all day, unwilling to get a job or think about school or do anything else with herself. When her parents suggest a therapist (somebody suggested by Dr. Melfi), Meadow’s directionless behavior is just validated (though she’d at least be able to pursue her education in Europe). When Tony or Carmela attempt to confront her about her behavior, she just shuts them down and blames everything on Jackie Jr’s death. And sure, some of Meadow’s anxiety has to come from the death of her ex-boyfriend, but there’s more to it. There’s the knowledge that somehow, some way, Tony is responsible for Jackie Jr’s death. And that knowledge is the scariest part of her dilemma.
But the big scene of the episode is between Meadow and Tony, when she calls him a “mob boss” and he physically intimidates her. In struggling with direction, Meadow’s regression threatens to place her in closer proximity with her mother and father, and more notably, the extravagant mobster lifestyle they live. And when Tony intimidates her (even though he’d never hit her), he’s reminding her that this kind of violence and delusion is what will happen if she doesn’t escape from the family. So when Tony and Carmela fear that she has run off at the end of the episode, all she has done is run back to school, where she can register for classes and escape the kind of people her parents are. In having this subtle understanding of what happened to Jackie Jr, she realizes that she doesn’t want to succumb to a similar fate. It’s not necessarily that she’ll end up dead, but she might end up going down the same pathway A.J. is on. She might end up completely directionless, to the point where options fade down to a dismal few.
All in all, the notion of the “no show” has to do with people not showing up to their own lives. Their anxiety and fear overcomes them to the point where it’s impossible to make any progress, where it’s easier to become a follower than be a leader. Meadow may have the opportunity to go to college, to physically get away, but what chance does Christopher have? What chance does Adrianna have? They’re both forever tethered to the Mafia family, to the black hole that is Tony Soprano. It takes actually exercising their free will to get out. And that means actually taking a part in their own lives instead of just letting life pass them by.
So what do you think of Season 4? It’s personally one of my least favorite seasons, but it’s still a great one. Let me know in the comments!