The Sopranos 4×03: “Christopher”
Almost every show has a bad episode. There are always a couple exceptions (there really was never a bad episode of The Wire), but consider “Stranger in a Strange Land” in LOST, an episode that is far, far worse than anything the show had done up to that point and worse than anything the show would do after that. “Christopher” is that episode for The Sopranos. It’s not necessarily all bad, but enough of it is bad that it just drags for the majority of the episode, that the characters lose their potency for the sake of an idea that doesn’t really need to be addressed in the first place.
The Sopranos is a show that has been attacked for its negative portrayal of Italian-Americans, and while there is certainly some reasoning for that, launching an entire episode about Columbus Day and how appalled Silvio is about Native American protests doesn’t really work. And it could have worked if it was a B-plot or a C-plot, or if the dialogue was more subtle, but it was the A-plot of the episode and made up the climactic scene of the episode. When it came down to it, too much weight was put on a plotline that really didn’t have a whole lot to say that hasn’t been said already. Earlier in the series, we already had a plotline with Dr. Melfi that discussed the Mafia’s effect on the perception of Italian-Americans, and that plotline was subtle enough to be interesting. But “Christopher” makes its point. And then it makes it again and again. There’s simply not enough here to fill the almost hour of television.
Everybody feels more like mouthpieces for an idea than characters by themselves. A.J., for some reason, is reading about Christopher Columbus, which gets Carmela and Tony riled up. An interview with a Native American protestor is on the TV, which gets Carmela and Tony riled up. It’s just repetition for the sake of repetition, where Tony grunts the equivalent to “That’s stupid.” What makes this episode hard to even enjoy is the surface level to which the content is being delivered. If we could see individual character reactions, maybe characters pushing against their own perceptions of themselves, then maybe this episode could be worthwhile. But instead of the A-plot showcasing individual reactions and focusing on a couple of them, it gives everybody the same reaction and has them all say it again and again. It’s sloppy writing, which is shocking considering the overall quality of the series.
That being said, “Christopher” does have some good ideas. It makes sense that Silvio and the rest of the Mafia family would be angered at the frustration against Italians. As those creating the negative portrayal, the ones doing the killing and the destroying, the Mafia would be frustrated at a group that forces them to consider reality. And the Native American groups are forcing them to consider reality by reminding them of the harm that Columbus did to their people. The Sopranos is about a group of people that do everything in their power to avoid reality because reality is only going to drive them to realize how toxic they are, and “Christopher” at least reinforces the idea that people would much rather blame those around them than realize how much they are to blame.
The shining moments from this episode come surprisingly from Janice’s storyline, though even that isn’t without its faults. Ralphie’s bizarre sexual quirk lends some strange characterization to his already strange character, and it shows how he makes everything all about him, but it’s still pushing boundaries for the sake of it. That being said, even though Janice is a manipulative liar, her storyline goes to show that she wants certain things out of life that aren’t necessarily money or power. After Bobby loses his wife to a car accident and Janice watches him legitimately grieve over her, she sees how she wants more than somebody like Ralphie can give her. But even when her therapist implores her to break up with Ralphie in a mature manner, she pushes him down the stairs and screams at him. Despite what Janice wants, she’s been conditioned to be a Soprano, and her sociopathic behavior cannot be quelled by something as simple as desire.
“Christopher” isn’t an awful episode of television, but compared to the rest of the series, it’s surprisingly bad. It’s definitely worse than Season 1’s “A Hit is a Hit”, and not just by a little bit. But it does reinforce the notion that these people, despite defending their heritage and their actions, do want to push back against their nature. When Silvio rants about the Native Americans and his inability to push back against them, Tony prompts him to reflect on his own life and what he has accomplished as an individual. And that perspective has implications. We are individuals capable of free will, capable of transcendence above nature. But that nature does always have a hold on us, and it will never let us go unless we change what that nature is.
The Sopranos 4×04: “The Weight”
One of the main ideas that The Sopranos examines is the idea of marriage. Marriage, in and of itself, is a kind of cage, where we cut off all romantic and sexual prospects for the sake of being with one singular person. But what happens when we look at that other person and like less and less of what we see? What happens when those prospects that we have cut off are more enticing, or if we dip into those prospects anyway? We choose one person to be with because we feel something that we assume will be enough for the rest of our lives, but when we neglect the hard work necessary to sustain that passion and that love, then marriages start to become more and more like prisons.
“The Weight” is the most overtly exciting episode of the season thus far, and it brings mob action to a boil through the catalyst of gossip and personal issues. It’s an examination of relationships and marriages in a way that juxtaposes a marriage filled with love and a marriage where it’s almost impossible to fix the damage done to it. “The Weight” revolves around the joke that Ralphie told about Ginny Sack’s weight, and how hell-bent Johnny Sack is on avenging his wife’s honor. He’s portrayed as being unreasonable; even though the joke was hurtful, it obviously isn’t something worth killing a man over. But it’s obvious that Johnny Sack feels insecure about his wife and wants her to feel comfortable in her own skin. When he catches her at the end of the episode eating out of a secret stash of junk food, Johnny is furious at first for standing up for her when she isn’t dieting, but relents when he hears how hard she is trying. The moment where they reconcile is legitimately a touching moment, not only because of the genuine nature of Johnny’s dialogue, but because we can see how much both of them accept and love each other.
But it’s the fragile male ego that leads these men to let the damage get this far. Ralphie isn’t willing to listen to Tony’s advice, instead apologizing over the phone, which angers Johnny further. He might not be as guilty (right now) as Johnny, but neither of them are willing to concede to the other in the manner that would actually keep the peace. There’s always some desire to console the ego, some desire to be the one on top, that keeps the peace from settling in. So when Johnny finally lets it go, after his conversation with Ginny, we see how close they get to still achieving complete disaster. These people have some semblance of free will, some way to avoid their own destruction if only they would press harder against their nature.
All of this is juxtaposed with Tony’s relationship with Carmela, which is struggling to the point where Carmela is turning away from his for comfort. Tony has a long history of neglecting Carmela, not only in all of the affairs that he’s had, but also in the emotional distance he has from every member in his family. When Carmela asks him to take part in considering their financial future, he shrugs that responsibility off. Carmela feels completely alone; her husband doesn’t seem to show any interest in her and her children are either out of the house or old enough to not want her around.
And this is why Carmela is so infatuated with Furio. At first glance, he’s an odd choice to have as a love interest for Carmela. But it makes sense, as Carmela is looking for somebody who isn’t quite as attached to Tony. She doesn’t really see or know anybody outside of the Mafia, so the best she has is Furio, who comes from Italy and doesn’t necessarily know America like Tony or the other mobsters do. And even though Tony sees the damage he’s doing to Carmela and tries to reverse it (through buying her things and sex, which is obviously not going to really fix anything), Carmela still can’t stop thinking about Furio. When Tony is having sex with her at the end of the episode, the Italian music is still playing in her head, showing us that she is fantasizing about Furio. The damage has already been done and Tony is powerless to fix it.
Ultimately, “The Weight” is about how marriages thrive or fall apart, and how the selfish ego of these characters is slowly pushing them towards catastrophe. There are ways for these characters to avert disaster, to push back against their nature, but there’s already damage being done, irreversible damage that threatens to unravel the whole thing anyway. “The Weight” forces us to consider the weight that our actions have, because even if we want to undo that damage, there’s never any way to turn back time. There’s never any way to completely fix the horror we do to those around us.
So what do you think of Season 4 so far? Any favorite episodes coming up? Let me know in the comments!