The Sopranos 4×05: “Pie-O-My”
We already know that America, as a web of social, political, and economic institutions, is fundamentally broken. The income gap grows wider and wider, our school systems continue to impotently focus on achievement data and standards, and the underclass are still thrown into an economic hell where there isn’t really an escape. Those in power are only there because there are those who are beaten around in order to secure that power. Everybody has a role to play in our web of systems, and that role can be one of great privilege or one of almost none. As much as we would like to believe the “pulled up by our bootstraps” American Dream, there has been literature for over a hundred years reminding us that such a dream is a lie.
With that in mind, these next two episodes, “Pie-O-My” and “Everybody Hurts”, act somewhat as companion pieces. They both take an intricate look at the toxic relationship between those in power and the pawns they use to keep a hold on their power. This particular episode, “Pie-O-My”, examines this concept from the side of the pawns, showing just how much they are damaged by Tony and his immediate underlings. Because, as tender as the final scene is, as much as we can tell that Tony cares about Pie-O-My, it’s obvious that his self-awareness doesn’t extend much further than that.
The most obvious pawn to speak of is Adrianna, who is spiraling deeper and deeper as a result of the FBI’s influence and the apathy from Tony’s crew. While we would like to think that the FBI would help out Adrianna and Christopher, it’s far more likely that they’re here to drain her dry of information and then throw her to the wolves. And Adrianna, to an extent, realizes this. Even though she wants to escape from her troubles (though a part of her loves the hope of luxury), giving in to the FBI just robs her of time. One less thing to tell the FBI means one step closer to being useless to them. And it’s when the threat of being outed as a “snitch” is placed upon her that she finally realizes what it’s like to be an outsider, to be a pawn. She’s a target to be used up until there’s nothing left.
And what’s even more heartbreaking for her is that the Soprano family treats her with the same disrespect. Her business, the Crazy Horse, is really just a front for Tony and his associates to commit crimes, whether it be extortion and violence or discussing criminal conspiracies in her office. When she tries to use her office partway through the episode, Tony and Ralphie are discussing business and wave her off until they’re finished. Even though it’s Adrianna’s business, Tony is still free to do whatever he chooses with it. It’s just a way to use Adrianna. Or take the scene where Vito destroys her office chair and doesn’t bother to replace it. It’s a perfect metaphor for the way that these people treat those around them. Use them until they’re broken and leave them behind. And that’s why, in the end, we see Adrianna turning to heroin. It’s the only thing that keeps her mind away from the dark truth that she’s helpless and hopeless.
We also see how Janice has been using Bobby Bacala as a pawn. It’s not quite as malicious as the way that Tony uses Adrianna, but there’s still something to be said about her manipulation of him. It’s obvious that Janice is trying incredibly hard to be kind and generous to Bobby, but more than that, it’s also obvious that she is trying to derail any other woman’s attempt to help him. She wants him all to herself, which is why she brings up JoJo’s son being on Ridalin and gives away her chicken marsala to Junior. It’s also why she takes credit for Carmela’s lasagna, which she feeds to Bobby and his family while passing it off as hers. She wants to make Bobby feel like she’s the only one that he can really rely on. Ever since she left Ralphie, she has been searching for somebody that can help her transform into a better person; the only problem is that she’s using manipulation in order to do so.
Lastly, we see how Tony uses Pie-O-My as a pawn, considering that pushing the horse drives it to be seriously injured. Tony has never been shy about using people around him. Even when Pie-O-My wins his race, Tony has no problem preying on Ralphie’s good nature and taking more of this winnings with each race. But nobody comes out and wonders about the morality of the racing; the fact that horse-racing is cruel to the horses never crosses anybody’s mind (and yes, horse-racing is cruel, do your research). So Tony and his associates rarely even consider the damage that they do to others, not until it’s put right in front of them. And when Tony sees Pie-O-My, almost dead, in extreme pain, it’s then that he’s forced to realize what it is that his actions do. Those in power try so furiously hard to separate themselves from the brutal reality of their actions, to the point that finally seeing them is almost too shocking to handle. And when Tony looks down at Pie-O-My, he’s finally forced to confront himself.
The Sopranos does not sugar coat what happens to the pawns of those in power. They’re bled further and further until there is nothing left to take from them, after which they are thrown into the gutter and forgotten. Pie-O-My is just the first living being to be thrown away; who knows how long it will be before something bad happens to somebody like Christopher or Adrianna? The relationship is simply a hopeless one, but more than that, it’s terrifying because it’s essentially what we see in the world today. There are those with billions of dollars and those that need welfare checks to eat meals with substandard nutrition. One would not exist without the other. And unless we take awareness of the toxicity of this relationship, it’s simply going to stay that way.
The Sopranos 4×06: “Everybody Hurts”
If “Pie-O-My” examined the toxic relationship between those in power and their pawns from the perspective of the pawns, then “Everybody Hurts” examines the same relationship from the perspective of the one in power: Tony. It’s an imperfect episode, though not because of the Tony content, which is by far the most fascinating facet of the episode. More then once throughout the duration of the episode, Tony wonders whether or not his relationships to certain people are toxic, and he has good reason to wonder that. However, he’s often reassured that he’s a decent guy, that he’s trying to be a good person, and that is normally enough to keep him from becoming distressed.
Tony unknowingly damages a great number of people throughout this episode, even though he believes that he’s doing everybody a favor. We really do see him trying to be kind and generous, but there’s an underlying nastiness to everything that he does, a nastiness I’ll discuss in a moment. But, firstly, it’s obvious to see how Tony damages one of his pawns, Melfi. We may think that Melfi is in control, and to some extent she has an ounce of control, but if Tony wants to look for a way to blame somebody else for Gloria Trillo’s suicide, Melfi is a perfect scapegoat (look at the way she trembles when physically confronted by Tony, and look at how Tony could care less when he sees her recoil). And so when Tony needs to pull himself back from the edge of serious self-discovery, he just goes to Melfi and takes it out on her.
Tony really does feel like he’s on the edge of something, that he’s using decency to counteract some unseen force imposed on him. He gives Christopher yet another promotion within the organization. He gives Artie Bucco some money for an investment. He signs the finance papers that Carmela needed him to sign. He gives her cousin Brian a suit as a thank-you for helping him. Tony is oddly generous in this episode, but it doesn’t seem to get him anywhere. Almost every decent act is followed by something horrible happening, from Christopher shooting up more heroin to Artie losing the money and attempting suicide. The one decent act that is only followed by thanks is Tony hooking up Brian with an expensive suit. And the only reason we see that happening is to give Tony something to cling onto, some nice thought that reminds him that he’s really not a bad guy.
But it all makes sense, why Tony would continually have to deal with bad things coming from his good deeds. He’s still involved in a system that feeds on those pawns. No matter what he does to them, they’re still just pawns, people that Tony deals with in order to make him more money. And as long as he belongs to that system, there isn’t a thing he can to do stop bad things from happening to those pawns. He keeps asking himself if he’s toxic, and it makes sense why. Nothing good happens to the people around him, and if something good does happen, it precedes something really bad happening. But the reason that he’s even thinking about this question is because of Gloria Trillo’s suicide, because it was obviously influenced by the horrible way that he treated her. Tony saw Gloria’s death as the final step for one of his pawns, and he finally saw himself in a light that wasn’t flattering. And, as the episode went on, we saw what lengths Tony will go to forget that he does such things to his pawns. He’ll demonize Gloria and Artie’s suicidal behavior. He’ll lash out at Melfi. He will, in the end, do anything to escape the full consequences of his actions.
The only part of this episode that doesn’t really work is A.J.’s storyline, not because it’s particularly boring, but because some of the dialogue is a little too on-the-nose (the scene in the cab where they discussed privilege reminded me a little of the ridiculous dialogue in “Christopher”). A.J. is understanding, through hanging out with his rich girlfriend, what privilege is and how much of it he has. His path to that understanding is kind of ridiculous, as his conversations about privilege are ridiculous, but one thing that was interesting that the fact that A.J. considered himself lucky to have privilege. Sure, he has money, but we’ve seen how money doesn’t equate to happiness in the slightest bit. There is nothing lucky about A.J. having this horrible, toxic man as a father. In fact, A.J. hit the jackpot when it comes to being unlucky. His self-awareness increases to a point where he sees privilege, but it doesn’t piece together what that means for him. And that’s only going to hurt him later.
Overall, “Everybody Hurts” shows us how, since we’re all a part of this toxic capitalist system, we’re all going to be in pain. The pawns are slowly dying off as a result of the kings, and the kings are guilt-ridden by the realistic implications of their actions. It’s such a vast, uncompromising system that, even if we wanted to pack up and escape, there’s not a whole lot that anybody can do. We can exercise our free-will because obviously we have some sort of free-will, but we can’t run away from a system that is everywhere. And Tony, to some degree, sees this. He sees that the system that he’s a part of is just there to screw other people and make him rich. But as long as he believes that somebody likes him, that he has at least one good friend, then his defense mechanisms can push away the unbelievably huge burden that is his guilt. Because he’ll always feel guilt. Always.
So what are you thinking of Season 4 so far? I’m liking it a lot more than I remembered liking it the first time I saw it. Let me hear your opinions in the comments!