The Sopranos 4×09: “Whoever Did This”
If you’re a fan of The Sopranos, “Whoever Did This” is an episode that you remember. It’s the one where Tony and Ralph fight, where Tony murdered him, where Tony and Christopher dispose of the body by dismembering it. In a season largely devoid of mob violence, it’s a horrific, visceral sequence, one where the brutality is seen in vivid display. And, without question, it’s one of the very best episodes that The Sopranos has to offer. Season 4 is one of the seasons that I largely forget about because many of the episodes are quiet and elegiac, but “Whoever Did This” (and “Whitecaps”, though we’ll get to that later) brings the season roaring to life.
It’s not entirely a coincidence that the strong quality of this episode coincides with the violence on display. In our culture today, we tend to remember episodes of television for moments. Game of Thrones is probably the best example of that, where we remember character deaths more than almost anything else. But The Sopranos was a show that featured enough death and shocking moments that it followed the same trend; people wanted to see crazy things happen and often remembered the show for that. It’s why The Sopranos has a reputation for being a frenetic, violent show when, for the most part, it was a rather quiet one.
But what really makes this episode fantastic isn’t the violence or the shock value; it’s the sheer ambiguity of what is happening on the screen. When Tony and Ralph fight, they’re arguing about Pie-O-My, but it’s clear that Pie-O-My isn’t all that they’re arguing about. “Whoever Did This” reaches back to moments in the show that happened one, two, three seasons ago in order to remind us the unreliability of the narration (Tony). Not only that, but it never answers whether or not Ralph started the stable fire. It sits firmly in the middle of all of the questions it asks, never really offering up a legitimate answer to any of them. But, in the end, the answer isn’t really the point. We don’t know if Ralph set the fire, but Tony kills him anyway. Christopher doesn’t know for sure what happened at Ralph’s house, but it doesn’t matter because Tony says he didn’t kill Ralph. Tony is the one who creates the reality that everybody else exists in. And while we’ll see that eventually control escapes him, he’s doing everything he can to preserve the status quo while still barreling through the world like a rabid animal.
“Whoever Did This” is mostly remembered for the fight scene between Ralph and Tony, but that doesn’t even happen until about halfway through the episode. The first thirty minutes set up context for the fight; Ralph’s son is injured in a bow-and-arrow accident, which causes him to rethink his life and want to be a better man. It’s obviously questionable whether or not his desire to improve is honest, but “Whoever Did This” does showcase Ralph at his most vulnerable. He sobs profusely throughout the episode, believing that his son’s injury is punishment for his sins. He gives us good reason to believe that he actively does want to change. But he’s the same man who, earlier in the episode, prank calls Paulie’s mother out of spite. He’s the same man who brutally murdered Tracee in Season 3’s “University”. He’s a vicious, brutal man, and we know that one tragedy isn’t enough to change him outright. It’s easy enough to go back to old ways.
But the episode never really tells us where Ralph lands, whether he actively does try to do better. And Tony doesn’t have that knowledge either. He tells Paulie not to retaliate after the prank call, but when he finds out that Pie-O-My is dead, he needs some sort of answer. He cannot accept that the random nature of the world can allow something this horrible to happen. He needs to pin it on some reason, some person, so that he can feel better. And Ralph is the easiest person to pin that on. When Tony suggests that Ralph burned down the stables, Ralph never admits to it, but he never really denies it either. And when Ralph reminds Tony that his love for animals is nothing more than skin deep, that he eats tons of meat and didn’t care for the horse’s injuries when he was getting paid, that’s enough to send him over the edge. Ralph’s narrative pokes holes in Tony’s. Tony would rather be the saint, the crusader for those who cannot defend themselves, than the villain. But killing Ralph just places Justin (his son) in greater jeopardy. Tony will do anything to feed his delusion, his narrative. And, in the end, when Tony goes back to the Bing with Christopher, he wakes up alone. His delusion isolates him, defeats him more and more with every impulsive decision he makes.
“Whoever Did This” is one of the series’ best episodes, up there with “Funhouse”, “Long Term Parking”, and many of the episodes from the back half of the final season. Its structure is unmatched in how effectively it sets up the Tony/Ralph fight yet makes it seem to come out of nowhere. Its ambiguity raises far more questions than it answers, and adds so many layers that further expose the complexity of the men involved. In a season that is about the slow decline of this family, “Whoever Did This” expertly reminds us of how people create narratives in order to feed their fragile, damaged egos. And how people will do anything, absolutely anything, to preserve these narratives.
The Sopranos 4×10: “The Strong, Silent Type”
Masculinity is a theme that runs rampant through modern television. Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Hannibal, True Detective, all of these shows comment specifically on masculinity, but more than that, they comment on how masculinity damns those who buy into it. It’s a fabricated structure that is in place to control how people craft identity, a social construct that creates power structures in order to imprison women and men alike. And, as we see in The Sopranos, masculinity destroys men as well because it locks out a portion of their identity, shutting down emotions and keeping them from fixing their lives.
Christopher’s intervention is a classic example of how masculinity is just self-defeating for those involved. Paulie and Silvio can only muster extremely judgmental remarks, Tony makes everything about himself, and only Adrianna and Carmela can say anything honest. Not to mention that the intervention ends with Christopher being beaten by all of the men in the room. All of the men want to save Christopher, but they don’t know how to express their emotions and thoughts in a way that can save him. They can only lash out like rabid dogs, unable and unwilling to make themselves vulnerable. Vulnerability is weakness, and as much as they’d like to be the “strong, silent type”, that “type” really just means that emotion leaks through in more insidious ways, such as verbal abuse and violence. The men on The Sopranos are so beaten down by their pain that the only thing they can do is inflict it on others.
This episode does a fantastic job exposing the cracks in the façade that Tony has created, as well as Tony’s inability to see them. Dr. Melfi comments on his affection for animals and his lack of care for people, and while Tony doesn’t think a whole lot of it, she tells him that it exposes some deeper issue. Really, Tony’s love for animals has a lot to do with his detachment from people, all because of the damage he does to people and the lack of judgment that he gets from animals. Animals cannot berate him; he can project whatever he wants onto them. If anything, “The Strong, Silent Type” shows how little strength Tony has; he’s more willing to form relationships with people who won’t judge him back, whereas he distances himself from those who he harms or those who will judge him.
It’s worthy noting Tony’s infatuation with Svetlana and how that exposes his delusion about himself. He’s so used to women wanting to be with him (Valentina throws herself at him so furiously that it’s almost bizarre how attractive she is and how unattractive Tony is), that when Svetlana rejects him, he’s baffled. She tells him that he’s too damaged, that he has too many problems, and he thinks of himself as so “in control” that Svetlana’s analysis of him feels insane to him. But Tony is a man who distances himself so far from his problems, who pushes all of them onto those people around him. And so when Carmela is infatuated with somebody other than Tony, we can see why. She wants somebody who is willing to feel their pain, to experience their sorrow so that it doesn’t constantly spill over onto her.
Of course, “The Strong, Silent Type” isn’t without its issues. The depiction of Furio as some sensitive alternative to Tony doesn’t necessarily ring true, but it’s entirely possible that his depiction is simply a result of Carmela’s wistful thinking. She wants to think that Furio is a sensitive man because that would give her a potential way out of the black hole that is Tony. But when the episode shows him crying over his dead father, I can’t help but think about Furio’s function in Tony’s crew. He’s muscle, and his duty is to maim, kill, and beat down those who are unwilling to move. That conflicting depiction makes it tough to completely buy Furio in this episode, but it’s only a small complain. Overall, Furio as an alternative to Tony is really just a way for Carmela to see a way out of the violence that Tony perpetuates.
“The Strong, Silent Type” is one of those episodes really only remembered for a specific scene, though the surrounding material only shines when it reflects the toxicity of masculinity. Tony is so damaged by his life, by his parents, by himself, that he uses masculinity as a way to shield himself from that damage. But how long will the façade hold? How long until he’s inflicted so much damage on those around him that it all comes crashing down? And, as we’ll see as Season 4 draws to a close, it’s not nearly as long as we think it will be.
Sorry it’s been a couple weeks since the last The Sopranos review/analysis, but next week will put us one step closer to “Whitecaps”! Let me know what you think in the comments!