The Sopranos 4×11: “Calling All Cars”
The fourth season of The Sopranos reminds me a bit of the first in how the third act of both seasons is structured. Both seasons have third acts that take the last three episodes of the season and build them up to a staggering conclusion. However, while the first season had mostly character development to bring a fairly stand-alone arc to its conclusion at the end of the season, “Calling All Cars” is the beginning of the end, a descent into chaos that takes everything that has happened in Season 4 and turns up the tension again and again and again.
With that in mind, it’s not a particularly intense episode, even as it ramps up the tension considerably. The episode switches back and forth between just two storylines: Tony dealing with New York and the HUD scam and Bobby coming to terms with Karen’s death. Neither involve really any violence, but they’re both thematically rich with the sentiment that we’ve seen all season, the idea that people may want to move on with their lives, but find comfort in spiraling misery. Because that misery is at least something that they understand, while shedding that misery and crafting a new life is foreign and terrifying.
Bobby’s story this season is one that has revolved around the death of his wife, as well as Janice’s desire to take his wife’s place. Of course, Janice’s intentions are a mixture of selfish and selfless, as she genuinely cares for Bobby and wants to be with a decent man, but isn’t sure how to operate without being manipulative and twisted. Bobby’s mourning for his wife is becoming somewhat obsessive, as he buys a cake for their anniversary and buries it to commemorate her. He also still can’t bring himself to get her last baked ziti. His depressive behavior is also spreading to his children as well, as they become obsessed with trying to make sense of her departure. They (along with Anthony Jr. in one of his more deplorable moments) try to communicate with her spirit via an Ouija board. Negativity breeds negativity. People implicitly damage those around them by being unable to deal with their own problems (sound familiar?)
And while Janice never really has anything selfless to say, she still understands that agonizing over the death of a loved one is just a worthless spiral. Yes, there needs to be time to mourn, but life moves on after the people around you leave. Just because you lose something doesn’t mean that you’ve lost everything. You have to create a life around what is left, fill in the gaps. Of course, Janice manipulates Bobby’s children into using the Ouija board again. She pushes Bobby to go out with her. She wants to push him forward for her own selfish gain. But it doesn’t completely invalidate the sentiment. When she cooks Karen’s ziti for her and Bobby, there’s a level of acceptance that he feels. She’s gone, and now that he’s acknowledged that, he can begin to move forward.
Tony, on the other hand, is continuing to dial up the chaos. The moment where he ends his therapy with Dr. Melfi is a huge turning point in the season, not because it affects things plot-wise, but because it’s Tony giving up on trying to become better. Dr. Melfi wants to help him, acknowledges that Tony’s growth is slow, but there’s one giant obstacle that neither of them are entirely willing to address: Tony can’t become a better person if he’s in the Mafia, hurting people through his criminal acts. He could clean up the rest of his life, but it wouldn’t matter. He’ll always have to do horrible things if he’s a mobster. Tony wants to be fixed entirely, but he doesn’t want to shed his life in order to get those results. When Tony has those dreams, when he imagines Ralphie and Gloria, Svetlana and Carmela, he’s thinking about people that he has lost or is losing, what is at stake if he’s not able to improve. And it’s just too much pressure to deal with.
And this relates to the HUD scam through Tony’s willingness to escalate the situation. For a fair portion of the episode, he’s trying to keep the peace. He gives Carmine a counter-offer after rejecting his 40% deal on the HUD scams. He attempts to negotiate with Carmine’s son in Florida. But he has the power to extricate himself from the situation. He has the power to make it all go away. But in order to be the mob boss that he has to be, he needs to be ready to do more than negotiate. This storyline is here to show that Tony’s attempts at negotiation aren’t enough to deal with people that are greedy, people that engage in petty arguments (such as the one in “The Weight”). There’s a clear conflict between improvement and the life he lives as a mobster. And he has to pick the mobster life in order to continue living in his status quo.
“Calling All Cars” may be a slower, more ruminating episode, but it smartly talks about loss and how people can move forward only when they’re willing to take that step for themselves. Bobby was tricked into taking that step, but he’s still taking it. Meanwhile, Tony, who continues to escalate the HUD scam crisis, is still haunted by loss. When he dreams of taking the mason job, he sees his mother in shadow on the staircase. She’s always there, years after her death, haunting his life because he never really moved on from it. He’s carrying the weight of his past, a past that keeps adding more and more and more weight to him. And without any avenue to even attempt to get better, it’s just going to accumulate until there’s no way to hold it anymore.
The Sopranos 4×12: “Eloise”
We all have a grasp on the status quo that we’ve created in our lives. We’ll bend the rules every once in a while in order to keep ourselves sane, but that bending is all part of the status quo. We give ourselves that wiggle room in order to keep everything from crashing down. But when our status quo is disrupted, we’re able to see our lives for what they are. We’re shaken from the façade we’ve created for ourselves, able to evaluate ourselves for who we are. And we’re able to finally ask ourselves what happened to our lives, what created the disappointment we now feel with who we are.
For the most part, this episode revolves around two different characters that deal with loss and disappointment in their lives: Carmela and Paulie. Furio’s disappearance, which we know he commits to after nearly killing Tony over Carmela, is what shakes Carmela’s status quo, causing her to reflect on her own life through the lens of Meadow. Furio was a way out to her, even if it was just a dream. Even dreams like Carmela’s love for Furio can feel like possibilities, ways to contemplate lives that feel more fulfilling (even if Carmela’s love for Furio is likely fueled mostly by projecting what she wants to see in him). But dreams end, and Furio leaves because he knows that his dream is going to get him killed.
Carmela, after Furio ends, spends more time with Meadow, who she sees as a reflection of what she wishes her younger self could have been. Meadow is living on her own during her sophomore year, sharing an apartment with a couple other kids from Columbia. Tony is his usual brutish self when Meadow invites Carmela and him over for dinner, but Carmela is oddly hostile. She snaps out at Meadow and the other students after they discuss how Billy Budd by Melville has homosexual themes in it (which obviously makes her uncomfortable), and she seems to retract inward the more Meadow talks about her relationship with Finn. Meadow has the life that Carmela always dreamed for herself. Meadow is tough, independent, capable, and excited to live her life. And Carmela is completely trapped by a man who robs her of independence at every opportunity. Carmela has lived her life to the point where it’s nearly impossible to leave it, and that reality is so brutal that she takes it out on Meadow, the girl that she cares about the most.
Paulie’s storyline is much less impactful than Carmela’s, but it’s only because it doesn’t frame the finale in the same way that Carmela’s does. Paulie’s trouble revolves around his mother as well as the New York mobsters. Paulie’s mother and her “friends” are always nagging at each other, to the point where Paulie almost always has to stick up for his mother (who is ridiculously attention-seeking). But the real disappointment comes from Paulie trying to bond with the New York crew only for Carmine to not even know his name. He thought that he was able to switch crews if things with Tony go south, but more than that, he thought that he had somebody on his side that simply is not. The only person that can save Paulie is Tony, and Paulie needs to buy Tony’s affection. So he ends up going into one of his mother’s friend’s places, where he steals her money and inadvertently kills her, all so he has a little more to kick back to Tony. Paulie is trying to find stability in his life, but it’s tough to do so when the people he associates himself with are only his friends if he pays them enough.
And all through the episode we see Tony continuing to escalate the HUD scam conflict, where he consistently retaliates against New York to the point that drastic measures may have to be taken. He’s continuing to amplify the chaos to the point where he trashes Carmine’s restaurant and Johnny Sack suggests possibly taking Carmine out. Tony, now that he’s decided to give up on therapy, is giving up on most everything around him. He laments to Meadow that Carmela is going through a rough time, but that’s all he has to say about it. Sure, Carmela is going through a rough time, but Tony doesn’t care to do anything to fix it. And since he cares so little about fixing things, something is bound to blow up in his face. At the end of the episode, when he tries to comfort Carmela about Meadow, he just doesn’t understand what is going on with her. He tells Carmela that Meadow is a strong, independent woman, but Carmela doesn’t want to hear that. She just wants some independence of her own. And she knows that, even if Tony is being “nice” to her, he’s not going to give her what she needs.
“Eloise” bucks the trend of shocking events in penultimate episodes, but sets us up neatly for the explosion that “Whitecaps” will feature. It shows us what happens when people look back at their lives and see only disappointment. It’s possible to reflect on failure and see ways to improve, see ways to construct a better life, but it’s easy to get wrapped up in failure. It’s easy to see just how badly you’ve failed and be completely consumed by loss. And to be consumed by loss is to spiral closer and closer to self-destruction.
So what did you think of the lead-up to the amazing “Whitecaps”? Are you excited to move on to Season 5, with series high points “Irregular Around the Margins” and “Long Term Parking”? Let me know in the comments!