The Sopranos 5×03: “Where’s Johnny?”
These two episodes of The Sopranos feature brief moments where we see Tony Soprano attempting to change, or at least lashing out against his selfish, narcissistic nature. Where previous seasons have only shown Tony as this black hole destroying everything that he comes into contact with (and this season is no different in this depiction), Season 5 also asks the question: “Can Tony Soprano change?”. And it’s a strong question. Is there a way for Tony to change even a part of himself while still living as a crime boss who ruins other people’s lives without blinking an eye? To change would mean pushing against the life he’s living, and while we know that Tony might not change into a completely different person, these moments in “Where’s Johnny?” and “All Happy Families…” offer a brief “Aha!”. They suggest that it really is possible to at least begin to move in a different direction.
“Where’s Johnny” largely ruminates on the notion that the world inexorably changes over the years, even if people don’t really do so. People tend to lash out against anything that challenges them, and that lashing becomes more intense the older they get, because the older they get, the more different they are from the world around them. The centerpiece of this episode is Junior wandering away from his house, where he goes back to all of the old neighborhoods he used to know, many of which have decayed to the point of being unrecognizable. He asks a group at a chapel, “Where’s Johnny?”, and it shows just how Junior sees the world. People tend to ignore the way that the world changes until it’s so unrecognizable that they wonder what happened to it.
We also see the world changing as new people come into the DiMeo crew and the New York crew, shaking up the power structures in place. Now that Feech La Manna and Phil Leotardo are out of prison, and now that Carmine Lupertazzi is dead, there is a huge power vacuum in New York, and more than a couple people are vying for control. Johnny Sack is the most powerful of those looking for control, Angelo Garepe is just looking for a relative peace, and Little Carmine is taking the brunt of Johnny’s wrath, as he still wants power in the New York crew. Tony is trying to contend with all of the violence that is coming from this power struggle, as he’s still trying to figure out how to compromise the feuding in his own crew, but he elects to stay quiet while the New York power struggle tears itself apart. He sees the instability created by change and doesn’t want to deal with it.
Feech La Manna and Paulie are also feuding within Tony’s crew, which is another thing that Tony doesn’t want to deal with. Now that Feech is out of prison, he wants to take a piece of the action on Paulie’s landscaping business, which angers Paulie because he’s losing money and his workers are getting beaten up. As far as mob plots on The Sopranos go, it’s a pretty standard one, but it goes to show that nobody can calmly deal with change. Feech screams as Paulie when faced with the notion that he didn’t earn anything during his time in prison, along with the notion that he lost territory and the ability to earn over the years. The world doesn’t care to make room for people who want to be useful. Feech, as a result of his time in prison, aged to the point of irrelevancy, and is pushing as hard as he can to be able to earn anything in Tony’s crew. At the end of the episode, Feech does manage to keep a small portion of the business he stole from Paulie, but it’s only after fighting tooth and nail with Paulie and Tony. As people get older and become increasingly irrelevant to society, they have to push harder and harder to maintain any form of relevancy. Feech’s storyline is just another reminder of that brutal fact of life. But that storyline also goes to show that Tony distances himself from struggles like that. When confronted by Paulie and Feech, he neatly splits up the land, not caring to consider that the issue runs deeper than that.
Tony’s interactions with Junior only solidify the notion that he doesn’t want to deal with those around him. Junior continues making the same snide remarks about Tony, not because he’s trying to dig at him, but because he cannot remember that he made those remarks already. His condition is worsening, to the point that his memory is failing him more and more. For the majority of the episode, Tony tells everybody that Junior is dead to him, as he storms out of Janice’s Sunday dinner, as he spits vitriol at Janice and Bobby after being berated for his behavior. But it’s Junior’s neurologist that really hits home. He tells Tony that Junior has had a couple “infarcts”, or small strokes, and that small fact makes Junior’s illness real. After four seasons, Tony is finally having these small epiphanies, where he understands how he misinterpreted the world around him.
It’s that final scene that takes “Where’s Johnny” and elevates it above and beyond, because it has Tony finally trying to understand his uncle. After that epiphany, he goes to talk to Junior, trying to understand exactly what Junior has been saying, and finally, why he couldn’t be saying nicer things. That final line, “Don’t you love me?”, is one where Tony gets close to the dark reality that defines his existence. Junior has been surrounded by violence and pain and death and misery his whole life, to the point where it has snuffed out all of the happiness within him. Junior wants to express his love, but he doesn’t even remember what it feels like anymore. So when he and Tony silently sob on the couch, it’s because of the implicit understanding of that fact. Junior is lost, and he loses more every single day he’s alive.
What Tony doesn’t realize, and what he has to realize, is that for him there is so much time left. He’s not lost. Not yet.
The Sopranos 5×04: “All Happy Families…”
Every family is messed up, not just because people occasionally don’t get along, but because people don’t tend to understand how their toxic nature affects those around them. Kids are at the mercy of their parents; if a parent is abusive or manipulative, the child is going to be affected by that. The sad reality of parenting is that, no matter what you do, your children are going to be beaten down by you. We’re all human, and parents’ imperfect human nature will always rain toxicity down on the children. Often enough, it’s not until too late that we understand how truly toxic and terrible we are, not until we’re all alone, only our thoughts to keep us company.
“All Happy Families…” is definitely a stronger episode than “Where’s Johnny?”, mostly because it explores the way that Tony’s families are just delusions that he uses to feel comfortable in the world. Carmela’s speech in the middle of the episode is the one that reveals the most about Tony’s world, and the one that acts as a catalyst for Tony’s growth. She tells him that his friends aren’t really friends, that he actually has no friends and only flunkies that do what he asks because they’re scared of him. Normally, Tony would just belittle Carmela and yell at her until she becomes submissive, but something about Carmela’s words causes Tony to wonder if there is truth to them. And when he goes to one of Feech’s executive card games, he tests the waters by making a terrible joke, all to see if his “friends” are just there to validate him. And, as if on cue, they all laugh obnoxiously at his terrible joke, not as friends, just as selfish and terrified employees. Because Tony doesn’t have any friends, not really. Just people that work for him.
However, where “Where’s Johnny?” shows Tony trying to understand those around him, “All Happy Families…” has him learning from his failures in the past. When Feech steals a bunch of cars at Dr. Ida Fried’s daughter’s wedding and then sells them to Johnny Sack, Tony comes to a crossroads with Feech’s behavior. He remembers Feech not laughing at him during the card game and understands, at the very least, that Feech isn’t even somebody that respects him or acts as an employee. So, instead of killing him outright like Richie or Ralphie, he schemes a way to get Feech put back into prison. Even though Tony may want to kill Feech for disrespecting him, he’s learning new ways to cope with people that undermine him. And considering how vicious a person Tony is, that’s a huge step for him.
Carmela is also coming to terms with the fact that she’s all alone as well, no real family around her to speak of. She lives alone with A.J., which is very difficult for her, considering how A.J. experiences normal teenage angst compounded with blaming her for the separation. He isolates himself from her and only comes to her to get what he wants. On top of that, Tony keeps giving A.J. gifts, a manipulative way to turn A.J. to his side and isolate him from his mother. Tony does use the new car as a way to make A.J. work harder on his schoolwork (as A.J. is doing very poorly in school and doesn’t have a whole lot of college options), but he still gives A.J. more material things, and A.J. reacts very strongly to material things, considering how rich and luxurious his parents’ lifestyle is.
It’s when A.J. lies about where he goes after a concert in New York City that Carmela finally snaps. She doesn’t know how to balance being stern and being generous, because it doesn’t seem like A.J. is willing to listen to either and Tony takes A.J’s side in order to win him over. So, in the end, A.J. goes and lives with Tony and Carmela lives by herself. The final shot encapsulates what happens to these characters when they realize the toxicity inherent in their own lives. They end up alone, having isolated everybody and everything around them.
“All Happy Families…” isn’t completely void of hope. It’s possible to learn from one’s mistakes in order to create something less toxic and poisonous. But it’s also impossible to get rid of the past, especially a past completely full of toxicity and manipulation. Carmela may see herself as a moral person, but she’s lived a life around an immoral man, and there’s no way to shed his influence on her life and on her family. A.J. has learned to be a selfish person, and while Carmela may want him to become better now that Tony is out of the house, his poisonous nature will still be a force in A.J.’s life. It’s not until it’s too late that we see just how our decisions have doomed the people around us.
So what do you think of Season 5? Is it as strong as the seasons so far, or is it even stronger? Let me know in the comments!