The Sopranos 5×05: “Irregular Around the Margins”
When we think about change, we think about completely rewriting our behavior. Regret for what our behaviors have done to us pervades our thoughts to the point of complete fixation, where we want to remedy our behavior entirely in order to somehow provide some equilibrium to our lives. Like becoming a better person negates all of the damage we’ve done to ourselves and to others. In reality, there is no way to push all of that damage away. Rewriting our behavior takes months, years, decades, vast amounts of time to maybe change one facet of who we are. And even that requires moving away from old places, old people, changing our surroundings completely to allow new habits to form. And as we get older, the odds of us doing that decrease more and more, as we have to cut out more ties in our life. The desire to remain comfortable overpowers our desire to change.
“Irregular Around the Margins” is undoubtedly one of the best episodes of the season (outshined by “Long Term Parking” and maybe “The Test Dream”) because it relies so heavily on one singular storyline that pulls Tony in two different directions: his desire to change and his desire to stay comfortable. This storyline is mostly fueled through Tony and Adrianna’s interactions, which come across in a far more organic fashion than they would on any other show. Tony and Adrianna are two characters that have never really interacted a great deal, but they seem to find common ground through their individual pain. Tony has a tumor on his forehead that is being tested for cancer, and Adrianna has Irritable Bowel Syndrome from all of the stress that her life is providing for her (FBI informant, engaged to an abuser, manager of a club). They both feel like nobody will listen to them, so they both feel isolated. And that makes it so that, when they do talk to one another, they instantly form a connection.
That connection walks a line between being paternal and sexual, with Tony being gentle and nurturing one day and physical and flirty the next. Tony is looking for a so much in his life, considering how lonely and deprived of connection he is, so he wants many different types of relationships from Adrianna. There’s a reason that the episode opens with Meadow at the Crazy Horse, witnessing Tony walk out of his office clearly high from cocaine. He has squandered relationships with both of his children, filling them with toxicity to the point that there’s almost no healthy interaction between Tony and either of them. So when he sees Adrianna, he sees someone he can care for. But he also sees an older girl he can have sex with, and that impulse strikes him as well. In Adrianna, there is a great deal of opportunity for Tony. With that new relationship, he can create anything he desires.
But what does he desire? In his discussions with Dr. Melfi, he expresses a desire to start new, to create a family with somebody new, to be a new person. It’s the first time he has really expressed that strongly that he wants something different in his life, where the dissatisfaction he experiences with his life is so intense that he wants something entirely new. But he also understands what a new life with Adrianna would do. To break free from his life now is to destroy absolutely everything around him, from his money to his family, all in order to do something new. And even that something new is connected to his old life. There’s no way to escape, not really. Even if he did, the past still exists. Our mistake curse us forever, never really letting us go. But Tony is still growing, as Dr. Melfi so emphatically reminds him. He’s pausing before his impulses push him into an erratic action. He’s thinking about his choices and what they mean. So Dr. Melfi gives him some advice: distance himself from Adrianna and set some limits and boundaries.
But as hard as he tries (which he does), he never really puts that advice into action. Asking him to do so is asking him to take his behavior and turn it completely around, which is nearly impossible for him to even consider. Tony ends up getting high with Adrianna, goes to score some more coke with her in Dover, and gets into an accident, flipping their car. To make things worse, a rumor goes around that she was giving him a blowjob in the car, so Christopher freaks out and beats up Adrianna, kicking her out of the house. Tony may have abstained from sleeping with Adrianna, but he didn’t draw those boundaries like Melfi had told him to, so everything devolves into chaos anyway. And all through the disaster, Tony tries to tell the truth, but can’t help but sprinkle in some lies as well. He tells Christopher that he was just trying to get a meal with Adrianna. He tells Carmela that he didn’t take any drugs. The truth isn’t pure enough because Tony did make some mistakes. He just wouldn’t own up to them.
However, it’s Tony’s final decision in the episode that shows how much he has grown. Christopher is almost executed by Tony after he drunkenly shoots up his car and bursts into the Bing ready to kill him. Tony is ready to execute Christopher when Tony Blundetto comes up with the idea to have the doctor who dealt with the accident explain everything to them. Just as Melfi told Tony that he was beginning to think through decisions, he considers Tony Blundetto’s idea, even though Christopher disrespected him and was about ready to kill him. It’s a way to keep tensions from exploding, and Tony realizes that.
However, even though it keeps the peace, ultimately it’s only a truth that benefits Tony. The fact of the matter is that Adrianna still snorted cocaine with Tony, and Christopher understands that Tony can twist the truth to suit his purposes, even if part of what he’s saying really is true. Everybody assumes that Tony wants to sleep with Adrianna because that’s what Tony’s old behavior would lead him to do. So, no matter what Tony does, he can’t escape who he has been. He can’t escape how other people see him. And as long as he stays around the same old people, does the same old things, and rejects dealing with his past, there’s no way to move forward.
So, at the end of the episode, Tony sits at dinner with his family, having returned everything to peace. But it’s still a toxic peace, a false peace, one that will never make Tony happy.
The Sopranos 5×06: “Sentimental Education”
The Sopranos has a habit of creating episodes specifically about how Tony Soprano’s orbit poisons all those around him, the proximity of that orbit dictating the magnitude of the poisoning. All of those episodes are fairly similar in their structure. Some of the supporting characters attempt to do something new or to change. They find some semblance of success. They see something different and better off in the horizon. They come into conflict with Tony or his business. They begin to resort back to old behavior. That better future falls to pieces and they’re pushed further into Tony’s orbit. It’s a poignant concept, but it can be somewhat repetitive. And if there’s one complaint I have about The Sopranos, it’s how repetitive it can be.
Despite that, “Sentimental Education” has a strong storyline going for it, with both Carmela and Tony Blundetto seeing that new future off in the horizon, only to destroy it with the selfish desires they’ve relied on for so long. They also succumb to the pressures of that failed future, as they want it so badly but know the price of failure. Self-sabotage is an easy way to stave off that pressure, and brings everything back to the equilibrium that they’re comfortable with. But it’s still a false comfort, one that includes the failure they’ve had in the past.
Tony Blundetto’s fate isn’t one that comes as a surprise. His desire to be a massage therapist isn’t one that is going to be fruitful, especially when you consider all of the factors working against him. He’s constantly around Tony and his crew, who live extravagant lives around him. He works furiously at Kim’s laundry, hauling heavy laundry during long shifts that start at early hours. His massage exams are extremely difficult. And he’s an ex-con, so he’s out of touch and looked down upon by every civilian he comes into contact with. But he pushes hard towards his goal to be a professional masseuse, passing his exams and getting some start-up money from his boss Kim to start his own business. Even so, his progress works against him as well. The more success he finds, the more pressure he has to succeed more.
And the pressure starts getting to him when he and his girlfriend stumble across $12,000, which he uses to buy an expensive suit and gamble. It’s not necessarily that he can’t help himself. Throughout the episode, Tony Blundetto’s desire to be a masseuse becomes obsessive, where his studying is one of the only things he does. That obsession becomes necessary when he’s constantly surrounded by decadence, being pressured to quit on an almost non-stop basis. The pressure finally bursts when he’s asked by Kim whether they’ll be ready to open in three days, and he beats Kim with a 2×4 as a result. It’s a quick way to completely negate all of the progress that he’s made, effectively destroying his aspirations in one fell swoop. And with the destruction of those aspirations, Tony Blundetto goes back to his cousin, asking to be part of his next scheme. He’s pulled into his cousin’s orbit, even after his minor successes.
Carmela’s storyline works to show how, even with Tony and A.J. out of the house, she’s still poisoned by Tony’s influence and presence. She starts up a romance with Dr. Wexler, the head of the English department where A.J. goes to school, and there’s something real about that romance. She actually has fun with the man, she’s able to be sexual and happy in a way that erases the obligations that Tony had for her when they were together. Because, in being with Dr. Wexler, she’s not complicit in anything. She’s just experiencing a pure happiness that she never really had with Tony. Because as long as she was with Tony, he was involved in the Mafia. She always had to be the subordinate one, treated like a child. And she occasionally does that to herself within her relationship with Dr. Wexler, when she tries to keep up with his academic knowledge and puts herself down when she can’t. But, for the most part, she’s experiencing something that she hasn’t experienced in decades.
But her past is always rising up to sabotage her new relationship. A.J.’s grades are constantly an issue, as he doesn’t really try to improve himself at all. Carmela tries to help him with his paper, but he just sleeps as she writes it for him or he buys it off of the internet. Tony certainly isn’t a help, as he just pushes A.J. around and physically threatens him when A.J. talks back. Tony doesn’t realize that he’s created the monster that A.J. has become, that A.J.’s behavior is just going to continue deteriorating as long as he continues his abusive behavior towards his son. So Carmela resorts back to the behavior that she’s learned from Tony. She’s manipulative towards Dr. Wexler, trying to get him to talk to the right people to give A.J. a shot at college. And while it works to get A.J. a better grade on his paper, Dr. Wexler breaks up with her because of her manipulation. It’s such a part of Carmela’s personality, to the point that she doesn’t realize it and even blames Dr. Wexler for seeing her the wrong way. Even if Carmela wants to change, she has been affected by Tony so completely that he’ll be a part of her life forever.
Tony’s poisonous nature distorts everybody around him, and even though that message gets repetitive the more it’s retold, it’s still important to remind the audience of as the show transitions to its endgame, especially as The Sopranos gets closer to its final nine episodes (which is its best string of episodes, maybe the best string of episodes a television show has ever had). As The Sopranos comes closer to its end, that message does become more and more desperate, as characters are beginning to lose more and more as a result of Tony’s grasp. The question at this point is: How long until Tony causes these people to lose everything? People like Jackie Jr and Ralphie have lost everything because of the poisonous grasp of Tony, but they’re more peripheral characters compared to those who are closest to Tony. How long until it’s A.J.? Or Carmela? Or Christopher? Because death is coming for everybody, and Tony is only expediting the process.
What do you all think of Season 5? Is “Irregular Around the Margins” the best of the season, or do you like “Long Term Parking” better? Let me know in the comments!