David Chase’s saga of an American family begins.
EPISODE 1 - ORIGINALLY AIRED JAN 10, 1999 WRITTEN BY DAVID CHASE DIRECTED BY DAVID CHASE
The Sopranos seduces viewers right from the get-go with that incredible opening-credits sequence. “Woke Up This Morning (Got Yourself A Gun)”—a bluesy, techno-infused, cat-in-heat screech by British band A3—scores the sequence while a handheld camera introduces us to the harsh industrial environments of New Jersey. The vistas soften as Tony Soprano pilots his Chevy Suburban closer and closer to his suburban home. The final shots of the opening credits deliver Tony into the driveway of his luxurious house, giving us a clue that the domestic dimension of this mobster’s life will figure heavily in his story. Throughout the sequence, James Gandolfini is able to project a kind of worldly, street-smart confidence – this is a man who knows the score, he doesn’t easily get the wool pulled over his eyes. And that’s what makes the opening shot of the Pilot so surprising:
We would expect a series about a powerful mobster to begin by giving us some narrative and visual expression of his strength and power. We might have predicted something like the opening of The Godfather, in which Boss Vito Corleone grants powerful favors to guests attending his daughter’s regal reception at his impressive home. We could have expected David Chase to generate an impression of strength and power with his camera, as Leni Riefenstahl does in her Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will. She exploits scale, angle and symmetry with purpose:
But Chase and company go in the opposite direction in their opening scene. They scale down, diminish Tony, remove all sense of power and monumentality from the imagery. Pilot episodes typically begin with an “establishing shot” that immediately orients the viewer; we are hit here instead with a disorienting shot. Tony looks a bit perplexed, and the viewer shares in his confusion – we don’t know where he is or what he’s doing there.
By framing Tony within the legs of the sculpture in this opening scene, Chase may be referencing the infamous shot from The Graduate:
Just as Ben spends much of that movie baffled by the Feminine, The Sopranos will have Tony disconcerted by his mother, his wife, his daughter, his sister, his female therapist, and his various goomars. We are further disoriented by the silence of the opening sequence – over a minute passes before any real dialogue is exchanged. While The Sopranos does not use its opening sequence as an establishing scene in the conventional way, two important recurring Sopranos characteristics do get established here: silence and ambiguity. The famous cut-to-black in the Series Finale, airing more than eight years after this Pilot debuted, closed the series just as it opened – with silence and ambiguity.
Tony feels that he’s come in at the end of something, he has reduced expectations of life. Dr. Melfi assures him that many Americans feel this way. Right out of the gate, The Sopranos began to establish itself as a cultural barometer. Arguably no other contemporary TV show so successfully captured the angst and unique maelstrom of that particular period of time, at the end of the 20th/beginning of the 21st centuries. Tony’s worries are primarily personal concerns regarding his security and that of his family (manifesting itself as an almost irrational concern for a family of ducks that has roosted in his backyard). But he is also suffers from a cultural anxiety generated by the end of “the American Century.” The century in which we saved Europe from evil, wildly flourished under a market economy, and defeated Communism was rapidly coming to an end. There was a sense, perhaps, that we had never really paid our dues, at least when measured against the enviable ways in which we thrived. We had been getting something-for-nothing for too long. The front page of Tony’s Star-Ledger reminds us that we will have to pay the piper before long: Medicare will soon go bust. Yet the back page exhorts us to continue in our ways: Autoland’s SummerSlam event gets you a new car for “Absolutely Nothing Down!”
Both the Government and the Private Sector have been telling us that we can delay payment and focus instead on our short term interests. Tony Soprano embodies this “buy now, pay later” philosophy perhaps more than anyone one else in American art. He may have to pay later – through an enemy’s bullet, a prison sentence or feelings of guilt (ok, that last one is unlikely), but he’ll do anything to profit right now.
Tony’s dealings with indebted gambler Mahaffey provide us our first glimpse of Tony’s criminality. It’s not enough to beat and threaten Mahaffey who is behind on his payments – Tony wants the white-collar professional to set up an insurance scam. The manner in which Tony thinks up this new criminal enterprise is presented to us not only narratively but also through imagery and set design. It is shown through a series of scenes and images that are linked together by a particular color scheme:
- A black-and-blue “US/HMO” sign may have first planted the idea of an HMO scam in Tony’s mind
- Tony perhaps mentally incorporates “MRIs” into the scam while getting an MRI in the heavily-stylized black-and-blue scanning room
- Tony, at the similarly stylized Bada Bing, shares his plan to set up phony clinics that will bill HMOs
These phony mob-run clinics could certainly deplete some federal funds, hastening the demise of Medicare even further. The “US/HMO” sign may signal that it’s not just HMOs that would get bruised and bamboozled by these mob activities, it’s all of US – all of American society would be left black-and-blue.
FOOD, FAITH AND FIREARMS
Throughout the series, we will find a troubling relationship between consumption (in all its forms), religion and mob activity/violence – what I will categorize as “Food, Faith and Firearms.” The Pilot lays the groundwork for this with a startling scene in which Carmela grabs an assault rifle from its hiding place in the dining room, of all places, with her parish Priest in tow:
Religion (or at least contemporary Catholicism as practiced by these characters) is a problematic thing. Father Phil’s first line of the series is about food (crème Anglaise) which points to his own personal preoccupation with food, but also gives us our first taste (um, sorry) of the series’ continuous portrayal of him as a religious leader that is disturbingly complacent toward his flock’s attitude on consumption. In later episodes we will see that the Church is unable to alleviate Carmela’s concerns about the lifestyle she has chosen.
The church that Tony brings Meadow to is a sacred place, full of family history and quiet beauty. Its grandeur contrasts strongly with the cheesy religious imagery found at Livia’s house, from the cheap plastic icon in her front yard to the pictures randomly tacked onto the interior walls. Despite her Christian paraphernalia, Livia is far from living a genuinely spiritual life. The reproduction of the Last Supper at her home is obscured, it isn’t clearly seen – it cannot evoke the genuine religious feeling as the unobstructed closeup of this final meal, full of awe and fellowship, at the church can:
The link between food and firearms is most clearly established with the first murder of the series: the killing of Emil Kolar at Centanni’s Pork Store, amidst tasty meats and butchered animal parts.
It may seem a bit odd that this Pilot labors so diligently to create the connection between food and violence, but the reason becomes less mysterious as the series continues. The Sopranos is critical of our culture’s voracious consumerism, and Food functions as a symbol of this dubious American characteristic. These mobsters are driven to behave criminally in order to satisfy their consumerist desires, and are oftentimes supported and funded by the larger American culture’s likewise desire. A sentence by Chris Moltisanti brings this idea into sharper focus: “Garbage is our bread-and-butter.” This paradoxical-sounding line expresses a true fact: the waste-carting [garbage] business in the Northeast has been a primary source of income for the Mob for several decades. But Chris’ line has a deeper, truer significance. It is our culture’s historically unrivaled ability to create garbage—by using and consuming, devouring and demolishing, draining, burning, wasting, and depleting every resource and surplus available to us in pursuit of our desires—that ultimately gives such thriving business to the Mob. Two scenes amplify these points further:
In the first screengrab above, we see Tony conduct business in front of a mountain of trash. If ours wasn’t such a consuming culture, perhaps neither the heap nor Tony would be present here. (Maybe he’d be selling patio furniture off Route 22 instead.) In his essay “Fresh Garbage,” Fred Gardaphe notes that…
Thorstein Veblin’s classic, Theory of the Leisure Class, taught us all how make sense of the consumer culture of capitalism, and his notions of “conspicuous consumerism” and “conspicuous waste” can help us overcome the simplification of knee-jerk responses to The Sopranos. The Sopranos matters because it reflects U.S. capitalism at its height…Tony Soprano, a partner in a waste management company, is not only a purveyor of garbage but a dramatic embodiment of the waste produced by postmodern U.S. consumer culture.
Fittingly, Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class will appear in Season 3. In the second picture above, Carmela stuffs her husband’s ill-gotten cash into a false-bottom Campbell’s Soup can. Where we expect to find consumable food, there is money begotten of violence. Food and violence are strongly equated. (No surprise it’s a can of Minestrone, Campbell’s take on Italian soup.)
This Pilot, like most pilot episodes, is far from perfect. Among the most egregious of missteps was the decision to score the scene in which Mahaffey is chased and rundown with a Doo-Wop song. (Chase later admitted it was a mistake.) I do not like the foray into voiceover-narration that’s found here, nor am I very fond of some of the extreme camera angles and colored lens filters that Chase used throughout the episode. Nevertheless, we get a premonition here that the series will be the work of a true-blue cinephile. In the DVD commentary track for this episode, Chase (an English-major in college and later graduate of Stanford’s film school) makes casual but pertinent references to Vonnegut and Chinatown and Truffaut’s The Soft Skin. His series is profoundly shaped by his literary and film education. We can see this, for example, in how intelligently Chase employs his camera. Some of the scenes in the Pilot are shot with a gorgeous, elliptical camera movement (such as when Corrado and his crew leave Vesuvio, and a similar circling dolly occurs around Chris and Emil at Centanni pork store). These dramatic camera movements give the episode an epic feel. There is one scene in particular that features some bravura camerawork:
The production crew built a ramp for the Steadicam operator so that he could reach a high angle (which amplifies the menacing mood of the situation) without cutting the shot (which could potentially diminish the menace). This short clip shows a wealth of camera movement and angles—and intelligence—that are in short supply in most pilots. We see how Chase, through cinematic means, is able to transform a delicious ice cream cone into an incarnation of threat.
In contrast to the dynamic and dramatic shots that make up much of the hour, the scenes in Dr. Melfi’s office are made up of very static, understated shots – the camera does not evoke epic grandeur but the quiet, thoughtful, intimate process of therapy. David Chase has stated on several occasions, including a March 2004 NPR interview with Terry Gross, that a production rule had been established right from the beginning that there would be no camera dollies or push-ins during Tony’s therapy sessions. A push-in (or zoom) might indicate to the viewer to pay attention now, because what’s being said is very important. But Chase tells Terry Gross that psychotherapy, in real life, is far more ambiguous; it is not so easy to recognize what is or what isn’t important during a therapy session, and the camerawork must reflect this ambiguous nature of psychotherapy. Beginning with this first hour, we see that the camera is used in many ways, but always in a way that best serves the needs of a particular scene.
THE SOPRANOS – A CONTEMPORARY MOB-STORY
Right from the opening credits, we get the sense that The Sopranos is a new type of mob-story, something we haven’t really seen before. Chase lets us know from the outset that this is gonna be a whole nother ballgame, folks. Most gangster sagas are set in New York, but as Tony drives away from NYC, deeper and deeper into north Jersey during the opening credits, we immediately understand that we will be in new geographical terrain. The New Jersey locale is as crucially a part of the series as Tony Soprano is.
In addition to unfamiliar geography, the series will put us on new psychological, emotional and narrative terrain. While most mobster films and novels are centered around the Mafia, the mob makes up only one piece of the Sopranos puzzle. In this hour, we certainly find a number of mob concerns: Mahaffey’s outstanding gambling debt, Pussy Malanga’s imminent whacking, disputes over waste-carting contracts. But we also see that several non-Mafia storylines are being developed with the same priority and attention to detail.
I would argue that The Sopranos must be characterized as “an American story” first and foremost, and only secondarily as “a mob saga.” This episode furnishes our first view of a SopranoLand murder—the killing of Emil Kolar—but, interestingly, this murder is bracketed by commentary about an American culture that is far bigger and broader than the mafia culture of SopranoLand. Moments before Chris Moltisanti shoots Emil, the two men exchange this dialogue:
Emil: In Czech Republic too we love pork. You ever have our sausages?
Chris: No, I thought the only sausages they had was Italian and Jimmy Deans. See what you learn when you cross cultures and shit?
As Chris fires multiple shots into his victim, Chase crosses cultures by cross-cutting to pictures of various iconic Americans hanging up on the wall. It is not just photos of Italian-Americans or mobsters that we see, but a mix of people: Bogey, Dino, Robinson. The entire scene is scored to a Chicago blues-style song (a style of music that is deeply and uniquely American): Bo Diddley’s “I’m A Man.” Over the course of six seasons, The Sopranos investigates the strange, hilarious and messy ways in which people of different cultures—different ethnicities, incomes, education levels, and regional histories—come together in the mosaic we call America. The Sopranos explores what it means to be American.
Perhaps the signature difference between The Sopranos and all previous works in the gangster genre is the great amount of attention that is given to Tony’s personal life, in addition to his professional life. I will delve more into how the series accomplishes this in later write-ups; right now I only want to point out one example of how Chase links Tony’s personal and professional lives through imagery. The Sopranos had far fewer explosions (or car chases or fistfights or shootouts) than one might have expected in a primetime gangster drama. This episode, with its two explosions, is an exception. Perhaps the explosions were included as way to play to the expectations of the audience (as well as network executives while the series was being shopped around). In any case, the two blasts serve to connect Tony’s two lives:
With a visual rhyme, Chase merges Tony’s personal and professional lives. In the first instance, Tony passes out from an anxiety attack while preparing food for a family get-together, causing the unattended grill to flare up. In the second, Tony has Vesuvio bombed in order to prevent a mob hit from taking place there. Although The Sopranos is a mob saga, the story of Tony’s criminal life will not take precedence over the story of his domestic life; in fact, the two will be seen more and more as inexorably linked.
The primary division, arguably, in Tony’s life is not between domesticity and criminality. Rather, Tony’s greatest duality may arise from his marital infidelity. He is, on the one hand, a loving husband, completely committed to protecting and providing for his family. On the other hand, he is a serial philanderer who cheats with barely a pang of guilt. When Tony visits a restaurant, first with his mistress and later with Carmela, the host—as if he were the personification of Tony’s conscience—is dressed alternately in black and then white.
Carm knows about her husband’s cheating, and makes a crack about it in her very first scene of the series. But it will not become a major conflict this first season. In Season Four, however, Tony’s philandering will cleave the Soprano household in two.
By the time he produced The Sopranos, David Chase had already been active in television for decades, most notably with The Rockford Files, Northern Exposure and Almost Grown. But The Sopranos represents his first effort to truly extend our conception of what a popular television show could be. In an April 2007 Vanity Fair article, “An American Family,” Peter Biskind reports that David Chase was referred to on the Sopranos set as “Master Cylinder.” Chase is, without question, the heart and brain behind the series. The Sopranos is his baby. In his capacity as showrunner, he ran the show – no one had more control of daily operations or more influence on the final product than he did. He is, as Biskind writes, “one of the few authentic auteurs television has produced.” However, I do believe that television production is a highly collaborative process, and therefore, when I use the term “Chase” throughout this website, I am (for the most part) referring to both David Chase and his production team. In those instances where I mean the man himself, I hope the context will make that clear.
The Pilot is truly a fountainhead episode; moments and characters and references from here will gush and flow into all the seasons of the series. A partial listing of connections to future episodes include:
- The opening shot of Tony looking at the sculpture in Melfi’s waiting room is closely mimicked in Season 3 when Carmela visits Dr. Melfi
- Chris mentions that his cousin’s girlfriend works in Hollywood – she is the namesake of Season 2’s “D-Girl”
- Tony picks us a newspaper from his driveway, an action that appears in most of the season openers
- Meadow balks at her mother’s traditional request to accompany her to lunch in front of the portrait of Eloise at the Plaza Hotel, but we will see them continue the custom in Season 4’s “Eloise”
- Uncle Junior’s criticizes Tony’s shortcomings as a varsity athlete, as he will continue to over the seasons
- Tony’s infatuation with ducks will be alluded to again and again; in the penultimate episode of the series, Melfi will see Tony’s concern with animals to be a sort of manipulation
- It is Pussy Malanga that Corrado wants to kill in this episode; in his dementia, he tries to kill an already-dead Malanga again in Season 6
- Tony speaks of Gary Cooper, “the strong, silent type”
- JFK’s hat, which is in Tony’s possession, will appear again in Season 5
- Emil Kolar, the series’ first murder victim, will appear again in a dream and then again as a dug-up corpse
In addition to connections to future episodes, there are connections to events, people and works of art in the real world (i.e. allusions and references). If I were to list every connection, I would probably double the length of this write-up. Chase is almost like a spider, casting threads and making connections in all directions. The Sopranos is his spider web, and each connection and allusion he makes adds to its tensile strength. The viewer gets ensnared in it. The Sopranos’ fictional world ultimately becomes a place that feels very real because these connections give the series a sense of being tightly constructed, and because they tie the series to our actual world. Connectivity helps to bind the viewer to the show; we become bound in the seemingly real society and culture of SopranoWorld. (I think Chase gives us some clues that he is purposefully utilizing connectivity in this way, and I’ll get into this deeper in “D-Girl” (2.07) and beyond.)
- The Pilot (called “The Sopranos” on the DVD release) was shot 1.5 years before it aired on HBO, and that might account for some of the differences between this episode and the rest of Season One. (For example, “Father Phil” and “Irina” are played by different actors.)
- A Family Thing: We see Hunter Scangarelo, played by Chase’s daughter Michelle, before we see Carmela or the Soprano kids
- Recycling: Tony takes a line that Dr. Melfi says to him—“Hope comes in many forms”—and recycles it to Artie Bucco, who is distraught over the loss of his restaurant. We will see Tony do quite a bit of rehashing and recycling of Melfi’s words over the course of the series.
- We notice early on that Father Phil is a bit of a movie buff – he even mentions Gordon Willis (the celebrated cinematographer) while he and Carm discuss the Godfather movies. Film references in The Sopranos endear the series to cinephile viewers. They also point to David Chase’s own focus and preoccupation with movies and cinematography. (Chase made sure to work on this series with people who share the same focus and proccupation. On the DVD commentary track, Chase gives great credit to Director of Photography Alik Sakharov for his input and expertise.)
- The Sopranos’ use of clever, ironic or humorous edits is established here. In one example, Tony is in a good mood and says, “It’s a beautiful day. What could be bad?” → Cut immediately to sourpuss Livia, complaining to Corrado about her son. (She becomes quiet and attentive as Corrado responds that “something may have to be done” about Tony.)
- Someone must be watching The Rockford Files at Green Grove – its theme song can be heard while the Soprano family and Livia tour the facility.
- Tony tells Melfi about a dream in which he unscrews his navel and his dick falls off, which then gets carried away by a bird. A Freudian would no doubt have a field day with this. Freud famously referred to dreams as “the royal road to the unconscious.” Chase will use dreams throughout The Sopranos to express his characters’ subconscious fears, desires and insights. (Melfi will allude to this particular dream in the Season One Finale when she correctly suspects Livia of being behind the attempt on Tony’s life.)
- As Alan Sepinwall has reported, David Chase once toyed with the idea of playing The Sopranos as a broad, farcical comedy, sort of like The Simpsons. But once James Gandolfini read for the part of “Tony Soprano,” Chase understood that the show “can be absurdist, it can have a lot of stupid shit in it, but it should not be a live-action ‘Simpsons.’” The series only became what it is, full of everything—humor, drama, satire, tragedy, ardor, absurdity—because of the talent of James Gandolfini.
- Nick Lowe’s “The Beast in Me” closes out the Pilot, giving us an early intimation of David Chase’s admirable musical taste and knowledge.
- David Chase’s opposition to black-and-white simplification is one of the defining characteristics of The Sopranos, and we get a sense of this even while listening to his DVD commentary: he says, regarding Carmela’s complicity in Tony’s criminality, “Let’s not say it is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ – you’re going in a certain direction.” (Right and wrong may exist, but Chase is more interested in portraying how characters move along the line between right and wrong rather than in classifying them in one group or the other.) I think this characteristic is apparent in the infamous closing moments of the Series Finale. Those viewers who insist that Tony is killed at Holsten’s may be overlooking Chase’s aversion to simplistic binaries; Right/Wrong, Good/Evil, even Dead/Alive (in this final instance) are dichotomies that David Chase rarely accommodates on The Sopranos.