A smooth-talking rap mogul tries to collect age-old music royalties from Hesh while pursuing an opportunity
with Adriana and Christopher. Tony hangs out with some “meddigans.”
Episode 10 – Originally aired March 14, 1999
Written by Joe Bosso and Frank Renzulli
Directed by Matthew “Yes, that Penn” Penn
“A Hit is a Hit” is a hit, rollicking with good humor and playfulness – although it doesn’t start out so lighthearted. In the first scene, the Soprano crew whack a Colombian over a business disagreement. But after this early violence, the episode turns hilarious, showering us with puns, ridiculous characters, wry cuts, a funny-cuz-it’s-dull anecdote about John Gotti, bad music, bad musicians, and rounds things off with a practical joke on next-door neighbor Cusamano (whose nickname—Cooz—takes a vulgar inflection when Tony utters it). The episode even gets us to laugh at the story of poor cleft-palated Jimmy Smash, whose career as a bank robber is tanked by his speech disorder.
This is not to say that Chase isn’t doing some serious work here. The Sopranos’ first season has been a steady investigation of the Gangster in America, and this episode is one more variation on the theme. Previous episodes focused on the gangster as “father,” “husband,” “friend,” “killer” and “manager.” This episode continues mainly in the vein of “The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti” (1.08) which looked at the gangster as “an American cultural phenomenon.” Episode 1.08 was somewhat cold and distant, with its slyly embedded allusions and self-reflexivity and measured responses to the implicit questions that Chase anticipated his series would raise. “A Hit is a Hit” explores some of the same territory as did “Tennessee” but it is more accessible – it doesn’t have the layered allusions to previous films or the cleverly embedded responses to scholarly criticisms. This hour looks at the Gangster in America not as he exists in the theoretical world of academia or the media, but as he is actually perceived in the neighborhood.
This neighborhood is populated not only by traditional Mafia gangsters, but by capitalist and hip-hop gangsters as well. All three “gangs” must endure stereotyped perceptions by others, and all three are, in the final analysis, comprised of fairly regular folks, not too different from anybody else. Everyone exhibits the signs and signifiers that indicate their membership in a particular group, but the differences in these indicators are mostly superficial. The capitalist couple at the Cusamano’s dinner table look like they were transplanted from a 1987 episode of Knots Landing, but they’re not that different from Tony Soprano in some respects. In fact, the gentleman says that what goes on in corporate boardrooms is comparable to Mafia behavior, and Cooz adds, “Sometimes I think the only thing separating American business from the Mob is fuckin’ whacking somebody.”
Massive G and his crew are also not fundamentally different from everyone else. Although Massive is O.G. (Original Gangsta) rather than O.C. (Organized Crime), he and Tony have a lot in common. They both are constantly on the hustle, try to avoid violence, and even seem to share a similar temperament.
Despite their differences in accoutrement and etiquette, everyone is fundamentally the same. The divisions that do exist between the characters are mostly marginal – in the end, everyone is swimming in the same “fucking regularness” of life. As Tony explains to Dr. Melfi, “Guys like me, we’re brought up to think the meddigan are fuckin’ bores. But truth is, the average white man is no more boring than the millionth conversation over who should have won, Marciano or Ali.”
The “mayonaissers” around Tony’s neighborhood almost desperately want him to be different, not just a regular guy like one of them. They look to their neighborhood mobster for excitement and amusement. Tony recognizes that they see him as a novelty, a “dancing bear.” He just wants to fit in: trade stock tips over some BBQ and play a nice round of golf with the guys. But the guys don’t include him in their investment discussions around the grill, and at the golf course they are more interested in hearing juicy stories about Mob life. Tony gives them an anecdote about John Gotti that is notable mainly for its banality.
The hip-hop gangstas are not as exciting or intriguing as one might have expected either. Massive G has a degree in Urban Planning, and prefers to solve his problems with lawyers rather than with bullets. The episode title strongly sets up the possibility of a violent confrontation between gangsters and gangstas, but the battle between the two groups takes the mundane form of lawsuit and countersuit. Anyone watching this episode hoping to see an explosive shootout would be as disappointed as the meddigans hearing Tony’s story about John Gotti buying an ice cream truck.
This episode shows us, yet again, that banality is the underlying key in which life is composed, every chord in our existence is relative to that key. That being said, we see (and hear) that some things—like music—can transcend the regular and the mundane – they can be exceptional. Of course, this is what the titular “hit” refers to. Not all music is created the same. The Little Jimmy Willis tune which is the cause of so much contention here is so much better than the stuff that Defiler is producing. The gap in quality becomes enormously (and hilariously) apparent when the two songs are heard in back-to-back scenes:
I love this clip. For one thing, we see/hear how Chase blurs the definitions of diagetic (source) music and non-diagetic (scored) music: is Hesh actually listening to Willis’ “Fools Follow Angels” or is it just scored over the scene? And if he is listening to it at his home, how can it bleed into the earlier scene with the wives sitting around the table? It’s a touch of ambiguity. Even more ambiguous is the song itself. “Fools Follow Angels” so perfectly captures the sweet mixture of pop and soul that defined the Motown sound that we assume that the track was an actual ’60s song. It’s not – it seems to have been written by Tom Harriman and Pamela Phillips-Oland specifically for this episode. (If you want a chuckle, Google the song and see the confusion it has generated.) Regardless of whether it is diagetic or non-diagetic, an original Motown song or one made for The Sopranos, one thing is certain – it is a hit…is a hit is a hit is a hit…
MEN & WOMEN
I had seen this episode two or three times before I recognized how highly concerned it is with gender roles and definitions of masculinity and femininity. One reason why Tony has hesitated for so long to build a friendship with Bruce Cusamano may be because “Wonderbread wops” like Cooz don’t exactly live up to his conception of masculinity. (Of course, it would be difficult for anyone to live up to Tony’s idealized notion of “Gary Cooper” masculinity.) In his essay, “Wonderbread and Stugots: Italian-American Manhood and The Sopranos,” E. Anthony Rotundo writes that…
“The struggle between opposing cultural forces defines the essence of Italian-American manhood – a struggle between the remembered manhood of premodern Italy and the manhood of modern America…To watch Tony Soprano wage this struggle is to examine the struggle itself. The life choices of an atypical Italian-American male lay bare the heart of Italian-American manhood.”
A part of Tony certainly wants to fully assimilate into mainstream suburban America. But I think he also feels some revulsion for those he sees as emasculated, deracinated suburban American males. The neighboring white men don’t fully accept Tony Soprano as one of them, but they are fascinated by Tony the mobster, who—ostensibly—lives a life of manly action and excitement that they can only dream of. Though they make this bear dance, they recognize that Tony is, after all, a bear – large, powerful and dangerous. Some of the appeal of la cosa nostra (literally “our thing”) for Tony may be that the Mafia provides a way for him to hold onto his ancestors’ tougher, more traditional definition of masculinity as he makes his way in the new country.
The Gangsters vs. Gangstas storyline here is also anchored in these concerns about manhood. Much of black urban culture, including Gangsta Rap, emerged as a response to the socio-institutional emasculation and marginalization of black men over a period of centuries. The exaggerated posturing and threats between the blacks and the Italians in this hour are fundamentally an attempt by each to exhibit their masculinity and dominance. (Even the name “Massive G” is meant to suggest a bigger-than-average manhood.) At no time is this clearer than when Massive shows off his guns, displaying a pistol to Christopher with a combination of menace and phallic swagger:
This episode’s exploration of femininity is more subtle than its treatment of masculinity. The notion that “a woman’s place is in the kitchen and the bedroom” is an outdated idea in contemporary America, but it still has traction in the world of the Mob – and Chase uses the kitchen and bedroom to great affect in Carmela and Adriana’s storylines here. Carmela and Adriana’s lives as Mob Women are strongly compared and contrasted in this episode. The comparison is set up early by a conversation in which Adriana scoffs at the idea of becoming the stereotypical Mob wife:
Adriana: And be one of those wives like Carmela Soprano? Breast-feed a bunch of rugrats and spend the rest of your life at the gym, just you and your stretch marks?
Chris: You’re right, my cousin always had a brain, but what does she use it for?
Adriana: With a husband who can’t even tell you where the money comes from.
Carmela is a far more colorful character than this monochromatic assessment by Adriana and Chris would suggest, although it is true that her life is limited in many ways. Of Carmela’s four scenes in this episode, three of them take place in her kitchen. She makes her way to the kitchen counter in her first scene, wearing a gym shirt (hmm, maybe Adriana was on to something), desperately trying to learn about their family’s financial security from Tony, who is not very forthcoming at all (ok, Adriana seems to have nailed Carmela’s life perfectly). But in a later scene, also at the kitchen counter, we find Carmela taking her financial security into her own hands. Acting on a tip from a neighborhood wife, Carmela is purchasing stock – without her husband’s knowledge. Looking sharp in Business Black, she does not look like a clueless housewife/gym-rat here. In her final scene of the episode—at the kitchen counter again—Carmela happily discovers that she bought American Biotics shares at the right time, just before they split 3-1. Reading the newspaper in a blue sweater, she looks like neither a bored housewife nor a cutthroat stocktrader, but like a woman becoming engaged with the world, learning to transcend the narrow limits that have defined her life.
Adriana also tries to empower herself, embarking on a career of “music management” with Chris’ help. Her effort is compromised by the fact that she doesn’t seem to have a great ear for music – Defiled is a truly crappy band. But she is also undermined by Christopher. He assures her that she will have control over the venture, that he only wants to be able to control how she dresses. But Chris wrests full control of the project at the studio, making absurd demands and smashing the singer with a guitar, and then using his position as financier of the project to justify his outrageous behavior. Massive G, a potential partner in the venture, also does not accord Adriana great professional respect. His interest in her is much more personal. In the scene where they listen to an execreble track by Defiler, Adriana is backlit in a way that makes it clear what Massive G is really after:
Drea de Matteo is excellent in this episode. Her “Adriana” is a woman who embraces her sexuality but does not knowingly exploit it. She desperately desires empowerment but lacks the means and confidence to gain it. She is vulnerable to exploitation, too naive to recognize when she is being victimized. Chase seems to meta-exploit de Matteo here, shooting three different scenes of Adriana in the bedroom in her panties, in order to emphasize how sexual objectification and gender constraints limit Adriana in the hyper-macho world of the Mob.
Although Adriana mocks Carmela in that early conversation with Chris, it is Carmela who is finally able to carve out a space for herself within the confines of her life and her kitchen. As the series progresses, Carmela will gather more and more power for herself. Adriana gives up her business venture here and, tragically, she does not learn or grow from the experience. She will, with Christopher’s help again, become the proprietor of a nightclub later in the series – yet she will remain powerless and vulnerable. The FBI will ultimately exploit this nightclub to leverage their power against Adriana, which will lead to a very unfortunate consequence for her.
The episode closes by treating us to one of the funniest scenes of the first season. Nobody’s fool (or dancing bear), Tony asks Cusamano to hold a package for him for a while. There’s nothing illicit or dangerous about the package, it is filled with sand. (Perhaps Tony grabbed the sand from a sand trap at the public golf course that he has returned to, no longer interested—or welcome—to play at the private course with Cooz’ meddigan friends). As the Cusamanos stare at the menacing box, they get further alarmed by a terrifying grunt coming from the Soprano house. We know that there are no violent activities taking place next door, it’s simply the sound of Tony lifting weights. Defiler’s horrendous “Defile You” starts to play, underscoring meddigan Cooz and mobster Tony’s mutual defilement of one another over the course of the episode, and providing one last gag in this hilarious hour before the final credits start to roll.
FOOD & FIREARMS
In his essay “‘Fat Fuck! Why Don’t You Take A Look in the Mirror?’: Weight, Body Image, and Masculinity in The Sopranos,” Avi Santo takes a different angle than I do on Tony’s anecdote about John Gotti and the ice cream truck. I think the limp anecdote is primarily meant to highlight just how similar mobsters can be to everyone else in middle-class America – a gangster’s life is not all hits-and-tits, bullets and boobs. Santo recognizes this point, but also argues that the story underlines an important difference between Tony and Cooz. He writes…
“…the image of the ice cream truck being driven by a gangster is a powerful symbol of sinful over-indulgence if there ever was one…Cusamano, the embodiment of middle-class restraint, fits perfectly into the world he inhabits. Ice cream is a temptation he can resist. Tony, like the disturbing image he conjures up of Gotti ceaselessly ringing the ice cream bell, does not.”
I’m sure we’re reading way too much into some frickin’ ice cream. But then again, we know that Chase has sprinkled symbolism onto his ice cream in the past: in the Pilot, an ice cream cone represented a menacing threat when Big Pussy tossed it into the gorge at Paterson Falls.
- The killing of the Colombian confirms the expectation of murder that we have when we read the episode title. Because of this, the title becomes very effective as a red herring – we expect violence to breakout between Tony and Massive G’s crews, but nothing of the sort happens. They instead sic their attorneys on each other (which may make an even uglier scene – aaah, look away!)
Although The Sopranos is supposed to be a crime drama, there hasn’t been much focus on actual criminal activity in this first season. The whacking in the first scene here is part of an effort to rectify that, as it initiates a storyline about drugs and stolen money (which, frankly, in the end will seem like an afterthought tacked on solely to satisfy genre requirements).
- Paulie asks, “Could this be the end of Rico?” quoting from the classic 1931 movie Little Caesar. David Chase is yet again making an overt gangster film reference.
- Most non-cinephiles will not be familiar with Little Caesar. But many Americans will have seen the picture of the Carmine Galante hit that the men discuss at the golf course:There are other allusions to the real world as well, like the references to Jimi Hendrix’ performance at Café Wha?, and the house in the Hamptons that belongs to Steven (Spielberg). By being so broadly allusive, The Sopranos appeals to a broad range of viewers with very different interests and backgrounds.
- It is not completely apparent, but Carmela seems to have had access to some insider information regarding American Biotics, leading her to buy stock in the company at just the right time. The company name seems noteworthy to me. We will see, through the seasons, illegal activities surrounding companies with the word “American” in their names (American Express and American Standard, for example). Chase is making some commentary with this convention, perhaps pointing to the “they are us, we are them” idea – it’s not only mobsters that indulge in illegal activities, it is all of us, all of America. He may simultaneously be saying even though mob activities may only involve a particular company, they actually injure America as a whole.