While visiting colleges in Maine with Meadow, Tony meets an old acquaintance. Carmela and Father Phil grow closer back at home.
EPISODE 5 - ORIGINALLY AIRED FEBRUARY 7, 1999 WRITTEN BY JAMES MANOS, JR. AND DAVID CHASE DIRECTED BY ALLEN COULTER
“College” is the first truly memorable hour of the series. Time magazine considered it to be the best Sopranos episode ever. TV Guide ranked it #2 on its list of greatest television episodes of all time. (Seinfeld’s “The Contest” is master of this domain, coming in at #1.) David Chase has called it one of his favorite episodes on multiple occasions. In an interview with Martha Nochimson (Dying to Belong), Chase says that he had always wanted to be a filmmaker—not a television producer—and “College” evinces many of the characteristics of a short, self-contained film.
The first season of The Sopranos seemed to be breaking new ground when it first aired in 1999, and “College” was the surest proof of this. Unfortunately, only a relatively small number of programs have followed the trail that David Chase blazed. For every “quality” series like The Wire or Mad Men, there are a hundred uninspired, run-of-the-mill TV shows out there. Perhaps the importance of “College” is best measured not by the impact it had on television in general, but by its impact on The Sopranos itself. After the success of “College,” Chase had the freedom and confidence to take Tony, Carmela and his entire series in whatever direction he wanted. Tony’s savagery and Carmela’s moral hypocrisy in upcoming seasons are difficult to imagine if we didn’t first catch glimpses of it here. The Sopranos’ extended dream sequences and that wacky trip (or whatever it was) to Costa Mesa (or wherever it was) in Season 6 may never have happened if “College” hadn’t helped establish the series’ willingness to eschew traditional viewer expectations. But enough of all that – let’s get into the nitty-gritty of the hour itself.
“College” has a very clever opening shot: Tony becomes clearer and clearer to us as the image slowly fades in. We get an almost complete 360-degree look at him as the camera circles around him – first we see one side of him, and then the other. The fade-in and circling camera motion are genius touches because they activate the idea that this episode will provide a clearer picture of Tony Soprano when it exposes another, more violent, side of his personality.
Tony and Meadow are making a tour of potential New England colleges. But this trip has a little bit more drama than the typical college tour – Tony and Mead are lucky to make it back home alive. As intense as the plot gets in New England, what goes on in New Jersey is arguably just as compelling and interesting. I hesitate to call one the “A” storyline and the other the “B” storyline when both are equally gripping and important. I think Chase signals the equality between the New England and New Jersey scenarios by introducing Carmela’s storyline with camerawork that is as clever as the shot that opened the hour. The camera circles at the Soprano home (but in the opposite direction as it circled in the episode’s opening shot), and it continues to spin for some time, creating a mood of giddy excitement as Phil and Carmela greet each other:
The camera comes to a stop just as Father Phil delivers his punchline: “I also have a confession to make, Carm. I have a jones for your baked ziti.” There is clearly a mutual attraction between the housewife and the priest. The sexual tension between them is palpable. Carmela’s emotions climb even higher when she learns that Dr. Melfi is female, and then convinces herself that Tony is having an affair with the woman. (It was in the Pilot that she first mistook Dr. Melfi to be a man and Tony decided not to correct her mistake.) AJ is spending the night at his friend’s, leaving Phil and Carm all alone with food and wine and that film about unconsummated passion, The Remains of the Day.
Both the New England and New Jersey storylines heat up quickly, but not necessarily in ways we would have expected. In Maine, Tony is surprisingly open to his daughter’s inquiries about the Mafia. But this storyline quickly becomes about more than just the relationship between a Mafioso father and his intelligent daughter – it also becomes about Tony’s attempt to hunt down Mafia rat Fabian Petrulio. This is clearly the more “masculine” plotline, something that would appeal more to those viewers who tune in to The Sopranos for “hits-and-tits.” The New Jersey storyline in this hour is one that, in a sense, has more “feminine” appeal. As this plot thickens, it becomes not just about Carmela’s Thorn Birds-type attraction to Father Phil, but also about her deeper existential crisis; she has, in her words, “forsaken what is right for what is easy.”
I’ve been arguing all season that The Sopranos is a new type of gangster drama, in large part because it focuses on the domestic/feminine dimension of life far more than previous works in the genre have. Nowhere in Season 1 is this more clear than in this hour. The New England storyline drives the episode forward with typical brute horsepower, as Tony tracks down Febby Petrulio. But the scenes back at Casa Soprano have a more delicate torque, one not often found in the gangster genre. In their essay, “‘I Dread You’: Married to the Mob in The Godfather, GoodFellas, and The Sopranos,” Cindy Donatelli and Sharon Alward make some interesting observations about movies in the gangster genre:
In the Godfather movies, there are stretches almost as long as forty minutes when the screen is completely controlled by men…At the beginning of GoodFellas, it takes thirty-one minutes before the first woman even shows up in the opening bar scene.
I’ve always found it very telling that most of us don’t know the name of Vito Corleone’s wife, even after multiple viewings of The Godfather Part I and Part II. We just generically think of her as “Mama Corleone.” The stories and lives of mothers and wives simply don’t carry the same weight as the stories and lives of the men in Coppola’s revered films. (Her name was “Carmela,” by the way.) Of course, part of the reason why Chase can give such emphasis to Carmela Soprano’s narrative is because he had the phenomenal talents of Edie Falco at his disposal. Falco won the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress for her work in “College,” the first of three she would win for The Sopranos.
Jamie-Lynn Sigler also deserves much credit for her work here. In “The Sopranos: The Vanity Fair Oral History,” Sigler recounts that before shooting for this episode began…
…I walked into the room where we would have our read-throughs, and Jim [Gandolfini] always sat at the head of the table in a big chair, and when I walked in to sit in my normal chair, he called me over and he said, “No, you sit in this one – this is your episode.” And so I sat in his chair.
Meadow is able to hold her own with her mobster dad only because Jamie-Lynn Sigler is able to hold her own with James Gandolfini. The scenes between father and daughter in this episode are some of the most powerful, moving scenes between Tony and Mead in the entire series.
FOOD, FAITH AND FIREARMS
The series makes links between consumption, religion and violence (Food, Faith and Firearms) in several episodes, including “College.” The connections between Food & Faith are relatively easy to see in this hour, as Father Phil comes over for some of Carm’s baked ziti, and they enjoy food and wine together. Phil even feeds Carmela, in a way, when he slips her the communion wafer and sacramental wine. (The camera cuts in close as Carmela consumes the bread and wine.)
A connection between Faith & Firearms is made through a fairly obvious edit: Carmela expresses her fear of God’s wrath—“I got a bad feeling. It’s just a matter of time before God compensates me with outrage for my sins”—and Chase cuts to Febby Petrulio loading his gun in the parking lot of Tony and Meadow’s motel.
Less noticeable is a connection that is made between Food & Firearms. Tony hands Meadow off to some students at the restaurant where they were having dinner so that he can go out and pursue Petrulio. In a quick shot, we see that a hanging rifle is part of the décor of the eatery:
The threat of violence is ever-present, it hangs above everyone’s heads even in New England, so far away from SopranoLand. With Meadow occupied, Tony can go take care of business. At first, Tony isn’t even sure if “Fred Peters” is in fact Fabian Petrulio. A wooden bust of Ronald Reagan with oversize lips at Fred Peters Travel Agency confirms that Tony has got the right man. (It’s quite fitting that Petrulio—a rat who talked to the Feds—would obsessively sculpt busts with big lips.) A perilous cat-and-mouse game between the two men leads inexorably to a violent confrontation.
It was very important to David Chase that viewers see Tony Soprano commit a murder early in the series. HBO was nervous about having the protagonist of their new series commit any heinous acts before the show had even built a loyal following. Alan Sepinwall (The Revolution was Televised) documents the struggle behind the scenes. Chris Albrecht was one of the HBO executives who believed audiences would not be willing to watch a TV show in which the hero was a cold-blooded murderer. But Albrecht had a lot of faith in the talent and judgment of David Chase. Albrecht recounts:
I said, “David, you can’t do this. He can’t kill this guy. You haven’t earned it yet. The audience is going to hate him. It’s the fifth episode. Wait until the end of the season.” And David said to me, “If Tony Soprano were to find this guy and doesn’t kill him, he is full of shit, and therefore the show is full of shit.” And I said, “Okay, that’s a good point.”
And so, for the first time, we see Tony break the Sixth Commandment. For Chase, it wouldn’t have been enough to have Tony kill Petrulio with a gun from a distance. For the murder scene to be true to his vision, Tony would have to commit murder up close, with his own bare hands.
James Manos, Jr., who co-wrote this episode with David Chase, won an Emmy for his efforts here. Manos would go on to develop, produce, and write Showtime’s Dexter, a show that featured a killer as its central character. While Dexter isn’t quite a premium series (and its main character isn’t rendered as intricately as Tony Soprano is), Manos is clearly talented at developing this type of complicated character: the killer-as-protaganist. I think the reason why “College” is such a stand-out episode is because it shows us how barbarous Tony Soprano can be, but it also keeps his vulnerabilities in view. In the killing scene, we see both Tony’s strength and his fragility. I’ve annotated the video clip below to explain what I mean by this:
As I mention in the annotations, shifting camera angles are used first to enlarge Tony and then to diminish him. He is a powerful, cold-blooded killer, yes, but he is also a loving father whose first-born will soon be leaving the nest. We’ve known since the Pilot episode that Tony worries about losing his family, and now this tour of New England colleges suddenly makes the imminent departure of his daughter very real.
Much has been written about the Nathaniel Hawthorne quote that is on display at Bowdoin College: “No man can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which one may be true.” In its most obvious reading, the quote points to the Two Faces of Tony Soprano: his good and evil sides. The quote also reminds us how neatly the opening shot of the hour incarnated the idea of Tony’s “two faces” – the opening image was of the right side of Tony’s face, and then the camera swung around to capture the left side:
But I don’t think we should put too much stock in the Hawthorne quote as a summary of Tony Soprano. There have been characters in film and literature that have indeed worn “one face to himself and another to the multitude” (perhaps Shakespeare’s Iago is the prime example), but I don’t think this quite describes Tony. He is more intricate and elaborate a character than the Hawthorne line suggests. Tony Soprano is not merely “two-faced,” he is arguably the most multi-faceted character that has ever been presented on American television.
I think it’s kind of simplistic to say that “College” splits Tony along a Good vs. Evil fault-line. It may be more accurate to say that the episode—as I noted earlier—makes a comparison of Tony’s brutality vs. his vulnerability. Tony Soprano is a man who can kill a large, dangerous adversary with his bare hands, but he is also a guy who gets unnerved by a teenage girl’s probing questions. As Tony and Meadow finish up their trip to New England, he struggles to deflect her inquiries about his wounded hand:
Mead: Dad, you’re being honest with me, right?
Tony: Pretty soon you’re gonna start hurting my feelings.
Mead: ‘We have that kind of relationship,’ you said.
Tony: That’s right. We do or we don’t. It takes two to tango.
Mead: (Pause.) Nothing. (Longer pause.) I love you.
Tony: I love you too.
Whip-smart Meadow recognizes that her father is throwing up smoke and mirrors, he is refusing to be truthful about his bleeding hand. But she understands that beneath all the lies and deception is a man who loves her and wants to protect her. Tony is capable of murder but he is not a ruthless, icy sociopath. He is made vulnerable by his genuine love for his family.
The final moments of the hour highlight Tony’s vulnerability. He takes the upper hand over Carmela upon finding out that she had a sleepover with Father Phil, and he condescendingly refers to the priest as “Monsignor Jughead” (a hilarious reference to the food-obsessed Archie Comics character). But his air of superiority quickly crumbles when Carmela tells him that Dr. Melfi—Jennifer Melfi—called. Tough-guy Tony is left scrambling to explain why he didn’t reveal his doctor’s gender earlier. Tony Soprano may be vicious and strong enough to defeat a former mob associate, but he has no chance against his suspicious wife.
A STAND-ALONE EPISODE THAT DOESN’T STAND ALONE
“College” is widely regarded as one of the definitive “stand-alone” episodes of TV history. And this is understandable, considering how self-contained its drama and action seem – someone who’s never seen another episode of The Sopranos could certainly become engrossed in this cinematic hour. At the same time, however, it is also true that the episode doesn’t really stand alone. In the essay, “The new serial television narrative: The Sopranos and Relay Race Structure,” Ilaria Bisteghi focuses on three sequential episodes—“Meadowlands,” “College” and “Pax Soprana”—to “explain how the ‘relay race structure’ functions continuously swinging between continuity and rupture, thus opening interstices through which new elements can filter in and widen the plot.” Bisteghi notes that in “Meadowlands,” Carmela threatened to leave Tony if he quit therapy. But she becomes suspicious of Tony and Melfi’s relationship in “College,” and therefore talks to her priest in “Pax Soprana” of getting a divorce because of the therapy. Bisteghi’s essay is a bit more technical and media-studies jargony than my poor brain can handle (but interested readers can find the paper at Prof. David Lavery’s website); I only refer to it to make my larger point: connectivity is far too important in The Sopranos for David Chase to ever create a truly stand-alone episode within the series. Although Chase has himself cited the episode’s stand-alone nature as a reason why it ranks as one of his favorite hours, his deep commitment to connecting themes and storylines and other bits and pieces across the episodes and across the seasons prevents “College” from being an unequivocally independent hour.
Here are just some of the things that appear in this hour that are also found or elaborated upon elsewhere in the series: Irina’s emotional insecurity (and her jealousy over cousin Svetlana’s happiness); the phrase “knight in white satin armor”; Tony’s bewilderment over just how much AJ knows about his line of work; Meadow’s critical awareness of herself as a mob daughter; a reference to Kruggerands; Carmela and Father Phil’s mutual crush; Carmela’s anguish; Father Phil’s food-based modus operandi; Tony’s monstrosity; Tony’s vulnerability; Tony’s mention of becoming a patio furniture salesman; Tony’s interest in world history; Buddhism and, in Father Phil’s words, “zany Zennies.” I had better also include the extreme close-up of Carmela taking the communion wafer (which seems to get echoed by three extreme close-up shots of onion rings in the Series Finale). I believe that such connectivity is crucially important to the series as a whole, and I’ll go more into why in later write-ups.
- Chase cleverly parallels Tony & drunk Meadow here with Carmela & drunk Father Phil. Tony just barely avoids being killed by Febby Petrulio as he escorts his drunken daughter back to her room, and Carmela also dodges a bullet, so to speak, when Phil gets nauseous from the wine just as they’re about to kiss.
- When Meadow talks dismissively about Hunter Scangarelo’s father as an advertising executive for Big Tobacco, I can’t help but wonder if David Chase is making a meta-reference to himself. He is, after all, Michele de Cesare’s father in real-life, and has often been critical of the commercial nature of the television industry and of his own role in this commercialization.
- “College” has withstood the passing of time better than some of the other episodes in Season 1, but—ironically—the part of the episode that feels the most outdated is the part that was originally the most ground-breaking: Tony’s garroting of Febby Petrulio. Watching it now, it seems short on “punch.” The scene doesn’t have quite the savagery of the garrotings of Luca Brasi and Carlo Rizzi in The Godfather. (It feels absurd that Febby would be able to carry on a conversation with his killer while he had a wire wrapped around his throat.) Violence on The Sopranos does become more realistic—and vicious—as the series progresses. (See the garroting of Burt Gervasi in Season 6 for a comparison.) Looking back on it, the murder scene in “College” seems almost goofy when held against the high standard for realism that is currently on television – a standard that The Sopranos itself played a large role in establishing.
- EDIT: I’ve deactivated the link to Bisteghi’s essay because Dr. Lavery’s website is no longer up. David Lavery passed away in 2016. In addition to being a giant among Sopranos scholars, the professor was an expert on Buffy, Lost and other works of pop culture.