Tony has some difficulty getting an Hasidic Jew to comply with his wishes. Chris and Brendan get their comeuppance
from Corrado. The Buccos cater a party at the Soprano home.
EPISODE 3 - ORIGINALLY AIRED JAN 24, 1999 WRITTEN BY NICK GOMEZ DIRECTED BY MARK SARACENI
This episode continues the previous episode’s comparison between the Golden Age of the Mob versus its current state. Two very early scenes in this hour, presented back-to-back, pit Christopher and Brendan (representing the current mob) against Corrado and Mikey (who represent—or at least think of themselves as representing—the Golden Age). Both scenes are formally linked by the dialogue: in each scene, the men are discussing the return of the hijacked truck to Comley. The contrasting audio and visuals in the compositions of both scenes are used to contrast the two pairs of men:
- Chris and Brendan snort cocaine whereas Corrado and Mikey enjoy a more traditional dinner
- The drums of hard-rock band Ethyline pound in Chris’ car whereas cool jazz plays at the restaurant
- The young men almost look like they’re in a nightclub as a red light pulsates behind them whereas a classical-style painting of architectural ruins hangs behind Corrado and Mikey
Paintings play an important role in this hour. The artwork that hangs behind Corrado implicitly corresponds with his conventional aesthetic and more traditional beliefs. But this episode also deals explicitly with paintings and their meanings. Tony is suspicious of the artwork he sees in Melfi’s waiting room – he says it’s a trick-painting, a “Korshack.” In a sense, the painting does function as a Rorschach test: it reveals Tony’s thoughts and state of mind. He is preoccupied with death and dying, and the rotting tree that he thinks he sees in the painting exposes this preoccupation.
This episode is highly concerned with death and dying. (In fact, the episode title is generated from Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ book, On Death and Dying. The book maps what she calls the 5 stages of grief, with Denial, Anger and Acceptance being stages 1, 2 and 5 respectively). Jackie Aprile’s worsening cancer weighs heavily on Tony and gets him thinking about death. So does the situation with the Hasid, Ariel, who shows a fearless grit when facing imminent death at the hands of Paulie and Silvio. Ariel (whose name means “lion of God” in Hebrew) recites Psalm 23 and finds courage in his faith as the goombahs threaten him.
Dr. Melfi recognizes that her patient is deeply troubled by something that he doesn’t want to face. She helps Tony zero in on what is bothering him:
Melfi: You envy the Hasids and their beliefs?
Tony: All this shit’s for nothing? And if this shit’s for nothin’, then why do I gotta think about it?
Melfi: That’s the mystery, isn’t it? The mystery of God or whatever you want to call it and why we’re given the questionable gift of knowing that we’re gonna die.
So it’s not just illness and death that trouble Tony – it’s the possibility that life may just be a Big Nothing. Meaningless, absurd. Tony, lacking the profound faith that heartens Ariel, is perhaps particularly vulnerable to this cruel idea. Might Ariel’s father-in-law be correct in claiming that Tony is nothing more than “mud, godless clay”?
Tony is distraught over what cancer is doing to his friend Jackie. “It’s like he’s already gone,” Tony laments to Melfi. Jackie is becoming a non-being, nothing. The Hockney painting, “A Bigger Splash,” drives this idea home. The painting captures Tony’s attention when he sees it in Irina’s apartment. His eyes focus on the chair near the center of the painting. The chair is empty, it is occupied by nothing. The composition suggests that there is someone in the painting, we just can’t see him because he has jumped into the pool. Thus, the painting displays a person who is simultaneously there and not there. Sort of like Jackie, who is there at the hospital but not exactly there. He is “already gone.”
Christopher must also confront death by the end of the episode. Corrado (under Livia’s implicit instruction) sets Chris up for a mock-execution. Chris does not respond to the threat of death as Hasidic Ariel did – he doesn’t recite prayer or face death with nerve and resolution. Christopher cries and shits his pants instead.
THE NEW ROMANS
Ariel tells the story of 900 Jews who fought 15,000 Roman soldiers, defiantly asking whatever ended up happening to the Romans. Tony responds, “You’re lookin’ at them, asshole.” It’s a funny and effective line that needs no explanation, but I’m going to labor one anyway, because I thing there may be a further point to recognize. Tony, Silvio and Paulie are the Romans in at least three ways:
They are Roman-Catholics
As Italians, they may indeed be descendants of the Romans
America is the New Rome, and Americans are the New Romans
These guys are members of a criminal empire, but also members of a larger American society that suffers from greed, decadence and self-indulgence – traits that helped bring down the Roman Empire. The idea that America is the New Rome is bolstered when the camera cuts, at the end of this scene, to Tony’s house:
The house, at least as it looks in this composition, could almost literally pass for an ancient Roman villa, with its overbearing symmetry, fluted and tapered decorative columns, faux marble, and classical door trim and moldings. Carmela acts like an Empress in her luxurious house, treating her friend Charmaine like she is merely “the help.” Perhaps many years from now, after the decline and fall of the American Empire, nothing will be left of this house. There will not even be any substantial architectural ruins left, like those seen in the painting behind Corrado earlier in the episode – this house, though a bit more upscale than the average American home, is made up of little more than thin sheets of plywood and gypsum on a lumber frame. Tony and his crew and his family—and the rest of us too—may be consuming and indulging our way into oblivion just as the ancient Romans did.
I believe this first season of The Sopranos aired before the Billy Crystal/Robert DeNiro film Analyze This came out. The movie counted on our recognition that there is something inherently funny and odd about a mobster talking to a therapist. The idea that a mobster—who is sworn to the omerta, the code of silence—is now paying someone to listen to his deepest concerns…well, how can that not be a barrel of laughs? David Chase understood this as well, and I think some of the scenes with Tony and Melfi are funnier than anything you will find between DeNiro and Crystal. But therapy scenes on The Sopranos can also be played dead earnestly, not for laughs. We get our first real glimpse of Tony’s profound existential dilemmas in the therapy scenes of this episode, and Chase will spend much time on these concerns—both in and out of Melfi’s office—as the series continues.
The episode closes with a scene that clearly references the climactic “baptism scene” in The Godfather. Chase crosscuts the scene with violence and scores it with religious music just as Coppola did in his film. But there is a major difference in the way the violent imagery is handled. We can break it down with three frames from the film and three from the episode:
A nude Moe Greene relaxes with eyes closed/A nude Brendan relaxes with eyes closed
- Our attention goes to Moe’s eye when a bullet enters it/Our attention goes to Brendan’s eye with an extreme closeup of it
- Blood flows from Moe’s eye socket/Blood flows into Brendan’s bathtub
Chase takes some of the elements from the Moe-Greene-scene (attention drawn to the eye; flowing blood) and reimagines them. He adds some elements (unpictured here: a closeup of the gun from Brendan’s POV; Brendan’s final death-tremble) to increase intensity. Coppola’s scene is straightforwardly violent. Chase manages to bypass some of this violence—we don’t actually see a bullet enter Brendan’s eye—and yet his scene is just as visceral and forceful. The Sopranos is violent, certainly, but it is not as bloody as many of its detractors claimed. This scene demonstrates how the astute use of camera and editing allows Chase to omit highly violent imagery but still create moments of unmistakable graphic power.
Sex defies death. Freud believed eros (procreation) and thanatos (the death instinct) to be the two main human drives. Here, eros seems to overpower thanatos: 1) it is the threat of castration, not death, that finally subdues Ariel; 2) the Bing stripper that Tony supplies to Jackie gives him a respite from his worries about his grim illness.
- Artie Bucco is sinking into self-pity and depression over the loss of his restaurant. We will see in future episodes that he has a tendency to slip into low spirits when things get tough – and Tony has a tendency to get frustrated at him for this. The two men argue over this point, and it escalates into an all-out food fight. (This hour really warms us up to Tony; how can we dislike a guy who has a food fight in the middle of a swanky party with one buddy, and furnishes another buddy with a big-boobed respite from his cancer treatment?)
- Ugly pun: Mikey Palmice says “Hijack, Bye Jack” to Brendan before killing him (as retribution for his hijacking of the Comley trucks).
- Corrado mentions here that he bought a surfboard for AJ, and it is something that will come up over and over again.
- Progressive darkening: the angelic lullaby, “All Through the Night,” that Meadow’s choir sings in the final scene gives way to Elvis Costello’s much darker “Complicated Shadows” over the credits. Chase is so impressed by this song that he playfully wonders, in The Sopranos: The Book, whether the production team is merely redundant: “Something like ‘Complicated Shadows’ delivers the mood, the plot, the subtext, everything…so who needs us?”