Down Neck (1.07)

Through flashbacks to 1967, we see possible parallels between a young Tony Soprano and his delinquent son AJ.



The title of this episode may be performing double duty.  “Down neck” is the nickname for the working class neighborhood in Newark where Tony grew up (so named because of the nearby curve or neck of the Passaic River); it may also refer to the significant way in which AJ and Tony shove various consumables down their throats (necks) over the course of the hour.

In the first scene, AJ and his buddies drink the sacramental wine they’ve stolen from their school’s chapel.  Normally, it would be easy to dismiss such behavior as childish hijinks.  But since it is the Soprano boy, the implications are more serious – is it an early indication that he will follow his father’s footsteps into criminality and violence?  The wine they imbibe is not the stuff that their parents drink with dinner, it is sacramental – according to Catholic tradition, it transubstantiates into the very blood of Christ.  To steal it, engorge on it and then vomit it is disrespectful to the faith – and may even qualify as host desecration.  St. Jude looks down upon them with disapproval:

stealing wine

Dr. Galani, the school psychologist, reads the faculty’s assessment of AJ to his parents: “Anthony sometimes has trouble following the rules, weighing consequences, at times doesn’t think before he acts.”  Tony listens sheepishly to this, knowing that he’s guilty of the same behavior (and Galani’s use of “Anthony” rather than the nickname “AJ” may drive the knife even further into the father).  But Tony perks up at the mention of A.D.D.  He may not be such a bad influence after all – AJ’s actions may stem from a psychological disorder.  Carmela later almost seems to hope that AJ is diagnosed with the disorder so that she too can bail herself out responsibility for AJ’s misbehaviors.  She is, however, more honest about her culpability than Tony is – “I have two eyes!” she cries out, insinuating that she has seen the criminality of her husband (and her own acceptance of it) but has not done enough to shield her children from it.

I am normally not a big fan of the flashback, it can be a simplistic and trite way of dealing with backstory.  For example, there are a couple of contrived (and unnecessary) mini-flashbacks in this hour that replay a conversation that Tony and Meadow had back in “College.”  But I think the larger flashbacks—the ones to Tony’s childhood—are handled in an admirable way.  First of all, the flashbacks are narratively justified – it makes sense for us to see Tony’s childhood so that we can better understand whether AJ’s actions are just simple hijinks or are actually part of a transgenerational criminal impulse.  Secondly, the flashbacks are managed with great attention to detail.  One small example: as Tony slips a Prozac down his throat, the first flashback begins and it is scored to Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” – a neat detail, because the song came out in 1967 and Tony is flashing back to the year 1967.  (The riots on Springfield Ave definitively date the flashback.)

While these extended flashbacks do provide some insight into Tony’s personality (and by extension, AJ’s as well), they do not give us definitive answers.  Does Nature or Nurture play the greater role in Tony’s development?  Hmm, its hard to say.  Is Johnny Boy’s criminality or Livia’s psychotic mothering the stronger influence on Tony?  Who knows.  Were Tony’s childhood misbehaviors simply “kid’s play” or were they part of a deeper pathology?  Hell, I dunno.

Tony wonders throughout the hour how much his son may know about his “career,” and how he feels about it.  Tony takes an opportunity while changing a flat tire with AJ to broach the issue.  Even though the subject matter of the conversation is very uncommon for a Father/Son talk, the structure of the conversation is very typical.  This is how fathers and sons talk to each all around the world everyday: circuitously, dancing around the main topic, unwilling to risk complete honesty for fear of embarrassment or emasculation.  My own dad was no gangster—he was a social worker—but we must have had dozens of conversations just like this, in which we didn’t (or couldn’t) come out and say what we wanted to say.  This moment between Tony and AJ just feels real to me.  I think Chase takes a similar realistic approach when shooting the setting of this scene:

chase's pulaski skyway

This area, with the Pulaski Skyway soaring in front of smokestacked factories, is one of the most visually striking locations in New Jersey.  Painters such as Robert Hendrickson and Rackstraw Downes have given it their treatment.

pulaski painting1

pulaski - downes jpeg

These painters have removed all that is unsightly, focusing solely on those glorious pieces of industrial engineering that sit prettily between skies and waters of blue.  Chase, on the other hand, leaves in the banal and dull: chain link fence, yellow school bus, beat-up cars.  A slight shifting of the camera would have removed the ugly light pole, street signs and bulky yellow concrete block that appear so prominently in the foreground (just left of center in my screengrab).  But The Sopranos does not shy away from depicting the banal – the series looks and sounds much like the real world looks and sounds.

The episode ends with an incredible succession of four short scenes:

  1. Tony confronts his mother, charging that if she had allowed Johnny to move the family to Reno in pursuit of a solid business opportunity, perhaps all their lives would have been better (i.e. they might have been living within the law rather than outside of it)
  2. Tony and Carmela are dismissive of the pencil-neck school psycholgist who reaches a wishy-washy diagnosis of AJ (“Fidgeting of the hands and feet” is indeed considered one of the symptoms of A.D.D.)
  3. Tony watches the History Channel while exercising in his basement
  4. Tony and AJ make ice cream sundaes in the kitchen

These final four scenes gather threads that have been running through the episode, but David Chase doesn’t finally tie these threads into a pretty little bow.  Instead, they interact in complex ways: sometimes interlacing, sometimes running parallel, sometimes pulling against one another.  Looking closer at these four scenes is instructive.  We feel sympathy for Tony when he confronts his spiteful mother (scene 1), as we realize that he is the product of an unfortunate upbringing.  But in defense of Livia, she may also be a victim of bad parenting or a psychological disorder.  We find ourselves further in alignment with Tony when he mocks the laughable findings of Dr. Galani (2).  But Tony and Carmela’s summary dismissal of the school psychologist can also be seen as a parallel to the irresponsible way that Johnny and Livia acted as parents.  When Tony watches the History channel while exercising (3), we hope that his interest in history—his own history—will help him avoid making the same mistakes with his son that his parents made with him.  But when he whips up gigantic sundaes in the next scene with AJ (4), we see that he is squandering the health benefits of all the exercise he did just moments before – and perhaps any lessons that he has learned from history are being squandered as well.  Then again, making gooey sundaes together may be just what the boy needs – Tony is treating AJ like a kid, not like some incarnation of inevitable evil.  Tony and AJ playfully shoot whipped cream down neck” as “White Rabbit” plays for the second time.  (The first time it played, Tony was slipping a Prozac, not whip cream, down his throat.)

Whipped cream - Sopranos Autopsy

The song is used ironically in this episode.  “White Rabbit” became a clarion call of the late ’60s, appealing to the counterculture’s interest in socio-political issues, drug use and Eastern philosophy.  When Grace Slick exhorted her listeners to “Feed your head” in 1967, she was telling them that the use of mind-expanding psychotropic drugs was a good way to increase their awareness of the world they lived in and of their place in the universe.  Tony and AJ certainly do not have such high-minded aspirations when they “feed their heads” with prescription drugs and dairy product out of a can.  They’re just a father and son doing what fathers and sons do.


I think we can see a bit of a parallel between AJ and Christopher Moltisanti throughout much of Season 1.  They’re hot-headed and impulsive at times.  They can be dim-witted.  They are both “problem children” that make life more difficult—and dangerous—for Tony.  In this hour, Chris robs a FedEx truck (a federal crime) while AJ (inadvertently) endangers Tony by telling his grandmother that Tony sees a therapist.  (Livia will feed this info to Corrado as part of her strategy to eliminate her son.)

AJ and Christopher are formally connected in “Down Neck” through a swish-pan edit, a type of cut in which the camera creates a blur as it quickly pans out of one scene and into another.  (This is one of the few times—perhaps the only time—in the entire series that this particular type of edit is used.)  The swish-pan begins at the construction site where Tony has to control hot-head Chris, and ends at the school where Tony is meeting with administrators over his troublemaking son:

swish pan - Sopranos Autopsy
Both AJ and Chris will continue to be burdensome to Tony for years to come.  Interestingly, it is in this hour that another “problem child” makes her first appearance of the series: Janice Soprano.  Valerie Palmer-Mehta, in a footnote to her essay “Disciplining the Masculine: The Disruptive Power of Janice Soprano,” notes that one of our first glimpses of the girl is of her shooting a bird at Tony (and all of us viewers, I might add):

Janice Soprano middle finger

Yup, that’s our Janice alright.  She won’t become a regular part of The Sopranos until Season 2.  (That’s still six episodes away, so enjoy her absence while you can.)


This is the first episode that husband-and-wife team Robin Green and Mitchell Burgess get writing credits for.  They worked with David Chase previously on Northern Exposure, as both writers and producers.  Their sensibility is perfectly suited for The Sopranos, and that is why they lasted as writer-producers for this series all the way into the sixth season.  (David Chase fired virtually all of the writers from Season One besides this duo and Frank Renzulli at the end of the season, because they lacked, according to him, an understanding of the “East coast bullying” mentality that exists in New Jersey.)  Chase has distanced himself from Northern Exposure, telling Allen Rucker (The Sopranos: A Family History) that the program was “too self congratulatory…it was propaganda for the corporate state.  What I mean is, it was ramming home every week the message that ‘life is nothing but great,’ ‘Americans are great,’ and ‘heartfelt emotion and sharing conquers everything.'”  Chase clearly tried to make the series edgier when he came on as Executive Producer for its final two season, but in some ways, I think the series suffered from his efforts. 

When I first began watching The Sopranos during its initial HBO run, I was struck by how much it reminded me of Northern Exposure – and this is before I had any idea that the two shows had David Chase and Burgess and Green (as well as other writers and directors) in common.  Both series, at times, share a certain tone and style and humor, particularly in the dialogue.  But their greatest commonality, I would say, is that they both occupy a middle space in the “gender-spectrum” of cultural works; they each come to that middle space, however, from opposite directions.  The Sopranos feminizes the Masculine, so to speak: it takes the blood-and-guts world of the Mafia and focuses on interpersonal dynamics and social issues within that world.  Northern Exposure masculinizes the Feminine, approaching subjects such as art, community, and relationships with a bawdier humor and earthiness than one would expect from a 1990s CBS show.  It is very telling that both series were ultimately syndicated on A&E (the Arts and Entertainment network); The Sopranos is too artsy for SpikeTV For Men, and Northern Exposure is too butch for Lifetime Television For Women.



  • In one of Tony’s flashbacks, the family is watching The Rascals perform on The Ed Sullivan Show.  Perhaps the clip comments on the central question of the episode: are AJ’s misdeeds simply the doings of a young “rascal” or do they point to a larger issue?  More interestingly, the clip may be a clever in-joke: Chase was so impressed by Steve Van Zandt’s screen presence while inducting The Rascals into the Rock-N-Roll Hall of Fame that he decided Steve must have a role on The Sopranos.
  • Lost opportunity: If Tony and Carmela and the Verbum Dei school had collaborated in a more proactive way here for AJ, maybe he wouldn’t have become the flaky, suicidal criminal-wannabe that we find in later seasons.
  • Lost opportunity: David Chase’s father, a draftsman/designer, had a good opportunity to build printing presses in California, but Chase’s mother did not allow the family to move.  (This perhaps worked to our benefit.  Tony says here that if he hadn’t been part of a Mafia family growing up, maybe he would have become a patio salesman in San Diego.  Likewise, if David Chase had had a happier, more secure childhood, maybe he would have become an accountant or a pharmacist instead of the brooding genius of American television – but then The Sopranos would have never come into existence.)

13 responses to “Down Neck (1.07)

  1. Another interesting point in the beginning of Tony’s flashback to 1967; the lyrics of the song begin with “One pill makes you larger and one pill makes you small. And the ones that mother gives you don’t do anything at all”. Tony is swallowing a pill that should make him feel better (large and in charge) and considering Tony and Livia’s relationship the line about “the ones mother gives you” is very telling.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. There is also some foreshadowing in this episode when young Tony is playing catch with Junior. He gets distracted by his mother and is almost hit in the head with the baseball, and Junior tells him “heads up”. This is a pre-cursor to the failed hit later in the season, orchestrated by Junior and his mother. Also in ep 9, Boca, when Junior and Mikey are discussing Tony talking to a shrink and what to do about it, Junior mentions that he taught Tony how to play baseball.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “The Sopranos feminizes the masculine..” Even the name, Tony Soprano – ( defines Soprano as “the highest singing voice in women and boys.”)

    Great point – its right there in his name!


  4. Great analysis, as usual. I have nothing profound to add here, just two little tidbits. First, I would just like to take the oppurtunity of his initial appearance in the series to recognize Joseph Siravo for his excellent portrayal of Johnny Boy Soprano. My second tidbit pertains to a funny glitch in this episode that confounds me every time I watch it. During the scene in the back room of the Bada Bing where Tony, Silvio, and Pussy are discussing the trials and tribulations of raising children while Pussy and Tony get some billiards practice in, a random guy appears sitting behind the desk with the computer monitor on it !!! He can be seen clearly right at the 20:15 mark. He is initially obscured by Vincent Pastore’s profile but comes into plain view for a second as Pussy heads back to the opposite end of the pool table to hand the cue to Tony right before Christopher makes his entrance with the stolen watches. I’ve always wondered who he is and why he wasn’t edited out of the scene. Unlike Pussy’s fleeting appearance in the mirror in Proshai, Livushka, this display seems to be unintentional given that: a) this person is an unfamiliar face to viewers of the show and b) he is sitting very stiffly and at a very odd angle, almost as if he is making an effort to shrink out of the scene. The look on his face conveys doubt about the success of that endeavor. Freaky and funny at the same time !!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. St. Jude also is a patron saint of desperate cases and lost causes. I don’t know how popular saint he is in catholic churches since I am not catholic myself, but I could see the statue as some kind of notion that AJ is destined to fail in both criminal and normal life.


    • Oh yeah, I remember Sean Connery saying that about St. Jude in The Untouchables. Perhaps a related AJ-St Jude connection is that if AJ believes it’s all a Big Nothing, as Livia will tell him next season, then he will also believe that everything he ever attempts or cares for or wants is ultimately a lost cause…


  6. Lost opportunity: “If Tony and Carmela and the Verbum Dei school had collaborated in a more proactive way here for AJ, maybe he wouldn’t have become the flaky, suicidal criminal-wannabe that we find in later seasons.”
    You hit the nail on the head here- a major reoccurring theme is Tony was not wanting AJ to ever be involved in mafia activities. I think this is one of the most important points you have touched upon and perhaps of the entire series. We seen this during “Made in America” as Tony helped get him a job so he didn’t join the Army. After seeing the last episode I found myself asking, “how long till AJ fucks up his good forutune?” He also has stated he doesn’t have the personality and wouldn’t last long in his world. Also, he comes from “little people on Carmela’s side” lol. Perhaps if Tony and Carm took more initiative to get AJ on track he wouldn’t have turned into the person we seen at the end of the series. During the scene with the therapist at the school, we see Tony reacting like an adult AJ to what is being said. He obviously wanted to pummel that asshole doctor. Good point on looking towards AJ having ADD to overlook their shortcomings as parents, I didn’t see that one.
    I like the parallels between young Tony and AJ. The transition from present day (1999) to 1967 was done well, the Prozac, look into mirror, music, etc. This episode was necessary as I feel we gain more sympathy for Tony Soprano. Chase takes us into the “golden era” of the mob, or at least the tail end of it and we get to see a rich portrayal of Tony’s dysfunctional life as a child. Hats off to Joseph Siravo’s awesome portrayal of Johnny Boy Soprano. After watching him play this character over and over again throughout the series its impossible to imagine anyone else playing this man. He was definitely no treat to live with that’s for sure. Unlike Tony, Johnny Boy never kept Tony away from mob life and most likely wanted him involved, the complete opposite of Tony’s feelings for his son. This was a fun episode with bits of dark humor. The whole young Uncle Junior character just cracks me up- its safe to say Corrado was sporting the same look since World War 2.
    Favorite line, when Livia tells young Tony the cops just “pick on the Italians.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey Ron- just wanted to add what kind of a mother would send her son out into the streets with a baseball bat during the Newark riots? Tony didn’t stand a chance with a mother like Livia.


  7. Andy the English guy

    The use of White Rabbit to underscore a gangster and his protege shamelessly gorging on the fat of the land is entirely apposite.America missed the target of those lofty 60s ideals by a long long way.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. The point that I think people are missing is that these people aren’t protective of their children. In the 60’s parents weren’t so worried about how the children feel. My Italian american parents never really worried about my was their way and that was that. Also, remember that they aren’t suffering any guilt over the way they live, and that carrying a bat is just a part of life…you have to be able to protect yourself. I think that a little bit of this would have helped Anthony Jr. Both parents, but especially Carmela are so guilt ridden and ashamed of their life, they completely have no footing in being able to discipline the kids. But Tony’s parents had no such qualms. This was life as they knew it and that’s how he grew up. It was what it was….and I think it was more honest in a way.

    Liked by 1 person

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