Through flashbacks to 1967, we see possible parallels between a young Tony Soprano and his delinquent son AJ.
Episode 7 – Originally aired Feb 21, 1999
Written by Robin Green & Mitchell Burgess
Directed by Lorraine Senna Ferrara
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:
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:
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.
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:
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)
- 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.)
- Tony watches the History Channel while exercising in his basement
- 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.)
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.
AJ and CHRISTOPHER (and JANICE)
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:
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):
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 seasons, 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.)