Artie wants to kill Tony. Tony wants to kill Corrado and Livia. Everybody wants to kill Jimmy Altieri.
The first season of The Sopranos comes to a close at New Vesuvio.
Episode 13 – Originally aired April 4, 1999
Written by David Chase
Directed by John Patterson
Tony Soprano has been betrayed, both professionally and personally, over the course of the last few episodes, and now it’s time for payback. Jimmy Altieri is dispatched early and easily. Chris, using the lure of a beautiful Russian woman, draws Jimmy to a hotel room where Silvio is waiting for him. His mouth is stuffed with a message to the FBI and anyone who may be thinking of becoming a rat.
Tony must also take vengeance upon his Uncle Ju, but Junior’s henchmen must be disposed of first. Tony pulls a gun out of a fish (a novel way of referencing the Godfather‘s “sleep with the fishes” line?) to kill Chucky Signore. And in a scene that almost seems like a preview of the notorious episode “Pine Barrens,” Paulie and Chris chase Mikey Palmice down in a forest. Although his men are whacked, Corrado escapes—he is arrested by the Feds before Tony can get to him.
The greatest betrayal, however, is one that Tony is unaware of (or perhaps just unwilling to admit to himself). Dr. Melfi guesses that Livia, with Borderline Personality Disorder, is more culpable for recent events than Tony will admit. Melfi says that people with this disorder are good at “creating bitterness and conflict between others in their circle.” Her words touch a raw nerve, and Tony explodes, smashing a table and looming over his therapist.
Melfi’s suspicion is confirmed when Tony hears the FBI recording of Livia machinating against him. Agents Grasso and Cubitoso seem to enjoy playing the damning recording to Tony, but Agent Harris takes no pleasure in the event. And neither do we. James Gandolfini, who has been excellent all season, is sublime in this scene, eliciting our sympathy as he modulates between brashness and vulnerability, between insolence and humiliation. Gandolfini was afforded the opportunity in this episode to display many of Tony’s characteristics: hot-headedness, cold vengefulness, leadership ability, sense of humor, cheekiness. However, we don’t know—and we’ll never know—if Tony Soprano had it in him to kill his mother, because she escapes his wrath by having (or pretending to have) a stroke.
Of course, I understand why David Chase does not allow his protagonist to kill his mother. If Tony murdered Livia, it could have led to Game Over for The Sopranos—many viewers would no longer have been able to relate to a mother-killer, even when the mother in question is as horrible as Livia. Corrado’s escape (by arrest) and Livia’s escape (by stroke) are scriptwriting ploys that keep our sympathy for Tony Soprano intact—as well as keep the series’ primary tensions intact—for next season.
This season started off with a bang—the explosion of Vesuvio in the Pilot episode. That storyline comes full circle here, thanks to Livia. Proving Melfi correct, who had earlier suggested that Livia is good at “creating bitterness and conflict between others,” Livia artfully reveals to Artie that Tony was the man behind the destruction of his beloved restaurant. Like a puppetmaster, she pulls Artie’s strings, and he later confronts Tony with a gun. But Tony’s intuitive grasp of psychology is as cunning as his mother’s, and he knows exactly what to say to Artie to diffuse his anger. And with that, Tony evades all the major mortal threats against him in Season One. This doesn’t mean, however, that he is totally in the clear. There will always be storms brewing in Tony Sopranos’s life. A particularly wicked storm roars up by the end of the episode, preventing the Soprano family from completing their trip to Aunt Patty’s. Tony decides to shelter his brood at New Vesuvio. As he pulls his Suburban up to the front of the restaurant, we notably see a fallen tree before them.
The restaurant provides a warm, ambient refuge to several of the major players of this season. Clearly, Artie and Tony have repaired their relationship, and even Charmaine softens her hard stance against the Sopranos. Artie remembers that Tony enjoys Regaleali. (We might remember this too—Tony and Carmela shared a bottle in the Pilot.) Tony raises a glass and makes a toast to “the little moments, like this, that were good.” The crashing sound of a tree falling outside immediately follows the toast, and it catches Tony’s attention for a moment before Springsteen’s “State Trooper” leads us into the end credits.
I find it notable that the final sound of Season 1 is that of a tree falling. Coupled with the image of a fallen tree minutes earlier, it seems to harken back to the rotting tree that Tony was convinced he saw in Melfi’s “Korshack” painting in “Denial, Anger, Acceptance” (1.03). The painting was not a Rorschach, nor did it seem to contain a rotting tree. In fact, it depicted quite a serene and pastoral scene. Tony’s misperception probably arose out of his preoccupation in that episode with the cancer that was rotting Jackie from the inside out. The pair of fallen trees (one seen and the other heard) that close out this season remind us that, despite the warm, serene ambiance of the final scene, something is rotten in Sopranoville. Death and sadness and conflict are never far away in The Sopranos.
FOOD, FAITH AND FIREARMS
This episode provides a litany of images showing the unholy connections between religion, consumption and violence. Father Phil is quite the character here. He engorges himself on food made by the mob wives, at one point raiding the Sopranos’ refrigerator while Carmela is out. He feels no compunction wearing Jackie Aprile’s old watch, which may have been purchased with bloodmoney—if not directly taken off some unlucky stiff’s still-warm wrist. A shot of him comforting Rosalie Aprile (moved to tears by the sight of her dead husband’s watch) shows that Phil goes, via the wives, hand-in-hand with the Mob.
Phil blissfully lacks self-awareness of his own sketchy behavior, until Carmela (in a fit of jealousy) calls him out on it. She recognizes his coyness, manipulativeness and neediness and sees that “…a lot of it is tied with food somehow.” Father Phil’s indulgence in rich, tasty food parallels him to the mobsters who share his culinary zest. Like them, Phil is too ready to give in to temptation. As the series progresses, we will see more and more that The Sopranos itself is “tied with food somehow”—food will be used to help define issues of masculinity, sexuality and power.
Anyone wanna venture a guess here? The title most probably refers to the ’60s sitcom starring Barbara Eden, which itself derived its name from the first line of a popular Stephen Foster song: “I dream of Jeannie with the light brown hair.” Is Chase, in his typical way, building upon layers of cultural history with this title? If so, to what end? I don’t see the significance of it, particularly because Jean Cusamano never appears in the episode, in dream or otherwise (although she is fleetingly mentioned in Melfi’s office).
Perhaps it is one final flourish of ambiguity. As with all things ambiguous, the title begins to take on nebulous, chimerical associations. When I think of Barbara Eden’s show, I also think of her co-star Larry Hagman. Hagman later played JR Ewing on the ’80s primetime soap Dallas. Dallas was notorious for its season ending cliffhangers. The Sopranos is—in terms of its season finale—the anti-Dallas. No heartstopping cliffhangers here. Tony’s toast in the candle-lit restaurant is about as anti-climactic an ending as you will find in a primetime season finale. The Sopranos certainly utilizes elements of the soap opera—more than one clever commentator has called the series The Soap-ranos. But this series never hesitates to break from the conventions of primetime drama and soap while pursuing its unique aesthetic.
Although this first season broke many molds, it is probably the most conventional season of The Sopranos. Season One had a certain compactness: a limited number of characters; easily followed storylines and arcs; a mainly traditional buildup of tension, with larger and larger dramatic thrusts escalating to a climax of sorts, and then quick denouement. Later seasons will take many of the conventions of television and destroy them.
Fr. Phil shows up at the Soprano house with the Renee Zellweger film, One True Thing. The “true thing” in the title refers to Zellweger’s character’s mother. In The Sopranos, Livia is the furthest thing imaginable from a “true” mother.
- Dr. Glen Gabbard, in The Psychology of The Sopranos, argues that Dr. Melfi’s diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder for Livia is charitable. He thinks she is close to being a true psychopath, certainly closer to true psychopathy than Tony. I don’t know anything about Borderline Personality or psychopathy, but Livia does seem to smile when the EMTs wheel her away from Tony (and his wrath)—and it puts a chill down my spine every time I see it.
- After being arrested, Corrado refuses to cut a deal with the Feds and testify that it is Tony who is actually Boss. It’s difficult to know how much of this refusal is due to Corrado’s oath of omerta, and how much of it is because he doesn’t want to be upstaged by his young nephew.
- The hazardous “oral” behaviors which the episode title “Boca” punningly referred to a few episodes back are recognized here by Tony, who says with complete seriousness, “Cunnilingus and psychiatry brought us to this.”
- The song “Inside of Me,” heard at the beginning of the episode, is by Little Steven (Steve Van Zandt).
- An entire website could be devoted just to the study of the music on The Sopranos. David Chase collaborated with Kathryn Dayak and Martin Bruestle (and sometimes Steve Van Zandt) for music selection throughout the series, and their choices add a powerful dimension to the show. Each piece seems selected for the lyrical or tonal or sonic or narrational contribution that it can make to the episode at hand. The songs that close out each season, in particular, seem just perfect, and The Boss’ “State Trooper” here is no exception.