Big Pussy’s back aches. And it turns out that Detective Makazian has some painful aches of his own.
Episode 11 – Originally aired March 21, 1999
Written by Frank Renzulli
Directed by Henry J. Bronchtein
The appearance of fetishist “Dr. Mop-N-Glo” almost right out of the gate makes us think that this episode is going to continue in the good-humored, knee-slapping vein of the previous outing. A couple of scenes later, the playful ribbing that the guys give Pussy for running from the FBI, and then his clumsy, farting departure from the laughter of his buddies, seem to confirm that this episode will be one of fun and glee. But this will not be the case. The previous episode, “A Hit is a Hit,” started out somberly (with a murder) but quickly switched gears. “Nobody Knows Anything” now makes the reverse switch, starting out playfully but turning very serious very quickly. The seriousness begins with Det. Vin Makazian looking out over the Raritan River while waiting to meet Tony. It is this river into which he will leap to his death later in the episode. When Tony arrives, the reverse-angle shot captures the bridge from which Makazian will make the mortal leap:
Makazian gives Tony very distressing news at this meeting: Pussy Bonpensiero is wired for sound, the Feds have flipped him. The news must be particularly distressing for Tony because it fractures his simple view of the world. His friend Pussy is a stand-up guy, he could never flip, no matter what. But Makazian makes several observations that point to Pussy’s betrayal—which would imply that the world is not as simple as Tony would like to believe. Over the course of the episode, events transpire that cause Tony to waver between believing and not believing that his friend has betrayed him. Pussy is acting very strange, but this might be the result of his back pain and the heavy medications that he is taking for it. Melfi tells Tony that back pain can be psychosomatic, because “psychologically, a secret is a heavy load” (but she says this only conversationally, not diagnostically). Paulie doesn’t believe that the back pain actually exists—a mutual doctor informed him that Pussy has no physical ailment. But Paulie admits, “When it comes to backs, nobody knows anything, really.” The viewer’s suspicion rises when Pussy, perhaps wired, refuses to undress and take a schvitz with Paulie. Tony visits Pussy to get a sense of his truthfulness, but is unsuccessful; in the next scene, we see a stressed Tony uncharacteristically smoke a cigarette (as opposed to his customary cigar). Adding to the uncertainty, Tony discovers that Makazian owes Pussy $30,000—the detective may simply be trying to get rid of his creditor by fabricating this unbelievable story.
Throughout the series, Makazian has been portrayed as disheveled, both sartorially and ethically. We first see him here at a bordello in a stained undershirt. As the episode progresses, we see him in a different light: soulful, tragic. The shower that we see Vin take serves to humanize him; it is ablution, a physical and spiritual cleansing that helps to recalibrate our perception of him.
David Chase has a habit of humanizing some of his more despicable or dislikable characters just before he kills them off. (“Ralph Cifaretto” in Season 4 is perhaps the prime example.) A couple of scenes in this hour are meant to garner our sympathies for Vin Makazian: Vin shares a story about his difficult childhood; he has a gentle and respectful attitude towards the cathouse Madam; he tries to be more personable with Tony. Our newfound compassion for the dirty cop is one reason why his suicide feels so shocking.
The main reason that Vin’s suicide feels so unexpected, however, is because the scene is edited in such a way as to surprise us. The mundane sounds of traffic and trucks changing gears drop away very quickly. Only about 10 seconds elapse from the moment we realize Vin will kill himself to the moment that his body hits the water. His five-second freefall cuts between three cameras, adding dramatic power to the scene.
Tony is not saddened by Vin’s death—he is more concerned with the immediate consequence it has on his problem: Det. Makazian will now be unable to produce the 302 that Tony demanded, the FBI form that would unmistakably give Tony the proof he needs about Big Pussy. When Pussy goes AWOL, it throws Tony into complete disarray, he cries out, “I can’t find Pussy anywhere, nobody knows anything!”
NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING!
The title of this episode, proclaiming the impossibility of certainty, could function as the series’ thesis statement. Uncertainty is part of the DNA of The Sopranos. The two iterations of the episode title, “Nobody knows anything,” by both Paulie and Tony, form the double helix of the “uncertainty gene” that is the fundamental building block of The Sopranos. Throughout this first season, Chase has refused to define notions of morality, identity, duty or culture in simplistic, black-and-white ways. His approach is polytonal and ambiguous, and leads us to reach complex, uncertain conclusions. In this episode, uncertainty is woven into the narrative itself. Even the reason for Vin’s suicide is uncertain. It may have been motivated by the embarrassing media coverage of his arrest; or perhaps a gambling problem exacerbated his serious financial woes; or possibly he was dissatisfied with the type of man he had become; or maybe the fucking regularness of life had just become too much for him. (The heavy traffic on the bridge might have finally pushed him over the edge. Anyone who routinely deals with NY/NJ traffic has pondered suicide at some point.) It may be a combination of some of these things, or it may be none. We don’t know. Certainty is a luxury that David Chase does not indulge in.
Tony Soprano—unlike his creator David Chase—is deeply disconcerted by uncertainty. His proclamation to Meadow that “Out there, it’s the 1990s but in this house, it’s 1954,” marks his desire to live in a simpler, Ozzie-and-Harriet world devoid of any complex ambiguities. It is precisely “in this house” that he rids himself, to a large degree, of the uncertainty he has regarding Pussy; in his basement, Tony convinces himself that it is Jimmy Altieri who is the Judas. In my write-ups for 1.05 and 1.08, I tried to show how Chase circles his camera from one side of Tony to the other in order to present the multi-dimensional ambiguities of his main character. In the basement scene here, the camera remains fairly static; it is Tony who circles around, as he turns from ambiguity to certainty:
After making this slow turn, Tony shifts the conversation away from business, suspecting now that Jimmy may be wearing a wire. Tony’s intuition usually serves him well, and it may be dead-on accurate: Altieri may indeed be a rat. Still, it is only an intuition, and I believe Tony latches on to it primarily because it is an opportunity for him to exonerate Big Pussy—and thereby reassemble his fractured black-and-white view of the world.
AMBIGUITY and THE SOPRANOS
This episode is prime evidence for the argument that ambiguity is a central concern of the series. The episode title and the Vin Makazian/Big Pussy storyline underline the ambiguous, uncertain nature of SopranoWorld. So does Livia’s appearance here. Livia puts in motion an attack on her son, and she does so in a profoundly ambiguous way.
Livia Soprano is expert at dealing out verbal ambiguities. She uses her forked tongue to drive her agendas forward, saying things she does not mean and meaning things she does not say. She tells Corrado, in her typically ambiguous way, that several of his capos have been routinely meeting at Green Grove, leading him to believe that Tony is making a move against him. She catalyzes Corrado’s decision to make a preemptive hit on Tony. (Livia has exhibited a filicidal tendency before, but this particular maneuver seems directly spurred by Tony’s efforts to sell her house.)
I suspect many viewers see David Chase’s use of ambiguity as they see Livia’s exploitation of ambiguity—as an underhanded way to promote some dark, selfish agenda. I say this because of the angry tenor of much of the commentary and criticism after the supremely ambiguous cut-to-black in the series finale in 2007. Many shrill voices attacked Chase for toying with his viewers. They claimed that Chase was making a mockery of their investment in the show, or that he was mocking television itself, or nihilistically mocking the idea that any sort of meaning is possible. It was all a big trick, they insisted, played by a big trickster. Of course, some others were convinced that the ending was not ambiguous at all, concluding absolutely that Tony was killed that night. But this camp sees Chase as a trickster as well, a brilliant rascal who peppered his show (and subsequent interviews) with clues which, when pieced together correctly, definitively reveal the final trick. If you can’t see that Tony was killed, they argue, well then, the trick’s on you.
The perception of David Chase as trickster may exist, at least partly, because of his public persona. In interviews, he usually seems a bit bemused and distant. His ironic sense of humor can seem mocking. But the larger reason, I think, is because The Sopranos has not been adequately placed in the public perception as part of the long line of great works of art that explore the idea of ambiguity. That final cut-to-black is not a trick. It is one last example of Chase’s earnest refusal to present the world in black-and-white, life-or-death terms. Ambiguity was the overarching preoccupation of 20th-century art, from Stravinsky’s polytonal symphonies to Picasso’s cubism to Faulkner’s novels. First appearing in 1999, The Sopranos is stamped with the century’s concern with ambiguity. Each artist must use the elements of his particular medium to create and explore ambiguity: Stravinsky composed with chromatic and dissonant scales, Picasso painted multiple perspectives onto one canvas, and Faulkner narrated from multiple viewpoints. Chase uses the elements of television: characters, storylines, sound and imagery.
A television series, with the sheer amount of sound and imagery it is able to produce during its run, can create aural and visual motifs that associate themes and characters in expressive ways. These associations are often opaque and indefinite, interpreted by each viewer subjectively according to the unique blend of knowledge and experience that each viewer brings to the series. For me personally, the bridge that Vin jumps from now is strongly associated with the bridges that have appeared previously on the series in conjunction with Vin Makazian:
The bridges that surround Makazian triggered in me recollections of Edward Hopper’s paintings of empty industrial bridges. My experience of Hopper’s work adds a dimension of desolation and sadness to the way I see the bridges around Vin:
Chase obviously could never have known that some of his imagery would trigger a memory in me of Hopper’s paintings. However, Chase is very aware that the distant vista that Vin looks out at early in the episode is the exact same vista that the viewer sees when Vin kills himself later:
By emphasizing the imagery through repetition, Chase creates—at least for me—a motif of sorts: bridge-water-death. (I also associate Sopranos’ bridges with death for other reasons: Mahaffey’s life is threatened on a bridge in the Pilot, Rusty Irish is thrown off the same bridge in a subsequent episode, Jackie’s funeral is scored to the song “Look on Down from the Bridge.”) When watching Season 1 for the first time, I began to be convinced—rightly or wrongly—that Chase was conscientiously making a connection between bridges, water and death.
The motif was also reinforced by another image at the scene of Vin’s suicide: the splash he makes when he hits the water. In Episode 3, “Denial, Anger, Acceptance” (an episode which derives its name from a book about dying), Tony is anguished over Jackie’s terminal cancer. Tony is transfixed for a moment by the Hockney painting, “A Bigger Splash,” which he seems to somehow associate with his friend’s impending death. In the current episode, Vin Makazian’s last interaction with the world of the living is an even bigger splash:
I am very unsure whether Chase knowingly led me to make this connection, or if it is simply further evidence that my interest in The Sopranos is actually an obsessive-compulsive disorder. But it is besides the point whether Chase and Co. made this connection between death and the two splashes of water consciously. For all we know, they may have made the connection subconsciously, or maybe not at all. The point is that I made a connection, one that is tentative and ambiguous but significant to me nevertheless.
For me, the bridge-water-death motif adds to the enigma of the scene that closes out this hour. I think this final scene is one of the most evocative and enigmatic of Season One:
JoJo Palmice is ostensibly referring to the coffee when she says, “It’s brewing,” but she could just as well be describing Corrado’s plan to hit Tony. The slow, dreamy dissolve brings us to an image of Tony standing before the Pulaski Skyway, almost cryptic in that the location and scene are not directly connected to this episode’s plot. Yet the location and imagery inspire all sorts of indirect, nebulous connections. Tony, perhaps with some awareness that his life is threatened, is looking out over the river very much like Vin did earlier in this episode. The Pulaski itself is part of Route 1, the same route that the Goodkind Bridge—which Vin leapt from—is on. We have seen the Pulaski previously on the series, perhaps most notably in episode 1.07 where I studied Chase’s unromantic depiction of it. (Even here, Chase undercuts the spectral, dreamy quality of the panorama by including the mundane detail of barge traffic.) The track that scores this scene, “Manifold de Amour,” has a haunting quality, adding to the atmospherics. If you don’t understand Spanish, the verse adds to the ambiguity:
Voy a navegar / Al puerto del alma / Cruzando el mar / Hasta que llegare
If usted habla espanol, or you translate the lyric, the verse contributes more water imagery but still remains steeped in mystical ambiguity:
I will navigate / To the port of the soul / Crossing the sea / Until I arrive
The right-brain can comprehend an episode like this well enough without the left-brain’s analytical contribution. I only gave it a left-brain wringing to demonstrate how I found significance in the episode. Anyone else watching this hour would have different emotions, associations, interpretations. One of the great discoveries of 20th-century art (and science) is that more data and more knowledge do not necessarily lead to more certainty. In fact, they sometimes lead to more uncertainty, more ambiguity. A television series has a vast repository of information, imagery and sound that it can allude to and evoke, from both within itself and without, consciously or subconsciously or unconsciously. The vast multiplicity of responses to such a work renders definitive interpretations impossible. David Chase has amplified the ambiguities that are inherent in the medium of television, I believe, by creating a series that is often deliberately indeterminate and fluid in meaning. If anyone tells you that they’ve “solved” The Sopranos (and I might seem guilty of this from time to time), don’t believe them: Nobody Knows Anything.
- Paulie’s car horn plays the opening notes to the Godfather theme, continuing the string of outright classic mob film references this season.
- Somebody at the bordello likes bluesman Johnny Adams—his music is playing during two separate scenes at the cathouse.
- Tony brings Mario Lanza CDs to Livia. Meadow and Janice will talk about Livia’s fondness for this musician next season.
- Tony mentions “Gravano,” which must be a reference to real-life Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano, a high-ranking mobster who turned informer and brought down John Gotti. He and Pussy have the same first name.
- I love how the writers continuously have characters make mistakes in their references to pop culture and current affairs. Here, AJ refers to Monica Lewinsky as “Monica Kazinsky.” (It was just two episodes ago that Corrado similarly mislabeled the Menendez brothers as “the Escovedo brothers.”)
- If the Goodkind Bridge which appears earlier in the episode looks different from the bridge that Vin jumps from, it is because Vin’s suicide is filmed from the other side of the bridge, where its restyled newer span is more visible.
- It’s a shame that “Vin Makazian” won’t appear on any more episodes because I love how John Heard played the character. (See Cutter’s Way for Heard’s incredible portrayal of another brooding, bitter, emotionally crippled man.)
- The storyline of Livia maneuvering the assassination of her son marched along moderately—marcia moderato—for several episodes before picking up speed—alegretto—in 1.09 “Boca.” But Chase dropped the storyline almost completely in 1.10 “A Hit is a Hit,” only to strongly bring it back now in 1.11. The storyline reaches its climax in the next episode “Isabella,” but Chase is not yet done playing with the story’s pace; episode 1.12 is an hour that will feature an extreme tempo shift.
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© 2021 Ron Bernard