The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti (1.08)

The threat of Federal indictments scare several of the NJ mobsters.  Christopher is disappointed that
he doesn’t appear in the news as some of his colleagues do.

EPISODE 8 - ORIGINALLY AIRED FEB 28, 1999
WRITTEN BY DAVID CHASE AND FRANK RENZULLI
DIRECTED BY TIM VAN PATTEN

_________________________________

This episode is, in a way, the most important of the first season.  The hour portrays Chris Moltisanti’s existential struggle with what it means to be or not to be (as Hamlet famously put it), and in doing so, it articulates the series’ most fundamental philosophical idea.  I’ll come back to that later; first I want to look at how the episode explores what it means to be (or not to be) Italian-American.

Several episodes, including “Commendatori,” “Christopher” and “Marco Polo,” will explicitly explore various facets of being Italian-American; “The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti” pays particular attention to the various ways that Italian-American identity is affected by the existence of the Mafia.  The most strident criticism of The Sopranos in its early seasons came from those who believed its focus on the Italian mob was detrimental to all Italians (and even possibly to society as a whole).  Strongly-worded statements denouncing the series were issued by assorted Italian-American groups.  One group filed a rather spurious lawsuit against HBO for its depiction of Ital-Americans.  Perhaps the most notorious academic criticism came from Italian-American English Professor Sandra Gilbert, who wrote that she was “exasperated by the bizarre American hang-up on what we might call Media Mafiosi…”  OK, she does have a point – we are enthralled by Coppola’s mobsters and Scorcese’s wiseguys and the Gotti kids and mob wives that appear on their very own reality shows.   But I don’t see why The Sopranos should be rejected if it is part of—and plays upon—this “hang-up.”  She gets snarky describing David Chase and this particular episode: “Like God or Santa Claus, the ultra-cool creator of The Sopranos always already anticipates our responses: he sees us when we’re sleeping, knows when we’re awake, and most important, predicts the complaints some of us may level against shows like his…”

Chase did anticipate these complaints and crafted a complex and elaborate response to them in this episode (quite literally – he has a writing credit).  I’ll focus on how he does this through his use of two characters, Richard LaPenna and Chris Moltisanti.

RICHARD LaPENNA
Richard, Dr. Melfi’s pompous ex-husband, gives voice to the complaints that some like Prof. Gilbert have of the Mafia and the media’s depiction of organized crime.  During a vigorous dinnertime discussion, Richard declares that there have been an estimated 5000 Mafiosi who have blackened the way that 20 million non-Mafia Ital-Americans are perceived.  Melfi, perhaps due in part to her close contact with Tony Soprano, does not feel so blackened.  Identity, for her, is something personal and individual, it is not so dependent on identification with a group.  When Melfi’s father raises a toast to “We, the 20 million,” he distinguishes his ethnic group from the organized crime group.  But Chase seems to take the position that such simple delineations are too shallow.  Tony Soprano and other Mafiosi cannot so easily be separated from 20 million Italian-Americans; in fact, they cannot even easily be distinguished from the 300 million people that make up America itself.  They are us and we are them.  This idea gets reinforced through the visuals and dialogue of two dinner scenes, one at Melfi’s home and the other at the Soprano house:

2 dinners - Sopranos Autopsy

The Soprano dinner is, if anything, more typically American: cans of Coke rather than bottles of wine, Chinese take-out instead of homemade Italian fare, eating in the kitchen instead of the formal dining room.  Both families are discussing what it means to be Italian in the United States, but the Sopranos sound more like the typical American family.  Their conversation is filled with malapropisms, mistaken facts and cursing, as opposed to the statistics, pertinent references and insightful responses that we hear at Melfi’s table.  The Soprano family, as different as they are from the Melfis, are as legitimate an example of The American Family.  To believe that Mafioso—family menAmerican men—categorically diminish all Italians simply through their existence (or their depiction on TV) is to engage in an irrational, overly-sensitive, pig-headed groupthink.

Richard guesses that his ex-wife is counseling a mobster.  He has a severe opinion of her unnamed client: “After a while, you’re gonna get beyond psychotherapy, with its cheesy moral relativism.  Finally you’re going to get to Good and Evil.  And he’s evil.”  Strong words, which certainly have at least a grain of truth to them.  But Chase, being Chase, doesn’t countenance simplistic assessments of personality or identity.  Chase cuts from Richard’s statement to one of the most incredible shots of the season:

train sequence

It is virtuoso camerawork: the camera dollies across Tony, zooming into a closeup and then back out, synchronizing this movement with a train coming into the shot from one direction and Chris’ car coming in from the opposite direction.  It is similar to that circling shot that opened “College” (1.05), and manifests a similar intention: it prepares us to see Tony from another side, another perspective.  The roar of the train and Tony’s grim expression seem foreboding, and appear at first to confirm Richard’s sentiment – this is an evil man, with evil thoughts on his mind.  When he climbs into the Lexus and lashes out physically and verbally at Chris, it further supports Richard’s assertion.  But when Tony recognizes that Chris is seriously distressed, he softens.  He listens.  It’s a delicately honed scene.  Tony becomes supportive and sympathetic without being touchy-feely or discussing his own battle with depression.  Deeply concerned about Christopher’s mental state, he questions his nephew without using the word “suicide” (what manly man would?): he gestures a gunshot to the head instead.  The scene humanizes Tony, shows that even within the limits of his upbringing and station, he is still very capable of decency.  With this scene, Chase completely undercuts the simplistic, black-and-white assessment made by Richard LaPenna (who is kind of a jerkoff anyway).

Of course, we can’t gloss over the fact that Tony is a criminal and a murderer.  And no doubt, David Chase understands that evil and mischief can be used to seduce viewers.  And seducing viewers is an important part of running a show, particularly in its first season.  But the argument that Chase and HBO were exploiting “Tony Soprano” and the Mafia just for the sake of ratings and to feather their own nests, with no concern about any possible costs to Italian-Americans or society as a whole, is a glib and superficial argument.  The Sopranos deserves better than that.  

CHRIS MOLTISANTI
Through Chris’ storyline in this episode, Chase answers those who would criticize The Sopranos for glamorizing Organized Crime.  Chris has been itching the entire season to become a Made Man, convinced that being made would inject some excitement and meaning into his life.  He desperately tells Tony that “the fucking regularness of life is too fuckin’ hard for me.”  But his conversations with Paulie and Pussy reveal that even the lives of Made Men have the usual share of “regularness.”

The Sopranos is not the typical shoot-’em-up gangster drama – it doesn’t glorify violence the way some critics claim.  We see in this episode’s opening scene that Chris’ first murder has been taking a toll on his psyche – there is nothing glorious about the way Emil Kolar haunts his dreams.  There is no major violence in this episode; the only time a gun is fired is when Chris puts a bullet in the young man’s foot at the bakery.  Prof. Gilbert cites this shooting as an example of what is wrong with the show: connected guys simply resort to violence to get what they want, and we in the audience are enthralled and envious because we wish that we too could exact such simple and ferocious vengeance against anybody that has slighted us.  But Gilbert seems not to notice that Tony slams Chris for behaving in this way; it is not the way grown men—even Mafia men—should solve their problems.  Tony blasts Christopher’s behavior as “cowboy-itis.”  Additionally, the violent outburst doesn’t actually solve Chris’ problems: he still feels unfulfilled when he arrives with the pastries at the Bing – where he is promptly sent into the bathroom to sweep for FBI bugs.  (More de-glamorization: the only scenes at the Bada Bing are in the non-titillating backroom and bathroom, and there are no sex scenes or nudity at all in this episode.)

Chris’ desire to get his button is, in the final analysis, a desire to assimilate.  He wants to be a fully made member of the Mafia, whose 5000 members share the same wish for upward mobility and security as 300 million Americans.  Martha Nochimson (Dying to Belong) notes that “the core films in the gangster genre manifest a wayward, tenacious desire to fight into the heart of the ever-beckoning, ever-elusive materialist social structure.”  Chase’s mobsters are not romanticized as outlaw heroes – they are profoundly flawed men pursuing the American Dream in their own profoundly flawed ways.

The episode title may also point to Christopher’s desire to fully assimilate into mainstream American culture.  Chris desperately wants recognition, and not necessarily only within the Mafia.  If he becomes a successful screenwriter, Chris will gain recognition from the broader American public.  By (humorously) comparing Chris to Tennessee Williams, an author who uses—of all things—an American state as his pen name, Chase underscores Chris’ desire to be accepted by an American public.  This idea might not have been conveyed so effectively if the episode title had been “The Legend of Christopher Hemingway” or “The Legend of F. Scott Moltisanti.”

Late in the episode, a cheesy comedian at Green Grove says, “I have a few words for you.  They are ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.’  Imagine yourself on a boat at Ellis Island.”   He is trying to joke about immigration and ethnic assimilation, and feebly tries to build his joke upon lyrics of a well-known Beatles song.  David Chase’s commentary on assimilation is much better constructed.  Chase builds this episode upon well-established American conventions.  Jason, Melfi’s son, says during the family dinner that “At this point in American history, mob movies are classic American cinema.  Like Westerns.”  The scene in which Chris shoots the bakery employee, which Prof. Gilbert so disapproves of, is actually an elaborate reference to both a western and a mob movie: Eastwood’s Pale Rider and Scorcese’s GoodFellas.  Chris shoots the employee in the foot because he feels he’s not being taken seriously, which is the same reason Tommy (Joe Pesci) shoots Spider in the foot in the mob movie.  Tommy makes his victim “dance” by shooting at his feet, a common Western convention that tvtropes.org calls “the bullet dance” and describes as appearing in numerous Westerns – including the very first Western ever made, the 1903 film The Great Train Robbery.  It is an elegant allusion that I would ruin with an inelegant explanation, so I’ll just try to diagram how it works:

diagram black

(If you look closely at the screengrab for Pale Rider, you can see where the bullet has just entered Spider’s left boot.)

3 films

Chris speaks the truth when he replies, “It happens,” to his bleeding victim’s cries of disbelief – it happened to Imperioli’s character nine years earlier in GoodFellas.  Know-it-all Richard had said that anyone who tries to describe Italian-Americans nowadays will “invariably…reference The Godfather, GoodFellas” – Chase, with a wink, does indeed reference Scorcese’s movie with this scene.  When Tony criticizes quick-draw Chris for his “cowboy-itis,” Chase is doubling down on his allusion – we have seen onscreen cowboys behave in this way since 1903.  Constructed on long-understood conventions, The Sopranos becomes, in the truest sense of the word, “conventional.”  Chase’s series is (contrary to some detractors’ conception of it) a de-glorified, unromantic, conventional (though clever) look at the “fucking regularness” of mob life.

REGULARNESS
In my previous write-up, I argued that Chase’s inclusion of the banal elements around the Pulaski Skyway was an example of the realism of The Sopranos.  I claimed that it was part of an ethos of “regularness” that Chase is deeply committed to.  I believe that this ethos of regularness is Chase’s fundamental existential position in the series, an idea that our existence is marked by—more than anything else—a sort of boring normalcy that we cannot escape or deny.  We will see characters abandon momentous, life-changing decisions as they get wearied by the daily grind.  We’ll see compelling storylines simply unspool into nothing.  We’ll wait for conflicts, warfare, murder, and confrontations which end up never coming.  We will see characters piss and fart.  We’ll see The Sopranos tackle the Big Issues, such as despair and death, in decidedly un-theatrical, even mundane, ways.  One example from this hour: Christopher, this episode’s olive-skinned Hamlet, is nowhere near as eloquent as Shakespeare’s man when confronting death in the form of an exhumed body.  Hamlet’s words to Horatio, while holding the exhumed skull of court-jester Yorick, poetically swell in description of the vanity and transience of life:

Alas, poor Yorick!  I knew him, Horatio: a fellow
of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath
borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how
abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rims at
it.  Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know
not how oft.  Where be your gibes now? your
gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment,
that were wont to set the table on a roar?

When Chris and Georgie dig up Emil Kolar’s body beneath a graffiti’d Meadowlands overpass, they’re grossed out by the fact that Emil’s hair and nails continued to grow even after death.  Chris takes no lyrical measurement of life’s beguiling impermanence as Hamlet does.  Instead, he says:

Holy shit, look at that!
He was clean-shaven, he’s got a fuckin’ beard now!

2 Hamlets - Sopranos Autopsy

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DAVID CHASE AT PLAY
“The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti” responds to several criticisms directed at the series, and in doing so, the hour dilutes the boundary between the real world and the fictional world of The Sopranos.  Several episodes yet to come will have a similar self-conscious, meta-fictional post-modern playfulness.  As we will see, David Chase likes to utilize the character of Christopher Moltisanti (and/or the actor who plays him, Michael Imperioli) in these meta-fictional adventures.  Chase may have chosen Christopher specifically because of the ways in which he differs from the other New Jersey mobsters.  Chris is younger, a member of the hyper-self-aware generation that easily functions in the post-modern world.  Also, Chris is movie-obsessed, which makes him a good cipher for Chase’s inter-textual manipulations and allusions to films within The Sopranos.

But Chase’s self-aware games only fully work if we recognize that they are being played.  The scene at the bakery is the perfect example.  If Prof. Gilbert didn’t recognize the shooting at the bakery as a reference to the GoodFellas scene (which is itself a reference to countless Westerns including Pale Rider), then she would only see the shooting as an act of infantile violence rather than as any sort of deeper commentary about the gangster-genre.  As Carl Wilson points out in his essay, “Christopher Moltisanti and the Development of the Gangster Genre,” this scene “appears humorously ‘natural’ within the reality of the show, but it is also a replicated and contextually modified product that has additional layers of significance that are contingent upon the viewer’s genre awareness.”

Many of the early detractors of The Sopranos didn’t recognize the extent to which the series played with—and rebelled against—the clichés, tropes and expectations we have of mob-themed works.  I quoted two sentences from Glen Creeber’s essay “Television, Tarantino and the Intimate World of The Sopranos” in my write-up for episode 2, and I want to expand that quote here.  Mr. Creeber writes of The Sopranos that…

…its constant self-reflexive referencing to its own generic history reveals a television narrative desperately trying to re-invent and re-examine itself; searching for the means by which it can both deconstruct and reconstruct its own narrative dynamics.  By critiquing the very medium it both utilizes and exploits, the drama ironically produces a complex and sophisticated narrative structure that simultaneously denigrates and celebrates its own inherent potential and artistic possibilities.  Above all, then, The Sopranos can be seen as an investigation of genre…

The Sopranos is genius in how it utilizes and exploits its genre.  The mobster-genre is inherently primed to provide narratives of sex and violence and power.  Highly dramatic stuff.  Chase uses this inherent characteristic of the genre to meet certain basic requirements: propel the series forward and draw viewers.  Once these requirements are met, he makes a 180-degree turn to focus on decidedly undramatic stuff: the banalities and disappointments—the regularness—of everyday life.  

The Sopranos is an investigation in how to transcend the limitations of genre.  Although this investigation occurs throughout the series, I think it is most consciously done in Seasons 1 and 2.  For example, the very next episode, “Boca,” subverts some of the expectations we have of traditional fictional mobsters: Corrado has certain unexpected tastes, and Tony—ack!—allows the police to deal with an unsavory soccer coach.

___________________________________

FOOD AND FIREARMS
The dream sequence that opens the episode, like so many other dreams in the The Sopranos, causes an initial confusion in the viewer – we don’t realize at first that it is a dream that we’re seeing.  The ethereal sounds and surreal imagery, however, soon make it clear that we are not witnessing something from waking life.  Clocking in at almost two minutes, I believe it’s the longest dream sequence that we’ve seen so far, and it functions to prime us for some of the longer sequences that will arrive later in the series.  It is also important because it strongly revisits the connection between food and violence that was established through the murder of Kolar at the pork store in Episode One.  Human body parts are just another of the market’s meat selection here:

food and firearms - dream

The Food/Firearms connection is also emphasized in this hour by setting the only shooting of the episode at a bakery.  Chase is again playing with conventions and stereotypes.  He is playing the stereotypical Italian love of food against (some) viewers’ foregone conclusion of Italian mafia violence.

___________________________________

ADDITIONAL POINTS:

  • The song that plays during Christopher’s dream is “You” by the Aquatones.  The song will be put to use in a similar way in Season 4’s “Everybody Hurts.”
  • Agent Dwight Harris makes his first appearance here, and we already see that he’s a pretty decent guy.
  • “Little Italy,” a Chase-produced episode of Northern Exposure, functions almost as a prototype for this Sopranos outing.  It also dealt with Italian-American assimilation and the vendetta-mentality.  Richard Romanus (who plays Richard LaPenna here) had a major role in that episode.  We see him at a sitdown with his fellow Alaskan-Italians below:

NorEx Little Italy

  • Livia displays her usual cunning here.  She recognizes that her daughter-in-law’s visit to Green Grove is not as innocent as Carmela insists.  (Carmela is distracting Livia while Tony hides his weapons in her closet.)  More insidiously, Livia reveals to Corrado that Tony is attending psychotherapy.  When she insists to Corrado, “I don’t want there to be any repercussions,” she is actually setting the cornerstone of a murderous conspiracy.
  • Some of you hardcore cinephiles may note that Tommy (Joe Pesci) actually references The Oklahoma Kid, not Pale Rider, in the GoodFellas scene.  I think Pesci only does this because GoodFellas is set from 1955 to 1980, so it would be nonsensical for his character to allude to Pale Rider, a movie that came out in 1985.
  • Wiseguy wise guy: loveable Pussy puns to Chris, upset that his life has no arc, that Noah had an ark.  It may be noteworthy that in the episode’s final scene, Chris pulls up to the newspaper dispenser (containing the Star-Ledger which has finally mentioned his name) by making a U-turn – he literally makes an arc.
  • Infinite jest: Jeffrey Wernick appears here as a mob expert.  Wernick contributed much information to HBO’s tie-in book The Sopranos: A Family History.  He made this literary contribution despite the fact that he doesn’t actually exist; “Jeffrey Wernick” is a fictional character, played by Timothy Nolen in this most self-reflexive episode of Season 1.

Jeffrey Wernick

  • Sam Coppola is laugh-out-loud funny as the therapist for Melfi’s family.  (He revels in the fact that he has some ancestral ties to the ‘kosher nostra.’)  I can’t help but wonder if David Chase, TV’s supreme jester, included a “Coppola” in this episode’s cast as a meta-level nod to Richard LaPenna’s line that everyone who talks about Italian-Americans today will invariably reference GoodFellas and The Godfather.
  • In retrospective viewings, we can see that this episode contains some noticeable character-continuity “errors”: Joe Gannascoli appears as “Gino” but will later play “Vito Spatafore,” and some of the mob wives will later be played by different actresses.  In a weird way, though, these glitches work – they strengthen this episode’s presentation of itself as a self-aware work of fiction that wryly celebrates its own fictionality.
  • Cake’s “Frank Sinatra” plays over the final credits.  It’s a final jab at those critics that simplistically dismiss The Sopranos for its supposed glorification of the mob.  Sinatra was the most revered and mainstream of Italian-Americans, and even he had mob associations.
  • The episode unfolds in a far more fluid way than my write-up suggests.  My decision to split the analysis along Christopher and Richard’s storylines, for example, is not exactly warranted by the narrative, but I needed a way to slice the episode open in order to peer into it.  The power of The Sopranos arises from the graceful, overlapping flow of its imagery, dialogue, music, allusions.  I shudder to think that the artificial analytical grid that I place over the episodes might suppress a viewer’s own fluid engagement with the show.  But I (Word)press on…

8 responses to “The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti (1.08)

  1. I dont think you actually read sandra gilbert’s essay. Even Gandolfinis’ remarks on the Soprano’s relationship to/with american society mirror Gilbert’s sentiments.

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    • I did read Dr. Gilbert’s essay. (But I’ll admit that I may have misread it – it might be a little bit over my head.) I don’t know which of Gandolfini’s remarks you’re referring to, but I’ve never heard him take the patronizing tone towards The Sopranos that Gilbert seems to take. (Prof. David Lavery, in Reading The Sopranos, describes her tone as “condescending” and “dismissive,” and characterizes her attack on Sopranos scholars as “unbecoming, admittedly ignorant and sometimes ad hominem.”)

      Perhaps it’s the tone of the essay that led me to suspect that Gilbert brought a previously established bias against all Mafia-related works to her viewing of The Sopranos. This suspicion was deepened when I read, in her final paragraph, that “I write this, I have to confess, without having seen a single frame of the third season…” The essay was published over a year after Season 3 originally aired; the fact that she was willing to submit such a critical piece without having watched a full third of the episodes that were available at the time seemed to confirm an unfair prejudice against the show. I don’t question that Prof. Gilbert is a brilliant and accomplished woman. I bring up her essay in this write-up because it seems to display the type of premature bias that Chase specifically targets in “The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti.”

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  2. Ron, do you remember if Emil was Chris’ first kill?

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    • Yes, I’m pretty sure Chris popped his cherry with Email, er, Emil.

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      • This is 100% correct. I have to rewatch a few of the early episodes, but he definitely makes a quote (I believe to Brendan Filone) that makes us certain it is his first. 🙂

        If I remember correctly, he references it later on the series as being his cherry-popper as well.

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  3. Great, just got another confirmation. Makes sense his first kill would haunt him so. I think he also confirmed it in the Season 5 episode where he and Tony Blundetto go to dig up bodies from Uncle I-don’t-remember-who’s farm.

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  4. Good thoughts. Watching Season 1 for the third time. Just keeps getting better and better.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Brilliant deconstruction of a brilliant episode. Interestingly enough, Tennessee Williams and Michael Imperioli have the same birthday, March 26th, (different years of course).

    Liked by 1 person

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