AJ believes that “God is Dead,” and a conversation with his grandmother Livia only reinforces this belief.
Christopher hangs out with a couple of Hollywood players and gets notes on his screenplay.
EPISODE 20 - ORIGINALLY AIRED FEB 27, 2000 WRITTEN BY TODD KESSLER DIRECTED BY ALLEN COULTER
Works of art are not static things — they change over time, in part because we change over time. We are constantly molded by new experiences. Our bodies undergo all sorts of changes, both superficial and deep. Our brains change at a microscopic level, as new connections form between neurons while old neural pathways fade away. All these changes may possibly affect the way we think about an artwork. The feedback that we will get from our eyes and ears and hands when we grasp a work at some future time will not necessarily be the same feedback we received when we originally grasped the work. The work itself may play a part in shaping these changes within us, broadening us and giving us new perches from which to look out at the world. When this episode first aired, I was impressed by its audacious willingness (by TV standards) to deal with philosophical ideas openly and outrightly. However, upon my second viewing about a year later, “D-Girl” felt heavy-handed to me. The Sopranos, after all, had been dealing with those big existential questions about the meaning of life and the absurdity of death with subtlety and craft right from its opening minute, so it seemed excessive to me that this hour would so blatantly incorporate the philosophy of Existentialism into its plot. My third viewing (sometime in 2006 just after Part I of Season Six aired) felt like a revelation: I came to believe that “D-Girl” and “The Fleshy Part of the Thigh” (6.04) together express a philosophical outlook that deeply informs the entire series. For those Sopranos fans who were steered to this website primarily because of a curiosity about the final cut-to-black in the Series Finale, I will add this: my interpretation of the final scene at Holsten’s Diner can only be understood if my interpretation of “D-Girl” is understood first.
This episode is primarily composed of three storylines: 1) Pussy finds it increasingly difficult to walk a tightrope between the Mob and the FBI; 2) AJ resists receiving Catholic confirmation after being exposed to alternative philosophies; 3) Christopher gets a taste of some actual Hollywood filmmaking. Let’s look at Chris’ story first as it makes up the bulk of the hour.
In the Pilot, Chris mentioned that his cousin’s girlfriend, who works in the movie industry, says that mob movies are always hot. When he meets Amy Safir now for the first time, she repeats the sentiment. Luckily for Chris, Adriana saved a copy of his mob-themed screenplay that he had tried to throw out. David Chase has previously used the character of “Chris Moltisanti” to spring The Sopranos into the meta-level, and that practice continues here. Jon Favreau, Janeane Garafolo and Sandra Bernhard all interact as themselves with Chris in this episode, giving “D-Girl” a meta-fictional flavor.
Chris finds himself being drawn into the world of filmmaking. His contribution at a movie set goes over well: “‘Pucchiacca.’ Let that one call that one ‘pucchiacca.’” He gives Jon and Amy a tour of Jersey, and they give him notes on his screenplay. His old life is losing much of its appeal. He storms out of a dinner with Adriana and the Sopranos, sick of their Italian preoccupation with food. He is growing confident that he can enter into a bright and shiny new life without all the fucking regularness of the old, particularly after he and Amy spend some passionate hours together. But it is never made clear to us that she thinks of him as anything more than a fling. The differences between them are vast. When Christopher’s limitations, as both a screenwriter and a person, become clearer, Amy gives him the brush-off. Her up-and-down feelings for him are mirrored in the staging of their first and last scenes together. In her first scene of the episode, Amy looks up at Chris with hearts in her eyes as he stands up to the Manhattan douchebag at the next table. In her final scene of the episode, she looks down at him with cold steel in her eyes:
Part of the reason it could never work between Chris and Amy is because he is, at heart, a thug from New Jersey. Chris meets Amy and his cousin at the Manhattan bar dressed with classic goombah flair: red velvet jacket, red shirt, red tie. The Morgan Stanley-type that he confronts immediately picks up on Chris’ Joisey pedigree, slinging at him the insult that Manhattanites reserve for outsiders: “bridge-and-tunnel boy.”
Christopher’s outsider status may have intrigued Amy at first, but once her physical desire is satisfied, he loses much of his allure. Favreau also starts out fascinated by Chris, but his appeal is diminished after they too have a physical encounter of sorts: after snorting a line of coke, Chris lets his roughhousing (and his film criticism) get a little out of hand:
Chris is out of his element with these Hollywood types. He is also out of place geographically — most of his scenes in this episode take place in New York. The “bridge-and-tunnel” dig is only one of several moments that remind us—and remind Chris—that he is not in New Jersey, but in the more prominent state to the east: Amy says that she sat across from Alphonse D’Amato (the former Senator from New York) at a party; Amy and Jon are staying at the Soho Grand, a hotel whose name itself proclaims the grandeur of New York City; and even the hotel staff treat Chris with an air of superiority. In her final scene, having lost interest in Chris, Amy reverses her earlier position — mob movies are not necessarily always hot. (She blames it on Mickey Blue Eyes, which had been released the previous year. Damn you, Hugh Grant…) As though her higher placement, physically, on the staircase didn’t clearly enough make the point of her superiority, she makes a highbrow reference to playwright William Inge, which was bound to go over poor Christopher’s head:
Chris is just a “skinny guinea,” he is out of his depth and he knows it. At the end of the episode, when Tony give him a choice between the Mob and “whatever the fuck it is that’s calling you out there,” Chris unsurprisingly chooses Tony and the Mob.
“D-Girl” transitions back and forth between its various storylines very elegantly and intelligently, even by Sopranos standards. This episode contains one of my favorite edits of the series, one that reveals the true personality of The Sopranos:
As soon as the director calls “Action!” Chase cuts to a quiet scene in Tony’s car. The “action” of The Sopranos was never primarily found in shootouts or fist fights or car crashes. The drama of the series is found mainly in the relationships between characters, like in this moment between father and son. While other TV dramas often feature explosive car crashes with vehicles flipping over willy-nilly, the car accident that occurs in this hour is very low-key – it is a minor mishap. AJ bangs up his mother’s car which he had taken out without permission. (He’s still years away from getting his driver’s license.) It is very possible that AJ’s proclamations that “God is dead” and “life is absurd” are (or at least, start out as) a tactic meant to divert his parents’ attention away from his misbehavior. Nevertheless, it is very likely that AJ—like his father—may be prone to having a dark, dismal view of the world.
In 1942, Albert Camus defined the Absurd as “being born of the human call and the unreasonable silence of the world.” We live in absurdity as the universe remains silent to our desperate pleas and questions. Religion tries to provide some answers, but they often seem pat and ridiculous:
AJ: Why were we born?
Carmela: We were born because of Adam and Eve, that’s why!
Carmela’s conclusion sounds trite. Pussy’s son Matt provides a more thoughtful discussion, giving AJ a sort of overview of Existentialism 101. But AJ is out of his intellectual depth here. So he turns to his grandmother with his concerns. Big mistake. Livia is full of bad advice, first telling her grandson that it is dangerous to wear seatbelts in the car. When he asks what the purpose of living is, she snarls out an even more disturbing philosophy:
Why does everything have to have a purpose? The world is a jungle. And if you want my advice, Anthony, don’t expect happiness, you won’t get it. People let you down…In the end, you die in your own arms…It’s all a big nothing. What makes you think you’re so special?
Livia’s bleak philosophy has cast its shadow over the entire series, and her “big nothing” speech here is its clearest articulation. Several commentators have explored how the show deals with this concept of Nothingness, perhaps none more diligently than Kevin Stoehr in his essay, “‘Its All a Big Nothing’: The Nihilistic Vision of The Sopranos.” Stoehr defines the nihilist as someone who “typically recognizes the transience of life and subsequently loses faith in conventional ideas and standards that had been viewed previously as fixed or permanent. The very purpose of one’s existence is put into question.” He continues that there are two types of nihilists (as defined by Nietzsche):
- The passive nihilist, who is not able to find the courage or motivation to transcend this life-negating, cynical outlook, and thus everything in the universe loses value for him
- The active nihilist, who is able to become a life-affirming, self-possessed creator of a value-system despite the abyss that looms before him
Stoehr convincingly argues that Tony is a passive nihilist (and it pretty much goes without saying that Livia is also).
Dr. Melfi’s words to Tony echo Nietzsche’s definition of the passive nihilist: “When some people first realize that they are solely responsible for their decisions, actions and beliefs, and that death lies at the end of every road, they can be overcome with an intense dread…a dull, aching anger that leads them to conclude that the only absolute is death.”
Many viewers believed The Sopranos, on the whole, to be an expression of this pessimistic view. In a sense, they are justified in believing so. The storylines did grow darker as the series progressed. Major characters were either killed or became trapped in cycles of despair, addiction or gluttony. The final cut-to-black in the Series Finale seemed to be the ultimate confirmation of the inevitability of death and the impossibility of rendering any meaning in life. But I believe that Chase, throughout his series, presents alternatives to this grim worldview. In this episode, for example, Pussy’s interaction with AJ serves to counter Livia’s gloomy speech to her grandson.
AJ gets busted smoking weed after his confirmation, so his Godfather Pussy goes upstairs to speak to him. Pussy shares the story of how Tony always came to the hospital to visit his ailing sister before she died. The story evokes a sense of friendship and obligation and human connection. His advice to AJ is a bulwark against the Big Nothing: “Now go down and enjoy your party. Make your parents happy. You got your health and your family. Enjoy it while you can, while you got it all in your hand.” Livia devalues relationships, and so her connections to people and the world continuously erode. She told AJ that ultimately, you “die in your own arms.” Pussy, in contrast, closes their conversation by putting his arms around AJ, a physical confirmation that human connection is indeed possible and meaningful.
Though David Chase has a reputation for being cynical, I think he does believe that connection is possible, and furthermore, believes that such connections act as a defense against meaninglessness. This, I would argue, is why he puts such an emphasis on connectivity in his series. In an early interview with Peter Bogdanovich (included as a Season One DVD Extra), Chase makes it clear that he and the writers made an effort to add “connective tissue” between the episodes. Years later, he expanded on this idea to the L.A. Times, telling the reporter that at the end of each season he would go to France to work on the following season, and then…
“…I come back from France with a chart of every character over 13 episodes,” he says. “What happens here, what happens there, how do things intermesh. Then I show the chart to the writers and ask, ‘What are we going to do that really interests us?’ Separate stories sometimes emerge, and the chart sometimes becomes just connective tissue.” (“The Family Hour Returns,” Feb 15, 2004)
In our own lives, connective tissue is what binds us to our loved ones, our gods, work, community — all of those things that give our lives dimension and meaning. When such tissue dissolves, we become alienated and alone — like Livia. On The Sopranos, connective tissue takes many forms. It may be a repeated word or name or imagery. It could be the reappearance of a character or storyline. It might be similarities in certain camera angles or in the staging of scenes. Sometimes music is reused. The series does not only connect back to itself, it is also uses reference and allusion to connect to books, films, paintings, popular culture, urban legends, history, myths. Such connectivity gives SopranoWorld a certain “thickness,” a sense of dimension, from which verisimilitude and meaning can naturally arise. I try in this website to uncover some of the important connections that often get overlooked, but I have not, by any means, tried to catalog them all. It would be impossible. David Lavery (who is probably the world’s greatest Sopranos scholar) has compiled at least two lists of “Intertextual Moments and Allusions in The Sopranos” which briefly explain many of the allusions and the contexts in which they appear on the show. Lavery’s compilations may be useful and informative to viewers. But the lists themselves, organized alphabetically and appearing on the printed page, almost seem to drain the allusions of their meaning — they become little more than random factoids. It’s as if the allusions need to be seen in their original context within The Sopranos—they need to be fully connected—if their meaning and full significance are to be understood.
Chase exploits the medium of television to achieve a high level of connectivity. Since The Sopranos is about 86 hours long and spread out over 8 years, there is ample opportunity for connections to be made. Every television series is made up of moving images, music, dialogue, locations, architecture and costumes, but not every series exploits these elements as The Sopranos does in order to make connections. Some connections may be little more than a thin wisp of tissue, barely noticeable and of no great significance. For example, in this episode we see Janeane Garafolo wearing a “Churchills” T-shirt, which connects to the Churchills shirt that Meadow wore in 2.03 and to Churchill the dog from 2.04:
Sometimes the connections are more noticeable and significant. The “development girl” of this episode, Amy Safir, was first mentioned in the Pilot (though not by name). My guess is that David Chase did not have either this “D-Girl” episode or “Amy Safir” clearly in mind back when he made the Pilot. The writers in Season 2 may have reached back to the Pilot to generate the character “Amy Safir.” This episode also reaches forward to certain future episodes in which Christopher pursues his filmmaking dreams. This hour may also reach forward to the Series Finale, when AJ takes a job potentially similar to Amy’s (D-Boy?) in movie development. The structure of The Sopranos, latticed together with such ties and connections, is itself a counterargument to Livia’s philosophy of fragmentation and disintegration.
If we look back now at the character of Isabella who appeared in Season 1, we can more fully understand how she functioned as a counterweight to Livia. While Livia plots to kill her son in “Isabella” (1.10), Tony hallucinates a charming, nurturing woman who embodies all the maternal characteristics that his own mother lacks. Isabella, we may remember, says that she is a dental student “interested in tumors of the gum and the soft tissue of the mouth.” Isabella is studying how to heal and repair tissue—just as Chase builds “connective tissue”—while Livia always ends up severing and destroying all the connections and connective tissue in her life.
Meadow has a small scene in this episode that I think is important in the context of connectivity. Tony and Carmela are shocked when AJ first questions the reason for our being born and the existence of God. Tony wonders what type of school curriculum could lead to such questions. Carmela wants to blame it on the new English teacher. Meadow steps into the kitchen and tries to enlighten her parents: “You want him to read something other than Hustler? Hello?! He got assigned The Stranger. You want him to be an educated person? What do you think education is, that you just make more money? This is education.” Tony, whose life is centered around the acquisition of wealth and power, would surely find any educational curriculum that does not directly serve this purpose to be meaningless. Not everyone would agree with Tony. William Cronon, in his 1998 essay, “‘Only Connect’: The Goals of a Liberal Education,” outlines the benefits of a more broadly conceived education. He says of liberally educated people, in his tenth and final bullet point, that:
They follow E.M. Forster’s injunction from Howard’s End: “Only connect…” More than anything else, being an educated person means being able to see connections that allow one to make sense of the world and act within it in creative ways. Every one of the qualities I have described here—listening, reading, talking, writing, puzzle solving, truth seeking, seeing through other people’s eyes, leading, working in a community—is finally about connecting. A liberal education is about gaining the power and the wisdom, the generosity and the freedom to connect.
“Only connect.” If Livia only understood the importance of this concept, she (and perhaps her son and grandson as well) would be primed to live a life of love and meaning. As it is, Livia is damned to a life of isolation and meaninglessness. Tony may also be condemned to a life of passive suburban nihilism because of Livia’s crippling influence on him as well as his narrow conception of education and his dehumanizing way of making a living.
When Pussy gives his comforting speech to AJ, he extols Tony as being a “stand-up guy.” This is a big thing for these mobsters — being a stand-up guy means you live by a code, you do right by others, you uphold certain values. Pussy and Chris each finds himself at a crossroads at the end of this episode, and the staging of their final scenes here underscores how each one is (or is not) a “stand-up guy.” Tony wants Pussy to literally stand with him in the family photograph, but Pussy sits in the bathroom instead, sobbing because he has little choice but to betray his friend:
Chris’ final scene of the episode is an inverse of Pussy’s final scene. He sits on the stoop, deliberating what his next step should be. He finally stands up and returns to Tony, returns to the Mob:
Although I’ve tried to make an argument here that Pussy functions as a sort of anti-Livia in this episode, providing AJ with an alternative way of looking at life and relationships, I can’t be sure that this is what Chase had in mind. When I first saw this episode, so many years ago, Pussy’s speech did not seem so significant to me, partly because it is difficult to hear what he says – some of his dialogue comes to us in the form of a garbled transmission to the FBI:
Pussy’s words are arguably some of the most important of the series, embodying a philosophy of connectivity. But Chase buries the significance of it, hiding it in static and interference. This sort of burying occurs again and again in this series (perhaps most notably in what I think is the sister episode of this one, “The Fleshy Part of the Thigh” (6.04)). I believe this may be part of Chase’s commitment to verisimilitude and ambiguity: life’s important lessons are not always clearly perceived or understood — why should it be any different on The Sopranos?
On the movie set, as the actresses brandish their guns at each other, Amy Safir says “The silencers underscore their voiceless place in society.” Perhaps Chase is taking a little dig at those of us who constantly try to analyze and read into every detail of The Sopranos, try to figure out how one thing “underscores” something else.
- Fittingly, it is a song by Thievery Corporation that is playing at the Soho Grand when professional criminal Chris visits the hotel.
- Actor residue. Janeane Garafolo starts to get upset on the movie set when the script has her character being called a “bitch,” and everybody on the set immediately jumps to placate her. Chase is banking on our knowledge of Garafolo—her actor residue—as an outspoken Gen-X feminist to give us the funniest moment of the episode.
- 2nd funniest moment of the episode: Jon Favreau making sure he gets all his fingerprints off Christopher’s gun.
- Chris says that he loves movies but he very often gets details about movies wrong. Here he refers to Scorcese’s film The King of Comedy incorrectly as “Kings of Comedy.” (He may be mashing it up with the comic documentary The Original Kings of Comedy.) Robert DeNiro’s climactic line in Scorcese’s film—“Better to be King for a night than schmuck for a lifetime”—might echo Chris’ thoughts in this episode – he may have returned to Tony and the Mob because he would rather be a king in New Jersey than a schmuck in Hollywood.
- Real-life mobster Joe Gallo is discussed in this “Existentialism” episode. (Favreau wants to make a movie about him.) Gallo was a unique mobster, interested in Existentialism and the counterculture of the 1960s. Umberto’s, the restaurant where he was killed, is referenced here (as it also was in “A Hit is a Hit” (1.10)). A journalist’s photo of the crime scene is familiar to many fans of gangland news:
- Favreau never did make a movie about Gallo, but he did make the mob-themed film Made, with Sopranos regulars Drea de Matteo, Vincent Pastore and Federico Castelluccio in 2001. Dino De Laurentiis did produce a film about Gallo called Crazy Joe in 1974.
- Season 6 connection: Christopher is something of a “fish out of water” around the Hollywood folks in this episode, and he will be again in “Luxury Lounge” around Lauren Bacall and Ben Kingsley.
- Another Season 6 connection: Carmela brings up AJ’s “God is dead” stuff from this episode in “Cold Stones,” an episode that powerfully explores Existentialism (although the philosophy never gets mentioned by name in that hour).
- The transformation of Parvati into Janice is well under way. Tony’s sister is introducing herself as “Janice” now and is looking more and more like a suburban housewife:
- Death always has a presence in The Sopranos, and it is literally the backdrop for Pussy’s house: his house sits adjacent to a cemetery. The omnipresence of death does not need to be a harrowing, depressing thing. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross (from whose theory on “the five stages of grief” the title of episode 1.03 was generated) writes, “For those who seek to understand it, death is a highly creative force. The highest spiritual values of life can originate from the thought and study of death.”