Tony and Corrado both go batty as they have to spend more time confined in their houses. Richie Aprile, angry
about the restrictions that have been placed on him, glares at Tony with his “Manson lamps.”
Dr. Melfi drinks too much and picks a fight with a smoker.
EPISODE 24 - ORIGINALLY AIRED MARCH 26, 2000 WRITTEN BY TERRY WINTER DIRECTED BY TIM VAN PATTEN
Let me begin this write-up by clipping the opening scene of the episode:
I wanted to get this scene “on the record” because I will come back to it in my write-up for “Kennedy and Heidi” (6.18). But this opening is interesting for more than its connection to that sixth-season episode. The scene is scored to The Pretenders’ “Space Invaders” – fitting, because by pulling into the parking lot and unloading their trash, the garbage men are certainly invading the shop owner’s space. The Sopranos has been linking garbage and food right from the initial Pilot episode (“Garbage is our bread-and-butter,” said Chris) and the heap of trash dumped in front of the “Deli Catering” sign here is one more dramatic example. The link is made again, more subtly, in a later scene: Tony eats ice cream while perusing the latest issue of Waste News.
It is our culture of consumption that gives such copious business to the waste industry. This culture supplies cheap consumables to us in abundance, even in the form of food. Tony opts for a fatty, sugary ice cream cone rather than one of the nourishing fruits that sit within arm’s reach.
Tony is reading the Waste News because his attorney has advised him to spend time at his legitimate business after recently dodging a legal bullet. Tony spent much of the previous episode at a high emotional pitch – he was genuinely scared that he was going down for the Bevilaqua murder. All that fear and emotion has given way to utter boredom in this episode. He makes no trips to the Bada Bing in this episode. He spends much of his time at home. (Instead of cavorting with the Bing girls, he has to dodge the ladies of Carmela’s book discussion group.) Not knowing what to do with himself, he listlessly looks out the window:
The high, wide camera angle captures the rounded corners of the room and the multiple windows along the walls, giving the room the air of a fishbowl. Tony is essentially a fish trapped in a fishbowl here. Later in the episode, Melfi compares Tony’s need to keep moving to that of a shark. But right now, Tony must curtail his shark-like tendency and just accept being a little fish. The episode title ostensibly refers to Corrado’s house arrest, but it applies to Tony as well, who must confine himself while the Feds have turned up the heat.
We might remember the funny scene in 2.02 when Corrado tried unsuccessfully to avoid having an ankle bracelet be a condition of his house arrest. Michael McLuhan from the U.S. Marshal’s office now arrives in this episode to attach the bracelet. A nurse recognizes that the combination of title and surname makes this gentleman “Marshal McLuhan.” No one else in the room seems to get a chuckle out of the punning reference (Corrado certainly doesn’t get it), but we should recognize its significance. Marshall McLuhan was a Canadian philosopher of media and communications. Some of his theories on media, television and culture were groundbreaking. He coined several expressions, the most well-known being “the medium is the message.” The basic meaning of this expression is that the characteristics of a given medium have more of an impact on culture than does the content of that medium. It is a controversial idea that has not been universally accepted in academic circles, but one that nevertheless has helped us to understand the media-saturated culture that we now live in. David Chase seems to have taken the idea to heart. He exploits the characteristics of his chosen medium, television, to convey The Sopranos‘ most important messages: the roles of verisimilitude and connectivity in life and art.
Chase has committed The Sopranos to a high degree of verisimilitude; the series portrays life as authentically and realistically as anything we’ve seen on TV. Such a commitment dictates that he include those weary periods of boredom and inactivity that are an inescapable part of every life. This episode is the strongest expression of that dictate. Todd VanDerWerff of AVclub.com describes “House Arrest” as the “epitome of the ‘nothing happens!’ episode.” The hour is short on plot, but that doesn’t matter because—as McLuhan said—content is not the most important thing. The lack of plot points, in fact, is the main point of the episode. The lack of exciting plot points in Tony’s life leads him to feel an intense boredom. Tony finds the Carting Association’s Golf event (“the Garbageman’s Ball” Richie calls it) so tedious that he has a fainting spell. He tries to amuse himself at his office at Barone Sanitation: organizing an office basketball pool, doodling sketches, doodling the secretary. One of his sketches reflects his sense of being trapped in a fishbowl:
Tony descends into such a state of malaise and ennui that he no longer finds pleasure in everyday things. He tries to watch a Gwyneth Paltrow movie, but can’t get through it, because it’s all nothing more than “a series of distractions till you die.” Tony tells Melfi he is thinking of doing the “George Sanders long walk.” (Sanders was an Academy Award winning actor who left behind a suicide note reading “Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool.”) In episode 1.08, Moltisanti flirted with the idea of suicide because “the fuckin’ regularness of life” was becoming too much for him; Tony is in a similar mood here. Tedium is divesting Tony’s life of any sense of meaning or purpose. The philosophy of Existentialism has been explored previously on the series, and boredom is one of the primary concerns of Existentialism. Existentialist writers such as Sartre and Camus addressed the subject in their works. In “D-Girl” (2.07), Meadow quoted Madame de Stael when trying to give some explanation of Existentialism to her parents: “In life, one must choose between boredom and suffering.” Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who was a great influence on the Existentialists, wrote that:
If life possessed in itself a positive value and true content, there would be no such thing as boredom; mere existence would fulfill and satisfy us. (Essays and Aphorisms)
Tony’s nihilistic mother finds life to have no “positive value” or “true content” – it’s all “a big nothing” to her. The exploration of boredom in this episode is really an investigation into this nihilistic philosophy. Tony, as Livia’s heir, is particularly vulnerable to the feelings of meaninglessness and purposelessness that this philosophy can induce. In a Dec. 2010 Psychology Today article (unrelated to the show), physician Alex Lickerman describes the situation that Tony finds himself in:
Nothing in the world is quite so awful as boredom…I’m not talking about being bored for a few hours while waiting in line at Disneyland or in the waiting room of a doctor’s office. I’m talking about finding life itself not only uninteresting but also purposeless. I’m talking about what I call existential boredom.
But the doctor, a Buddhist, gives his readers advice on how to combat this awful predicament:
If we insist on always being passively entertained by life, we’ll find ourselves bored by much of it. On the other hand, if we can transform that expectation into a determination to make an effort to create value at every moment, we can begin to make even the most mundane experience interesting…We can, in short, embrace whatever circumstances in which we find ourselves as infinitely interesting and purposeful. (“Boredom: Why the solution to boredom is value creation”)
Ok, it smacks a little bit of oversimplified “self-help” (as does much of the stuff in Psychology Today). I quote the article because I think David Chase intuitively reaches for a similar solution – he gives value to the banal, the mundane, the fuckin’ regularness of life. Perhaps the most notable example of this occurs at the end of “Guy Walks Into A Psychiatrist’s Office…” (2.01), when Chase depicts a completely quotidian domestic scene between Carmela and Tony in real-time. A television series, being dozens of hours long, has ample opportunity to include these moments of pure monotony. By allotting minutes—or in the case of “House Arrest,” a full episode—to the depiction of the banal, Chase creates value in even the dull moments of life. Chase uses the medium of television to provide the message that finding meaning and purpose are indeed possible in the face of existential boredom.
Like Tony, Corrado must come to grips with the banality of his life, especially now that he is under house arrest. There is a clever juxtaposition of scenes that clarify this particular link between Tony and his uncle. Corrado’s kitchen garbage disposer is acting up, probably due to a faulty flange. He sticks his hand down the drain to fiddle with the flange, and ends up getting stuck – for six hours:
Chase follows this scene with the one in which Tony is drawing fishbowls at Barone Sanitation, desperately trying to occupy himself. So: Corrado is trapped by his garbage disposal while Tony is trapped by his garbage disposal business.
The third character who must deal with a house arrest (of sorts) is Richie Aprile – but he doesn’t know it yet. Domestic life with Janice Soprano would be an almost unimaginable trap. Tony sees it coming, and feels bad for the guy:
Richie looks out the window (we see him over Tony’s left shoulder) which formally connects his entrapment to Tony’s, who similarly looked out the window of his house earlier in the episode. Richie will soon feel like he is in a fishbowl too, albeit an $850,000 one made of brick-and-mortar.
The closing scene shows gangster life at its most mundane. In the back room of Satriale’s, the guys play cards, look at porn, cook a meal. Paulie and Silvio discuss moisturizers. The sound of a car crash draws the men out on to the sidewalk, but the banality continues outside: Paulie tans himself, and the guys joke with each other and talk about the NBA playoffs. The hour comes to an end as the camera cranes up to a high, wide shot:
By mimicking the earlier high, wide shot that made Tony seem like he was in a fishbowl, Chase seems to be saying that even this street is a fishbowl – and by extension, so is the whole world. Banality and the quotidian are inescapable characteristics of every life; whether we can accept this reality and still find meaning and purpose, or instead fall into despair and apathy, is entirely up to us.
Connectivity may be Chase’s primary strategy against a philosophy of meaninglessness. Television is conducive to the making of connections perhaps better than any other medium, and Chase uses the medium well. He lays connective tissue between episodes and across the seasons, and this hour is no exception – connections to other episodes abound in “House Arrest.” The opening scene is scored with a song that will be used again with significance in 6.18. In 2.08 we learned that Tony’s house is on Stag Trail Road, and Richie mentions this road now when explaining why he is late to his own new house. (This detail may perhaps be solidifying the link between Richie and Tony as men trapped by domestic life). In 2.01, we saw one of Melfi’s clients complain of his troubles with a woman; that same man appears here, in a non-speaking role, with a lady who might very well be the same woman he had been discussing in the earlier episode:
(The guy is played by Terry Winter, who wrote “House Arrest” and became a significant contributor to the series as a producer/writer.)
The episode itself is assembled with edits, juxtapositions, camera angles, imagery and dialogue that stress the connections and parallels between characters. “House Arrest” is also stitched together by cat references and imagery: not wanting to use a bedpan, Corrado says, “I’m not a cat, I don’t shit in a box”; there is a painting of a cat above Corrado’s telephone; and Tony draws a cat in his “fishbowl” doodle. I doubt that the cat references have any major significance or symbolism here; they simply form a thread that further connects scenes within the episode.
The Sopranos is connected to the real world though allusions and references to things/events that exist outside of SopranoWorld. This episode, perhaps more than any other thus far, is stuffed with allusions. They include The Illustrated Man, Judge Crater, George Sanders, Marshall McLuhan, St. Swithen’s Day, Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Charles Manson, Fountains of Wayne (not the band but the store), ‘Tis by Frank McCourt, Hogan’s Heroes, the movies Sliding Doors and Se7en, Cardozo School of Law, Wallace Beery, the New Jersey Nets, the New York Knicks, and post-structural psychiatrist Jacques Lacan. The use of actual songs (as opposed to a fabricated score) by The Pretenders, Bob Dylan, Boston and Johnny Thunders also connects the show to the real world. Diagnosis: Murder, a real TV show that plays on Corrado’s television, similarly connects SopranoWorld to our real world. (The snippet from Diagnosis: Murder mentions a fight and a deli, perhaps a meta-reference to the argument between Richie and the deli owner to whom he “delivered” garbage at the episode’s start.)
The multiple references to the NJ Nets and the NBA playoffs are particularly interesting, because they fuse together this episode’s concerns with verisimilitude and connectivity. In the real world, guys often talk sports, it’s just a part of everyday conversation. But rarely do these trivial, commonplace conversations get included in the script of a major primetime drama. The subtle references to the NBA games run throughout the episode, and they are made by Richie, Tony, Zanone, Attorney Mink, and the FBI agents. It’s almost as though the New Jersey Nets are a “net” that have captured all the men. As different as they all are, temperamentally and professionally, the men are all connected by their interest in the basketball games.
This episode also provides evidence that connections between people are possible. Corrado is bored and frustrated by the limitations of his life. Young women are no longer moved by his flirtations. There’s nothing good in the refrigerator to eat. He’s got death on his mind, as revealed in a conversation with an old acquaintance who marvels at how they have reconnected:
Catherine: Funny how life works, the different paths…
Corrado: Yup, all leading to the cemetery.
Corrado’s response is cynical, one that fits into the dark and bitter philosophy of meaninglessness that constantly threatens the Sopranos’ characters. (In “D-Girl” Melfi similarly said to Tony that “All roads lead to death.”) But in this context—two reconnected friends enjoying coffee at the kitchen table—the statement loses its bitter edge; in fact, Cat and Corrado are able to share a laugh over it. Livia later calls Corrado and starts to badmouth Catherine, but Corrado tells her, “What you don’t know could fill a book,” and abruptly hangs up the phone. Livia cannot understand that meaningful connections between people are indeed possible. Her cynical worldview leaves her disconnected:
I think Melfi’s mention of the film Sliding Doors may be significant, particularly when analyzed in conjunction with that exchange between Corrado and Catherine. The film presents a storyline that branches into two parallel universes. When Gwyneth Paltrow’s character walks through the sliding doors of a subway train, she lives one life; when she misses the train, she lives an altogether different life. It is a story about different paths. (<<< Sliding Doors Spoiler Alert >>> Both paths lead to death: in both universes, she loses her unborn baby.) The significance of this to The Sopranos is that it underscores Chase’s concern with paths as opposed to the paths’ final destination. I hate to constantly bring up The Sopranos‘ final scene at Holsten’s Diner, because the series is so much, much more than those final 3 minutes, but it is important in the context of this discussion. Death is a given. It is inevitable. All paths lead to the cemetery. Whether Tony dies or not at Holsten’s is an almost minor concern, when viewed against the absolute certainty of his death at some point. Every character in SopranoWorld will die at some point. Every actor playing a character in SopranoWorld will die at some point. Every viewer watching an actor play a character in SopranoWorld will die at some point. This is a rule of life in the fishbowl, and it applies to us in the real world as much as it applies to Tony in his fictional one.
Death is the ultimate certainty, but so much else is uncertain. The mention of Jacques Lacan, the post-structural theorist, by Melfi’s son in this episode is revealing. The notion of uncertainty, which is in the DNA of The Sopranos, is at the heart of post-structuralist thought. Wikipedia provides two important characteristics of this theory, which I’ll quote word-for-word:
Post-structuralism rejects the idea of a literary text having a single purpose, a single meaning, or one singular existence. Instead, every individual reader creates a new and individual purpose, meaning, and existence for a given text. To step outside of literary theory, this position is generalizable to any situation where a subject perceives a sign.
- A post-structuralist critic must be able to use a variety of perspectives to create a multifaceted interpretation of a text, even if these interpretations conflict with one another. It is particularly important to analyze how the meanings of a text shift in relation to certain variables, usually involving the identity of the reader (for example: class, racial, or sexual identity).
THE SOPRANOS vs. SEINFELD
In June 2013, The Sopranos was awarded the top spot on the Writers Guild of America’s list of “101 Best Written TV Series of All Time.” The top ten is an incredible collection of shows, including the modern masterpieces Mad Men and The Wire. Seinfeld took the #2 spot. Now, I love Seinfeld, probably as much as I love The Sopranos, and I think it completely deserves the Silver medal. And yet, in terms of writing, I think The Sopranos leaves the NBC comedy in its dust. The gulf between the WGA’s #1 and #2 shows, when looking at their scripts, is immense.
I’ve often thought about a major similarity between these two series. Seinfeld was not a plot-centric sitcom (at least not in the traditional sense) – each episode was primarily a vehicle to express Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David’s wry observations about everyday life. It was famously a “show about nothing.” The Sopranos is also, arguably, a show about nothing (or more accurately, “a Big Nothing,” Livia’s philosophy of meaninglessness). The four Seinfeld characters are like hilarious versions of Livia: they are callous and self-centered, without any significantly meaningful connections to other people. In the Series Finale, they are put on trial for their callousness and are convicted after a long line of past associates testify to their cold-heartedness. Seinfeld was so funny because it was so enthusiastic and unapologetic in showing us the carelessness of its characters. SopranoWorld can also be an unremittingly cold place with unapologetically careless characters, but it is presented in a serious, dramatic light rather than a humorous one as in Seinfeld. This is not to say that The Sopranos isn’t side-splittingly funny at times. I think Winter’s script, in fact, makes “House Arrest” the funniest episode of Season Two. Funny moments include:
- Tony asking Corrado, “How many ‘MiG’s you shoot down last week?” when Corrado has a clunky medical device fitted over his head, making him look some wacky fighter-pilot
- Tony unloads his frustration onto a doctor after another fainting spell goes undiagnosed, and the offended doc retaliates by telling him, “You know, losing some weight wouldn’t hurt.”
- Tony’s sexual interest in the Barone secretary gets piqued when he finds out she’s a Born-Again Christian
The sex scene between Tony and the secretary is so amusing partly because of how Chase builds up to it. When Tony first arrives at Barone Sanitation, a hell-hound ferociously barks while straining against its chain. Later, Tony’s interest in Christian Connie grows, as though he knows a thing or two about the sex habits of evangelicals. When the scene finally arrives, it is scored with the dog’s barking as Tony goes at her doggy-style.
Funny stuff. (Or as Banya might have said, “That’s gold, Jerry. Gold!”) In a 2012 interview with the New York Times, David Chase jokingly noted an ironic inversion between Seinfeld and The Sopranos:
“It’s just very difficult to end a series,” said the Sopranos creator. “For example, Seinfeld, they ended it with them all going to jail. Now that’s the ending we should have had. And they should have had ours, where it blacked out in a diner.”
JANICE vs. PARVATI
Janice wins. “Parvati” is nothing more than a memory. Over the last couple of episodes, Janice has been looking more and more like a mob wife. Now, when she arrives at the Carting Association event, Tony tells her, “Janice, you’ve completely transformed.” Seeing her in a red, black and white outfit, we recognize that her transformation is complete.
Red, black and white are the theme colors of The Sopranos. HBO has coated every Sopranos thing—from posters to DVDs to retail merchandise and tie-in books—in these colors. Janice is no longer pretending to be the West-coast hippy-chick with the spiritual name. She has revealed her true colors.
“The Doctor Is (sort of) In”: Melfi is hitting the bottle pretty hard before her sessions with Tony. During therapy, she doesn’t quite seem there…
- Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” is playing at the Garbageman’s Ball. Just a bit before Tony passes out, we hear its lyric, “I closed my eyes and I slipped away.”
- The “Roberta Sanfilipo” that Corrado describes as “a piece of ass…as game as they come” is, of course, Bobbi from “Boca” (1.09).
- Moltisanti is out of the hospital, back at Satriale’s. Tony calls him a clay pigeon because of all the bullets he took in “Full Leather Jacket” (2.08).
- Possibly my favorite Sopranos’ malapropism: instead of “catheter,” Tony says that Beansie has to pee into a “cathode tube.” (I used to also get the two confused. Cathode ray tubes are the technology that older televisions employed – perhaps Chase is saying that most of the stuff on TV is piss-bad.)